Hinduism is the name given to one of the most ancient relioon practices in India. Vedanta is the true name of this religion. When british began to populate India this ancient religion evolved into what is known today as Hinduism. Hinduism constitutes an extremely intricate religion upon which a single definition cannot be composed. The premier feature of this religion is the huge difference of beliefs and rituals among its practitioners. Hinduism was created through the mixing of two distinct cultures involving the Aryans and the Indus Valley civilization. At about 1500 BC, the Aryan invaded India and imposed their religious themes on the Indian natives. Ultimately, the Aryan religion absorbed the rituals of the natives and was eventually transformed into Hinduism. Most Hindus are Indians or of Indian decent. However, as Hinduism spread throughout southeast Asia and Indonesia, other ethnic groups adopted Hinduism and added their own ethnic characteristics.
The major teachings of Hinduism state that salvation is achieved through a spiritual oneness of the soul, atman, with the ultimate reality of the universe, Brahma. To achieve this goal, the soul must obtain moksha, or liberation from the samsara, the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Different sects of Hinduism teach different paths to moksha. As a result of these basic teachings, come Hindu beliefs in reincarnation, karma (material actions resulting from the consequences of previous actions), and the religious justification of the caste system. As Hinduism evolved, later texts came into prominence such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The major text of the Vaishnavas is a portion of the Mahabharata known as the Bhagavad Gita.
The two largest sects of Hinduism are the Shivaite and the Vaishnavite sects, based upon the recognition of Shiva and Vishnu as the ultimate manifestations of Brahma. Vaishnavas constitute approximately 70% of all Hindus. The major holy days are The Kumbha Mela festival that is held four times a year, and the Dusserah farming festival in honor of Kali is held at the end of October. Also Ramanavani (Lord Rama’s birthday), Rathayatra (pilgrimage of the Chariot at Jagannath), Jhulanayatra (“Swinging the Lord Krishna”), Rakshabandhana (“Tying on Lucky Threads”), Janamashtami (birthday of Lord Krishna), Navaratri (festival of “Nine Nights”), Lakshmi-puja (homage to the goddess Lakshmi), Diwali or Dipavali (“String of Lights”), Maha-Sivaratri (Great nigh of Lord Shiva), and Holi (the festival of fire, a spring festival dedicated to Krishna).
There are several principals of Hinduism. The theme of spiritual oneness between the one ultimate reality, known as Brahma, and the soul, or atman, is mandated. In accordance, everything in the world is an illusion, merely a part of Brahma, praised as Creator (Clarke, p. 132). Brahma is considered the creator of all entities of the world, including Gods. The ultimate goal of all Hindus is to achieve pure reality through unification of the soul with Brahma. However, as mandated, each soul must first achieve liberation, or moksha, from the cycle of life known as samsara. This prompts the Hindu theme of reincarnation. Upon death each person is reborn as an animal, human being, or heavenly body. The status of a person’s next life is determined by the deeds committed in the previous life. This principle is referred to as karma.
The status of lives within the life cycle prompted the establishment of the caste system. This system exhibits significant social and economic implications on the Hindu population. It dictates choice of occupation, marriage partners, foods consumed, and other issues. Classes were originally based on an individual’s natural qualities and functions evolved into rigid divisions over time. In modern times, the primary characterization of the caste system is based on occupations that are assessed by the amount of pollutants, such as blood and waste water involved in the job. This has prompted Hindus of higher status to refrain from eating animal meat and practice vegetarianism (Clarke, pp. 125-128).
In general, strict divisions have traditionally been imposed by the Hindu community between all castes. Because a person is perceived to have been born into a caste, no transferability is permitted between members of different castes. Additionally, a non-Hindu cannot enter a caste nor is marriage permitted outside of a caste (Brown, p. 209). The resulting segregation based on caste theology has remained persistent in India throughout history. Hindus of higher castes have traditionally feared pollution by lower caste members through such actions as closeness, consuming foods cooked by lower castes, and drinking from the same water source (Clarke, p. 128).
Through political movements in the mid-1900’s, caste barriers have been relaxed to some extent. The movement to remove discrimination against the lower castes was spearheaded by “Mahatma” M. K. Gandhi, who taught that the “removal of this blot and curse upon Hinduism” was essential to Indian independence (Gandhi, p. 8). This relaxation has been particularly noticed in urban areas. All Hindus are now eligible to obtain an education that has prompted equal employment opportunities. Social intermixing in urban areas between members of different castes has become more tolerated. Furthermore, discrimination based on caste status was politically declared illegal in 1950.
In general, these sects were particularly popular among the lower castes. During the Bhakti Movement, numerous lower caste members converted to Islam to improve their religious position. However, the Hindu sects often provided another option to lower caste members in improving their religious status without completely abandoning the Hindu religion (Clarke, p. 138). Traditionally, those Hindus retaining the original Vedic religion have mostly been those of the higher castes, primarily the Brahmins (Faquhar, p. 360).
Many of the teachings foundational to the modern observance of Vaishnavism began approximately 500 years ago when Lord Caitanya taught that the form of the godhead to be worshipped in this, the Kali Yuga (era), is the person of Krishna, the supreme manifestation of Vishnu. His followers today now recognize Lord Caitanya as the avatar of Krishna for our age–the representative of God with the specific message for our time. As a result of the often austere regulations required of Vaishnavas, the practice is seen as purification and a restoration of the true Vedic religion, providing the path necessary to survive the destruction of this present age. For Vaishnavas, the path to moksha is to be found in devotion, especially devotion to Krishna. Scattered in many sects today, Vaishnavas are found throughout India. As a result of the dedicated missionary efforts of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, as well as a handful of other swamis, Vaishnavism has now spread throughout the West. Srila Prabhupada founded the largest Vaishnava organization, ISKCON or the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (most popularly known as the “Hare Krishna’s”). ISKCON is sometimes seen as heretical by other Hindus (and they sometimes reject the label “Hindu”).
Hinduism has traditionally been contained in the place of its origin. Throughout most of history, Hindu practitioners remained in South Asia, particularly in India. This was significantly prompted by the enduring belief that Hinduism could only be practiced in India. It was believed that adherents who crossed “the black ocean” became impure and were no longer Hindu. Only recently has this barrier dissipated. As a result, over the past 100 years Hindus have migrated to other regions of the world, mostly with the intention of pursuing economic motives. Areas that have acquired notable Hindu populations include Great Britain, Canada, eastern Africa, Australia, and the northeastern portion of South America (Clarke, p. 125).
The countries with the highest concentration of Hindu population include India, Nepal, Malaysia, and Guyana. With the exception of a few regions, most of the countries throughout the world have concentrations of less than 100 Hindus per 100,000 persons. Some areas that have moderate concentrations of Hindus (between 100 and 30,000 Hindus per 100,000) include Canada, Great Britain, Suriname, Pakistan, Indonesia, Australia, and a string of countries from South Africa to Kenya in Africa. The distribution of Hindus throughout the world has been extremely selective and dispersed.
Pilgrimages have traditionally been an important aspect of Hinduism. Within India, there are seemingly an infinite number of places designated as sacred sites. These sacred places are commonly located where physical features converge such as the convergence of land and water. In accordance, sites of pilgrimage destination are frequently located on riverbanks, coastal areas, piedmont areas at near mountains, and even where two or more rivers converge. Furthermore, places in India are deemed sacred sites based on historical events including those portrayed in the numerous Hindu epics. Highly regarded sites include the Ganges River and the sacred cities of Varanasi and Hardwar. Varanasi is where Shiva was believed to have manifested himself. There are particular times throughout the year that Hindus embark on pilgrimages to these sites of India. These include the Hindu festivals celebrated throughout the year such as the Kumbha Mela festival held four times a year and the Dusserah farming festival. Another interesting feature of Hindu pilgrimages is that the caste of a pilgrim is temporarily disregarded for the duration of the voyage. At locations such as the sacred waters of the Ganges River, all Hindus, even of lower castes, temporarily receive complete purification (Clarke, p. 140). The spirituality and effectiveness of a pilgrimage are assessed by several factors. The ultimate criteria entails the distance traveled and the method of transportation. Longer distances and traveling on foot substantially optimize the spiritual fulfillment of the pilgrimage. Other factors of assessment include the holiness of the site and the purpose of the pilgrimage Clarke, p. 141).
Today, an all Indian pilgrimage is frequently conducted by Hindu practitioners. The route of this journey, established by a train route, consistently follows the pattern of sacred sites recognized by the major sects of Vishnu and Shiva around India. The all India pilgrimage takes about ten weeks to complete depending on the amount of time spent at each place Clarke, p. 140-141).
In its true essence Hinduism can be described best by the verse Ekam Sadvipra Bahudha Vadanti (written in sanskrit, the holy language of the Aryans-Hindus), which means truth is one.
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, His Divine Grace, The Bhagavad-gita As It Is. New York: Collier MacMillan Publishers, 1972.
Brown, W. Norman, “Hinduism”. Encyclopedia Americana, 1995.
Clarke, Peter B., The World’s Religions: Understanding the Living Faiths. Marshall Editions Developments Limited, 1993.
Faquhar, J.N., The Crown of Hinduism. New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corporation, 1971.
Markham, Ian S., (Editor), A World Religions Reader. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Eerdmans’ Handbook to the World’s Religions. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982