Hinduism- The Eternal Faith

With over 800 million followers worldwide, Hinduism is the third largest religion on the planet today. Understanding its basic history and beliefs is important for understanding world culture and having intelligent conversations about the religion with its adherents.

INTRODUCTION TO HINDUISM

There is no single founding figure in the history of Hinduism. Most scholars affirm that the religion and its beliefs developed slowly over time, beginning with the invasion of India in 1500 BC. The Aryans that moved into India at that time brought with them a variety of beliefs that elsewhere developed into Zoroastrianism.

Depending on how they are dated, it was around 1500 BC that many Hindus believe their scriptures known as the Vedas were revealed. Hindus will often use the term to cover all of their sacred texts, but scholars customarily speak of the Rig-Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda, and the Atharva Veda as being the Vedas. These are records of religious knowledge that were collected over the course of 1,000 years including hymns, mantras, magic spells, chants and more. They are written in Sanskrit.

Later in this period, an important text called the Code of Manu was written. The Code of Manu is part of the Smriti collection of sacred texts, which are metrical sacred texts that are of secondary authority to the Vedas and Upanishads. The Code of Manu formalizes the caste system that divides Hindu society into four different strata — (in descending hierarchical order) the Brahmins (priests and scholars), Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vaisyas (merchants and land owners) and Shudras (workers). There are many subdivisions within these castes, but the Shudras are the lowest caste and are held to serve the other three.

The caste system is important to the belief in samsara or reincarnation. Death is not the end of existence in Hindu thought but leads to a rebirth in one’s next life. Karma or “cause and effect” determines what will happen in the next life. If a person does bad, he or she may be reborn as a lower caste member or even a lower creature. If they do good, they will be reborn as a higher caste member or creature. The goal in Hinduism is to escape this cycle of rebirth, which is here defined only in simple terms for the whole process is far more complex.

In the sixth century BC, the Upanishads began to be written as commentaries on the Vedas. Together with the Vedas they make up a collection of sacred writings called the ?Sruti. The teaching of the Upanishads is known as Vedanta and they affirm the existence of Brahman, an impersonal, all-pervasive being. Only Brahman is real, everything else is mere illusion (maya). Deep within all people is Atman, which we might regard as the soul. Atman is identical to Brahman though temporarily not fully integrated within it, and the goal of man is to discover the Atman-Brahman identity through a life of contemplation and withdrawal. If this is achieved, at death the Atman-Brahman reality is truly achieved and the Atman reenters Brahman, meaning that reincarnation is over and all sense of personal identity is lost (Nirvana).

These beliefs are basic and implicit for all Hindus, but much of popular Hinduism today is based on the Bhagavad Gita, another sacred text written around 200 BC. This form of Hinduism emphasizes devotion to one of the many Hindu deities in the pantheon of gods. There are dozens of gods in Hinduism that most will regard as lesser beings than or manifestations of Brahman. Stories about many of these gods are quite old and recorded in Sanskrit epic poems known as Itihasas and storied text called the Puranas.

As should be clear, Hindu beliefs are complex and unlike a faith like Christianity, it is nearly impossible to systematize the theology of the religion. It is possible, however, to identify certain schools of thoughts or trends in Hinduism. There have been many philosophical schools within Hinduism, and one of the most important is the Nyaya school that dates from the second century AD. Based on the teachings of Aksapada Gautama, this school has tended to interpret the variations of Hindu faith and practice monotheistically.

Until the rise of the British Empire in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Hinduism remained largely localized to India and other parts of southeast Asia. Following Britain’s colonization of India beginning in the nineteenth century, knowledge of Hinduism became more widespread in the Western world. Notable figures like Mahatma Gandhi in the twentieth century are today some of the most famous Hindus in history. Gandhi is especially notable for questioning the caste system as unjust, and many scholars wonder today what the future of the religion will look like as the Westernization of India causes many to rethink this key component of Hinduism.

Hindu homes will have a personal altar space devoted to gods important to that home, often with pictures of their guru or teacher to remind them of that guru’s teaching. Offerings of food and flowers to the god or gods are offered daily on the altar.

Divali or the festival of lights is one of the most important holidays in Hinduism. It is designed to celebrate the triumph of good over evil and includes the lighting of lamps, fireworks, and the distribution of sweets and gifts.

The river Ganges in India is very significant in Hinduism. Most Hindus will try to bathe in the river once in their lifetime, believing that it will cleanse them of their sins. Many keep a small bottle of water of river water in their home for spiritual purposes.

GODS IN HINDUISM

Because of the variety within Hinduism, it can be difficult to get a handle on its system of gods and goddesses. Most Hindus regard the various deities as manifestations of one aspect of Brahman, the impersonal reality behind all things.

Three Chief Gods (Trimurti)

1. Brahma — Brahma is the creator god and is typically depicted with four heads, each of which recites one of the Vedas. Somewhat puzzling is the fact that Brahma inspires very little devotion in modern Hinduism.

2. Vishnu — One of the most popular gods is Vishnu, the preserver of the universe. He is depicted as a blue-skinned, four-armed male, and his consort is Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Vishnu is known for having many avatars or incarnations including Krishna and Gautama Buddha (though Buddhists disagree with this assessment of their main teacher).

3. Shiva — Shiva is the destroyer and is represented as dancing or deep in meditation. Sati is his consort and Shiva is also a very important and beloved deity in Hinduism. He destroys the world so Brahma can recreate it in an endless cycle of samsara.

A (Very) Select List of Other Deities

1. Ganesha — Ganesha is the object of devotion in nearly every branch of Hinduism and is depicted with a large elephant head. He is popularly regarded as the remover of obstacles.

2. Indra — Indra is the god of war and is often depicted with a yellowish or brown body. Indra is not regarded as highly as the top three gods or even the other lesser gods like Ganesha.

3. Agni — Agni is the red, two-faced, three-legged god of fire. Seven rays of light are often seen shining forth from his body.

4. Brihaspati — Brihaspati is the god of piety and is often seen interceding with the other gods on behalf of mankind. He is yellow-colored and carries beads, a lotus, and a stick.

IMPORTANT RESOURCES FOR FURTHER STUDY

 General Hinduism Information

Beliefnet: Hinduism — Beliefnet’s page on the Hindu religion

Hinduism Here — some papers on Hinduism in America

Hinduism Homepage — a scholarly page with an overview of many elements of the Hindu religion

Hinduism Today — a notable magazine devoted to Hinduism

History of Hinduism — U.S. government site on the history of Hinduism

Religions of the World: Hinduism — Minnesota State University webpage on Hinduism

Learning Sanskrit

Acharya — basic in-home lessons on Sanskrit and other Sanskrit resources

American Sanskrit Institute — an institute devoted to education

The Devanagari Alphabet — page that teaches the Devanagari Alphabet, the letters of Sanskrit

Sanskrit Library — registration required for this free, comprehensive Sanskrit learning and Sanskrit research site

Sanskrit Goodies — some downloadable files to learn the Sanskrit language

Books on Hinduism

Asian Religions Bibliographies — comprehensive bibliographies on Hinduism and other Asian religions compiled by college professors

The Bhagavad Gita — online version of this important Hindu Text

Encyclopedia of Hinduism — homepage for a scholarly work on Hinduism that is presently in progress

Online Books Page: Hinduism — links to dozens of online books about Hinduism

The Vedas Online — online repository of the Vedas, the oldest sacred texts of Hinduism

FAQs on Hinduism

Answered: FAQs About Hinduism — some FAQS on Hinduism’s history, scriptures, and more

Ask the Hindu Pundit — a representative of the Hindu Council UK answers some common questions regarding Hinduism and Hindus

FAQs: Hinduism — a noted swami answers some basic questions about Hinduism

Hinduism Through Questions and Answers — a guide to the Hindu religion in a question-and-answer format

Questions on Hinduism, A Perspective — yet more questions and answers about Hinduism

Information on Gita

Essays on Gita — Sri Aurobindo offers several essays on the Bhagavad Gita

Everyday Living from the Gita — PDF with many journal articles on the Bhagavad Gita

Gita Supersite — text of the Bhagavad Gita along with several commentaries

Historical Context of the Bhagavad Gita — an essay on the context of the Bhagavad Gita

Introduction to the Bhagavad Gita — brief introduction on this important text

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