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Hinduism, a religious tradition of Indian origin, comprising the beliefs and practices of Hindus. The word Hindu is derived from the River Sindhu, or Indus. The geographical term was Al-Hind, and the people of the land east of the Indus were therefore called Hindus. This was not initially a religious label. The word Hinduism is an English word of more recent origin. Hinduism entered the English language in the early 19th century to describe the beliefs and practices of those residents of India who had not converted to Islam or Christianity and did not practise Judaism or Zoroastrianism.
In the case of most religions, beliefs and practices come first, and those who subscribe to them are acknowledged as followers. In the case of the Hindu tradition, however, the acknowledgment of Hindus came first, and their beliefs and practices constitute the contents of the religion.
Hindus themselves prefer to use the Sanskrit term sanatana dharma for their religious tradition. Sanatana dharma is often translated into English as “eternal tradition” or “eternal religion” but the translation of dharma as “tradition” or “religion” gives an extremely limited, even mistaken, sense of the word. Dharma has many meanings in Sanskrit, the language of some of the Hindu scriptures, including “moral order”, “duty”, and “right action”.
The Hindu tradition encourages Hindus to seek spiritual and moral truth wherever it might be found, while acknowledging that no creed can contain such truth in its fullness and that each individual must realize this truth through his or her own systematic effort. Our experience, our reason, and our dialogue with others—especially with enlightened individuals—provide various means of testing our understanding of spiritual and moral truth. And Hindu scripture, based on the insights of Hindu sages and seers, serves primarily as a guidebook. But ultimately truth comes to us through direct consciousness of the divine or the ultimate reality. In other religions this ultimate reality is known as God. Hindus refer to it by many names, but the most common name is Brahman. (This is not to be confused with Brahman or Brahmin meaning priest.)
In many religions truth is delivered or revealed from a divine source and enters the world through a single agent: for example, Abraham in Judaism, Jesus Christ in Christianity, and Muhammad in Islam. These truths are then recorded in scriptures that serve as a source of knowledge of divine wisdom: the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament of the Christian Bible, and the Koran. In the Hindu tradition, by contrast, there is no single revelation or orthodoxy (established doctrine) by which people may achieve knowledge of the divine or lead a life backed by religious law. The Hindu tradition acknowledges that there are many paths by which people may seek and experience religious understanding and direction. It also claims that every individual has the potential to achieve enlightenment.
The Hindu community today is found primarily in India and neighbouring Nepal, and in Bali in the Indonesian archipelago. Substantial Hindu communities are present in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, Mauritius, Fiji, the Caribbean, East Africa, and South Africa. Scattered Hindu communities are found in most parts of the Western world. Hindus today number nearly 900 million, including about 20 million who live outside India, making them the third largest religious community in the world, after Christians and Muslims.
Since ancient times, Hindu thought has transcended geographical boundaries and influenced religious and philosophical ideas throughout the world. Persian, ancient Greek, and ancient Roman thought may well have been influenced by Hinduism. Three other religions that originated in India branched off from Hinduism: Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. In the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer read both Hindu and Buddhist scriptures and based much of his thinking on them. In the United States, 19th-century writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau drew on Hinduism and its scriptures in developing their philosophy of transcendentalism. More recently, civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., studied the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi on non-violent protest. In the sphere of popular culture, rock musician George Harrison embraced Hinduism during the 1960s, and some members of the United States counter-culture explored Hinduism and Buddhism, as did the Beat poets (see Beat Generation). Millions of Westerners today practise meditation or yoga, indicating Western receptiveness to Hindu practices.
An encyclopedia article should have a definition at the outset, but this requirement presents unique difficulties in the case of Hinduism. This difficulty arises from Hinduism’s universal world-view and its willingness to accept and celebrate diverse philosophies, deities, symbols, and practices. A religion that emphasizes similarities and shared characteristics rather than differences has a difficult time setting itself apart—unless this very quality is considered its defining feature. This is not to say that there are no beliefs and practices that may be identified as Hindu, but rather that the Hindu tradition has concerned itself largely with the human situation rather than the Hindu situation. Instead of basing its identity on separating Hindu from non-Hindu or believer from non-believer, Hinduism has sought to recognize principles and practices that would lead any individual to become a better human being and understand and live in harmony with dharma.
The distinction of dharma from the Western sense of religion is crucial to understanding Hindu religious identity. To the extent that Hinduism carries with it the Western meaning of being a religion the words distort Indian reality. In the West a religion is understood to be conclusive—that is, it is the one and only true religion. Secondly, a religion is generally exclusionary—that is, those who do not follow it are excluded from salvation. Finally, a religion is separative—that is, to belong to it, one must not belong to another. Dharma, however, does not necessarily imply any of these. Having made this point, this article will bow to convention and use the expression Hinduism.
A The Dharmic Tradition
Dharma is an all-important concept for Hindus. In addition to tradition and moral order, it also signifies the path of knowledge and correct action. Because of Hinduism’s emphasis on living in accordance with dharma, anyone who is striving for spiritual knowledge and seeking the right course of ethical action is, in the broadest sense, a follower of sanatana dharma.
Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism share with Hinduism the concept of Dharma, but use it with some difference, although the four religions may be said to belong to the Dharmic tradition. At one level Hinduism can refer to the beliefs or practices of followers of any of the dharmic traditions. The word Hinduism retains this sense in some usages in the Indian Constitution of 1950. In the field of religious studies, however, Hinduism is used in a narrower sense to distinguish it from the other religions of Indian origin.
A Hindu is thus identified by a dual exclusion. A Hindu is someone who does not subscribe to a religion of non-Indian origin, and who does not claim to belong exclusively to another religion of Indian origin—Buddhism, Jainism, or Sikhism. This effort at definition produces a rather artificial distinction between Hinduism and other dharmic traditions, which stems from an attempt to limit a system that sees itself as universal to an identity that is strictly religious. In many ways, labelling the other dharmic traditions as non-Hindu has a basis that derives more from politics than from philosophy. Indeed, greater differences of belief and practices lie within the broad family labelled as Hinduism than distinguish Hinduism from other dharmic systems.
Indian historian Irfan Habib makes this point when he quotes an early Persian source that Hindus are those who have been debating with each other within a common framework for centuries. If they recognize another as somebody whom they can either support or oppose intelligibly, then both are Hindus.
B Sanatana Dharma
The earliest inscriptions to use the word dharma are those of Ashoka Maurya and date to the 3rd century BC. They use the word in the Buddhist sense. As different religions of Indian origin began to use the term, Hindus then adopted the expression sanatana dharma to distinguish their dharma from others. The word sanatana, meaning immemorial as well as eternal, emphasized the unbroken continuity of the Hindu tradition in contrast to the other dharmas. The Buddhist, Jaina, and Sikh dharmas possess distinct starting points, whereas Hinduism has no historical founder.
The Hindu tradition might be said to begin in the 4th century BC when the growth and separation of Buddhism and Jainism provided it with a distinctive sense of identity as sanatana dharma. Some scholars prefer to date its beginnings to between 1500 and 500 BC, the period when its earliest sacred texts, the Vedas, originated. Certain beliefs and practices within Hinduism—such as the worship of sacred trees and the mother goddess—go back to a culture known as Harappan, which flourished around 2600 BC (see Indus Valley Civilization).
Because defining Hinduism is so difficult and because we have called it the sum of the belief and practices of Hindus, it is best to approach Hinduism through its teachings.
Within Hinduism there are various schools of thought, which Hindu scholars have systematized in different ways. All of these schools have enriched Hinduism with their individual emphases: Nyaya on logic, Vaiseshika on atomism and materialism, Sankhya on numbers and categories, Yoga on meditation techniques, Mimamsa on the analysis of sacred texts, and Vedanta on the nature and experience of spirituality. Their teachings are usually summarized in texts called sutras or aphorisms. These sutras can be memorized easily and recited as a means of gaining spiritual focus.
A Brahman: The Ultimate Reality
Various schools have contributed to Hindu thought, each school with a different emphasis. The school known as Vedanta has been the standard form of intellectual Hinduism. According to Vedanta, the highest aim of existence is the realization of the identity or union of the individual’s innermost self (atman) with the ultimate reality. Although Vedanta states that this ultimate reality is beyond name, the word Brahman is used to refer to it.
Whether this ultimate reality is itself ultimately without distinguishing attributes (nirguna) or with personal attributes (saguna) has been a subject of extensive debate among Hindu scholars. To be ultimate Brahman must transcend (exist above and beyond) all limiting attributes, such as name, gender, form, and features. But how can the human mind, with its limitations, conceive of this transcendent reality? Human comprehension requires a more personal reality, with attributes.
Saguna Brahman is also called Ishvara, a name best translated as “Lord”. A quotation attributed to 8th-century Hindu scholar Shankara illustrates the subtlety of these ideas: “Ishvara, forgive these three sins of mine: that although you are everywhere I have gone on a pilgrimage; although you are beyond the mind I have tried to think of you; and although you are ineffable [indescribable] I offer this hymn in praise of you.”
B Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva: Aspects of Brahman
Saguna Brahman—that is, Brahman with attributes—generally takes the form of one of three main Hindu deities: Brahma, Vishnu, or Shiva. These personified forms of Brahman correspond to three stages in the cycle of the universe. Brahma corresponds to the creative spirit from which the universe arises. Vishnu corresponds to the force of order that sustains the universe. Shiva corresponds to the force that brings a cycle to an end—destruction acting as a prelude to transformation, leaving pure consciousness from which the universe is reborn after destruction. Other forms of Ishvara widely worshipped by Hindus are Shakti, the female aspect of divinity, and Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity associated with the removal of obstacles.
Brahman may also choose to take birth in a knowable form, or avatar (incarnation), to uphold dharma and restore balance to the world. Krishna, a well-known avatar of Vishnu, appears at times to save the world. Rama, another well-known avatar of Vishnu, is the subject of the Hindu epic Ramayana (Way of Rama). Whether nirguna or saguna, Brahman represents the ultimate reality (sat), ultimate consciousness (cit), and ultimate bliss (ananda).
Vishnu has ten major avatars, which are described in Hindu texts called the Puranas. These incarnations and their Hindu names are: fish (matsya), tortoise (kurma), boar (varaha), man lion (narasimha), dwarf (vamana), axe-wielding human (Parashurama), ideal person (Rama of the Ramayana), all-attractive perfect person (Krishna), the enlightened (Buddha), and a future incarnation (Kalki).
The majority of Hindus choose a personal deity, a saguna form of Brahman with whom they can feel a direct personal connection. Devotion to this deity can take a number of forms, including prayer, ceremonial worship, chanting of the deity’s name, and pilgrimage to sites sacred to the deity.
C Brahmanda: The Universe
The relationship of the universe, which Hindus call brahmanda, to the ultimate reality poses a deep philosophical problem: whereas Brahman represents a permanent reality, the universe is constantly changing. The universe is also eternal, but it is eternally changing, whereas Brahman is eternal in another sense in that it is beyond change. According to Vedanta, Brahman alone is real. Such reality as the universe possesses is derived from Brahman, just as the light of the Moon really belongs to the Sun.
All of creation arises from Brahman, according to Hindu teaching. Brahman is both the efficient cause of the universe (creator) as well as the material cause (substance of which the universe is created). For this reason, all of creation is divine and deserving of our respect.
Time in the Hindu universe moves in endlessly recurring cycles, much like the motion of a wheel. The duration of the various phases of the universe’s existence are calculated in units of mind-boggling astronomical duration organized around such terms as yugas, mahayugas, manvantaras, and kalpas.
D Atman: The Innermost Self
We as individuals are also a part of this changing universe. Our bodies are constantly undergoing change, while our minds, formed of thoughts and feelings, are also in a state of flux. According to Vedanta, however, our self consists of more than mind and body. At its core lies the unchanging atman, our innermost, transcendental self, as opposed to the material self (our body, thoughts, and feelings) that is part of the universe. The atman is our true self. But we lose sight of it because of our passionate involvement with our material self and its search for happiness in this universe. The universe can never provide perfect and permanent happiness, however, because it, like our material self, is in a state of constant flux. We attain true happiness only through an awareness of our atman and the discovery of its true relationship with Brahman.
By achieving awareness of our atman and its unity with Brahman, we attain not only happiness, but also moksha, or liberation. But liberation from what? At one level, the liberation is from unhappiness, but the answer provided by Vedanta Hinduism goes deeper: Moksha is liberation from a chain of lives.
E Samsara: The Chain of Lives
We normally think of ourselves as coming into being when we are born of our parents and as perishing when we die. According to Hinduism, however, this current life is merely one link in a chain of lives that extends far into the past and projects far into the future. The point of origin of this chain cannot be determined. The process of our involvement in the universe—the chain of births and deaths—is called samsara.
Samsara is caused by a lack of knowledge of our true self and our resultant desire for fulfilment outside ourselves. We continue to embody ourselves, or be reborn, in this infinite and eternal universe as a result of these unfulfilled desires. The chain of births lets us resume the pursuit. The law that governs samsara is called karma. Each birth and death we undergo is determined by the balance sheet of our karma—that is, in accordance with the actions performed and the dispositions acquired in the past.
F Karma: Action and Its Consequences
Karma is a crucial Hindu concept. According to the doctrine of karma, our present condition in life is the consequence of the actions of our previous lives. The choices we have made in the past directly affect our condition in this life, and the choices we make today and thereafter will have consequences for our future lives in samsara. An understanding of this interconnection, according to Hindu teachings, can lead an individual towards right choices, deeds, thoughts, and desires, without the need for an external set of commandments.
The principle of karma provides the basic framework for Hindu ethics. The word karma is sometimes translated into English as “destiny”, but karma does not imply the absence of free will or freedom of action that destiny does. Under the doctrine of karma, the ability to make choices remains with the individual.
We are subject to the “law” of karma just as our physical movements on Earth are subject to the law of gravitation. But just as the law of gravitation does not take away our freedom to move about, the doctrine of karma does not leave us unfree to act. It merely describes the moral law under which we function, just as the law of gravitation is a physical law governing our being.
When we cause pain or injury, we add to the karmic debt we carry into our future lives. When we give to others in a genuine way, we lighten our karmic load. In the Bhagavad-Gita, an important Hindu text, Krishna states that the best way to be free of debt is by selfless action, or by dedicating every action as an offering to Krishna himself. In addition, human beings can purify themselves of karmic debt through different yogas (disciplines), kriyas (purification processes), and bhakti (devotions).
G Purusharthas: Goals of Human Life
Hinduism takes a comprehensive view of our human condition and has classified all the things we seek in the world and beyond into four broad categories: kama, artha, dharma, and moksha. Kama includes the pleasure of the senses, both aesthetic (refined artistic) pleasures and sensual and sexual pleasure. Artha includes the pursuit of material well-being, wealth, and power. Dharma includes our striving for righteousness and virtue. Moksha describes our desire for liberation from the chain of lives.
The first three goals pertain to the world we know, whereas moksha involves freedom from the world and from desires for kama, artha, and dharma. Attaining moksha is an extraordinary goal, which only some people specifically seek. In preparing for it, the prior pursuit of dharma can be a great help. Dharma, in the sense of duty or desire to do right, occupies a central role in regulating artha and kama and promoting moksha. On account of dharma’s centrality, the goals of human life are often listed in the following order: dharma, artha, kama, and moksha.
Hinduism accepts all four purusharthas as valid goals of human endeavour. It does not look down upon kama or artha, as indicated by the Kamasutra, a work on sexuality from about the 4th century AD, and by the Arthashastra. The latter text by Kautilya, a minister to a king of the 4th century BC, discusses how a king should wield political and economic power.
However, the ultimate aim of human life is moksha, liberation from sorrow and desire and realization of the union with the Ultimate Reality. In our future lives we may not always enter the world in human form. Thus, Hindus consider that birth as a human being is a unique and valuable opportunity for seeking moksha, an opportunity that should not be wasted. To guide us along the way, the system of Vedanta and the yogas provide a good road map for the journey.
H Jiva: The Individual
Our personality has a strong influence on the goal we seek. According to one Hindu scheme a human being consists of not one but three bodies. There is the gross physical body; a subtle body of thought and feelings; and an even subtler body, known as the causal body, where our primal ignorance of our true nature is located, along with the knowledge of that ignorance. The physical body disintegrates after our death; only the subtle and causal bodies travel from one life to the next.
Another Hindu system envisions the human being as consisting of five layers or sheaths, called koshas, that cover up the true self or atman. Beginning with the outermost, these layers are constituted by food or the physical body (annamaya), energy (pranamaya), mind (manomaya), consciousness (vijnanamaya), and bliss (anandamaya). Identification with one or more of these koshas—for example, imagining, “I am my physical body”—limits people and prevents knowledge of their true nature.
Other Hindu concepts of personality employ other schemes. One popular concept visualizes a person’s dormant energy residing at the bottom of the spine like a coiled serpent (kundalini). Upon awakening, it confers liberation when it reaches the head after piercing nodal points, called chakras, along the spine. Hinduism offers spiritual and physical exercises for awakening and liberating all these aspects of the personality.
I Yogas: Paths to Brahman
How do we proceed if we wish to rise towards Brahman? Hindu thought takes the personality of the seeker as the starting point. It divides human personalities into types dominated by physicality, activity, emotionality, or intellectuality. The composition of our personality intuitively predisposes us to a type of yoga—that is, a path we might follow to achieve union with Brahman. Although many people associate the word yoga with a physical discipline, in its original Hindu meaning yoga refers to any technique that unites the seeker with the ultimate reality.
While physical fitness buffs may seek such a union by practising Hatha yoga, people with different personality traits have other choices. For the action-oriented person there is Karma yoga, the yoga of action, which calls for a life of selfless deeds and actions appropriate to the person’s station in life. For the person of feeling, Bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, calls for unconditional love for a personal divinity. For the person of thought, Jnana yoga, the yoga of knowledge, calls for spiritual and physical discipline intended to bring direct insight into ultimate reality. The yogas do not represent tightly sealed compartments, merely convenient classifications. A well-balanced personality might well employ all four. These yogas are sometimes called margas (paths), suggesting that the same destination can be approached by more than one route, and indeed by more than one mode of travel.
J Varna: Social Organization
The individual stands in relationship not only to Brahman but also to the society in which he or she lives. Two Hindu concepts—varna and ashrama—address this social dimension of human existence (see Varnashrama).
Every society distinguishes among occupations on the basis of power, wealth, education, or other factors. Hindu thought has long recognized four major occupational groupings. In the first group are priests, teachers, scholars, and others who represent knowledge and spirituality. People in this group are called Brahmanas, Brahmans, or Brahmins. Those in the second group, called Kshatriyas, are represented by kings, warriors, government bureaucrats, and others who represent power. Those in the third group, called Vaishyas, are represented by farmers, traders, merchants, and other skilled workers. Those in the fourth group, called Shudras, are represented by unskilled workers. ‘The “untouchables” came to constitute a fifth group in this scheme.
Hindu thinkers visualized these groups as constituting the four limbs of society conceived as a body. This hierarchical system, with Brahmins as the first category and Shudras as the last, is known as the varna system. The system also indicates the different roles and responsibilities of each group within society and the relationship of the groups within a harmonious whole. The varna system was not originally intended as a permanent assignment of hereditary roles, and it once possessed considerable flexibility even though people tended to inherit the family profession, as in many other traditional societies.
The process of establishing the varna system was completed by the 4th century BC. By that time Hindu social organization accommodated thousands of sub-groups called jatis, which were based upon marriage and other associations as well as on occupational specialization in crafts. Hindu law books from the 4th century BC onwards bear witness to the blending of the varna and jati systems. In this process each jati became loosely linked with a varna. Yet the standing of jatis altered with changes in wealth, education, and political power. Over time, the groupings hardened into what became known as the caste system. The British census in the late 19th century helped formalize this system by mapping each jati to a specific varna.
K Ashrama: Stages of Life
Much as the varna system provides the organizing principle of Hindu society, the ashrama system provides the organizing principle of an individual’s life. According to the ashrama system, human life is divided into four stages, each succeeding the other. Ashrama provides a road map for the journey through these stages and provides a clear sense of purpose for each stage, including old age. Hindus consider the last stage of life highly meaningful. Ashrama also addresses the four goals that constitute a fulfilling life: dharma, artha, kama, and moksha.
The first stage is the life of a celibate student, a time when an individual acquires the values of dharma—that is, preparation and training for leading a proper life. It is followed by that of the householder, during which the individual seeks artha and kama by marrying, working, and raising a family as an active member of society. During this second stage, Hindu householders are expected to carry out their responsibilities in accordance with dharma and free themselves of debts owed to the gods, the sages, and their ancestors.
After the years of enjoyment and responsibility, the third stage of life begins. Around age 50, when the children are grown, the individual gradually begins to give up acquisitions and worldly ties and to take up spiritual contemplation in preparation for the next stage. The fourth and final stage involves renunciation of the world to seek liberation in sublime isolation. Renunciation allows the individual to be free of external responsibilities and to concentrate on an inner search. The life of the sannyasi (renunciant) focuses on achieving realization of the innermost self (atman) and union with the divine (moksha).
The ashrama system recognizes the division between active participation in life (pravrtti) and ascetic withdrawal from life (nivrtti). Although this division has applied to all Hindus, regardless of gender or caste, men of the three higher varnas (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas) have been more likely to enact it through the ashrama system. Some Hindus choose to devote their entire lives to the quest for moksha. They become renunciants and are free from the obligations of varna and ashrama. Such people are called sannyasis. A sannyasi who joins a monastic order takes the title “swami”.
In addition to the duties belonging to each stage of life, Hinduism also emphasizes duties belonging to all human beings, especially cultivation of truth and non-violence. Many Hindus choose not to eat meat because of their cultivation of non-violence.
Hindus consider all of creation worthy of worship, and thus religious activity in Hinduism takes many forms. Rituals may be performed by the individual, the family, the village, the community or region; at home or in a temple; and frequently or infrequently. The prevalence and persistence of Hindu ritual may well provide the stabilizing factor in a tradition that is so flexible in doctrine. Ritual might even be considered the glue that holds Hindus and Hinduism together.
Many rites and observances that Hindus practise daily have come down from ancient times. Others grew up around the lives and teachings of Hindu saints and sages. While details of rituals may differ from region to region and jati to jati, their meaning and central practices have remained consistent over vast distances of time and space.
Virtually all rituals in Hinduism possess multiple meanings, including symbolic interpretations. Even the way Hindus regularly greet each other may be regarded as symbolically bowing to the divine. The Hindu greeting involves pressing the palms of the hands together, which symbolizes the meeting of two people; placing the hands in front of the heart where Brahman dwells, indicating that one meets the self in the other; bowing the head in recognition of this meeting; and saying namaste, a Sanskrit word that means “I bow to you” and signifies “I bow to the divine in you”.
Bindi, the red dot that many Hindu women wear on the forehead, is an auspicious mark and symbol of good fortune. Once worn only by married women, bindi can be seen today on girls and women of all ages. Its location, over a chakra (energy point), is intended to help focus concentration during meditation.
A Categories of Ritual
The school of Hindu philosophy called Mimamsa, which is specially concerned with ritual, divides all religious activities in Hinduism into three types: (1) actions that are performed daily, called nitya; (2) actions performed on specific occasions, called naimittika; and (3) actions performed voluntarily according to personal desire, called kamya.
Hindus fulfil all three religious activities—nitya, naimittika, and kamya—through three types of ritual. These rituals are yajna, (involving a sacrificial fire); puja (devotional offerings, usually flowers); and dhyana (meditation). Yajnas are performed on major occasions, such as marriage and housewarming, when sacred substances are offered into the sacrificial fire. Puja may be performed publicly or privately. Public puja, usually performed in a temple, consists of anointing a statue of a deity and offering flowers, incense, and carefully prepared food to the deity. Chanting and devotional singing follow, accompanied by the waving of a small, camphor-burning lamp that illuminates the image of the deity. Most ceremonies have clearly marked opportunities for dhyana, or meditation.
B Household Worship
Hindu religious activities also can be divided into those that take place at home and those that take place in public. Many rituals are performed at home, either by individual family members or by the head of the household. Some of these household rituals involve a deity or a sacred fire; other rituals commemorate important passages in life.
B1 Puja: Devotion
Many Hindus worship daily the deity they have personally chosen. This personal deity is known as the ishta-devata. Household puja usually consists of worshipping the ishta-devata with prayer and offerings of food, accompanied by chanting and the waving of a lamp or light. The offering of food acknowledges that all food has a divine source. After the offering, the food is ready to be shared by the worshippers. Household puja generally takes place in front of an image or statue of the ishta-devata, which may be set up as a domestic shrine. Hindus who are more deeply involved in ritual may also tend a domestic fire.
Puja possesses a markedly personal character and is more often performed privately by individuals and families than publicly at temples. The private nature of puja may arise from the extremely personal relationship that Hinduism nurtures with the divinity, as parent, friend, or other supportive person. It also could have evolved from Hindu historical experience under foreign occupation, during which expression of Hindu identity in public was frowned upon and even dangerous.
B2 Samskaras: Sacraments To Mark Passages
Sacraments called samskaras punctuate the life cycle of the individual and have greater religious significance than puja. A standard list cites 16 samskaras, but in other sources samskaras range in number from a maximum of about 40 to a minimum of 2, marriage and death. The number varies with varna and gender.
The samskaras cluster in the early phases of life, including the prenatal phase. Four samskaras occur between birth and the beginning of studies at about age five. At birth a simple ceremony welcomes and blesses the newborn. The naming of the child, a significant event, occurs shortly after birth. Then come the taking of the first solid food and the first ritual shaving of the head. Among the upper castes, when a male child is ready to study the Vedas (sacred Hindu scriptures), the major samskara of upanayana occurs. In the course of it, the child receives a sacred thread and chants a mantra, the Gayatri mantra, whispered into his ear: “Let us meditate on the glorious splendour of enlivening Sun-god. May he inspire our minds”. In early times, a Hindu boy traditionally moved to the home of a guru (teacher) to study the Vedas after the upanayana samskara. After completing study of the Vedas, the student shaved his head and was ready for marriage.
A Hindu wedding consists of ceremonies performed over several days, culminating in the joining of the bride and groom. As part of the marriage samskara, a knot is tied to join the bride’s and the groom’s garments, after which they walk around a sacred fire seven times. The sacred fire serves as a witness to the vows exchanged between the bride and the bridegroom. They then take seven steps together, symbolizing friendship and emphasizing the idea of companionship in marriage. To strengthen the union, the bride and groom place their right hands on each other’s heart; the groom then recites a prayer from the Vedas, “I give you my heart. May our minds be as one”. At the end of this ritual the pair become man and wife. Additional rites before and after the main Hindu marriage ritual vary from region to region.
The sacrament of death calls for cremation (burning of the dead body), at the end of which the ashes are collected and deposited, usually by the side of or in a river. For ten days after cremation, family members offer rice balls to the person who has departed. This offering provides a good example of the persistence of ritual in Hindu tradition: the rice symbolizes growth and is meant to provide the person with a body in which to dwell in the world of the ancestors. The alternative, while waiting for the next birth, is the less pleasant prospect of wandering in the world of ghosts. These actions are required only of the Hindu householder and do not apply to the renunciant.
B3 Other Domestic Rituals
Some Hindu rituals are performed to obtain a specific reward, according to instructions in the Vedas. Such rewards include securing a suitable life partner, conceiving a child, or attaining wealth, as well as warding off negative outcomes.
C Communal Worship
Household religious activities involve the family or an individual member of the family. Other Hindu religious activities involve a larger community. A cluster of families may have a shrine where they worship periodically. Beyond the family and the cluster of families lies the village. At the village level, worship of the favoured deity of the village dominates. From the village level, worship moves to public rituals, which may be performed at temples and other sacred sites or at sacred times.
C1 Temple Worship
Rituals performed at temples, like household rituals, may be described as those that take place daily, nitya; those performed on specific occasions, naimittika; and those performed voluntarily, kamya. Hindu temples are dedicated to a deity or several deities who are believed to preside over the temple. Hindus visit temples to worship the temple deity or to worship another deity of their choosing by means of these three types of rituals. As at household shrines, they worship sculptures or painted images of the presiding deity and make offerings.
Basic rituals performed daily at most Hindu temples include rousing the deity from sleep at dawn, making the deity available for worship and offerings by visitors at midday, and putting the deity to bed at dusk. At some temples, the additional rituals of bathing and feeding the deity take place between dawn and midday. These rituals express the personal nature of Hindu love of and devotion to their deities.
Naimittika at temples is an occasion for carrying about the image of the temple deity. For example, a festival at the temple of Jagannath (Sanskrit, Jagannatha) in the town of Puri celebrates the god Jagannath’s annual visit to his birthplace, the temple site, in his chariot. More than 4,000 celebrants pull the god’s wooden chariot, which stands about 14 m (45 ft) high. The English word juggernaut comes from Jagannatha. Public processions and festivals at the temples of Rama and Krishna mark the birthdays of these avatars of Vishnu.
Kamya puja is typically performed at temples to gain a specific end. A visitor to a temple might request the performance of puja, or daily prayers, at the temple and make a donation for that purpose.
C2 Sacred Sites
Hindus consider the entire Earth, as well as the Indian land mass known as mother India (Bharata Mata), to be sacred. This view once found expression in such practices as visiting the four corners of India as represented by the pilgrimage sites of Badrinath to the north, Puri to the east, Rameshvaram to the south, and Dwarka to the west. Hindus make pilgrimages to sacred sites in the hope of cleansing themselves of sins and lessening their karmic debt.
Certain parts of India are held in special veneration. For example, Hindu tradition regards seven cities as holy: Varanasi (sacred to Shiva); Hardwar (where the River Ganges widens into a plain); Mathura (where Krishna is believed to have grown up); Ayodhya (believed by devotees to be the birthplace of Rama); Kanchipuram (associated with the Hindu philosopher Shankara); Ujjain (site of the temple of Mahakala); and Puri (associated with the later life of Krishna).
Other sacred Hindu locations involve rivers and events in Hindu epics. Particular regions also have their own sacred locations. Certain sites in India are sacred because of their association with the Great Goddess, Devi, who takes many forms. In the form of Devi Sati, according to legend, her dismembered body parts fell on 51 locations that became sacred to worshippers of Shakti (the female aspect of the divine). The Jvala Mukhi Temple near Jalandhar, for example, is said to represent her tongue. Worshippers visit the Kamakshya Temple in Assam to partake of her cosmic energy.
C3 Hindu Festivals
Religious festivals dot the Hindu calendar. A number of them commemorate events in the great Sanskrit epic Ramayana (Way of Rama) or in the life of Krishna. The timing of these festivals is related to the movements of the Sun and the Moon.
An important festival known as Dassera (also called Navaratri or Durgapuja) marks the victory of Prince Rama over the demon king Ravana in a struggle between good and evil that is related in the Ramayana. Dassera takes place in September or October and is followed by Diwali (also known as Deepvali), the festival of lights. Diwali commemorates the restoration of truth and light: in the north, the victorious return of Rama with his bride Sita to Ayodhya and in the south, the victory of Krishna over the monster Narakasura.
The festival of Holi celebrates the arrival of spring in February or March. During this festival people spray each other with coloured powders and coloured water, forget the cares of winter, and rejoice in the onset of spring. A popular family festival, Raksha Bandhan, occurs in July or August and renews the bonds of affection between brothers and sisters. Sisters tie threads as tokens of good luck around the wrists of brothers and are rewarded with gifts. Other important festivals are Maha Shivaratri, the night sacred to Shiva when worshippers recite prayers to be freed of sins, and Ganesha-Chaturthi, dedicated to the elephant god Ganesha, when worshippers recite prayers to remove obstacles in their lives. Maha Shivaratri falls in the winter months, and Ganesha-Chaturthi in August or September. Among the major regional festivals are the Dolayatra, a spring festival in the eastern state of Orissa; Pongal, a winter festival in southern India; and Onam, a harvest festival in the south-western state of Kerala.
C4 Satsanga: Fellowship
A popular form of participation in religious life is the satsanga, which literally means keeping company with sat (truth and goodness). The satsanga may consist of Hindus who gather for discussions of Hindu scripture or of a circle of devotees who have formed around a sant, an individual who is believed to have realized the truth. The sants practised the devotional form of worship, composing hymns and poems and teaching through reciting these. Satsangas often involve chanting and singing, especially of devotional songs called bhajans. On religious occasions the chanting of “om”, the sacred sound, is considered particularly holy.
C5 Om: Sacred Symbol and Sacred Sound
The sacred syllable om or aum functions at many levels. Hindus chant it as a means of meditating on the ultimate reality and connecting with the innermost self (atman) and Brahman. At one level, om possesses a vibrational aspect apart from its conceptual significance. If pronounced correctly, its vibrations resonate through the body and are believed to penetrate the atman. At another level, the three sounds that constitute the syllable—a, u, and m—have been associated with the states of waking, dreaming, and deep sleep, states to which all life can be reduced. Thus, by repeating the syllable the chanter is thought to pass through all three states. Other associations of the three sounds are with the three states of the cosmos—manifestation, maintenance, and dissolution—and with the three aspects of Ishvara who preside over these cosmic states: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Om thus functions at a practical level as a mantra and at a cosmic level as signifying the trinity.
C6 Guru
Spiritual authority in Hinduism flows from enlightened sages called gurus. The guru is someone who has attained realization and acts as a guide for other human beings. He or she guides the individual seeker of truth and self-realization to the appropriate deity, practice, or yoga within Hinduism. The disciple’s goal is to transcend the need for a guru through direct experience of the divine and self-awareness. Having a guide is considered critical for traversing the complexities of spiritual practice and self-discovery. The guru thus constitutes an important centre of spiritual activity in Hinduism. Numerous Hindu hymns express adoration for the guru.
Although Hindu tradition maintains that the ultimate reality lies beyond all scriptures, it is equally convinced that the scriptures help people orient their minds and lives towards Brahman. This attitude has given rise to a large body of sacred literature.
A The Vedas
The four Vedas constitute the most important body of sacred Hindu literature, at least in theory. Other sacred literature, especially the Hindu epics, may be more popular with readers, but the Vedas, written in Sanskrit, are the oldest and most respected scriptures. They are separately titled the Rig-Veda, Yajur-Veda, Sama-Veda, and Atharva-Veda, and collectively referred to as the Veda.
Each of the Vedas can be divided into four types of texts, which are roughly chronological in order: mantra or samhita, brahmana, aranyaka, and upanishad. The mantra or samhita portion largely consists of hymns addressed to the various deities. The brahmana texts gather the authoritative utterances of brahmans (those with knowledge of Brahman, the ultimate reality) and describe the rituals, chiefly sacrificial offerings, in which the hymns are employed. The third section consists of aranyakas, or forest texts, presumably composed by sages who sought seclusion in the forests. The last section consists of the Upanishads, philosophical texts imbued with mysticism.
Scholars have suggested that the four types of texts represent four different stages in the spiritual evolution of the Indo-Aryan speaking peoples. During the earliest stage in their religious life, the Aryans may have recited simple hymns of praise for the divinities they felt dwelt around them. In the next stage ritual evolved out of the early worship and became increasingly elaborate, until people were driven to ask what it was all about. Sages then retired to the forests to reflect on the meaning of sacrifice and the person who makes the sacrifice. This reflection opened the floodgates of philosophical speculation found in the Upanishads.
Hindus traditionally have viewed the four types of texts as dating from the same period but serving different purposes. The first three texts deal with the realm of action and are concerned with dharma, artha, and kama, whereas the last text concerns knowledge of the self and moksha. In this view, following dharma while experiencing the ups and downs of life produces a devout and mature mind that is then able to fully grasp what the Upanishads have to say.
The Upanishads are also called Vedanta (meaning “end of the Vedas”) because they represent the final essence of the Vedas. The Vedanta marks the culmination as well as the conclusion of the Vedas, although the Vedic canon was never formally closed.
B Shruti and Smriti
Hindu scriptures can be classified into two types: shruti and smriti. Shruti, meaning “heard”, may be thought of as revelation or eternal truth, whereas smriti, meaning “remembered”, is comparable to tradition. By distinguishing that which is eternally true from that which holds true for a specific time and culture, the categories of shruti and smriti enable Hindus to reform outdated practices while remaining faithful to Hinduism’s essence. Where there is a conflict between the two, shruti takes precedence over smriti. The Vedas constitute shruti, whereas there are many different smriti texts.
The Vedas differ from the Bible for Christians and the Koran for Muslims in that they do not convert Hinduism into a religion of the book. Unlike the revealed texts of Christianity and Islam, whose source is considered to be God speaking through the son or the prophet, the Vedas, according to tradition, have no author. According to Vedanta, shruti is revelation without a revealer. Because in Hinduism the universe is without beginning or end, the Vedas appear along with creation at the beginning of each cycle of time. Then Brahma, who presides over the re-manifestation of the universe, recites the Vedas and sages hear them anew. These divinely heard scriptures are then transmitted orally from master to disciple.
The Vedas are also called shruti because they are divinely “heard” by the sages at the beginning of a cycle; and because they are transmitted orally from master to disciple.
The word smriti is applied to a vast category of literature in Hinduism. Unlike shruti, smriti is considered to have an author and may even be written in one of the regional languages of India.
One category of smriti consists of more than 20 law books that lay down in detail the rules to follow in life, especially the rules that pertain to varna (social order) and ashrama (stages of life). Another category includes texts called Puranas, which deal with the lives of the gods and celestial beings. There are 18 Puranas, and they can be classified according to which of the three gods of the Hindu trinity they focus on—Brahma, Vishnu, or Shiva. The most famous of these is the Bhagavata-Purana, which deals with the life of Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, in the pastoral surroundings of Vrndavana. A third category of smriti consists of two texts of legendary history: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. These are the two well-known epics of Hinduism. Scholars believe the Ramayana assumed its present form between 300 BC and AD 200, while the Mahabharata evolved over a period extending from about 400 BC to about AD 400.
C The Epics
C1 Ramayana
The Ramayana of Valmiki consists of about 24,000 verses and describes the life of Prince Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu. The author, Valmiki, according to later tradition, belonged to the Shudra varna and made his living by robbing travellers. After an encounter with the sage Narada, Valmiki turned his life around and became a poet and scholar. Classical Hinduism recognizes him as a Brahmin and as India’s first poet. Rama and his wife Sita embody virtue and righteousness, and their lives demonstrate dharma in various spheres of activity. Their life stories contain lessons for Hindus on ideal behaviour in various roles, such as son, brother, wife, king, and married couple. Rama’s reign ushers in a golden age, and the expression Rama-rajya (rule of Rama) describes the best of times in which the divine presence rules on Earth.
C2 Mahabharata
The Mahabharata, an epic story of 100,000 verses, is attributed to a sage named Vyasa and considered to be the longest poem in the world. It traces the descendants of two sets of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, whose disputes eventually lead to the Mahabharata war. Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, is central to the story. Like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata addresses many questions related to dharma and the actions of individuals and society. These discourses have provided inspiration for Hindus in many areas of life.
C3 Bhagavad-Gita
One part of the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad-Gita, functions virtually as a text on its own in Hinduism. On the eve of the Mahabharata war, the hero Arjuna suddenly develops a disinclination to fight. Arjuna’s decision leads to a prolonged dialogue with Krishna during which Krishna tries to resolve Arjuna’s moral and metaphysical dilemmas in 700 verses. The way in which Krishna seeks to guide Arjuna has endeared the text to the Hindus as a guide to their faith.
In the Bhagavad-Gita Hinduism comes closest to possessing a universal scripture. Since the Gupta period (AD 320 to 550; see Gupta Dynasty) it has inspired a stream of commentaries, summaries, and translations, all of which attest to its wide popularity. The Bhagavad-Gita’s doctrine of svadharma (understanding one’s own role and responsibility) implies a cosmic mirroring of the essential nature of reality (Brahman) in the reality of the individual’s essential nature (atman). This implication has proved spiritually intriguing for practitioner, believer, and scholar alike.
The Mahabharata and the Bhagavad-Gita carry meaning on multiple levels. In one interpretation, the Pandavas and Kauravas represent the forces of good and evil that exist within each person, and the contest between them represents the perpetual battle between these tendencies. The Bhagavad-Gita describes the techniques and paths by which the individual can attain realization of the ultimate reality with Krishna as the guide.
As part of the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad-Gita technically falls in the category of smriti rather than shruti. However, it virtually enjoys the status of shruti by representing the words of the divinity, incarnated as Krishna and addressed to human beings through Arjuna.
D Tantric Literature
Tantra represents another vast body of Hindu literature. After centuries of neglect, it has gradually begun to receive fuller recognition. The word tantra has two meanings. In one sense it refers to sacred literature which appeared from the 5th century onward and focused not only on Vishnu and Shiva, but also on the cults of earlier deities: Ganapati (another name for the elephant-headed god, Ganesha), Kumara (a son of Brahma), Surya (Sun), and Shakti (the goddess). The second sense restricts tantra to texts that deal with the worship of Shakti.
After the Gupta age ended in the 6th century the Tantric tradition heavily influenced Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. If elite or intellectual Hinduism is Vedic in nature, then mainstream Hinduism is Tantric in orientation. Some accounts consider both traditions equally revelatory. Tantric literature largely eliminates caste distinctions in terms of religious practices. It also holds women in high regard. It thus provides a useful corrective to the negative stereotypes of Hinduism as patriarchal (male-controlled). Although smriti literature can be described as male oriented, Tantric literature is female oriented.
Consider these statements from Tantric literature. The Gautamiya Tantra clearly states that tantra is open to women and members of all castes. The Mahanirvana Tantra requires a man to fast for a day for talking rudely to a woman. The Kubjikamata Tantra states that all houses of women should be worshipped as holy shrines. In the Shakta model of Hinduism, which focuses worship on the Great Goddess, all women are regarded as gurus and may initiate others by reading out the mantra from an authoritative text. Men have no authority to do so. In addition, the Devi (goddess) is worshipped in her own right, rather than in relation to a male god.
Hindu gods are regularly displayed with their female counterparts. When they are invoked together, the female partner is named first, as in Sita-Rama and Radha-Krishna. In the case of Shiva and Shakti the relationship gets so close that they are represented as inhabiting a single body in the Ardhanrishvara (Lord-who-is-half-female) form. Tantra at times involves the balancing of these two aspects—Shiva (representing consciousness) and Shakti (representing energy)—in a manner reminiscent of yin and yang in Daoism.
E Literature in Regional Languages
Most Hindus first encounter Hinduism through their regional languages, despite the special significance of Sanskrit. Almost every regional language in India has produced its own version of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, sharing in the religious admiration given to the original versions. Deservedly famous translations of the Ramayana include one in the Tamil language by the 9th-century Hindu scholar Kamban and one in Hindi by the 16th-century poet and saint Tulsidas. A wave of literature in Tamil appeared in the 7th to 9th centuries as the result of a surge of devotion to Vishnu and Shiva. Most of the influential works of modern Hinduism were originally composed in English.
The utilization of these various bodies of literature provides insight into how Hinduism tries to sanctify what it touches. Thus the title of Veda came to be conferred on any worthwhile body of knowledge, including writings on architecture, on music, and even on military science. Highly esteemed sacred texts that came after the Vedas have come to be described as the fifth Veda.
Hinduism does not attach the same religious significance to historical events that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam do. The history of Hinduism thus becomes a history of its quest to incorporate the various developments it has encountered or generated.
There remain uncertainties over the historical origins of Hinduism. Linguistic and archaeological evidence supports the view that key elements of Hinduism arose following the migration and settlement in India of peoples speaking an Indo-Aryan language. Hinduism also shows the incorporation of elements present in the earlier Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley. It is thought that the earliest Vedas may date back to 1200 BC.
A Vedic Hinduism
Vedic Hinduism can be thought to begin with the Rig-Veda, which contains hymns of praise to various deities called devas. Agni (deva of fire) and Indra (king of devas and deva of the atmosphere, storms, rain, and battle) were prominent, judging by the number of hymns addressed to them. Fire was the deity of the domestic hearth as well as of public ritual. The Rig-Veda calls the deity “smoke-bannered” as it carries the offering made into it toward the gods. Indra was a martial leader in the Rig-Veda who carried his followers to victory in battle and also battled drought as a rain-god. An entire book of the Rig-Veda is devoted to soma, a plant whose juice produced ecstatic experiences. It is already clear in the Rig-Veda that all these devas were aspects of one underlying reality. See also Devas and Asuras.
By the 4th century BC Vedic Hinduism had spread throughout India and had assimilated and absorbed various local religious beliefs and practices.
B Classical Hinduism
The period from the 3rd century BC to the late 7th century AD is known as classical Hinduism. Even as Vedic Hinduism flourished throughout India, various aspects of its world-view had come under challenge by the 6th century BC. This challenge came from Upanishadic thinkers and from the rise of new sects including the Jains and the Buddhists. The Upanishadic thinkers considered themselves in the line of descent from Vedic seers, while the followers of Buddhism and Jainism tended to question Vedic authority, although they retained many concepts from the Vedas. All were concerned about release from eternal rebirth and generally agreed that release was obtained not by sacrifice but by meditation and contemplation. Buddhism, Jainism, and various heterodox currents within the umbrella of Hinduism also represented reactions to the social rigidity and exclusiveness of Brahminism—the dominant, orthodox strain of Hinduism.
Buddhism and Jainism gradually gained strength in India during the centuries just before and just after the beginning of the first millennium. Buddhism benefited in the 3rd century AD from the patronage extended to it by King Ashoka, who ruled almost all of India. Jainism similarly benefited from royal patrons. By the start of the Gupta period, which lasted from about AD 320 to 550, Hinduism resurged, having integrated a variety of Buddhist and Jain beliefs and practices. These included the doctrine of ahimsa (non-violence) and an emphasis on vegetarianism. The Gupta period has been celebrated as a “golden age” of classical Hindu culture.
During this classical Gupta period, Hindu thought and its systematization flourished. By then many shastras (classical works) of Hindu philosophy had been compiled. These shastras include the Arthashastra (principles of statecraft), Natya Shastra (aesthetics of performing arts), poetry and dramatic works by writers such as Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti, grammars by Panini and Patanjali, works on human sexuality such as the Kamasutra, and the medical compendia of Charaka and Susruta. In addition, the major epics—the Ramayana and Mahabharata—received their present form. Also during this period, rules were developed for representations of the deities and for building structures to house these statues and images.
C Medieval Hinduism
As a vigorous and multifaceted Hinduism unfolded in India during the 7th century, a new religion made its appearance in Arabia: Islam. Within a century, Islam’s dominions extended from Spain to Sind (now part of Pakistan). By the 10th and 11th centuries the followers of Islam consolidated their hold on north-western India. By 1200 Islamic rule was established in the city of Delhi in northern India, and it then spread in two waves over nearly the whole of India. The first wave of expansion occurred under the Delhi Sultanate, which ruled from 1206 to 1526. During the second wave, under the Mughal Empire (1526-1858), Islamic rule achieved its maximum extension.
The relationship between followers of Hinduism and Islam were not as clear cut as has often been painted. Much depended on the way in which Islam came to the region. In the south-western state of Kerala, Islam was introduced through trade, and the history of relations between the two faiths was peaceful and assimilative. By contrast, in regions of the north that fell under military conquest, the relationship was more confrontational. There were great variations during the reigns of the different Mughal emperors, from the tolerant and enlightened Akbar to the repressive Aurangzeb. Nevertheless, throughout the period, there were complex social and economic relationships at all levels in society that cut across religious barriers. Aspects of Islam, and in particular the mystical Sufism, which became deeply Indianized, also influenced Hinduism during this period. The development of Sikhism was another response to Islam. Sikhism rejects image worship and ritualism in keeping with Islam, while retaining many aspects of the Hindu world-view.
While mainstream Hinduism retreated into a defensive position under the protective cover of orthodoxy, at the level of practice and belief, Hinduism witnessed the rise and flowering of the bhakti (devotion) movement. This movement of ecstatic devotion to Vishnu or Shiva had gained a firm foothold in the south by the 9th century, and it swept over the rest of the country by the 17th century. Devotion to the divine (bhakti), rather than knowledge of the divine (jnana), became the dominant form of Hinduism. Bhakti poetry expressed love for the divine, often in the forms of Krishna and Rama. Unlike the exclusiveness of access to the Vedas, which was limited to the upper castes, the poetry of the bhakti movement was meant for the masses. Among the mystical bhakti poets were Chaitanya, Tulsidas, Mira Bai, and Kabir. Kabir exemplifies the complex interactions between Hinduism and Islam: probably from a Muslim family, his devotional poems show the infusion of Sufi influence.
D Modern Hinduism
Following the decline of the Mughal Empire during the late 17th century, the British gradually succeeded in establishing themselves as the paramount power in India during the next century. By the early 19th century they had introduced Christian missionaries to India and established English as the language of public instruction. These developments forced Hinduism to confront Christianity and Western modernity. At the same time, the Western world was exposed to Hindu scriptures translated into European languages.
D1 Movements for Reform
One response to the encounter with Europe was reform. The Bengali scholar Ram Mohan Roy set the tone for reform in the early 19th century. Roy campaigned against medieval or regional Hindu practices that were objectionable in the modern world. He advocated allowing widows to remarry and abolition of the practice of sati (self-immolation of a wife after her husband’s death; see suttee). In 1828 Roy founded the Brahmo Samaj (Society of Brahma) to spread his ideas.
Another movement kept India from moving too far towards imitation of the modern Christian West. The movement was named after Ramakrishna, a Hindu spiritual leader who served as a priest at the Dakshineshwar Temple in the city of Kolkata (Calcutta). His reputation as a mystic drew many to him, including Swami Vivekananda, who founded the Ramakrishna movement after Ramakrishna’s death in 1886. Vivekananda, a representative Hindu product of India’s new English-language education system, became a devotee of Ramakrishna and renounced the world after the priest’s death. His message was a return to the timeless wisdom of the Vedanta. As an unknown swami, he turned up uninvited at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893 to present Ramakrishna’s teachings. He won instant celebrity and was hailed as a hero in India for his vigorous advocacy of mystical Hinduism. In 1895 he founded the Vedanta Society in New York to promote Hindu ideas.
Vivekananda primarily used English in his work of reforming Hinduism and stressing the inclusive aspects of Hindu spirituality over ritual and rules. Another reform-minded leader of the 19th century, Dayananda Sarasvati, used Hindi in responding to the challenges of Christianity and modernity. Sarasvati founded the Arya Samaj, a movement also dedicated to modernizing Hindu practices and asserting the universality of the Hindu tradition. These movements helped revitalize Hinduism.
Another issue that engaged Hindu reformers was the plight of the lowest social class, the panchama jatis, or untouchables (now known as Dalits). Local movements, such as one led by Sri Narayana Guru in Kerala, were most successful at reform. Narayana, who was born in 1856, believed that education and greater self-esteem, rather than confrontation and blame, would elevate the Dalits. He established temples where all castes could pray together.
E India’s Struggle for Independence
The rise of Indian nationalism in the 20th century further contributed to Hindu self-awakening. In the work of Indian philosopher and statesman Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the Hindu tradition found intellectual expression; in the work of Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, Hinduism found humanist expression; and in the life of Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi, Hinduism found political and social expression. Another important figure in the development of Hindu nationalism was Sri Aurobindo Ghose. Ghose promoted revolutionary activism early in his life but later withdrew to an ashram, practised yoga, and influenced his followers through his writings.
Gandhi’s innovative use of non-violence and civil disobedience on a massive scale under the name of satyagraha made traditional Hindu values relevant to India’s political struggle against British rule. By linking the elevation of the Dalits (he called them “harijans” or “children of God”) with the struggle, Gandhi added social justice to his campaign. By raising social awareness within the Hindu tradition and by lifting that tradition to a new level of political awareness, Gandhi provided modern Hinduism with its defining features. These features took firm root in a century of reformist effort and half a century of political struggle against the British. Although the movement led by Gandhi succeeded in winning independence for India in 1947, it failed to prevent the partition of the Indian subcontinent on a religious basis. The partition of the subcontinent between a primarily Hindu India and a primarily Muslim Pakistan was to have profound consequences for contemporary Hinduism.
Once the movement against British rule gained strength, the relationship between India’s Muslim minority and its Hindu majority became an issue. The movement led by Gandhi aimed at a state based on mutual accommodation, and it was able to subdue those elements within Hinduism that sought to assert Hindu political identity at the expense of Muslim political identity. The partition of India in 1947 weakened the forces of accommodation. After partition India created a secular state. Nevertheless, continuing political tension between Pakistan and India, especially over Kashmir, and the growth of a militant Hindu nationalism feeding on this tension, have eroded intercommunal relations in India in recent years.
E1 Hindu Nationalism
Hindutva, a movement of Hindu nationalism, gained force before and after partition. Hindutva took its name from the title of a book published in 1923 by V. D. Savarkar, a militant Hindu nationalist and leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, which advocated that India should become a militarily strong Hindu nation. Savarkar was implicated in the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi, but was acquitted on a technicality.
By the early 1990s, the Ramajanmabhoomi movement, which demanded the demolition of a mosque built by Babur over the alleged birthplace of Rama in the modern city of Ayodhya, became the focus for Hindu nationalists, who gained a wide popular following. It was declared that a Hindu temple had once marked the site. Whipped up feelings culminated in the destruction of the mosque by a Hindu mob in 1992. The site has remained a focus of tension, with Hindu nationalists demanding the right to build a temple there.
Despite its growth under a coalition government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political wing of the Hindu nationalist movement, many Hindus do not accept the assertions of Hindutva, and in particular assertions concerning the history of India and the political form that modern India should take.
A faith without a founder or a single clear-cut canonical text, Hinduism has grown and altered in complex ways over three millennia, and has always harboured many heterodox elements and much regional variation in practice. It remains to be seen how the currently dominant militant nationalistic strain, itself, some argue, a response to both regional political tensions and global developments in capitalism and globalization, will fare in the coming decades.

Entry filed under: Philosophy.

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August 2008


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