HINDUISM – A BRIEF OVERVIEW

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WHAT IS HINDUISM?

  1. Hinduism does not refer to one religion with a single set of beliefs and practices, but is an umbrella term that embraces the religious and cultural life of the Indian sub-continent
  2. The name Hindu was given by the Persian invaders to refer to the various beliefs and practices of the people living around or beyond the river Indus, then called the “Sindu”. With the rise of Muslim domination it came to refer more specifically to those Indians who were not Muslims. Even then its meaning was not exclusively religious, and as recently as the 19th Century it was possible to speak of a “Hindu Christian”!
  3. The actual definitions of the words “Hindu” and “Hinduism” are somewhat arbitrary. Most scholars would agree on the Hindu’s common allegiance to the Vedas, or Vedic Scriptures, although the word Hindu never appears in these texts themselves.
  4. Hindus themselves prefer the name sanatana dharma, often translated as “the eternal religion”. Even though, according to tradition, the Vedas were written down five thousand years ago, the truths contained within them are said to be axiomatic and eternal.

HISTORY

  1. Since there is no beginning (or traceable beginning) to Hinduism, there is no one founder. There are, however, distinctly prominent figures, although these are not accepted by all adherents. These include:

    Shri Krishna            (circa 3000 B.C.E.)
    Shankara            788 – 820 C.E.
    Ramanuja            1017 – 1137 C.E.
    Madhava            1239 – 1319 C.E.
    Chaitanya            1486 – 1534 C.E.
    Vallabha            1479 – 1531 C.E.

  2. Based largely on the 1920’s excavations at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, scholars believe that Hinduism’s roots lie in the Indus Valley civilisation which flourished, they say, between 3000 and 2000 B.C.E.
  3. Empiricists say that Sanskrit and the earliest scripture, the Rig-Veda, were introduced in the second millennium B.C.E. by the Aryan invaders.
  4. The tradition itself refutes the theory of progressive evolution of civilisation and talks of gradual degradation throughout a cycle of four ages. The current age, called Kali-yuga (or the age of hypocrisy) began five thousand years ago with the departure of Lord Krishna and the simultaneous compilation of the Vedic scriptures.

PHILOSOPHICAL CONCEPTS

Despite great diversity of beliefs and practices within the tradition, there are widely accepted philosophical concepts. These are discussed in the Bhagavad-gita and other Vedic scriptures and are basically as follows:

  1. The conscious self (atma or jivatma) is distinct from the body made of inert matter (prakriti).
  2. Maya refers to the illusion through which the unchangeable soul identifies itself with matter and its temporary designations (e.g. I am a man, I am English, etc.).
  3. Matter is composed of three qualities (gunas), namely: goodness (sattva), passion   (rajas) and ignorance (tamas). The influence of these qualities determine the position, activities and destination of each living being.
  4. The law of karma is the law of action and reaction. It determines the destiny of the soul according to use or misuse of its free-will whilst in the human form.
  5. Samsara refers to the cycle of birth and death through which the soul passes and whereby it receives the results of previous activities.
  6. The Vedic scriptures describe four phases of spiritual development:
    (a)   dharma (religiosity)
    (b)   artha (economic development)
    (c)   kama (sense enjoyment)
    (d) moksha (liberation)

Liberation is considered the highest goal of life, though some schools identify prema, love of God, as the fifth and highest goal.

  1. Brahman means “supreme” and refers to spirit, which is eternal, unchanging and the source of consciousness. Some schools of thought equate the atman with the Supreme Soul, (God), whereas others accept the quantitative distinction between the individual soul and the Supreme Brahman.
  2. Ishwara means “controller” and is used to denote the demigods as well as the Lord, the Supreme Controller.

DIFFERENT SCHOOLS

  1. Within Hinduism there are six orthodox philosophical systems, called darshanas, which, some say, culminate in the doctrine of Vedanta. Vedanta means the ultimate conclusion of all knowledge. Within these six systems are included the three principle paths–karma (action), jnana (knowledge) and bhakti (devotion). These three successive phases of spiritual development are not considered particular to Hinduism, but are generic terms applicable to all societies and to all individuals.
  2. Within Vedanta there are two main doctrines–adwaita (monism) and dwaita (dualism). The followers of adwaita are impersonalists, believing the soul and God to be ultimately one, whereas the personalists believe that the individual soul and the Supreme Soul are eternally distinct.
  3. There are three main divisions within Hinduism:
    (a) The Vaishnavas (worshippers of Vishnu)
    (b) The Shaivites (worshippers of Shiva)
    (c) The Shaktas (worshippers of Shakti or Durga, the consort of Shiva)

The Vaishnavas are mainly personalists, whereas the other two schools are usually impersonalists.

DEITIES

  1. Although most Hindus believe in One Supreme (whether personal or impersonal) they advocate the existence of many lesser gods, or “demigods”, which the Vedas number at 330 million.
  2. Despite the innumerable gods, three deities are predominately worshipped in their various forms, namely: Vishnu, Shiva and the Goddess (Durga), as mentioned above.
  3. Many Hindus refer to the trimurti (often misleadingly termed the “Hindu Trinity”), composed of Vishnu (the maintainer), Brahma (the creator of this universe) and Shiva or Mahesh (the destroyer).
  4. Other prominent demigods include:
    Indra (god of rain)
    Surya (sun-god)
    Chandra (moon-god)
    Ganesh (the remover of obstacles)
    Yama (god of death)
    Saraswati (goddess of learning)
    Lakshmi (goddess of wealth)
    Hanuman (the monkey servant of Rama)
  5. Most Hindus in Britain consider Vishnu to be Supreme. There are innumerable incarnations of Vishnu, of which ten are considered prominent (called dashavatar). Most popularly worshipped in Britain today are Rama and Krishna. Some Hindus believe Krishna to be the source of all Vishnu forms and expansions.

HINDU SOCIETY

  1. Although the Hindu social system dividing people according to varna is now largely hereditary, the scriptures suggest that originally a person would be categorised according to personal qualities, rather than by birth. The original system was therefore less rigid, but apparently the brahmins made it hereditary to monopolise their prestigious position. The four varnas are:

    (a)   brahmin (the priests and scholars)
    (b)   kshatriya (the administrators)
    (c)   vaishya (the farmers and merchants)
    (d) shudras (the craftsmen and workers)

Jati refers to sub-divisions within each varna. Please note that the term “caste” refers to the hereditary system involving both varna and jati (sub-caste). It is not necessarily identical with the system of varna-ashrama dharma (where personal duties and responsibilities are determined by one varna and ashrama (stage of life). The latter are described briefly below. 

  1. According to Vedic society there are four ashrams, or stages in life:
    (a)   brahmachari (student life)
    (b)   grihastha (married life)
    (c)   vanaprashta (retired life)
    (d) sannyasa (renounced life)
  2. Throughout a Hindu’s life there are up to sixteen rites of passage, each intended to enhance spiritual development. They begin with purification of the womb for conception, and conclude with the funeral ceremony.
  3. Strict Hindus do not eat meat, fish or eggs, and often refuse onions and garlic. Many also offer their food to their worshipful deity. Those who are non-vegetarian are required to abstain from beef.
  4. There are approximately 500,000 Hindus within the U.K., mainly of Gujarati and Punjabi origin and usually coming via East Africa.