Hinduism is the religion of the great majority of the people of India. The word comes from the Sanskrit sindhu, “river,” and originally referred to the Indus. Hinduism is actually a collection of many native Indian religions, past and present. It is responsible for the social structure of India, especially for the caste system (a hereditary class system). Hinduism has some 684,000,000 adherents, most known of whom live in India. The rest live in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and countries with Indian settlements.
This paper intent to: (1) understand what Hinduism really is; (2) know about cultural and societal influences that have made Hinduism vital to the region in which it originated and; (3) explain the desire for liberation from earthly existence. II. Background Hinduism began to develop about 1500 B. C. while the Vedas were being composed and collected. Vedic Hinduism, or Vedism, had many nature gods, who were appealed to and appeased by prayers and sacrifices. A second stage, called Brahminic Hinduism, appeared about 1000 B. C.
In this stage religion had fallen under the control of the Brahmins, or priests, who used magic rites in efforts to influence and control the gods (Stutley, 2004). A third period opened about 800 B. C. with the speculative philosophy of the Upanishads. Salvation was sought, not through sacrifices and rites, but through knowledge. Six schools of Hindu philosophy arose, the most important being those of Yoga and Vedanta. In the sixth century B. C. Jainism and Buddhism arose as reform movements within Hinduism but both became separate religions.
Moslem invaders conquered India after the 10th century A. D. Hinduism withstood the rival religion Islam but absorbed a few features from it. The clash between the two religions led to the founding of Sikhism in the 19th century. In the 19th century Christian and western ideas presented a new challenge. Several Hindu reform movements borrowed from Christianity and the West. When India became independent in 1947 the conflict between Hindus and Moslems forced a division of the country, the Moslem section becoming Pakistan (Wilkins, 2005).
III. Discussion A. Hindu Beliefs and Practices Nearly all the sects and cults respect the Vedas (“revealed knowledge”), the ancient collections of religious writings. The Rig-Veda, whose origins probably go back to before 1500 B. C. , consists of about 1,000 hymns and prayers addressed to various deities. Later Vedas are the Sama-Veda, Yajur-Veda, and Atharva-Veda. The philosophical portions of the Vedas are the Upanishads (“approaches”). These are speculative treatise dealing with the nature of man and the universe.
The fundamental doctrine is that of the identity of the individual soul with the universal soul (Brahman), or God. Brahman exists through a trinity of gods. Brahman is the principle of creation, Vishnu of preservation, and Siva of destruction. In addition to this trinity, most villages have their own godlings, demons, spirits, and ghosts to which the people make sacrifices and prayers. Vishnu is believed to have appeared from time to time in avatars, or divine incarnations, in both animal and human forms. The highest human forms are Rama and Krishna, who are worshipped as savior deities.
Hinduism has many sacred objects and places. The cow is the most sacred of animals and must be protected. Most sacred of all places is the Ganges River, to which millions go each year to bathe and to become purified. Hindus believe in rebirth, or reincarnation, and in what they call the law of karma. Under this law the conditions of each new lifetime are determined by the actions of the preceding life. To the Hindu, salvation consists of liberating the soul from attachment to worldly desires in order to gain union with Brahman.
If a Hindu dies liberated he must be born again into this world and again endure its suffering. The Vedas describe four main castes. 1. The Brahmins exercise spiritual power. (Brahmin is also spelled Brahman). 2. The Kshatriyas are warriors who exercise secular power. 3. The Vaisyas are merchants and cultivators. 4. The Sudras are artisans and laborers. Indian society has thousands of castes and subcastes, each of which identifies itself with one of the four castes in Hindu literature. Membership in a caste is based on family association and occupation.
Below the castes are the outcastes, or untouchables, who historically have been denied certain social rights. The Indian constitution of 1950 outlawed discrimination against untouchables. The scriptures do not make the caste system an essential element of Hinduism, but it is perpetuated by tradition. Hindu worship for most part takes place in the home. A Hindu temple or shrine is considered an abode of deity and is not used for communal worship. There are kinds of Hindu clergy. Temple priests collect offerings and care for the temples and shrines.
Domestic priests perform rites involving births, marriages, and deaths. Gurus are spiritual teachers. Sadhus are monks; most live in monasteries, but many live as wandering mendicants (beggars). IV. Conclusion The oldest of the world’s great religions, Hinduism is the only one without a founder. It has never tried to win converts by force and has always tolerated other religions and absorbed ideas from them. Hinduism has about 20 sects, with beliefs that range from primitive forms of animism to the highest reaches of mysticism and philosophy.
Many of the sects and cults seem to be separate religions. Yet all have a family relationship since they spring from common traditions and thrive on the conditions peculiar to India. Most have a mystic strain and all stress nonviolence.
1. Chaudhuri, N. C. Hinduism: A Religion to Live by (Oxford University, 1999). 2. Stutley, Margaret & James. Harper’s Dictionary of Hinduism: Its Mythology, Folklore, Philosophy, Literature, and History (Harper & Row, 2004). 3. Wilkins, W. J. Modern Hinduism: an Account of the religion and Life of the Hindus, 5th edition (Humanities Press, 2005).