The religion of Hinduism is a subject that is spread over twenty five centuries. The religion does not have any specific date or place of origin, though it is most likely the combination of Aryans with existing Harappan tribes around 1500 BC that shaped the ideals of this religion as we know it today. The discovery and carbon dating of artifacts found from the Indus valley excavations, in North India, bear striking similarity to most of the gods and rituals still followed by the Indian society; astonishingly, making it the longest known surviving religion of the world.
Over the period of centuries, Hinduism has spread all over India, Nepal, Thailand, Bhutan and Cambodia. Hindus are also a part of Malaysian, Burmese and Sri Lankan societies. Ancient texts, better known as Vedas and Puranas, are known to contain the philosophy of this religion. Hinduism includes millions of deities and gods. The powers and functions of some of these divine beings have been written in many sacred texts. Then there are fables, epics and philosophical accounts touching almost every aspect of human life. The epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata typically describe the interaction of gods with mortals.
Sometimes, even reincarnation of gods would assist human beings in common situations of life and walk them through to face the situation in the most ideal way. For instance, in the epic of Mahabharata, Lord Krishna accompanies a fighter called Arjun. Arjun had been challenged to war by his first cousins and the dilemma of attacking his own cousins was eroding him from the inside. In this situation, Lord Krishna guided him with reasoning on how to confront various predicaments of life without compromising the norms of society and religion. His preaching has been compiled in an ancient book, still very popular in India and the West.
It’s called the Bhaagwat Geeta. Such scriptures carry the essence of Hinduism. Another major epic of Hinduism is the Ramayana. It highlights the duties of a man towards his family, siblings, peers and also the nation. Though Rama is often called Lord Rama; he has been described as an example of an ideal human being following the principles of faith and morality. Hinduism classified the society on basis of occupation and inheritance became the forward feed for the generations. To elaborate it, son of a goldsmith would be classified as belonging to the goldsmith class, even if he did not follow the same profession.
Such a system came to be known as the caste system. The rigidity of this system allowed tying the society into an efficient functional unit. However, it also stifled the growth of technology and intellect, as education was limited to the so-called upper castes. Invasion of India by the Muslims, better known as mughals, during the medieval ages helped to transform the Hindu religion. Hindus discovered that unity and tolerance is far strengthening than the rigid beliefs of the Caste-divided society. Due to the underlying principles of acceptance, Hinduism was able to withstand and assimilate foreign cultures and invaders.
Over a period of more than two millenniums, Hinduism has transformed more into a way of life rather than a religion. The society worshipped number of Gods, however, a few have remained quite popular over the centuries; Krishna, Vishnu and Shiva. Lord Krishna in Hinduism did possess mythological powers but their main purpose was to demonstrate the most sustainable and moral decisions to be made in life. His powers included to foresee and govern present and future. His words in ancient scriptures signify the enormity of having faith in God.
One of his statements, as mentioned in the Bhaagwat Geeta, is “I am the reason behind all reasons” (Swami Prabhupada). Or in other words, when we try to lend coherence to all that we observe and experience, the principles we formulate, are being created by the God. Undoubtedly, Lord Krishna has the largest number of followers in India. Some of the most important temples visited by millions of devotees are situated at Puri (in Eastern state of Orissa), Mathura, Vrindavan (Both in Northern state of Uttar Pradesh), Dwaarka (in Western state of Gujarat) and Guryvayoor Temple in South India.
Next in popularity and following is the Lord Vishnu. From the trinity of Gods represented by Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, Vishnu signifies the administrator of the mankind; Shiva illustrates death and destruction, while Brahma is worshipped as the creator of the universe. This trinity of Gods is depicted as the supreme power from which all the deities and minor gods emanated. Lord Vishnu supposedly takes birth among human beings in his reincarnations to purify the society from all evils. Krishna and Rama have been depicted as the human forms of Lord Vishnu.
Srirangam temple in Thiruchirapalli (in South India), Badrinath temple (in North) and Tirupathi Balaji temple in Karanataka state are most popular temples of Vishnu. The Tirupathi temple receives massive amounts of offerings from the devotees. One can often observe the people donating their ornaments of property deeds at this temple. The followers of Vishnu are also known as Vaishnavas and follow strictly vegetarian diet. The third most important god for Hindus is Shiva. Lord Shiva signifies the control of birth and death.
The followers believe that the cycle of life and death is independent of the soul which remains undivided and indestructible. That’s why Hindus believe in exhuming the body after death as the entire universe is composed of elements like earth, water and air. Shiva is worshipped for appeasing him to grant fertility and alleviation from destruction. Pilgrims undertake dangerous treks to visit Shiva temples and shrines located at some of the most inhospitable Himalayan locations like Amarnath, Badrinath and Kedarnath.
Most of the Hindu temples also have a separate Shiva temple called Shivaala (Abode of Shiva). Even the son of Shiva, Lord Ganesh, is worshipped by masses. Though, Ganesh temples are rare and not considered as places of pilgrimage. Apart from these three major gods there are millions of minor deities also known as Devatas. These deities are akin to Saints and Prophets of other religions and believed to possess specific powers. The Greek gods in comparison to Hindu gods bear a striking similarity in terms of the powers and functions performed by them.
Though, the supernatural powers of Greek gods have come to set them apart from the virtues that they represent. The ancient Greek scriptures depict that the concept of gods and their offspring also having a followers among ancient society. However the power of Christianity easily outgrew the Greek culture and rendered the tales of Greek gods as a subject of mythology. The gods of Greek civilization were worshipped and followed by one of the greatest ancient civilizations, the Romans. Romans practiced the religion in slightly different manner and with slightly distinct names.
Like Indians the ancient Greeks were polytheistic, they believed in many different gods and goddesses. The Greeks believed that these gods and goddesses controlled everything, from the waves in the ocean to the winner of a race. Each god or goddess controlled one or two major aspects of life, again a common feature with the belief of Hindus. Greeks built temples in every town for one god or goddess. Like Hindu temples even Greek temples were large and beautiful buildings where Greeks went to pray or sacrifice animals.
The sacrificed animals were considered gifts to the gods, also observed in Hinduism. Greeks were especially likely to sacrifice animals at festivals in honor of the gods. The festivals included plays, music, dancing, and then a parade to the temple where they made their sacrifices and had a feast. One temple still standing today is the Parthenon, built in honor of Athena, who was the goddess of wisdom and war. (Encyclopaedia The Helios, 1952) As fate would have it, gods of Hinduism still have thriving population of worshippers while the Greek gods have faded into oblivion.
Most of the modern religions like Islam, Christianity and Buddhism have been built around ideals, norms and duties prescribed to the followers. These religions have also sought to enforce or convert other people to have larger base of followers. Meanwhile, Hinduism is a loose set of ideals that focuses more on well being and celebration of life rather stamping the mankind into categories. Hinduism is also condemned for its superstitions and discriminatory treatment of certain classes and thus it has undergone various reforms over time.
Modern Hinduism is the reflection of continuity and progressive changes that occurred in various traditions and institutions of Hinduism during the last two centuries. Modern Hinduism has as its values rational thought, modern education and the ideals of humanism, rationalism and religious universalism (Majumdar RC et al). This has meant combating the conservative and superstitious elements. The focus has shifted to imbibing modernity, modern education compared to classical Sanskritic education system.
Recent developments have also seen the reinterpretation of ancient texts through translation and correlating them with scientific advancements. For instance Dr David Frawley has tried to elaborate the underlying reason for having so many gods and deities. Having many names for something is not necessarily a sign of ignorance of its real nature. On the contrary, it may indicate an intimate knowledge of it. For example, Eskimos have forty-eight different names for snow in their language because they know snow intimately in its different variations, not because they are ignorant of the fact that all snow is only one.
The many different deities of Hinduism reflect such an intimate realization of the Divine on various levels. (The Cambridge Illustrated History of Religions, 2002)
1. A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, “Srimad-Bhagavatam”, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. 2. “Hellas, Article: Greek Mythology”, 1952. Volume: Encyclopaedia The Helios. 3. Majumdar, R. C. , H. C. Raychauduri, Kaukinkar Datta, 1960. “An Advanced History of India” Great Britain: Macmillan and Company Limited 4. “Indian Religions and the Hindu Tradition”, 2002. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Religions: Cambridge University Press.