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Hinduism Hinduism Overview

Jun 1, 2004
Hinduism Overview

Hinduism: a brief overview

10th century Khajuraho Mandir (Temple) in Madhya Pradesh
Hinduism rests on the spiritual bedrock of the Vedas, hence Veda Dharma, and their mystic issue, the Upanishads, as well as the teachings of many great Hindu gurus through the ages. Many streams of thought flow from the six Vedic/Hindu schools, Bhakti sects and Tantra Agamic schools into the one ocean of Hinduism, the first of the Dharma religions.

सनातन धर्म (Sanātana Dharma, Sanskrit): "The Eternal Way "
Sanātana Dharma, the Perennial Philosophy/Harmony/Faith, is the one name that has represented Hinduism for many thousands of years. It speaks to the idea that certain spiritual principles hold eternally true, transcending man-made constructs, representing a pure science of consciousness. Religion to the Hindu is the native search for the divine within the Self, the search to find the One truth that in actuality never was lost. Truth sought with faith shall yield itself in blissful luminescence no matter the race or creed professed. Indeed, all existence, from vegetation and beasts to mankind, are subjects and objects of the eternal Dharma. This inherent faith, therefore, is also known as Arya/Noble Dharma, Veda/Knowledge Dharma, Yoga/Union Dharma, Hindu Dharma or, simply, the Dharma.

What can be said to be common to all Hindus is belief in Dharma, reincarnation, karma, and moksha (liberation) of every soul through a variety of moral, action-based, and meditative yogas. Still more fundamental principles include ahimsa (non-violence), the primacy of the Guru, the Divine Word of Aum and the power of mantras, love of Truth in many manifestations as Gods and Goddessess, and an understanding that the essential spark of the Divine (Atman/Brahman) is in every human and living being, thus allowing for many spiritual paths leading to the One Unitary Truth.

A typical north-west Indian lady wearing a bindi
An example of the pervasiveness of this paramount truth-seeking spirituality in daily life is the bindi (seen left), which is a common marker for Hindu women. It symbolizes the need to cultivate supramental consciousness, which is achieved by opening the mystic "third eye." It is signficant of Hindus' stress on meditative insight, a trait that is often associated with the ascetic god Shiva. Men, too, will bear on their foreheads the equivalent tilak mark, usually on religious occasions, its shape often representing particular devotion to a certain main deity: a 'U' shape stands for Vishnu, a group of three lines for Shiva. It is not uncommon for some to meld both in an amalgam marker signifying Hari-Hara (Vishnu-Shiva indissoluble).

Yoga Dharma
Hinduism is practiced through a variety of Yogas (spiritual practices), primarily bhakti (loving devotion), karma Yoga (selfless service), raja yoga (meditational Yoga) and Jnana Yoga (Yoga of discrimination). These are described in the two principal texts of Hindu Yoga: The Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras. The Upanishads are also very important as a philosophical foundation for this rational spiritualism.

Purushartha (the four goals of life) and Ashramas (the stages)
Another major aspect of Hindu dharma that is common to practically all Hindus is that of the four goals of life. They are kama, artha, dharma and moksha. It is said that all humans seek kama (pleasure, physical or emotional) and artha (power, fame and wealth), but soon, with maturity, learn to govern these legitimate desires within a higher, pragmatic framework of dharma, or moral harmony in all. Of course, the only goal that is truly infinite, whose attainment results in absolute happiness, is moksha, or liberation, (a.k.a. Mukti, Samadhi, Nirvana, etc.) from Samsara, the cycle of life, death, and existential duality.
The human life is also seen as four Ashramas (phases). They are Brahmacharya, Grihasthya, Vanaprastha and Sanyasa. The first quarter of one's life, brahmacharya (literally grazing in Brahma) is spent in celibate, sober and pure contemplation of life's secrets under a Guru, building up body and mind for the responsibilities of life. Grihastya is the householder's stage, alternatively known as samsara, in which one marries and satisfies kama and artha within a married life and professional career. Vanaprastha is gradual detachment from the material world, ostensibly giving over duties to one's sons and daughters, spending more time in contemplation of the truth, and making holy pilgrimages. Finally, in sanyasa, the individual goes off into seclusion, often envisioned as the forest, to find God through Yogic meditation and peacefully shed the body for the next life.

A young brahmachari, bearing on his forehead the distinctive triple-line tilak and on his chest a typical rudraksha (tears of Rudra) mala (rosary), both symbols of Lord Shiva, studies scripture

Origins, nomenclature and society

Historical origins and aspects of society

Relatively little is known about the origins of Hinduism, as it predates recorded history. It has been said to derive from beliefs of the Aryans, ('noble' followers of the Vedas), Dravidians, and Harappans living in the Indian subcontinent. Hinduism subsequently birthed Buddhism and Jainism, which in turn affected the development of their mother religion. Varying ideas of the origin of the Veda and understandings of whether or not the Aryans were native or foreign to Indian soil can change estimates of Hinduism's age from 4000 to 6000 years. See Early Hinduism and Aryan Invasion Theory.
Historically, the word Hindu predates the reference to Hinduism as a religion; the term is of Persian origin and first referred to people who lived on the other side (from a Persian point of view) of the Sindhu or Indus river. During the British Raj, the term was used to denote a somewhat 'fuzzy' set of religious perspectives derived from the Vedas. Eventually, the religion of the Vedic Hindus was given the appelation 'Hinduism.' In actuality, it was merely a new signifier for a culture that had been thriving for millenia before. See the Hindu (ethnicity) page more discussion.

Legal Definition of Hinduism According to the Supreme Court of India
In a 1966 ruling, the Supreme Court of India defined the Hindu faith as follows for legal purposes:

Acceptance of the Vedas with reverence as the highest authority in religious and philosophic matters and acceptance with reverence of Vedas by Hindu thinkers and philosophers as the sole foundation of Hindu philosophy.
Spirit of tolerance and willingness to understand and appreciate the opponent's point of view based on the realization that truth is many-sided.
Acceptance of great world rhythm-vast periods of creation, maintenance and dissolution follow each other in endless succession-by all six systems of Hindu philosophy.
Acceptance by all systems of Hindu philosophy of the belief in rebirth and pre-existence.
Recognition of the fact that the means or ways to salvation are many.
Realization of the truth that numbers of Gods to be worshiped may be large, yet there being Hindus who do not believe in the worshiping of idols.
Unlike other religions, or religious creeds, Hindu religion's not being tied down to any definite set of philosophic concepts, as such.

Current geographic distribution
The nations of India, Mauritius, and Nepal as well as the Indonesian island of Bali are predominantly Hindu; significant Hindu minorities exist in Bangladesh (11 million), Myanmar (7.1 million), Sri Lanka (2.5 million), the United States (1.7 million) Pakistan (1.3 million), South Africa (1.2 million), the United Kingdom (1.2 million), Malaysia (1.1 million), Canada (0.7 million), Fiji (0.5 million), Trinidad and Tobago (0.5 million), Guyana (0.4 million), the Netherlands (0.4 million), Singapore (0.3 million) and Suriname (0.2 million).

Entrance to Ancient Konark Surya Mandir (Sun Temple)

Dharma in orthodox Hindu society: caste

According to one view, the Caste system shows how strongly many have felt about each person following his or her dharma, or destined path. A perversion, according to many Hindus, of dharma's true meaning, caste plays a significant role in Hindu society, although it is now losing favor and is illegal in India. [1].
In early Vedic periods, the established Brahmins began discriminating against young candidates for priesthood based on caste. This became more ingrained over centuries until social mobility all but became a thing of the past. In spite of centuries of numerous reform movements, notably within Vedanta, bhakti yoga and Hindu streams of Tantra, and reformers, with recent stalwarts like Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi, caste is so deeply ensconced in the Indian consciousness that even Christian converts have been known to separate church meetings for different castes. A number of Muslim communities have retained caste practices as well. What was first an injunction to living one's dharma in surrender to God became an oppressive mandate to surrender to Man. See caste for more.

Hindu philosophy: the six Vedic schools of thought

Main article: Hindu philosophy

The six Astika or orthodox (accepting the authority of the Vedas) schools of Hindu philosophy are Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Purva Mimamsa (also called just 'Mimamsa'), and Uttara Mimamsa (also called 'Vedanta'). The non-Vedic schools are called Nastika, or heterodox, and refer to Buddhism, Jainism and Lokayata. The schools that continue to affect Hinduism today are Purva Mimamsa, Yoga, and Vedanta. See Hindu philosophy for a discussion of the historical significance of Samkhya, Nyaya, and Vaisheshika.

Purva Mimamsa
The main objective of the Purva ("earlier") Mimamsa school was to establish the authority of the Vedas. Consequently this school's most valuable contribution to Hinduism was its formulation of the rules of Vedic interpretation. Its adherents believed that revelation must be proved by reasoning, that it should not be accepted blindly as dogma. This empirical and eminently sensible manner of religious application is key to the Sanatana/Hindu Dharma and was especially championed by rationalists like Adi Sankara and Swami Vivekananda. For greater depth, please see Purva Mimamsa

The Yoga system is generally considered to have arisen from the Samkhya philosophy. The yoga referred to here, however, is specifically Raja Yoga (or meditational union). It is based on the sage Patanjali's extremely influential text entitled the Yoga Sutra, which is essentially a compilation and systematization of meditational Yoga philosophy that came before. Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita are also indispensable literature in the study of Yoga.

A Sadhu (Hindu ascetic) meditating in padmasana (lotus pose); Used with permission from <a href="http://www.kamat.com" target="_blank">www.kamat.com</a>
The most significant difference from Samkhya is that the Yoga school not only incorporates the concept of Ishvara (a personal God) into its metaphysical worldview but also that it holds Ishvara as the ideal upon which to meditate. This is because Ishvara is the only aspect of purusha (the infinite Divine Ground) that has not become entangled with prakrti (the temporal creative forces). It also utilizes the Brahman/Atman terminology and concepts that are found in depth in the Upanishads, adopting Vedantic monist concepts. Realization of the goal of Yoga is known as moksha or samadhi. It, like the Upanishads, seeks realization of the Atman as being nothing other than the infinite Brahman through ethical (mind), physical (body) and meditational (soul) practices of one-pointedness on the 'one supreme truth.' See Yoga for an in-depth look at its history.

Uttara Mimamsa: The Three Schools of Vedanta
The Uttara ("later") Mimamsa school is perhaps one of the cornerstone movements of Hinduism and certainly was responsible for a new wave of philosophical and meditative inquiry, renewal of faith, and cultural reform. Primarily associated with the Upanishads and their commentary by Badarayana, the Vedanta Sutras, Vedanta thought split into three groups, initiated by the thinking and writing of Adi Sankara. Most Hindu thought today in some way relates to changes affected by Vedantic thought, which focused on meditation, morality and centeredness on the one Self rather than on rituals and meaningless societal distinctions like caste. See Vedanta for greater depth.

Pure Monism: Advaita Vedanta

Advaita literally means "not two"; thus this is what we refer to as a monistic (or non-dualistic) system, which emphasises oneness. Its consolidator was Shankara (788-820). Shankara expounded his theories largely based on previous teachings of the Upanishads and his own guru Gaudapada. By analysis of experiential consciousness, he exposed the relative nature of the world and established the non-dual reality of Brahman in which Atman (the individual soul) and Brahman (the ultimate reality) are identified absolutely. It is not merely philosophy, but a conscious system of applied ethics and meditation, all geared towards attaining peace and understanding of truth. 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. See Advaita for more.

Qualified Monism: Vishistadvaita Vedanta
Ramanuja (1040 - 1137) was the foremost proponent of the concept of Sriman Narayana as the supreme Brahman. He taught that Ultimate reality had three aspects: Ishvara (Vishnu), cit (soul) and acit (matter). Vishnu is the only independent reality, while souls and matter are dependent on God for their existence. Because of this qualification of Ultimate reality, Ramanuja's system is known as qualified non-dualism.

Dualism: Dvaita Vedanta

Like Ramanuja, Madhva (1199 - 1278) identified god with Vishnu, but his view of reality was purely dualistic in that he understood a fundamental differentiation between the ultimate godhead and the individual soul, and the system is therefore called Dvaita (dualistic) Vedanta.

Bhakti and Tantrism: the development of alternative cultures of worship
The Bhakti (Devotional) schools
Bhakti is the Hindu term that signifies a blissful, selfless and overwhelming love of God as the beloved Father, Mother, Child, or whatever relationship finds appeal in the devotee's heart. The philosophy of Bhakti seeks to tap into the universal divinity through personal form, which explains the proliferation of so many Gods and Goddesses in India, often reflecting the singular inclinations of small regions or groups of people. Seen as a form of Yoga, or union, it seeks to dissolve the ego in God, since consciousness of the body and limited mind as self is seen to be a divisive factor in spiritual realization. Essentially, it is God who effects all change, who is the source of all works, who acts through the devotee as love and light. 'Sins' and evil-doings of the devotee are said to fall away of their own accord, the devotee shriven, limitedness even transcended, through the love of God. The Bhakti movements rejuvenated Hinduism through their intense expression of faith and their responsiveness to the emotional and philosophical needs of India. They can rightly be said to have affected the greatest wave of change in Hindu prayer and ritual since ancient times.

The most popular means of expressing love for God in the Hindu tradition has been through puja, or ritual devotion, frequently using the aid of a murti/statue 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), kirtan (praise), and arti (a filtered down form of Vedic fire ritual) are sometimes sung in conjunction with performance of puja. This rather organic system of devotion attempts to aid the individual in connecting with God through symbolic medium. It is said, however, that the bhakta, through a growing connection with God, is eventually able to eschew all external form and is immersed entirely in the bliss of undifferentiated Love in Truth.

Popular image of the universally loving and beloved Ganesh
Altogether, bhakti resulted in a mass of devotional literature, music and art that has enriched the world and gave India renewed spiritual impetus, one eschewing unneccessary ritual and artificial social boundaries. See bhakti yoga for more.

According to the most famous Western Tantrik scholar, Sir John Woodroffe (pseudonym Arthur Avalon): "The Indian Tantras, which are numerous, constitute the Scripture (Shastra) of the Kaliyuga, and as such are the voluminous source of present and practical orthodox 'Hinduism'. The Tantra Shastra is, in fact, and whatever be its historical origin, a development of the Vaidika Karmakanda, promulgated to meet the needs of that age. Shiva says: 'For the benefit of men of the Kali age, men bereft of energy and dependent for existence on the food they eat, the Kaula doctrine, O auspicious one! is given' (Chap. IX., verse 12). To the Tantra we must therefore look if we would understand aright both ritual, yoga, and sadhana of all kinds, as also the general principles of which these practices are but the objective expression." (Introduction to Sir John Woodroffe's translation of "Mahanirvana Tantra.")

The word "tantra" means "treatise" or "continuum", and is applied to a variety of mystical, occult, medical and scientific works as well as to those which we would now regard as "tantric". Most tantras were written in the late middle ages and sprang from Hindu cosmology and Yoga. See Tantra for more.

Important symbolism and themes in Hinduism

Ahimsa and the cow

A note of the element of ahimsa in Hinduism is vital to understanding the society that has arisen around some of its principles. While Jainism as it was practiced was certainly a major influence on Indian society, what with its exhortation ot strict veganism and non-violence as [[ahimsa]], the term first appeared in the Upanishads. Thus, an ingrained and externally motivated influence led to the development of a large section of Hindus who grew to embrace vegetarianism in a bid to respect higher forms of life, restricting their diet to plants and vegetables. About 30% of today's Hindu population, especially in orthodox communities in the South of India, in certain northerly states like Gujurat, and in many Brahmin enclaves around the subcontinent, is vegetarian. Thus, while vegetarianism is not dogma, it is recommended as a sattwic (purifying) lifestyle.

Those Hindus who do eat meat predominantly abstain from beef, some even going so far as to avoid leather products. This is most likely because the largely pastoral Vedic people and subsequent generations of Hindus throughout the centuries relied so heavily on the cow for all sorts of dairy products, tilling of fields and fuel for fertiliser that its status as a willing 'caretaker' of humanity grew to identifying it as an almost maternal figure. Thus, while most Hindus do not worship the cow, and scriptural injunctions against eating beef arose long after the Vedas had been written, it still holds an honored place in Hindu society. It is said that Krishna is both Govinda (herder of cows) and Gopala (protector of cows), and Shiva's attendant is Nandi, the bull. With the stress on vegetarianism (which is usually followed even by meat-eating Hindus on religious days or special occasions) and the sacred nature of the cow, it is no wonder that most holy cities and areas in India have a ban on selling meat-products and there is a movement among Hindus to ban cow-slaughter not only in specific regions, but in all of India.

Hindu symbolism

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

ॐ (Aum)

Perhaps the most diverse and staggering amount of symbolism contained in any one sign is to be found in ॐ. It is the standard sign of Hinduism, and is prefixed and sometimes suffixed to all mantras and prayers.

See Aum for a further look.

卐 (The Swastika)

The Swastika's use in early and current Hinduism has existed from early Vedic culture and is still widespread in the Indian subcontinent. It is an Arya, or noble symbol. It stands for 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 and their harmonious whole. Many Eastern cultures still hold it to be sacred, especially in India, in spite of recent Nazism that perverted the original meaning of this universal good-luck symbol. See Swastika.

Forms of worship: icons and mantras
Contrary to popular belief, practiced Hinduism is neither polytheistic nor strictly monotheistic. The various gods and avatars that are worshipped by Hindus are understood as different forms of One truth, sometimes seen as beyond a mere God and as a formless Divine Ground (Brahman) or as one monotheistic principle like Vishnu or Shiva.

Whether believing in the One source as formless (nirguna brahman, without attributes) or as a personal God (saguna Brahman, with attributes), Hindus understand that the one truth may be seen as different to different people. Hinduism encourages devotees to describe and develop a personal relationship with their chosen deity (ishta devata) in the form of a God or Goddess.

Murti of Lord Rama

While some censuses hold worshippers of one form or another of Vishnu (known as Vaishnavs) to be at 80% and those of Shiva (called Shaivaites) and Shakti at the remaining 20%, such figures are perhaps misleading. The vast majority of Hindus worship many gods as varicolored forms of the same prism of Truth. Among the most popular are Vishnu (as Krishna or Rama), Shiva, Devi (the Mother as many female deities, such as Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kali and Durga), Ganesha, Skanda and Hanuman.

Worship of the said deities is often done through the aid of pictures or statues which are said not to be God themselves but conduits for the devotee's consciousness, markers for the human soul that signify the ineffable and illimitable nature of the love and grandeur of God.

For a discussion on the worship of images and statues, known as murti worship, see murti.


Reciting mantras is a fundamental practice that both originated and now continues in Hinduism. Much of mantra yoga, as it is called, is done through japa (repitition). Mantras are said, 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. Indeed, Mahatma Gandhi's dying words were a two-word mantra to the Lord Rama: "Hey Ram!"

The most representative mantra of all the Hindu mantras is the famed ‘Gayatri Mantra’:

ॐ भूर्भुवस्व: | तत् सवितूर्वरेण्यम् | भर्गो देवस्य धीमहि | धियो यो न: प्रचोदयात्

" Aum bhūrbhuvasvah | tat savitūrvareṇyam | bhargo devasya dhīmahi | dhiyo yo naha pracodayāt||"

A good explication of it can be found here: <a href="http://www.indiaoz.com.au/hinduism/prayer/gayatri_mantra.shtml" target="_blank">http://www.indiaoz.com.au/hinduism/...shtml</a>

It is considered one of the most universal of all Hindu mantras, and invokes the universal Brahman as the principle of knowledge and the illumination of the primordial Sun, only in its feminine aspect. Many Hindus till today, in a tradition that has continued unbroken for at least 5,000 years, perform morning ablutions at the bank of a sacred river (especially the Ganga/Ganges). Known as a universal mantra, it is revered as being the most condensed form of Divine Knowledge (Veda). Its presiding principle, Ma (Mother) Gayatri, is also known as Veda Mata (Mother of the Vedas) and is strongly associated with the Goddess of Learning and Illumination, Saraswati.

The chief aim of the Vedic religion is to achieve moksha, or liberation, through constant dedication to Satya (Truth) and eventual realization of the Atman (Universal Soul). Whether this is achieved through meditation or pure love, this universal goal is achievable by all. But it should be noted that Hinduism is a very practical faith. It believes equally in the temporal as in the infinite, only it encourages perspective. The great rishis (Hindu sages) have termed the samsaric (one who lives in samsara, i.e. the temporal or earthly plane) who succeeds in living an honest, loving and dharmic life a jivanmukta (living free soul). Hinduism's fundamental truth is best expressed in the Upanishadic dictum, Tat Twam Asi (Thou Art That), and the ultimate aspiration as follows:

"Aum Asato ma sad gamaya, tamaso ma jyotir gamaya, mrityor ma aamritaam gamaya"

"Aum Lead me from ignorance to truth, from darkness to light, from death to immortality."

For more depth, see Mantra.

Hindu scriptures

Hindu scripture is overwhelmingly written in Sanskrit. Indeed, much of the morphology and linguistic philosophy inherent in the learning of Sanskrit is inextricably linked to study of the Vedas and relevant Hindu texts. Hindu texts are typically seen to revolve around many levels of reading, namely gross/physical, subtle and supramental. This allows for many levels of understanding as well, implying that the truth of the texts can only be realized with the spiritual advancement of the reader. It is divided into two categories: Shruti- that which is heard (i.e. revelation) and Smriti- that which is remembered (i.e. tradition, not revelation).

For a more thorough look at the important texts of Hinduism, see Hindu scripture.


The Vedas are considered scripture by all Hindus. While the overwhelming majority of Hindus may never read the Vedas, the reverence for the more abstract notion of eternal knowledge (Veda means knowledge) is etched deep into the hearts of all those who follow Veda Dharma. Classed with the Vedas (which specifically refer to the Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva) are their famous commentaries, the Upanishads. While the early Vedas lay the foundation for subsequent Hindu ritual, cosmology and developing philosophy, the Upanishads built the edifice of mystic insight and abhorrence for ritual at the expense of spiritual insight. Forming the core of the Vedanta (End of Vedas), they streamline the excessive litany of praise to Vedic gods and capture the essence of the Rig Vedic dictum "Truth Is One." They set Hindu philosophy apart with its embrace of a single transcendant and yet immanent force that is native to each man's soul, an identification of micro- and macrocosm as One. It can be said that while early Hinduism is most reliant on the four Vedas, Classical Hinduism, from the Yoga and Vedanta to Tantra and Bhakti streams, was molded around the Upanishads.

Bhagavad Gita
The Bhagavad Gita occupies a special position in the hearts of most Hindus as a keystone yoga upanishad whose eternal words perhaps are the most representative of all Hindu thought, each shloka 'directly' from the mouth of the Lord Krishna. While technically it is considered Smriti, it has singularly achieved nearly unquestioned status as Shruti, or revealed, and is thus the most definitive single Hindu text, read by millions of bhaktas (devotees) and yogis on a largely daily basis throughout the Sanatana Dharmic world. See Bhagavad Gita to explore this text.


The post-Vedic Hindu scriptures form the latter category, the most notable of which are the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, major epics considered scripture by most followers of Sanatana Dharma, their stories arguably familiar to the vast majoriy of Hindus living in the Indian subcontinent, if not abroad. Other texts considered important by today's Hindus include the Devi Mahatmya, an ode to Devi, the Divine Mother, and the Yoga Sutras, a key meditative yoga text of Shri Patanjali. There are also a number of revered Hindu Tantras and Sutras that command the respect of various Hindu sects of different persuasion, some including the Mahanirvana Tantra, Tirumantiram and Shiva Sutras.

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