The third largest organized religion in the world after Christianity and Islam, Hinduism has been around for at least past 5,000 years. We know that it originated in India, from the various archaeological and literary sources, but its beginning, evolution, and development over such a long period of time, are still obscure. This is primarily because, unlike several other world religions, Hinduism does not have a designated founder, teacher or prophet, and hence, it becomes really difficult, if not impossible, to trace its roots.
Evolution and Development
Despite the fact that Hinduism has a remarkable presence in the world - it is a majority religion in India practiced by about 80% of its total population, the national religion of Nepal, a minority faith in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, and has considerably big diasporas in Southeast Asia, America, and Europe - ironically, it is very difficult to define the faith. In fact, the roots of the word 'Hindu' are itself very complicated. Originally, 'Hindu' has been derived from 'Sindhu', a traditional name of river Indus. Several historical inscriptions of foreign rulers, refer to the inhabitants of the land through which river Sindhu flowed, as 'Hindu', and the land itself as 'Hind'. In the medieval period, when the Muslims invaded India, they started referring to all the non-Muslim communities residing in India as 'Hindus'. However, the term Hindu, as a person belonging to a distinct faith, became popular only in the 18th century, with the establishment of British rule in India.
Though today, Hinduism is considered to be an organized and a unified faith, it is rather complicated to determine whether or not it really is. Hinduism, on the whole, is a mixed bag of several and varied traditional and cultural influences, and as the cultural anthropologists would agree, a classic example of what the process of 'Sanskritization' or 'Brahmanization' may result in. 'Sanskritization' or 'Brahmanization' is a process of social change, wherein people belonging to the lower castes seek to elevate their social status by adopting rituals and practices of the upper castes. Throughout the history of Hinduism, it went on absorbing a huge number of regional and cultural influences, and became what it is today. Hinduism today, is broadly divided into various castes and sects, each practicing Hindu customs in their own way. This is precisely the reason why, we find different customs and traditions followed by Hindus living in different regions, and interestingly, nothing is correct or incorrect; in fact, everything is perfect and precise, in its own right.
The Hindu Pantheon
The Hindu pantheon has a plethora of gods and goddesses, but what distinguishes it from the other major world religions is its henotheistic approach of looking at a faith, that otherwise would have been out-and-out polytheistic in nature. Hinduism believes in the presence of a single, ultimate, omnipresent reality (Brahman) that manifests itself from time to time in the form of several gods and goddesses that the Hindus essentially worship. That's why one of the basic teachings of Hinduism tells us that no matter which deity one worships, he/she is eventually worshiping the Brahman. And what's more, there is a huge variety of deities in the Hindu pantheon - they not only worship a large number of immortal gods and goddesses in human forms, but they also worship an array of natural phenomena (more often that not, personified), plants, animals, and even mortal human beings (as Gurus and saints).
So, we have, at the core of the Hindu pantheon, the Holy Trinity, formed by Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Sustainer), and Mahesha/Shiva (the Destroyer). They are followed by other major deities such as the elephant-headed God, Ganesha; the monkey-God, Hanuman; the Goddess of wealth, Lakshmi; the Goddess of wisdom, Saraswati; the Goddess of power, Parvati; etc. Furthermore, there are forces of nature such as Agni (Fire), Varuna (Ocean), Indra (Rain and thunder), Surya (Sun), Vayu (Wind), Prithvi (Earth), the different rivers goddesses, etc., which have been worshiped since ages. These, predominantly mainstream deities, are further complimented by a large number of regional and local minor deities presiding over the day-to-day issues of the people. These are essentially folk deities, which might even not be recognized as one travels from one region to the other. One of the most interesting facets of the Hindu pantheon is the ability of the gods and goddesses to manifest themselves in different avatars or incarnations, whenever 'humanity is in danger'. In one of the most popular verses of the Bhagvad Gita, the holy scripture of the Hindus, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna,
|"Whenever and wherever violence and disorder would seek to destroy humanity, I will take birth on the Earth. For the deliverance of the Good and for the destruction of the Evil, in order to restore peace, I will keep on appearing (in different incarnations), millennium after millennium."|
We thus, have 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu (some ancient sources give us even more), and roughly about 14 different incarnations of Shiva. Further, the cult of the Mother Goddess (Shakti) is huge, and what initially began with the seven divine mothers, the Saptamatrikas, now has numerous more avatars added to it. These are further followed by a plethora of lesser divinities, and beings, which serve a mounts/vehicles of gods and goddesses (such as a mouse for Ganesha, a swan for Saraswati, a white elephant for Indra, a bull for Shiva, etc.). Moreover, the cow is the most sacred animal in Hinduism, considered to be a symbol of abundance and fertility. The cow is considered to be the mother of the gods; a being who does not expect anything in return of her benevolence. Though the Hindus DO NOT worship the cow, she is highly respected; her killing and consumption of beef is prohibited by Hinduism.
Besides worship and cultural practices, the Hindus have certain laws and norms defining the framework of their society. While most of them, such as the Ashrama (stages of life based on social status) system, are a little outdated now, some others, like the Shodasa Samskaras (the 16 sacred rites) that are performed on a Hindu individual, right from his/her birth to death, are still practiced widely. However, this not mandatory, and depends largely on individual preferences.
Religion or Not?
So, is Hinduism a religion or is it not? But, if it is not, then what is it? While some Hindus might say that it is a culture, most others would say that it is a way of life. In its early days, when Hinduism did not have much competition from other faiths, it regarded all the individuals it came across, as Hindus. The term 'Hindu', thus pertained to all the people, living in a particular geographical area and forming part of the same society. It is thus, that sects such as Buddhism and Jainism, which were formed, initially as heterodox faiths, distinct from traditional Hinduism, were gradually incorporated into the faith, and are today, more or less considered to be the sub-sects of Hinduism itself (this does not pertain to countries, where Buddhism is one of the major religions). In fact, it is indeed interesting how Buddha himself got incorporated in Hinduism as the ninth among the ten incarnations of Vishnu, after Buddhism started declining in India, and Hinduism was revived. This sheds light on the notion of 'acceptability' in Hinduism. In other words, Hinduism has never been reluctant to absorb and accept outside/foreign influences, provided they preach ethical values.
Hinduism does not believe in religious conversions; proselytism one of the most marginal concepts in the faith. On the contrary, whoever (irrespective of his/her faith) wants to practice Hindu tenets, is welcomed with an open heart. However, what makes Hinduism distinct from most other faiths is that though anybody can be a Hindu, one can enter the Hindu caste-class hierarchy only if he/she is born in a Hindu family. That is to say that a person may become a Hindu at any point of time, but the rules and regulations of 'born Hindus' do not apply to him/her. This is because, though Hinduism focuses on the spiritual liberation from the ongoing cycle of life and death, it also intends to enhance one's quality of life on earth. Even day-to-day activities such as cooking, bathing, cleaning, singing, dancing, planting trees, healing, etc. are given sacred connotations. Thus, the western concept of the boundary between religion and irreligion, does not apply to Hinduism.