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Hinduism, also called 'Sanatan Dharma' (Eternal Religion) or 'Vedic Dharma' (Vedic Religion) is the oldest and the third largest of the major religions of the world. Hindus form an overwhelming majority of population in India and Nepal and total some 900 million the world over.

Hinduism has developed from the assimilation of indigenous beliefs of the peoples of India. To this were added the beliefs of aryan immigrants whose wisdom was contained in their books, the Vedas (knowledge - RigVeda being the principal one). Hinduism cannot be ascribed to any single person, it has no single principal holy book - It has many, with all of them believed to be pointing to the same ultimate truth.

Hinduism kept its two components, 'dharma' (social duty/right action) and 'vishwas' (personal belief) separate. While 'dharma' was inalienable, the second was left open to the reasoning and choice of a person (the only limit being acceptance of any other religion). RigVeda accepts such freedom of belief with 'Eko Sat, Vipra Bahudha Vadanti' (One exists, sages describe it variously - RV 1.164.46). As a result beliefs in Hinduism include polytheism, monotheism, monism, animism, or even atheism.


The term Hindu is derived from Sindhu, River Indus. In the Rig Veda, the Indo-Aryans mention their land as 'sapta sindhu' (the land of the seven rivers of the northwestern Indian subcontinent, one of them being the Indus). The term was used by Persians and later by Arabs for people who lived in the Indian subcontinent around or beyond the River Indus (S of Sindhu being replaced by H).

The Persian term was borrowed by the Ancient Greeks as Indos (H of Hindu being replaced by I) and India in English. The term 'hindu' was loaned back to Sanskrit and appeared in some early medieval texts (e.g., Bhavishya Purāna, Kālikā Purāna, Rāmakośa, Hemantakavikośa and Adbhutarūpakośa).

Core concepts

The Hindu faiths, practices and philosophies have evolved from the Vedic tradition (Vaidika paramparā). Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism all share common philosophical and spiritual traits with Hinduism in varying degrees.

The Eternal Way (Sanatana Dharma)

Sanātana Dharma—"The Eternal Dharma (Ethos, Law, Values)"—the traditional name of Hinduism, alludes to the idea that certain spiritual principles hold true forever, transcending man-made constructs and representing a pure science of consciousness. This consciousness is not merely that of the body or mind and intellect, but of a transcendental state that exists within and beyond our somatic existence, the unsullied 'Soul' of all. Religion to the Hindu is the eternal search for the divine Brahman (wordstem: / brəhmən /; nominative singular: brahma / brəhmə /), translated as the "Supreme Immanent and Transcendent Truth" or the Cosmic Spirit.

Hinduism teaches tolerance of other religions, as expressed in the Rig Veda verse:

ekam sat viprā bahudhā vadanti
Truth is One, but sages call it by many names
- Rig Veda 1:164:46.

Hinduism teaches universal peace and brotherhood:

"This world is one family" (Vasudaiva Kutumbakam)

Hinduism's aspiration may be best expressed in the following mantra from the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad:[7] OM Asato mā sadgamaya, tamaso mā jyotirgamaya, mrityormāmritam gamaya OM (Lead me) from falsehood to truth, from darkness to light, from death to immortality. [edit]

Basic beliefs

The Atha Naradiyamahapuranam describes the mechanics of the cosmos. Depicted here are Vishnu the Maintainer with his consort Lakshmi resting on Shesha Nag. The great sage Narada and Brahma the Creator are also pictured.

Themes common to the value system of Hindus are the belief in Dharma (individual ethics, duties and obligations), Samsāra (Reincarnation/rebirth), Karma ("actions", leading to a cause-and-effect relationship), and Moksha (salvation) for every soul through a variety of paths (known as margs or yogas), such as Bhakti (devotional service), Karma (selfless action) and Jñ¦¡­p;#257;na (enlightenment, knowledge), Raja (meditation) and belief in God (Īshvara). It should be noted that the view of 'God' varies from a monotheistic brand of a personality, father or mother figure, to that of a genderless, attributeless cosmic force or source. Reincarnation, or the soul's transmigration through a cycle of birth and death until it attains Mokṣha, is governed by Karma. Yoga, in its various forms (devotional, selfless action, meditational, psychophysical rebalancing, etc.) is a central means of achieving oneness, enlightenment, and peace.

The philosophy of Karma lays forth the results of free-willed actions, which leave their imprint on the soul or the self, called ātman. These actions determine the course of life and the life cycle for the soul in its subsequent life. Virtuous actions take the soul closer to the Supreme Divine and lead to a birth with higher consciousness. Evil actions hinder this recognition of the Supreme Divine, and the soul takes lower forms of worldly life. It should also be noted, however, that in many major texts and schools of thoughts, though binary oppositions like good and evil, light and darkness, pleasure and pain, may seem real, they are only mithya, or a skewed understanding of reality (a pseudoreality); in other words, it is ultimately the goal for such oppositions to be transcended in a state of dispassion or detachment, called vairagya. Such detachment does not imply a departure from the activities of the world, but rather equanimity and balance in the face of constant change, the inevitable highs and lows of life. This idea, that even the traditional opposition of good and evil ultimately is negated in the oneness of 'true reality,' is exemplified in such key Hindu works as the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, works by such saints and yogis as Shri Aurobindo, Shri Shankaracharya, Swami Vivekananda, and Patanjali, to name a few.

According to Hinduism, all existence, from vegetation to mankind, are subject to the eternal Dharma, which is the natural law. Even Heaven (Svarga Loka) and Hell (Naraka Loka) are temporary. Liberation from material existence and the cycle of birth and death to join, reach or develop a relationship with the "universal spirit", is known as Mokṣha, which is the ultimate goal of all Hindus. (Whether one seeks to join an impersonal universal spirit or develop a relationship with the Supreme in a personal form is a matter of personal choice.)

Other principles include the Guru-shishya tradition, the divinity of the word OM, the power of mantras and manifestations of the Divine's spirit in all forms of existence . According to Hinduism, the essential spark of the atman, that part of the individual which is Brahman, exists in every living being, consequently all living beings are divine. Another belief is although Hindu texts mention a class of foul-minded beings overcome by ego (demons, called Asuras or Rākṣasas), opposed to the celestial spirits (Devas), essential Hindu philosophy does not believe in any concept of a central Devil or Satan. Many of the asuras, for example, tread on the path of justice and were devotees of gods (not to be confused with deva). This does not mean that all the evil in the world is attributed to God, but that the evil (deed or thought) is ascribed to human ignorance.

Since the Hindu scriptures are essentially silent on the issue of religious conversion, the issue of whether Hindus evangelize is open to interpretations. [8] In practice, though, almost universally, Hindus do not evangelize. (See Conversion to Hinduism). Those who view Hinduism as being an ethnicity more than a religion (as some secular Jews view Judaism) tend not to believe that one can convert to Hinduism. However, those who see Hinduism primarily as a philosophy, a set of beliefs, or a way of life generally believe that one can convert to Hinduism by choice by incorporating Hindu beliefs into one's life. There is no formal conversion process, although in many denominations the ritual called "dikshaa" or "initiation" is seen as being the beginning of spiritual life, much like baptism in many Christian denominations. In any case, most Hindu denominations do not actively seek to recruit converts because they believe that the goals of spiritual life can be attained through any religion, so long as the religion is practiced sincerely. There are a number of Hindu "missionary" groups, however, that operate missions in non-Hindu countries for purposes of providing guidance to the public that can be applied to spiritual life within any religion. [edit]

Nature of God (Prakriti)

The Vedas depict Brahman as the Ultimate Reality, the Absolute or Universal Soul (Paramātman) [9]. It is the ultimate principle who is without a beginning, without an end, who is hidden in all and who is the cause, source, material and effect of all creation known, unknown and yet to happen in the entire universe. Brahman (not to be confused with the deity Brahmā) is seen as the unique panentheistic Cosmic Spirit. Brahman may be viewed as bereft of personal attributes — Nirguṇa Brahman (except the qualities of infinite truth, infinite consciousness and infinite bliss), or with auspicious manifestable attributes — Saguṇa Brahman.

Perhaps the best word in Hinduism to represent the concept of God is Īshvara (literally, the Supreme Lord) [10]. In Advaita Vedānta philosophy, Īshvara is simply the form of Brahman manifested upon the human mind. According to Smārta views, the Supreme Being can be with attributes, Saguṇa Brahman, and also be viewed with whatever attributes (e.g., a goddess) a devotee conceives. For the Hindus, Īshvara, who is one and only one, is full of innumerable auspicious qualities; He is omniscient, omnipotent, perfect, just, merciful, glorious, mysterious, and yet full of love. He is the Creator, the Ruler and the Destroyer of this universe. Some believe Him to be infinite and incorporeal. In Vaishnavism and Shaivism, Saguṇa Brahman is viewed solely as Viṣhṇu or Shiva. He is also called Bhagavān both in Sanskrit and in most modern Indian languages. [edit]

The many deities (Parts and Parcels of God)

Krishna revealing his universal form to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita Artwork ? courtesy of The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust

The Hindu religion also believes in many celestial entities, called Devas. The word Devas may variously be translated into English as gods, demigods, deities, celestial spirits or angels, none of which is an exact translation. The feminine of deva is devī. It is the worship of the devas that gives the impression that Hinduism is polytheistic. However, the terms Īshvara and devas must not be confused. Devas could be said to be as numerous as 330 million.[11] Hinduism is incorrect said to have 330 million Gods, which are more correctly devas, or celestial beings. The number is also not 330 million (or 33 crores) but the word 'koti' in sanskrit means crore as well as categories, representing 33 devas. Hinduism is ultimately monistic, which considers the One Reality, the Universal and non-dual Brahman, behind all forms. According to the philosophy of Mīmāṃsā, all the devas and devīs are the sovereign rulers of the forces of nature, and there is no one Supreme Īshvara as their Lord. To do a desired action, humans must please each or several of these devas by worshiping them with proper rituals. This view could be regarded as purely polytheistic. Although the later Mīmāṃsakās retracted this view and accepted Īshvara, many Hindus today still hold it. According to the philosophy of Advaita Vedānta, all the devas are simply mundane manifestations of the Supreme Lord (Īshvara) in the human mind and hence, ultimately, different manifestations of the One Brahman that the human mind conceives.[12]. Advaita philosophy holds that in order to worship the formless Īshvara, the devotee conceives a physical form of God in his mind for the sake of worshiping Him with love (bhakti). According to the philosophies of Nyāya, Vaisheṣhika, and Yoga, the Vaishnavite schools, and certain schools of Shaivite thought, the devas are those celestial beings who are subservient to the Supreme Lord Īshvara but are above human beings. Thus they preside over the forces of nature and act as a link between God and the mortal world. They all derive their power from God, under whose control they always work.

Whatever their wider relation may be, the devas (also called devatās) are an integral part of the colorful Hindu culture. The 33 early Vedic devas included Indra, Agni, Soma, Varuṇa, Mitra, Savitṛ, Rudra, Prajāpati, Viṣhṇu, Aryaman and the Ashvins; important devīs were Sarasvatī, Ūṣā and Pṛithvī. Indra is traditionally called the king of the demigods. The Purāṇas laud Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Shiva (sometimes called the Trimūrti), signifying respectively the creative, ruling and destroying aspects of the same One God. Brahmā, Viṣnu and Shiva are not regarded as ordinary devas but as Mahādevas. The Purāṇas also laud other devas, such as Gaṇesha and Hanumān, and avatāras such as Rāma and Kriṣhṇa. Devīs, worshiped as the mother, include Lakṣmī, Sarasvatī and Parvatī, and Durgā and her forms such as Kālī.

In Hinduism the scriptures recommend that for the satisfaction of a particular material desire a person may worship a particular deity.

Hindus accept that ultimately there is only One Supreme Reality, diversely manifested. "The Ultimate Reality is the same, but different people call it by different names" (ekam sat viprā bahudhā vadanti — Rigveda 1.164.46).

Practice (Yoga Dharma)

Hinduism includes a variety of practices, primarily spiritual service in devotion (Bhakti Yoga), selfless service (Karma Yoga), knowledge (Jñ¦¡­p;#257;na Yoga) and meditation (Rāja Yoga). These are described in the two principal texts of Hindu Yoga: The Bhagavad Gītā and the Yoga Sūtras. The Upanishads are also important as a philosophical foundation for these practices. The Yogas provide a sort of alternate path (or faiths) that links together various Hindu beliefs, and can also be used to categorise non-Hindu beliefs that are seen as paths to mokṣha, or nirvāṇa. [edit]

Puruṣhārthas - The four pursuits of life

Another major aspect of Hindu dharma that is common to practically all Hindus is that of the puruṣhārthas, the "four pursuits of life". They are dharma, artha, kāma and mokṣha. It is said that all beings seek kāma (pleasure, physical or emotional) and artha (material wealth), but soon, with maturity, learn to govern these legitimate desires within the higher framework of dharma (righteousness). Of course, the only goal that is truly ultimate, whose attainment results in ultimate happiness, is mokṣha (salvation), also known as Mukti (spiritual liberation), Samādhi, Nirvāṇa, or escape from Samsāra (the cycle of births and deaths).

Another perspective on these (i.e. dharma, artha, kama, moksha) is that artha and kama are to be pursued like a river which is bounded by dharma and moksha on the two sides. [edit]

Varnashrama Dharma

Ashramas - The four stages of life

Ideally (though not feasible for most of today's lay Hindus), the human life is divided into four Āshramas ("phases" or "stages"). They are Brahmacharya, Gṛihastha, Vānaprastha and Sanyāsa.

The first quarter of one's life, Brahmacharya ("meditation, or study of the Brahman") is spent in celibate, controlled, sober and pure contemplation under a Guru, building up the mind for the realization of truth. Grihastha is the householder's stage, alternatively known as samsara, in which one marries and satisfies kāma and artha within one's married and professional life. Vānaprastha is gradual detachment from the material world. This may involve giving over duties to one's children, spending more time in contemplation of the Divine, and making holy pilgrimages. Finally, in Sannyāsa, one goes into renunciation, often envisioned as seclusion, to find the Divine through detachment from worldly life and peacefully shed the body for the next life (or for liberation). [edit]

Varnas -The four classes of society

Hindu society has traditionally been divided into four classes, based on profession — the Brāhmaṇas (also anglicised as Brahmins): teachers and priests; the Kṣhatriyas: warriors, kings and administrators; the Vaishyas: farmers, merchants, herdsmen and businessmen; and the Shūdras: servants and labourers.

Each of these classes was called a varṇa, and the system was called Varna Vyavasthā. Some say it is debatable whether the Varna Vyavasthā system is an integral part of Hinduism or not and whether or not it is strictly sanctioned by the scriptures.[14] The Shruti texts make very rare mentions of this system, without providing explicit definitions. But the Bhagavad Gītā (4.13) explicitly mentions that the four varṇa divisions are created by Bhagavān, the Supreme Lord. And the Smṛiti texts (including the Manusmṛiti) are more explicit in their categorisation of the classes [15] and framing rather strict rules about this system. During its early development, the social structure was based upon the profession. The Gītā (4.13) explicitly says that one's varṇa is to be understood from one's qualities and one's work, not one's birth. It is noteworthy that many great sages became Brahmins. Vishvāmitra was a Kṣhatriya king before he became recognized as a great Brahmin sage. Vālmiki, once a robber, became a great sage while Veda Vyāsa was the son of a fisherwoman [16]. A hymn from the Rig Veda says : "I am a bard, my father is a physician, my mother's job is to grind the corn......" (Rig Veda 9.112.3).

Though historians do not agree on the specific period, the social system later became hierarchical and based upon birth, leading to the evolution of several sub-castes (along with a class of outcastes — now known as Dalits — outside the Varṇa Vyavasthā) and the practice of social discrimination of the Shūdra and Dalit classes, eventually forming the caste system as we know of today. [edit]


Main article: Hindu denominations

The temple of Pashupatinath in Nepal is regarded as one of the most sacred places in Shaivism.

Contemporary Hinduism is now divided into four major divisions: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, and Smartism. The primary differences are between the sects of Vaishnavism, which conceives God as Viṣhṇu, and Shaivism, which conceives God as Shiva. Vaishnavas make up the majority of Hindus in India. Shaktism worships a female divinity or goddess, Devī, sometimes as the power of Shiva personified (in which case we could classify the approach as belonging to a subsect of Shaivism). Smartism, in contrast, believes that all religions are the same and lead to a pantheistic God. A number of movements have also given rise to sects like Swami Dayananda Saraswati's Ārya Samāj, which condemns iconolatry and veneration of multiple deities and focuses on the Vedas and the Vedic fire sacrifices (yajñ¡©®

Each of the major denominations share rituals, beliefs, traditions and personal deities with each other, but each sect has a different philosophy on how to achieve life's ultimate goal (Mokṣha, salvation) and on their concept of God (Īshvara). However, each denomination respects all others, and conflict of any kind is rare. In fact, many Hindus will not claim to belong to any denomination at all. [edit]

Hindu sacred texts

Main article: Hindu scripture

Classification of Major Scriptures

The overwhelming majority of Hindu sacred texts are composed in the Sanskrit language. Indeed, much of the morphology and linguistic philosophy inherent in the learning of Sanskrit is sometimes claimed to be inextricably linked to study of the Vedas and relevant Hindu scriptures.


The Rig Veda is one of the world's oldest religious texts. Shown here is a Rig Veda manuscript in Devanagari, early 19th century.

The Hindus refer to the Vedas (वेद, literally, "Knowledge") as Shruti (literally, "that which has been heard"). The Vedas are said to have been revealed by the Brahman to the Ṛiṣhis while the latter were in deep meditation. While the overwhelming majority of Hindus may never read the Vedas, Hindus revere the Vedas as a transcendental source of "Eternal Knowledge". The four Vedas (the Ṛig-, Yajur-, Sāma- and Atharva Vedas) are various shākhās, or branches, of knowledge. Depending on the branch, different commentaries and instructions are associated with each Veda. The Ṛigveda contains mantras to invoke the devas for the fire-sacrifice rituals, the Sāmaveda has chants to be sung there, the Yajurveda has actual prose instructions for the sacrifices, and the Atharvaveda comprises semi-magical spells against enemies, sorcerers, diseases and mistakes made during the sacrificial ritual. The Vedas, apart from the hymn (mantra) or the Saṃhitā (संहिता) portion, also have three layers of commentaries integrally incorporated within them. These are the Brāhmaṇas (ब्राह्मण, not to be confused with Brahman, or the brahmin caste), which contain prose commentaries on the rituals; the Āraṇyakas (आरण्यक), which contain the mystical explanations of the mantras; and the Upaniṣhads (उपनिषद्), which contain highly philosophical and metaphysical writings about the nature of, and the relationship between, the soul (ātman) and Brahman. Each Veda also has various lawbooks and ritual manuals loosely associated with it, like the Dharmashāstras and Grihyasūtras, but most people do not consider them an integral part of the Shruti, or the Vedic literature.

The Upaniṣhads set Hindu philosophy apart with their embrace of transcendent and yet multiple immanent forces, subjectively realized by each individual. Some see these forces as an identification of unity in diversity. Modern Indology suggests that early Hinduism relied mainly on the four Vedas whereas Classical Hinduism, from the Yoga and Vedanta to Tantra and Bhakti streams, was moulded around the Upaniṣhads. The Vedas are full of mysticism and allegories. Many Hindus consider the very sound of the Vedic mantras purifying. Hence the rigor in learning pronunciation. The rigorous oral tradition for transmitting the Vedas has helped preserve them.

See also: Shrauta

Bhagavad Gita

Main article: Bhagavad Gita

Bhagavad Gītā (भगवद् गीता), often referred to as the Gītā, is one of the most popular sacred texts of Hinduism. It is an integral part of the epic Mahābhārata and contains philosophical sermons taught by Kṛiṣhṇa, an incarnation of Viṣhṇu, to the Pāṇḍava prince Arjuna just before a great war. Unlike the Vedas, which are more esoteric and intricate, the Gītā is read by many practicing Hindus. It is a summary of the Vedic, Yogic, Vedantic and Tantric branches of philosophy. The Bhagavad Gītā is described as the essence of the Vedas.[17] [edit]


Main article: Smriti

The Hindu texts other than the Shrutis are called, as a group, the Smṛitis (lit., "memory"). All of them laud the Vedas. The most notable of the Smritis are the Itihāsas (epics), such as the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa, considered sacred by almost all followers of Sanātana Dharma. Their stories are arguably familiar to the vast majority of Hindus. Also widely known are the eighteen Purāṇas ("ancient histories"). The Purāṇas (not historical in the usual Western sense) impart Vedic ideas through vivid narratives concerning various deities. Among the Purāṇas today's Hindus consider important is the Srīmad Bhāgavatam, described as the spotless epic detailing devotion to Viṣhnu as the highest goal. Many Vaishnavites regard it as being the essence of Vedic thought. Often considered important, too, are the Devī Mahātmya, an ode to Devī, and the Yoga Sūtras, a key meditative yoga text of Shri Patañª¡¬i. Also commanding respect from Hindu sects of various persuasions are a number of revered Hindu Tantras, the Manusmṛiti, and various Sūtras. Among these are the Mahanirvāṇa Tantra, Tirumantiram and Shiva Sūtras.

The Rāmāyaṇa, the Mahābhārata and many Purāṇas, which today's Hindus read far more widely than the Vedas, do much to inspire the temple and icon worship of modern Hinduism. Many Hindus attach more importance to the ethics and the metaphorical meanings derived from these texts than to the literal narratives themselves. Other important scriptures are the sectarian Hindu Āgamas, which are texts related to rituals and worship dedicated to Viṣhnu, Shiva and Devī. The Shruti is generally held to take precedence over the Smṛiti in any apparent dispute.[18] [edit]

Origins and society

Origins of Hinduism

Main article: History of Hinduism

Sacred Mount Kailash in Tibet is regarded as the spiritual center of the world.

The roots of Hinduism date from around 3000–1000 BCE. The earliest evidence for elements of the Hindu faith is sometimes claimed to date back as far as 3000 BCE[19] , though the beliefs and practices of pre-classical era (1500-500 BCE) are more accurately termed, "Vedic religion." Fully-formed Hinduism did not emerge until these Vedic traditions interacted with the shramanical movements of Buddhism and Jainism.[20] The synthesis of Vedic ritual and pantheon with the non-violent and gnostic traditions of the shramanas yielded the complex we know today as "Hinduism."

From the perspective of a believing Hindu, however, the Sanātana Dharma propounds eternal and universal principles with no beginning or end. According to the Purāṇas, Kṛṣṇa spoke the Bhagavad-Gita on the battlefield of Kurukshetra in 3102 B.C.; just prior to the commencement of the Mahabharata war.[21] Krishna's incarnation was preceded by Rāma’s in the Tretā Yuga according to the Rāmāyaṇa Epic. Many Hindus believe that their religious tradition was fully formed by the time of Rāma, the seventh incarnation of Lord Viṣṇu. Modern Indology dates the roots of Hinduism to about 1500-500 BCE, based on linguistic and literary data from the Rigveda, believed to be composed from around the mid 2nd millennium BCE.

The origin of collective Hindu thought cannot be ascribed to any single founder (though most of its later schools of philosophy and belief can be), or associated with a specific time or a single place of foundation. The Vedas, the earliest Hindu scriptures, are the compilation of spiritual laws and truths binding upon all of creation. It is believed that each Veda was revealed to enlightened sages, called Ṛṣis, over a long period of time. Hinduism, along with Buddhism and Jainism, is regarded to be an Ārya Dharma, approximately translating to "noble religion". Many times Hindus (e.g. Arya Samaj) call Hinduism itself as the Arya Dharma. More specifically Hinduism is the "Sanatan Arya Dharma." [edit]

Vedic religion

Main article: historical Vedic religion

Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world and is considered as one of the most sacred places of pilgrimage for Hindus irrespective of denomination.[22]

Modern Hinduism grew out of the knowledge described in the Vedas. The earliest of these, the Rigveda centers on worship of celestial spirits such as Indra, Varuna and Agni, and on the Soma ritual. The early Indo-Aryans would perform fire-sacrifices, called yajñ¡ ¨यज्ञ), with the chanting of the Vedic mantras, but they built no temples, idols or icons. Probably animals were also sacrificed in larger yajñ¡³¬ as claimed by Buddhist and Jain texts. The age and origins of the Vedas themselves are disputed, but it is clear that they were transmitted orally for several centuries, if not several millennia. They show strong similarities to the language and religion of the Avesta (of Zoroastrianism), as well as more distantly to other Indo-European languages and religions (see Indo-Aryan migration). The Ṛgvedic deity Dyaus, regarded as the father of the other deities, is linguistically cognate with Zeus—the king of the gods in Greek mythology, Iovis (gen. of Jupiter)—the king of the gods in Roman mythology, and Ziu in Germanic mythology[5]. Other Vedic deities also have cognates with those found in other Indo-European speaking peoples' mythologies; see Proto-Indo-European religion.


Main article: Mandir

Hindu temples have their principal shrine facing the rising sun and their entrance facing east. An important aspect of the temple design is that it is intended to lead from the temporal world to the eternal one. Shown here is the Tirupati temple, the most visited religious shrine in the world and the second richest religious shrine after the Vatican.[23]

Hindu temples inherited rich and ancient rituals and customs, and have occupied a special place in Hindu society. They are usually dedicated to a primary deity, called the presiding deity, and other subordinate deities associated with the main deity. However, some mandirs are dedicated to multiple deities. Most major temples are constructed as per the āgama shāstras and many are sites of pilgrimage. An important element of temple architecture and many Hindu households in general is Vaastu Shastra, the science of aesthetic and auspicious design.

For many Hindus, the four Shankarāchāryas (the abbots of the monasteries of Joshimath, Puri, Shringeri and Dwarka — four of the holiest pilgrimage centers — sometimes to which a fifth at Kanchi is also added) are viewed as the four highest Patriarchs of the Hindudom. Temples are a place for darshan (vision of the Divine), pūjā, meditation, and religious congregation — among other religious activities. Pūjā or worship, frequently involves veneration of a mūrti (statue in which divine presence is invoked) in conjunction with the singing or chanting of meditational prayer in the form of mantras. Devotional songs called bhajans (written primarily from the 14th-17th centuries), kīrtan (devotional songs), and āratī are sometimes sung in conjunction with the performance of the pūjā. This rather organic system of devotion attempts to aid the individual in connecting with God. [edit]

Current geographic distribution

Main article: Hinduism by country

The largest religious gathering on Earth. [24] Around 70 million people from around the world participated in Kumbh Mela at one of the Hindu Holy city Prayaga (also known as Allahabad) (India).

Of the total Hindu population of the world, approx. 900 million of them live in India. Significant numbers of Hindus reside in Bali, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Fiji, Guyana, Nepal, Mauritius, Suriname, Singapore and Trinidad and Tobago. In Nepal and Bali, Hinduism is the major religion, and is still reflected in the traditional culture and architecture. There are also sizeable Hindu populations in Sri Lanka (1.42 million)[25], Pakistan (2 million)[26], Malaysia (1.5 million)[27], United States (766,000)[28], South Africa (654,714)[29], the Middle East (1.4 million)[30] and the United Kingdom (558,342)[31]. [edit]

Hindu philosophy: the six Vedic schools of thought Main article: Hindu philosophy

The six Āstika or orthodox schools (accepting the authority of the Vedas) of Hindu philosophy are Nyāya, Vaisheṣhika, Sāṃkhya, Yoga, Pūrva Mīmāṃsā (also simply called Mīmāṃsā), and Uttara Mīmāṃsā (also called Vedānta).[32] The non-Vedic schools are called Nāstika, or heterodox, and refer to Buddhism, Jainism and Lokāyata although anyone who is not an Astik is a Nastik. The schools that continue to enrich Hinduism today are Yoga, Pūrva Mīmāṃsā, and Vedānta. The six schools are known as "Shat Astik (Hindu) Darshana."


Main article: Yoga

In Hinduism, Yoga is considered to be the ultimate way of attaining spiritual goals. The earliest written accounts of yoga appear in the Rig Veda, which began to be codified between 1500 and 1200 BCE.

Yoga means union and is generally interpreted as union with the Divine, or integration of body, mind, and spirit. Its goal is mokṣha, or samādhi. It, like the Upaniṣads, seeks liberation through the disunion of the spirit (Puruṣha) and the nature (Prakṛiti), through meditational, physical and spiritual practices, along with a firm belief in God (Īshvara).

The Upaniṣads, sage Patañª¡¬i’s Yoga Sūtra and the Bhagavad Gītā are indispensable literature to the study of Yoga; they elaborate on Rāja Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga. Of these, the Yoga Sūtra is essentially a compilation and systematization of meditational Yoga philosophy.

Purva Mimamsa

Main article: Purva Mimamsa

Among the six schools of philosophy, a prominent school which advocates ritualistic sacrifices and karma for the freedom of the soul is called Pūrva (i.e., earlier) Mīmāṃsā school (also simply called Mīmāṃsā) or Karma Mimamsa. Consequently, this school's most valuable contribution to Hinduism was its formulation of the rules of interpretation of Vedas. Its adherents believed that true knowledge is self-evidently proven, and tried to find out the basis of the Vedic ritualism through reasoning. This school of thought forms the basis of Modern Hindu ritualism (strictly followed only by a minority), which believes in the inherent power of rituals.[33] [edit]

==Uttara Mimamsa: The Three Schools of Vedanta]]

Main article: Vedanta

The Uttara ("later") Mimamsa school is also known as Vedanta. Vedanta means the anta or culmination or essence of the Vedas. It is a principal branch of Hindu philosophy. Literally, the end of the Vedas is constituted by the series of literature termed as the Aranyakas (the forest scriptures), of which the Upanishads form the chief constituent. The primary philosophy captured in the Upanishads, that of one absolute reality termed as Brahman is the main principle of Vedanta. The Vedanta Sutras, Vedanta thought split into three groups, initiated by the thinking and writing of Adi Shankara.[34] [edit]

Non duality: Advaita Vedanta

Main article: Advaita Vedanta

Advaita literally means "not two"; being non-dualistic, Advaita Vedanta encompasses oneness and goes even beyond (oneness is an affirmation, and "advaita" is a negation; the negation of duality encompasses the affirmation of unity). Its consolidator was Shankara (788-820). Adi Shankara expounded his theories largely based on previous teachings of the Upanishads and his own guru Gaudapada. In this philosophy, when a human being tries to know the Cosmic Spirit (Brahman) through his mind, Brahman becomes the Supreme Lord (Īshvara), under the effect of an illusionary power of Brahman called Māyā. An analogy is given that when the reflection of Brahman falls upon the mirror of Māyā, its image is seen as Īshvara. The material universe and the appearance of the single Atman to be seen as innumerable individual souls are also because of Māyā. Note that God is still perfect and untouched by the profanity of his divine power Māyā, just as a magician is not surprised by his own magic. In this level of reality—the pragmatic level, God creates and rules the world with the help of his Māyā. True knowledge of the Brahman (Jñ¦¡­p;#257;na) is the only way to liberation; when the curtain of Māyā gets removed, the person realizes that there is absolutely no difference between the individual soul (ātman) and Brahman—which is the transcendental level of reality. However, good Karma and Bhakti are recognized as great help in attaining true knowledge. Adi Shankara denounced caste and meaningless ritual as foolish, and in his own charismatic manner, exhorted the true devotee to meditate on God's love and apprehend truth. [edit]

Qualified non-dualism: Vishistadvaita Bhakti-Vedanta

Main article: Vishistadvaita

Rāmānuja (1040 - 1137) was the foremost proponent of the concept of Sriman Nārāyaṇa as the supreme Brahman. He taught that Ultimate Reality had three aspects: Īshvara (Viṣhṇu), chit (soul) and achit (matter). Viṣhṇu is the only independent reality, while souls and matter are dependent on God Viṣhṇu for their existence. Because of this qualification of Ultimate reality, Rāmānuja’s system is known as qualified non-dualism. Karma along with Bhakti for is the true path for liberation. [edit]

Dualism: Dvaita Vedanta

Main article: Dvaita

Like Rāmānuja, Madhva (1238 - 1317) identified God with Viṣhṇu, but his view was purely dualistic in that he understood a fundamental differentiation between the God, the individual soul and the material world and thus the system is called Dvaita (dualistic) Vedānta or tattvavada (argument for reality). Dvaita provides a greater role to Bhakti than other schools of Vedanta. [edit]

Important themes and symbols in Hinduism

Tilaka (symbol on the forehead or between the eyebrows)

Main article: Tilaka

The tilaka (or tilak) is a mark worn on the forehead and other parts of the body for spiritual reasons. Hindus traditionally wear tilaka, in one form or another, as a mark of faith in a particular tradition.[35] Hindus may wear tilaka always or especially on religious occasions.

The shape of the tilaka often represents devotion to a certain deity: a 'U' shape for Vishnu, three horizontal lines for Shiva. Some Hindus meld both in an amalgam marker signifying Hari-Hara (Vishnu-Shiva).

To denote marriage and auspiciousness, married women today commonly wear on the forehead a decorative dot, or bindī. In Southern India, this is called pottu.

Ahimsa (non-violence), vegetarian diet and the cow

Main articles: Ahimsa, Sacred cow, and Vegetarianism

Ahimsa is a concept that advocates non-violence and a respect for all forms of life — human as well as animal. The term ahimsa first appears in the Upanishads, and is the first of the five Yamas, or eternal vows/restraints in Raja Yoga. In part at least, it has also been influenced from the teachings of Buddhism and Jainism.

A large section of Hindus embrace vegetarianism in a bid to respect higher forms of life. While vegetarianism is not a dogma or requirement, it is recommended as a sattwic (purifying) lifestyle. About 30% of today's Hindu population, especially in orthodox communities in South India, states like Gujarat, which has had significant Jain influence, and in many Brahmin and Marwari enclaves around the subcontinent, are lacto-vegetarian.[36] Some avoid even onion and garlic, as they are regarded as rajasic/tamasic. Another 20% of the Hindu population practice vegetarianism on certain days, especially on the day of their deity of devotion.

Those Hindus who do eat meat (usually chicken, goat and fish) predominantly abstain from beef. Some even avoid the use of cow's leather products. This is possibly because the largely pastoral Vedic people, and subsequent generations, relied so heavily on the cow for milk and dairy products, tilling of fields and fuel for fertilizer, that its status as a 'caretaker' led to identifying it as an almost maternal figure (hence the term gau mata, or Cow Mother). While most contemporary Hindus do not actually worship the cow (though many venerate her), it still holds an honored place in Hindu society — as the best representative of the benevolence of all animals on man. There exists a legal ban against cow-slaughter in almost all states of the Indian Union, however over 30,000 illegal slaughterhouses run in India.

Hindu symbolism

Among the most revered symbols in Hinduism, three are quintessentially a part of its culture, and representative of its general ethos:

Aum (Om)

Aum (or Om, ॐ) is the sacred symbol that represents God (Brahman). It is prefixed and sometimes suffixed to all Vedic mantras and prayers. It is often said to represent God in the three aspects of Vishnu (A), Shiva (U) and Brahmā (M). As the divine primordial vibration, it represents the one ultimate reality, underlying and encompassing all of nature and all of existence. In the Upanishads it also appears as an affirmation, as in allowing or in saying 'yes'. The written syllable serves as a deeply significant and distinctly recognizable symbol for Hindu dharma.


Swāstika (卐) is an Arya, or noble and auspicious, symbol. It is a symbol of the action of the Principle on Manifestation. It also stands for purity of soul, satya, truth, and stability within the power of Brahma or, alternatively, of Surya, the sun. Its rotation in four directions has been used to represent many ideas, but primarily describes the four directions, the four Vedas and their harmonious whole. It has been used predominantly in Hinduism since the early Vedic culture, and is still widespread in the Indian subcontinent. Many other cultures continue to hold it as auspicious, in spite of its recent subversion by Nazism, which used a tilted version of this symbol under the name Hakenkreuz, and purportedly associated it with the notion of "purity of race".

Sri Yantra

Sri Chakra Yantra or Yantra of Tripura Sundari (commonly referred to as Sri Yantra) is the most ubiquitous yantra in Hinduism. The Sri Yantra is a mandala primarily formed by nine interlocking triangles. Four of these triangles are orientated upright representing Shiva - the masculine. Five of these triangles are inverted triangles represent Shakti - the feminine. Together the nine triangles form a web symbolic of the entire cosmos, a womb symbolic of creation and together express non-duality. All other yantras are derivatives of this supreme yantra. [edit]

Murtis (icons)

Main article: Murti

The dancing posture of Siva, known as the Nataraja, is often said to be the supreme statement of Hindu art

Ganesha is the son of Shiva and Parvati (pictured left). He is widely worshipped as Vignesh, the remover of obstacles.

Worship of God (the unique truth that can be seen by humans in any manifestation) is often represented symbolically through the aid of icons (mūrtiti) which are conduits for the devotee's consciousness, markers for the human mind that signify the ineffable and illimitable nature of the power and grandeur of God. They are symbols of the greater principle and according to the understanding of the worshipper, the concept or entity is sometimes presumed to be present in them (in monotheistic doctrines) and sometimes not (in monistic doctrines). It bears mention that Shiva is almost always worshipped as a pillar-like stone called Lingam. Some interpret the term lingam as a Phallus due to its shape and certain Puranic stories, but actually, this Sanskrit word means any sign, symbol, mark or badge in general. Others interpret it as a mystic column (stambha) trying to represent the infiniteness of Shiva.

In a Hindu Temple, the divine spirit/energy is commonly invoked into the Murtis at the time of their consecration. Veneration of such Murtis is done everyday in a temple. Most practicing Hindus also maintain a Puja room like a temple in their homes for worship and meditation. The icons could be two-dimensional paintings or three-dimensional statues.


Main article: Mantra

In Hindu thought, meditation according to Vedanta is the repetition of a sacred formula - a mantra. Many mantras are from the Vedas. Om is the first mantra in the Vedas and the Upanishads. Much of mantra yoga, as it is called, is done through japa (repetition, usually through a rosary). Mantras are chanted, through their meaning, sound, and chanting style, to help meditational focus for the sadhaka (practitioner). They can also be used to aid in expression of love for the deity, another facet of Bhakti yoga akin to the understanding of the murti. They often give courage in exigent times and serve to help 'invoke' one's inner spiritual strength.[37] Indeed, Mahatma Gandhi's dying words are said to have been a two-word mantra to the Lord Rama: "Hé ’am!"'.

The most revered mantra in Hinduism is the famed Gayatri Mantra of the Rig Veda 3.62.10. Many Hindus to this day, in a tradition that has continued unbroken from the ancient times, perform morning ablutions at the bank of a sacred river (especially the Ganga/Ganges) while chanting Gayatri and Mahamrityunjaya mantra.[citation needed]Sanskrit is mostly used as a ceremonial language in Hindu religious rituals in the forms of hymns and mantras.

See also


Related systems and religions

External links

  • A Tribute To Hinduism - This site catalogs thoughts of world-renowned intellectuals regarding Hinduism, recommends books for further reading, and provides useful links for further research.
  • Hinduism.co.za
  • Heart of Hinduism: An overview of Hindu traditions produced by practitioners. Based on a widely-used UK schools text
  • Paper on Hinduism by Swami Vivekananda - Presented at World Parliament of Religion in 1893 (Text + Audio Version)
  • Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies Lectures and seminars in MP3 Audio format by the OCHS as reference material for scholars and students.
  • Authentic Hinduism Encyclopedia
  • MSN Encarta - Hinduism
  • BBC Religion and Ethics on Hinduism
  • Dharma Central's facts about Hinduism
  • Hindu
  • Hindunet
  • Hindu scriptures in streaming audio
  • Hinduism and Hinduism resources
  • International Society for Krishna Consciousness - From the Vaisnava Tradition of Hinduism.