Hinduism is the predominant and indigenous religious tradition of South Asia. Hinduism is often referred to as Sanātana Dharma (a Sanskrit phrase meaning “the eternal law”) by its adherents. Generic “types” of Hinduism that attempt to accommodate a variety of complex views span folk and Vedic Hinduism to bhakti tradition, as in Vaishnavism. Hinduism also includes yogic traditions and a wide spectrum of “daily morality” based on the notion of karma and societal norms such as Hindu marriage customs.
Hinduism is formed of diverse traditions and has no single founder. Among its roots is the historical Vedic religion of Iron Age India, and as such Hinduism is often called the “oldest living religion” or the “oldest living major tradition”.
Demographically, Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion, after Christianity and Islam, with approximately one billion adherents, of whom approximately 828 million live in the Republic of India. Other significant populations are found in Nepal (23 million), Bangladesh (14 million) and the Indonesian island of Bali (3.3 million).
A large body of texts is classified as Hindu, divided into Śruti (“revealed”) and Smriti (“remembered”) texts. These texts discuss theology, philosophy and mythology, and provide information on the practice of dharma (religious living). Among these texts, the Vedas are the foremost in authority, importance and antiquity. Other major scriptures include the Upanishads, Purāṇas and the epics Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa. The Bhagavad Gītā, a treatise from the Mahābhārata, spoken by Krishna, is of special importance.
Hindū is the Persian name for the Indus River, first encountered in the Old Persian word Hindu (həndu), corresponding to Vedic Sanskrit Sindhu, the Indus River. The Rig Veda mentions the land of the Indo-Aryans as Sapta Sindhu (the land of the seven rivers in northwestern South Asia, one of them being the Indus). This corresponds to Hapta Həndu in the Avesta (Vendidad or Videvdad 1.18)—the sacred scripture of Zoroastrianism. The term was used for those who lived in the Indian subcontinent on or beyond the “Sindhu”. In Arabic, the term al-Hind (the Hind) also refers to ‘the land of the people of modern day India’.
The Persian term (Middle Persian Hindūk, New Persian Hindū) entered India with the Delhi Sultanate and appears in South Indian and Kashmiri texts from at least 1323 CE, and increasingly so during British rule. Since the end of the 18th century the word has been used as an umbrella term for most of the religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions of the sub-continent, usually excluding the religions of Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism as distinct.
The term Hinduism was introduced into the English language in the 19th century to denote the religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions native to India.
The term Brahminism was also introduced in the 19th century, describing a limited subset of the traditions subsumed under “Hinduism”, viz. the principles and practices of the Hindu Brahmin caste. The term is somewhat ambiguous and may either refer to Brahminical Hinduism, the current-day practices of Brahmins, or to Vedic Brahmanism, the historical religion from which medieval and modern Hinduism has evolved.
Hinduism as we know it can be subdivided into a number of major currents. Of the historical division into six darshanas, only two schools, Vedanta and Yoga survive. The main divisions of Hinduism today are Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Shaktism.
Contemporary Hinduism is predominantly monotheistic, but Hindu tradition includes aspects that can be interpreted as panentheistic, pantheistic, polytheistic and even atheistic. Other notable characteristics include a belief in reincarnation and karma, as well as in personal duty, or dharma.
McDaniel (2007) distinguishes six generic “types” of Hinduism, in an attempt to accommodate a variety of views on a rather complex subject:
- Folk Hinduism, as based on local traditions and cults of local deities at a communal level and spanning back to prehistoric times or at least prior to written Vedas.
- Vedic Hinduism as still being practiced by traditionalist brahmins (for example shrautins).
- Vedantic Hinduism, for example Advaita (Smartism), as based on the philosophical approach of the Upanishads.
- Yogic Hinduism, especially that based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
- “Dharmic” Hinduism or “daily morality”, based on the notion of Karma, and upon societal norms such as Hindu marriage customs.
- Bhakti or devotionalism, especially as in Vaishnavism.
Hinduism does not have a “unified system of belief encoded in declaration of faith or a creed”, but is rather an umbrella term comprising the plurality of religious phenomena originating and based on the Vedic traditions.
The term Hindu in origin is a Persian word in use from the time of the Delhi Sultanate, referring to any tradition that is native to India as opposed to Islam. Hindu is used in the sense of “Indian pagan” in English from the 17th century, but the notion of Hinduism as an identifiable religious tradition qualifying as one of the world religions emerged only during the 19th century.
The characteristic of comprehensive tolerance to differences in belief, and Hinduism’s openness, makes it difficult to define as a religion according to traditional Western conceptions. Although Hinduism is a clear practical concept to the majority of its adherents, many express a problem arriving at a definition of the term, mainly because of the wide range of traditions and ideas incorporated within it or covered by it. While sometimes referred to as a religion, Hinduism is more often defined as a religious tradition. It is therefore described as both the oldest of the world’s religions, and the most diverse.
Many Hindu traditions revere a body of religious or sacred literature, the Vedas, although this reverence rarely involves reading from them or even reciting them. Some Hindu religious traditions regard particular rituals as essential for salvation, but a variety of views on this co-exist. Some Hindu philosophies postulate a theistic ontology of creation, of sustenance, and of destruction of the universe, yet some Hindus are atheists. Hinduism is sometimes characterized by the belief in reincarnation (samsara), determined by the law of karma, and the idea that salvation is freedom from this cycle of repeated birth and death. However, other religions of the region, such as Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, also believe in karma, outside the scope of Hinduism. Hinduism is therefore viewed as the most complex of all of the living, historical world religions. Despite its complexity, Hinduism is not only one of the numerically largest faiths, but is also the oldest living major tradition on earth, with roots reaching back into prehistory.
A definition of Hinduism, given by the first Vice President of India, who was also a prominent theologian, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, states that Hinduism is not “just a faith”, but in itself is related to the union of reason and intuition. Radhakrishnan explicitly states that Hinduism cannot be defined, but is only to be experienced. Similarly some academics suggest that Hinduism can be seen as a category with “fuzzy edges”, rather than as a well-defined and rigid entity. Some forms of religious expression are central to Hinduism, while others are not as central but still remain within the category. Based on this, Ferro-Luzzi has developed a ‘Prototype Theory approach’ to the definition of Hinduism.
Problems with the single definition of what is actually meant by the term ‘Hinduism’ are often attributed to the fact that Hinduism does not have a single or common historical founder. Hinduism, or as some say ‘Hinduisms,’ does not have a single system of salvation and has different goals according to each sect or denomination. There is debate on whether Vedic religion should be seen as an early form of Hinduism, or merely one of its roots. The same can be said of Brahmanism.
A definition of Hinduism is further complicated by the frequent use of the term “faith” as a synonym for “religion”. Some academics and many practitioners refer to Hinduism using a native definition, as Sanātana Dharma, a Sanskrit phrase meaning “the eternal law”, or the “eternal way”.
Hinduism refers to a religious mainstream which evolved organically and spread over a large territory marked by significant ethnic and cultural diversity. This mainstream evolved both by innovation from within, and by assimilation of external traditions or cults into the Hindu fold. The result is an enormous variety of religious traditions, ranging from innumerable small, unsophisticated cults to major religious movements with millions of adherents spread over the entire subcontinent. The identification of Hinduism as an independent religion separate from Buddhism or Jainism consequently hinges on the affirmation of its adherents that it is such.
Prominent themes in Hindu beliefs include (but are not restricted to), Dharma (ethics/duties), Samsāra (The continuing cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth), Karma (action and subsequent reaction), Moksha (liberation from samsara), and the various Yogas (paths or practices).
Concept of God
Hinduism is a diverse system of thought with beliefs spanning monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, pantheism, monism, and atheism, and its concept of God is complex and depends upon each particular tradition and philosophy. It is sometimes referred to as henotheistic (i.e., involving devotion to a single god while accepting the existence of others), but any such term is an overgeneralization.
Most Hindus believe that the spirit or soul — the true “self” of every person, called the ātman — is eternal. According to the monistic/pantheistic theologies of Hinduism (such as Advaita Vedanta school), this Atman is ultimately indistinct from Brahman, the supreme spirit. Hence, these schools are called non-dualist. The goal of life, according to the Advaita school, is to realize that one’s ātman is identical to Brahman, the supreme soul. The Upanishads state that whoever becomes fully aware of the ātman as the innermost core of one’s own self realizes an identity with Brahman and thereby reaches moksha (liberation or freedom).
Dualistic schools (see Dvaita and Bhakti) understand Brahman as a Supreme Being who possesses personality, and they worship him or her thus, as Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva, or Shakti, depending upon the sect. The ātman is dependent on God, while moksha depends on love towards God and on God’s grace. When God is viewed as the supreme personal being (rather than as the infinite principle), God is called Ishvara (“The Lord”), Bhagavan (“The Auspicious One”) or Parameshwara (“The Supreme Lord”). However interpretations of Ishvara vary, ranging from non-belief in Ishvara by followers of Mimamsakas, to identifying Brahman and Ishvara as one, as in Advaita. In the majority of traditions of Vaishnavism he is Vishnu, God, and the text of Vaishnava scriptures identify this Being as Krishna, sometimes referred to as svayam bhagavan.
There are also schools like the Samkhya which have atheistic leanings.
Devas and avatars
The Hindu scriptures refer to celestial entities called Devas (or devī in feminine form; devatā used synonymously for Deva in Hindi), “the shining ones”, which may be translated into English as “gods” or “heavenly beings”. The devas are an integral part of Hindu culture and are depicted in art, architecture and through icons, and mythological stories about them are related in the scriptures, particularly in Indian epic poetry and the Puranas. They are, however, often distinguished from Ishvara, a supreme personal god, with many Hindus worshiping Ishvara in a particular form (like Krishna) as their iṣṭa devatā, or chosen ideal. The choice is a matter of individual preference, and of regional and family traditions.
Hindu epics and the Puranas relate several episodes of the descent of God to Earth in corporeal form to restore dharma to society and to guide humans to moksha. Such an incarnation is called an avatar. The most prominent avatars are of Vishnu and include Rama (the protagonist in Ramayana) and Krishna (a central figure in the epic Mahabharata).
Karma and samsara
Karma translates literally as action, work, or deed, and can be described as the “moral law of cause and effect”. According to the Upanishads an individual, known as the jiva-atma, develops sanskaras (impressions) from actions, whether physical or mental. The linga sharira, a body more subtle than the physical one but less subtle than the soul, retains impressions, carrying them over into the next life, establishing a unique trajectory for the individual. Thus, the concept of a universal, neutral, and never-failing karma intrinsically relates to reincarnation as well as to one’s personality, characteristics, and family. Karma binds together the notions of free will and destiny.
This cycle of action, reaction, birth, death and rebirth is a continuum called samsara. The notion of reincarnation and karma is a strong premise in Hindu thought. The Bhagavad Gita states that:
|“||As a person puts on new clothes and discards old and torn clothes,similarly an embodied soul enters new material bodies, leaving the old bodies.(B.G. 2:22)||”|
Samsara provides ephemeral pleasures, which lead people to desire rebirth so as to enjoy the pleasures of a perishable body. However, escaping the world of samsara through moksha is believed to ensure lasting happiness and peace. It is thought that after several reincarnations, an atman eventually seeks unity with the cosmic spirit (Brahman/Paramatman).
The ultimate goal of life, referred to as moksha, nirvana or samadhi, is understood in several different ways: as the realization of one’s union with God; as the realization of one’s eternal relationship with God; realization of the unity of all existence; perfect unselfishness and knowledge of the Self; as the attainment of perfect mental peace; and as detachment from worldly desires. Such realization liberates one from samsara and ends the cycle of rebirth.
The exact conceptualization of moksha differs among the various Hindu schools of thought. For example, Advaita Vedanta holds that after attaining moksha an atman no longer identifies itself with an individual but as identical with Brahman in all respects. The followers of Dvaita (dualistic) schools identify themselves as part of Brahman, and after attaining moksha expect to spend eternity in a loka (heaven), in the company of their chosen form of Ishvara. Thus, it is said that the followers of dvaita wish to “taste sugar”, while the followers of Advaita wish to “become sugar”.
Objectives of human life
Classical Hindu thought accepts the following objectives of human life, known as the puruṣārthas: dharma “righteousness, ethikos;” artha “livelihood, wealth;” kāma “sensual pleasure;” mokṣa “liberation, freedom (from samsara)”.
In whatever way a Hindu defines the goal of life, there are several methods (yogas) that sages have taught for reaching that goal. Texts dedicated to Yoga include the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and, as their philosophical and historical basis, the Upanishads. Paths that one can follow to achieve the spiritual goal of life (moksha, samadhi or nirvana) include:
- Bhakti Yoga (the path of love and devotion)
- Karma Yoga (the path of right action)
- Rāja Yoga (the path of meditation)
- Jñāna Yoga (the path of wisdom)
An individual may prefer one or some yogas over others, according to his or her inclination and understanding. Some devotional schools teach that bhakti is the only practical path to achieve spiritual perfection for most people, based on their belief that the world is currently in the Kali Yuga (one of four epochs which are part of the Yuga cycle). Practice of one yoga does not exclude others. Many schools believe that the different yogas naturally blend into and aid other yogas. For example, the practice of jnana yoga, is thought to inevitably lead to pure love (the goal of bhakti yoga), and vice versa. Someone practicing deep meditation (such as in raja yoga) must embody the core principles of karma yoga, jnana yoga and bhakti yoga, whether directly or indirectly.
Hindu practices generally involve seeking awareness of God and sometimes also seeking blessings from Devas. Therefore, Hinduism has developed numerous practices meant to help one think of divinity in the midst of everyday life. Hindus can engage in pūjā (worship or veneration), either at home or at a temple. At home, Hindus often create a shrine with icons dedicated to their chosen form(s) of God. Temples are usually dedicated to a primary deity along with associated subordinate deities though some commemorate multiple deities. Visiting temples is not obligatory, and many visit temples only during religious festivals. Hindus perform their worship through icons (murtis). The icon serves as a tangible link between the worshiper and God. The image is often considered a manifestation of God, since God is immanent. The Padma Purana states that the mūrti is not to be thought of as mere stone or wood but as a manifest form of the Divinity. A few Hindu sects, such as the Ārya Samāj, do not believe in worshiping God through icons.
Hinduism has a developed system of symbolism and iconography to represent the sacred in art, architecture, literature and worship. These symbols gain their meaning from the scriptures, mythology, or cultural traditions. The syllable Om (which represents the Parabrahman) and the Swastika sign (which symbolizes auspiciousness) have grown to represent Hinduism itself, while other markings such as tilaka identify a follower of the faith. Hinduism associates many symbols, which include the lotus, chakra and veena, with particular deities.
Mantras are invocations, praise and prayers that through their meaning, sound, and chanting style help a devotee focus the mind on holy thoughts or express devotion to God/the deities. Many devotees perform morning ablutions at the bank of a sacred river while chanting the Gayatri Mantra or Mahamrityunjaya mantras. The epic Mahabharata extols Japa (ritualistic chanting) as the greatest duty in the Kali Yuga (what Hindus believe to be the current age). Many adopt Japa as their primary spiritual practice.
The vast majority of Hindus engage in religious rituals on a daily basis. Most Hindus observe religious rituals at home. but observation of rituals greatly vary among regions, villages, and individuals. Devout Hindus perform daily chores such as worshiping at dawn after bathing (usually at a family shrine, and typically includes lighting a lamp and offering foodstuffs before the images of deities), recitation from religious scripts, singing devotional hymns, meditation, chanting mantras, reciting scriptures etc.
A notable feature in religious ritual is the division between purity and pollution. Religious acts presuppose some degree of impurity or defilement for the practitioner, which must be overcome or neutralised before or during ritual procedures. Purification, usually with water, is thus a typical feature of most religious action.
Other characteristics include a belief in the efficacy of sacrifice and concept of merit, gained through the performance of charity or good works, that will accumulate over time and reduce sufferings in the next world. Vedic rites of fire-oblation (yajna) are now only occasional practices, although they are highly revered in theory. In Hindu wedding and burial ceremonies, however, the yajña and chanting of Vedic mantras are still the norm. The rituals, upacharas, change with time. For instance, in the past few hundred years some rituals, such as sacred dance and music offerings in the standard Sodasa Upacharas set prescribed by the Agama Shastra, were replaced by the offerings of rice and sweets.
Occasions like birth, marriage, and death involve what are often elaborate sets of religious customs. In Hinduism, life-cycle rituals include Annaprashan (a baby’s first intake of solid food), Upanayanam (“sacred thread ceremony” undergone by upper-caste children at their initiation into formal education) and Śrāddha (ritual of treating people to feasts in the name of the deceased). For most people in India, the betrothal of the young couple and the exact date and time of the wedding are matters decided by the parents in consultation with astrologers. On death, cremation is considered obligatory for all except sanyasis, hijra, and children under five. Cremation is typically performed by wrapping the corpse in cloth and burning it on a pyre.
Pilgrimage and festivals
Pilgrimage is not mandatory in Hinduism, though many adherents undertake them. Hindus recognise several Indian holy cities, including Allahabad, Haridwar, Varanasi, and Vrindavan. Notable temple cities include Puri, which hosts a major Vaishnava Jagannath temple and Rath Yatra celebration; Tirumala – Tirupati, home to the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple; and Katra, home to the Vaishno Devi temple. The four holy sites Puri, Rameswaram, Dwarka, and Badrinath (or alternatively the Himalayan towns of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri) compose the Char Dham (four abodes) pilgrimage circuit. The Kumbh Mela (the “pitcher festival”) is one of the holiest of Hindu pilgrimages that is held every four years; the location is rotated among Allahabad, Haridwar, Nashik, and Ujjain. Another important set of pilgrimages are the Shakti Peethas, where the Mother Goddess is worshipped, the two principal ones being Kalighat and Kamakhya.
Hinduism has many festivals throughout the year. The Hindu calendar usually prescribe their dates. The festivals typically celebrate events from Hindu mythology, often coinciding with seasonal changes. There are festivals which are primarily celebrated by specific sects or in certain regions of the Indian subcontinent. Some widely observed Hindu festivals are Maha Shivaratri, Holi, Ram Navami, Krishna Janmastami, Ganesh Chaturthi, Dussera, Durga Puja and Diwali.
Hinduism is based on “the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times”. The scriptures were transmitted orally in verse form to aid memorization, for many centuries before they were written down. Over many centuries, sages refined the teachings and expanded the canon. In post-Vedic and current Hindu belief, most Hindu scriptures are not typically interpreted literally. More importance is attached to the ethics and metaphorical meanings derived from them. Most sacred texts are in Sanskrit. The texts are classified into two classes: Shruti and Smriti.
Shruti (lit: that which is heard) primarily refers to the Vedas, which form the earliest record of the Hindu scriptures. While many Hindus revere the Vedas as eternal truths revealed to ancient sages (Ṛṣis), some devotees do not associate the creation of the Vedas with a god or person. They are thought of as the laws of the spiritual world, which would still exist even if they were not revealed to the sages. Hindus believe that because the spiritual truths of the Vedas are eternal, they continue to be expressed in new ways.
There are four Vedas (called Ṛg-, Sāma-, Yajus- and Atharva-). The Rigveda is the first and most important Veda. Each Veda is divided into four parts: the primary one, the Veda proper, being the Saṃhitā, which contains sacred mantras. The other three parts form a three-tier ensemble of commentaries, usually in prose and are believed to be slightly later in age than the Saṃhitā. These are: the Brāhmaṇas, Āraṇyakas, and the Upanishads. The first two parts were subsequently called the Karmakāṇḍa (ritualistic portion), while the last two form the Jñānakāṇḍa (knowledge portion). While the Vedas focus on rituals, the Upanishads focus on spiritual insight and philosophical teachings, and discuss Brahman and reincarnation.
Hindu texts other than the Shrutis are collectively called the Smritis (memory). The most notable of the smritis are the epics, which consist of the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa. The Bhagavad Gītā is an integral part of the Mahabharata and one of the most popular sacred texts of Hinduism. It contains philosophical teachings from Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, told to the prince Arjuna on the eve of a great war. The Bhagavad Gītā, spoken by Krishna, is described as the essence of the Vedas. However Gita, sometimes called Gitopanishad, is more often placed in the Shruti, category, being Upanishadic in content. The Smritis also include the Purāṇas, which illustrate Hindu ideas through vivid narratives. There are texts with a sectarian nature such as Devī Mahātmya, the Tantras, the Yoga Sutras, Tirumantiram, Shiva Sutras and the Hindu Āgamas. A more controversial text, the Manusmriti, is a prescriptive lawbook which epitomizes the societal codes of the caste system.
The earliest evidence for prehistoric religion in India date back to the late Neolithic in the early Harappan period (5500–2600 BCE). The beliefs and practices of the pre-classical era (1500–500 BCE) are called the “historical Vedic religion”. One of the roots of modern Hinduism is the Vedas, the oldest of which is the Rigveda, dated to 1700–1100 BCE. The Vedas center on worship of deities such as Indra, Varuna and Agni, and on the Soma ritual. They performed fire-sacrifices, called yajña, and chanted Vedic mantras. There is no evidence of temples or icons. The oldest Vedic traditions exhibit strong similarities to Zoroastrianism and other Indo-European religions.
The major Sanskrit epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, were compiled over a protracted period during the late centuries BCE and the early centuries CE. They contain mythological stories about the rulers and wars of ancient India, and are interspersed with religious and philosophical treatises. The later Puranas recount tales about devas and devis, their interactions with humans and their battles against demons.
Three major movements underpinned the naissance of a new epoch of Hindu thought: the advent and spread of Upanishadic, Jaina, and Buddhist philosophico-religious thought throughout the broader Indian landmass. Mahavira (24th Tirthankar of Jains) and Buddha (founder of Buddhism) taught that to achieve moksha or nirvana, one did not have to accept the authority of the Vedas or the caste system.
After 200 CE several schools of thought were formally codified in Indian philosophy, including Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Purva-Mimamsa and Vedanta. Charvaka, the founder of an atheistic materialist school, came to the fore in North India in the sixth century BCE. Between 400 BCE and 1000 CE Hinduism expanded at the expense of Buddhism.
Sanskritic culture went into decline after the end of the Gupta period. The early medieval Puranas helped establish a religious mainstream among the pre-literate tribal societies undergoing acculturation. The tenets of Brahmanic Hinduism and of the Dharmashastras underwent a radical transformation at the hands of the Purana composers, resulting in the rise of a mainstream “Hinduism” that overshadowed all earlier traditions.
Though Islam came to India in the early 7th century with the advent of Arab traders and the conquest of Sindh, it started to become a major religion during the later Muslim conquest in the Indian subcontinent. During this period Buddhism declined rapidly and many Hindus converted to Islam. Numerous Muslim rulers such as Aurangzeb destroyed Hindu temples and persecuted non-Muslims; however some, such as Akbar, were more tolerant. Hinduism underwent profound changes, in large part due to the influence of the prominent teachers Ramanuja, Madhva, and Chaitanya. Followers of the Bhakti movement moved away from the abstract concept of Brahman, which the philosopher Adi Shankara consolidated a few centuries before, with emotional, passionate devotion towards the more accessible avatars, especially Krishna and Rama.
Indology as an academic discipline of studying Indian culture from a European perspective was established in the 19th century, led by scholars such as Max Müller and John Woodroffe. They brought Vedic, Puranic and Tantric literature and philosophy to Europe and the United States. At the same time, societies such as the Brahmo Samaj and the Theosophical Society attempted to reconcile and fuse Abrahamic and Dharmic philosophies, endeavouring to institute societal reform. This period saw the emergence of movements which, while highly innovative, were rooted in indigenous tradition. They were based on the personalities and teachings of individuals, as with Shri Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharshi. Prominent Hindu philosophers, including Sri Aurobindo and Swami Prabhupada (founder of ISKCON), translated, reformulated and presented Hinduism’s foundational texts for contemporary audiences in new iterations, attracting followers and attention in India and abroad. Others such as Swami Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda, B.K.S. Iyengar and Swami Rama have also been instrumental in raising the profiles of Yoga and Vedanta in the West. Today modern movements, such as ISKCON and the Swaminarayan Faith, attract a large amount of followers across the world.
Hinduism has no central doctrinal authority and many practising Hindus do not claim to belong to any particular denomination. However, academics categorize contemporary Hinduism into three major denominations: Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktism. The denominations differ primarily in the god worshipped as the Supreme One and in the traditions that accompany worship of that god.
Vaishnavas worship Vishnu as the supreme God; Shaivites worship Shiva as the supreme; Shaktas worship Shakti (power) personified through a female divinity or Mother Goddess, Devi.
The Western conception of what Hinduism is has been defined by the Smarta view; many Hindus, who may not understand or follow Advaita philosophy, in contemporary Hinduism, invariably follow the Shanmata belief worshiping many forms of God. One commentator, noting the influence of the Smarta tradition, remarked that although many Hindus may not strictly identify themselves as Smartas but, by adhering to Advaita Vedanta as a foundation for non-sectarianism, are indirect followers.
Other denominations like Ganapatya (the cult of Ganesha) and Saura (Sun worship) are not so widespread.
There are movements that are not easily placed in any of the above categories, such as Swami Dayananda Saraswati’s Arya Samaj, which rejects image worship and veneration of multiple deities. It focuses on the Vedas and the Vedic fire sacrifices (yajña).
The Tantric traditions have various sects, as Banerji observes:
|“||Tantras are … also divided as āstika or Vedic and nāstika or non-Vedic. In accordance with the predominance of the deity the āstika works are again divided as Śākta (Shakta), Śaiva (Shaiva), Saura, Gāṇapatya and Vaiṣṇava (Vaishnava).||”|
As in every religion, some view their own denomination as superior to others. However, many Hindus consider other denominations to be legitimate alternatives to their own. Heresy is therefore generally not an issue for Hindus.
Traditionally the life of a Hindu is divided into four Āshramas (phases or stages; unrelated meanings include monastery). The first part of one’s life, Brahmacharya, the stage as a student, is spent in celibate, controlled, sober and pure contemplation under the guidance of a Guru, building up the mind for spiritual knowledge. Grihastha is the householder’s stage, in which one marries and satisfies kāma and artha in one’s married and professional life respectively (see the goals of life).
The moral obligations of a Hindu householder include supporting one’s parents, children, guests and holy figures. Vānaprastha, the retirement stage, is gradual detachment from the material world. This may involve giving over duties to one’s children, spending more time in religious practices and embarking on holy pilgrimages. Finally, in Sannyāsa, the stage of asceticism, one renounces all worldly attachments to secludedly find the Divine through detachment from worldly life and peacefully shed the body for Moksha.
Some Hindus choose to live a monastic life (Sannyāsa) in pursuit of liberation or another form of spiritual perfection. Monastics commit themselves to a life of simplicity, celibacy, detachment from worldly pursuits, and the contemplation of God. A Hindu monk is called a sanyāsī, sādhu, or swāmi. A female renunciate is called a sanyāsini. Renunciates receive high respect in Hindu society because their outward renunciation of selfishness and worldliness serves as an inspiration to householders who strive for mental renunciation. Some monastics live in monasteries, while others wander from place to place, trusting in God alone to provide for their needs. It is considered a highly meritorious act for a householder to provide sādhus with food or other necessaries. Sādhus strive to treat all with respect and compassion, whether a person may be poor or rich, good or wicked, and to be indifferent to praise, blame, pleasure, and pain.
Hindu society has traditionally been categorized into four classes, called Varnas (Sanskrit: “colour, form, appearance”):
- the Brahmins: teachers and priests;
- the Kshatriyas: warriors, nobles, and kings;
- the Vaishyas: farmers, merchants, and businessmen; and
- the Shudras: servants and labourers.
Hindus and scholars debate whether the so-called caste system is an integral part of Hinduism sanctioned by the scriptures or an outdated social custom. Outdated or not, this jati-system is still the foundation of social distinction among the people in India.
Among the scriptures, the Shrutis do contain verses that mention the Varna system, but very sparingly and descriptively (i.e., not prescriptive). Indeed, the only verse in the Rigveda which mentions all four varnas is 10.90, the Purushasūkta. The other varnas, the Brahmā (i.e. Brahmins) and Rājanya (i.e. Kshatriyas) are mentioned separately in some other verses in the Rigveda (e.g. RV 10.80.1) and the other Vedas, and rarely in the Upanishads. Some—definitely including most Smriti texts—have interpreted these as prescribing the division of society in the four varnas. A verse from the Rig Veda indicates that a person’s occupation was not necessarily determined by that of his family:
|“||“I am a bard, my father is a physician, my mother’s job is to grind the corn.” (Rig Veda 9.112.3)||”|
In the Vedic Era, there was no prohibition against the Shudras listening to the Vedas or participating in any religious rite, as was the case in the later times. Some mobility and flexibility within the varnas challenge allegations of social discrimination in the caste system, as has been pointed out by several sociologists.
The Smritis, having interpreted the Vedic mentions of the varnas as prescriptive, clearly sanction the division of the society into the four varnas, and also mention various sub-divisions within these varnas, which would later emerge as the present birth-based caste (or jati) system.
Many social reformers, including Mahatma Gandhi and B. R. Ambedkar, criticized caste discrimination. The religious teacher Sri Ramakrishna (1836–1886) taught that
|“||“Lovers of God do not belong to any caste . . . . A brahmin without this love is no longer a brahmin. And a pariah with the love of God is no longer a pariah. Through bhakti (devotion to God) an untouchable becomes pure and elevated.”||”|
Ahimsa and vegetarianism
Hindus advocate the practice of ahiṃsā (non-violence) and respect for all life because divinity is believed to permeate all beings, including plants and non-human animals. The term ahiṃsā appears in the Upanishads, the epic Mahabharata and Ahiṃsā is the first of the five Yamas (vows of self-restraint) in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
In accordance with ahiṃsā, many Hindus embrace vegetarianism to respect higher forms of life. Vegetarianism is propagated by the Yajur Veda and it is recommended for a satvic (purifying) lifestyle. Estimates of the number of lacto vegetarians in India (includes adherents of all religions) vary between 20% and 42%. The food habits vary with the community and region, for example some castes having fewer vegetarians and coastal populations relying on seafood. Some Hindus avoid onion and garlic, which are regarded as rajasic foods. Some avoid meat only on specific holy days.
Observant Hindus who do eat meat almost always abstain from beef. The cow in Hindu society is traditionally identified as a caretaker and a maternal figure, and Hindu society honors the cow as a symbol of unselfish giving.
Cow-slaughter is legally banned in almost all states of India.
Concepts of conversion, evangelization, and proselytization are absent from Hindu texts and in practice have never played a significant role, though acceptance of willing converts is becoming more common. Early in its history, in the absence of other competing religions, Hindus considered everyone they came across as Hindus and expected everyone they met to be Hindus.
Hindus today continue to be influenced by historical ideas of acceptability of conversion. Hence, many Hindus continue to believe that Hinduism is an identity that can only be had from birth, while many others continue to believe that anyone who follows Hindu beliefs and practices is a Hindu, and many believe in some form of both theories. However, as a reaction to perceived and actual threat of evangelization, prozelyzation, and conversion activities of other major religions most modern Hindus are opposed to the idea of conversion from (any) one religion to (any) other per se.
Hindus in Western countries generally accept and welcome willing converts, whereas in India acceptance of willing converts is becoming more common. With the rise of Hindu revivalist movements, reconversions to Hinduism have also risen. Reconversions are well accepted since conversion out of Hinduism is not recognized.
There is no formal process for converting to Hinduism, although in many traditions a ritual called dīkshā (“initiation”) marks the beginning of spiritual life. A ritual called shuddhi (“purification”) sometimes marks the return to spiritual life after reconversion. Most Hindu sects do not seek converts, as they believe that the goals of spiritual life can be attained through any religion, as long as it is practiced sincerely. However, some Hindu sects and affiliates such as Arya Samaj, Saiva Siddhanta Church, BAPS, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness accept those who have a desire to follow Hinduism.
In general, Hindu view of religious freedom is not based on the freedom to proselytize, but the right to retain one’s religion and not be subject to proselytization. Hindu leaders are advocating for changing the existing formulation of the freedom of religion clause in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights since it favors religions which proselytize.
Books about Hinduism
- Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas
- The Bhagavad Gita, Juan Mascaro translation
- Books for children, to explain Hinduism