The designation “Hindu” for the people of India is from a Persian word that was used to describe the people who lived in India. Most Hindus call their religion “Sanatana Dharma” which means “eternal truth”. There are over 900 million Hindus living in India.1 Over a million Hindus live in Africa mostly in South Africa and Kenya.2 About two million Hindus live in the U.S. 3
The teaching and practices of Hinduism has been developing for at least four thousand years. Many of Hinduism’s ideas are connected to the geography of India and the agrarian life of the people of India. For example, Hindus believe that the rivers of India, especially the Ganges and the Indus rivers, are sources and support for spiritual life. These rivers and other geographical features of India like the Himalayan Mountains and the vast forests of India have inspired the imagination of gurus (spiritual guides and teachers) and rishis (inspired poets).
Religion in India is very diverse. There is no universally recognized supreme being. Some recognize Brahman as supreme. Others worship Shiva as supreme. Still other Hindus worship Vishnu as supreme being. Likewise, there is no consensus on a single authoritative scripture.
Hindu Scriptures are grouped into two kinds of writings: Shruti and smriti. The most important of these Scriptures are the Shruti which means “that which was heard”. Shruti are Hindu sacred writings based on what the rishis (divinely inspired poets or sages who are considered to be the greatest of the Hindu teachers) saw in their visions or heard from God. These rishis believed that they “heard” god speak to them and passed the revelations on to their students. The Shruti are the supreme authority for Hindus because they are believed to have come directly from God.
The most important Shruti are the Vedas which means “knowledge”. The Vedas are the oldest of the Hindu literature written around 1500 to 1200 B.C. The Vedas explain that everyone and everything are all part of the same substance called “Brahman”. Brahman is the source of the universe and is the universe.
There are four Vedas: The Rig-Veda, the Sama-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, and the Atharva-Veda.
The Rig-Veda or Songs of Knowledge is a collection of more than 1,000 hymns to various gods in the Hindu pantheon. Most of the hymns of the Rig-Veda tell the story of the god Indra who is a god of great power. Indra is the supreme god of the sky and creator god. Another god that is prominently featured in the Rig-Veda is Agni, the god of fire.
The Rig-Veda gives instructions to the priest on how to perform puja. The priest is called a “pujari”. The pujari conducts worship in the local temple where the gods are worshiped through the sacrifice of grain and dairy products to the gods. The hymns of the Rig-Veda are chanted as the worshipper and/or the priest offers the sacrifice into the fire. Hindus believe that the sounds of the hymns create and sustain the cosmos and so these sounds are believed to be very powerful.
The Sama-Veda is a collection of hymns used by the Brahmin priests during soma sacrifices. These hymns and the ritual of sacrifice are meant to purify the worshippers and prepare them to receive soma.
The Yajur-Veda is a collection of hymns from the Rig-Veda that have been rearranged in a different order. These hymns are used as prayers and for rituals in worship.
The Atharva-Veda is a collection of hymns that deal with everyday life. In comparison to the other Vedas which are used in temple worship, the hymns of the Arharva-Veda are used more in private worship. These hymns help the people with their everyday problems. They focus on rites for health, financial prosperity, and children. They give charms and spells for good luck.
The Vedas include four types of literature: the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads. The oldest parts of the Vedas are the Samhitas, collections of hymns and mantras. As hymns the Samhitas are sung or chanted. These poems and songs tell about important themes that describe the nature of reality and the important Hindu gods. Hindus believe that the proper chanting of these hymns help the worshipper become one with god and/or gain strength from a god.
The next part of the Vedas are the Brahmanas. The Brahmanas are commentaries and manuals that guide the Brahmin priests as they perform sacrifices and rituals. Brahmanas help the Hindu priests know how to perform the ceremonies and rituals of Hindu worship called “puja”.
They help explain the earlier parts of the Vedas (Samhita and Brahmana). The Aranyakas are what are called “forest teachings”. These writings explain the Vedas for the ascetics who live in isolation and solitude in the forests of India. A Hindu ascetic is called a sannyasin , a man or woman who denies themselves worldly pleasures in his/her pursuit of spiritual knowledge. These sannyasins live very simple and austere lives often in isolation spending time in prayer, fasting, meditation and study.
The last of the Shruti written about 800 B.C. are the Upanishads. Upanishads, also called “Vedanta (conclusion of the Vedas)”, literally means: “sitting devotedly near.” The idea is that when one reads or listens to the Upanishads they are sitting close to the teachers.
In the Upanishads, the ideas presented in the Vedas are clarified and expanded. One of the ideas developed in the Upanishads is the Hindu philosophy of monism or oneness. The Upanishads help explain how everything in the universe is interconnected. Thinking that there is a distinction between particular things is wrong. All of us are united to Brahman, the ultimate reality. Our individual self—the Atman—is really Brahman. The Upanishads give us a picture of Brahman as the single substance of the universe. Only Brahman exists. However, not all Hindus believe that Brahman is a single substance. Some believe that the universe is a plurality. The gurus who believe in this plurality separated the universe into “five natural elements and innumerable indivisible particles named atoms.”4 The Upanishads encourage us to strive to overcome the illusion that we exist as individuals separate from Brahman. This illusion is called “maya”. Similar to maya is avidya. Avidya is ignorance. Avidya is the delusion that keeps us from seeing the true unity of everything. Maya relates more to what we see and experience. The world that we see is maya—illusion. Avidya is our ignorance to the nature of the true nature of reality—that everything is Brahman.
We can overcome maya and avidya through meditation and yoga. Through yoga the consciousness arrives at the understanding that Atman is Brahman.
In the Upanishads, Hindu concepts about karma (action), samsara (eternal wheel of death and rebirth—reincarnation), and moksha (release from samsara) are introduced.
Another type of sacred literature is the Smriti. Smriti is “that which has been remembered”. Smriti is based on Shruti but deals more with tradition and is secondary to Shruti. However, the average Hindu is much more familiar with the stories found in the Smriti than they are of the Vedas.5
There are three types of Smriti: epics called “itihasa”, ancient stories called “puranas”, and laws and ethical codes called “dharmashastra”.
The Itihasa includes epics like the Mahabharata (which includes the Bhagavad Gita) and the Ramayana. The Mahabharata tells the story of Krishna one of the three incarnations of Vishnu, and the Ramayana tells the story of Rama another of the three incarnations of Vishnu.
From the Mahabharata comes the Bhagavad-Gita. The Bhagavad-Gita explains dharma and emphasizes bhaki yoga and tells about the Lord Krishna and Prince Arjuna and explains karma.
Another type of Smriti are the Puranas – ancient ancient Hindu texts praising various gods and goddesses. The puranas also explain the proper way to worship each god.
Other important Smriti are the Agamas. Agamas explain how to worship the gods through yoga. Some Hindus revere the Agamas as just as important as the Vedas. The Agamas include the tantras, mantras and yantras and explain how to worship the gods by worshipping idols, and worship in the temples. The Agamas discuss jnana yoga and kriya which are esoteric rituals. The Agamas also explain the nature of the universe, liberation from maya, bhakti yoga and other types of meditation. They explain the use and purpose of mantras, mystic diagrams, and magic spells.
Other Smriti include the Laws of Manu. The Laws of Manu are much more recent having been written between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200. The Laws of Manu define dharma and caste. It is a collection of sutras or laws that govern morality, and conduct. Many of these laws are no longer followed.
Hindu leaders Brahmin priests are considered doorways to the power of the gods. It is through the priests and their rituals and mantras that Hindus believe they can worship god. The Brahmin priest gives oversight to the temple and to temple worship. Only the priest can go into the inner sanctuary and offer the sacrifices for the devotee. Worship begins when the priest calls on the god by chanting the mantras of the Vedas.
Rishis—divinely inspired poets or sages who are considered to be the greatest of the Hindu teachers.
A swami is a Hindu holy man who has achieved remarkable power over his body. Through meditation and raja yoga, a swami learns to discipline himself. Sometimes these disciplines include yoga and breathing sometimes they involve incredible contortions and physical feats.
A guru is a Hindu spiritual advisor or teacher who is admired for their knowledge and wisdom. The word “Guru” comes from Sanskrit word gu, which means darkness, and the word ru, which means light. The guru is a spiritual guide who leads others to knowledge/light and destroys ignorance/darkness. In the Upanishads of Hinduism, the teachers are known as gurus.
Adi Shankaracharya (Shankara) was born around A.D. 788 into a Brahmin family. The philosophy and teachings of Shankara is known as “Advaita Vedanta” the idea that every person has a divine existence inseparable from god (see Many People, Many Faiths by Robert Ellwood and Barbara McGraw, 9th edition, p. 73).
A more recent Hindu leader was Dayananda Saraswati. Dayananda Saraswati lived from 1824 to 1883. He reformed Hinduism into its more popular and modern form. Dayananda Saraswati was born into Brahmin caste in Gujarat province. He brought about a great revival in Hinduism that reestablished the authority of the Vedas. Dayananda Saraswati condemned idol worship. He taught against the class system and accepted those in lower castes. He condemned child marriage, and worked to elevate the status of women. In 1875 he founded the Arya Samaj to spread the doctrines of the newly reinterpreted Vedas.6
One of the first gurus here in the U.S. was the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was the guru for the Beatles. He started the Transcendental Meditation movement in the U.S. and Europe.
Hinduism has been described as pantheism with polytheistic elements. Some Hindus say that Hinduism is a monotheistic religion, but this is incorrect. Usually, monotheism is the belief in one creator god who is a personal god and who is distinct from the universe. Hinduism is best described as pantheistic because Hindus believe in Brahman which is identical with the universe. Brahman is everything and everything is Brahman. Therefore, Hinduism is best described as pantheistic. It has polytheistic elements because Brahman manifests itself through thousands of other gods and these gods are the ones who are worshipped.
In philosophical Hinduism the Absolute is called “Brahman”. Brahman is the ultimate reality behind the changes in the universe. Brahman is transcendent. It is everything. Brahman, unlike the other gods, is not usually depicted as a physical image. Brahman is not a personal god. It cannot be described in positive terms meaning we cannot say, Brahman is such-and-such.” Brahman can only be describes by saying: “Brahman is not that”. This doctrine is called “Nirguna Brahman – Brahman without attributes”. Trying to understand the Absolute as Narguna Brahman was too difficult, so the gurus began to teach about Saguna Brahman. Saguna Brahman is Brahman with attributes. Saguna Brahman is manifested mainly through the three gods: Brahmin the creator, Vishnu the Brahma is the creator. He is pictured having four heads. The Brahma Purana describes Brahma as the father of the first man named Manu. Few temples are devoted to the worship of Brahma in comparison to the thousands of temples that are dedicated to the worship of Vishnu and Shiva.
Vishnu is the preserver. In the Mahabharata is the Vishnu Sahasranama that gives 1,000 names of Vishnu and describes Vishnu as the supreme god, the creator and destroyer who preserves and governs the universe. Vishnu is sometimes depicted as sleeping on the ocean of samsara—the endless cycle of time and space. Everything appears to change but really stays the same. Vishnu lives in unconscious peace, quiet, and darkness.
Shiva is god of time. He is pictured as endlessly drumming worlds into existence but also burns up everything all the while showing no emotion.
Other important Hindu gods include Indra a popular god of the Rig-Veda. Indra is the vedic god who created and ruled the universe. Indra is remembered also as the god who defeated Vritra the serpent demon. The serpent demon had captured the waters of life. Indra defeated Vritra and then nourished himself with soma.
Ganesha is remover of obstacles and lord of success. Ganesha is one of the best-known and most worshipped gods in India. The image of this elephant-headed god can be seen everywhere in India, and Hindus of all sects worship him. Ganesha is also revered by Jains and Buddhists.
Rita is Hindu god of order and principle. Agni is the vedic god of fire. Kali is the goddess of time. She is the great destroyer who is also considered to be a beautiful mother. Mitra is the Hindu God of faithfulness and keeping promises.
Shakti is believed to be the active feminine energy of god. This goddess is pictured as a tri-woman image. Many temples in India are devoted to the worship of Shakti the Great Divine Mother. Shakti is manifested and personified as Parvati the wife/consort of Shiva.
Surya is the god of supreme light or the god of the sun. Surya has many other names such as Ravi the Fire Bird, Pusha, the best Purifier, Divakar, the maker of the day, and Bhaskar, maker of Light.
Samsara is the eternal wheel. Life consists of endless cycles of re-births and re-deaths. The main problem for Hindus is Samsara the belief that the soul is caught in an endless cycle of reincarnation.7
Dharma is cosmic law. The Hindu must conform to his or her duty to the cosmic law that is a result of karma. The Law of Karma is more central than belief in reincarnation. Good karma leads to improved dharma and bad karma leads to undesirable dharma. Dharma is the basis for caste system. This is a system that teaches that people are unequal. Dharma has some similarities to the Greek concept of fate in that one is fated or destined to live by the code of dharma. Not to follow one’s dharma could result in bad karma.
Dharma is grouped into four categories: universal, human, social, and individual. Universal dharma also called “rita”. Rita concerns the laws of nature, physics, science, and astrological movements. The other three dharmas—human, social, and individual—involve how we live, act, think, and relate to others.
In the television series Lost, the name of the company that built a scientific laboratory on the island is called DHARMA (Department of Heuristics And Research on Material Applications). The Dharma company logo or symbol was a series of octagons similar to some of the Hindu yantras.
The way to get off the wheel of samsara is moksha. In moksha the Atman is released from the body and is united with Brahman. There are actually two words used to describe this release. One is “moksha” which in Sanskrit means “liberation” and the other word is “mukti” which in Sanskrit means “release”. Both moksha and mukti are synonymous ideas and mean liberation from samara, the cycle of death and rebirth. Sikhs tend to use the word mukti, and Hindus tend to use the word moksha. When a person achieves moksha, he or she is released from worldly suffering.8 Moksha is release from samsara. You achieve moksha by fulfilling your dharma.
Hindu rituals and practices
As we learned earlier the Hindu literature called “Agamas” explain yoga. Yoga is a form of meditation that helps the devotee concentrate on god.
An important part of Yoga is kriya. Kriya involves breathing techniques. These breathing techniques help to calm the mind and bring the soul into the cosmic soul of the universe. Some of the Agamas are Tantras. A tantra is a form of yoga that helps the worshipper to attain ecstasy. Sometimes the worshipper is guided to ecstasy through unusual and/or erotic techniques. Some of the Agamas are Mantras. Mantras are chants or intonations used in meditative worship. Some of the Agamas are Yantras. A Yantra is an icon or symbol use in worship to help the devotee focus his or her mind.9
There are four paths or yogas to moksha: raja yoga, karma yoga, jnana yoga, and bhaki yoga.
The goal of raja yoga is to train the body to free the soul. Training the mind through meditation to further one's acquaintance to understand reality and achieve moksha.
Jnana yoga is the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom through introspection and contemplation. The devotee who seeks knowledge through jnana yoga spends much time in meditation seeking to know the true nature of reality by patient reflection and rejection of maya and false ideas of a divisible reality. The meditative or contemplative jnana yoga has the goal or reaching samadhi the highest state of concentration or meditation. During samadhi the mind achieves oneness with Brahman or the Absolute. In Buddhism this state is sometimes called Nirvana. Samadhi is the last or final state of mediation during which the person in meditation reaches an emotional state that from sinking into the self- awareness of his conscious existence as Atman. One of the higher forms of Samadhi is called Sahaja-Samadhi and is similar to moksha.10
Jnana means “knowledge” or “wisdom”. Jnana yoga is the way of knowledge. Krishna, the hero god of the Bhagavad Gita, declares that jnana yoga is the Hindu path to release from moksha—deliverance of the soul from the endless cycle of rebirth. Through this kind of meditative yoga the worshipper seeks to answer the question “who am I?”
Karma yoga is the “Way of Works” or “the path of right action”. Karma yoga is explained in the Bhagavad Gita. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna explains to prince Arjuna that if prince Arjuna will do what is right without regards to expectations of reward and devote his efforts to Krishna, then he will purify himself and achieve realization of the ultimate.
Bhaki yoga is the way of devotion. Bhakti yoga is devoted love for god. For those who practice Bhakti yoga, attaining union with the god he or she loves is life’s greatest purpose. Bhakti yoga is strongly emphasized in the Bhagavad-Gita. Love and devotion to god is bhaki yoga shown through worship and sacrifice.
The Hindu Concept of Brahman
The Upanishads picture Brahman as the single substance of the universe, but not all Hindus believe that Brahman is a single substance. Some believe that the universe is a plurality. The gurus who believe in this plurality separated the universe into “five natural elements and innumerable indivisible particles named atoms.”11
Within Hinduism are two ways to understand the nature of the universe which is called “Brahman”. Brahman is understood by some to be a monad or single substance and is believed by others to be made up of many particles or atoms. Monism was best explained by Shankara in his system of Advaita Vedanta. Those who believe that the universe is a plurality belong to the school of thought called “Nyaya-Vaisesika”. Nyaya-Vaisesika teaches that reality is expressed through six separate and independent elements: Dravya, Gnu, Karma, samanya, Visesa, and Samavay. The Dravyas are the many substances such as: “earth, water, fire, air, ether, time, space, soul, and mind.”12 Visesas are qualities. A flower may have a fragrance and a color and many other qualities. In Advaita Vedanta different visesas of the One Brahman do not change Brahman’s unity. In Nyaya-Vaisesika the many visesas prove that reality is a plurality.
One of the first to teach the idea of reality as a plurality was Kanada. Kanada came to this belief of diversity and plurality when he saw that things cannot be divided into an infinite number of smaller pieces but must exist as small, finite elements called “atoms”. The smallest particle that cannot be further divided into a smaller particle is an atom or in Sanskrit “paramanu”. Paramanu is a combination of two Sanskrit words: param meaning “ultimate” and anu meaning “atom”. A paramanu is the ultimate atom or the smallest or simplest particle in the universe.13
In contrast to Kanada’s philosophy of a universe composed of individual atoms, Shankara taught that the universe is an indivisible monad known as Brahman. Shankara’s philosophy is called “Advaita Vedanta”. Advaita is a philosophy of non-dualism. Our perception that everything exists as a multiplicity of things is maya or illusion. Because of our ignorance of reality or avidya, we mistakenly think that we are separate from Brahman.
Another Hindu philosophy is Sankhya. Sankhya philosophy is a more recent form of Hinduism that can be described as dualism. Those who follow Sankhya philosophy believe that the universe consists of two realities: Purusha and Prakriti. Purusha is consciousness or mind. Prakriti is the phenomenal or material reality.
Hinduism and Indian Society
Another aspect of Hinduism is the caste system. This highly structured, social-class society was first introduced through the Rig-Veda. In the Rig-Veda four distinct classes of people are defined: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. The Rig-Veda describes the Brahmins as the mouth of Atman, the Kshatriyas as the shoulders of Atman, the Vaishyas as the thighs of Atman, and the Shudras as the feet of Atman.
The Brahmins are the highest caste and from this caste came the priests who interpreted the Vedas and officiated at the temple and over social events like wedding ceremonies. The Kshatriyas who were said to come from the shoulders were the warriors and leaders. Today many government officials come from the Kshatriyas caste. The Vaishyas are the merchants and tradesmen. They are the business men and make up the middle class. The Shudras are servants. They do the menial tasks and jobs like janitors and garbage man. Below this lowest class are the Dalit the “untouchables”. These Dalit are often oppressed and beaten by members of the higher caste.
Hindus have four ashramas or stages of life. These ashramas were explained in the Laws of Manu but today many Hindus no longer followed these laws. The first ashrama is life as a student. The second is life as a householder. The householder marries and fulfills his obligations of supporting his parents, providing for his wife, and raising his children. The third ashrama is retirement. During this time of life the Hindu begins to detach himself from his worldly responsibilities. To do this he will turn over his responsibilities to his children and begin to spend more time in religious practices. The last ashrama is called “Sannyāsa”. Sannyasa is when a man and occasionally a woman becomes a wandering ascetic. Sometimes a man’s wife will accompany her husband but they renounce sexual activity and all worldly attachments. In Sannyasa the devotee attempts through seclusion and meditation to achieve moksha and experience the Divine through detachment from worldly life.
Hindus have innumerable religious festivals and holidays. Some of the more important festivals include: Diwali, Holi, and Durga Puja.
Diwali is the celebration of the Lord Rama’s victory over the demon king Ravana. Celebrants light small oil lamps to proclaim a personal triumph over evil.
During Holi people make bonfires in memory of Prahlad a mythical young devote of Vishnu. According to the Puranas Prahlad was captured by the demoness Holika who tried to take him into the fire. Prahlad miraculously escaped because of his devotion to Vishnu, but Holika was burnt in the fire.
Durga Puja celebrates the worship of the goddess Durga the radiant goddess who is pictured as riding a tiger and having ten arms each waving a weapon.
Once every twelve years, millions of Hindus gather at the Ganges River for the Kumbh Mela festival. The Kumbh Mela has been going on for over a thousand years. This festival lasts for forty-three days. The largest festival in the history of the festival took place in January of 2001 when over thirty million Hindus took part in Kumbh Mela. One journalist described the festival like this:
A vast army of trident-wielding Indian ascetics, many of them naked and coated in ash, is preparing to march into the north Indian city of Allahabad, tomorrow to launch what has been billed as the largest gathering on earth. The "royal procession" of about a million holy men, bearing heraldic emblems and shouting the names of their patron deities alongside caparisoned elephants and gilded chariots made their way to the river.14