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- 1 A brief overview
- 2 Festivals
- 3 Origins, names and society
- 4 Legal Definition of Hinduism
- 5 Hindu philosophy: the six Vedic schools of thought
- 6 Mandirs
- 7 Alternative cultures of worship
- 8 Important symbolism and themes in Hinduism
- 9 Hindu texts
- 10 References
- 11 Other websites
A brief overview
Hinduism takes ideas from the Vedas, the Upanishads, as well as the teachings of many Hindu gurus through the ages. Many different types of thought come from six main Vedic/Hindu schools. Bhakti sects, and Tantric Agamic schools are very common paths within Hinduism.
The Eternal Way
"The Eternal Way" (in Sanskrit सनातन धर्म, Sanātana Dharma), or the "Perennial Philosophy/Harmony/Faith", is the one name that has represented Hinduism for thousands of years. According to Hindus, it speaks the idea that certain spiritual principles are true for all time, surpassing man-made beliefs, and representing a pure science of consciousness. This consciousness is not just that of the body or mind and intellect, but of a soul-state above the mind that exists within and beyond our existence, the pure Self of all. Religion to the Hindu is the search for the divine within the Self, the search to find the One truth that really never was lost. According to this belief, somebody looking for truth will find it, no matter who they are. Everything that exists, from vegetables and animals to mankind, are subjects and objects of the eternal Dharma. This inner faith, therefore, is also known as Arya/Noble Dharma, Veda/Knowledge Dharma, Yoga/Union Dharma, Hindu Dharma or, simply, the Dharma.
What can be said to be common to all Hindus is belief in Dharma, reincarnation, karma, and moksha (liberation) of every soul through a variety of moral, action-based, and meditative yogas. Still more basic principles include ahimsa (non-violence), the importance of the Guru, the Divine Word of Aum and the power of mantras, love of Truth in many manifestations as gods and goddessess, and an understanding that the essential spark of the Divine (Atman/Brahman) is in every human and living being, allowing for many spiritual paths leading to the One Unitary Truth.
An example of Hindu spirituality in daily life is the bindi, which is a common marker for Hindu women. It stands for different things. For some, it may represent opening a "third eye" that helps people gain knowledge. Hindus all think it is important to learn things through meditating. They believe this gives them an intuition beyond the mind and body, something often associated with the god Shiva. Men, too, may place a tilak mark on their foreheads, usually on religious occasions. Its shape may stand for devotion to a certain main god: a 'U' shape stands for Vishnu, a group of three lines for Shiva. It is not uncommon for some to meld both together in an marker signifying Hari-Hara (Vishnu-Shiva indissoluble).
Hinduism tells about a particular way of life to lead as a Hindu. This is done by way of Yogas (spiritual practices), mainly as follows:
- Bhakti Yoga (Yoga of Loving Devotion)
- Karma Yoga (Yoga of Action - selfless service)
- Raja Yoga (meditational Yoga) and
- Jnana Yoga (Yoga of Knowledge and Realisation)
The four goals of life
Hinduism believes in four main goals of life. They are karma, artha, dharma and moksha. It is said that all humans seek kama (pleasure, physical or emotional) and artha (power, fame and wealth), but soon, with maturity, learn to govern these legitimate desires within a higher, pragmatic framework of dharma, or moral harmony in all.
The four stages of life
In Hinduism, life of a human being is divided into four stages. These stages are called Ashramas, and they are:
- Brahmacharya, the first quarter of life as a bachelor - to be spent in learning, building the body and the mind.
- Grihasthya, the second quarter of life as a person with a family, and doing work for livelihood.
- Vanaprastha, the third phase of life, spent in forests and in meditation.
- Sanyasa, the last phase of life, spent without any feeling and attachment to the world.
India, Mauritius and Nepal are very popular to celebrate festivals. In Nepal Dashain is celebrated which is called Dusshera in India. Similarly, Tihar or Diwali is also celebrated where houses are lit up for welcoming Goddess Laxmi. People exchange gifts and have a lot of fun together with their families. Likewise Teej is also a very popular Hindu festivals where ladies fast without water for their husband's long life and also enjoy by singing folk songs and dancing.
Origins, names and society
Historical origins and aspects of society
Little is known about Hinduism origins. It has been around since before history was written down. It has been said to have come from what the Aryans believed. Before the Aryans came to India, there were the hundreds of faith and beliefs of Dravidians, and Harappans living in the Indian subcontinent. They came together under the Hindu name during the British Raj. Different ideas of where the Veda come from, and understandings of whether or not the Aryans were native or foreign to Indian soil can change estimates of Hinduism's age from 4000 to 6000 years.
Historically, the word Hindu comes from before Hinduism was thought of as a religion. This term is of Persian origin and first referred to people who lived on the other side (from a Persian point of view) of the Sindhu or Indus river. It was used to refer to not only ethnicity but also the Vedic religion as far back as the 15th and 16th centuries by such figures as Guru Nanak (who started Sikhism). During the British Raj, the term's use was made standard, and eventually, the religion of the Vedic Hindus was given the name 'Hinduism.' In actuality, it was merely a new name for a culture that had been around for millennia before.
Legal Definition of Hinduism
In a 1966, Supreme Court of India said exactly what Hinduism was for the purposes of the law. The Court's ruling said what a number of conditions a person had to meet to be a Hindu.
Current geographic distribution
The nations of India, Mauritius, and Nepal as well as the Indonesian island of Bali have more people who are Hindus than people who are not Hindus. In these nations, especially Nepal and India, Hinduism is very popular. These countries also have many Hindus:
- Bangladesh (12 million),
- Sri Lanka (2.5 million),
- the United States (2.0 million)
- Pakistan (3.3 million),
- South Africa (1.2 million),
- the United Kingdom (1.2 million),
- Malaysia (1.1 million),
- Canada (0.7 million),
- Fiji (0.5 million),
- Trinidad and Tobago (0.5 million),
- Guyana (0.4 million),
- the Netherlands (0.4 million),
- Singapore (0.3 million)
- Myanmar (0.3 million),
- Suriname (0.2 million),
- Australia (0.1 Million).
There are also strong Hindu communities in the countries of the ex-Soviet Union, especially in Russia and Poland. The Indonesian islands of Java, Sulawesi, Sumatra, and Borneo also have big native Hindu populations. In its Yoga stream, Hinduism is even more widespread all over the world with 30 million (less than one percent can not be 30 million for US population) Hindus in the United States alone.
Dharma in orthodox Hindu society: caste
According to one view, the caste system shows how strongly many have felt about each person following his or her dharma, or destined path. Many Hindus say it goes against the true meaning of dharma. However, caste plays a big role in Hindu society, although it is now losing favor and is illegal in India.
In early Vedic periods, the Brahmins began not letting young candidates become priests if they were in a lower caste. This became more part of the culture over centuries until it became almost impossible to move up into a higher caste. Even though people had tried to change things for years, caste is so much of a part of in Indian culture that even people who convert to Christianity have been known to have different church meetings for different castes.
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 affect 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 purpose of the Purva Mimamsa line of thought was to make the Vedas more of a part of life, and led people to understand it better. Adi Shankara and Swami Vivekananda followed this line of thought to explain the meaning of Hindu beliefs.
The Yoga system is thought to have come from the Samkhya philosophy. The yoga referred to here, however, is specifically Raja Yoga (or meditational union). It is based on the sage Patanjali's text called the Yoga Sutra, which is about the Yoga philosophy that came before. Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita are also important writings in the study of Yoga.
Uttara Mimamsa: The Three Schools of Vedanta
The Uttara ("later") Mimamsa school is perhaps one of the cornerstone movements of Hinduism and certainly was responsible for a new wave of philosophical and meditative inquiry, renewal of faith, and cultural reform. Primarily associated with the Upanishads and their commentary by Badarayana, the Vedanta Sutras, Vedanta thought split into three groups, initiated by the thinking and writing of Adi Shankara. Most Hindu thought today in some way relates to changes affected by Vedantic thought, which focused on meditation, morality and centeredness on the one Self rather than on rituals and meaningless societal distinctions like caste. See Vedanta for greater depth.
Pure Monism: Advaita Vedanta
Advaita literally means "not two"; thus this is what we refer to as a monistic (or non-dualistic) system, which emphasises oneness. Its consolidator was Adi Shankara (788?-820?) expounded his theories largely based on previous teachings of the Upanishads and his own guru Govinda Bhagavadpada.
By analysis of experiential consciousness, he exposed the relative nature of the world and established the non-dual reality of Brahman in which Atman (the individual soul) and Brahman (the ultimate reality) are identified absolutely. It is not merely philosophy, but a conscious system of applied ethics and meditation, all geared towards attaining peace and understanding of truth.
See Advaita Vedanta for more.
Qualified Monism: Vishistadvaita Vedanta
Ramanuja (1040 - 1137) was the foremost proponent of the concept of Sriman Narayana as the supreme Brahman. He taught that Ultimate reality had three aspects: Isvara (Vishnu), cit (soul) and acit (matter). Vishnu is the only independent reality, while souls and matter are dependent on God for their existence. Because of this qualification of Ultimate reality, Ramanuja's system is known as qualified non-dualism.
Dualism: Dvaita Vedanta
Like Ramanuja, Madhvacharya (1199 - 1278) 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.
Puja (worship) takes place in the Mandir (temple). Mandirs vary in size from small village shrines to large buildings, surrounded by walls. People can also visit the Mandir at any time to pray and participate in the bhajans (religious songs). Hindus also worship at home and often have a special room with a shrine to particular gods.
Temple construction in India started nearly 2000 years ago. The oldest temples that were built of brick and wood no longer exist. Stone later became the preferred material. Temples marked the transition of Hinduism from the Vedic religion of ritual sacrifices to a religion of Bhakti or love and devotion to a personal deity. Temple construction and mode of worship is governed by ancient Sanskrit scriptures called agamas, of which there are several, which deal with individual deities. There are substantial differences in architecture, customs, rituals and traditions in temples in different parts of India. During the ritual consecration of a temple, the presence of the universal all-encompassing Brahman is invoked into the main stone deity of the temple, through ritual, thereby making the deity and the temple sacred and divine
Alternative cultures of worship
The Bhakti schools
The Bhakti (Devotional) school takes its name from the Hindu term that signifies a blissful, selfless and overwhelming love of God as the beloved Father, Mother, Child, or whatever relationship finds appeal in the devotee's heart. The philosophy of Bhakti seeks to tap into the universal divinity through personal form, which explains the proliferation of so many gods and goddesses in India, often reflecting the singular inclinations of small regions or groups of people. Seen as a form of Yoga, or union, it seeks to dissolve the ego in God, since consciousness of the body and limited mind as self is seen to be a divisive factor in spiritual realization. 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 love of God. The Bhakti movements rejuvenated Hinduism through their intense expression of faith and their responsiveness to the emotional and philosophical needs of India. They can rightly be said to have affected the greatest wave of change in Hindu prayer and ritual since ancient times.
The most popular means of expressing love for God in the Hindu tradition has been through puja, or ritual devotion, frequently using the aid of a murti (statue) in conjunction with the singing or chanting of meditational prayer in the form of mantras.
Devotional songs called bhajans (written primarily from the 14th-17th centuries), kirtan (praise), and arti (a filtered down form of Vedic fire ritual) are sometimes sung in conjunction with performance of puja. This rather organic system of devotion attempts to aid the individual in connecting with God through symbolic medium. It is said, however, that the bhakta, through a growing connection with God, is eventually able to eschew all external form and is immersed entirely in the bliss of undifferentiated Love in Truth.
Altogether, bhakti resulted in a mass of devotional literature, music and art that has enriched the world and gave India renewed spiritual impetus, one eschewing unnecessary ritual and artificial social boundaries. See bhakti yoga for more.
According to the most famous Western Tantrik scholar, Sir John Woodroffe (pseudonym Arthur Avalon): "The Indian Tantras, which are numerous, constitute the Scripture (Shastra) of the Kaliyuga, and as such are the voluminous source of present and practical orthodox 'Hinduism'. The Tantra Shastra is, in fact, and whatever be its historical origin, a development of the Vaidika Karmakanda, promulgated to meet the needs of that age. Shiva says: 'For the benefit of men of the Kali age, men bereft of energy and dependent for existence on the food they eat, the Kaula doctrine, O auspicious one! is given' (Chap. IX., verse 12). To the Tantra we must therefore look if we would understand aright both ritual, yoga, and sadhana of all kinds, as also the general principles of which these practices are but the objective expression." (Introduction to Sir John Woodroffe's translation of "Mahanirvana Tantra.")
The word "tantra" means "treatise" or "continuum", and is applied to a variety of mystical, occult, medical and scientific works as well as to those which we would now regard as "tantric". Most tantras were written in the late Middle Ages and sprang from Hindu cosmology and Yoga.
Important symbolism and themes in Hinduism
Ahimsa and the cow
Many Hindus are vegetarians (do not eat meat) because of their respect for life. About 30% of today's Hindu population, especially in orthodox communities in South India, in certain northerly states like Gujarat, and in many Brahmin areas around the subcontinent, are vegetarian.
Most Hindus who do eat meat do not eat beef. Some do not even use leather products. This is most likely because many Hindus have relied so heavily on the cow for all sorts of dairy products, tilling of fields and fuel for fertiliser that its status as a willing 'caretaker' of humanity grew to identifying it as an almost motherly figure. Thus, while most Hindus do not worship the cow, and rules against eating beef arose long after the Vedas had been written, it still has an honored place in Hindu society. It is said that Krishna is both Govinda (herder of cows) and Gopala (protector of cows), and Shiva's attendant is Nandi, the bull. With the stress on vegetarianism (which is usually followed even by meat-eating Hindus on religious days or special occasions) and the sacred nature of the cow, it is no wonder that most holy cities and areas in India have a ban on selling meat-products and there is a movement among Hindus to ban cow-slaughter not only in specific regions, but in all of India.
Forms of worship: murtis and mantras
Contrary to popular belief, practiced Hinduism is neither polytheistic nor strictly monotheistic. The various Hindu gods and avatars that are worshipped by Hindus are understood as different forms of One truth, sometimes seen as beyond a mere god and as a formless Divine Ground (Brahman), akin but not limited to monism, or as one monotheistic principle like Vishnu or Shiva.
Whether believing in the One source as formless (nirguna brahman, without attributes) or as a personal god (saguna Brahman, with attributes), Hindus understand that the one truth may be seen as different to different people. Hinduism encourages devotees to describe and develop a personal relationship with their chosen deity (ishta devata) in the form of a god or goddess.
While some censuses hold worshippers of one form or another of Vishnu (known as Vaishnavs) to be at 80% and those of Shiva (called Shaivaites) and Shakti at the remaining 20%, such figures are perhaps misleading. The vast majority of Hindus worship many gods as varicolored forms of the same prism of Truth. Among the most popular are Vishnu (as Krishna or Rama), Shiva, Devi (the Mother as many female deities, such as Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kali and Durga), Ganesha, Skanda and Hanuman.
Worship of the said deities is often done through the aid of pictures or icons (murti) which are said not to be God themselves but conduits for the devotee's consciousness, markers for the human soul that signify the ineffable and illimitable nature of the love and grandeur of God. They are symbols of the greater principle, representing and are never presumed to be the concept or entity itself. Thus, Hindu image worship is a form of iconolatry, in which the symbols are venerated as putative sigils of divinity, as opposed to idolatry, a charge often levied (erroneously) at Hindus. For more details on this form of worship, see murti.
Hindus use several prayers and group of words. Some group of words are called mantras. These words are said to give the speaker a deeper concentration and understanding, thus coming closer to Brahman. A well known mantra is om or aum. It symbolizes Brahman, and is often the opening word in many prayers. To pronounce a mantra well, you should say it slowly, and in a deep voice.
There are many texts relating to Hinduism. Most of them have been written in Sanskrit and Tamil. These texts are called Hindu scriptures. Some of the important Hindu texts are:
The Vedas are considered scripture by all Hindus. While most Hindus may never read the Vedas, they strongly believe that the search for eternal knowledge is important (Veda means knowledge). Classed with the Vedas (which specifically refer to the Rig/Rg, Yajur, Sama and Atharva Vedas) are their famous commentaries, the Upanishads.
The post-Vedic Hindu scriptures form the latter category, the most notable of which are the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, major epics considered scripture by most followers of Sanatana Dharma, their stories arguably familiar to the vast majoriy of Hindus living in the Indian subcontinent, if not in other places also. Other texts considered important by today's Hindus include the Devi Mahatmya, an ode to Devi, the Divine Mother, and the Yoga Sutras, a key meditative yoga text of Shri Patanjali. There are also a number of revered Hindu Tantras and Sutras that command the respect of various Hindu sects of different persuasion, some including the Mahanirvana Tantra, Tirumantiram and Shiva Sutras.
- Rigveda. Britannica Concise Encyclopedia
- "Hinduism" on Microsoft Encarta Online
- Sâdhus, Going beyond the dreadlocks, by Patrick Levy, published by Prakash Books, Delhi, 2010.
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