Hinduism Overview

Origin & Meaning-

Some of the available resources  on Hinduism are given below

– Wikipedia – Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion. It is an Indian religion and dharma, or way of life, widely practised in the Indian subcontinent and parts of Southeast Asia. Hinduism has been called the oldest religion in the world, and some practitioners and scholars refer to it as Sanātana Dharma, “the eternal tradition”, or the “eternal way”, beyond human history. Scholars regard Hinduism as a fusion or synthesis of various Indian cultures and traditions, with diverse roots and no founder. This “Hindu synthesis” started to develop between 500 BCE and 300 CE, after the end of the Vedic period (1500 to 500 BCE) and flourished in the medieval period, with the decline of Buddhism in India.

– Dr. Gavin Dennis Flood – A distinguished British scholar of comparative religion has written very well received academic books on Hinduism. In his book Introduction to Hinduism he writes “ The origins of Hinduism lay in the ancient cultures of the Indus valley civilization and Aryan culture. The Dravidian Indus valley culture and the Aryan Vedic culture both contribute to the formation of Hindu traditions. Hindu civilization can be seen as a product of the complex interaction between the Dravidian and Aryan cultural spheres.

B.B.C. website Part of   Religious Education –   Hinduism is over 4,000 years old, making it one of the world’s oldest religions. It is made up of a variety of different religious beliefs and practices. It originated near the Indus River in India. The name ‘Hindu’ comes from the word Indus.

Learningreligions.com – According to historians, the origin of Hinduism dates back to 5,000 years or more.  The term Hinduism as a religious label refers to the indigenous religious philosophy of the peoples living in modern day India and the rest of the Indian subcontinent. It is a synthesis of many spiritual traditions of the region and does not have a clearly defined set of beliefs in the same way that other religions do.

– History.com – Most scholars believe Hinduism started somewhere between 2300 B.C. and 1500 B.C. in the Indus Valley, near modern-day Pakistan. Around 1500 B.C., the Indo-Aryan people migrated to the Indus Valley, and their language and culture blended with that of the indigenous people living in the region. The period when the Vedas were composed became known as the “Vedic Period” and lasted from about 1500 B.C. to 500 B.C. Rituals, such as sacrifices and chanting, were common in the Vedic Period. The Epic, Puranic and Classic Periods took place between 500 B.C. and 500 A.D. Hindus began to emphasize the worship of deities, especially Vishnu, Shiva and Devi.

– V.D.Savarkar – Hindutva at times  is mistaken to be by being confounded with the term Hinduism.   Hinduism is only a derivative, a fraction, a part of Hindutva.  Unless it is made clear what is meant by the latter the first remains unintelligible and vague.  Failure to distinguish between these two terms has given rise to much misunderstanding and mutual suspicion between some of those sister communities that have inherited this inestimable and common treasure of our Hindu civilization.  Hindutva is not identical with what is vaguely indicated by the term Hinduism.  By an ‘ism’ it is generally meant a theory or a code more or less based on spiritual or religious dogma or creed.

Timeline: Early History of Hinduism

Generally accepted timeline of Hinduism is as given below –

  • 3000-1600 BCE: The earliest of Hindu practices form their roots with the rise of the Indus Valley civilization in northern Indian sub-continent around 2500 BCE.
  • 1600-1200 BCE: The Aryans are said to invade southern Asia in about 1600 BCE, which would have a lasting influence on Hinduism.
  • 1500-1200 BCE: The earliest Vedas, the oldest of all written scriptures, are compiled about 1500 BCE.
  • 1200-900 BCE: The early Vedic period, during which the main tenets of Hinduism were developed. The earliest Upanishads were written about 1200 BCE.
  • 900-600 BCE: The late Vedic period, during which the Brahminical religion, which emphasized ritual worship and social obligations, came into being. During this time, the latter Upanishads are believed to have emerged, giving birth to concepts of karma, reincarnation and moksha (release from Samsara).
  • 500 BCE-1000 CE: The Puranas were written during this time giving rise to the concepts of deities such as the trinity of BrahmaVishnuShiva, and their female forms or Devis. The germ of the great epics of the Ramayana & Mahabharata started to form during this time.
  • 5th century BCE: Buddhism and Jainism become established religious offshoots of Hinduism in India.
  • 4th century BCE: Alexander invades western India; Mauryan dynasty founded by Chandragupta Maurya; Composition of Artha Shastra.
  • 3rd century BCE: Ashoka, the Great conquers most of South Asia. Some scholars believe the Bhagavad Gita may have been written in this early period.
  • 2nd century BCE: Sunga dynasty founded.

Definitions-

Some of the available definitions of the term Hinduism are as given below

Indian Law :- The definition of Hinduism in Indian Law is: “Acceptance of the Vedas with reverence; recognition of the fact that the means or ways to salvation are diverse; and realization of the truth that the number of gods to be worshipped is large”.

Wikipedia :- Hinduism includes a diversity of ideas on spirituality and traditions, but has no ecclesiastical order, no unquestionable religious authorities, no governing body, no prophet(s) nor any binding holy book; Hindus can choose to be polytheisticpantheisticpanentheisticpandeistichenotheisticmonotheisticmonisticagnosticatheistic or humanist Ideas about all the major issues of faith and lifestyle including: vegetarianism, nonviolence, belief in rebirth, even caste, are subjects of debate, not dogma.

Because of the wide range of traditions and ideas covered by the term Hinduism, arriving at a comprehensive definition is difficult. The religion “defies our desire to define and categorize it”. Hinduism has been variously defined as a religion, a religious tradition, a set of religious beliefs, and “a way of life”. From a Western lexical standpoint, Hinduism like other faiths is appropriately referred to as a religion. In India the term dharma is preferred, which is broader than the Western term religion.

Supreme Court of India –

In 1966, the Chief Justice Gajendragadkar wrote for the Supreme Court of India in Yagnapurushdasji (AIR 1966 SC 1127), that “Hinduism is impossible to define”. The court adopted Radhakrishnan’s submission that Hinduism is complex and “the theist and atheist, the skeptic and agnostic, may all be Hindus if they accept the Hindu system of culture and life”. The Court judged that Hinduism historically has had an “inclusive nature” and it may “broadly be described as a way of life and nothing more”.

In another case Supreme Court observed  “Drawing primarily from English language sources, the Court put forward the view that Hinduism was “impossible” to define [quoting from the case file Yagnapurushdasji at 1121–1128]: “When we think of the Hindu religion, we find it difficult, if not impossible, to define Hindu religion or even adequately describe it. Unlike other religions in the world, the Hindu religion does not claim any one God; it does not subscribe to any one dogma; it does not believe in one philosophic concept; it does not follow any one set of religious rites.” Confronted with this amorphous entity, the Court concluded, “It [Hinduism] does not appear to satisfy the narrow traditional features of any religion or creed. It may broadly be described as a way of life and nothing more.

Hinduism Common Beliefs –

Some of the Common Beliefs are as under-

Wikipedia – Although Hinduism contains a broad range of philosophies, it is linked by shared concepts, recognisable rituals, cosmologyshared textual resources, and pilgrimage to sacred sitesHindu texts are classified into Śruti (“heard”) and Smṛti (“remembered”). These texts discuss theology, philosophymythologyVedic yajnaYogaagamic rituals, and temple building, among other topics.

– Major scriptures include the Vedas and the Upanishads, the Puranas, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the Āgamas. Sources of authority and eternal truths in its texts play an important role, but there is also a strong Hindu tradition of questioning authority in order to deepen the understanding of these truths and to further develop the tradition.

– Prominent themes in Hindu beliefs include the four Puruṣārthas, the proper goals or aims of human life, namely Dharma (ethics/duties), Artha (prosperity/work), Kama (desires/passions) and Moksha (liberation/freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth/salvation); karma (action, intent and consequences), Saṃsāra (cycle of death and rebirth), and the various Yogas (paths or practices to attain moksha).

– Hindu practices include rituals such as puja (worship) and recitations, japa, meditation, family-oriented rites of passage, annual festivals, and occasional pilgrimages. Some Hindus leave their social world and material possessions, then engage in lifelong Sannyasa (monastic practices) to achieve Moksha.

– Hinduism prescribes the eternal duties, such as honesty, refraining from injuring living beings (ahimsa), patience, forbearance, self-restraint, and compassion, among others. The four largest denominations of Hinduism are the VaishnavismShaivismShaktism and Smartism.

Hindu Beliefs From various sources

Brahman, the Supreme Being

The highest God of Hinduism is known as the Supreme Self or Brahman. He is both known and unknown, manifested and un manifested, being and Non-being, with form and without form, infinite, universal, blissful and the highest goal. In his dynamic aspect, he is also the creator and the lord of the universe (Eesvara). Although he is one without a second, eternal, indestructible, and indivisible he appears as many in creation. He has five functions, creation, preservation, concealment, revelation, and destruction. He pervades and envelops the whole creation and resides in all.

Atman, the Individual Soul

The Individual Self is known as Atman, the breathing one. He is either an aspect of Brahman or Brahman himself. Like Brahman, Atman is also eternal, infinite, invisible, formless, and beyond the mind and senses. In beings, Atman remains enveloped by Nature and remains bound to the mind and body and the cycle of births and deaths.

Prakriti, Nature

Prakriti is Nature. She is the dynamic force of God. She is also known as Mother Goddess, Maya, and Shakti. Like Brahman, she is eternal but dependent on him. She is indestructible but divisible, who executes the Will of God and manifests all the objects and beings with the help of her triple modes (gunas) and 23 (or 36) realities (tattvas).

Gods and goddesses

Hindus worship several gods and goddesses, who are considered to be aspects of Brahman and Shakti. The principal and popular deities are a few such as Shiva, and Vishnu, but the total number is in thousands. The deities have their specific duties, functions, and significance in creation, but considered the Supreme Being in their highest aspect.

Trimurtee, the Trinity

The three highest gods of Hinduism, next to Brahman in the hierarchy, are known as the triple forms or Trimurthis. They are Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva who represent the three principal functions of God namely, creation, preservation and destruction, and the triple gunas of Shakti namely rajas, sattva and tamas respectively. The three are considered different aspects of the same Brahman and Brahman himself in their essential nature.

Srishti Creation,

According to Hinduism, God is the creator and the source of all. At the beginning of each cycle of creation he projects the worlds and beings with the help of Prakriti for his own enjoyment. In the end he dissolves them and withdraws them all. Each cycle of creation lasts for billions of years. According to some scriptures, Brahman creates not one but numerous universes (Brahmandas).

Avkash Vidyan, Hindu Cosmology

Hindu cosmology recognizes Time as an aspect of God and one of the first entities to manifest during creation. Since Time is cyclical, creation is also cyclical. Each cycle of creation consists of four great epochs or yugas, namely the Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dwapara Yuga and Kali Yuga each with a span of 1.728, 1.296, 0.864, and 0.432 million human years. We are currently in the fourth epoch, after which the worlds will be dissolved and new a cycle of creation will begin after an interval.

Brahmanda, the Universe

The Puranas describe that the universe (Brahmandas) is divided into seven concentric islands, with seven concentric oceans separating them, each twice the size of the previous one. Of the seven continents, Jambudvipa is the innermost concentric island, where the land of the Vedas is situated. Each of the seven oceans is filled with a specific liquid namely salt-water, sugarcane juice, wine, ghee, curd, milk and water respectively.

Rta, Order and Regularity

Like the biorhythm of the body, the universe has its own pulse, rhythm, order and regularity, which is known as Rta. It is inherent in God’s creation and manifests as the orderly progression of natural events such as days and nights, birth and death, seasons, divisions of time, the course of the sun and moon and so on. If Rta is disturbed, the worlds will become unstable.

Dharma, Obligatory Moral Duty

The set of laws and duties which God upholds during creation for the order and regularity of the words are collectively known as Dharma. It manifests in beings as instincts, natural propensity or property, virtue, mortality, religiosity, and obligatory duty. Human beings have an obligation to uphold God’s eternal law and abide by it. Else, they will incur sin.

Maya, Illusion

The deluding power of Shakti or Prakriti is known as Maya. Nature casts her spell of Maya on the entire world and keeps the beings deluded and ignorant so that they remain bound. Because of Maya they lose discernment and mistake the real for unreal and the unreal for real. Thus, Maya is a binding and deluding mechanism.

Guna, Natural Modes

A guna is a mode of Nature, which is responsible for all the diversity and movements in creation. The gunas are three in number, sattva, rajas and tamas. Sattva imparts purity. Rajas imparts selfishness and vitality, and tamas imparts grossness, ignorance, and indolence. The predominance of gunas determines the nature and behavior of the beings.

Tattvas, Finite Realities

The divisions, parts or aspects of Nature manifest in creation as finite realities (tattvas). Nature uses them as building blocks and mixes them with the gunas in various permutations and combinations to manifest beings and objects. The tattvas are 23 in number namely five sense organs, five organs of action, five subtle senses, five elements, the mind, ego, and intelligence. They are dependent realities and destructible. Some are causes, some are effects and some are both.

Karma Action

The fruit of desire-ridden actions manifest as karma. Virtuous actions produce merit, while evil actions produce sin. Both keep the beings bound to the mortal world. Thus, Karma is a system of reward and punishment, which serves as a correcting mechanism, and as an arm of Dharma to ensure that beings remain within their bounds or face consequences. Since karma is cumulative, beings cannot achieve liberation unless they are completely free from it.

Samsara, Transmigration

The cycle of births and deaths to which beings remain bound is known as Samsara. They cannot escape from it until they exhaust their karmas, purify themselves, suppress all modifications caused by the gunas, and achieve liberation. Since beings here are subject to death and rebirth, this world is also known as samsara. Crossing the Samasara to reach the other end is the purpose of any religious and spiritual practice.

The Vedas, Divine Knowledge

The Vedas are the sacred texts of Hinduism and constitute the core of its principles, beliefs, practices and philosophy. They are considered to be revelations or heard ones (sruti) and therefore, inviolable. The Vedas are four, Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda. They contain hymns which are chanted during Vedic ceremonies to invoke gods. They are also considered verbal testimony to ascertain metaphysical truths.

Puranas, Ancient Histories

Puranas are large and voluminous texts, originally composed in Sanskrit, which are considered sacred by Hindus. They contain legends, ancient histories, creation theories, and heroic exploits and battles of Hindu deities. Hindu tradition recognizes 18 main Puranas and 18 ancillary Puranas, most of which are sectarian and belong to the principal sects of Hinduism. Apart from Puranas, the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata are also popular as historic texts (itihasa).

Avatar, Incarnation

One of the unique features of Hinduism is the concept of avatar or the reincarnation of God. Hindus believe that whenever dharma declines and evil powers gain ascendance, Lord Vishnu, who is the upholder of dharma, reincarnates upon earth as a living being (human, animal, or a mythical being) and destroys the evil. According to the Puranas he had already incarnated several times. His last reincarnation will be at the end of Kaliyuga as Kalki. Apart from them, Vishnu has several partial manifestations and aspects.

Murtee Puja, Image/Idol worship,

Hindus worship God in numerous ways. Image worship and worship of symbols is one of them. The image or symbol may be either physical, diagrammatic, or mental. Physical images may be made of clay, stone, or any other suitable material. In most cases they are ritually installed (prana-Pratishta) before worship. In Vaishnavism the images are considered living embodiment (arca) of God. Their  power increases in proportion to the offerings and prayers they receive.

Devalayam, Temple,

In Hinduism a temple (devalayam) is the abode of God where priests offer daily worship in the presence of devotees. Each temple is designed and built according to strict geometric calculations and specifications to resemble the model of the universe. They may however represent different architectural styles and construction methods. Some of them are very ancient. The chief deity is housed in the inner sanctum and treated like a living god, with daily services from morning until evening or midnight. A temple may also house other deities, saints and associate gods, to whom devotees may offer regular worship.

Yajna, Sacrifice

The Vedic sacrificial ceremonies are called Yajnas. They are fire-rituals in which ritual offerings of food are made to gods. They are elaborate and complex ceremonies, which require the assistance of trained and qualified priests to perform them. Some Yajnas may last for days or even weeks, and some like the Agnichayana are performed in stages, which may last for months. Some Yajnas are performed in public by groups of people, and some in private by family members.

Pooja, Domestic Worship

The Hindu domestic worship is known as puja, which is performed every day or on specific occasions during which householders make offerings to deities to express their love, respect and devotion. In formal ceremonies, each deity is treated like a divine guest and made symbolic offerings of a seat, a bath, clothing, drinks, perfume, incense, light, prayers and food. In informal worship, devotees may light a lamp or an incense stick and offer prayers and food (naivedyam). At the end of the puja, devotees share the food offered to the deity.

Utsav, Festivals,

Hindus celebrate several festivals, some of which are local or regional, and some universal. They are celebrated to commemorate a historic event, a great victory, the manifestation of a deity, or the birth of a great saint or incarnation. The most popular festivals of Hindus are Makar Sankranti, Maha Shivaratri, Pongal, Holi, Navarathri, Holi, Sri Ram Navami, Krishna Janmastami, Ganesh Chaturthi, Dussera, Durga Puja, Diwali Gudi Padwa, Ugadi, Guru Purnima, Raksha Bandhan, Onam, etc.

Purusharthas, Chief Aims

The chief aims of human life are known as Purusharthas or the purpose (artha) of a human being (Purusha) upon earth. They are meant for householders to fulfill their obligatory duties and earn merit for a good life in the next birth. The chief aims are four which they should pursue, namely obligatory moral duties (dharma), wealth (artha), sexual pleasure (kama), and liberation (moksha). They ensure that human beings lead a holistic life and fulfill both their material and spiritual obligations.

Varnashrama, Duty Bound Division of Life

Hindu law books suggest that householders should live their lives in four stages as designed by God himself, for the welfare and the order and regularity of the world. They are the life of celibacy (brahmacharya) as a student, life as a householder (grihasta) after marriage, life as a forest dweller (vanaprastha) upon retirement, and life as a renunciant (sanyasa) in the old age. The law books prescribe a specific set of duties for each stage according to a person’s caste or profession.

Sanyasa, Renunciation

The act of giving up anything for the sake of God or liberation is known as sanyasa. Householders are advised to renounce doership in actions and the desire for the fruit of their actions to avoid the accumulation of karma. Ascetics are advised to renounce worldly pleasures and possessions as part of their vows to practice yoga, austerities, and self-discipline to purify themselves and experience oneness with God.

Guru, Spiritual Teacher

Hindu spiritual teachers and adepts who teach the knowledge of the scriptures, the secrets of liberation, or lead the initiates on the path of liberation are known as gurus. Literally speaking, a guru is one who removes darkness from the minds and hearts of their students by shining the light of God upon them. The tradition holds that they are equal to God, and those who aspire for liberation should seek their help and treat them with utmost respect.

Yoga, Union

The concept of Yoga has a great significance in Hinduism. For Hindus, yoga means a state or condition (such as happiness or sorrow), a school of philosophy, and a specific set of spiritual practices to get rid of impurities, neutralize karma and achieve liberation. Karma yoga, jnana yoga, sanyasa yoga, atma samyama yoga, ashtanga yoga, kriya yoga, bhakti yoga, raja yoga, hatha yoga are a few important and popular yogas of Hinduism.

Tantra, Ritual Knowledge

The spiritual discipline which follows the texts known as Tantras instead of Vedas is known as Tantra. Followers of Tantra practice magical and mystical rituals and formulas for the worship of the deities, usually the fierce and pleasant forms of Shiva and Shakti, to attain supernatural powers (siddhis) or achieve liberation. Their methods are known as left hand practices (vamachara), which are unconventional and shocking to a conservative mind. Some practices involve the use of sex.

Darshana, Philosophy

A Darshana is a system or school of philosophy, a view point, doctrine, or theory. Hinduism recognizes six Darshanas, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Purva Mimansa, and Uttara Mimansa or Vedanta. Some of the schools do not acknowledge God, but acknowledge souls as eternal and indestructible. Apart from the six schools, there are others which are part of the sects of Hinduism or the sub-systems of the six, which make Hinduism complex.

Moksha, Liberation

Moksha means liberation from the cycle of births and deaths. Hinduism considers the liberation of the embodied souls as the highest and ultimate purpose of human life. Upon attaining liberation, the liberated souls travel to the world of Brahman and stay there forever. Hinduism prescribes numerous methods and approaches to attain liberation. Of them, devotion is considered the most supreme.

Punarjanma, Afterlife

Hindu scriptures suggest that upon death, beings may go to three worlds, according to their karma. Those who achieve liberation go to the immortal world of Brahman, never to return. However, those who do not achieve liberation but earn merit for their good deeds go to the world of ancestors and return after exhausting their karmas to take rebirth. The rest go to the underworld of Yama and suffer from numerous punishments for their sins.

Panth, Sects

Hinduism is a loosely organized religion with sects, teacher traditions, folk traditions, customs and practices, which can be grouped as the sub sects of Shaivism, Vaishnavism, and Shaktism respectively. Historically the three sects are also the most popular. Even now they enjoy a large following. Each sect regards their principle deity as the highest Supreme Brahman and lord of the universe.

Vidhi, Fate

Hindus believe that all living beings upon earth are born with a certain fate or destiny known as Vidhi, which is determined by lord Brahma at the time of their birth according to their karma and the destiny of the world and which he imprints on their foreheads. No one can escape fate, except through expiation or through divine intervention. However, Hinduism is not fatalistic since fate is determined by karma or the actions of beings and not by God.

Upasana Swantantrya Freedom of Worship

Hinduism is not a dogmatic religion. Believers enjoy a lot of freedom in choosing their deities and methods of worship. The tradition explicitly prohibits coercive methods, suggesting that one should not try to unsettle the faith of another and one should give instructions in scriptural knowledge or religious practice only to those who are eager to know, who are qualified and who are ready.

Dharma Parivartan, Conversions

Hinduism is not a missionary religion. People are admitted into Hinduism by birth, through family, by marriage or by initiation. Conversions are allowed. However, they are not explicitly encouraged. The tradition encourages debates and discussions with the followers of other faith, but not forceful conversions or conversions under inducement.

Vishwa Dharma, Universal religion

Indeed, you can find the predominant beliefs, practices and philosophies of all world religions in Hinduism. Hence, you cannot even equate Hinduism with any of them. It stands above them as a basket of religions from which you can choose whatever you like to practice or follow. Truly speaking everyone in this world is a Hindu, whether he believes in God or not, whether he is a Hindu or a Buddhist or of some other faith.

Vishal Dharma, Boundry less Religion

It is not based upon a particular founder.    It is not based upon a particular book.  It is not controlled by a central institution or authority such as a church or a sangha or association.   It is not averse to examine and assimilate fundamentally diverse thoughts and beliefs into its system.  It accepts other religions as various paths to salvation and does not favor organized attempts to proselytize people.   It has been evolving continuously, through internal reforms and as a reaction to the threats and challenges without.

Dharm Granth, Religious Books

Four Vedas, Numerous Puranas, Upnishadas, Shrutees, Smrutees, Buddhist Scriptures etc. Hinduism does not have a single holy book, but numerous  ancient texts and scriptures.

Iteehas Granth History Books

Bhagvat Geeta, Ramayana, Mahabharata, are history books of Hinduism.

Vedic Shastra, Vedic Sciences

Vedas deal with variety of subjects. There is no subject that is left uncovered. Astrology, astronomy, architecture, medicine, art, music, dance, ayurveda, food, literature, mathematics, health, political science, social science the list is endless. Though Indians have failed to extract the ancient treasure people from world over have taken benefit of this rich treasure of knowledge.