What Is Hinduism?
Hinduism, known as Sanātana Dharma, (सनातन धर्म) and Vaidika-Dharma by most Hindus, is a worldwide religious tradition rooted in Indian culture and based on the teachings of the Vedas. Hinduism is the third largest religion, with a following of over one billion people, encompassing many diverse beliefs and schools. The scholarly estimates of Hinduism’s origin vary from 3102 B.C.E. to 1300 B.C.E., although Hindu estimates are considerably longer, given that they see the religion as expressing timeless truths. Ninety-eight percent of Hinduism’s practitioners can be found on the Indian subcontinent, chiefly in Bharat (India).
Some Hindus dislike the name “Hinduism,” although many now use the term. It is an English term, probably first used in the 1829 Oxford English Dictionary and derived from the Persian language for the people who lived beyond the Indus River. It has been argued that Hinduism as described in many textbooks and as taught at universities results from the work of the theosophist, Annie Besant (1847 – 1933), who designed a syllabus for teaching the sanatana dharma at her Hindu Central College (founded 1898). She systematized the religion into the four classes, four stages of life, four aims, four ages. Some criticize this Western tendency to elevate an abstract, classical, ‘Great Tradition’ above the myriad ‘small’ (or local) traditions that inform the lives of most Hindus.
Some argue that there is no singular or unitary religion of India at all. They regard Hinduism as an umbrella term for a multitude of related beliefs and practices, known as margas. Hinduism has close family ties with Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism and is considered to be a cultural sphere in its own right. One definition of a Hindu is anyone who reveres the Vedas. Another says that a Hindu is someone who other Hindus recognize as Hindu, regardless of how different their belief or practice. There are Hindu minorities in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, South Africa, and a substantial diaspora presence in Europe and in North America. The relatively small Himalayan kingdom of Nepal is the only nation in the modern world with Hinduism as its state religion. Many Princely states in India had Hinduism as their state religion prior to the creation of the modern Indian state in 1947.
Many non-Hindus see a great amount of ancient wisdom in Hinduism’s foundational texts, the Vedas and Upanishads, which Hindus believe were “breathed out” by the gods and represent knowledge. Many people believe that God was revealing God’s-self through the ancient laws and ethical principles contained in Hindu scriptures, which speak of a cosmic struggle between order (dharma) and chaos (adharma). Hinduism has helped billions of people to make sense of life, and to live orderly lives centered on belief in the existence of universal moral principles for thousands of years. Julius Lipner has pointed out that for “well over 3,000 years” Hinduism, or the “plural reality named as such,” has “regularly produced men and women down the ages who have made outstanding contributions across the range of the civilized human endeavor.” The world would be much the poorer if Hinduism, however defined, was absent from human experience. Hinduism represents one of the great civilization streams that have helped to unify humanity and to engender respect for creation and recognition that the physical and material aspects of life are not the only or even the ultimate reality. Many non-Hindus have adopted elements of Hindu belief and practice while identifying with a different religion, or with no organized religion at all.
Main article: Hindu philosophy
See also: History of Hinduism
The Vedic Heritage
Main article: Vedas
See also: Rig Veda and Yajur Veda
The overwhelming majority of Hindu sacred texts are composed in the Sanskrit language. Indeed, much of the morphology and linguistic philosophy inherent in the learning of Sanskrit is sometimes claimed to be inextricably linked to study of the Vedas and of relevant Hindu texts. The Vedas (literally Knowledge) are considered as shruti (revelation) by Hindus. They were breathed out by the gods and thus have no beginning in time. While the overwhelming majority of Hindus may never read the Vedas, there prevails in them a reverence for this abstract notion of eternal knowledge. The four Vedas (the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda) were preserved by various shakhas or schools. Depending on the school, various commentaries and instructions are associated with each Veda. The oldest of these are the Brahmanas (priests). The Shrautasutras and Grhyasutras form a younger stratum dealing with domestic ritual. This founding layer of Hinduism does establish the four classes (varnas: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Sudra) as a social system that distributed tasks and responsibilities, and seems to privilege the highest varna, the priests, although this has never translated into economic privilege. Members of the second highest class, the warrior-class, are often wealthier, while the merchant Vaishya class may be even wealthier than the warrior-class. Even Sudras, the servants, could rise up the economic scale, and in practice, class was never as rigid as has been suggested. In a Rig Veda hymn (Ch. 10, Verse 90), these classes emerge from the head, shoulders, thighs, and feet of the sacrificial primordial, cosmic Purusha (man) (Embree 1998: 18). The main Vedic deities include Varuna (sky), Mitra (sun), Indra (war), Agni (fire), and Yama (death).
The Vedas contain many different types of material. There are stories of the gods and demons, of the rishis (neither quite gods nor human), and creation narratives. Creation may not be the best translation, because one characteristic of these narratives is that the cosmos emanates from, and is therefore an aspect of, the Unfathomable One that stands behind all. The gods, it is implied in the Rig Veda, do not really know how the world began because they are on “this side,” but an unknown, unnamed One “breathed without wind through its independent power…. There was nothing other than it” (Embree 1998: 21). The Vedas contain numerous sacrificial formulas, and pit adharma (chaos) against the need for cosmic order (dharma). Dharma is also a god and the term refers both to the sacrificial and other rituals of the Brahmins (properly, Brahman but rendered Brahmin to distinguish from Brahman as ultimate reality) and to that moral conduct that is appropriate to a person’s gender, class, and stage in life. Originally, Brahman appears to have denoted the prayers of the priests, but was eventually adopted to designate the priests themselves. Soma (an intoxicating wine and also a god) and agni (fire, also a god) are essential to the sacrificial system. Medical knowledge is also contained in the Vedas, which continues to inform the practice of what is sometimes referred to as “alternative medicine” in India, that is, alternative to Western medicine. It is also known as Ayurvedic medicine, said to be the oldest system in the world. According to Hindu thought, it was revealed by Brahma to the sage, Atreya. Dance and music were similarly revealed.
The idea of appeasing the gods is not absent from the Vedas, but the real purpose of the sacrifices is to maintain cosmic balance. In the Brahmanas (priests’ manuals) that were written to accompany the Vedas, Vac (speech, which is feminine) is also said to have created the Vedas. The Brahmins also maintain rigorous purity rules that separate them socially from other classes but especially from the Sudras and from those who are considered to be outside the class system.
The Vedantic Literature: the philosophical strand
Main article: Upanishads
See also: Upanishads – The Secret Wisdom and Upanishads and Yoga
The Aranyakas and the Upanishads (which are known as Vedantic, or the end of the Vedas) were originally esoteric, mystical teachings related in secrecy. The Upanishads (usually dated about form 900 or 800 B.C.E.) set Hindu philosophy apart with its embrace of a single transcendent and yet immanent force that is native to each person’s soul, seen by some as an identification of micro- and macrocosm as One. It can be said that while early Hinduism was most reliant on the four Vedas, classical Hinduism was molded around the Upanishads, which represent the “end of the Vedas.” This literature was also “revealed.” Sometimes, the Upanishads seem to scoff at those who place their faith in sacrifices performed by someone else: “Regarding sacrifice and merit as most important, the deluded ones do not know of any other higher spiritual good” (Munkara Upanishad, Embree: 31). Instead of a physical sacrifice, an inner, spiritual sacrifice is enjoined; “sacrifice in knowledge is better than sacrifice with material objects” (Gita, 4:33, Miller 1986: 53). The object of religious observance is no longer primarily the maintenance of cosmic order but liberation (moksha) from the endless cycle (samsara) of existences, of multiple births, deaths, and rebirths. In the Upanishads, sat (truth or essence) or Brahman, is the All-in-All, Tat Tvam Asi (Thou Art That) or the Universal Soul from which the many emanates: “Being thought to itself: ‘May I be many, may I procreate’” (Chandogya Upanishad, Embree: 37). Although the word srshti is here translated as “procreate,” a better rendering is “the projection of that which already is.”
Brahman is ultimate bliss (ananda). Only Brahman is non-contingent. The many gods, Vedic and post-Vedic, are usually said to be various manifestations of the attributes or qualities of the single and ultimately transcendent reality. For some, that reality is non-personal, without attributes (nirguna), but at a lower level manifests its attributes in the form of a personal god (Isvara) which take over some of the function of Brahman in relation to the universe and to the atman (soul, or spark) within sentient beings. As a spark of Brahman, the atman is also eternal and uncreated. Ananda (joy, or bliss) results when people realize their oneness with Brahman, which is the condition of samadhi (absorption) and its fruit is moksa (or moksha), liberation from rebirth. Meanwhile, karma (action) good or bad determines status, punishment, and rewards in future existences. While Brahmanism, or the priestly strand, did not leave non-Brahmins very much to do religiously, except to behave ethically, Vedanta opened up the possibility of philosophical speculation (sankhya) and of yogic practice for almost anyone, except shudras (the lowest varna or caste), who were forbidden from reading the sacred texts. Yoga aims to achieve samadhi. Two great thinkers, Shankara (788 – 820 C.E.) and Ramanuja (1017 – 1137 C.E.) contributed significantly to the development of Vendanta. Shankara taught that plurality is an illusion (maya) and that moksa results from realization (cit, awareness) of absolute identification of atman with Brahman. Brahman is beyond space and time. When the knowledge that “everything is indeed the absolute” (sarvan khalu ilam brahman) is achieved by deep meditation and mental discipline (yoga), the atman is freed of ignorance (avidya) and is forever liberated from samsara. Shankara taught that worship of an Isvara (or personal savior) represented a low level of religious practice. Ramanuja disagreed. For him, Brahman is both the self without and the self within, the essence of the universe and a personal deity. Plurality is real, not an illusion; the many really exist but only exist fully when aware of their absolute dependence on Brahman. The realized self participates in God’s being, yet is not to be confused with the totality of God. For Ramanuja, it is God’s dominant characteristic of love that enables people to gain true knowledge of God. God remains the only self-illuminated being; one can only enter a true relationship with God with the aid of divine grace (prasada). Individuality (ahamkara), for Shankara, must perish; for Ramanuja, it continues but in communion with all other selves. Vedanta’s primary concern is in right knowledge (jnana), although right action is always important.
The Puranas and the Devotional Strand (Bhakti)
Main article: Puranas
See also: Indian Epic Poetry, Ramayana, and Mahabharata
Around 300 B.C.E., the great epics known as the Puranas, which include the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were “remembered” (smriti). These stories are more familiar to the vast majority of Hindus than the contents of the Vedic and Vedantic literature. The Mahabharata is also a story of origins, a sacred history of India. The strand of religious practice represented by the Puranas is devotion, devotion to a “personal God” chosen by each individual, who, in return for worship and service, will aid the individual in their quest for moksha. This is known as the bhakti tradition, or way (marga). By the time that the Puranas were written, the main deities of the Vedas had been supplanted in popular devotion by a pantheon of three: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, respectively creator, preserver, and destroyer (then a new cycle of existence begins). The image of the trimurti (three forms of God) is very popular in India, which represents the unity of the three aspects of God. Each has a consort: Saraswati (associated with education and speech); Lakshmi (prosperity); and Parvati (creativity, the arts). The qualities of fame, fortune, memory, speech, intelligence, and resolve are all listed as feminine (Gita, 10:34). Each of the three has their own Puranas, and in these texts there is a tendency to regard the subject as the most important deity, assuming the functions of all three. In popular Hinduism, Brahma is less important that Vishnu and Shiva. As preserver, Vishnu manifests or appears in human form whenever humanity is in peril. These manifestations, or Avatars include Ram and Krishna, whose stories are told in the Ramayana and Mahabharata respectively. One of the most widely read and important Hindu scriptures, the Bhagavad-Gita, is actually chapter 11 of the Mahabharata. Although part of a Purana, it is widely considered to be Vedantic. In this text, which is said to summarize Vedanta, Krishna reveals himself to his charioteer, Arjuna. While technically the Gita is considered Smriti, it has singularly achieved nearly unquestioned status as Shruti, or revealed, and is thus the most definitive single Hindu text. Unlike the Vedas that are more esoteric and intricate, the Gita is read by many practicing Hindus on a daily basis. Krishna reveals that He is all-in-all. He is the sacred syllable, Om (associated with the act of creation), He is Shiva and Brahma. He is Vyasa among the sages (Vyasa is the rishi who narrates the Mahabharata). He creates and destroys, thus making both Brahma and Shiva redundant. According to the Bhagavad-Gita, whoever worship God in any form, be they women or men high born or low born with love and sincerity, really worship Krishna, who will gracefully accept their worship as if it were direct at Himself (Gita 7:21–22).
O Arjuna, even those devotees who worship other lesser deities (Devas, for example) with faith, they also worship Me, but in an improper way because I am the Supreme Being. I alone am the enjoyer of all sacrificial services (Seva, Yajna) and Lord of the universe (Gita 9:23).
The Vishnu tradition is often referred to as Vaishnavism.
Shiva’s Purana also depicts Him as the all-in-all. Shiva is both the God of ascetic practice and of sexual prowess. His consort, too, has two forms—benign and beautiful (to lure him away from his meditation) and powerful and destructive of evil to protect Shiva when he is unaware of danger. Their son, Ganesh (the elephant-headed god) is also a popular deity. Known as the remover of obstacles, his temples are often found on street corners. Tantric Hinduism uses sex and sexual energy to release inert powers that can help us to overcome duality by embracing what is dark and forbidden. The Bhakti tradition, which focuses on personal devotion to one’s chosen Isvara, tends to disregard gender and class. It is not uncommon, in a bhakti temple in India, to see a non-Brahmin women dressing the murti (image) of the deity, and placing this in the inner-chamber, a task that Brahmanism reserves for male priests. Bhakti services are often informal, consisting of singing led by whoever is gifted musically, sometimes with spontaneous homilies and devotional prayers. Bhakti Hindus may not see themselves as in need of Brahmins, but this does not mean that they do not respect the Brahmin’s way of life. Images (murtis) of the deities are believed to contain the “presence” of the gods, but they are not objects of worship for Hindus, who worship the reality behind the symbol. Hinduism was often taken to be a form of idolatry by Westerners. The cave images at Elephanta Island were damaged by the Portuguese for this reason.
Another accusation was that Hindus were polytheists, but most Hindus believe in one ultimate reality, which manifests itself plurally. Although Western fascination for sexual aspects of Hinduism has been criticized, temple images do depict gods and goddesses sensually and seem to celebrate rather than shy away from sex as a legitimate and enjoyable part of life, within the bond of marriage. Indeed, the fourth century C.E. text, the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, which celebrates sexual pleasure, has become popular in the West. The Shiva tradition is often referred to as Shaivism, and devotees of Vishnu or Shiva can be identified by distinctive tilaka markings.
The Eternal Way
Main article: Sanatana Dharma
“The Eternal Way” (in Sanskrit सनातन धर्म, Sanātana Dharma), or the “Perennial Philosophy/Harmony/Faith,” its traditional name, speaks to the idea that certain spiritual principles hold eternally true, transcending man-made constructs, representing a pure science of consciousness. This consciousness is not merely that of the body or mind and intellect, but of a supramental soul-state that exists within and beyond our existence, the unsullied Self of all. Religion to the Hindu is the eternal search for the divine Brahman, the search to find the One truth that in actuality never was lost, only hidden.
Hinduism’s aspiration is best expressed in the following sutra (thread, or verse of scripture):
- OM Asato ma sad gamaya, tamaso ma jyotir gamaya, mrityor ma aamritaam gamaya. Shanti, shanti, shanti
- “OM Lead me from ignorance to truth, from darkness to light, from death to immortality. Peace, Peace, Peace” (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (1/3/28)).
Main article: Core Beliefs of Hindus
What can be said to be common to all Hindus is belief in Dharma (natural principles), Reincarnation (rebirth), Karma (cause and effect relationship), and Moksha (liberation from earthly matters) of every soul through a variety of moral, action-based, and meditative yogas. Reincarnation or the soul’s transmigration through a cycle of birth and death, until it attains Moksha, is governed by Karma. The philosophy of Karma lays forth the results of free-willed actions, which leave their imprint on the atman (soul-spiritual self). These actions affect the course of life and the form and life path sought by the soul in its next cycle of life. Virtuous actions take the soul closer to the divine supreme and lead to a birth with higher-consciousness. Evil actions hinder this recognition of the divine supreme and mislead the soul to seek knowledge through material experiences in various forms of worldly life. All existence, per Hinduism, from vegetation to mankind, are subjects and objects of the eternal Dharma, which is the natural harmony or law of the entity. Liberation from this material existence and cycle of birth and death, to join or reach the Universal spirit or God (depending on belief), is known as Moksha, which is the ultimate goal of Hindus.
Still, more fundamental principles include the guru/chela (teacher-pupil) dynamic, the Divinity of Word of Aum or OM and the power of mantras (religious word or phrase), love of Truth in many manifestations as gods and goddesses, and an understanding that the essential spark of the Divine (Atman/Brahman) is in every living being. It allows for many spiritual paths leading to the One Unitary Truth. Gurus may function, for their devotees or followers, as channels of communication between God and often mystical or miraculous gifts and abilities are associated with them. For example, they may heal the sick, lie on burning coals, become invisible, or levitate above the ground. Some may also be regarded as Avatars. Millions venerate Satya Sai Baba as the embodiment of all aspects of the godhead. Sophisticated organization often surrounds Gurus, such as the Swaminarayan Sampraday, founded by Swaminarayan (1781 – 1830) believed to be a manifestation of Vishnu. He taught that individual lives (jivas) do not merge with the Ultimate but exist to offer praise and devotion to God. The movement is led by Acharyas, who represent the Guru on earth, but who are not regarded as possessing any special powers or authority. They are really administrators. The Swaminarayan Temple in Neasden, UK, was built according to traditional design, with many segments being carved in India and exported for assembly.
Traditionally, high caste Hindus were reluctant to travel outside India because they believed they would lose ritual purity. Also, the very soil of India is so sacred for Hindus that many felt they could not be content with life elsewhere. In fact, however, Hinduism reached what is now Indonesia between 400 and 600 C.E., where a distinct form of Hinduism arose. In 2005, approximately 93 percent of the island of Bali was Hindu. In Balinese Hinduism, two Vedic texts are used, the Catur and the Veda Cirah. Eventually, certain places where Hindus settled outside India acquired their own sanctity. Some temples in the Western diaspora are now also recognized as especially sacred.
Many Hindus practice rituals (Samskaras) based on their ancient texts marking the cycle of life events, including birth, marriage, death, and for the twice-born classes (which excludes Shudras) the sacred thread ceremony (Upanayana). On their marriage day, all Hindus represent the ideal couple, Ram and his consort, Sita. Marriage repays debts to one’s ancestors. Bride and groom circle the sacred fire and knot their clothes together as a symbol of unity. Death ritual, traditionally led by the eldest son or nearest male relative, involves the cremation of the deceased on a funeral pyre. Ashes are usually scattered in a sacred river, especially the Ganges.
Murtis (images) of the deities are washed, bathed, and treated with great reverence. They are housed in the inner sanctuary of Mandirs, or temples, although most Hindu homes have domestic shrines, where the images are also venerated and treated in the same way. Mandirs are regarded as sacred places.
There are many ancient temples in India. The basic design follows the pattern of a mandala, which leads the devotees from the temporal sphere into eternity. Temples are entered through porches, which face the east, that is, the rising sun. Several halls or Mandapas may lead off the porch, but the main route through the temple, from east to west, leads towards the inner sanctuary, or womb (garbgriha), over which towers the gopuram, often ornately carved with images of the deities. In addition to ancient temples, rivers (such as the Ganges) and places, such as Varanasi, are also sacred. The Ganges (or Ganga as it is known in India) is said to flow from Shiva’s matted hair. Nature is herself holy, a reminder that the whole world emanates from the divine. Puja (worship), popularly often consisting of singing and sometimes dance, are offered in temples, but many Hindus visit the temple primarily to “see” the deity (known as darshan). Most major temples are constructed per the agama shastras, scriptures detailing how they should be built.
Hindu festivals are popular forms of devotion in which many Hindus participate, regardless of class. Holi is the spring and harvest festival. People cover each other in paint at this festival, which symbolizes the equality of all people. Diwali, often called the festival of lights, celebrates among other events the triumphant homecoming to Ayodhia of the ideal couple, Ram and Sita, after Sita’s rescue from the clutches of the evil demon-king, Ravana. Raksha Bandhan is a ceremony in which brothers, who are symbolically tied to their sister, pledge to protect them.
Hinduism is practiced through a variety of spiritual exercises, primarily loving devotion (Bhakti Yoga), selfless service (Karma Yoga), knowledge and meditation (Jnana or Raja Yoga). These are described in the two principal texts of Hindu Yoga: the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras. The Upanishads are also important as a philosophical foundation for this rational spiritualism. The yoga sutras provide a sort of taxonomy of paths (or faiths) that links together various Hindu beliefs and can also be used to categorize non-Hindu beliefs that are seen as paths from margas to moksha, or nirvana.
The four goals of life
Another major aspect of Hindu religion that is common to practically all Hindus is that of purushartha, the “four goals of life.” They are kama, artha, dharma, and moksha. It is said that all humans seek kama (pleasure, physical or emotional) and artha (power, fame, and wealth), but soon, with maturity, learn to govern these legitimate desires within a higher, pragmatic framework of dharma, or moral harmony in all. The only goal that is truly infinite, whose attainment results in absolute happiness, is moksha (liberation), (a.k.a. Mukti, Samadhi, Nirvana, etc.) from Samsara, the material existence.
The four stages of life
Ideally, the human life is divided into four Asramas (“phases” or “stages,” literally refuges). They are Brahmacharya, Grihasthya, Vanaprastha, and Sanyasa. The first quarter of one’s life, Brahmacharya (literally “grazing in Brahma”) is spent in celibate, controlled, sober, and pure contemplation of life’s secrets under a Guru, building up body and mind for the responsibilities of life. Grihastya is the householder’s stage in which one marries and satisfies kama and artha within a married life and professional career. Vanaprastha is gradual detachment from the material world, ostensibly giving over duties to one’s children, spending more time in contemplation of the truth, and making holy pilgrimages. Finally, in Sanyasa, the individual goes into seclusion, often envisioned as the forest, to find God through Yogic meditation and peacefully shed the body for the next life. The sacred texts set out duties appropriate for one’s stage of life, gender, and class.
Every Hindu does not expect to be able to complete all four stages during every birth-cycle but many aim to do so or to complete as much as possible, for example, reaching the retirement stage. Ideally, as merit accrues, one will be reborn into circumstances that enable one to complete all four cycles and to achieve moksha during the fourth stage.
Nature of God
Main article: God in Hinduism
The Upanishads depict the monad Brahman as the one source or God, with all other deities emanating from there. Brahman (not to be confused with Brahma) is seen as the universal spirit. Brahman is the ultimate, both transcendent and immanent. Brahman is the absolute infinite existence, the sum total of all that ever is, was, or ever shall be. Additionally, like Abrahamic religions, which believe in angels, Hindus also believe in more powerful entities, emanating from Brahman, such as devas.
Brahman is viewed as without personal attributes (Nirguna Brahman) or with attributes (Saguna Brahman). In the Hindu sects of Vaishnavism and Shaivism (Saguna Brahman) God is viewed as mostly male, as in Vishnu or Shiva. God’s power (or energy) is personified as female or Shakti. However, God and God’s energy are indivisible, unitary, and the same. The analogy is that fire represents God and the actual heat represents Shakti. According to other Hindu views, God can be with form, Saguna Brahman, and with whatever attributes (e.g., a female God) a devotee conceives.
Though all the different paths of Moksha (salvation, liberation) are, to various extents, acknowledged by all denominations, the actual conception of Brahman is what differentiates them.
Paths (Margas) and Sects (Sampradyas)
Main articles: Hindu denominations
Each of Hinduism’s four primary sects share rituals, beliefs, traditions, and personal deities with one another, but each has a different philosophy on how to achieve life’s ultimate goal (moksa, liberation) and on their conception of God (Brahman). However, each sect respects the others, and conflict of any kind is rare although rivalry between these sects has occurred at various times. There is no centralized authority or organization in Hinduism.
The four major sects or orders of Hinduism (known as sampradyas) are: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, and Smartism. Just as Jews, Christians, and Muslims all believe in one God but differ in their conceptions of God, Hindus also all believe in one God but differ in their conceptions. The two primary forms of differences are between the two monotheistic religions of Vaishnavism, which conceives God as Vishnu, and Shaivism, which conceives God as Shiva. Shaktism worships the goddess Devi as Brahman or alternatively (where it is viewed as a sub-sect of Shaivism) as the energy of Shiva, the impersonal Brahman. Smartism, in contrast, believes in all paths being true and leading to one God or source, whatever one chooses to call the Ultimate Truth. The Trimurti concept (also called the Hindu trinity) of Smartism denotes the three aspects of God in God’s forms as Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer.
The majority of Hindus identify with what is known as Smarta, which is said to be the most inclusive viewpoint.
The Smarta perspective dominates the view of Hinduism in the West. Smarta monists, seeing in multiple manifestations the one God or source of being, are often confused by non-Hindus as being polytheists. It is seen as one unity, with the personal gods being different aspects of only one Supreme Being, like a single beam of light separated into colors by a prism. Some of the Hindu aspects of God include Devi, Vishnu, Ganesh, and Siva. Smarta Hindus believe that God, in whatever form they prefer, (or as monists prefer to call, “Ishta Devata,” the preferred form of God) can grant worshipers grace to bring them closer to Moksha, the end of the cycle of rebirth. The Hindu saint, Ramakrishna (1836 – 1886), a monist, was a prominent advocate of this traditional Hindu view. It is said that he achieved the mystical experiences of other religions besides Hinduism, such as Christianity and Islam, and came to the same conclusion proclaimed by the Vedas, “Truth is one, the wise call it by different names.” His disciple, Vivekananda (1863 – 1902) visited the United States for the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religion at Chicago and founded the Vedanta Society there, which teaches Vedantic thought in the West. He also founded the Ramakrishna Mission, which works internationally, sponsoring educational, medical, and welfare work. Vivekandanda taught that karma-yoga calls for selfless service to help others, not to attract merit, but to express complete detachment from desire and union in love with all creatures.
Another modern Hindu movement, the Brahmo Samaj, was founded by Ram Mohum Roy (1774 – 1833), the first Brahmin to travel to England, where he died. This movement stresses the importance of the Upanishads as containing ageless wisdom and teaches monotheism. Roy could find no justification for image worship or for the veneration of many deities, and openly identified with Unitarian Christianity although his movement remained Hindu. Rabindranath Tagore’s family were prominent members of this group. This universalistic Hinduism also influenced Mahatma Gandhi.
Another movement popular in the West was founded by Swami Prabhupada (1896 – 1977) in the U.S., ISKON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), which practices traditional Hindu rites and customs but accepts members of non-Indian ethnicity, who may serve as Brahmins. The founder is believed to have been a shakti-avesa-avatara (an empowered manifestation of God).
Origins, definition, and society
Main article: Hindus
Main articles: Brahmin and Varna in Hinduism
The four Hindu varnas (literally, “colors”) or classes are Brahmins (priests, learned men), Kshatriyas (warriors and royalty), Vaishyas (merchants), and Sudras (workers). These divisions are based upon the duties to society and the different varnas are meant to work together towards the welfare of the society. These became historically subdivided into numerous “castes,” most of which originally functioned rather like workers’ guilds, since they were occupational or job-based.
The hereditary nature of caste and whether it is sanctioned by the scriptures is the subject of much discussion and controversy. In spite of centuries of numerous reform movements, notably within Vedanta, bhakti yoga, and Hindu streams of Tantra, and reformers, with recent stalwarts like Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi who opposed caste, caste-based discrimination is so deeply ensconced in the Indian consciousness that even Christian converts have been known to separate church meetings for different castes. A number of Muslim communities have retained caste practices as well.
Caste still plays a significant role in Hindu society. However, post Indian independence, caste is losing favor in India and caste-based discrimination has been illegitimated. There is provision for reverse discrimination and measures such as backward caste quotas in collegiate admissions and jobs have been taken by the government. Some defend caste on the grounds that when working properly it ensures that everyone has a job and an income. Some groups, however, such as sweepers and leather-workers, were outside the caste system. Called untouchables, Gandhi called them harijan (God’s people). Many prefer the term Dalit. Ancient shastas dealing with the duties of rajahs (princes) stipulate that the good of the people is the main responsibility of a ruler, who can be removed for neglecting affairs of state or the needs of his subjects. In many respects, the rajahs represented the gods and Vishnu’s avatars, Krishna and Ram give examples of princely rule during their periods on earth that can be emulated. Caste-based quotas have been controversial with various political parties exploiting these divisions for electoral gain.
Main article: Hindutva
In the twentieth century, emerging Indian nationalism began to emphasize Hinduism, in opposition to the British Raj, but also in contrast to Islam, and after independence in connection with the territorial disputes with Pakistan. Such nationalistic Hinduism is generally termed Hindutva (“Hinduness,” paradoxically not a well-formed Sanskrit word, since “Hindu” is a Persian word), but the boundaries are fluid and the Indian Supreme Court ruled that “no precise meaning can be ascribed to the terms ‘Hindu’, ‘Hindutva’ and ‘Hinduism’; and no meaning in the abstract can confine it to the narrow limits of religion alone, excluding the content of Indian culture and heritage” (Decision re. Appeal No. appeal no. 2836/1989 by Justices J.S. Verma, N.P. Singh and K. Venkataswami, on December 11, 1995). Hindutva ideology was enunciated first by Savarkar in his seminal work “Hindutva” (1922). Hindutva ideology rose to importance in Indian politics in the 1980s and is chiefly associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh movement. It has come to symbolize the rising bi-polarization of Indian polity in the late 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century, evident in the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the same period (in power 1988 – 2004). Also influential was Dayananda Sarasvati (1823 – 1883) who founded the Arya Samaj, which stressed the importance of the Vedas as completely true and error-free and as anticipating the total sum of human knowledge, including science. Later scriptures, except the Laws of Manu (legal material) are rejected. The Arya Samaj (like the Brahmo Samaj) conducts communal acts of worship. The Arya Samaj’s own schools, or gurukulas, teach the Vedas and Aryan culture, and one aim of the movement is to re-convert Indian Christians, Sikhs, and Muslims. It teaches that only Hindus are true Indians. The conflict that sometimes stems from this exclusive understanding of Hindu identity is uncharacteristic of a religion that, as Lipner says, is “pervasively suspicious of absolutist claims.” Thus, Hindus who “act and talk as if their brand of Hinduism is the only thing that matters” should know better. This equally refers to some traditional rivalry, sometimes demonstrated in street violence, between Vaishnavites and Shaivites.
Of the total Hindu population of the world, about 94 percent (890 million) live in India. Other countries with a significant number of Hindu communities include:
- Nepal (23 million)
- Bangladesh (14.4 million)
- Indonesia (4.3 million)
- Sri Lanka (3 million)
- Pakistan (2.5 million)
- Malaysia (1.5 million)
- United States (1.5 million)
- South Africa (1.1 million)
- United Kingdom (800,000)
- Russia (700,000)
- Mauritius (600,000)
- Bhutan (560,000)
- Fiji (340,000)
- Trinidad and Tobago (330,000)
- Canada (320,000)
- Guyana (300,000)
- Netherlands (250,000)
- Singapore (160,000)
- Suriname (110,000)
- Kenya (100,000)
- Germany (100,000)
- Australia (60,000)
- France (50,000)
- Switzerland (50,000)
The Indonesian islands of Bali, Java, Sulawesi, Sumatra, and Borneo have significant native Hindu populations. Bali’s major religion is Hinduism and is still reflected in traditional Balinese culture and architecture.
Hindu philosophy: the six Vedic schools of thought
Main articles: Āstika and Nāstika and Samkhya
The six Astika or orthodox (accepting the authority of the Vedas) schools of Hindu philosophy are Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Purva Mimamsa (also called just “Mimamsa”), and Uttara Mimamsa (also called “Vedanta”). The non-Vedic schools are called Nastika, or heterodox, and refer to Buddhism, Jainism, and Lokayata (Charvaka). The schools that continue to affect Hinduism today are Purva Mimamsa, Yoga, and Vedanta.
The main objective of the Purva (“earlier”) Mimamsa school was to interpret the injunctions of the Vedas. Consequently this school’s most valuable contribution to Hinduism was its formulation of the rules of Vedic interpretation. According to this school, the Vedas were not to be understood outside the framework of celebratory ritual action (yajna) that they prescribed. They believed that the Vedas necessitated the performance of sacrifices to the various gods (devas) to maintain cosmic order (rita).
Main article: Yoga
See also: Jnana Yoga, Rāja Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Karma Yoga
There are several forms of Yoga practiced in Hinduism, but the orthodox school, the yoga referred to here, is specifically Raja Yoga (or meditational union). It is based on the sage Patanjali’s extremely influential text entitled the Yoga Sutra, which is essentially a compilation and systematization of meditational Yoga philosophy that came before. The Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita are also indispensable literature in the study of Yoga.
Patanjali’s system of Raja Yoga is generally considered to have arisen from the Samkhya philosophy. The most significant difference from Samkhya is that the Raja Yoga school not only incorporates the concept of Ishvara (a personal God) into its metaphysical world view but also that it holds Ishvara as the ideal upon which to meditate. This is because Ishvara is the only aspect of purusha (the infinite Divine Ground) that has not become entangled with prakriti (the temporal creative forces).
The goal of Raja Yoga is clearly stated in the opening verse of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra: “citti vritti nirodha” (cessation of mental fluctuations). Realization of this goal is known as samadhi and it is attained by the isolation of “Purusha” and “Prakriti” through proper discernment (“viveka”).
Uttara Mimamsa: the three schools of Vedanta
The Uttara (“later”) Mimamsa school is perhaps one of the cornerstone movements of Hinduism and certainly was responsible for a new wave of philosophical and meditative enquiry, renewal of faith, and cultural reform. Primarily associated with the Upanishads and their commentary by Badarayana, the Vedanta Sutras, Vedanta thought split into three groups, initiated by the thinking and writing of Adi Sankara. Most Hindu thought today in some way relates to changes affected by Vedantic thought, which focused on meditation, morality, and focus on the one self rather than on rituals and societal distinctions like caste. The great debate between followers among the major Hindu philosophical school, Vedanta, from followers of Advaita philosophy on one hand and the strict theistic schools such as those of Ramanuja and Madhva on the other, focused on the true nature of Brahman, on whether Brahman was essentially without attributes or with attributes, i.e., a personal Supreme Being.
There were ten principle schools of Vedanta but the three most famous were Advaita, Vishistadvaita, and Dvaita.
Pure monism: Advaita
Advaita literally means “not two”; thus this is what we refer to as a monistic (or non-dualistic) system, which emphasizes oneness. This was the school of thought consolidated by Shankara (c. 700 – 750 C.E.) who expounded his theories largely based on the teachings of the Upanishads and his own guru Govinda Bhagavadpada. By analysis of experiential consciousness, he exposed the relative nature of the world and established the non-dual reality of Brahman in which Atman (the individual soul) and Brahman (the ultimate reality) are identified absolutely. It is not merely philosophy, but a conscious system of applied ethics and meditation, all geared towards attaining peace and understanding of truth.
To Advaitists (non-dualists), Ultimate Truth is best expressed as Nirguna Brahman, or God without form, God without personal attributes; indeed, some might go so far as to say it is not “God” but something beyond. However, even that definition can be limiting. Nirguna Brahman can never be described as that as it transcends all definitions. All personal forms of God such as Vishnu or Shiva are different aspects of God with attributes, Saguna Brahman. God’s energy is personified as Devi, the Divine Mother. For Vaishnavaites who follow Ramanuja’s philosophy, Devi is Lakshmi, who is the Mother of all and who pleads with Vishnu for mankind, which is entrenched in sin. For Shaivites, Devi is Parvati. For Shaktas who worship Devi, Devi is the personal form of God that attains the impersonal Absolute, God, i.e., Shiva. For them, Shiva is personified as God without attributes.
Qualified monism: Vishistadvaita
Ramanuja (1040 – 1137 C.E.) was the foremost proponent of the concept of Sriman Narayana as the supreme Brahman. He taught that Ultimate reality had three aspects: Isvara (Vishnu), cit (soul), and acit (matter). Vishnu is the only independent reality, while souls and matter are dependent on God for their existence. Because of this qualification of Ultimate reality, Ramanuja’s system is known as qualified non-dualism. Vishnu is the inner-controller (antar-yamin) of both souls (cit) and matter (acit). All these together constitute the “Body of God.”
Like Ramanuja, Madhva (1238 – 1317 C.E.) identified God with Vishnu, but his view of reality was purely dualistic in that he understood a fundamental differentiation between the ultimate Godhead and the individual soul, and the system is therefore called Dvaita (dualistic) Vedanta.
Alternative cultures of worship
The Bhakti schools
Main article: Bhakti Movement
Bhakti (devotion) signifies a blissful, selfless, and overwhelming love of God as the beloved Father, Mother, Child, or whatever relationship one finds appealing in the devotee’s heart. The philosophy of Bhakti seeks to tap into the universal divinity through personal form. Seen as a form of Yoga, or union, it seeks to dissolve the devotee’s ego, since consciousness of the body and limited mind as self is seen to be a divisive factor in spiritual realization.
Essentially, it is God who effects all change, who is the source of all works, who acts through the devotee as love and light. Sins and evil-doings of the devotee are said to fall away of their own accord, the devotee shriven, limitedness even transcended, through the love of God. The Bhakti movements rejuvenated Hinduism through their intense expression of faith and their responsiveness to the emotional and philosophical needs of India.
Altogether, Bhakti resulted in a mass of devotional literature, music, and art that has enriched the world and given India renewed spiritual impetus, eschewing unnecessary rituals and artificial social boundaries.
The Mantra OM (AUM)
Main article: Om
Reciting mantras (sacred formulae, phrases, or sounds) is a fundamental practice in Hinduism. Much of mantra yoga, as it is called, is done through japa (repetition). Mantras are said, through their meaning, sound, and chanting style, to help meditational focus for the sadhaka (practitioner). They can also be used to aid in expression of love for the deity, another facet of Bhakti yoga akin to the understanding of the murti. They often give courage in exigent times and serve to help “invoke” one’s inner spiritual strength. Indeed, Mahatma Gandhi’s dying words were a two-word mantra to the Lord Rama: “Hai Ram!”
Aum (ॐ) is the standard sign of Hinduism, and is prefixed and sometimes suffixed to all Hindu mantras and prayers. It contains an enormous and diverse amount of symbolism; Hindus consider its sound and vibration to be the divine representation of existence, encompassing all of manifold nature into the One eternal truth.
Another revered mantra in Hinduism is the famed “Gayatri Mantra,” which is considered one of the most universal of all Hindu mantras, invoking the universal Brahman as the principle of knowledge and the illumination of the primordial Sun. Many Hindus to this day, in a tradition that has continued unbroken for at least 3,000 years, perform morning ablutions at the bank of a sacred river (especially the Ganga/Ganges).
The swastika (卐) is an Arya, or noble symbol. It stands for satya, truth, and stability within the power of Brahma or, alternatively, of Surya, the sun. Its rotation in four directions has been used to represent many ideas, but primarily describes the four directions and their harmonious whole. It has been used in Hinduism since the early Vedic culture and is still widespread in the Indian subcontinent. Many Eastern cultures still hold it to be sacred, especially in India, in spite of the recent association with Nazism, which perverted the original meaning of this universal symbol. .
Tika (symbol on forehead or between eyebrows)
The laltika (or bindi) is a religious symbol sometimes denoting marriage. It is also believed to symbolize the need to cultivate supramental consciousness, which is achieved by opening the mystic “third eye.” A bindi is a decorative mark often worn by women. Men, too, will bear on their foreheads the equivalent tika (tilaka) mark, usually on religious occasions, its shape often representing particular devotion to a certain main deity: a U shape stands for Vishnu, a group of three horizontal lines for Shiva. It is not uncommon for some to meld both in an amalgam marker signifying Hari-Hara (Vishnu-Shiva indissoluble).
The Sacred Cow
A large section of Hindus embrace vegetarianism in a bid to respect higher forms of life, restricting their diet to plants and vegetables. About 30 percent of today’s Hindu population, especially in orthodox communities in south India, in certain northerly states like Gujarat, and in many Brahmin enclaves around the subcontinent, is vegetarian. While vegetarianism is not dogma, it is recommended as a sattvic (purifying) lifestyle.
The cow is especially sacred in Hinduism and is seen as a symbol of the universal mother who generously provides milk to all, without asking anything in return. Even those Hindus who are not vegetarian often abstain from beef, and many avoid the use of leather products. This is possibly because the largely pastoral Vedic people and subsequent generations relied so heavily on the cow for dairy products, tilling of fields, and fuel for fertilizer that its status as a “caretaker” led to identifying it as an almost maternal figure (so the term gau mata). The “Holy Cow” holds an honored place in Hindu society. It is said that Krishna is both Govinda (herder of cows) and Gopala (protector of cows), and Shiva’s attendant is Nandi, the bull. With the stress on vegetarianism and the sacred nature of the cow, it is no wonder that most holy cities and areas in India have a ban on selling beef.
Many Hindus also avoid beef because they practice ahimsa (non-violence and a respect for all life). Ahimsa is the first of the five yamas, or eternal vows/restraints of yoga. It is also a fundamental concept in the Jain religion. Mahatma Gandhi practiced ahimsa as non-violent resistance to the British colonial government and its occupation of India. In the United States, Martin Luther King, influenced by Gandhi, was able to incorporate ahimsa into his Christian worldview, and used non-violence in the civil rights movement.
Towards a Definition of Hinduism
Traditionally, Hindu was understood to refer to anyone born in India to Indian parents. Hinduism was not a missionary religion that aimed to convert non-Indians. The government of the Republic of India still defines any Indian who does not claim membership of another faith as a Hindu. However, it is not quite true to say that Hinduism lacked a universal worldview. Its stories of “creation” and its concepts of the meaning and purpose of life were believed to be universal truths, but as a system and way of life, Hindu belief was so deeply embedded in Indian culture that no one really thought of exporting Hinduism. Indeed, conviction that travel outside of India’s sacred soil was polluting made this impossible. In the nineteenth century, new interpretations of Hinduism (arguably nonetheless drawing on implicitly universal values) resulted in evangelism and some contemporary Hindu movements accept non-Indians as full members (including induction to priestly functions). Hinduism has been described as a sponge, able to absorb ideas and beliefs into itself. Although it has sometimes been interpreted narrowly, and internal rivalries have not always been absent, it has an inclusive tendency that has more often than not informed tolerance and respect for diversity. Sometimes though, the Hindu tendency to include others as Hindus when they regard themselves as Buddhists or Sikhs, for example, can be unwelcome. The difficulty of identifying a single definition of Hinduism may not be accidental. Hindus themselves speak of “certain things as having an inner proper form (surupa)—hard to know if not unknowable) which may be experienced under different forms.” Thus, Hinduism is itself experienced under different forms. The term for “form” here is bahurupa and Lipner continues that, “It is experienced as so many things by Hindus and non-Hindus alike that one may very well ask if it has a bahurupa at all.”
A Critique of Western Study of Hinduism
Contemporary Hindus are critical of many Western, non-Hindu accounts of Hinduism, suggesting that they set out to make Hinduism seem exotic, mysterious, erotic, and often somewhat irrational, even magical, demanding a suspension of reason. It is made to appear chaotic alongside the assumed orderliness of Western religion. Even such a renowned scholar as Wendy Doniger, who has served as president of the American Academy of Religion, has been criticized for focusing on obscure aspects of Hindu ritual, including sexual, blood, and fringe elements instead of philosophical and theological aspects. Western scholars are also criticized for inventing the Aryan invasion theory. This theory posits that people called Aryans migrated into India from somewhere near Iran at the same time that they were also migrating west into Europe. This theory is mainly based on similarity between some of the Vedic deities, and those of ancient Iran, such as of Mithra with Mitra, the day counterpart of the night God Varuna. Vedic deities show strong similarities to the language and religion of the Avesta (of Zoroastrianism), as well as more distantly to other Indo-European languages and religions. The Rigveda deity Dyaus, regarded as the father of the other deities, is linguistically cognate with Zeus, the king of the gods in Greek mythology, Jovius (gen. of Jupiter), the king of the gods in Roman mythology, and Ziu in Germanic mythology. This supports the theory that such European languages as German and Greek are related with Sanskrit. The theory assumes that the Aryans either destroyed the pre-existing Indus Valley Civilization, or pushed these people, identified as Dravidians, to the south. Thus, the Vedic tales and much of Indian civilization was an import from outside. This posits discontinuity between the civilization of the Indus Valley and Aryan or Vedic Civilization. This theory is challenged by quite a few Indian scholars, who argue for continuity between the Indus Valley Civilization and the Vedic Civilization and say there never was an Aryan invasion. Rather, the word “Aryan” denotes nobility, not a race of people who came into India from somewhere much closer to Europe. Such scholars say that the theory was linked with European colonialism, since Europeans could claim that they were from the same race as the Aryans, therefore Indian culture was really derived from the same source as much of European culture. Domination of India by outsiders, then, was not new.
On the other hand, the traditional Western account of Hinduism that presents the “four aims in life,” the “four stages of life,” and the duties of the four classes, can be said to reduce the complexity of Hinduism to a formula that has meaning for many Hindus but which is of little relevance for many others. The focus on scriptures, rituals, festivals, beliefs, and on the deities and their functions that usually accompanies this approach can have the opposite effect—that is, it can present Hinduism as too similar to Christianity or Islam as a “coherent system.” The secret of understanding Hinduism may be that it cannot be reduced to a single, orderly system yet that it does have its own integrity that defies easy description, challenging the Western proclivity towards controlling by knowing (often called “Orientalism”). An alternative approach to Hinduism sees it as a many-layered religion, with different strands responding to different needs, which sometimes react to previous layers and to their particular emphases. This process serves always to include more people rather than to exclude people and to open up new ways of understanding and of relating to the ultimate reality that recedes from people the closer they get to any definitive definition. Each strand caters for particular needs and fulfills a particular function—thus, there is a priestly strand, a philosophical strand, and a devotional strand, among others. Resisting a single definition of the essence of Hinduism may be as central to what it really is as resisting a single definition of the Ultimate, since once defined, the Ultimate ceases to be Ultimate.
Hinduism and Other Religions
Other terms and concepts
Adapted from New World Encyclopedia
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