Hinduism is probably the oldest and the most varied of all religions. The term ‘Hindu’ is a corruption of Sindhu, a river that flows through the northwest of the Indian sub-continent. The Greeks called this river the Indus and the people who inhabited the region southeast of it were called Hindus. Their faith came to be called Hinduism. These people were the Aryans who migrated to India from Central Asia about 3,000 years BC. Over time, their beliefs and practices mingled with those of the indigenous Dravidians (Dasa) to become Hinduism, as we know it today.
The religion of the Hindus is defined as Sanatan Dharma or Eternal Faith. It is not based on the teachings of a single preceptor but is the collective wisdom of great sages since the beginning of civilization. It contains both ‘divinely heard’ revelations and ‘the writ of the lawgivers’. Its evolution from elemental nature worship to a vast edifice of abstruse philosophy makes it a fascinating study in the evolution of people economically, socially and politically. In the practical aspects, rites and rituals permeate a person’s life from birth to death. While many of these devolve upon an individual by sheer weight of custom, and include regional variations, some core rituals for birth, initiation, marriage and death are robust and unchanged - survivors of the Vedic age of 3,000 years ago.
The two most important aspects of Sanatan Dharma are the sanctity of the Vedas and the caste system (Varna). The four Vedas - Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda - are poetic compilations of the teachings of the ancient sages. These teachings form the basis of Hinduism. However, since this faith is based on collective wisdom, it has no scriptures in the traditional sense. Most Vedic hymns addressed to various forces of nature and deal with Aryan ritual worship or yagya. The Aryans were evidently a pastoral people and keenly aware of the potentially disastrous effect of fire, wind and rain on their crops and cattle. Powerless against and awe-struck by the elements, the Aryans personified and prayed to them. Nature worship is thus deeply ingrained in Hinduism. The river Ganga, whose waters supported a whole civilization, the bull and the cow, integral to a pastoral economy, and the omnipotent fire were prime objects of deification. These earliest gods and goddesses, being personifications of natural phenomena, could only control the force they represented. As the Aryans learnt to harness nature, these deities lost some of their awe and usefulness. There was now a need to elevate one god to a higher level.
Towards the end of the Rig Veda, the concept of a Supreme Being who caused and affected everything in the universe assumed a definite shape. Gradually the Supreme Being found its manifestation in three forms to carry out the three main tasks of Creation, Preservation and Destruction. This Being came to be represented and revered as the Supreme Triad of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
The second characteristic feature of Hinduism, the caste system was initially a loose economic division of society, based on an individual’s capacity and the profession he chose to follow. Varna, as the caste system is now known, means color and evolved gradually. The economic divisions slowly transformed into a rigid system of social distinction between the fairer Aryans and the darker Dravidians. Society was divided into Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Each caste had its distinctive rules of profession, education, food, dress, behavior, and marriage
The exclusion of the lower caste from social and ritual privileges is a shadow on the otherwise liberal philosophy of Hinduism. With increased education and urbanization, the rigidity of the caste system is greatly reduced today
Down the ages, there have been periodic reform movements in reaction to the domination by the upper castes. The most dramatic was the upgrading of the Upanishads by the celebrated religious leader Shankaracharya in the 8th century AD. The second was the medieval Bhakti Movement, which incorporated Islamic mysticism of the sufis and the passionate outpourings of the poet-saints who sang of a loving personal deity. Another important result of the Bhakti Movement was the translation of the epics like the Ramayana from the scholarly Sanskrit to the vernacular languages of the common man.
Classic Hindu thought, however, continues to define the four goals of man as Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. Dharma broadly means righteousness, justice, morality and duty. To lead a righteous and just life is the first goal of every Hindu. Artha, or wealth is the second goal and Kama or love, the third. Interestingly, Hinduism acknowledges the importance of love and materialism, realizing that these are what the human nature requires, and tempers them with the principles of Dharma. Moksha or liberation of the soul from the cycle of rebirth is the ultimate goal of Hinduism. It is so much a part of Hindu belief that the later years of a man’s life are believed best spent satisfying the yearnings of the soul.
The system of ashrams (the four stages of a man’s life) saught to achieve this. The stages are - Brahmacharya or studenthood, Grihastha or the married state as a householder, Vanaprastha or semi-retirement and Sanyasa or renouncement. During Brahmacharya the student learns how to lead a just life and is taught his duties. As a householder, he marries and raises a family, and through his profession, earns wealth to satisfy material desires. He spends the last two stages satisfying the soul’s need for peace and enlightenment.
A common but erroneous perception of Hinduism is that it is polytheistic because of the vast array of iconography, symbols, gods and goddesses. But these are all different expressions of the same single divinity: the Supreme Being or Brahman, who is formless, shapeless, and all pervading. Since it is difficult to concentrate one’s thoughts and energies on so conceptual a god, idols and images provide a focus for supplication.
The two most widely worshipped gods are Shiva and Vishnu. Shiva’s wife, Parvati is also worshipped in various forms like Durga, Kali and Shakti. In her many forms, Parvati represents the female energy - as important and powerful as Shiva. These three deities - Shiva, Vishnu and Parvati - form the major sects of Hinduism: Shaiva, Vaishnava, and Shakta respectively. The two male deities have large followings across India, while the Shakta sect is prevalent in the East.
Ganesha, the elephant headed son of Shiva and Parvati, is invoked as the remover of obstacles before any ritual or commencement. Kartikeya or Subrahmanya, the other son of Shiva and Parvati, is widely worshipped in the South. Another important deity in the South is the Ayappan or Hari-Haraputra, said to be the result of a union between Shiva and Vishnu in female form. Lakshmi, Vishnu’s consort, is widely worshipped as the goddess of wealth. Though Brahma is of hardly any importance today, his wife Sarasvati, the goddess of wisdom and learning, is greatly revered. Surya, the sun god, is worshipped through the famous Gayatri Mantra.
Apart from the many deities that enliven the Hindu pantheon, a concept that has been very important since the Puranic age, is that of incarnation or avatara. This refers to the energies of a god manifested in a mortal form to achieve a specific purpose. The most popular incarnations are the ten forms of Vishnu, known as Dashavatara. Of these, Rama and Krishna are most widely worshipped.
Devotion to the deities is usually expressed by performing puja, the ritual of worship.
Other than the iconographic images of various deities, two important symbols in Hinduism are Om and the Swastika. Om represents Brahman, the all-pervading divinity, and the word is chanted aloud or silently during meditation. The use of Om is also an important aspect of Yoga, the system of physical and mental discipline by which a man controls and hones the functions of his body and mind. The Swastika is widely used as a symbol of good luck and well-being.
Today’s Hinduism is much changed from the faith the Aryans brought with them over 4000 years ago. It is possibly this ability to constantly adapt and incorporate new influences that has ensured its survival down the ages. Food, clothing, languages, even beliefs, like Buddhism, are integrated, internalized and ‘Hinduised’.
In fact, present-day Hinduism represents an amalgamation of Vedic culture with a wide variety of other influences - from the Indus Valley Civilization, through Central Asian cultures and Islam to British Christian beliefs. It is interesting to note that Hinduism is the only religion still practiced out of its contemporaries of yore - be it the South American Incas, Aztecs, or Mayas, the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans or Chinese.
This section contains some of the more important and popular beliefs, customs and ceremonies of the Hindus that have survived the awesome span of thirty tempestuous centuries.
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