Hinduism is the oldest of the major world religions and at 1.05 billion followers (according to a 1993 estimate) currently the third largest, behind Christianity at 2.1 billion (1 billion Catholics, 500 million Protestants, 240 million Orthodox and 275 million others) and Islam at 1.1 billion.
Hinduism, more correctly known as Sanatana Dharma (Sanskrit: The Eternal Way), is a way of life and not an organized religion per se. The meaning of Sanatana Dharma means that it is the faith of Hinduism to has no beginning and no end. Historically, "Hindu" did not originally denote any system of religious belief; the term is of Persian origin and refers to people who live on the other side (from a Persian point of view) of the Sind, on the banks of the Indus river. After British colonization, the term was used to denote a somewhat "fuzzy" set of religious perspectives. In a 1966 ruling, the Supreme Court of India defined the Hindu faith as follows for legal purposes:
According to another view, a Hindu is one who believes in the philosophy expounded by the Vedas. Vedas are perhaps the world's oldest scriptures. Their basic teaching is that our real nature is divine. God, or Brahman as is commonly referred to, exists in every living being. Religion is therefore a search for self-knowledge, a search for the divine within the self. The vedas state that a person does not need to be "saved." He is never lost. At worst, one is living in ignorance of his true nature.
Vedanta acknowledges that there are many different approaches to God, and all are valid. Any kind of spiritual practice will lead to the same state of self-realization. Thus, Vedanta teaches respect for all religions and distinguishes itself from other major religions in that it strongly encourages tolerance for different belief systems.
Hinduism exists today on two different planes - one based purely on faith and another based on philosophy. Often, the two planes intersect.
The philosophical plane:
The faith-based plane:
In an interesting parallel to the Christian trinity, there are three main gods in the Hindu pantheon: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, much like the two sides of a coin are merely different aspects of the same physical object. The God Brahma symbolizes the creator, Vishnu represents the maintainer and Shiva represents the destroyer in the cycle of existence.
Vaishnava[?], constituting approximately 80% of today's Hindus, worship one of the three most recent avatara (earthly incarnations) of Vishnu as their main deity. The seventh (third most recent) avatar of Vishnu is Rama, the eighth is Krishna, and the nineth varies by source: Gautama Buddha, Jesus Christ or the founder of the Hindu sect whose sacred texts are consulted. Some acknowledge all of the above as true avatara, thus increasing the traditional count of ten (including Kalki, who has yet to appear) to as much as 27. Most of the remaining 20% are Saivites, who worship Lord Siva; the remainder is devoted Sakti[?], Isvara[?] or the dark goddess Kali.
Much like a single individual may be referred to as the daughter of someone, the friend of another, or the sister of yet another, Hinduism allows each individual to describe and develop a personal relationship with their chosen god in the form of an avatar. Vaishnava worship Brahman through Vishnu, ISKCON devotees through Krishna and Devi worshippers through Devi, but ultimately all worship is of the divine essence, Brahman.
Very little information has survived about the earliest origins of Hinduism. The earliest known documents are the Vedas, described below, which are generally believed to have been codified in their present form centuries before the oldest surviving written copies, and passed down accurately by an oral tradition. The oldest texts were composed in an early form of Sanskrit, an Indo-Aryan language[?], and show similarities with texts of Zoroastrianism. In fact, Vedic Sanskrit and Avestan, the language of Zoroastrianism, are regarded as almost the same language.
The age of the Vedas and the origin of their authors is controversial. One theory is that they originated from the early societies of South Asia, an area that was first settled about 7000 BC. The alternative Aryan invasion theory holds that they were derived from ideas imported by immigrants in the 2nd millennium BC. See the Aryan invasion article for more details of the controversy.
The archaeological excavations of the Indus Valley Civilisation have not yielded much evidence of communal temples. However, there is sufficient evidence that the civilisation was certainly not purely secular. Only one Indus civilisation graveyard has been found and excavated, and has yielded no elaborate royal burials, but the personal possessions buried with the bodies may indicate that these people believed in an afterlife in which they would need these things.
Water seems to have played an important part in their social, and possibly their religious, life, judging by the large number of public baths that were constructed. The modern Hindu custom of bathing at the beginning of the day and before the main meals may well have started here.
Many figurines of female deities have been discovered. These most probably signified creativity and the origin and continuity of life, and they may have been worshipped as symbolic embodiments of the female principle of creative Energy and Power. In modern Hinduism, the counterpart of these symbols is called Shakti. But they have no counterparts in the thousands of clay seals that have been discovered, nor in major sculpture, so these "mother Goddess" figurines may have been worshipped in the home rather than in any major state cult.
Figures of male deities with elaborate horns (or horned headgear) have also been uncovered, some of them with three faces. These are perhaps the original conceptual forms of the triad that is expressed by the Trimurti of Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva (Generator-Sustainer-Destroyer) in contemporary Hinduism, but they are strangely enough also very similar to sculptures, paintings and bas-reliefs of horned gods in Europe, stretching as far back as the Paleolithic painting of the "sorcerer" in the cave of Les Trois Frères[?] in France. The Indian figurines are shown as sitting in the cross-legged posture of yogis, suggesting that yoga or inner contemplation was one of their modes of discovering the secrets of life and creation. Figurines of lingam and yoni, symbolic representations of the male and female sexual organs that are still prevalent in the popular forms of worship of Shiva, have also been found.
The sacred scriptures of ancient India fall roughly into three classes. First, there are the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of the Vedic religion from which modern Hinduism is derived. Second, there are post-Vedic Hindu scriptures. Finally, there are the scriptures of the dissident movements such as Buddhism and Jainism. These were in large part reactions against the Vedas, but also took much from them, both in terms of actual teachings and in terms of a general outlook on life. We shall only discuss the first two classes here.
Scholars who have made a study of world scriptures maintain that the Vedas are the oldest extant religious texts. The ideas expressed in the Vedas were traditionally handed down orally from father to son and from teacher to disciple. Therefore, these ideas had been in circulation for a long time before their codification and compilation, which are attributed to a sage called Vyasa (literally, "the compiler"). On the basis of both internal and external evidence, scholars have suggested various dates for the origin of the Vedas, ranging from approximately 1500 BC to as far back as 5000 BC.
In the traditional Hindu understanding, Vedas are said to be non-personal and without beginning or end. This means that the truths embodied in the Vedas are eternal and that they are not creations of the human mind. It was precisely on this point that Buddhism and Jainism would part company with Hinduism.
The religion of the Vedic period, particularly at its earliest, was distinct in a number of respects, including reference to females in positions of religious authority (female rishis, or sages), an apparent lack of belief in reincarnation, and a markedly different pantheon, with Indra generally the chief god, and little mention of the later trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.
The Vedas are referred to as the Shruti (that which is heard). The new books that appeared afterwards were called Smriti (that which is remembered). While the sruti literature was written in Vedic and Classical Sanskrit, the smriti texts were written in the Prakrit, or common, languages of the ordinary people. Since it was accessible to all, the smrti literature established its popularity among every stratum of Indian society from the very beginning. Even today, the greater part of the Hindu world is more familiar with the smrti than with the sruti literature. Smrti literature includes Itihasas (epics like Ramayana, Mahabaratha), Puranas (mythological texts), Agamas (theological treatises) and Darshanas (philosophical texts).
The Dharmashastras (law books) also form part of the smrti. From time to time great law-givers (eg Manu, Yajnawalkya and Parasara) emerged, who codified existing laws and eliminated obsolete ones to ensure that the Hindu way of life was consistent with both the Vedic spirit and the changing times.
The Hindu philosophy reflected in the epics is the doctrine of avatar (incarnation of God as a human being). The two main avatars of Vishnu that appear in the epics are Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, and Krishna, the chief protagonist in the Mahabharata. Unlike the gods of the Vedic Samhitas and the abstract Upanishadic concept of the all-pervading and formless Brahman god, the avatars in these epics are human intermediaries between the Supreme Being and mortals.
This doctrine has had a great impact on Hindu religious life, for it means that God has manifested Himself in a form that could be appreciated even by the least sophisticated. Rama and Krishna have remained beloved and adored manifestations of the Divine for thousands of years among Hindus. The Upanishadic concept of the all-embracing Brahman is undoubtedly the pinnacle of Indian thought, but the concept of the avataras has certainly had more influence on the average Hindu.
The Astika (Believers or the orthodox school of thought) philosophies are elaborated below. The nastika philosophies are omitted as they are not descriptive of Hinduism.
The Nyaya school of philosophical speculation is based on a text called the Nyaya Sutra. It was written by Gautama (not to be confused with the founder of Buddhism), also known as Aksapada, round about the fourth or fifth century B.C. The most important contribution made by this school is its methodology. This is based on a system of logic that has subsequently been adopted by most of the other Indian schools (orthodox or not), much in the same way that western science, religion and philosophy can be said to be largely based on Aristotelian logic.
But Nyaya is not merely logic for its own sake. Its followers believed that obtaining valid knowledge was the only way to obtain release from suffering. They therefore took great pains to identify valid sources of knowledge and to distinguish these from mere false opinions. According to the Nyaya school, there are exactly four sources of knowledge (pramanas): perception, inference, comparison and testimony. Knowledge obtained through each of these can of course still be either valid or invalid, and the Nyaya scholars again went to great pains to identify, in each case, what it took to make knowledge valid, in the process coming up with a number of explanatory schemes. In this sense, Nyaya is probably the closest Indian equivalent to contemporary Western analytical philosophy. But we should never lose sight of the fact that the Nyaya sages performed their labours for a specifically religious purpose.
The Vaishesika system, which was founded by the sage Kanada[?], postulates an atomic pluralism. In terms of this school of thought, all objects in the physical universe are reducible to a certain number of atoms.
Although the Vaishesika system developed independently from the Nyaya, the two eventually merged because of their closely related metaphysical theories.
In its classical form, however, the Vaishesika school differed from the Nyaya in one crucial respect: where Nyaya accepted four sources of valid knowledge, the Vaishesika accepted only perception and inference. Vaishesika atomism also differs from the atomic theory of modern science: according to the Vaishesikas, the functioning of atoms was guided or directed by the will of the Supreme Being. This is therefore a theistic form of atomism.
Samkhya is widely regarded as the oldest of the orthodox philosophical systems in Hinduism. Its philosophy regards the universe as consisting of two eternal realities: purusha and prakrti. The purushas (souls) are many, conscious and devoid of all qualities. They are the silent spectators of prakrti (matter or nature), which is composed of three gunas (dispositions): satva, rajas and tamas (steadiness, activity and dullness). When the equilibrium of the gunas is disturbed, the world order evolves. This disturbance is due to the proximity of Purusha and prakrti. Liberation (kaivalya), then, consists of the realisation of the difference between the two.
This was a dualistic philosophy. But there are differences between the Samkhya and Western forms of dualism. In the West, the fundamental distinction is between mind and body. In Samkhya, however, it is between the self (purusha) and matter, and the latter incorporates what Westerners would normally refer to as "mind". This means that the Self as the Samkhya understands it is more transcendent than "mind", closer perhaps to what Westerners would refer to as "soul". This makes it an explicitly religious philosophy.
The Yoga system is largely based on the Samkhya philosophy, and the sage Patanjali is regarded as the founder of the Yoga system. The most significant difference is that the Yoga school not only incorporates the concept of Ishvara (a personal God) into its metaphysical worldview, which the Samkhya does not, but also upholds Ishvara as the ideal upon which to meditate. This is because Ishvara is the only purusha that has never become entangled with prakrti. The Yoga system lays down elaborate prescriptions for gradually gaining physical and mental control and mastery over the personal self, until one's consciousness has intensified sufficiently to allow awareness of one's real Self (as distinct from one's feelings, thoughts and actions).
The main objective of the Purva ("earlier") Mimamsa school was to establish the authority of the Vedas. Consequently this school's most valuable contribution to Hinduism was its formulation of the rules of Vedic interpretation. Its adherents believed that revelation must be proved by reasoning, that it should not be accepted blindly as dogma. In keeping with this belief, they laid great emphasis on dharma, which they understood as the performance of Vedic rituals. The Mimamsa accepted the logical and philosophical teachings of the other schools, but felt that these paid insufficient attention to right action. They believed that the other schools of thought, which pursued moksha(release) as their ultimate aim, were not completely free from desire and selfishness. In hinduism, we are all illuminated under the light of god. When we have moksha, we believe that we become closer to god. According to the Mimamsa, the very striving for liberation stemmed from a selfish desire to be free. Only by acting in accordance with the prescriptions of the Vedas could one attain salvation (rather than liberation). At a later stage, however, the Mimamsa school changed its views in this regard and began to teach the doctrines of God and mukti (freedom). Its adherents then advocated the release or escape from the soul from its constraints through what was known as jnana (enlightened activity). While Mimamsa does not receive much scholarly attention these days, its influence can be felt in the life of the practising Hindu. All Hindu ritual, ceremony and religious law is influenced by it.
The Uttara ("later") Mimamsa school, more commonly known as the Vedanta, concentrates on the philosophical teachings of the Upanishads rather than on the ritualistic injunctions of the Brahmanas. But there are over a hundred Upanishads and they do not form a unified system. Their systematisation was undertaken by Badarayana[?], in a work called the Vedanta Sutra.
The cryptic way in which the aphorisms of the Vedanta texts are presented leaves the door wide open for a multitude of interpretations. This led to a proliferation of Vedanta schools. Each of these interprets the texts in its own way and has produced its own series of sub-commentaries - all claiming to be faithful to the original.
This is probably the best known of all Vedanta schools. Advaita literally means "not two"; thus this is what we refer to as a monistic (or non-dualistic) system, which emphasises oneness. Its first great consolidator was Shankara[?] (788-820). Continuing the line of thought of some of the Upanishadic teachers, and also that of his own teacher Gaudapada[?], Shankara expounded the doctrine of Advaita - a nondualistic reality. By analysing the three states of experience (waking, dreaming and deep sleep) he exposed the relative nature of the world and established the supreme truth of the Advaita: the non-dual reality of Brahman in which atman (the individual soul) and brahman (the ultimate reality expressed in the trimurti) are identified absolutely. His theories were controversial from the start and some of his contemporaries accused him of teaching Buddhism while pretending to be a Hindu.
Subsequent Vedantins debated whether the reality of Brahman was saguna (with attributes) or nirguna (without attributes). Belief in the concept of Saguna Brahman gave rise to a proliferation of devotional attitudes and more widespread worship of Vishnu and Shiva.
Ramanuja[?] (1040-1137) was the foremost proponent of the concept of Saguna Brahman. He taught that Ultimate reality had three aspects: Ishvara (Vishnu), cit (soul) and acit (matter). Vishnu is the only independentreality, while souls and matter are dependent on God for their existence. Because of this qualification of Ultimate reality, Ramanuja's system is known as qualified non-dualism.
Adoration and loving devotional worship of a personal god (bhakti) is part and parcel of most religious traditions. In Hinduism, too, it has been found since the earliest days, but only in the second millennium A.D. do we start to see organised movements advocating this type of religious behavior. Among the first was the Vira-Shaiva[?] school, in the thirteenth century. Its founder, Basva[?], rejected the caste system, denied the supremacy of the Brahmins, condemned ritual sacrifice and insisted on bhakti and the worship of the one god, Shiva. His followers were called Vira-Shaivas, meaning "stalwart Shiva-worshippers".
The Shaiva-Siddhanta[?] school is a form of Shaivism (Shiva worship) found in the south of India and was established around A.D. 1300. According to this school, Shiva is God, and his infinite love is revealed in the divine acts of the creation, preservation and destruction of the universe, and in the liberation of the soul.
In the period between 1400 and 1650, a great bhakti movement swept through Northern India. The implications of this movement were that people could cast aside the heavy burdens of ritual and caste and the subtle complexities of philosophy and simply express their overwhelming love for God.
This period was also characterised by a spate of devotional literature in the ethnic languages of the various Indian states or provinces.
In Southern India, there had been two parallel devotional movements just before this period, one centering on Vishnu and the other on Shiva. It was the Vishnu movement that mainly spread to the north, where it itself divided into two camps, the one worshipping Vishnu mainly in the form of his avatar Rama, the other in the form of Krishna.
The leader of the bhakti movement focussing on the Lord as Rama was Ramananda[?]. Very little is known about him, but he is believed to have lived in the first half of the 15th century. He taught that Lord Rama is the supreme Lord, and that salvation could be attained only through love for and devotion to him, and through the repetition of his sacred name.
Ramananda's ashram[?] in Varanasi became a powerful centre of religious influence, from which his ideas spread far and wide among all classes of Indians. One of the reasons for his great popularity was that he renounced Sanskrit and used the language of the people for the composition of his hymns. This paved the way for the modern tendency in northern India to write literary texts in local languages.
Devotees of Krishna worship him either as an adult together with his first wife and queen Rukmini (Ruksmani[?]) or, far more commonly, as an adolescent together with his childhood sweetheart and eternal consort Radha, who is regarded as an incarnation of Laxmi and the embodiment of devotion. Two major systems of Krishna worship developed, each with its own philosophical system.
Vallabhacarya[?] (1479-1531) called his system of thought Shuddhavaita[?] (pure monism). According to him, it is by God's grace alone that one can obtain release from bondage and attain Krishna's heaven. This heaven is far above the "heavens" of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, for Krishna is himself the eternal Brahman.
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu[?] (1485-1533) named his system of philosophy Achintya Bheda-Bheda[?] (incomprehensible dualistic monism). It attempts to combine elementsof monism and dualism into a single system. Chaitanya's philosophy is one of the main elements in the belief system of the contemporary International Society for Krishna Consciousness, better known by Chaitanya's mantra as the Hare Krishna movement.
Beyond the confines of such formal schools and movements, however, the development of bhakti as a major form of Hindu practice has left an indelible stamp on the faith. Philosophical speculation had always been a minority interest, in India as elsewhere, which really only left the general population with increasingly archaic rituals and increasingly onerous religious duties to perform. Bhakti practice, however, was instantly available to all. If it did not do away with the worst features of the caste system, then at least it gave people a temporary respite from it.
External links Contemporary resources on Hinduism from the Hindu point of view: