Hinduism is a way of life, an Indian tradition that encompasses several religious beliefs, cultural practices and ideologies. The exact date of Hinduism's origin is not known, though estimates vary from 3200 BC to 2500 BC. It is the world's oldest major religion. It is also the third largest religion with a following of approximately a 1.2 billion people. The Indian subcontinent is home to 98% of this populace. The Himalayan kingdom of Nepal is the only nation which has Hinduism for its state religion. The term Hindu itself derives from the name of the Sindhu river.
Hinduism comes under a branch of religions known as the Dharmic religions. The Dharmic religions are less prone to dogma and offer generic universal truths. Such universal truths serve as general guidelines for their follower's philosophies and actions. They remain open to interpretation, adaptation and enrichment at any date and in any age. This core makes Hinduism flexible in accommodating even contradictory opinions seamlessly within its fabric. Hinduism provides several paths to the common goal of divine bliss. The choice of a particular path is left to the ability, discretion and temperament of the follower.
Experience of the divine supreme knowledge, known as moksha, is the core concept of Hinduism. Hinduism teaches its followers the ability to differentiate between the pure actions of virtue and the wrongful actions of evil. The concept of karma lays forth free-willed human actions and how such actions can lead both to moksha and to the cycles of birth and death. The soul is ever thirsty for this divine knowledge and it accumulates knowledge through all human experiences. Virtuous actions take the soul closer to the divine supreme, Brahman. Realization and experience of the divine bliss makes all the soul's desires redundant, including the desire for another worldly-experience-giving cycle of birth. Evil hinders recognition of the Brahman and misleads the Atman (soul) to seek knowledge through experiences in various forms of worldly life. All human actions leave their imprint on the soul. They affect and even decide the form and circumstances of life sought by the soul in its next cycle of birth.
Origins of Hinduism
Hinduism is eternal with no beginning and no end. Current thinking suggests that Hinduism was formed somewhere between 3200-2500 BCE. The date of approximately 3102 BCE comes from the Mahabharata epic, where the exact positions of the stars were recorded at Sri Krishna's birth. The later dates come from linguistic and literary dating of the Rig Veda, the oldest of the Hindu spiritual texts.
The origin of Hinduism cannot be ascribed to a single founder, a single time and a single place of foundation. The Vedas (regarded as the earliest piece of written Hindu work) are the spiritual laws binding upon all of creation and even upon God. Each Veda was written by multiple enlightened beings (Hindus) over a period of time. The term "Hinduism" is derived from of the word Sindhu, which literally means "dweller in the Sindhu (Indus) Valley". Hinduism is more of a federation of loosely banded conventional religions and cultures. It is non-organizational and does not seek or encourage collectivism.
According to Hindus, 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 native search for the divine within the Self, the search to find the One truth. Truth sought with faith shall yield itself in blissful luminescence no matter the race or creed professed. Indeed, all existence, from vegetation and beasts to mankind, are subjects and objects of the eternal Dharma. This inherent faith, therefore, is also known as Arya/Noble Dharma, Veda/Knowledge Dharma, Yoga/Union Dharma, Hindu Dharma or, simply, the Dharma.
What can be said to be common to all Hindus is belief in Dharma, Karma, and Moksha (liberation) of every soul through a variety of moral, action-based, and meditative yogas. Still more fundamental principles include ahimsa (non-violence), the guru/chela dynamic, the Divine Word of OM and the power of mantras, love of Truth in many manifestations, and an understanding that the essential spark of the Divine (Atman/Brahman) is in every human and living being, thus allowing for many spiritual paths leading to the One Unitary Truth.
Bindis are worn by Hindu women on their forehead to symbolize the opening of their spiritual third eye. An example of the pervasiveness of this paramount truth-seeking spirituality in daily life is the laltika which is a religious symbol denoting marriage. It is sometimes also said to symbolize the need to cultivate supramental consciousness, which is achieved by opening the mystic "third eye." 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.
Hinduism is practiced through a variety of Yogas (spiritual practices), primarily Bhakti (loving devotion), Karma Yoga (selfless service), Raja Yoga (meditational Yoga) and Jnana Yoga (Yoga of discrimination, pronounced Nyāna). 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 four goals of life
A major aspect of Dharma that is common to 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. Of course, the only goal that is truly infinite, whose attainment results in absolute happiness, is moksha, or liberation, (a.k.a. Mukti, Samadhi, Nirvana, etc.) from Samsara (a.k.a. Reincarnation), the cycle of life, death, and existential duality.
The four stages of life
The human life is seen as four phases called "Ashramas". They are Brahmacharya, Grihasthya, Vanaprastha and Sanyasa. The first quarter of one's life, Brahmacharya (literally "grazing in Brahma") is spent in celibate, sober and pure contemplation of life's secrets under a Guru, building up body and mind for the responsibilities of life. Brahmacharya is the phase where a human obtains knowledge of God and the world, while learning to keep strict control of his mind, senses and body. Grihastya is the householder's stage, in which one marries and satisfies karma and artha within a married life and professional career. Vanaprastha is gradual detachment from the material world, ostensibly giving over duties to one's sons and daughters, spending more time in contemplation of the truth, and making holy pilgrimages. Finally, in sanyasa, the individual goes off into seclusion, to find God through Yogic meditation and peacefully shed the body for the next life.
Views on God
Within Hinduism a variety of lesser deities are predominantly, are seen as aspects of the one impersonal divine ground, Brahman. Brahman is seen as the universal spirit. Brahman is the ultimate, both transcendent and immanent the absolute infinite existence, the sum total of all that ever is, was, or ever shall be. Brahman is not a God in the monotheistic sense, as it is not imbued with any limiting characteristics, not even those of being and non-being, and this is reflected in the fact that in Sanskrit, the word Brahman is of neuter (as opposed to masculine or feminine) gender. Vedanta is a branch of Hindu philosophy which gives this matter a greater focus. Yoga is the primary focus in many ways of a Hindu's religious activities, being somewhere between meditation, prayer and healthful exercise.
Some of Hinduism's adherents are Smarta monists, seeing in multiple manifestations of the one God or source of being. 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, and are valid to worship. The great Hindu saint, Ramakrishna, a monist, was a prominent advocate of this traditional Hindu view. He achieved the spiritual high of other religions besides Hinduism and came to the same conclusion proclaimed by the Vedas, "Truth is one, the wise call it by different names."
Contemporary Hinduism is divided into four major divisions, Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, and Smartism. Hindus believe in one God but differ in their conceptions. The two primary form of differences are between Vaishnavism which conceives God as Vishnu and Shaivism, which conceives God as Shiva.
Hinduism grew out of the religion described in the Vedas. The earliest of these, the Rigveda centers on worship of the gods Indra and Agni, and on the Soma ritual. The Ashvamedha was the most important sacrifice described in the Yajurveda, possibly performed for the last time by Samudragupta in the 4th century. The age and origins of the Vedas themselves are disputed, but it is clear that they were transmitted orally for several millennia. They show strong similarities to the language and religion of the Avesta, which are sometimes traced back to the influence of the 3rd millennium BC Saraswati Valley Civilization.
According to ancient Hindus, the four varnas (literally, 'colors') or castes had equal standing in the society and were based upon the duties to society and worked together towards the welfare of the society. According to this understanding, discrimination by caste is a perversion of Dharma's true meaning. The original formation of the caste system was to create economic divisions so that ancient India could prosper as well the Hindu spiritual reasons. Caste still plays a significant role in some sections of Hindu society; however, in modern day India caste-based discrimination is illegal.
Hindu temples inherited rich and ancient rituals and customs, and have always occupied a special place in the society. The Archeological Survey of India has taken control of most ancient temples of archeological importance. The priests and managers of such temples are appointed by the Indian Government. The temple culture has been undergoing dramatic changes, due to the deteriorating social status and influence of Brahmins.
Of the total Hindu population of the world, about 94% (890 million) live in India. 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 on the traditional Balinese culture and architecture. Other countries with a significant Hindu population include:
Nepal (23 million)
Bangladesh (14.4 million)
Pakistan (2.5 million)
Sri Lanka (3 million)
Malaysia (1.5 million)
South Africa (1.1 million)
Trinidad and Tobago (330,000)
Hindu philosophy: 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. 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 establish the authority of the Vedas. Consequently this school's most valuable contribution to Hinduism was its formulation of the rules of Vedic interpretation. Its adherents believed that revelation must be proved by reasoning, that it should not be accepted blindly as dogma. This empirical and eminently sensible manner of religious application is key to the Hindu Dharma and was especially championed by rationalists like Adi Sankara and Swami Vivekananda.
The Yoga system is generally considered to have arisen from the Samkhya philosophy. The yoga referred to here, however, 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. Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita are also indispensable literature in the study of Yoga.
The most significant difference from Samkhya is that the 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 prakrti (the temporal creative forces). It also utilizes the Brahman/Atman terminology and concepts that are found in depth in the Upanishads, adopting Vedantic monist concepts. Realization of the goal of Yoga is known as moksha or samadhi. It, like the Upanishads, seeks realization of the Atman as being nothing other than the infinite Brahman through ethical (mind), physical (body) and meditational (soul) practices of one-pointedness on the 'one supreme truth.'
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 attributeless or with attributes, i.e., a personal Supreme Being.
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. Its consolidator was Sankara (788?-820?). Sankara expounded his theories largely based on previous 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. Adi Sankara denounced caste and meaningless ritual as foolish, and in his own charismatic manner, exhorted the true devotee to meditate on God's love and apprehend truth.
To Advaitists (nondualists) Ultimate Truth is best expressed as Nirguna Brahman, or God without form, or 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.
Qualified Monism: Vishistadvaita
Ramanuja (1040 - 1137) 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.
Like Ramanuja, Madhva (1238 - 1317) 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
The Bhakti (Devotional) school takes its name from the Hindu term that signifies a blissful, selfless and overwhelming love of God as the beloved Father, Mother, Child, or whatever relationship finds appeal in the devotee's heart. The philosophy of Bhakti seeks to tap into the universal divinity through personal form, often reflecting the singular inclinations of small regions or groups of people. Seen as a form of Yoga, or union, it seeks to dissolve the ego in God, since consciousness of the body and limited mind as self is seen to be a divisive factor in spiritual realization.
The popular means of expressing love for God in later Hinduism has been through puja (prayer or worship), frequently using the aid of a murti (statue) in conjunction with the singing or chanting of meditational prayer in the form of mantras. Devotional songs called bhajans, kirtan (praise), and arti (a filtered down form of Vedic fire ritual) are sometimes sung in conjunction with performance of puja. This rather organic system of devotion attempts to aid the individual in connecting with God through symbolic medium. It is said, however, that the bhakta, through a growing connection with God, is eventually able to eschew all external form and is immersed entirely in the bliss of undifferentiated Love in Truth.
According to the Tantrik scholar, Sir John Woodroffe: "Tantras, which are numerous, constitute the Scripture (Shastra) of the Kaliyuga, and as such are the voluminous source of present and practical orthodox 'Hinduism'. The Tantra Shastra is, in fact, and whatever be its historical origin, a development of the Vaidika Karmakanda, promulgated to meet the needs of that age. Shiva says: 'For the benefit of men of the Kali age, men bereft of energy and dependent for existence on the food they eat, the Kaula doctrine, O auspicious one! is given' (Chap. IX., verse 12). To the Tantra we must therefore look if we would understand aright both ritual, yoga, and sadhana of all kinds, as also the general principles of which these practices are but the objective expression." The word "tantra" means "treatise" or "continuum", and is applied to a variety of mystical, occult, medical and scientific works as well as to those which we would now regard as "tantric". Most Tantras were written in the late middle ages and sprang from Hindu cosmology and Yoga.
Important symbolism and themes in Hinduism
Ahimsa and Veganism
A note of the element of ahimsa in Hinduism is vital to understanding the society that has arisen around some of its principles. The term first appears in the Upanishads. A large section of Hindus embraced vegetarianism in a bid to respect higher forms of life, restricting their diet to plants and vegetables. About 30% 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 sattwic (purifying) lifestyle in Yoga.
Sacred status of Cow
Some of the Hindus who do eat meat even avoid the use of leather products. This is most likely because the largely pastoral Vedic people and subsequent generations of Hindus throughout the centuries relied so heavily on the cow for all sorts of dairy products, tilling of fields and fuel for fertilizer that its status as a willing 'caretaker' of humanity grew to identifying it as an almost maternal figure (so the term gau mata). Thus, while scriptural injunctions against eating beef arose long after the Vedas had been written, the cow still 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.
Among the most revered symbols in Hinduism, two are quintessentially a part of its culture and representative of its general ethos:
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. 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.
Forms of worship: murtis and mantras
Contrary to popular belief, practiced Hinduism is neither polytheistic nor exclusive monotheistic. Contemporary Hinduism, at is practiced today, more strongly adheres to a Smarta model, which is a form of inclusive monotheism. The various gods and avatars that are worshipped by Hindus are understood as different forms of One truth, sometimes seen as beyond a mere God and as a formless Divine Ground (Brahman), akin but not limited to monism, or as one monotheistic principle like Vishnu or Shiva as the exclusive monotheistic faiths of Vaishnavism and Saivism adhere to.
Whether believing in the One source as formless (nirguna Brahman, without attributes) or as a personal God (saguna Brahman, with attributes), Hindus understand that the one truth may be seen as different to different people. Hinduism encourages devotees to describe and develop a personal relationship with their chosen deity (ishta devata) in the form of a God or Goddess.
Worship of lesser deities is often done through the aid of pictures or icons (murti) which are said not to be God themselves but conduits for the devotee's consciousness, markers for the human soul that signify the ineffable and illimitable nature of the love and grandeur of God. They are symbols of the greater principle, representing and are never presumed to be the concept or entity itself. Thus, Hindu image worship is a form of iconolatry, in which the symbols are venerated as putative sigils of divinity.
Reciting mantras 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.
The most revered mantra in Hinduism is the famed Gayatri Mantra (see Sanskrit for pronunciation):
Devanagari: ॐ भूर्भुवस्वः | तत् सवितूर्वरेण्यम् | भर्गो देवस्य धीमहि | धियो यो नः प्रचोदयात्
Transliteration: OM bhūr bhuva svaḥ | tat savitūr vareṇyam | bhargo devasya dhīmahi | dhiyo yo naḥ pra-codayāt
Translation: "May we attain that excellent glory of Savitar the God / so May he stimulate our prayers."
It 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. Known as a universal mantra, it is revered as being the most condensed form of Divine Knowledge (Veda). Its presiding principle, Ma (Mother) Gayatri, is also known as Veda Mata (Mother of the Vedas) and is strongly associated with the Goddess of Learning and Illumination, Saraswati.
The chief aim of the Vedic religion is to achieve moksha, or liberation, through constant dedication to Satya (Truth) and eventual realisation of the atman (Universal Soul), held to be achievable by all, whether through meditation or pure love. The great rishis (Hindu sages) have termed the samsaric (one who lives in samsara, i.e. the temporal or earthly plane) who succeeds in living an honest, loving and dharmic life a jivanmukta (living free soul). Hinduism's fundamental truth is best expressed in the Upanishadic dictum, Tat Twam Asi (Thou Art That), and the ultimate aspiration as follows:
OM Asato ma sad gamaya, tamaso ma jyotir gamaya, mrityor ma aamritaam gamaya
"OM Lead me from ignorance to truth, from darkness to light, from death to immortality."
Hindu sacred texts: The overwhelming majority of Hindu sacred texts are composed in the Sanskrit language. The texts are divided into two categories: Shruti- that which is heard (i.e. revelation) and Smriti- that which is remembered (i.e. tradition, not revelation).
The Vedas are considered as shruti (inspired) by all Hindus. While the overwhelming majority of Hindus may never read the Vedas, the reverence for the more abstract notion of eternal knowledge (Veda means knowledge) is etched deep into the hearts of all those who follow Veda Dharma. The four Vedas (the Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva Vedas) 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. The Shrautasutras and Grhyasutras form a younger stratum dealing with domestic ritual. The Aranyakas and the Upanishads were originally esoteric, mystical teachings related in secrecy.
While the Vedas and their early commentaries on one hand centre on ritual and sacrifice, the late Vedantic (End of Vedas) texts emphasize mystic insight and express abhorrence for ritual practiced at the expense of spiritual insight, claiming to streamline the excessive litany of praise to Vedic gods and to capture the essence of the Rig Vedic dictum "Truth Is One." They set Hindu philosophy apart with its embrace of a single transcendent and yet immanent force that is native to each man's soul, an identification of micro- and macrocosm as One. It can be said that while early Hinduism is most reliant on the four Vedas, Classical Hinduism, from the Yoga and Vedanta to Tantra and Bhakti streams, was molded around the Upanishads.
The Bhagavad Gita occupies a special position in the hearts of most Hindus as a keystone yoga Upanishad whose eternal words perhaps are the most representative of all Hindu thought. The text documents a conversation between Arjuna, a warrior, and Lord Krishna immediately prior to the major battle described in the epic Mahabharata. While technically it is considered Smriti, it has singularly achieved nearly unquestioned status as Shruti, or revealed, and is thus the most definitive single Hindu text.
The post-Vedic Hindu scriptures form the latter category, the most notable of which are the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, major epics considered scripture by most followers. Other texts considered important by today's Hindus include the Yoga Sutras, a key meditative yoga text of Shri Patanjali. There are also a number of revered Hindu Tantras and Sutras that command the respect of various Hindu sects of different persuasion, some including the Mahanirvana Tantra, Tirumantiram and Shiva Sutras. Other important scriptures are the sectarian Hindu Agamas which are texts dedicated to Vishnu, Shiva and Devi.