The tradition or the system or doctrine whereby teachings are successively passed on from masters to pupils from generation to generation is called Sampradaya. Within this framework each successive generation forces continuity with the past but at the same time reviews and provides a suitable basis for the future to uphold a spiritual entity.
The teaching passed on from a Guru to his disciples is called Parampara but the entire belief system which has been reviewed and reassessed in every generation and passed on constitutes a Sampradaya. Belonging to a Sampradaya lends credibility to the claims made on truth in Hinduism and gives one the authority to boldly proclaim them in an assertive way. Thus proof of a religious system being legitimate lies in its descending from any one of the recognized traditions.
A Sampradaya has many subgroupings which are also called Sampradayas. It is like a tree, most of them having as its root, a major philosopher or Guru. Depending on the deity who is the object of worship, Hinduism is divided into Shiva worshippers or Shaivas, Vishnu worshippers or Vaishnavas, Shakthi worshippers or Shakthas and other folk traditions which is an amalgamation of the first three. Each of them can be called Sampradayas.
It is said in the Puranas that mantras which are not rooted in Sampradayas have no efficacy.
There are some teachers who are born for the sole purpose of redeeming mankind without being initiated into any particular Sampradaya like Shri Ramana Maharishi.
Thus we can say that Hinduism has within its fold several separate, unique, distinct streams of religious doctrines and traditions through distinct and unique living teachers or preceptors called the Sampradayas which form the entire structure of Sanathana Dharma. It is the sum total of thousands of Sampradayas and by understanding and appreciating these Sampradayas, we can get a comprehensive view of the entire Hinduism as a whole.
If we examine these Sampradayas closely we will find that many of them have views and beliefs differing from each other. Some lineages are ritualistic, some philosophical, some yogic and yet others very simplistic keeping in mind the common man and therein lies the beauty for it caters to the inner longing of each and every individual according to his inner conviction., the goal being devotion and realization of the Divine.
Unfortunately in the Kali Yuga, there are many who do not follow these Sampradayas and have absolutely no knowledge of beliefs like karma, reincarnation etc. Many Hindus see Krishna as one who stole butter, Rama as one who went to the forest for 14 years, Nataraja as the destroyer etc without understanding the deeper meaning behind these stories. Thus the great stream of spiritual knowledge gets cut off.
In the face of this spiritual degeneration, the meaning and importance of Sampradaya gains renewed significance. The knowledgeable Hindu has now realized that linking on to one of these spiritual organizations and learning their Sampradayas helps him to grow spiritually and also pass on this knowledge to his offspring. It helps him to choose his direction and follow the system of beliefs wholeheartedly. If one wishes to climb a mountain, there may be many paths but a good climber selects the one suiting him and follows it judiciously till he reaches the peak. Thus Hindus all over the world seek spiritual direction from the heads of various organizations following a distinct Sampradaya.
Sampradayas are broadly categorized into
- Vaishnava Sampradaya
- Shaivite Sampradaya
- Advaitha Vedantha Sampradaya