What is Hinduism?

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Hinduism is the general term used to denote the religious traditions indigenous to the Indian sub-continent that formed in the Indus Valley Civilization. This civilization existed in contemporary day Pakistan and northwest India across the flood plain of the Indus River from 2500 to 1700 BCE.

Defining Hinduism is controversial since, as some scholars contest, the term “Hinduism” was invented by British scholars and colonial administrators in the nineteenth century and did not exist before this date (1). In other words, adherents of the Hindu religion living two to three thousand years ago would not have called their religion “Hinduism” as scholars now do today. However, debates concerning the title’s applicability aside, we will use the term to refer to this religious tradition. Accordingly, a neat definition is provided by scholar of religion Dale Tuggy who defines Hinduism as “the religious traditions indigenous to the Indian subcontinent other than Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism” (2).

According to Pew Research Center statistics, there are roughly a billion Hindus in the world today (constituting 15% of the global population), although less than 1% of Hindus live outside Asia and the Pacific (3). The overwhelming majority of Hindus (94%) live in India, and the largest populations of Hindus outside India are in Nepal (2% of all Hindus) and Bangladesh (1%). Statistics suggest that followers of the Hindu religion will grow by 352 million between 2015 and 2050, although this will result in a tiny decrease in Hinduism’s number in respect to the total global population (down to 14.9%) (4).

The Supreme God, the Triad, and the gods and goddesses

Hinduism holds to both a pantheistic (belief that God and the universe are one) and polytheistic (Hindus believe in many gods and goddesses who a reflection of the one supreme God) notion of deity. God, called Brahman, is a supreme being who is imminent within the natural world (i.e. in the sun, moon, wind, animals, etc.) yet a mystery to the limited human mind, although Hindus wish to rise to a higher state of consciousness to get to know God itself. As Juan Miguel De Mora stated in his analysis of the principle Hindu texts,

“…all of Hinduism speaks of a single Brahman (neuter), of a single Supreme Truth, of one Ultimate Reality and of a single Absolute, that is, of one God alone, and that the different names given to the various manifestations of Brahman are but different denominations for the one…” (5)

A number of attributes have been ascribed to God including eternal truth, infinite, conscious, unchanging, genderless, transcendent, and is sometimes perceived as the binding unity behind all diversity within the universe. God is also called by different names, for example, according to the Saivites God is Shiva, to Shaktas God is Shakti, for the Vaishnavites it goes by the name Vishnu, and to adherents of Smartism, all gods are reflections of the one God. Many Hindus believe that the supreme God has revealed itself in the three personal forms of the Hindu Triad (Trimurti): Brahma the Creator (not to be confused with Brahman), Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. Beneath this Triad of gods come the inferior deities, which are subject to the cycle of rebirth (unlike the Triad). God’s immanence in different things does not mean everything is construed as equal given that different things can have different amounts of divine essence within them. According to this view, the better the object or personality, the more of the divine essence is thought to be present. Both the Triad gods and their divine families (pariwar) are worshipped, and there are thousands of temples built across India in honour to them. A Hindu temple is built to accommodate and shelter a god, and this god can depend on the deity selected by a village. Items such as flowers and fruit are offered to the god and oil is poured on an object representing it. The most popular gods and goddesses of the Hindu religion include Krishna (god of love and compassion), Rama (god of truth and virtue), Shiva (the destroyer, and part of the Triad), Ganesha (god of success, knowledge, and wealth), Vishnu (the preserver or sustainer of life, and part of the Triad), and Lakshmi (goddess of wealth and prosperity).

Hindus also believe in the existence of evil spirits that can live in trees, fences, and in the ruins of houses. These are unseen entities whose favour must be cultivated by sacrifices and offerings. These spirits can be of deceased relatives who can return as angry demons to afflict or slay those who were dearest to them when on Earth.

Sacred Texts

Hinduism is theologically and devotionally grounded in texts, notably the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita (6). The Vedas consist of a number of ancient texts which employ a diverse range of literary genres including prayers, poems, and myths. They are also some of the oldest scriptures of Hinduism with proposed dates ranging between and including BCE 1900 to BCE 1100. These texts are of huge significance for Hindus who view them as more than merely human authored. Their information is revered as possessing uncreated, eternal truths, and therefore believed to be revelation on behalf of a deity. There are four Vedas: the Rigveda, Atharvaveda, Samaveda, and Yajurveda, as well as four classifications referred to as the Aranyakas, the Brahmanas, the Samhitas, and the Upanishads. The Samhitas include mantras and benedictions, the Aranyakas and Brahmanas consist of texts and commentaries on matters relating to ceremonies, philosophical conjecture, rituals, and sacrifices, and the Upanishads mostly elucidate on topics of meditational, philosophical, and spiritual significance. Of the four types of Vedas, the Atharvaveda consists of 20 books with some 730 hymns and was compiled somewhere between 1200 BCE and 1000 BCE. It is a collection of beliefs pertaining to spells, religious medicine, prayer, and rituals. The Rigveda is a very ancient collection of songs and liturgy penned between 1500 BCE and 1200 BCE. Its 1028 hymns, divided into 10 books referred to as mandalas, are full of ancient metaphors and allusions. The Samaveda, known as the Veda of melodies and chants, is a liturgical collection of a creative combination of music, meaning, and spirituality used by the ancient singer priests. The Yajurveda contains a number of commentaries stating how rituals and sacrifices should be conducted and is dated to 1200 BCE or 1000 BCE.

The Bhagavad Gita is part of the well-known Hindu epic poem, the Mahabharata. It is thought to have once been an independent source that was included in the sixth book of Mahabharata (chapters 23-40). The Gita is a hugely influential work in Hindu tradition given its expansive contribution to Indian philosophical and spiritual traditions. It was likely authored at some point in time between 400 BCE and 200 CE, and it is unknown who penned it although tradition attributes its authorship to a man named Vyasa. However, Vyasa is more of a legendary development as opposed to a historical figure. The narrative of the Gita focuses on a war in which two sets of cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, are competing for the throne of Hastinapura located in the kingdom of Kuru. This is known as the Kurukshetra war, a mythologized war whose historicity is a matter of debate. According to the story, these cousins and their armies gather on the battlefield and the victor will take the throne. A man named Arjuna, an archer and the leader of Pandavas, examines his opponents on the battlefield and to his dismay observes his friends and family in their ranks. In a moment of contemplation, Arjuna reasons to the view that the throne and controlling the kingdom are not worth the blood of his loved ones and therefore withdraws from the battle. What follows is a dialogue he has with Krishna, the avatar of the god Vishnu, who is Arjuna’s charioteer in the battle, and who attempts to persuade Arjuna to engage the enemy. Arjuna, convinced by the spiritual and philosophical teachings of Krishna, decides to engage in the battle and wins in the end, and the Pandavas gain ownership of the kingdom.

Karma, Reincarnation, and Moksha

Although the Hindu texts and traditions are very diverse several unifying concepts do emerge such as the notion of deity presented above, as well as the likes of dharma, atman, karma, samsara, and moksha. Although Dharma has been interpreted diversely among Hindus themselves it is often perceived to denote living righteously in accordance with moral law with the ideal being the performing of the right action and duty at all times. Dharma can depend on many variables including one’s gender, age, work, and caste. Hindus also believe in the uncreated and indestructible soul they call atman. The atman moves from one body (of the deceased) to another in a process known as transmigration, which is determined by the spiritual and ethical concept of karma. In Hinduism, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara) is governed by karma, and it is predicated on the notion that good actions create good karma and bad actions create bad karma. For every action there is an effect, and therefore every action becomes a factor in how a person will be reborn in the next life. The Hindu’s ultimate goal is to attain liberation (moksha) from this samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth). This belief evolved over time in the Vedas and the Upanishads and is viewed differently by Hindu religious groups and schools in terms of the paths for attaining it and whether or not it can take place in life or only after death. It is often believed that moksha is attained when the person’s soul unites with God, Brahman, by realizing its true nature.

The Varna

The varna is a social structure in the form of a class system within traditional Hindu societies that is inspired by Hindu scriptures. There are typically four classes: priestly (brahmin), warrior and rulers (kshatriya), farmers and merchants (vaisya), and the labourers and servants (sudra). Not all in society fall within these four classes, which has led some to propose a fifth class, namely the classless outcasts or untouchables (chandalas or dalits). The varna class system is hierarchical and deemed to be natural distinctions that are divinely inspired.

References

1. Yule, Henry and Coke Burnell, Arthur. 1968. Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases. New Edition; New York: Humanities Press. p. 415.

2. YouTube. 2a Hinduism – origins and social structure – India and defining “Hinduism.” [08:38-08:40]. Available.

3. Pew Research Center. 2015. The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050. Available.

4. Pew Research Center. 2012. The Global Religious Landscape: Hindus. Available.

5. Miguel De Mora, Juan. 1997. “The Western View of Hinduism: An Age-Old Mistake.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 78: 1-12. p. 1

6. Lorenzen, David. 1999. “Who Invented Hinduism?” Comparative Studies in Society and History 41: 630-659. p. 631

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