Hinduism: Details about 'Hinduism'
Hinduism (Sanskrit/Hindi: हिन्दु धर्म; also known as Sanatana Dharma - सनातन धर्म, and Vaidika Dharma - वैदिक धर्म) is a worldwide religious tradition that is based on the Vedas, and is generally regarded as one of the oldest religions still practiced in the world. The term Hinduism is an amorphous concept as Hinduism consists of several schools of thought. Hinduism evolved from a monolithic religion into a multitude of traditions over a period of last 4000 years. It encompasses many religious rituals that widely vary in practice, as well as many diverse sects and philosophies. An array of deities, all manifestations of the one Supreme monistic Brahman, are venerated. It is the third largest religion in the world, with a following of approximately 1 billion people. Ninety-eight percent of Hindus can be found on the Indian subcontinent, chiefly in India. It is noteworthy however that the relatively small Himalayan kingdom of Nepal is the only nation in the world with Hinduism as its state religion.
See Hindu for more about a Hindu and different communities of Hindus.
The Hindu faiths, practices and philosophies have evolved from the Vedic tradition (Vaidika paramparā), with elements from Buddhism, Jainism and other non-Vedic faiths of India.
The Eternal Way
"Sanātana Dharma" (सनातन धर्म, The Eternal Values), the traditional name of Hinduism, alludes 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 transcendental state that exists within and beyond our somatic existence, the unsullied Soul of all. Religion to the Hindu is the eternal search for the divine Brahman (ब्रह्मन्, pronounced as /brəhmən/, nominative singular: ब्रह्म /brəhmə/), the Supreme Immanent and Transcendent Reality or the Cosmic Spirit.
Hinduism's spiritual tradition as both monotheistic and tolerant is expressed in the Rig Vedic verse:
What can be said to be common to all Hindus is the belief in Dharma (individual ethics, duties and obligations), Samsāra (Reincarnation/rebirth), Karma ("actions", leading to a cause and effect relationship), and Mokṣha (salvation) of every soul through a variety of paths, such as Bhakti (devotion), Karma (selfless action) and Jñāna (enlightenment, knowledge), and of course, belief in God (Īshvara / Bhagavān). Reincarnation or the soul's transmigration through a cycle of birth and death, until it attains Mokṣha, is governed by Karma. The philosophy of Karma lays forth the results of free-willed actions, which leave their imprint on the soul or the self, called as ātman. These actions determine the course of life and the life cycle for the soul in its subsequent life. Virtuous actions take the soul closer to the Supreme Divine, and lead to a birth with higher consciousness. Evil actions hinder this recognition of the Supreme Divine, and the soul takes lower forms of worldly life. All existence, as per Hinduism, from vegetation to mankind, are subjects to the eternal Dharma, which is the natural law. Even Heaven (Svarga Loka) and Hell (Naraka Loka) are temporary. Liberation from this material existence and cycle of birth and death, to join, reach or develop a relationship with the "universal spirit" (depending on belief), is known as Mokṣha, which is the ultimate goal of all Hindus.
The other principles include the Guru-shishya tradition, the Divinity of Word of OM and the power of mantras, manifestations of the divine's spirit in all forms of existence (pantheism); that is an understanding that the essential spark of the Atman/Brahman is in every living being, the concept that all living beings are divine. Another interesting belief is that though the Hindu mythology mentions a class of evil beings (demons, called Asuras or Rākṣhasas), opposed to the celestial spirits (Devas), essential Hindu philosophy does not believe in any concept of a central Devil or Satan. This does not mean that all the evil in the world is attributed to God, but that the evil (deed or thought) is ascribed to human ignorance.
It is highly debatable whether a non-Hindu (by birth, as a foreigner) can become a Hindu or not. Hinduism certainly does not evangelize as Christianity or Islam. Since the Hindu scriptures are essentially silent on this issue, it rather depends upon the Hindu society whether they might consider a foreigner, who has got a dīkṣhā into a Hindu sect, as a Hindu or not.
Practice (Yoga Dharma)
Hinduism includes a variety of practices, primarily spiritual devotion (Bhakti Yoga), selfless service (Karma Yoga), knowledge and meditation (Jñāna or Rāja Yoga). These are described in the two principal texts of Hindu Yoga: The Bhagavad Gītā and the Yoga Sūtras. The Upanishads are also important as a philosophical foundation for these practices. The Yogas provide a sort of alternate path (or faiths) that links together various Hindu beliefs, and can also be used to categorize non-Hindu beliefs that are seen as paths to mokṣha, or nirvāṇa.
The Four Objectives of Life
Another major aspect of Hindu dharma that is common to practically all Hindus is that of the puruṣhārthas, the "four objectives of life". They are kāma, artha, dharma and mokṣha. It is said that all beings seek kāma (pleasure, physical or emotional) and artha (material wealth), but soon, with maturity, learn to govern these legitimate desires within the higher framework of dharma (righteousness). Of course, the only goal that is truly ultimate, whose attainment results in ultimate happiness, is mokṣha (salvation), also known as Mukti (spiritual liberation), Samādhi, Nirvāṇa, or escape from Samsāra (the cycle of births and deaths).
The Four Stages of Life
Ideally (though not feasible for most of today's lay Hindus), the human life is divided into four Āshramas ("phases" or "stages"). They are Brahmacharya, Gṛihastha, Vānaprastha and Sanyāsa. The first quarter of one's life, Brahmacharya ("meditation, or study of the Brahman") is spent in celibate, controlled, sober and pure contemplation under a Guru, building up the mind for the realization of truth. Grihastha is the householder's stage, alternatively known as samsara, in which one marries and satisfies kāma and artha within one's married and professional life. Vānaprastha is gradual detachment from the material world, ostensibly giving over duties to one's children, spending more time in contemplation of the Divine, and making holy pilgrimages. Finally, in Sanyāsa, the individual goes into seclusion, often envisioned as renunciation, to find the Divine through detachment from worldly life, and peacefully shed the body for the next life (or, for liberation).
The four classes of society
Hindu society has traditionally been divided into four classes, based on profession—the Brāhmaṇas: teachers and priests; the Kṣhatriyas: warriors, kings and administrators; the Vaishyas: farmers, merchants, herdsmen and businessmen; and the Shūdras: servants and labourers. Each of these classes was called a varṇa, and the system was called Varṇa Vyavasthā. It is highly debatable whether the varṇa system is an integral part of Hinduism or not; and whether or not it is strictly sanctioned by the scriptures. The Shruti texts make very rare mentions of this system at some places, without defining things very much. The Smṛiti texts (including the Manusmṛiti) have elaborated the rules about this system. Earlier, the system was only based upon the profession (and character), and there are dozens of instances where people freely changed their professions and freely intermarried. Later, (the historians do not agree as to when) the system became fixed by birth. Thus, with the evolution of several sub-castes (along with a class of outcastes outside the Varṇa Vyavasthā), the system evolved into the caste system as we know of today. With modernization, caste differences are slowly fading away in modern India, but tension and prejudice still remain.
Nature of God
The Vedas depict Brahman as the Ultimate Reality, the Absolute or Universal Soul (Paramātman). Brahman is the indescribable, inexhaustible, incorporeal, omniscient, omnipresent, original, first, eternal, both transcendent and immanent, absolute infinite existence, and the ultimate principle who is without a beginning, without an end, who is hidden in all and who is the cause, source, material and effect of all creation known, unknown and yet to happen in the entire universe. Brahman (not to be confused with the deity Brahmā) is seen as a pantheistic Cosmic Spirit. The personality behind Brahman is known as Parabrahman (The superior Brahman). Brahman may be viewed as without personal attributes (Nirguṇa Brahman) or with attributes (Saguṇa Brahman).
Perhaps the best word in Hinduism to represent the concept of God is Īshvara (lit. the Supreme Lord). In Advaita Vedānta philosophy, Īshvara is simply the manifested form of Brahman upon human mind. Thus, according to Smārta views, the Supreme Being can be with attributes, Saguṇa Brahman, and also be viewed with whatever attributes, (e.g., a female goddess) a devotee conceives. For the Hindus, Īshvara, who is one and only one, is full of innumerable auspicious qualities; He is omniscient, omnipotent, perfect, just, merciful, glorious, mysterious, and yet full of love. He is the Creator, the Ruler and the Destroyer of this universe. Some believe Him to be infinite and incorporeal. In Vaishnavism and Shaivism, Saguṇa Brahman is viewed solely as Viṣhṇu or Shiva—so their followers may attribute an anthropomorphic form to Īshvara. Īshvara is also called as Bhagavān in modern Hindi. The divine power (or energy) of God is personified as female or Shakti. However, the Divine and the divine energy are indivisible, unitary, and the same. The analogy is that fire represents the Divine and the actual heat Shakti.
The several deities
The Hindu religion also believes in several celestial entities which are called Devas. These Devas may variously be translated into English as gods (which is rather a mistranslation), or better, as demigods, deities, celestial spirits or angels. The feminine of deva is devī. It is these devas that give the western world a picture that Hinduism is polytheistic. The question who or what these devas are may be analyzed under the following three points:
The terms Īshvara and devas must not be confused. Devas could be as numerous as . Thus, it is false to say that Hinduism has 330 million "Gods", which are more correctly devas or celestial beings; even the liberal Smārta denomination recognizes only six forms of God to be objects of worship; other denominations of Hinduism, such as Vaishnavism and Shaivism follows a singular concept of God, or panentheistic monotheism. More precisely, the Hindu scriptures and most Shaivite and Vaishnavite thoughts regard the devas as a combination of the first two views; e.g., Kriṣhṇa is regarded as Īshvara to whom all the demigods are subservient, and simultaneously, all the demigods are seen as mundane manifestations of Kriṣhṇa. The third view is not supported by the scriptures.
Whatever it is, the devas (also called devatās) are an integral part of the colorful Hindu culture. The 33 early Vedic devas included Indra, Agni, Soma, Varuṇa, Mitra, Savitṛ, Rudra, Prajāpati, Viṣhṇu, Aryaman and the Ashvins; important devīs were Sarasvatī, Ūṣhā and Pṛithivī. Indra is traditionally called the king of the demigods. The later Purāṇas laud the Hindu Trinity of Brahmā, Viṣhṇu and Shiva, i.e., Trimūrti, signifying respectively the creative, ruling and destroying aspects of the same One God. Note that Brahmā, Viṣhnu and Shiva are not regarded as ordinary devas but as Mahādevas. The Purāṇas also laud other devas and avatāras such as Gaṇesha, Hanumān, Rāma, Kriṣhṇa, etc. Devīs, worshipped as the mother, include Lakṣhmī and most importantly, Durgā and her forms such as Kālī. Though all the different paths of salvation are, to various extents, acknowledged by all denominations, the actual conception of Brahman and its nature is what differentiates them. It is important to note that the contemporary perception of Hinduism, influenced by Smārta traditions, depicts an inclusively monotheistic (or monistic) religion, which accordingly holds that the different deities are simply different manifestations of the One God.
Each of the Hinduism's four major denominations share rituals, beliefs, traditions and personal deities with one another, but each sect has a different philosophy on how to achieve life's ultimate goal (Mokṣha, salvation) and on their concept of God (Īshvara). However, each denomination respects all others, and conflict of any kind is rare. In fact, many Hindus will not claim to belong to any denomination at all.
Contemporary Hinduism is now divided into four major divisions, Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, and Smartism. The primary differences are between the sects of Vaishnavism which conceives God as Viṣhṇu, and Shaivism which conceives God as Shiva. Vaishnavas make up the majority of Hindus in India. Shaktism worships a female divine or goddess Devī or alternatively (where it is viewed as a sub sect of Shaivism) as the power of Shiva personified. Smartism, in contrast, believes in all religions being the same and leading to a pantheistic God. A number of reform movements have also given rise to sects like Swami Dayananda Saraswati's Ārya Samāj which condemns iconolatry, veneration of multiple deities and focuses on the Vedas and the Vedic fire-sacrifices (yajña).
A Vaishnavite considers Viṣhṇu (विष्णु) as the Supreme Being, and considers other deities as subordinate (as demigods). Accordingly, many Vaishnavites, for example, believe that Viṣhṇu ultimately grants mokṣha. Vaishnavites consider worship of "other gods" as secondary due to Kriṣhṇa’s (who is a form of Viṣhṇu) sayings in the Gītā:
Whatever deity or form a devotee worships, their wishes are granted by Me (Gītā: 7:21-22)
O Arjuna, even those devotees who worship other subordinate deities (e.g., Devas, for example) with faith, they also worship Me, following non-injunction (Gītā: 9:23).
Shāktas worship the Mother Goddess Shakti (or devī) in all of her forms, whilst not rejecting the importance of the masculine divinity. The "History of the Shākta Religion" explains that The Shāktas conceive their Great Goddess as the personification of primordial energy and the source of all divine and cosmic evolution. She is identified with the Supreme Being, conceived as the Source and the Spring as well as the Controller of all the forces and potentialities of Nature. It is associated with Vedānta, Sāṃkhya and Tantra philosophies, is ultimately monist, and has a rich tradition of Bhakti yoga associated with it.
Smārtas invariably follow Advaita (monist) philosophy, seeing multiple manifestations emanating from a single source called Brahman. It is seen as ultimate unity, with the personal "gods" (deities) being different manifestations of Brahman which can be called by different names. Smartism is the only branch of Hinduism that adopts these ideas strictly. The Smārtas perspective dominates the view of Hinduism in the West because of the influence of eminent Smārtins like Swami Vivekananda.
Hindu sacred texts
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 relevant Hindu scriptures.
The Vedas (वेद, literally, "Knowledge") are considered as Shruti by the Hindus. They are said to have been revealed by the Brahman to the Ṛiṣhis while the latter were in deep meditation. While the overwhelming majority of Hindus may never read the Vedas, there prevails in them a reverence for this transcendental notion of "Eternal Knowledge". The four Vedas (the Ṛig, Yajur, Sāma and Atharva Vedas) are various shākhās or branches of knowledge. Depending on the branch, different commentaries and instructions are associated with each Veda. The Ṛig Veda contains mantras to invoke the devas for the fire-sacrifice rituals, the Sāma Veda has chants to be sung there, the Yajur Veda has actual prosaic instructions for the sacrifices and the Atharva Veda comprises of semi-magical (sic) spells against enemies, sorcerers, diseases and mistakes during the sacrificing ritual. The Vedas, apart from the hymn (mantra) or the Saṃhitā (संहिता) portion, also have three layers of commentaries integrally incorporated within them. These are: the Brāhmaṇas (ब्राह्मण, not to be confused with Brahman) containing prose commentaries on the rituals, the Āraṇyakas (आरण्यक) containing the mystical explanations of the mantras, and the Upaniṣhads (उपनिषद्) containing highly philosophical and metaphysical writings about the nature of, and the relationship between the soul (ātman) and the Brahman. Each Veda also has various law books and ritual manuals loosely associated with it, like the Dharmashāstras, Grihyasūtras, etc., but most people do not consider them as an integral part of the Shruti or the Vedic literature.
The Upaniṣhads set Hindu philosophy apart with its embrace of transcendent and yet multiple immanent forces that is subjective to each individual, seen by some as an identification of unity in diversity. Modern indology suggests that while early Hinduism is most reliant on the four Vedas, Classical Hinduism, from the Yoga and Vedanta to Tantra and Bhakti streams, was moulded around the Upaniṣhads. The Vedas are full of mysticism and allegories. While many schools like Smartism and Advaitism encourage people to interpret the Vedas philosophically and metaphorically and not too literally, Vaishnavism stresses the literal meaning (mukhya vṛitti) as primary and indirect meaning (gauṇa vṛitti) as secondary: sākṣhād upadesas tu shrutih - "The instructions of the shruti-shāstra should be accepted literally, without so-called fanciful or allegorical interpretations." (Jiva Gosvami, Kṛiṣhna Sandarbha 29.26-27). The very sound of the Vedic mantras is considered as "purifying" by many Hindus, hence the rigour in learning pronunciation. The rigorous oral tradition of transmitting the Vedas has helped in its perfect preservation.
The Bhagavad Gītā (भागवद् गीता), often referred to as the Gītā, is one of the more popular sacred texts of Hinduism. It is a summary of the Vedic, Yogic, Vedantic and Tantric branches of philosophy. The Bhagavad Gītā, meaning "The Divine Song", refers to itself as a Yoga Upaniṣhad and is sometimes called Gītopaniṣad. It expounds on Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Jñāna Yoga. It is an integral part of the epic Mahābhārata, and contains philosophical sermons taught by Kṛiṣhṇa, an incarnation of Viṣhṇu, to the Pāṇḍava princes just before a great war.
While technically, it is considered as Smṛiti text, it has singularly achieved the status of Shruti, or Revealed Knowledge. The Bhagavad Gītā is described as the essence of the Vedas. The Gītā is easy to follow, and is also one of the most popular books in Hinduism. Unlike the Vedas, which are more esoteric and intricate, the Gītā is read by many practicing Hindus.
The other Hindu texts form the latter category—the Smṛitis (lit., "memory"), all of which laud the Vedas; the most notable of them are the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa, major epics considered sacred by almost all followers of Sanātana Dharma. Their stories are arguably familiar to the vast majority of Hindus. Other texts considered important by today's Hindus include the Shrīmad Bhāgavatam, described as the spotless epic detailing devotion to Viṣhnu as the highest goal, Devī Mahātmya, an ode to Devī, and the Yoga Sūtras, a key meditative yoga text of Shri Patañjali. There are also a number of revered Hindu Tantras, the Manusmṛiti, the 18 Purāṇas which vividly describe later Hinduism's deities and mythology, and Sūtras that command the respect of various Hindu sects of different persuasion, some including the Mahanirvāṇa Tantra, Tirumantiram and Shiva Sūtras. The eighteen Purāṇas, or Ancients, are divided into three groups of six. The Purāṇas’ groups and their contents are: 1) the Brahmā Purāṇas: Brahma Purāṇa, Brahmāṇḍa Purāṇa, Brahma Vaivarta Purāṇa, Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa, Bhaviṣhya Purāṇa, and the Vāmana Purāṇa; 2) the Viṣhnu Purāṇas: the Viṣhnu Purāṇa, the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, the Nāradeya Purāṇa, the Garuḍa Purāṇa, the Padma Purāṇa, and the Varāha Purāṇa; and 3) the Shiva Purāṇas: the Vāyu Purāṇa, the Liṅga Purāṇa, the Skanda Purāṇa , the Agni Purāṇa, the Matsya Purāṇa, and the Karma Purāṇa. The Rāmāyaṇa, Mahābhārata and many Purāṇas are much more widely read by today's Hindus than the Vedas, and the temple and icon worship of modern Hinduism is attributable to them. It is interesting to note that the Hindus attach much more importance to the ethics and the metaphorical meanings conveyed by these texts, rather than only the literal mythology. Other important scriptures are the sectarian Hindu Āgamas which are texts related to rituals and worship and is dedicated to Viṣhnu, Shiva and Devī. The Shruti takes precedence over the Smṛiti in any matter of apparent mutual dispute. However, many Vaishnavites regard the Purāṇas to be as authoritative as the Vedas.
Origins and society
Origins of Hinduism
Hinduism is one of the world's oldest major religions in existence. From a Hindu perspective, the Sanatana Dharma propounds eternal and universal principles with no beginning or end. The Puranas place Lord Krishna's birth at around 3100 BCE. Krishna's incarnation was preceded by Lord Rama's, sometimes dated at over 5-6000 BCE, or even more than a million years ago in the Treta Yuga according to the Ramayana Epic. Many Hindus believe that their religious tradition was fully formed by the time of Lord Rama, the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Modern Indology dates the roots of Hinduism to about 1500-1300 BCE, based on linguistic and literary dating of the Rig Veda. However this dating is rejected by those who question the validity of the Indo-Aryan migration hypothesis.
The origin of collective Hindu thought cannot be ascribed to any single founder (though most of its later schools of philosophy and belief can be), or associated with a specific time or a single place of foundation. The Vedas, the earliest Hindu scriptures, are the compilation of spiritual laws and truths binding upon all of creation. It is believed that each Veda was revealed to enlightened sages, called Rishis, over a long period of time. Lord Vishnu is believed to have transmitted the Vedas to Lord Brahma via meditative trance at the beginning of each >Afifi< creation.
Though linguists and historians haven't reached a consensus, the term Hindu is generally accepted to be derived from the name of the Sindhu (सिन्धु, i.e., the Indus) river, which is known as Hindu in Persian. The term was used for people that lived around or beyond the Sindhu. In this region, the advanced Mohenjo-daro civilization flourished about five thousand years ago. Hinduism, in some form, probably existed long before that. According to Historical linguistics, the /s/ of the Indo-Aryan branch (as represented by Sanskrit) is cognate with the /h/ sound of the Iranian branch(as represented by Avestan and Old Persian). In the Rig Veda, the Indo-Aryans mention their expanse as sapta sindhu (the land of seven rivers). This became the term Hapta-Hindu in Avesta (Vendidad: Fargard 1.18).
Hindu (In-du or In-tu in China) is still used in some languages to denote an Indian or India. The Greek term "India" was originally pronounced Hindia; /h/ became lost as in later Greek there was no character for "h". In modern Persian and Arabic, the term Hindustan denotes the Indian subcontinent, and Hind or Al-Hind is used to denote the Republic of India.
The word Hindu (हिन्दु), possibly due to Iranian influence, in the sense of people of India, is used in some early-medieval Sanskrit texts like BhaviShya Purana, Kalika Purana, Merutantra, Ramakosha, Hemantakavikosha and Adbhutarupakosha. India is also traditionally, but unofficially called Hindustan or Hind in Hindi, Persian and Arabic. Note that the word Hindustan also has other meanings.
Until about 19th century the term Hindu implied a culture and ethnicity and not a religion. When the British government started periodic censuses and established a legal system, the need arose to define Hinduism as a distinct religion, along the lines of Christianity or Islam. Some scholars, such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, defined it as a religion based on the Vedas, using the analogy of the Bible being the basis of Christianity and the Qur'an being the Muslim scripture.
That even an atheist may be called a Hindu is an example of the fact that Hinduism is far more than a simple religious system; it is actually an extremely diverse and complicated river of evolving philosophies and ancient traditions.
Modern Hinduism grew out of the knowledge described in the Vedas. The earliest of these, the Rigveda centers on worship of the deities Indra and Agni, and on the Soma ritual. They would perform fire-sacrifices called yajña (यज्ञ) with the chanting of the Vedic mantras, but they built no temples, idols or icons. Probably animals were also sacrificed in larger yajñas, as claimed by Buddhist and Jain texts. 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, as well as more distantly to other Indo-European languages and religions (see Indo-Aryan migration).
In the 20th 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." Hindutva ideology was enunciated first by Savarkar in his seminal work 'Hindutva'. 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 1990's and the first decade of the 21st century, evident in the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the same period. One of their short term aims is to build a temple to Rama at the site of the controversial Babri mosque (destroyed by some Hindutva activists in 1992) in Ayodhya. Many believe that Lord Rama was born at the site, and that a Vaishnavite temple was constructed there to commemorate the birthplace. Some historians and Hindutva activists claim that the Mughal commander Mir Baki destroyed the temple and built the Babri mosque, in his alleged frenzy of iconoclasm. However, the destruction of the temple is also attributed to the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.
Hindu temples inherited rich and ancient rituals and customs, and have occupied a special place in Hindu society. They are usually dedicated to a primary deity, called the presiding deity, and other subordinate deities associated with the main deity. However, some mandirs are dedicated to multiple deities. Most major temples are constructed as per the agama shastras and many are sites of pilgrimage. For many Hindus, the four Shankaracharyas (the abbots of the monasteries of Joshimath, Puri, Sringeri and Dwarka — four of the holiest pilgrimage centers — sometimes to which a fifth at Kanchi is also added) are viewed as the four highest Patriarchs of the Hindudom.
Temples are a place for darshan (vision of the divine), puja, meditation, and religious congregation (though not so regular and often as among the Muslims and the Christians) among other religious activities. Puja or worship, frequently uses the aid of a murti (statue in which divine presence is invoked) in conjunction with the singing or chanting of meditational prayer in the form of mantras. Devotional songs called bhajans (written primarily from the 14th-17th centuries), kirtan (devotional songs), and arti 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 communion. This form of icon and temple worship, puja, is integral to the Bhakti cult.
Most Hindu homes also have a specific area devoted to daily worship of the deities with religious icons and meditation.
Current geographic distribution
Of the total Hindu population of the world, about 94% (890 million) live in India. Significant numbers of Hindus reside in Bali, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Fiji, Guyana, Nepal, Mauritius, Suriname, Singapore and Trinidad and Tobago. In Nepal and Bali, Hinduism is the major religion, and is still reflected in the traditional culture and architecture. There are also sizeable Hindu populations in Sri Lanka (3 million), Pakistan (2.5 million), Malaysia (1.5 million), United States (1.5 million), South Africa (1.1 million) the Middle East (1 million) and the United Kingdom (1 million).
Hindu philosophy: the six Vedic schools of thought
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 enrich Hinduism today are Purva Mimamsa, Yoga, and Vedanta. See Hindu philosophy for a discussion of the historical significance of Samkhya, Nyaya, and Vaisheshika.
The main objective of Purva ("earlier") Mimamsa school (also simply called Mimamsa) was to firmly establish the authority of the Vedas. Consequently, this school's most valuable contribution to Hinduism was its formulation of the rules of interpretation of Vedas. Its adherents believed that true knowledge is self-evidently proven, and tried to find out the basis of the Vedic ritualism through reasoning. This school of thought forms the basis of Modern Hindu ritualism (strictly followed only by a minority), which believes in the inherent power of rituals.
Yoga means union and is generally interpreted as union with the Divine, or integration of body, mind, and spirit. Its goals are moksha or samadhi. It, like the Upanishads, seeks liberation through the disunion of the spirit (Purusha) and the nature (Prakriti), through meditational, physical and spiritual practices, along with a firm belief in God (Ishvara).
Upanishads, sage Patanjali's Yoga Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita are indispensable literature in the study of Yoga and elaborate on Raja Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga and Gyana Yoga. Of these, the Yoga Sutra is essentially a compilation and systematization of meditational Yoga philosophy.
Uttara Mimamsa: Vedanta and its three main schools
The Uttara ("later") Mimamsa school, also called as Vedanta, is the central pillar of Hinduism and was responsible for a new wave of philosophical and meditative enquiry, renewal and revival of Hinduism, and established strong philosophical foundation. Primarily associated with the Upanishads and their commentaries by Badarayana — the Vedanta Sutras, Vedanta thought, according to the pre-Shankaran Buddhist sources (Aryadeva, Kamalashila, Bhavya) monotheistic, later split into three principal (and three other) 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 unity of the whole God.The great debate between followers the major Hindu philosophical school, Advaita and the schools such as those of Ramanuja and Madhva, focused on the true nature of Brahman, on whether Brahman was essentially monistic, qualified non-dualistic or dualistic in nature. The world famous sect of ISKCON, worshipping Krishna, follows the Vedantic philosophy of Acintya Bhedabheda by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
Pure monism: Advaita Vedanta
Advaita literally means "not two"; thus this is what we refer to as a monistic (or non-dualistic) philosophy, which emphasizes the oneness of the Divine. Its proponent was Adi Sankara (788?-820?). Sankara expounded his theories largely based on previous teachings of the Upanishads and his own guru Govinda Bhagavadpada. By the analysis of Vedas, he proposed the relative nature of the Universe and established the non-dual nature of Brahman in which Atman (the individual soul) and Brahman (the Ultimate Reality) are identified to be identical. Reality is categorised into three levels: Transcendental, Pragmatic and Apparent. As compared to the Brahman which is the Supreme Reality, everything else, including the universe, the individuals and even Ishvara are not true. The universe, the individuals and Ishvara are true only in the Pragmatic level.
To Advaitists (nondualists) Ultimate Reality is best expressed as Nirguna Brahman, or God without form, or God without physical attributes; indeed, some might go so far as to say it is not 'God' but something beyond - the Godhead. 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 (Ishvara) such as Vishnu or Shiva or the Mother Goddess are different aspects of Nirguna Brahman in physical form, or God with attributes, Saguna Brahman. In fact, when a being tries to know the Supreme Spirit (Brahman) through his mind, Brahman becomes the Supreme Lord (Ishvara), under the effect of an illusionary power of Brahman called Maya. The material universe and the appearance of the single Atman to be seen as innumerable individual souls are also because of Maya. True knowledge of the Brahman (Jñana) is the only way to liberation; however, good Karma and Bhakti are recognized as great help in attaining true knowledge. Adi Sankara had also condemned the caste system.
Qualified monism: Vishistadvaita Bhakti
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: Ishvara (Vishnu), chit (soul) and achit (matter). Vishnu is the only independent reality, while souls and matter are dependent on God Vishnu for their existence. Because of this qualification of Ultimate reality, Ramanuja's system is known as qualified non-dualism. Karma along with Bhakti for is the true path for liberation.
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. Bhakti is the only way for liberation.
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 devotion of God as the beloved Father, Mother, Child, or whatever relationship finds appeal in the devotee's heart. The philosophy of Bhakti seeks to relate to the personal form of God. Seen as a form of Yoga, or union, it seeks to interlink the self with God, since consciousness of the body and limited mind as self is seen to be a limiting 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 devotion of God. The Bhakti movements rejuvenated Hinduism through their intense expression of devotion 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, one eschewing elaborate rituals.
Tantra is one of the least understood areas of Hinduism — often perceived as free sex associated with religion. A tantra literally means an act. A mantra is a hymn or sacred words associated with a deity. A mantra is associated with an Yantra, which is a mystical diagram. All acts of worship which include Mantras, Yantras are called Tantras.
Tantras can be divided into two paths - The right hand path (also known as samayachara or Dakshinachara) and the Left hand path (Vamachara).
Extolled as a short-cut to self-realization and spiritual enlightenment by some, left-hand tantric rites are often rejected as dangerous by most orthodox Hindus.
The word "tantra" also means "treatise" or "continuum", and is applied to a variety of mystical, occult, medical and scientific works as well as those regarded as "tantric". Most tantras were written in the Middle Ages and sprang from Hindu cosmology and Yoga.
Important themes and symbols in Hinduism
Tilaka (symbol on forehead or between eyebrows)
The tilaka (or tilak) is a tattoo worn on the forehead and other parts of the body for spiritual reasons. It is believed to symbolize the need to cultivate supramental consciousness, which is achieved by opening the mystic third eye. Although traditionally adorned, in one form or the other, by Brahmins (to denote the priestly class in Hindu society) and married women (to denote marriage and auspiciousness), in the modern context, it is most commonly seen as a decorative dot (or Bindi) worn by women on the forehead.
Hindus stress meditation to acquire knowledge beyond the mind and body, a trait that is often associated with the ascetic deity Shiva. 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).
Ahimsa (non-violence), vegetarian diet and the cow
Ahimsa is a concept that advocates non-violence and a respect for all forms of life — human as well as animal. The term ahimsa first appears in the Upanishads, and is the first of the five Yamas, or eternal vows/restraints in Raja Yoga.
A large section of Hindus embrace vegetarianism in a bid to respect higher forms of life. While vegetarianism is not a dogma or requirement, it is recommended as a sattwic (purifying) lifestyle. About 30% of today's Hindu population, especially in orthodox communities in South India, states like Gujarat, which has had significant Jain influence, and in many Brahmin and Marwari enclaves around the subcontinent, are lacto-vegetarian. Some avoid even onion and garlic, as they are regarded as rajasic/tamasic.
Those Hindus who do eat meat (usually chicken, goat and fish) predominantly abstain from beef. Some even avoid the use of cow's leather products. This is possibly because the largely pastoral Vedic people, and subsequent generations, relied so heavily on the cow for milk and dairy products, tilling of fields and fuel for fertilizer, that its status as a 'caretaker' led to identifying it as an almost maternal figure (hence the term gau mata, or Cow Mother). While most Hindus do not actually worship the cow (though many venerate her), it still holds an honored place in Hindu society — as the best representative of the benevolence of all animals on man. It is believed 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 (usually followed even by meat-eating Hindus on religious days) and the sacred nature of the cow, most of the Hindu holy cities have a ban on selling beef — and a legal ban exists on cow-slaughter in almost all states of India.
Among the most revered symbols in Hinduism, three are quintessentially a part of its culture, and representative of its general ethos:
Aum (or Om, ॐ) is the sacred symbol of Hinduism, and is prefixed and sometimes suffixed to all Hindu mantras and prayers. It contains a deep symbolic message of the divine primordial vibration of the Universe, representing all existence, encompassing all of nature into the One Ultimate Reality. This symbol is commonly found on necklaces worn by Hindus.
Swastika (卐) is an Arya, or noble and auspicious 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, the four Vedas and their harmonious whole. It has been used predominantly in Hinduism since the early Vedic culture, and is still widespread in the Indian subcontinent. Many other cultures continue to hold it as auspicious, in spite of the recent association with Nazism, which used a modified version of this symbol.
The Mandala of the hexagram, somewhat resembling the Star of David, is an archetypal symbol for the sacred union of opposite energies. Formed by the intertwining of the "fire" and "water" triangles (the male "blade" and the female "chalice") this symbol represents the masculine and feminine principles in perfect union. In India the symbol represents the "cosmic dance" of Shiva and Shakti. The Star symbol has been found on temples in India from almost 10,000 years ago. In addition to the balance between man and woman, the Star symbolizes the Nara-Narayana, or perfect meditative balancing state achieved between Man and God, and if maintained, results in "Moksha", or "Nirvana", i.e., release from the bounds of the earthly world and its material trappings.
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. The philosophy of Bhakti seeks contact with the personal source of Brahman, which explains the proliferation of so many Gods and Goddesses (sic) in India, often reflecting the singular inclinations of small regions or groups of people.
Worship of God is often represented symbolically through the aid of icons (murti) which are conduits for the devotee's consciousness, markers for the human mind that signify the ineffable and illimitable nature of the power and grandeur of God. They are symbols of the greater principle and according to the understanding of the worshipper, the concept or entity is sometimes presumed to be present in them (in monotheistic doctrines) and sometimes not (in monistic doctrines).
In a Hindu Temple, the divine spirit/energy is commonly invoked into the Murtis at the time of their consecration. Veneration of such Murtis is done everyday in a temple. Most practicing Hindus also maintain a Puja room like a temple in their homes for worship and meditation. The icons could be two-dimensional paintings or three-dimensional statues. It bears mention that Shiva is almost always worshipped as a pillar-like stone called Lingam. Some interpret the term lingam as a Phallus due to its shape and certain Puranic stories, but actually, this Sanskrit word means any sign, symbol, mark or badge in general. Others interpret it as a mystic column (stambha) trying to represent the infiniteness of Shiva.
Some of deities worshipped are Vishnu (as Krishna or Rama), Swaminarayan, Shiva, Devi (the Mother as many female deities, such as Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kali and Durga), Ganesha, Agni, Skanda and Hanuman. Also, the Puranas list twenty-five avatars of Vishnu : Caturasana, Narad, Varaha, Matsya, Yajna, Nara-Narayana, Kapila, Dattatreya, Hayasirsa, Hamsa, Prsnigarbha, Rsabha, Prithu, Narasimha , Kurma, Dhanvantari, Mohini, Vamana, Parasurama, Raghavendra, Vyasa, Balarama, Krishna and Kalki.
Sanskrit is mostly used as a ceremonial language in Hindu religious rituals in the forms of hymns and mantras. Its pre-classical form of Vedic Sanskrit, the liturgical language of the Vedic religion, is one of the earliest attested members of the Indo-European language family, its most archaic text being the Rig Veda.
Reciting mantras or incantations is a general practice in Hindu rituals. Many mantras are from the Vedas. Much of mantra yoga, as it is called, is done through japa (repetition, usually through a rosary). Mantras are chanted, 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: "Hé Ram!"'.
It is considered one of the most sacred 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) while chanting this mantra.
Hinduism has also been viewed as polytheistic and promoting idol worship. It is to be noted that the term, "Hinduism" itself is an amorphous concept. Only an Advaitan or a follower of Advaita philosophy, such as Smartas believe that multiple forms of God are equivalent. For example, a Vaishnavite considers Vishnu to be the supreme God and Saivites consider Siva respectively as the supreme God. The Hindu counter argument is that Hinduism, specifically Smarta or Advaitan Hinduism is not polytheistic, though it may present an appearance of being so to external observers not familiar with its philosophy. Monism or Monistic Theism is generally more apt definition of the Hindu worldview, with the exception of Dvaita, or dualism. The existence of numerous human forms and idols of God is an implied principle in Hindu thought. Each human form or idol is associated with an important fable, and these representations help people remember and contemplate over them more easily. Rather, criticized idol worship is in actuality veneration of an icon, where an icon is used to focus on God, rather than being the object of worship itself.
Hinduism, specifically, Smarta/Advaitan Hinduism has been viewed as a tolerant religion because it does not subscribe to similar ideas of false God or idolatry because this branch of Hinduism is not fixed on one concept of God. However, the other branches of Hinduism, although they are fixed on one concept of God, (i.e., Vaishnavism,) for example, they adhere to the Vedic principle: "Truth is one, the wise call by different names." Many outsiders view the Hindu "gods and goddesses" and mythology as only sexuality and violence — which consequently makes the Hindu deities appear immoral. Hindus strongly condemn such interpretations, most of which, according to them, is not only a shallow analysis of the Hindu religion but also willfull and gross misinterpretation of Hindu iconography and mythology.
Related systems and religions
Topics in Hinduism
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