Hinduism: An Overview

Hinduism is the world’s oldest living organized religion. With an estimated 850 million followers, it is the third largest religion behind Christianity and Islam. Founded in India beginning as early as 2500 B.C., Hinduism is most prevalent in that country, where an estimated 785 million people engage in Hindu practices. Hindus also are found in significant numbers in Bangladesh, Nepal (where it is the state religion), Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and other countries. There are an estimated 1.5 million Hindus in North America.

According to some sources, the word “Hinduism” comes from the Indus River, which flows through modern-day Pakistan. Hinduism has no single founder. It began as a polytheistic and ritualistic religion with simple rituals. Over time, the rituals became more complex so that it was necessary to create a priestly class. During this time, the Vedas were written to give the priests instructions for performing the rituals; eventually the priests became mediators with the gods, which gave them control over people’s lives. Around 600 B.C., the people revolted. The form of Hinduism that resulted emphasized internal meditation as opposed to external rituals. Between 800 B.C. and 300 B.C. the Upanishads – also called the Vedanta, or the end of the Vedas – was written. Roughly the Hindu equivalent of the Christian New Testament, the Upanishads teaches that behind the many gods stands one Reality known as Brahman, an impersonal force. Later, Hinduism developed the concept of a personified Brahman known as Ishvara. According to Hindu tradition, Ishvara became known to humanity through the three manifestations of Brahman: Brahma (the Creator); Vishnu (the Preserver), and Siva (the Destroyer). Ishvara became even more personified through 10 mythical incarnations of Vishnu called avatars, who took on the form of animals or persons.

Beyond the principal deities and the avatars it is estimated that there are 330 million other gods in Hinduism. Besides Hinduism’s different concepts of God, the religion also may be divided along the lines of whether the physical universe is real or illusory. The nondualists (advaita) see Brahman alone as real and the world as an illusion. “Qualified nondualists” say the universe is extended from the Being of Brahman. And dualists (dvaita) see Brahman and the universe as distinct realities. Throughout history, Hinduism has spawned three other religious movements: Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism.

 Basic Beliefs

Although Hinduism is complex and diverse, most Hindus hold these beliefs in common:

  • The impersonal nature of Brahman. Hindus see ultimate reality, Brahman, as an impersonal oneness that is beyond all distinctions, including personal and moral distinctions.
  • The unity of Brahman and Atman. Most followers believe that their true selves (atman) are extended from and are one with Brahman. “Just as the air inside an open jar is identical to the air surrounding that jar, so our essence is identical to that of the essence of Brahman” (The Illustrated Guide to World Religions, p. 88).
  •  The law of karma. This is the moral equivalent of the natural law of cause and effect. The effects of our actions follow us throughout the present lifetime and into the next lifetime. Humanity’s main problem is that we are ignorant of our divine nature. We have forgotten that we are extended from Brahman and so we have mistakenly attached ourselves to the desires of our separate selves, or egos, and thereby to the consequences of our actions.

  • Reincarnation (samsara). This is the seemingly endless cycle of life, death and rebirth. We reap in this lifetime the consequences of the deeds of previous lifetimes. A person’s karma determines the kind of body he or she will receive in the next life, whether human, animal or insect.
  • Liberation (moksha). The goal of Hinduism is to be free of the cycle of life, death and rebirth. This liberation is attained by realizing that the concept of self is an illusion and that only the undifferentiated oneness with Brahman is real. Hinduism offers at least three paths to enlightenment: karma marga (the way of action and ritual); jnana marga (the way of knowledge and meditation); and bhakti marga (the way of devotion). When enlightenment is reached, the individual self loses its separate identity and is merged into the universal self, or Brahman.

 Hinduism generally is viewed by the West as a polytheistic religion – one that worships multiple deities – but this is not necessarily accurate. Others view Hinduism as monotheistic because it recognizes one supreme God, Brahman. Still others see the religion as Trinitarian because Brahman is simultaneously visualized as one god with three persons: Brahma (the Creator who continues to create new realities); Vishnu, or Krishna (the Preserver who sustains these new creations); and Shiva (the Destroyer). Strictly speaking, most forms of Hinduism are henotheistic, meaning they recognize a single deity and see other gods and goddesses as manifestations of Brahman.

The Hindu Scriptures

The earliest of the Hindu scriptures are the Vedas (Veda means “knowledge”): Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda. Each Veda is divided into four parts: the Mantras, or basic verses or hymns sung during the rituals; the Brahmanas, or the explanation of the verses; the Aran-yakas, which are reflections on their meaning; and the Upanishads, or mystical interpretations of the verses. Besides these primary scriptures are secondary ones known as smriti, or “remembered.” Included in these are the Ramayana (Rama’s way) and Mahabhrata (the great story), which includes the most popular of all Hindu scriptures, the Bhagavad-Gita, the main character of which is Krishna. Other smriti scriptures include the Vedangas, or codes of law; the Puranas, the genealogies and legends of the gods; the Darshanas, philosophical writings; the Sutras, rules of ritual and social conduct; and the Tantras, writings on attaining occult power). 

Hindu Worship

Hinduism has no single creed and recognizes no final truth. The extensive collection of scriptures allow a diverse belief system. Simply put, Hinduism has a pagan background in which the forces of nature and human heroes are personified as gods and goddesses who are worshiped with prayers and offerings. Hindu worship is varied and features color symbolism, offerings, fasting and dance. Most Hindus worship an image of their chosen deity, with chants (mantras), flowers and incense. Worship tends to be individualistic rather than congregational. Hinduism may be dived into Popular Hinduism, characterized by the worship of gods through offerings, rituals and prayers; and Philosophical Hinduism, the complex belief system that requires the study of ancient texts, meditation and yoga. 

Paths to Moksha

The goal of Hinduism is to liberate oneself from samsara, the seemingly endless cycle of life, death and rebirth, and be reunited with Brahma. This “salvation” is known as moksha and there are three paths that may be pursued to attain it:

  • Dharma, or the path of works. A person has a set of specific social and religious obligations that must be fulfilled. For example, he must follow his caste occupation, marry within his caste, eat or not eat certain foods, and produce and raise a son who can make a sacrifice to his ancestors as well as perform other duties. By fulfilling these responsibilities, the person on the path of works may obtain a better reincarnation in the next life and, perhaps, after thousand of reincarnations, achieve moksha.
  • Inana, the path of knowledge. This is a more difficult path and involves self-renunciation and meditation. This aesthetic path is open to men only in the higher castes. It most often includes the practice of yoga, an attempt to control one’s consciousness through posture, breath control and concentration.
  • Bhakti, the path of passionate devotion. This is the most popular way to achieve moksha. A devotee may choose any of the 330 million gods, goddesses or demigods in the Hindu pantheon and passionately worship that god. In practice, almost all Hindus who follow this path worship Vishnu or Shiva. The most popular god is Vishnu, who has appeared as avatars (saviors, the incarnation of deity) in the form of a giant turtle, as Gautama Buddha and as Rama and Krishna, two important Hindu heroes. Shiva is popular as well. Rituals performed by his devotees are similar to the worship of the Canaanites, whom God commanded the Israelites to destroy.

The Caste System

Around 500 B.C. a social hierarchy known as the caste system was established. One Hindu hymn tells how four castes of people came from the head, arms, thighs and feet of Brahma, the creator god. The four castes were the Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors and nobles); Vaisyas (merchants and artisans); and Shudras (slaves). Each caste was then subdivided into hundreds of subcastes. Only the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaisyas were allowed to take full advantage of the Hindu religion, but the Shudras were forbidden from hearing the Vedas or using them to find salvation.  Even lower in status were the Untouchables who, until the 20th century, were considered outside the caste system and were treated as subhuman. They did the dirtiest work, drank polluted water, wore tattered clothing and were denied property, education and dignity. When India became a nation in 1947, the government officially outlawed discrimination against Untouchables. Today, the caste system has lost much of its power in urban areas but remains virtually unchanged in some rural parts of the country.

The Mark on the Forehead

The colored dot often seen on the forehead of Hindus is called by a number of names, including bindi. It is a sign of piety and symbolizes the third eye – the one focused inward toward God. Both men and women wear the bindi, although the practice among men is going out of style. Today, many women wear dots that match the color of their saris.

The Sacred Cow

The cow is considered sacred in Hinduism. She is symbolic of abundance, the sanctity of all life, and the earth that gives much while asking nothing in return. The cow is respected as a matriarchal figure for her gentle qualities and for providing milk and related products to people who consume a mostly vegetarian diet. The reverence for cows may be found throughout Hinduism’s major texts. 

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