Hinduism is the world's third most popular religion, with around 900 million followers. Those who follow this faith are known as Hindus. About 80% of the population of India regard themselves as Hindus. Hinduism is the fourth most popular religion in Britain with around 400,000 followers.
- Hinduism is over 3000 years old, although elements of the faith are much older.
- No founder, single teacher, nor prophets.
- Not a single unified religion.
- Originated near the river Indus. Hindus believe in a universal soul or God called Brahman.
- There are many other deities such as Krishna, Shiva, Rama and Durga.
- Hindus believe that existence is a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, governed by Karma.
God or gods?
Contrary to popular understanding, Hindus recognise one God, Brahman, the eternal origin who is the cause and foundation of all existence. The gods of the Hindu faith represent different expressions of Brahman. Different Hindu communities may have their own divinities whom they worship, but these are simply different ways of approaching the Ultimate. Hindus recognise three principal gods:
Brahma is the Creator. However, Brahma is not worshipped in the same way as other gods because it is believed that his work — that of creation — has been done. Hindus worship other expressions of Brahman (not Brahma), which take a variety of forms. Hindus are often classified into three groups according to which form of Brahman they worship:
- Those who worship Vishnu (the preserver) and
- Vishnu‘s important incarnations Rama, Krishna and Narasimha;
- Those who worship Shiva (the destroyer)
- Those who worship the Mother Goddess, Shakti, also called Parvati, Mahalakshmi, Durga or Kali.
Vishnu, the preserver is believed to be linked to a very early sun god and is considered by his worshippers to be the greatest among the gods. He is also referred to as Narayana. Vishnu preserves and protects the universe and has appeared on the earth through his avatars (incarnations) to save humankind from natural disasters or from tyranny. The most well-known avatars are Rama (see Ramayana), Krishna, who destroyed the wicked and established a new order, Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, and Kalki. Vishnu is represented in sculpture and painting in human form, often painted blue. Lakshmi is the consort of Vishnu who has appeared as the wife of each of Vishnu’s incarnations including Sita, wife of Prince Rama, and Rukmini, wife of Krishna. She is the goddess of wealth and good fortune who is offered special worship during the Divali festival.
The god Shiva is part of the Hindu Trinity, along with Vishnu and Brahma. He is considered to be everything by those who worship him: creator, preserver and destroyer. In Shiva, the opposites meet. Shiva the destroyer is a necessary part of the trinity because, without destruction, there can be no recreation. His city is Varanasi, and any Hindu who dies there is believed to go straight to heaven. Shiva is the source of both good and evil who combines many contradictory elements. In pictures and sculptures, Shiva is represented as Lord of the Dance who controls the movement of the universe. He is also associated with fertility. Shiva has many consorts including Kali, often portrayed as wild and violent, Parvati, reknowned for her gentleness, and Durga, a powerful goddess created from the combined forces of the anger of several gods.
The Great Goddess (Mahadevi)
The great Goddess appears as a consort of the principal male gods and encompasses the thousands of local goddesses or matas. These can be both beautiful and benign, like Lakshmi, or all-powerful destructive forces like Kali. Great Goddess shrines are associated with agriculture and fertility and the female energy, or shakti, is important in ancient texts known collectively as the Tantras. Shakti is contrasted with Shiva, whose masculine consciousness is powerless without the creative female energy.
Other Vedic gods
Indra, the god of storms was once the Vedic king of all gods but has, over time, lost some influence. Indra's main function is in leading the warriors. Indra fights not only human enemies, but also demons. Agni is the Vedic god of fire and is one of the supreme gods of the Rig Veda. Agni is believed to take the offerings to the other world through fire. Agni is represented by the ram. Varuna is the third Vedic god whose influence persists today. Varuna presides over the orderliness of the universe. Varuna rules over the night sky. Varuna is believed to know everything. Varuna is the god of truth and moral judgements. Varuna knows the secrets of all hearts.
These are the most ancient religious texts which define truth for Hindus. They got their present form between 1200-200 BCE and were introduced to India by the Aryans. Hindus believe that the texts were received by scholars direct from God and passed on to the next generations by word of mouth. Vedic texts are sometimes called shruti, which means hearing and for hundreds, maybe even thousands of years, the texts were passed on orally.
Contents of the Vedas
The Vedas are made up of four compositions, and each veda in turn has four parts which are arranged chronologically.
- The Samhitas are the most ancient part of the Vedas, consisting of hymns of praise to God.
- The Brahmanas are rituals and prayers to guide the priests in their duties.
- The Aranyakas concern worship and meditation.
- The Upanishads consist of the mystical and philosophical teachings of Hinduism.
- Rig-Veda Samhita (c. 1200 BCE) is the oldest of the four vedas and consists of 1028 hymns praising the ancient gods.
- Yajur-Veda Samhita is used as a handbook by priests performing the vedic sacrifices.
- Sama-Veda Samhita consists of chants and tunes for singing at the sacrifices.
- Atharva-Veda Samhita (c. 900 BCE) preserves many traditions which pre-date the Aryan influence and consists of spells, charms and magical formulae.
The Upanishads were so called because they were taught to those who sat down beside their teachers. (upa=near, ni=down, shad=sit). These texts developed from the Vedic tradition, but largely reshaped Hinduism by providing believers with philosophical knowledge. The major Upanishads were largely composed between 800-200 BCE and are partly prose, partly verse. Later Upanishads continued to be composed right down to the 16th century. Originally they were in oral form. The early Upanishads are concerned with understanding the sacrificial rites. Central to the Upanishads is the concept of brahman; the sacred power which informs reality. Whilst the priests (brahmins) had previously been the ones who, through ritual and sacrifice, had restricted access to the divine, now the knowledge of the universe was open to those of the high and middle castes willing to learn from a teacher.
The Bhagavad Gita, or "Song of the Lord" is part of the sixth book of the Mahabharata, the world's longest poem. Composed between 500 BCE and 100 CE, the Mahabharata is an account of the wars of the house of Bharata. It is one of the most popular Hindu texts and is known as a smriti text (the remembered tradition). This is considered by some to be of less importance than shruti (the heard text, such as the Vedas). It has, nevertheless, an important place within the Hindu tradition. The Bhagavad Gita takes the form of a dialogue between prince Arjuna and Krishna, his charioteer, an incarnation of the supreme God, Vishnu. Arjuna is a warrior, about to join his brothers in a war between two branches of a royal family which would involve killing many of his friends and relatives. He wants to withdraw from the battle but Krishna teaches him that he, Arjuna, must do his duty in accordance with his class and he argues that death does not destroy the soul. Krishna points out that knowledge, work and devotion are all paths to salvation and that the central value in life is that of loyalty to God.
Compoased in the same period, the Ramayana is one of India’s best known tales. It tells the story of Prince Rama who was sent into exile in the forest with his wife, Sita, and his brother, Lakshamana. Sita was abducted by the evil demon Ravana but ultimately rescued by Prince Rama with the help of the Monkey God, Hanuman. The story is written in 24,000 couplets. The symbolism of the story has been widely interpreted but basically is the story of good overcoming evil. Many people have said that it is a story about dharma or duty.
Hindu worship, or puja, involves images (murtis), prayers (mantras) and diagrams of the universe (yantras). Central to Hindu worship is the image, or icon which can be worshipped either at home or in the temple.
Individual Rather than Communal
Hindu worship is primarily an individual act rather than a communal one, as it involves making personal offerings to the deity. Worshippers repeat the names of their favourite gods and goddesses, and repeat mantras. Water, fruit, flowers and incense are offered to god.
Worship at Home
The majority of Hindu homes have a shrine where offerings are made and prayers are said. A shrine can be anything from a room, a small altar or simply pictures or statues of the deity. Family members often worship together. Rituals should strictly speaking be performed three times a day. Some Hindus, but not all, worship wearing the sacred thread (over the left shoulder and hanging to the right hip). This is cotton for the Brahmin (priest), hemp for the Kshatriya (ruler) and wool for the vaishya (merchants).
At a Hindu temple, different parts of the building have a different spiritual or symbolic meaning. The central shrine is the heart of the worshipper. The tower represents the flight of the spirit to heaven. A priest may read, or more usually recite, the Vedas to the assembled worshippers, but any "twice-born" Hindu can perform the reading of prayers and mantras.
Hindu religious rites are classified into three categories:
Nitya rituals are performed daily and consist in offerings made at the home shrine or performing puja to the family deities. Naimittika rituals are important but only occur at certain times during the year, such as celebrations of the festivals, thanksgiving and so on. Kamya are rituals which are "optional" but highly desirable. Pilgrimage is one such.
Worship and Pilgrimage
Pilgrimage is an important aspect of Hinduism. It's an undertaking to see and be seen by the deity. Popular pilgrimage places are rivers, but temples, mountains, and other sacred sites in India are also destinations for pilgrimages, as sites where the gods may have appeared or become manifest in the world.
Once every 12 years, up to 10 million people share in ritual bathing at the Kumbh Mela festival at Allahabad where the waters of the Ganges and Jumna combine. Hindus from all walks of life gather there for ritual bathing, believing that their sins will be washed away. The bathing is followed by spiritual purification and a ceremony which secures the blessings of the deity.
This city, also known as Benares, is one of the most important pilgrimage centers. It is said to be the home of Lord Shiva where legend has it that his fiery light broke through the earth to reach the heavens. Hindu who dies at Varanasi and has their ashes scattered on the Ganges is said to have experienced the best death possible.
The river Ganges is the holiest river for Hindus and Varanasi is situated on its banks.
Hinduism Through the Ages:
Hinduism has a long and complex history. It is a blend of ancient legends, beliefs and customs which has adapted, blended with, and spawned numerous creeds and practices.
Prehistoric religion: (3000-1000 BCE):
The earliest evidence for elements of the Hindu faith date back as far as 3000 BCE. Archaeological excavations in the Punjab and Indus valleys (right) have revealed the existence of urban cultures at Harappa, the prehistoric capital of the Punjab (located in modern Pakistan); and Mohenjo-daro on the banks of the River Indus. Archaeological work continues on other sites at Kalibangan, Lothal and Surkotada. The excavations have revealed signs of early rituals and worship. In Mohenjodaro, for example, a large bath has been found, with side rooms and statues which could be evidence of early purification rites. Elsewhere, phallic symbols and a large number statues of goddesses have been discovered which could suggest the practice of early fertility rites. This early Indian culture is sometimes called the Indus Valley civilisation.
Pre-classical (Vedic): (2000 BCE - 1000):
Some time in the second millennium BCE the Aryan people arrived in north-west India. The Aryans (Aryan means noble) were a nomadic people who may have come to India from the areas around southern Russia and the Baltic. They brought with them their language and their religious traditions. These both influenced and were influenced by the religious practices of the peoples who were already living in India.
- The Indus valley communities used to gather at rivers for their religious rituals.
- The Aryans gathered around fire for their rituals.
- The Indus valley communities regarded rivers as sacred, and had both male and female gods.
- The Aryan gods represented the forces of nature; the sun, the moon, fire, storm and so on.
Over time, the different religious practices tended to blend together. Sacrifices were made to gods such as Agni, the God of Fire, and Indra, the God of storms.
Aspects of the Aryan faith began to be written down around 800 BCE in literature known as the Vedas. These developed from their oral and poetic traditions. You can see some of the Vedic tradition in Hindu worship today.
The Caste System
The Aryans also introduced the varna system (varna = estates or classes) to India, which may have contributed to the caste system we see today. Some think that it developed from a simpler two-tier structure consisting of nobles at the top, and everyone else below. Others say that it was established and practised by the priests who divided society into three parts:
- The priests (or Brahmins).
- The warriors (the Kshatriyas).
- The ordinary people.
The rise of Jainism and Buddhism: (800-600 BCE):
Buddhism and Jainism emerged from India around 800-600 BCE, a period of great cultural, intellectual and spiritual development and both had an enormous influence on Hinduism. Some of the previously accepted truths of the religion were beginning to be questioned and the religious leaders were being asked to defend their views and teachings. Furthermore, the old tribal structure of society was diminishing. The result was an increasing number of breakaway sects, of which Buddhism and Jainism were probably the most successful.
Buddha was born in the sixth century BCE as Gautama Siddhartha. He was a member of the powerful warrior class. He renounced the pleasures and materialism of this world to search for the truth. Through this quest he developed his basic principles for living. Buddhism became the state religion of India in the third century BCE. Buddhism had a great influence on Hinduism, from the way it used parables and stories as a means of religious instruction, to its influence on Indian art, sculpture and education.
The founder of the Jains, Mahavira ("the great hero"), was a near contemporary of the Buddha’s and he rejected the caste system, along with the Hindu belief in the cycle of births. Mahavira was the twenty fourth of the Tirthankaras, the "Path-makers", or great teachers of Jainism. They developed the concept of three ways, or "jewels" - right faith, right knowledge and right conduct. The Jains were never a numerically large group but their influence was out of all proportion to their size and distribution. Mahatma Gandhi, whilst himself not a Jain, embraced their doctrine of non-violence to living things.
The End of the Era
During the last centuries of the previous era, the Mauryan empire ruled much of India. The most famous ruler, Asoka, although a Buddhist himself, thought that the Brahman religion was worthy of respect. Brahmanism revived with the end of Mauryan rule, and at the same time devotion to individual gods, such as Vishnu and Siva, began to grow. Some of the early Hindu images date from this period.
The Start of the Current Era:
The first 400 years CE were a time of upheaval in the Hindu heartland. A variety of invaders ruled the area, bringing injections of their own cultures and beliefs. Hinduism strengthened, and the cults of individual gods grew stronger. Goddesses, too, began to attract followers.
The Rise of "Hinduism"
The years to 1000 CE saw Hinduism gaining strength at the expense of Buddhism. Some Hindu rulers took military action to suppress Buddhism. However it was probably developments in Hinduism itself that helped the faith to grow. Hinduism now included not only the appeal of devotion to a personal god, but had seen the development of its emotional side with the composition and singing of poems and songs. This made Hinduism an intelligible and satisfying road to faith to many ordinary worshippers.
The Arrival of Islam
Islam arrived in the Ganges basin in the 7th century, but its influence was not really felt until the Turks arrived in the 11th and 12th centuries CE. Islam and Hinduism were in conflict because, although the mystical traditions of both religions had some common ground, Muslim rulers sought to conquer Hindu territories and, from the 17th century, to assert the superiority of Islam. Islam was established — and flourished — chiefly in areas where Buddhism was in a process of slow decline, that is mainly around modern-day Pakistan, Bangladesh and Kashmir. Hinduism remained strongest in the south of India.
Hinduism as it is known and recognised today has been greatly affected by the influence of western thought and practices. In the 18th and 19th centuries, missionaries from Europe attempted to convert Hindus to Christianity with varying degrees of success. This challenged Hindu leaders to reform many practices and in some cases, revive old practices. This period has been recognised as a period of Hindu revivalism.
An early leader in this field was Rammohan Roy (1772-1833), a scholar who spoke Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Sanskrit alongside his native Bengali. He read most of the religious scriptures from around the world and discovered that there was little difference between them. In 1828, he founded the Brahmo Samaj, based on the teachings of the Upanishads. Whilst he based much of his work on the teachings of the Upanishads, his social outlook was progressive and he was keen to develop education and particularly the establishment of western sciences into Indian culture. Rammohan Roy died in Bristol of meningitis while on a visit to Europe. There is a statue of him at College Green in Bristol.
Another school of Hinduism developed under the influence of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836-86) who put much greater emphasis on devotion to God. He combined the trend of popular Hinduism with its many images with a belief in a loveable Almighty God, for he could see God in many forms. He preached without a complicated theology and without an over-reliance on the scriptures. It was a pluralist approach to Hinduism which helped it to find its feet in the modern world.
The work of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa was continued and extended by Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) who, after 12 years of ascetic study and discipline, was responsible for promoting the Hindu tradition and thought in the west. He taught that the divine is in everything and promoted the Ramakrishna Mission which is well known for its social work as well as being a focus for Hindu religious thought.
International Society for Krishna Consciousness
More often known as the Hare Krishnas, the movement is often recognised as the western face of Hinduism. Its origins can be traced back to Chaitanya, a fifteenth century devotee of Krishna, who chanted devotional songs to Krishna. His teachings were promoted in the 20th century by Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, who had a vision of taking the message of Chaitanya to the west shortly before his death in 1936. This work was taken up by Prabhupada who took that message to the United States and eventually established bases around the world to promote those teachings.
The Aryan Invasion Theory (Proved Wrong)
One of the most controversial ideas about Hindu history is the Aryan invasion theory. This theory, originally devised by F. Max Muller in 1848, traces the history of Hinduism to the invasion of India's indigenous people by lighter skinned Aryans around 1500 BCE. The theory was reinforced by other research over the next 120 years, and became the accepted history of Hinduism, not only in the West but in India. There is now ample evidence to show that Muller, and those who followed him, were wrong.
Why is the theory no longer accepted?
The Aryan invasion theory was based on archaeological, linguistic and ethnological evidence. Later research has either discredited this evidence, or provided new evidence that combined with the earlier evidence makes other explanations more likely. Modern historians of the area no longer believe that such invasions had such great influence on Indian history. It's now generally accepted that Indian history shows a continuity of progress from the earliest times to today. The changes brought to India by other cultures are not denied by modern historians, but they are no longer thought to be a major ingredient in the development of Hinduism.
Dangers of the theory
The Aryan invasion theory denies the Indian origin of India's predominant culture, but gives the credit for Indian culture to invaders from elsewhere. It even teaches that some of the most revered books of Hindu scripture are not actually Indian, and it devalues India's culture by portraying it as less ancient than it actually is. The theory was not just wrong, it included unacceptably racist ideas:
- it suggested that Indian culture was not a culture in its own right, but a synthesis of elements from other cultures
- it implied that Hinduism was not an authentically Indian religion but the result of cultural imperialism
- it suggested that Indian culture was static, and only changed under outside influences
- it suggested that the dark-skinned Dravidian people of the South of India had got their faith from light-skinned Aryan invaders
- it implied that indigenous people were incapable of creatively developing their faith
- it suggested that indigenous peoples could only acquire new religious and cultural ideas from other races, by invasion or other processes
- it accepted that race was a biologically based concept (rather than, at least in part, a social construct) that provided a sensible way of ranking people in a hierarchy, which provided a partial basis for the caste system
- it provided a basis for racism in the Imperial context by suggesting that the peoples of Northern India were descended from invaders from Europe and so racially closer to the British Raj
- it gave a historical precedent to justify the role and status of the British Raj, who could argue that they were transforming India for the better in the same way that the Aryans had done thousands of years earlier
- it downgraded the intellectual status of India and its people by giving a falsely late date to elements of Indian science and culture
Adapted from: BBC Online