- What is Hinduism?
Hinduism (Sanskrit: Sanatana Dharma “eternal law”) is a religion that originated on the Indian subcontinent. With its foundations in the Vedic civilization, it has no known founder, being itself a conglomerate of diverse beliefs and traditions. It is considered the world’s “oldest extant religion,” and has approximately a billion adherents, of whom about 890 million live in India, placing it as the world’s third largest religion after Christianity and Islam. Other countries with large Hindu populations include Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Pakistan.
Hinduism provides a vast body of scriptures. Divided as revealed and remembered, and developed over millennia, these scriptures expound an equally vast range of theology, philosophy, and myth, providing spiritual insights along with guidance on the practice of dharma (religious living). Among such texts, Hindus revere the Vedas along with the Upanishads as being among the foremost in authority, importance, and antiquity. Other important scriptures include the Tantras and sectarian Agamas, Puranas and the epics: the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. A deeply profound conversation excerpted from the Mahabharata, called the Bhagavad Gita is widely studied for summarizing the spiritual teachings of the Vedas.
- Origins and History of Hinduism?
The earliest evidence for elements of Hinduism dates back as far as the late neolithic, to the early Harappan period (ca. 5500-3300 BCE). In recognition of these ancient elements, it is claimed that Hinduism is the oldest surviving religion. The beliefs and practices of the pre-classical era (ca. 1500-500 BCE) are called the “Vedic religion”. The oldest surviving text of Hinduism is the Rigveda and is dated to between 1700-1100 BCE, based on linguistic and philological evidence.
The History of Hinduism spans more than 4000 years. Hinduism is the world’s oldest existing major religion. A worldwide religious tradition based on the Vedas and the beliefs and traditions of the various groups in India, Hinduism’s origins include cultural elements of the Indus valley civilisation (c.3300 BC), and the Vedic religion of the Indo-Aryans, and other Indian civilisations. Being highly localised within India, Hinduism has seen many changes throughout the history of the Indian subcontinent.
The dates of Hinduism’s origins are approximate, based on archaeological evidence and scriptural references.
Archaeological evidence unearthed at Indus Valley Civilization sites has been dated to circa 3000 BCE, suggesting that the Varnashrama system of four classes was adhered to no earlier than that. Seals depicting the deity Shiva in a Yogic posture of meditation also support that approximation. Philological evidence suggests that the earliest Hindu scripture, the Rig Veda, was composed around 1500-1300 BCE.
Astronomical interpretation of Hindu scriptures suggest a date of approximately 3102 BCE. This date results from close examination of the Mahabharata, where the positions of the stars were noted at Sri Krishna’s birth. Hindus believe Krishna was born 5000 years ago, and using the star locations in the Mahabharata, the exact year was 3228 BCE. Sri Rama, according to the Ramayana, lived around 9000-5000 BCE.
- Core concepts:
Hinduism originates from the ancient Vedic tradition and other indigenous beliefs, incorporated over time. Prominent themes in Hinduism include Dharma (ethics and duties), Samsara (rebirth), Karma (right action), and Moksha (liberation from the cycle of samsara). Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism share traits with Hinduism, because these religions originated in India and focus on self-improvement with the general aim of attaining personal (first hand, spiritual experiences. They along with Hinduism are collectively known as Dharmic religion
- Concepts of GOD:
Hinduism is sometimes considered to be a polytheistic religion, but such a view tends to oversimplify a diverse system of thought with beliefs spanning monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, monism and even atheism. For instance, the Advaita Vedanta school holds that there is only one causal entity (Brahman), which manifests itself to humans in multiple forms while many scholars consider Samkhya to have atheistic leanings.
- Scriptures and Literature:
Hinduism is based on “the accumulated treasury of spiritual lawas discovered by different persons in different times.” The scriptures were transmitted orally, in verse form to aid memorization, for many centuries before they were written down. Over many centuries, the teachings were refined by other sages, and the canon expanded. The majority of the sacred texts are composed in the Sanskrit language. Sanskrit continues to be used today in religious and literary settings. The scripture are collectively referred to as Shastras and are classified into two classes: Shruti and Smriti.
Shruti: Vedic literature
The Rig Veda is one of the oldest religious texts. Shruti (lit: that which has been heard) refers to the Vedas (Knowledge) which form the earliest record of the Hindu scriptures. While they have not been dated with much certainty, even the most conservative estimates date their origin to 1200 BCE or earlier.
Hindus revere the Vedas as eternal truths, revealed to ancient sages through meditation. Many of these sages were women. Most Hindus do not associate the creation of the Vedas with a God or person. They are thought of as the laws of the spiritual world, which would still exist even if they were not revealed to the sages.
There are four Vedas (called Rik-, Sama- Yajus- and Atharva-). The Rigveda is the first and the most important Veda. Each Veda is divided into four parts: the primary one, the Veda proper, being the Samhita, which contains sacred mantras in verse. The other three parts form a three-tier ensemble of commentaries, usually in prose, which are historically believed to be slightly later in age than the Samhita. These are: the Brahmanas and the Upanishads.
The Upanishads focus on spiritual insight and philosophy whereas the Vedas focus on rituals. These texts constitute a major portion of the Jnana Kanda, and contain much of the Vedas’ philosophical teachings. The Upanishads discuss Brahman and reincarnation. While the Vedas are not read by most lay Hindus, they are yet revered as the eternal knowledge whose sacred sounds help bring spiritual and material benefits. Theologically, they take precedence over the Smriti.
The most notable of the smritis are the Itihasa (epics), which consist of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Bhagavad Gita is an integral part of the epic Mahabharata and one of the most popular sacred texts of Hinduism. It contains philosophical sermons told by Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, to the P?ndava prince Arjuna on the eve of a great war. The Bhagavad Gita is described as the essence of the Vedas.
Also widely known are the Puranas (“ancient histories”), which illustrate Vedic ideas through vivid narratives dealing with deities, and their interactions with humans. Other key texts are the Deva Mahatmya, the Yoga Sutras, the Tantras as well as the Mahanirvana Tantra, Tirumantiram and Shiva Sutras. Another important set of scriptures with a more sectarian nature are the Hindusgamas, which dedicate to rituals and worship associated with Vishnu, Shiva and Devi. A more controversial text, the Manusmriti or “Code of Manu”, is a prescriptive lawbook which epitomizes the societal codes of the Brahminical caste system.
Most Hindu scriptures, especially the epics and Puranas, are not typically interpreted literally and more importance is attached to the ethics and the metaphorical meanings derived from them. Hindu exegesis leans toward figurative interpretations of scriptures rather than literal ones.
Hindu practices generally involve seeking awareness of God and sometimes also seeking blessings from Devas. Therefore, Hinduism has developed numerous practices meant to help one think of divinity in the midst of everyday life. According to Swami Vivekananda: “The ideal of man is to see God in everything. But if you cannot see Him in everything, see Him in one thing, in that thing you like best, and then see Him in another. So on you go . . . Take your time and you will achieve your end.”
Puja : worship
Hindus may engage in some type of formal worship (Sanskrit: puja, worship or veneration) either at home or at a temple. At home, Hindus often create a shrine with icons dedicated to the individual’s chosen form(s) of God. Veneration may involve offering food, water, or flowers and may be expressed through the burning of incense, lighting of candles or oil-lamps, ringing a bell, waving a fan, or sounding a conch-shell. Other practices of Puja include meditation, the chanting of mantras, and the recitation of scriptures.
Devotional singing is an important part of bhakti. Devotional singing occurs in temples, in ashrams, on the banks of holy rivers, at home and elsewhere. Hymns are in Sanskrit or in modern Indian languages such as Hindi, Marathi, Bengali or Tamil. Musical instruments accompanying devotional singing include the manjeera, tanpura, harmonium, and tabla. Another form of community worship is Satsang (fellowship), the practice of gathering for study or discussion of scriptures and religious topics as well as chanting mantras.
Vedic rites of icon-less fire-oblation (yajna), with traditional Vedic chanting, are now only occasional practices although they are highly revered in theory. In a Hindu wedding ceremony, however, the presence of sacred fire as the divine witness, the yajna and chanting of vedic mantras is still the norm.
Worship of God through icons
A murti of the dancing posture of Shiva, known as Nataraja.Hindus may worship God through icons (murti), such as statues or paintings symbolic of God’s power and glory. The icon serves as a tangible link between the worshipper and God. Another view is that the image is a manifestation of God, since God is immanent. The Padma Purana states that the m?rti is not to be thought of as mere stone or wood but as a manifest form of the Divinity. A few Hindu sects, such as the Arya Samaj, do not believe in worshiping God through icons.
Hindu temples are a place of worship for Hindus. They are usually dedicated to a primary deity along with associated subordinate deities. However, some temples are dedicated to multiple deities. Most major temples are constructed as per the shastras and many are sites of pilgrimage. An important element of temple architecture and many Hindu households in general is Vaastu Shastra, the science of aesthetic and auspicious design.
Visiting temples is not obligatory for Hindus. Many Hindus go to temples only during religious festivals, though others do so more regularly. Temples are not used for weddings, funerals, or as social hubs. Many Hindus view the four Shankaracharyas (the abbots of the monasteries of Joshimath, Puri, Shringeri and Dwarka ? four of the holiest pilgrimage centers ? sometimes to which a fifth at Kanchi is also added) as the Patriarchs of Hinduism.
Hinduism has a developed system of symbolism and iconography to represent the sacred in art, architecture, literature and worship. These symbols gain their meaning from the scriptures, mythology, or cultural traditions. The symbols Om (which represents the Parabrahman), Swastika (which symbolizes auspiciousness) have grown to represent Hinduism itself, while other markings like tilaka identify a follower of the faith. Hinduism associates many symbols, which include the lotus, chakra and veena, with particular devas. These associations distinguish the physical representations of the deities in sculptural or printed form and are based upon allegorical references in Hindu mythology. While most representations of deities are largely anthropomorphic there are exceptions. For instance the deity Shiva is worshipped in the form of a pillar-like stone called a lingam.
Japa and mantra
Mantras are prayers or chants that through their meaning, sound, and chanting style help a person focus their mind on holy thoughts or to express devotion to God. Mantras are meant to give courage in exigent times and invoke one’s inner spiritual strength.
After the pranava or “fundamental” mantra of “Aum”, one of the most revered mantras in Hinduism is the Gayatri Mantra. Hindus are initiated into this most sacred mantra at the time of their Upanayanam (thread ceremony). Many Hindus perform morning ablutions at the bank of a sacred river while chanting the Gayatri or Mahamrityunjaya mantras.
Japa (ritualistic chanting) is extolled as the greatest duty for the Kali Yuga (what Hindus believe to be the current age), in the epic Mahabharata. Following this direction, many Hindu traditions adopt Japa as their primary spiritual practice. The Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition chanting the Hare Krishna mantra is one such example.
Pilgrimage is not mandatory in Hinduism. Nevertheless, many Hindus undertake one or more pilgrimages during their lifetimes. There are many Hindu holy places in India. One of the most famous is the ancient city of Varanasi. Other holy places in India include Kedarnath and Badrinath in the Himalayas, the Jagannath temple at Puri, Rishikesh and Haridwar in the foothills of the Himalayas, Prayag (today Allahabad), Rameshwaram in the South and Gaya in the east. The largest single gathering of pilgrims is during the annual Kumbh Mela fair held in one of four different cities on a rotating basis.Another important “set” of pilgrimages are the 51 “Shakti Peethas,” where the Mother Goddess is worshipped, two principal ones being Kalighat and Kamakhya, which are incidentally major points of confluence for practitioners of Tantra and those who seek their guidance. Vaishno Devi, the Shakti temple near Katra, Jannu and Kashmir is the second most visited religious shrine.
Hinduism has many festivals throughout the year. Their dates are usually prescribed by the Hindu calendar and typically celebrate events from Hindu mythology, often coinciding with seasonal changes and occasions of importance in an agrarian society. There are festivals which are primarily celebrated by specific sects or in certain regions of the Indian subcontinent. Some widely observed Hindu festivals are,
Diwali: In North India , Diwali (Festivals of Lights in Hindi) celebrates arrival of prince Rama back to Ayodhya after his victory over the evil Ravana as depicted in major Hindu epic of Ramayana. Diwali is one of the most well-known Hindu festivals, and is celebrated with great fanfare including puja, fireworks, sweets and ceremonies lasting for five days. different regions of India have their on folklore associated with Diwali.
Dussehra: Dussehra (also Dussehra or Daserra) celebrates the victory of good over evil. It is the anniversary of the day when Rama killed Ravana in the ancient Hindu epic, Ramayana. This is the day when Goddess Durga killed the demon, Mahishasur. see Durga Puja
Ganesh Chaturthi: Ganesha Chaturthi celebrates Lord Ganesha, who is the god of auspicious beginnings in Hinduism. It is one of the most celebrated festivals in India. Also this is widely celebrated involving general public instead of just involving families and friends.
Krishna Janmastami: Birthday of Lord Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, is celebrated as Krishna Janmastami, with prayers, plays and fasting.
Durga Puja: Durga Puja is worship of goddess Durga, and is mainly popular among Bengalis.
Mahashivratri: Mahashivratri is the night of Lord Shiva when he drank Halahala poision to save gods and demons from its effect.
Ramanavami: Ramanavami celebrates birthday of Lord Rama.
Hanuman Jayanti: Birthday of Lord Hanuman is celebrated as Hanuman Jayanti.
Holi: Holi is a festival of colours and celebrates the arrival of spring. Legends has that it is celebrated as victory of the faith of Prahlada over evil designs of Hiranyakashipu, who tried to kill him.
Makara Sankranti: Makara Sankranti celebrates the transition of Sun to new zodiac sign according to Hindu astrology. Kite flying is a major activity on this day in most of northern India. This is most important festival for Telugu people.
Pongal: an Indian festival to give thanks for the harvest. Pongal in Tamil means ‘boiling over’. It is traditionally celebrated at the time of harvest of crops and hence is a celebration of the prosperity associated with the event. this is celebrated on the same day as Makara Sankranti
Raksha Bandhan: Raksha Bandhan (Thread of Security in Hindi) is festival commemorating special bonding between Brothers and Sisters.
Ugadi: New Year celebration in Deccan sates of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh & Karnataka
Karwa Chauth: Married women fast for long lives of their husbands on this day in parts of India.
Kumbh Mela: Kumbh Mela’s are series of grand gatherings for worship and prayer every 12 years at four places across India.
Vishu: Celebrated as the start of new year in Mid-April, this is the most important festival of Kerala after Onam.