“We meditate on the transcendental glory of the Deity Supreme, who is inside the heart of the Earth, inside the life of the sky and inside the soul of the heaven”. This was the beginning of the US Senate’s morning prayer, on 12 July 2007. It was the first time the prayer had been made by a Hindu.
The main Indian religion is Hinduism, which includes concepts such as karma, reincarnation and nirvana. Hinduism is also the major religion in Nepal, Mauritius and Bali (in Indonesia). This post is one in a series on major religions. To minimize bias, the following content has been mainly drawn from Hindu websites.
The word “Hindu” is derived from the name of the Sindhu (Indus) River. Apparently, those who lived south of the river were known as Hindus. The Persians used the term Hindu in this way in the 6th century BC. Over time the term changed from denoting the people of a geographic area to a religious group. However, this explanation is debated by some scholars.
Hinduism has a broad range of beliefs, philosophies and traditions that are linked by shared concepts, rituals, cosmology, religious texts, a caste system and pilgrimage to sacred sites. And it is usually polytheistic. Everyone who is born in a Hindu family is considered a Hindu.
The most ancient Hindu scriptures are the four Vedas. These spiritual laws were compiled before ~800BC and are considered by Hindus to have divine origin. The word Veda means knowledge. The Vedas are books of mantras that have hidden meanings and symbolic significance. The philosophical conclusions of the Vedas are called the Upanishads. Most of these were written between 800BC and 400BC, with additions up to AD1400. And there are many other Hindu scriptural texts including the Ramayana, the Mahabharata (including the Bhagavad Gita), and the Puranas.
Hinduism developed gradually over about four thousand years. The origins and authors of its sacred texts are largely unknown.
About 2000BC there is evidence of ritual bathing, sacrifice, and goddess worship. It is thought that the Vedas were composed between 1500BC and 500BC. During this period, food was offered to various gods in a sacrificial fire. These gods occupied the earth, or the atmosphere. The ritual sacrifice was offered to receive the favor of the gods such as wealth, sons, protection, and abundant crops. Later Hindus renounced the material and social world, and focused instead on asceticism and meditation. They believed that the material world is not “real,” but only an illusion (not what it appears to be) that is created by ignorance (lack of knowledge). What is real is an abstract divine principle, Brahman. So they focused on how to free oneself from the bonds of material attachments, and attain a state of oneness with Brahman. Later the concepts of karma, reincarnation and moksha (release from reincarnation) arose.
Temple worship developed between 500BC and 500AD. During this period, the Vedic fire sacrifice tended to be replaced by the worship of images of deities in temples. Between 500AD and 1500AD, large temples were constructed to deities such as Vishnu, Shiva and Devi (goddesses). And key thinkers and teachers (gurus) formulated new theologies. Between 1500AD and 1757AD Islam affected northern India and devotion to a personal god (bhakti), meditation and yoga were prevalent.
From 1575AD to 1947AD India was part of the British Empire. During this period, India came under Western influence and nationalism arose. In 1947 India gained independence from Great Britain and was separated from the newly-created Muslim state of Pakistan. After this, immigration lead to Hindu impact elsewhere including Transcendental Meditation, the Hare Krishna movement, Yoga and New Age beliefs.
What are the basic beliefs that one must have to be considered a true Hindu? Although there is a wide range of beliefs, there are six major beliefs.
Six major beliefs
Some of the basic beliefs of Hinduism are summarized below.
Polytheism. Hindus have the freedom to choose their own personal god or goddess. They often believe that one supreme reality (Brahman) is manifested in many gods and goddesses. These can be spirits, trees, animals, rivers, mountains, natural things that are useful for a human being, and even planets. They have the largest pantheon of gods and goddesses who are believed to actively influence the world and to interact with humans. Most Hindus worship god in the form of an image (idol). The most fundamental of Hindu deities are the trinity of Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer). But many other gods such as Ganesha, Krishna, Rama, Hanuman, and goddesses like Lakshmi, Durga, Kali and Saraswati are worshipped.
Pantheism. The Upanishads describe a single, eternal, impersonal divine force that animates and permeates the entire cosmos—Brahman. “Everything is Brahman”. Brahman is the universe and everything in it. They claim that one’s relationships, or appearance, or even thoughts, are not real but illusions. They advocate an ascetic path. If one wishes to realize the ultimate (moksha), then one must detach oneself from these unreal things. One must go off and meditate on the reality of Brahman, which begins with meditation on the self (the atman), which is in essence the same as Brahman. So the Hindu divine being is throughout all existence.
Reincarnation (samsara). Another basic tenet of Hinduism is the belief in reincarnation. This is a continuing cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. It’s a cycle of perpetual rebirth and suffering from one lifetime to the next. Reincarnation is based on karma. In the short-term a good karma will lead to reincarnation in more fortunate circumstances, or in a higher caste. The soul reincarnates until all karmas have been resolved, and moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirth) is attained. According to Hinduism, this current life is merely one link in a chain of lives that extends far into the past and projects far into the future. Hindus also believe that the universe undergoes endless cycles of creation, preservation and dissolution.
Dharma. This is a set of rules for the “right way of living” (ethics). It is the duty of a Hindu to follow the path of righteousness. But acting virtuously does not mean precisely the same for everyone; different people have different obligations and duties according to their age, gender, and social position. Dharma is universal but it is also particular. Each person has their own dharma known as sva-dharma. What is correct for a woman might not be for a man or what is correct for an adult might not be for a child. Correct action in accordance with dharma is also understood as service to humanity and to God. To achieve good karma it is important to live life according to dharma, what is right. This involves doing what is right for the individual, the family, the class or caste and for the universe. Dharma is like a cosmic norm and if one goes against the norm it can result in bad karma. So, dharma affects the future according to the karma accumulated. Therefore, one’s dharmic path in the next life is the one necessary to bring to fruition all the results of past karma. Hinduism has sought to recognize principles and practices that would lead any individual to become a better human being and understand and live in harmony with dharma.
Kama. Hindus believe in karma, the law of cause and effect by which each person creates their own destiny by their thoughts, words and deeds. This is the belief that one’s current situation has been brought about by previous actions and decisions, and that future circumstances will be the natural outcome of the decisions and actions you make in this moment. What you have done determines what you are, and what you do now determines what you will be. One’s current situation and future outcome is the result of action and consequence. Our present condition in life is the consequence of the actions of our previous lives. The tally of a person’s life is their karma (action). This is the total of the good works or sacred practices which have been carried out. The merit gained through good works can reduce sufferings in the next life. In the short-term a good karma will lead to reincarnation in more fortunate circumstances, or in a higher caste. Eventually it may make possible the ideal, which is moksha (release from this earth and from the cycle of rebirth).
Moksha (freedom, liberation, salvation, nirvana). Liberation from the cycle of birth and death (reincarnation) is the ultimate goal of Hindu religious life. The ultimate purpose of any devout Hindu is to escape from the recurring pattern of existence. This involves the realization of one’s relationship with God (union with the Brahman), the achievement of mental peace and detachment from worldly concerns. This union can be achieved through True Knowledge (scholarly study), devotion to a god, meditation, or karma (right work).
Nine major practices
Hinduism embraces many practices and traditions. Some Hindu religious practices are summarized below.
Worship of images. This devotion consists of a range of ritual offerings and prayers before an image of a deity in temples and home shrines. Reverence toward sacred images is very important; they are treated as kings in their temples and honored guests in people’s homes. Worship of images, icons, and statues of the gods is a feature of both home and temple devotions. The deity is considered present in the image and is an honored guest. Worship has traditionally been done individually rather than in groups. The worshipper acknowledges that they are inferior to and dependent upon the divine. They offer what they think the god (or goddess) likes (such as flowers, water, fruit, special foods, grains, coconuts, oils or incense) and receive blessings and protection in return. If the offering is made in a temple, a portion of it is kept for use by the temple, and the rest is returned, now blessed by the deity. Offerings made in the household shrine are later divided among family members.
Hindus are theoretically obliged to perform five daily sacrifices. These are offerings to the gods, ancestors, animals, humans (by offering hospitality to members of one’s caste) and reciting the Vedic verses as worship to Brahman.
In Hinduism, there are many rituals that may be practiced at each stage of life, and in a variety of circumstances, both in routine practice at home and in formal celebrations. Devout Hindus perform daily rituals, such as worshiping at dawn after bathing. Vedic rituals and chanting of Vedic hymns are observed on special occasions, such as a Hindu wedding. Other major life-stage events, such as rituals after death, include the yajña (sacrifice) and chanting of Vedic mantras.
Ritual purification. Purity and its opposite, pollution, are vitally important for Hindus. Ritual purification, usually with water, is a typical feature of most religious observance. The bathing of the body in rivers considered holy such as the Ganges is valued highly. For example, during the Pitcher Festival, millions of Hindus plunge into the Ganges river to wash away their sins. Bathing in the Ganges even once is supposed to ensure salvation. Avoidance of the impure (such as taking animal life, eating flesh, associating with dead things, or body fluids) is another feature of Hindu ritual and is important for repressing pollution.
Ceremonies Hindus have many of ceremonies. There are family ceremonies, caste ceremonies. and village ceremonies. Many ceremonies incorporate fire. Hindus believe that fires are sacred.
Gurus. Guru is a Sanskrit term for someone who is a “teacher, guide, expert, or master” of certain knowledge or field. In Hinduism, a guru is a spiritual guide on the Hindu religion. Gurus are ancient and central figures in the traditions of Hinduism. They are an essential part of knowing god.
Yoga. Yoga is a system of physical and spiritual techniques for achieving balance and harmony within yourself, the environment, and with others. It is one of the paths to achieve union with Brahman. In the Vedic scriptures there are five major yogas:
– Bhakti yoga or yoga of love to God.
– Raja yoga or contemplation about God.
– Jñana yoga or yoga of wisdom and knowledge about God.
– Karma yoga or selfless service to God and humanity.
– Hatha yoga or prostrations and other postures to God.
Hatha yoga attempts to balance mind and body via physical postures and exercises (asanas), controlled breathing, and the calming of the mind through relaxation and meditation. Asanas teach poise, balance and strength and are practiced to improve the body’s physical health and clear the mind in preparation for meditation in the pursuit of enlightenment. The purpose of Hatha Yoga is to locate and activate the chakras (centers of energy), thereby raising the kundalini (dominant spiritual power). This in turn is believed to help remove blockages (disease) in the mind and body.
Meditation More philosophically-minded Hindus seek realization of the self through intense meditation. Types of meditation include:
– Mantra meditation, where a syllable or word, usually without any particular meaning, is repeated to focus the mind.
– Transcendental meditation is a mantra meditation that repeats Tantric names of Hindu deities.
– Yoga meditation, such as focusing the attention on the “spot between the eyebrows”, or focusing on particular sounds.
Mantras A mantra is sacred sound in the form of a syllable, word, prayer, phrase or hymn, (usually in Sanskrit) that is chanted, usually repetitively, as part of Hindu practice. It’s believed to have a special spiritual power. And it’s a kind of meditation. The earliest Hindu mantras are at least 3000 years old.
Mantras are sound symbols. What they symbolize and how they function depends on the context, and the mind of the person repeating them. The earliest mantras were used to cope with the uncertainties and dilemmas of daily life. Later they were used to cope with the human condition as a whole, such as to escape from the cycle of reincarnation, forgiveness for bad karma, and experiencing a spiritual connection with a god.
The simplest mantra is the word “Om”. While some mantras may invoke individual gods or principles, fundamental mantras, like the ‘Shanti Mantra’ (Om! Let the studies that we together undertake be effulgent; Let there be no animosity amongst us; Om! Peace, Peace, Peace), the ‘Gayatri Mantra’ (Let us meditate on that excellent glory of the divine Light. May he stimulate our understandings) and others all ultimately focus on the One reality (Brahman). Also, a very common mantra is formed by taking a deity’s name. For example, “Om I bow to Lord Shiva”.
The Hare Krishna mantra is well-known:
“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna
Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama
Rama, Rama, Hare, Hare”.
It means, “Glory to Krishna, Glory to Rama”. It’s dedicated to the glory of Krishna and Rama, who both are considered avatars (embodiments) of great god Vishnu in a human form. One of the best ways to perform bhakti-yoga is to chant this mantra. The benefits of chanting this mantra are said to include:
– Peace of mind
– Knowledge of the self
– Real happiness
– Liberation from karma
– Freedom from the cycle of reincarnation
– Love of God
Initiation into many Hindu sects involves the whispering of a secret mantra into the ear of the initiate by the guru (spiritual teacher). Transcendental meditation is a specific form of silent mantra meditation which involves the use of a mantra for 15–20 minutes twice per day while sitting with eyes closed.
Vegetarianism Hinduism does not require a vegetarian diet, but many Hindus avoid eating meat because of their belief that it minimizes hurting other life forms. Because Hinduism teaches that all of nature is divine (pantheism), Hindus believe that god manifests in the various forms that are found in nature, including animals, rivers, mountains and earth. Hindus are called to respect and honor the divine in all forms (so all life is considered to be sacred), and to follow the principle of ahimsa (to do no harm). Vegetarianism is a simple way to practice ahimsa through what they eat. The cow is the animal that is most revered (considered sacred) by Hindus. It’s a source of food, a symbol of life and may never be killed.
Reincarnation is one of the basic beliefs in Hinduism. Souls can move not only among different levels of human society, but also into other animals – hence the vegetarianism of many Hindus.
Bindi A bindi is an ornamental mark (often a red dot) between the eyebrows of Hindu women. It’s a religious symbol that identifies a person’s “third eye”, or what Hindus believe is the center of a person’s nervous system, the area in which a person can see spiritual truths. In meditation, this spot between the eyebrows is where one focuses their sight. The third-eye chakra is a center of energy, believed to be located between the eyebrows. A bindi placed at this position is said to retain and enhance this energy, strengthening one’s concentration.
India’s caste system splits up Hindus into different societal groups according to their work and birth. It’s a hierarchical social system. In this system, Hindus are divided up into four classes: the Brahmins (the priestly class – teachers and intellectuals); the Kshatriyas (the ruling, administrative and warrior class); the Vaishyas (the class of artisans, tradesmen, farmers and merchants); and the Shudras (manual workers). Some people fall outside this system, including tribal people and the Dalits (previously known as “untouchables”).
For centuries, caste dictated almost every aspect of Hindu religious and social life, with each group occupying a specific place in this complex hierarchy. It determined the type of occupations a person could pursue and the social interactions that they could have. The higher the person’s caste, the more the person was blessed with the benefits and luxuries of life. Although originally caste depended upon a person’s work, it soon became hereditary. Each person was born into an unalterable social status. The three key areas of life dominated by caste were marriage, meals and religious worship.
People who violated social norms could be punished by being made “untouchables.” This was not the lowest caste – they and their descendants were completely outside of the caste system. Untouchables were considered so impure that any contact with them would cause contamination and the person would have to bathe and wash their clothing immediately. Untouchables could not even eat in the same room as caste members. The untouchables did work that no-one else would do, like scavenging animal carcasses, leather-work, or killing rats and other pests. And they could not be cremated when they died.
Reincarnation is one of the basic beliefs in Hinduism. After each life, a soul is reborn into a new material form which depends upon the virtuousness of its previous behavior. Thus, a truly virtuous person from the Shudra caste could be rewarded with rebirth as a Brahmin in their next life. Within a life cycle, people had little social mobility. They had to strive for virtue during their present lives to attain a higher status the next time around.
After India attained independence in 1947, the country introduced laws to make discrimination against lower castes illegal and to improve their socioeconomic positions. In recent decades, with the spread of secular education and growing urbanization, the influence of caste has declined, especially in cities where different castes live side-by-side and inter-caste marriages are becoming more common. For example, in June 2017, Ram Nath Kovind (from the marginalized Dalit community) was elected India’s new president. However, despite laws that aim to create equality, the caste system in India continues to have a strong impact on society
This post has summarized aspects of the history, major beliefs, major practices and culture of the Hindu faith. These practices and culture impact everyday life in India, which is predicted to become the world’s most populous country in 2022.
Written, August 2017
Also see: Testing Hinduism
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