"If I were asked to define the Hindu creed, I should simply say: Search after truth through non-violent means. A man may not believe in God and still call himself a Hindu. Hinduism is a relentless pursuit after truth ... Hinduism is the religion of truth. Truth is God. Denial of God we have known. Denial of truth we have not known."
IndexOrigin of HinduismBelief in God and SpiritualityDevotional SectsDeeds and the Cycle of Life and DeathGoals of LifeWays to Unite with GodThe Four VarṇasStages of Life16 Rites of PassageCustoms, Traditions, and PracticesScriptures and Holy BooksFestivalsPilgrimageHoly Symbols
― Mahatma Gandhi
Hinduism is more of a philosophy, a way of life, than it is a religion (considered literally). It believes in one universal power, often referred to as Brahman
, 'the eternal and unchanging reality that cannot be defined'. Blossoming under the wings of Hinduism are numerous traditions, sects, and the faith of its more than a billion followers spread across several countries of the world. This vast ocean of spirituality, belief, and tradition flows towards blessing each of its followers to attain mokṣa
(liberation from the cycle of life and death). A simplified aspect on Hinduism, as a religion, has been presented in the following article.
Origin of Hinduism
Hinduism is one of the oldest living, and the third largest religion in the world. It has approximately one billion followers the world over, of which 905 million live in India alone. The roots of this religion can be traced back to thousands of years. How did it originate? Well, Hinduism does not have a single religious founder or a specific date of origin. The blend of many customs, beliefs, philosophies, traditions, and the knowledge of its sacred texts and scriptures, define the path of this religion.
The word 'Hindu' is derived from the Sanskrit name Sindhu
, believed to be the present-day river 'Indus', which now flows through Pakistan. According to historians, the name literally refers to the people who inhabited the banks of Indus in the 2nd millennium BCE. Another etymological source of the term 'Hindu' is believed to be the Arabic term Al Hind
, which was used by many foreign invaders for people, residing across the banks of Indus. Hence, the name Hindu has many social, geographical, and political associations.
Belief in God and Spirituality
Hinduism is considered to be the Sanātana Dharma
, the 'eternal religion', by the Hindus. The term Sanātana Dharma literally refers to a law or religion, which has neither a beginning nor an end. This is precisely the reason why Hinduism has been able to assimilate all kinds of influences over the millennia, and has still managed to hold its own, unique identity.
The Hindus believe in a variety of things. What is peculiar about Hinduism, however, is the fact that despite having a strict set of beliefs, it gives its followers a considerable liberty to practice the religion. There are no hard and fast rules, and interestingly, there are more than one ways to reach a particular goal, a privilege that provides the followers with choices to choose their own paths. However, the Hindu doctrine dwells on some basic tenets, which form a sort of an outline of the entire religious tradition. Most important among these are the beliefs in karma
(law of causation), saṃsāra
(the repeating cycle of birth, life, death, and reincarnation), and mokṣa
(liberation from saṃsāra
After the basic philosophical beliefs, are those pertaining to God. The Hindus believe that there are as many as 330 million Gods, all of which are manifestations of the eternal Brahman
. So, worshiping these deities was as sacred as worshiping the Universal Lord. A devoted Hindu can worship one or more of these deities, according to his/her choice and at his/her discretion.
The Hindus refer to their gods and goddesses as devas
respectively. The concept of sacred trinity is also prevalent in Hinduism, according to which Lord Brahma is the Creator, Lord Vishnu is the Sustainer, and Lord Shiva is the Destroyer. While all the devoted Hindus worship some or the other god(s) and/or goddess(es), there are also various distinctive sects in the religion, which pertain to worship only one god/goddess. These four major sects are as under:Shaivism
: The followers of this sect are known as Shaivas
, and they worship Lord Shiva and all His incarnations. They believe Shiva to be the creator, sustainer, destroyer, revealer, and concealer of the universe. Shaivism itself also bears a number of sub-sects.Vaishnavism
: The followers of Vaishnavism are known as Vaishnavas
, and unlike the Shaivas, they worship Lord Vishnu, and believe Him to be the creator, sustainer, destroyer, revealer, and concealer of the universe. The Vaishnavas also worship the supposed ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu, along with the Vishvaroopa
, His all-pervasive form. Vaishnavism also has several sub-sects.
: The worship in this sect focuses on the divine feminine energy, and hence, its followers, the Śāktas
, are literally the worshipers of the mother goddess. They believe that the goddess, Shakti, is the consort of Lord Shiva, and together, they control and preside over all the processes of the universe. This sect believes in the duality of the universe, and consider the masculine to be incomplete without the feminine.Smārta Sampradāya
: This is an orthodox sect followed by some of the Hindu Brahmin families, who consider the Smṛtis
(Hindu scriptures, which have been brought down through oral traditions) to be the most authoritative texts of the religion. The followers of this sect are called the Smārtas
. While the philosophy of this sect does not center much around idol worship, they worship only five divinities viz., Shiva, Vishnu, Devi, Surya (the Sun god), and Ganesha (the elephant-headed god). For the Smārtas, these five divinities are the animate forms of the Brahman itself.
Due to the presence of so many divinities and the differences in spiritual practices, it is thought that the religion is polytheistic in nature. However, this does not stand true. Even if Hindus follow different paths and may believe in more than one God, their ultimate goal is to reach the supreme Brahman, and all God's are just manifestations of the eternal power.
Deeds and the Cycle of Life and Death
The basic Hindu philosophy, as mentioned above, revolves around the concepts of karma
Karma is a literal Sanskrit term for deed or action, and according to this concept, every action leads to its corresponding effect.
In accordance to the theory of karma, a living being carries the impressions of his/her good/bad actions all through the life and even in the next birth.
Unless he/she becomes free of the burden of karma, he/she cannot attain mokṣa, the final aim in Hinduism.
So, while a person's bad deeds trap him/her into the vicious cycle of life, death, and reincarnation (saṃsāra), the good deeds help free a person from this bondage, and attain salvation and the final oneness with God.
Goals of Life
According to the ancient Hindu scriptures, there are some basic goals of life, which every human being is expected to attain through his/her actions and deeds. These have been named as the puruṣārthas
in the Hindu philosophical texts, and are four in number as under:Dharma
: Religious dutyArtha
: Materialistic pleasureMokṣa
: Spiritual liberation/salvation
Fulfillment of these puruṣārthas is considered to be extremely important, not only to lead a fruitful life, but also get freed from the cycle of saṃsāra.
Ways to Unite with God
The ancient Hindu scriptures have prescribed four major ways to unite with God or the so-called ultimate reality. In simpler words, a devoted Hindu can achieve his/her spiritual goals by following one of these paths. They are as under:Bhakti Yoga
: This is the easiest way for a layman to reach God as it does not involve any extensive yogic practices. Propounded by texts such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Bhakti yoga refers to the fostering love of, faith in, and complete surrender to God.Karma Yoga
: Also prescribed by the Bhagavad Gita, this is a path to reach God by performing good and noble deeds. It refers to achieving perfection in one's actions by doing selfless service for the society and the God.Rāja Yoga
: Also known as the aṣṭānga yoga
, this path has been explained in Patanjali's Yoga Sūtras
. It refers to following the path of meditation in order to get acquainted with the ultimate reality. It aims, not only at achieving mokṣa, but also kaivalya
: This refers to the path of knowledge and has been propounded by numerous ancient Hindu philosophical texts. This path prescribes awakening to the true nature of the Self, by acquiring knowledge about the Supreme One, and thus, attaining mokṣa.
The Four Varṇas
The ancient Hindu society was categorized into four broad divisions in the ancient times. Contrary to popular belief, these were not exactly castes, but were rather ranks of people, which also determined their social status. The sole determinant of the rank an individual belonged to was his/her birth. These ranks were known as the varṇas
, and they were as under:
enjoyed the topmost status in the ancient Hindu society, and formed the priestly and the scholarly class.
were the second important rank that comprised the warrior class. It included rulers, warriors, soldiers, and even administrators.
, the third social rank, was actually the class of commoners. Apart from the merchants and traders, this varṇa comprised the farmers as well.
The fourth and the lowest rank was that of the Shudras
. This included servants and laborers. This was also the most exploited rank in the ancient Hindu society.
Stages of Life
According to the ancient Hindu scriptures, there are four distinct stages of the life of every individual. At every stage, he has to strict adhere to a given set of rules and regulations, and fulfill certain vital duties. These stages are known as the āśramas
, and they are as under:Brahmacharyāśrama
: Student lifeGrihasthāśrama
: Household lifeVānaprasthāśrama
: Retired lifeSanyāsāśrama
: Renounced life
According to Manusmriti
, an ancient Hindu treatise, an individual can attain mokṣa only after the fulfillment of his duties as demanded by the four consecutive stages of life.
16 Rites of Passage
Almost every phase in the life of a Hindu has religious customs attached to it. In Hinduism, they are performed for the benefit of an individual, for society, nature, and the environment too. This makes Hinduism a religion with the most number of rituals. These are as under:Garbhādāna
: The act of conceptionPuṃsavana
: Engendering a male issueSīmantonnayana
: Parting the hairJātakarman
: The natal ritesNāmakaraṇa
: The naming ceremonyNiṣkrāmaṇa
: The first outingAnnaprāśana
: Feeding solid food for the first timeCūḍākaraṇa
: Cutting the child's hair for the first timeKarṇavedha
: Piercing the ears of a childVidyāraṃbha
: Commencement of studiesUpanayana
: Wearing the sacred thread before initiating formal educationVédārambha
: Commencement of school lifeKeśānta
: The first shaveSamāvartana
These rites vary according to geographical location and caste. These are also called the Hindu saṃskāras
(sacraments or rites of passage). In an entire life, a Hindu may have to go through 16 saṃskāras (ṣoḍaśa saṃskāra
), which are performed by priests (Brahmins). Most often, eight of these are performed regularly by all Hindus. The number may change with different castes and beliefs.
Customs, Traditions, and Practices
Traditional Pūjā Setting
Most Hindus believe in devotion and worship of God. Worshiping god is done at home or in the temples. Hindus have a small shrine or sacred place in their homes with the icons or statues of their divinities.✼
In the Padma Purāṇa
, any statue or shrine is not merely considered as an object, rather it is regarded as the manifestation of God Himself. They worship these in the morning after bath, but without consuming food or water. Cleanliness reflects purity, hence, it is extremely important to bathe before worshiping God.✼
Devotion can be expressed in many ways in Hinduism. It is mostly done early in the morning and in the evening. The most common way is performing the pūjā
by taking darshan
(standing/sitting in front of the idol), and to sing an aarti
(poem, praising the God). Moreover, the Hindus also offer food and flowers to the deities, and light incense sticks.✼
In the temple, the pūjā is performed by a Brahmin (priest). There are often big ceremonies held at festive occasions in the Hindu temples.✼
) is regarded as an auspicious energy in Hinduism. The Hindus light a small lamp, called diya
, in order to illuminate the sanctum of the temple and even the household shrine. According to the Hindu philosophy, darkness symbolizes ignorance and light symbolizes knowledge, and hence, lighting a diya is a very important practice. ✼ Yajña
is another sacred ritual, wherein fire acts as a link between the humans and the Gods. Amidst the continuous chanting of Vedic hymns, a yajña is performed to invoke the Gods in order to seek their blessings and fulfill one's wishes. Offerings are made to the fire, and are believed to eventually reach the deities. Yajñas are also common in most Hindu weddings and other religious ceremonies, including death-related rituals.✼
Food offering is also very sacred in Hinduism. Prasād
, offering food to the God is another important ritual in Hinduism. First, the food is offered to God and then the family proceeds with the meal. Prayers are offered before consuming the first morsel of food. Water is sprinkled around the leaf or plate on which the food is served. Then, after taking a sip of water, the food is finally eaten.
Other day-to-day customs include,
A gesture of greeting people with folded hands, palms held together close to the chest, with a bowed the head, is called a namaste
. It means that you are greeting and welcoming your guests with complete homage and warmth. In fact, guests are considered as Gods in Hinduism.✼
Respecting the parents and elders is also very important in Hinduism. At every festival or auspicious occasion, all the young members of the family touch the feet of their elders and take their blessings.✼
Hindus never enter the house with footwear. Also, temples and other holy places are worshiped barefoot. They do not enter temples after consumption of alcohol, meat, and non-vegetarian food.✼
Marriages and other decisions are taken collectively by the entire family. Also, marriages generally take place within the same caste.
Scriptures and Holy Books
Hinduism's vast body of scriptures is divided into Śruti (revealed), and Smṛti (remembered). These scriptures discuss theology, philosophy, and mythology, and provide information on the practice of the religion, in general. Śruti scriptures define rituals and practices, while the Smṛtis are compilations of sacred thoughts of the great Ṛṣis and sages.
The Śrutis include the Védas, the Brāhmaṇas, the Āraṇyakas, and the Upanishads.
: contains hymns to be recited by the hotṛ
, the priest who presided over the védic sacrificesSāmavéda
: contains musical notations of the védic hymnsYajurvéda
: contains the 'sacrificial formulae' or methods of conducting different sacrificesAtharvavéda
: collection of spells, incantations, and charms, some of which are also related to black magic
Apart from these four major védas, there are also four minor védas, which are:Āyurvéda
: The science of medicineDhanurvéda
: The science and tactics of militaryGandharva Véda
: Knowledge of music Sthāpatyavéda
: Science of architecture
are believed to be written after the védas. These texts describe, in simplified terms, aspects of Hindu rituals, mythology, and the philosophy of the védas.
, literally meaning 'texts compiled in the wilderness', also discuss concepts of Hindu philosophy and rituals, and are thought to be written by hermits.
, also known as Vedānta
(the end of Védas), discuss the philosophy behind the three groups of texts mentioned above.
These texts include the Itihāsas
(the epic poetry), written between 500 BCE to 1000 CE. They contain the glorious and most loved stories of the Hindus, about incarnations of the eternal power, and God on earth.
, the first of the two Hindu epics, is the story of Lord Rama
, seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu, and was written by the sage Vālmīki
is the second Hindu epic, written by the sage Veda Vyāsa
that pertains to the narrative of the great war that was fought between the Kauravas
and the Pāndavas
, and the role that Lord Kṛṣṇa, the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu played in it.
Other smṛtis include,
, which eulogize various deities through divine stories
, which are manuals of Hindu philosophy
The Śrīmad Bhagavad Gītā
, a 700-verse scripture, narrating the dialog between the Pāndava prince Arjuna and Lord Kṛṣṇa.
There are several other smṛtis, which are only partly known to us now.
Festivals form an integral part of Hinduism. The Hindu calendar decides on the dates of these festivals that are spread across the year. Some of the most important festivals for Hindus are Diwali, Dusshera, Gudi Padva, Makar Sankranti, Ram Navmi, and Mahashivratri
Other important Hindu festivals are:✼
Celebrating festivals is a way to bring the family closer and celebrate the togetherness. Even today, all Hindus celebrate festivals as part of the tradition.
Pilgrimage too is important to the Hindus. The Char Dham
, especially, is the most important pilgrimage. It is believed that this pilgrimage should be done at least once in a lifetime of every Hindu. Chaar Dhaam involves worshiping four major centers viz., Badrinath, Dwarka, Puri, and Rameswaram.
Another important pilgrimage followed by Chaar Dhaam is the Barah Jyotirlinga Yatra
. More common among the Shaivas, this pilgrimage pertains to worshiping Lord Shiva in the phallic form, at 12 important centers across India.Kumbh Mela
is a mass Hindu pilgrimage, where they congregate to bathe in a sacred river. It is held every third year by rotation at one of the four places viz., Haridwar, Allahabad, Nasik, and Ujjain.
Apart from these, the Hindus go on several other minor pilgrimages as well.
There are many plants, animals, symbols, and objects that are considered sacred in Hinduism. A list of the same is compiled below:Om
is the most important sacred symbol and a mystical sound of Hindu origin. It is placed in the beginning of most Hindu texts, and chanted at the end of most Hindu incantations.Swastika
is another sign that is auspicious and brings happiness. It is one of the 108 auspicious symbols of Lord Vishnu.Vat Vriksha
, the banyan tree, is believed to be the resting place of Lord Kṛṣṇa as well as Lord Shiva.
In Hinduism, cow
is also considered to be sacred. It is believed that all Gods reside in the stomach of a cow. The products of the cow, like milk, ghee, and dung too, are used in most of the religious practices and rituals.Kalaśa
, literally meaning a pitcher of water is also considered to be sacred, and is a symbol of abundance and prosperity. It is also regarded as the source of life.Tilaka
is a mark worn on forehead by smearing powder or paste. Both men and women (bindi
) wear it, and it is believed to be very auspicious.Tulsi
or the holy basil is a very sacred plant in Hinduism. Hindus consider this plant to be the earthly manifestation of goddess Tulsi, the consort of Shaligram, the asura avatar of Vishnu.Bilva
or the bael tree is considered to be sacred to Shiva, and its trifoliate form is believed to be the symbol of Shiva's trident.
No matter how much we delve into the details of Hinduism, the religion goes on mystifying even further. Nevertheless, the truth remains that it is one of the major religions of the world, and even the oldest known.