Shaivism Vs Vaishnavism: Key Similarities & Differences

The main difference between Shaivism and Vaishnavism is the principal deity, but there's more to it than that!

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Hinduism is one of the oldest – if not the oldest – religion that exists today. Its birth is dated to the Rig Veda1 Wikipedia Contributors (2019). Rigveda. [online] Wikipedia. Available at:, which was created 2000 years B.C.

These Vedic religions have some principal beliefs that are always the same, however, there are also some different directions and focuses. One of the main divisions is that between Shaivism and Vaishnavism.

The principal difference between the two is that in Vaishnavism, the devotees worship Lord Vishnu as their main deity, while in Shaivism, the principal God is Shiva.

a watercolour of vishnu and shiva with the words shaivism vs vaishnaivism

Shaivism Vs Vaishnavism – Quick Answer

The main difference between Shaivism and Vaishnavism is the principal deity, the first worships Shiva, and the latter Vishnu.

The main similarity is that both system follow the main concepts of Hinduism and are based on the same scriptures.

Both Vishnu and Shiva are part of the Trimurti, the trinity of Hindus – Vishnu is the preserver and Shiva is the destroyer. Brahma who is the third God of the trinity is usually not worshipped in this manner. 

Practitioners of Vaishnavism, called Vaishnavas worship Vishnu as their main God. They praise the ten different incarnations of God Vishnu, the most prominent being Krishna and Rama.

Their main yoga practice is bhakti, the yoga of devotion. 

The followers of Shaivism are called Shaivites and they worship Shiva as their most important god, and they practice raja yoga, which is based in the 8 limbs of yoga. 

Although both paths share basic scriptures, there are also many scriptures and hymns dedicated to one of these Gods, for example, the Gita Govinda in Vaishnavism, and the Shiva Tandava Strotam hymn in Shaivism. 

Vaishnavism developed first. Ramanujacharya2 Wikipedia. (2024). Ramanuja. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Feb. 2024]. is considered to be its founder. He lived in 12th century AD and was the first to explain the principles of Vaishnavism.

Many other philosophers and religious leaders came after him and further developed and presented this path. 

Shaivism, on the other hand, is built on the foundation of Advaita which was first founded by Adi Sankara who lived in the 8th century AD. 

Shaivism is still close to the ideas of Advaita or non-duality, focusing on the oneness of all living beings, while Vaishnavism is more focused on the personal aspect of the principal Godhead.

a painting of shiva dancing

I think this is what makes these two religions most different. 

Although they both lead to liberation and connection to God, Vaishnavists will focus more on bhakti, the yoga of devotion, through mantras, prayers, service, and kirtans. 

Shaivites are more similar to yogis, in that they want to unite with the divine, so the path is focused on the principles of yoga and meditation. 

This is a rough summary of the differences, but I will now go into more depth about both of these paths so we can explore them in more detail. 

Shaktism is another key Vedic religion in which Shakti is worshiped as a principle deity.

What Is Vaishnavism?

Vaishnavism is the path that accepts and celebrates Vishnu as the principal supreme deity. He is the one Vaishnavites will worship, often through one of his many incarnations and avatars. 

There are many different Vaishnava groups, such as Madhavas, Shrivaishnavas, and many more. If you have encountered ‘Hare Krisna’ (ISKCON) groups in the west – they are also a part of the Vaishnava path, particularly worshiping the Krishna avatar of Vishnu. 

Hindu sacred texts describe Vishnu as an all-pervading supreme god, who moves through the entire universe, making our existence possible.

It is said all beings dwell within his three strides – his highest step being in heaven. He is the God of Preservation and Protection. He keeps good and bad in balance and helps humans in difficult times.

Krishna, Rama, Narayana, Vasudeva, Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Parashurama, and Kalkin are all avatars of Vishnu.

Buddha is also considered to be his incarnation in Vaishnavism. The list of avatars varies, depending on the text – some mention 24 incarnations while others mention 10. 

In the mythology of Vishnu, we will read most about one of his avatars, or incarnations. Out of all these Krishna is most often the subject of bhakti, or devotion. 

a black and gold statue of vishnu

Like most other Hindu gods, Vishnu also has a wife – Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, liberation, fortune, fertility, and liberation. Therefore, Vaishnavites will also worship her. 

In his main form, Vishnu mounts the bird Garuda and has emblems in his four hands – lotus, a conch shell, and two weapons, a club, and a discus. 

Devotees also believe Vishnu manifests him in temples, where he is shown as an icon or statue for worship.

While some Vaishnavites think these icons only point to the supreme being, most believe they are an actual manifestation of Vishnu, through which he makes him accessible for worship. 

And although there are different Vaishnava groups, all of them believe God is a person, with his qualities and worship his various manifestations.

Through worship, they clear karma and purify themselves, so they can return to heavenly realms where they will worship the Lord throughout the eternity. 

What is Shaivism?

Shiva (Siva/Rudra), “the Auspicious One”, the destroyer in the Hindu Trinity, is the principal godhead in Shaivism (Saivism). 

Lord Shiva represents the unpredictable, chaotic, dangerous aspects of nature, and his character is split through multiple manifestations.

Also, many characteristics of other Hindu gods, like Indra the god of rain and thunderbolt, and Agni, the god of Fire, are integrated into god Shiva in many scriptures. 

a white statue of shiva

He is already mentioned in the Rigveda, which calls him for aid in times of disaster, as he might be the one who caused him. 

One of the first texts that brings Shiva to the highest rank is the Shvetashvatara Upanishad, written in 400 BCE. The writer of the text proclaims Shiva is the one, eternal God and talks about how to escape Samskara.

Shiva has many manifestation, such as Pashupati or “Lord of Cattle”, and Aghora “To Whom Nothing Is Horrible”. 

The Shaivites believe Shiva is the entire universe, an all-pervading god, but his manifestations are worshiped in temples. 

What may be confusing are his two, distinctly different sides – the one of a dangerous god, the one who instills fear and can conquer demons, and the one of a protector and boon-giver.

But these are both considered to be a part of Shiva – he can both destroy and restore, rest and be active, instill fear, and be mild and caring. These can make him paradoxical, and his devotees believe his character is too complicated for a human to understand. 

Shiva’s wife is Parvati, and since he is an ascetic, his wife also became a yogi, although he sometimes also has the role of a loving companion, where his dualistic character also comes into play. 

His marriage is often seen as a prototype for human marriage – showing that both asceticism and sexuality can be practiced. 

Different aspects of Shiva are often depicted through his poses. A famous pose is the one of a cosmic dancer, showing him as the founder of the unceasing rhythm of the universe, the one who dances through the creation and destruction. 

a statue of Shiva in cosmic dancer pose
Shiva in cosmic dancer pose

Shaivites particularly worship this representation, as it shows many characteristics of Shiva, and also symbolizes his five cosmic activities: creation, maintenance, destruction, concealing his true form from enemies, and his grace through which he helps his devotees. 

Another famous form of Shiva is more abstract – it is a cone called lingam, within a womb (yoni), which represents the creative aspect of Shiva and his wife Parvati. Lingam is usually made of stone and is found in many Shaivism temples. 

The lingam and yoni represent the union of the feminine and masculine and talk about both forces being present in the universe. 

Finally, many images show Shiva surrounded by snakes, with a necklace of skulls, seated in meditation. His hair is braided as one of a hermit, and his body is smeared with ashes, which represents the path of renunciation.  

Therefore, Shiva is often the favorable god of ascetics and yogis, who are also on the path of overcoming the senses and renunciation which leads to liberation from suffering and the cycle of death and rebirth. 

A hindu aesthetic monk sitting on a rock

How Do They Compare?

To summarize Shaivism Vs Vaishnavism, both are Hindu sects, but one has Shiva as the principal God and the other has Vishnu, respectively. 

Due to the different characteristics of the two godheads, Vishnu is often more celebrated by those who are in marriage and bhaktas, while Shiva is more revered among ascetics and yogis. 

And while purity is key in Vaishnavism, Shaivism also has a sexual side, and it also involves Tantra practices, the Shiva Lingam and Yoni being a good representation of this aspect. 

However, there are also many similar ceremonies and rituals in the two movements, and the foundational scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Puranas are the same. 

If you are also called to the Hindu religion, I believe you don’t need to think too much about which path to take. Devotees often say the path will find you, and it is also possible you will be inclined to follow both Godheads.

However, understanding the differences between Shaivism and Vaishnavism can be helpful to gain a better insight into Hinduism and both of these deities. 

Learn more about Hinduism through one of these articles:

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Sara lives in Croatia, near the sea, with her dog. She enjoys exploring nature, and making art. She is currently developing a series of children’s/YA stories and comics in her native language, which she feels complements her work and allows her to live her dream life – having yoga, writing, art, and nature in her every day.

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