Hinduism, religion that originated in India and is still practiced by most of its inhabitants, as well as by those whose families have migrated from India to other parts of the world (chiefly East Africa, South Africa, Southeast Asia, the East Indies, and England). The word Hindu is derived from the Sanskrit word sindhu (“river”-more specifically, the Indus); the Persians in the 5th century BC called the Hindus by that name, identifying them as the people of the land of the Indus.
The Hindus define their community as “those who believe in the Vedas” (see Veda) or “those who follow the way (dharma) of the four classes (varnas) and stages of life (ashramas).”
Hinduism is a major world religion, not merely by virtue of its many followers (estimated at more than 700 million) but also because of its profound influence on many other religions during its long, unbroken history, which dates from about 1500 BC. The corresponding influence of these various religions on Hinduism (it has an extraordinary tendency to absorb foreign elements) has greatly contributed to the religion’s syncretism-the wide variety of beliefs and practices that it encompasses.
Moreover, the geographic, rather than ideological, basis of the religion (the fact that it comprises whatever all the people of India have believed and done) has given Hinduism the character of a social and doctrinal system that extends to every aspect of human life.
The canon of Hinduism is basically defined by what people do rather than what they think. Consequently, far more uniformity of behavior than of belief is found among Hindus, although very few practices or beliefs are shared by all. A few usages are observed by almost all Hindus: reverence for Brahmans and cows; abstention from meat (especially beef); and marriage within the caste (jati), in the hope of producing male heirs. Most Hindus chant the gayatri hymn to the sun at dawn, but little agreement exists as to what other prayers should be chanted. Most Hindus worship Shiva, Vishnu, or the Goddess (Devi), but they also worship hundreds of additional minor deities peculiar to a particular village or even to a particular family. Although Hindus believe and do many apparently contradictory things-contradictory not merely from one Hindu to the next, but also within the daily religious life of a single Hindu-each individual perceives an orderly pattern that gives form and meaning to his or her own life. No doctrinal or ecclesiastical hierarchy exists in Hinduism, but the intricate hierarchy of the social system (which is inseparable from the religion) gives each person a sense of place within the whole.
The ultimate canonical authority for all Hindus is the Vedas. The oldest of the four Vedas is the Rig-Veda, which was composed in an ancient form of the Sanskrit language in northwest India. This text, probably composed between 1300 and 1000 BC and consisting of 1028 hymns to a pantheon of gods, has been memorized syllable by syllable and preserved orally to the present day. The Rig-Veda was supplemented by two other Vedas, the Yajur-Veda (the textbook for sacrifice) and the Sama-Veda (the hymnal). A fourth book, the Atharva-Veda (a collection of magic spells), was probably added about 900 BC. At this time, too, the Brahmanas-lengthy Sanskrit texts expounding priestly ritual and the myths behind it-were composed. Beginning about 600 BC, the Upanishads were composed; these are mystical-philosophical meditations on the meaning of existence and the nature of the universe.
The Vedas, including the Brahmanas and the Upanishads, are regarded as revealed canon (shruti, “what has been heard [from the gods]”), and no syllable can be changed. The actual content of this canon, however, is unknown to most Hindus. The practical compendium of Hinduism is contained in the Smriti, or “what is remembered,” which is also orally preserved. No prohibition is made against improvising variations on, rewording, or challenging the Smriti. The Smriti includes the two great Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana; the many Sanskrit Puranas, including 18 great Puranas and several dozen more subordinate Puranas; and the many Dharmashastras and Dharmasutras (textbooks on sacred law), of which the one attributed to the sage Manu is the most frequently cited.
The two epics are built around central narratives. The Mahabharata tells of the war between the Pandava brothers, led by their cousin Krishna, and their cousins the Kauravas. The Ramayana tells of the journey of Rama to recover his wife Sita after she is stolen by the demon Ravana. But these stories are embedded in a rich corpus of other tales and discourses on philosophy, law, geography, political science, and astronomy, so that the Mahabharata (about 200,000 lines long) constitutes a kind of encyclopedia or even a literature, and the Ramayana (more than 50,000 lines long) is comparable. Although it is therefore impossible to fix their dates, the main bodies of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana were probably composed between 300 BC and AD 300. Both, however, continued to grow even after they were translated into the vernacular languages of India (such as Tamil and Hindi) in the succeeding centuries.
The Puranas were composed after the epics, and several of them develop themes found in the epics (for instance, the Bhagavata-Purana describes the childhood of Krishna, a topic not elaborated in the Mahabharata). The Puranas also include subsidiary myths, hymns of praise, philosophies, iconography, and rituals. Most of the Puranas are predominantly sectarian in nature; the great Puranas (and some subordinate Puranas) are dedicated to the worship of Shiva or Vishnu or the Goddess, and several subordinate Puranas are devoted to Ganesha or Skanda or the sun. In addition, they all contain a great deal of nonsectarian material, probably of earlier origin, such as the “five marks,” or topics (panchalakshana), of the Puranas: the creation of the universe, the destruction and re-creation of the universe, the dynasties of the solar and lunar gods, the genealogy of the gods and holy sages, and the ages of the founding fathers of humankind (the Manus).
Incorporated in this rich literature is a complex cosmology. Hindus believe that the universe is a great, enclosed sphere, a cosmic egg, within which are numerous concentric heavens, hells, oceans, and continents, with India at the center. They believe that time is both degenerative-going from the golden age, or Krita Yuga, through two intermediate periods of decreasing goodness, to the present age, or Kali Yuga-and cyclic: At the end of each Kali Yuga, the universe is destroyed by fire and flood, and a new golden age begins. Human life, too, is cyclic: After death, the soul leaves the body and is reborn in the body of another person, animal, vegetable, or mineral. This condition of endless entanglement in activity and rebirth is called samsara (see Transmigration). The precise quality of the new birth is determined by the accumulated merit and demerit that result from all the actions, or karma, that the soul has committed in its past life or lives. All Hindus believe that karma accrues in this way; they also believe, however, that it can be counteracted by expiations and rituals, by “working out” through punishment or reward, and by achieving release (moksha) from the entire process of samsara through the renunciation of all worldly desires.
Hindus may thus be divided into two groups: those who seek the sacred and profane rewards of this world (health, wealth, children, and a good rebirth), and those who seek release from the world. The principles of the first way of life were drawn from the Vedas and are represented today in temple Hinduism and in the religion of Brahmans and the caste system. The second way, which is prescribed in the Upanishads, is represented not only in the cults of renunciation (sannyasa) but also in the ideological ideals of most Hindus.
The worldly aspect of Hinduism originally had three Vedas, three classes of society (varnas), three stages of life (ashramas), and three “goals of a man” (purusharthas), the goals or needs of women being seldom discussed in the ancient texts. To the first three Vedas was added the Atharva-Veda. The first three classes (Brahman, or priestly; Kshatriya, or warrior; and Vaishya, or general populace) were derived from the tripartite division of ancient Indo-European society, traces of which can be detected in certain social and religious institutions of ancient Greece and Rome. To the three classes were added the Shudras, or servants, after the Indo-Aryans settled into the Punjab and began to move down into the Ganges Valley. The three original ashramas were the chaste student (brahmachari), the householder (grihastha), and the forest-dweller (vanaprastha). They were said to owe three debts: study of the Vedas (owed to the sages); a son (to the ancestors); and sacrifice (to the gods). The three goals were artha (material success), dharma (righteous social behavior), and kama (sensual pleasures). Shortly after the composition of the first Upanishads, during the rise of Buddhism (6th century BC), a fourth ashrama and a corresponding fourth goal were added: the renouncer (sannyasi), whose goal is release (moksha) from the other stages, goals, and debts.
Each of these two ways of being Hindu developed its own complementary metaphysical and social systems. The caste system and its supporting philosophy of svadharma (“one’s own dharma”) developed within the worldly way. Svadharma comprises the beliefs that each person is born to perform a specific job, marry a specific person, eat certain food, and beget children to do likewise and that it is better to fulfill one’s own dharma than that of anyone else (even if one’s own is low or reprehensible, such as that of the Harijan caste, the Untouchables, whose mere presence was once considered polluting to other castes). The primary goal of the worldly Hindu is to produce and raise a son who will make offerings to the ancestors (the shraddha ceremony). The second, renunciatory way of Hinduism, on the other hand, is based on the Upanishadic philosophy of the unity of the individual soul, or atman, with Brahman, the universal world soul, or godhead. The full realization of this is believed to be sufficient to release the worshiper from rebirth; in this view, nothing could be more detrimental to salvation than the birth of a child. Many of the goals and ideals of renunciatory Hinduism have been incorporated into worldly Hinduism, particularly the eternal dharma (sanatana dharma), an absolute and general ethical code that purports to transcend and embrace all subsidiary, relative, specific dharmas. The most important tenet of sanatana dharma for all Hindus is ahimsa, the absence of a desire to injure, which is used to justify vegetarianism (although it does not preclude physical violence toward animals or humans, or blood sacrifices in temples).
In addition to sanatana dharma, numerous attempts have been made to reconcile the two Hinduisms. The Bhagavad-Gita describes three paths to religious realization. To the path of works, or karma (here designating sacrificial and ritual acts), and the path of knowledge, or jnana (the Upanishadic meditation on the godhead), was added a mediating third path, the passionate devotion to God, or bhakti, a religious ideal that came to combine and transcend the other two paths. Bhakti in a general form can be traced in the epics and even in some of the Upanishads, but its fullest statement appears only after the Bhagavad-Gita. It gained momentum from the vernacular poems and songs to local deities, particularly those of the Alvars, Nayanars, and Virashaivas of southern India and the Bengali worshipers of Krishna (see below).
In this way Hindus have been able to reconcile their Vedantic monism (see Vedanta) with their Vedic polytheism: All the individual Hindu gods (who are said to be saguna, “with attributes”) are subsumed under the godhead (nirguna, “without attributes”), from which they all emanate. Therefore, most Hindus are devoted (through bhakti) to gods whom they worship in rituals (through karma) and whom they understand (through jnana) as aspects of ultimate reality, the material reflection of which is all an illusion (maya) wrought by God in a spirit of play (lila).
Although all Hindus acknowledge the existence and importance of a number of gods and demigods, most individual worshipers are primarily devoted to a single god or goddess, of whom Shiva, Vishnu, and the Goddess are the most popular.
Shiva embodies the apparently contradictory aspects of a god of ascetics and a god of the phallus. He is the deity of renouncers, particularly of the many Shaiva sects that imitate him: Kapalikas, who carry skulls to reenact the myth in which Shiva beheaded his father, the incestuous Brahma, and was condemned to carry the skull until he found release in Benares; Pashupatas, worshipers of Shiva Pashupati, “Lord of Beasts”; and Aghoris, “to whom nothing is horrible,” yogis who eat ordure or flesh in order to demonstrate their complete indifference to pleasure or pain. Shiva is also the deity whose phallus (linga) is the central shrine of all Shaiva temples and the personal shrine of all Shaiva householders; his priapism is said to have resulted in his castration and the subsequent worship of his severed member. In addition, Shiva is said to have appeared on earth in various human, animal, and vegetable forms, establishing his many local shrines.
To his worshipers, Vishnu is all-pervasive and supreme; he is the god from whose navel a lotus sprang, giving birth to the creator (Brahma). Vishnu created the universe by separating heaven and earth, and he rescued it on a number of subsequent occasions. He is also worshiped in the form of a number of “descents”-avatars (see Avatar), or, roughly, incarnations. Several of these are animals that recur in iconography: the fish, the tortoise, and the boar. Others are the dwarf (Vamana, who became a giant in order to trick the demon Bali out of the entire universe); the man-lion (Narasimha, who disemboweled the demon Hiranyakashipu); the Buddha (who became incarnate in order to teach a false doctrine to the pious demons); Rama-with-an-Axe (Parashurama, who beheaded his unchaste mother and destroyed the entire class of Kshatriyas to avenge his father); and Kalki (the rider on the white horse, who will come to destroy the universe at the end of the age of Kali). Most popular by far are Rama (hero of the Ramayana) and Krishna (hero of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavata-Purana), both of whom are said to be avatars of Vishnu, although they were originally human heroes.
Along with these two great male gods, several goddesses are the object of primary devotion. They are sometimes said to be various aspects of the Goddess, Devi. In some myths Devi is the prime mover, who commands the male gods to do the work of creation and destruction. As Durga, the Unapproachable, she kills the buffalo demon Mahisha in a great battle; as Kali, the Black, she dances in a mad frenzy on the corpses of those she has slain and eaten, adorned with the still-dripping skulls and severed hands of her victims. The Goddess is also worshiped by the Shaktas, devotees of Shakti, the female power. This sect arose in the medieval period along with the Tantrists, whose esoteric ceremonies involved a black mass in which such forbidden substances as meat, fish, and wine were eaten and forbidden sexual acts were performed ritually. In many Tantric cults the Goddess is identified as Krishna’s consort Radha.
More peaceful manifestations of the Goddess are seen in wives of the great gods: Lakshmi, the meek, docile wife of Vishnu and a fertility goddess in her own right; and Parvati, the wife of Shiva and the daughter of the Himalayas. The great river goddess Ganga (the Ganges), also worshiped alone, is said to be a wife of Shiva; a goddess of music and literature, Sarasvati, associated with the Saraswati River, is the wife of Brahma. Many of the local goddesses of India-Manasha, the goddess of snakes, in Bengal, and Minakshi in Madurai-are married to Hindu gods, while others, such as Shitala, goddess of smallpox, are worshiped alone. These unmarried goddesses are feared for their untamed powers and angry, unpredictable outbursts.
Many minor gods are assimilated into the central pantheon by being identified with the great gods or with their children and friends. Hanuman, the monkey god, appears in the Ramayana as the cunning assistant of Rama in the siege of Lanka. Skanda, the general of the army of the gods, is the son of Shiva and Parvati, as is Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of scribes and merchants, the remover of obstacles, and the object of worship at the beginning of any important enterprise.
The great and lesser Hindu gods are worshiped in a number of concentric circles of public and private devotion. Because of the social basis of Hinduism, the most fundamental ceremonies for every Hindu are those that involve the rites of passage (samskaras). These begin with birth and the first time the child eats solid food (rice). Later rites include the first haircutting (for a young boy) and the purification after the first menstruation (for a girl); marriage; and the blessings upon a pregnancy, to produce a male child and to ensure a successful delivery and the child’s survival of the first six dangerous days after birth (the concern of Shashti, goddess of Six). Last are the funeral ceremonies (cremation and, if possible, the sprinkling of ashes in a holy river such as the Ganges) and the yearly offerings to dead ancestors. The most notable of the latter is the pinda, a ball of rice and sesame seeds given by the eldest male child so that the ghost of his father may pass from limbo into rebirth. In daily ritual, a Hindu (generally the wife, who is thought to have more power to intercede with the gods) makes offerings (puja) of fruit or flowers before a small shrine in the house. She also makes offerings to local snakes or trees or obscure spirits (benevolent and malevolent) dwelling in her own garden or at crossroads or other magical places in the village.
Many villages, and all sizable towns, have temples where priests perform ceremonies throughout the day: sunrise prayers and noises to awaken the god within the holy of holies (the garbagriha, or “womb-house”); bathing, clothing, and fanning the god; feeding the god and distributing the remains of the food (prasada) to worshipers. The temple is also a cultural center where songs are sung, holy texts read aloud (in Sanskrit and vernaculars), and sunset rituals performed; devout laity may be present at most of these ceremonies. In many temples, particularly those sacred to goddesses (such as the Kalighat temple to Kali, in Calcutta), goats are sacrificed on special occasions. The sacrifice is often carried out by a special low-caste priest outside the bounds of the temple itself. Thousands of simple local temples exist; each may be nothing more than a small stone box enclosing a formless effigy swathed in cloth, or a slightly more imposing edifice with a small tank in which to bathe. In addition, India has many temples of great size as well as complex temple cities, some hewn out of caves (such as Elephanta and Ellora), some formed of great monolithic slabs (such as those at Mahabalipuram), and some built of imported and elaborately carved stone slabs (such as the temples at Khajuraho, Bhubaneswar, Madurai, and Kanjeevaram). On special days, usually once a year, the image of the god is taken from its central shrine and paraded around the temple complex on a magnificently carved wooden chariot (ratha).
Many holy places or shrines (tirthas, literally “fords”), such as Rishikesh in the Himalayas or Benares on the Ganges, are the objects of pilgrimages from all over India; others are essentially local shrines. Certain shrines are most frequently visited at special yearly festivals. For example, Prayaga, where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers join at Allahabad, is always sacred, but it is crowded with pilgrims during the Kumbha Mela festival each January and overwhelmed by the millions who come to the special ceremony held every 12 years. In Bengal, the goddess Durga’s visit to her family and return to her husband Shiva are celebrated every year at Durgapuja, when images of the goddess are created out of papier-mâché, worshiped for ten days, and then cast into the Ganges in a dramatic midnight ceremony ringing with drums and glowing with candles. Some festivals are celebrated throughout India: Dìvalì, the festival of lights in early winter; and Holi, the spring carnival, when members of all castes mingle and let down their hair, sprinkling one another with cascades of red powder and liquid, symbolic of the blood that was probably used in past centuries.
The basic beliefs and practices of Hinduism cannot be understood outside their historical context. Although the early texts and events are impossible to date with precision, the general chronological development is clear.
About 2000 BC, a highly developed civilization flourished in the Indus Valley, around the sites of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. By about 1500 BC, when the Indo-Aryan tribes invaded India, this civilization was in a serious decline. It is therefore impossible to know, on present evidence, whether or not the two civilizations had any significant contact. Many elements of Hinduism that were not present in Vedic civilization (such as worship of the phallus and of goddesses, bathing in temple tanks, and the postures of yoga) may have been derived from the Indus civilization, however. See Indus Valley Civilization.
By about 1500 BC, the Indo-Aryans had settled in the Punjab, bringing with them their predominantly male Indo-European pantheon of gods and a simple warrior ethic that was vigorous and worldly, yet also profoundly religious. Gods of the Vedic pantheon survive in later Hinduism, but no longer as objects of worship: Indra, king of the gods and god of the storm and of fertility; Agni, god of fire; and Soma, god of the sacred, intoxicating Soma plant and the drink made from it. By 900 BC the use of iron allowed the Indo-Aryans to move down into the lush Ganges Valley, where they developed a far more elaborate civilization and social system. By the 6th century BC, Buddhism had begun to make its mark on India and what was to be more than a millennium of fruitful interaction with Hinduism.
From about 200 BC to AD 500 India was invaded by many northern powers, of which the Sakas (Scythians) and Kushanas had the greatest impact. This was a time of great flux, growth, syncretism, and definition for Hinduism and is the period in which the epics, the Dharmashastras, and the Dharmasutras took final form. Under the Gupta Empire (320-480?), when most of northern India was under a single power, classical Hinduism found its most consistent expression: the sacred laws were codified, the great temples began to be built, and myths and rituals were preserved in the Puranas.
In the post-Gupta period, a less rigid and more eclectic form of Hinduism emerged, with more dissident sects and vernacular movements. At this time, too, the great devotional movements arose. Many of the sects that emerged during the period from 800 to 1800 are still active in India today.
Most of the bhakti movements are said to have been founded by saints-the gurus by whom the tradition has been handed down in unbroken lineage, from guru to disciple (chela). This lineage, in addition to a written canon, is the basis for the authority of the bhakti sect. Other traditions are based on the teachings of such philosophers as Shankara and Ramanuja. Shankara was the exponent of pure monism, or nondualism (Advaita Vedanta), and of the doctrine that all that appears to be real is merely illusion. Ramanuja espoused the philosophy of qualified nondualism (Vishishta-Advaita), an attempt to reconcile belief in a godhead without attributes (nirguna) with devotion to a god with attributes (saguna), and to solve the paradox of loving a god with whom one is identical.
The philosophies of Shankara and Ramanuja were developed in the context of the six great classical philosophies (darshanas) of India: the Karma Mimamsa (“action investigation”); the Vedanta (“end of the Vedas”), in which tradition the work of Shankara and Ramanuja should be placed; the Sankhya system, which describes the opposition between an inert male spiritual principle (purusha) and an active female principle of matter or nature (prakriti), subdivided into the three qualities (gunas) of goodness (sattva), passion (rajas), and darkness (tamas); the Yoga system; and the highly metaphysical systems of Vaisheshika (a kind of atomic realism) and Nyaya (logic, but of an extremely theistic nature).
Parallel with these complex Sanskrit philosophical investigations, vernacular songs were composed, transmitted orally, and preserved locally throughout India. They were composed during the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries in Tamil and Kannada by the Alvars, Nayanars, and Virashaivas and during the 15th century by the Rajasthani poet Mira Bai, in the Braj dialect. In the 16th century in Bengal, Chaitanya founded a sect of erotic mysticism, celebrating the union of Krishna and Radha in a Tantric theology heavily influenced by Tantric Buddhism. Chaitanya believed that both Krishna and Radha were incarnate within him, and he believed that the village of Vrindaban, where Krishna grew up, had become manifest once again in Bengal. The school of the Gosvamins, who were disciples of Chaitanya, developed an elegant theology of aesthetic participation in the ritual enactment of Krishna’s life.
These ritual dramas also developed around the village of Vrindaban itself during the 16th century, and they were celebrated by Hindi poets. The first great Hindi mystic poet was Kabir, who was said to be the child of a Muslim and was strongly influenced by Islam, particularly by Sufism. His poems challenge the canonical dogmas of both Hinduism and Islam, praising Rama and promising salvation by the chanting of the holy name of Rama. He was followed by Tulsi Das, who wrote a beloved Hindi version of the Ramayana. A contemporary of Tulsi Das was Surdas, whose poems on Krishna’s life in Vrindaban formed the basis of the ras lilas, local dramatizations of myths of the childhood of Krishna, which still play an important part in the worship of Krishna in northern India.
In the 19th century, important reforms took place under the auspices of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, and the sects of the Arya Samaj and the Brahmo Samaj. These movements attempted to reconcile traditional Hinduism with the social reforms and political ideals of the day. So, too, the nationalist leaders Sri Aurobindo Ghose and Mohandas Gandhi attempted to draw from Hinduism those elements that would best serve their political and social aims. Gandhi, for example, used his own brand of ahimsa, transformed into passive resistance, to obtain reforms for the Untouchables and to remove the British from India. Similarly, Bhimrau Ramji Ambedkar revived the myth of the Brahmans who fell from their caste and the tradition that Buddhism and Hinduism were once one, in order to enable Untouchables to gain self-respect by “reconverting” to Buddhism.
In more recent times, numerous self-proclaimed Indian religious teachers have migrated to Europe and the United States, where they have inspired large followings. Some, such as the Hare Krishna sect founded by Bhaktivedanta, claim to base themselves on classical Hindu practices. In India, Hinduism thrives despite numerous reforms and shortcuts necessitated by the gradual modernization and urbanization of Indian life. The myths endure in the Hindi cinema, and the rituals survive not only in the temples but also in the rites of passage. Thus, Hinduism, which sustained India through centuries of foreign occupation and internal disruption, continues to serve a vital function by giving passionate meaning and supportive form to the lives of Hindus today.
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