Hinduism is one of the most widely practiced religions in the world, with roots stretching back thousands of years. Part philosophy, part ritual and part roadmap for living, Hinduism is an intensely spiritual and powerful religion. Even for those who do not believe, Hinduism can be very interesting to study, from its roots in Vedic religion to its modern practices. With over one billion followers, Hinduism is ranked as the third most practiced religion after Christianity and Islam.

Introduction to Hinduism

Today, Hinduism is the dominant religion for much of India and the surrounding areas, including Nepal. It includes a number of different religious traditions which, unlike comparable traditions in Christianity, are largely peaceful. In general, Hinduism is a structure of laws, rituals and beliefs that center around the ideas of karma, dharma and social interaction.

Hinduism has no central founder or historical figure that originated the system of beliefs. Instead, the religion is a combination of beliefs taken from ancient cultures, including the South Indian Dravidian people and the middle-eastern Indic cultures. Another primary root of the religion is the Vedic culture of ancient India. Throughout history, Hinduism has in fact been more of a loose grouping of many different beliefs and morality systems, rather than a single central religion. Part of the reason for this is the lack of a central authority; there is no Hindu equivalent of the Vatican or the Pope to issue religious decrees or doctrines.

The term Hinduism itself did not become a commonly used label until the 1800s, when western European colonialism spread around the world. Faced with an increasingly connected world, the loose traditions of Hinduism have coalesced into the primary denominations of Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Smartism and Shaktism. Hinduism includes other branches, but these four are the most common among the traditions. Among all traditions, the idea of a unified Hinduism has been promoted in order to unify the religion globally, without disrupting individual traditions.

The Denominations of Hinduism

To understand the widespread differences and religious power of Hinduism, one must first realize that while there are many Hindu traditions, they all practice a form of plurality and unity that keeps them united under the Hindu umbrella. While each denomination contains different practices and beliefs, they all strive for the same end, with the general belief that there are many paths to the ultimate truth. Each of the denominations of Hinduism is differentiated largely by the historical figures and exact beliefs passed down through the centuries.

Vaishnavism, also known as Vishuism, is a denomination that generally worships Vishu. Vishnu is identified as the supreme god in this tradition, with a domain including the essence of all things, and is the ultimate creator and destroyer. As a deity, Vishnu is generally depicted as a being with four arms and blue skin. Each arm holds a religious object, including a lotus flower, mace, a conch shell and a chakram.

Shaivism is a similar denomination that identifies the supreme god as Shiva. Shiva is often identified as the patron god of Yoga and art, and is typically recorded as a being of transcendent and formless image.

Shaktism identifies the supreme god as Shakti, the great mother and goddess of power, fertility and potential. Shakti takes many forms and has many names, including Kali and Durga.

As the fourth primary denomination, Smartism followers are the most common in the west. Rather than selecting a primary god, smartas identify them all as aspects of the impersonal and absolute being Brahman.

Hinduism in the Vedic Era

In prehistoric times, some 3,500 to 4,000 years ago, many religions found homes in the Indian subcontinent. Some deity figures from the Indus Valley Civilization resemble Shakti and other prototypical forms of the Hindu gods. Hinduism did not take a form predominantly resembling modern practice until the Vedic period, from 1750 to 500 B.C.

Vedic Hinduism stems from the Rigveda, a text composed some 3,500 years ago. This text worships the primary deity Indra, god of gods, along side the water god Varuna and the fire god Agni. Also included in the text is the Soma ritual, which speaks of a plant that can be used to create a drink that brings immortality. Vedic Hinduism has no temples or idols to worship, but does include fire rituals and sacrifices.

All forms of Hinduism center primarily around a system of ethics that began in the Vedic era. This system began with the concepts of Satya and Rta. Satya is essentially the concept that the universe as a whole is unchangeable and constant. It is also a term used to identify the concept of reality itself. Rta, meanwhile, is the idea of truth, rule, order and the proper way of progressing through the world. To follow Rta is to pass through life unopposed, doing as the universe wills. To combat it is to receive the punishment of going against reality and truth.

Hinduism and the Ascetic Reform

The Vedic practices were largely ritualistic, focusing on specific rituals and practices to maintain the system of ethics. Around 2,500 years ago, larger populations in the Indian subcontinent led to a new movement in Hinduism that set rituals aside and brought forward the idea of Shramana.

The primary branch of Hinduism that progressed into what is known as Hinduism today remained. At this time, however, Shramana began to fragment the religious practices into new religions. Among these new traditions are Buddhism, Yoga and Jainism. Some lesser traditions of Hinduism also followed the ideas put forth in Shramana.

Identified today as an ascetic tradition, Shramana forsakes the household rituals of Vedic tradition and instead focuses on the Austerities, meditation and spiritual introspection. Much of what can be seen today in Buddhism, including the concepts of meditation leading to enlightenment, came from this movement.

This period was also when Karma became a central concept of debate amongst religions of the area. In some traditions, Karma is based upon the soul, with an idea that actions and thoughts in life will purify or mar the soul and prevent enlightenment. Other traditions, such as Buddhism, consider Karma to be a matter of philosophical thought in a chain of rebirth and fate. Still other traditions viewed Karma as an inescapable, unchangeable aspect of reality that could not be fought. Each tradition, of course, tailored its religious views towards its favored image of Karma.

Classical Period Hinduism

Stretching from 200 years BC to 300 AD is the period known as the early classical era in Hinduism. This era gathered the disparate views of many different Hindu sects, as well as Shramana traditions and some Buddhist influences. This accumulation of views synthesized into the common Hindu views, and was necessary for the religion to survive in the face of the much more successful offshoots of Jainism and Buddhism. This period was characterized by a unifying force that brought together each of the disparate proto-Hindu traditions into a central system of beliefs.

The primary determining factor that separated Hindu beliefs from the other religions was whether or not the practice accepts the truth of the Vedas, the text from the Vedic period that proclaimed much of the ethics still used in some forms today. During this era, some of the most important texts to the Hindu faith were created. These include the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, both of which are written in Sanskrit.

The Ramayana is a verse epic that depicts in an ethical sense the characteristics of the ideal roles in society. For example, some roles depicted include the ideal King, the ideal father, the ideal wife and the ideal servant. These are portrayed along with a story about Rama, aspect of Vishnu, and his wife Sita. This is also where Dharma is explored in detail. Dharma is, essentially, an extension of Rta; behaviors that fit with the natural order and the ways to keep those behaviors.

The other epic of this period is the Mahabharata, which holds the distinction of being the longest epic poem ever written. It contains goals for living, devotional and philosophical material and a tale of two princes and the Kurukshetra war.

Hinduism's Golden Age

The golden age of Hinduism in early history is that of the Gupta empire, stretching from 320 to 650 AD. For India, this was a time of growth, expansion and power. India developed long distance trade routes, consolidated power and wealth, spread literacy throughout the population and standardized a legal system. The driving force behind much of this was the Gupta dynasty, who were practitioners of the Vishnu-centric mode of Hinduism at the time.

The Gupta reign began the Hindu golden age by supporting the religion within the official power structure of the region. India's ruling dynasty supported Hinduism, and spread the important documents around through the increasingly literate population. During this time, additional documents now seen as critical to certain branches of Hinduism were written. These documents, known as the Puranas, were an accessible, mainstream version of Hinduism for the general population. The Gupta dynasty supporting this Puranic version of Hinduism and used it as an ongoing legacy for their rule.

This period also saw the flourishing of the Bhakti movement, which promoted the idea that salvation was a goal attainable by anyone, not something limited to the ruling classes or the spiritual elite.

This was a time of religious peace, as the Bhakti movement, the Puranic Hindu sects, the older variations of proto-Hinduism and the offshoots Buddhism and Jainism all coexisted. This religious tolerance is in stark contrast to Christianity through much of the middle ages.

Middle Ages of Hinduism

Also known as the late classical Hinduism period, the Hindu middle ages took place from 650 to 110 AD. The political and power situation in India collapsed in this period, with the end of the Gupta dynasty and the collapse of their successors. India and the rest of the region split into a large number of vassal states and kingdoms.

During this time, the central and united Hinduism was divided and evolved in each of these smaller kingdoms. Shaivism, Vaisnavism and other practices, including Tantra, developed and evolved throughout the area. Buddhism lost favor and primarily headed east, while individual sects of Hinduism competed for favor among the local kings.

This was a time when missionaries known as Brahmanas spread throughout India, bringing the Puranas to isolated clans and smaller kingdoms. Rather than put forth a single sect as dominant over any other, these missionaries and the kingdoms they visited developed the Puranic variation Smarta, which worships each of the gods as an aspect of a higher truth. Smartism and Puranic Hinduism, as one massive religious institution, swept over the region and became the dominant version of Hinduism.

Within this sect, the aspects of Vishnu Rama and Krisna took the forefront of worship. The other gods remained included, and individual kingdoms might choose to promote one deity over another. Some conflict between religious variants existed between members of the religious caste, which grew as the caste system was forced upon new kingdoms.

Changes under Islamic Rule

Islam was not a new religion in the Indian area in the 1100s. In fact, the earliest exposures to Islam came from Arab traders over 600 years earlier. From the 1100s to the 1500s, Islam grew progressively in the Indian subcontinent. During this time, Buddhism rapidly lost favor and was largely removed from the area. At the same time, many Hindus converted to Islam. This was a time of Islamic rule over the Indian area, and it was very militaristic. Islamic generals and rulers often persecuted Hindus and other non-Muslims, while tearing down established Hindu temples.

During this time, Bhakti changed from a focus on the abstract Brahman, which was difficult to grasp and had little to do with daily life under Islamic rule. Instead, the sect emphasized Deity avatars, such as Rama and Krishna. At this time, the remaining sects of Hinduism generally merged into a synthesized version pulling from each of the so-called six schools, the previous primary Hindu threads.

In this modern Hinduism, worshipers recognize Devas and their Avatars. Devas were deities, the gods of the Hindu practices. In some instances, the Devas are known as Suras, and act as creators and protectors of the world. In these cases, they combat the Asuras, destroyers and powerful Devas themselves. The avatars were individual components of some gods, such as how Rama and Krishna were known as aspects of Vishnu. The exact composition of the Devas, the pantheon, varied from area to area and time to time.

Hinduism in the Modern Age

Islamic rule and the persecution of Hinduism lasted with varying degrees of tolerance through to modern times. In most instances, the idea of modern Hinduism is that which can be traced back to the 1850s. This was a time of influence from Britain and it brought about a Hindu renaissance. No longer persecuted, Hinduism became the object of intense study, and saw a great revival that continues to this day.

During this time, many notable figures became spiritual leaders, influential people and translators of the older Hindu texts. Many texts were translated and updated for modern times, which helped to spread the religion beyond the bounds of India and around the world. Yoga in particular caught on in the western world.

In the 1900s, Hinduism began to serve another purpose; a unifying political background for the Indian people, to help distinguish them from the Islamic countries surrounding the subcontinent. Hinduism became a political statement as well as a religious belief, and the religion returned to mainstream practice.

Today there are many variations to the Hindu religion, once more stemming from the older deities. Like such times in history, the various forms of Hinduism are united under one banner and are treated with general tolerance between other Hindus. Hindu is also gaining traction in North America, initially as an eastern mysticism, and more recently as a full religion.

Hindu Worship Practices

The core concept of modern Hinduism is a spiritual quest. This is typically a quest to see an awareness of God or Brahmin, the concept of the all-encompassing deity, the devas or another central aspect of the religion. Different sects and schools aim for the attention of different aspects of the central truth. To this end, Hinduism has created a number of religious practices designed to help the worshiper gain an awareness of reality and God.

One of the primary means of worship is the mantra, which is generally a form of ritual chanting, sound or invocation that focuses the mind on the spiritual. Mantras were first promoted in the Mahabharata in the form of Japa.

Mantras are sounds or images, but they do not have to be words. The most common in popular media is the depiction of the Hindu mystic in lotus pose, humming or chanting the syllable Om. Om as a mantra and spiritual symbol can be found in virtually every piece of modern Hindu art or worship imagery. Some sects consider OM to be the name of God itself.

Japa is similar to mantra, in that it is a practice emphasizing the repetition of a spiritual phrase or sound. Japa, however, does not require a verbal component. Japa meditation can be done through mental introspection and self-reflection. This is encouraged as a way to continuously meditate, transforming a worshiper's life into a constant flow of prayer interrupted by the occasional daily task.

Hindu Temples

Like Hindu beliefs, Hindu temples take many forms and have incredibly varied architecture. Temples are often dedicated to one particular aspect of God, and as such, one worshiper might worship at several different temples. Each temple has its own individual customs, traditions and dedicated deity.

Hindu worship can take place at a dedicated temple, or it can be done at home or abroad. In these cases, the worshiper will often set up a small household shrine dedicated to their chosen deity or selection of devas. For many worshipers, a temple visit is a special occasion, saved for festivals and other important life events.

Hindu temples are called Mandirs and can be found most commonly in interesting geographical locations. These can be hilltops, caves, rivers or even waterfalls. As early Hinduism stemmed from elemental deities, such primal locations serve to bring worshipers closer to their chosen god.

Within a temple, Hindu practitioners may practice mantra, japa, yoga or another form of meditation. They spend time surrounded by iconography and imagery of their chosen deity, in an environment designed to be spiritual and free of distractions.

Worship at a Hindu temple is highly ritualized and often begins by ringing a bell in the entrance upon arrival. Offerings are then given, usually symbolic items representing nature or the deity in question. Most worshipers keep folded hands as a sign of respect while inside the temple. After the recitation of mantras, the worshiper circles the interior of the temple to offer prayers.

Hindu Rituals

While worship at the temple is highly ritualized, such rituals are not limited to temple worship. Much of the daily religious worship of a Hindu practitioner is ritualized in the home. Devout worshipers will often pray at dawn after bathing in a family shrine, with offerings and ceremonial lighting of a lamp. Some sects recite scripts and hymns, while others focus on meditation, scripture and mantras. Every sect in every location has its own variation on the worship rituals.

All Hindu rituals tend to have an emphasis on the idea of pollution and purity. During daily life, some actions and thoughts can bring pollution to the spirit or soul. The worshiper can then perform purification rites, or they can simply perform normal religious rituals. These actions help to purify the soul of pollution, bringing the worshiper closer to God and the truth. A pure spirit in this life results in a more enlightened soul in the next. In the home, most religious worship is performed through ritualized actions and mantra recitation.

There are also specialized rituals used for important life events. For example, there is a ritual for the first solid food eaten by a newborn, a ritual for the initiation into formal education in the higher castes and rituals for giving thanks and purifying food. As with most religions, marriage is an occasion for a ritual as well, often an elaborate one. Death and cremation rituals apply to most worshipers as well.

The Hindu Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage is a practice of a number of religions around the world, and with good reason. Any religion accumulates historic sites of great significance.

The Char Dham are the most famous four pilgrimage sites in India. The first is Puri, a holy city on the eastern edge of India, bordering the Bay of Bengal. Nearby is the Sun Temple Konark. The second site is Rameswaram, a town in Tamil Nadu. It is built on an island and is significant as the location of a bridge built by Rama to rescue his bride Sita from Ravana, in Lanka. The temple on this island is dedicated to Shiva. The third site, Dwarka, is located to the west of the subcontinent, and is one of the most revered sites. The fourth of the Char Dham is Badrinath, location of a famous temple that has been the site of pilgrimage for well over 1,000 years. It is thought to be the site where Vishnu's avatars Nara and Narayana underwent penance.

The Hindu pilgrimage can include any or all of those four sites, as well as any number of other famous temples and religious locations throughout India. There are dozens of such locations, including other temples, festival locations and homes of important lineages throughout Hindu history. Different sects of Hinduism will prefer some locations over others, such as Shaktism offering preference to temples to Shakti. There are also several locations outside of India itself, including in Nepal, China, Indonesia and Pakistan.

Hindu Festivals

Hinduism is a fragmented and highly varied religion, and as such, the festivals that are important to one sect might be of lesser importance to others. Nevertheless, many festivals have become common celebrations throughout India, both among Hindus and among other religious citizens.

As with other events in Hindu worship, festivals tend to be fairly ritualized, though in modern years, some have lost some of their religious significance and have become cultural celebrations. The Hindu word for festival, Uthsava, means the removal of grief.

Hindu festivals are set according to dates on the Hindu Calendar, which is mostly based on lunar cycles and changing seasons. Most festivals coincide with one of the significant mythological events to take place in Hindu history, while some overlap with significant seasonal events such as harvest.

Some significant festivals include Thai Pongal, which is a harvest festival celebrated after harvest. The festival is ancient and includes feasting in a ritualized way, cattle worship and other signs of bountiful harvest. Another festival, the Bonalu, begins in a temple to worship Kali and the mother goddess. The Onam festival is a different harvest festival celebrated by the people of Kerala. It involves many events, including music, dancing and a boat race.

Perhaps the most famous of the Hindu festivals is Diwali, the festival of lights. Celebrated in autumn, it symbolizes the victory of light and good over darkness and impurity. The festival takes place on a new moon, when the night is darkest.

Fundamental Beliefs in Hinduism

Nearly any word used to describe a religion can be used to describe Hinduism. The religion is composed of so many sects and variations that it becomes impossible to pin it down into a single tidy package. Hinduism is at once panthiestic and polytheistic, with the concepts that there are a number of different gods and they have many avatars. At the same time, sects believe that each of the Devas is an aspect of the central true God, which makes Hinduism a monotheism. Even that isn't enough, as many sects – and the offshoot of Buddhism – believe in no god, but rather in a universal truth from which ethics is derived. This sort of spiritual atheism adds yet another label to the faith.

The variety offered by Hinduism is its greatest strength. The faith offers worshipers the complete freedom of choice for worship. Any any time, any worshiper can visit any temple or any altar in their own homes to worship on their own terms. While worship is ritualized, it is not proscribed by a higher authority. Worshipers can choose which rituals to follow, from mantra and japa to yoga and other practices.

At the core of Hindu belief is the concept of karma, a spiritual cause and effect that stretches beyond this life and into the next. Coupled with this concept is that of Dharma, the ethics and rules which righteous worshipers must follow. It all takes place within the wheel of Samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth.

The Hindu Concept of God

To understand how Hinduism views God, one must look to the Rig Veda, the core Hindu text from the ancient Vedic times. This text, as translated, gives freedom to the worshiper. It asks who could know about the forces greater than themselves. The idea is to allow the worshiper to forge their own way to a higher authority, working out what they believe, rather than dovetailing them into beliefs proscribed by a central church or deity.

Typically, a Hindu will believe that the soul, the core being of a person, is an eternal presence. This soul inhabits bodies throughout the ages, living according to their own lives, dying and being reborn. Hinduism puts forth the goal of using religious faith throughout each life to forge the soul. This forging brings the soul closer to that of Brahman, the supreme god and ultimate spirit.

Different schools of Hinduism worship different aspects of Brahman. Some worship the idea of Brahman itself, while others worship and strive to attain similarity to the aspects of that supreme god, such as Vishnu and Shiva. These aspects are avatars of Brahman, just as icons such as Rama and Krishna are avatars of Vishnu. The devas in their multitudes are all aspects of greater gods, on up the tiers until they become aspects of Brahman itself.

Karma in Hinduism

Karma is a term thrown around in the western world quite frequently. To non-Hindus, it is often used as a sort of cosmic cause and effect. The idea is that doing bad things will cause bad things to happen to you, some time in the future, be it within weeks or in another lifetime. Conversely, good deeds attract good happenings to the pure soul that performed them.

In Hinduism, the concept is similar, though it is both more open and more limited. Karma, translated literally, is an action or deed. The soul develops impressions from actions and thoughts, both positive and negative, and the weight of these impressions guides the future of the individual. A soul weighted down by impure deeds will cycle downwards away from Brahman, struggling against opposition from reality itself. Positive deeds will then purify the soul, allowing it to rise closer to Brahman and encounter less resistance through life. Karma combines the idea that you have free will, and that your will affects your destiny.

Hindu karma is limited to the lifetime and body of the practitioner, but it is always coupled with the concept of Samsara. Samsara is the ongoing cycle of action and reaction, birth and death and ongoing living. Hindu scriptures proclaim that souls trade bodies through the ages just as a person may wear new sets of clothing through the years.

The ultimate goal is Moksha, also known as Nirvana or Samadhi. This state of enlightenment is the realization of the worshiper's soul and its likeness to Brahman. This allows the soul to escape from the bonds of Samsara and rise above to another plane.

Hindu Objectives: the Purusharthas

With souls working through a cycle, Hinduism puts forth the concept of human objectives, a purpose to life. These are known as the Purusarthas.

Dharma is the first and most well known. It is the concept of ethics and righteousness, order, harmony and morality. Dharma is derived from the actions of Brahman, with the belief that Brahman is reality itself. Morality comes from reality, and to do amoral things is to go against reality.

Artha is the second objective, the virtuous pursuit of a life of wealth. To live destitute is not necessarily bad, but to live a wealthy life of excess is amoral. Wealth should be used for the well-being of oneself, ones family and ones community. In this way, Hinduism promotes economic prosperity of all who practice.

Kama is the sensual pleasure objective of humanity. It encompasses desires, passions, longings and the enjoyment of life and love. Hinduism does not deny that there are passions and pleasures to be had in life; rather, these pleasures are part of reality and come from Brahman. Like most religions, of course, bodily pleasures are limited to marriage.

The final objective is that of Moksa, the liberation and freedom of the cycle of Karma and Samsara. Life is not free of suffering and pain; while these come from Brahman, they are aspects of going against the nature of reality and the other objectives. As such, the final objective is to escape the cycle by becoming one with the ultimate being.

Hindu and Yoga

In western minds, Hinduism is often linked with the practice of Yoga. However, what westerners view as Yoga is a departure of what the historical Yoga is. In western culture, Yoga is a series of physical poses and exercises, often with breathing and light meditation components added in. It is used for fitness and stress reduction.

In Hinduism, a Yoga is the path of religious practices used by a given tradition or individual. A Yoga encompasses the rituals of a particular sect, including the mantras, japas and other forms of meditation and prayer. Only a few variations of Yoga actually include physical poses.

The primary branch of Hinduism to include physical poses and rituals is the Hatha toga, which is itself a modern variation of the ancient Tantra. The ultimate goal is to focus the body, and by doing so, focus the mind. Eliminating bodily concerns allows the mind to focus on prayer and enlightenment, bringing the practitioner closer to the ultimate goal of Moksha.

Hindu Food Customs

Another common aspect of Hinduism from a western perspective is the dietary concerns of practicing members. Much of this stems from Vedic customs, like all of Hinduism.

In Vedic customs, animal sacrifices were often made. A goat may be sacrificed to Vayu, a bull to Indra and so on. Negative reaction put a stop to those practices with the philosophy that animals are part of the karmic cycle as well, and that to sacrifice them was to harm ones own pursuit of Moksha. Today, ritual sacrifices and offerings in temples consist of symbolic items and pieces of nature, not the life of an animal.

Many Hindus today practice vegetarianism as part of self-restraint, another ritual for self-improvement in Hinduism. The exact limits on diet depend on location and custom; for example, regions with primarily access to seafood do not practice strict vegetarianism. Additionally, some vegetables are thought to have negative connotations, and are restricted by some sects. Mushrooms and garlic are among those restricted vegetables.

With the ongoing pursuit of purity, many Hindus will monitor their food intake even if they are not vegetarian. Some foods simply promote purity and energy, while others bring with them pollution. A proper diet is essential to achieving Moksha.

Hinduism today is practiced in some form or another by over one billion people around the world. It is no surprise that so many options exist for personal variations on belief, ritual and diet. In the end, Hinduism is a primarily personal journey towards enlightenment, and the methods taken to reach it are personal to the practitioner.

Hinduism | Religion

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