What are the sects and denominations in Hinduism?
Modern Hinduism is divided into four major devotional sects: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, and Smartism. Vaishnavism and Shaivism are generally regarded as monotheistic sects: each believes in one supreme God, who is identified as Vishnu in Vaishnavism and Shiva in Shaivism.
Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktism are the most prevalent Hindu sects; among these, Vaishnavism is the largest. The devotional sects do not generally regard other sects as rivals, and each sect freely borrows beliefs and practices from others.
In addition to the four theistic sects, there are six schools of Vedantic philosophy within Hinduism. These schools tend to emphasize Ultimate Reality as Brahman, the great “Self” who must be realized to attain liberation.
The six Astika (orthodox; accepting the authority of the Vedas) schools of Hindu philosophy are Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Purva Mimamsa (also called just ‘Mimamsa’), and Uttara Mimamsa (also called ‘Vedanta’). Of these six, three continue to be influential in Hinduism: Purva Mimamsa, Yoga, and Vedanta.
Click on the links below for more information on each of these sects and schools of Hinduism.
Four Theistic/Devotional Sects of Hinduism
Six Philosophical Schools of Hinduism
– Purva Mimamsa (Mimamsa)
– Uttara Mimamsa (Vedanta)
Who is a Hindu?
Seven Features of Hinduism Recognized by Indian Law Courts
The Supreme Court of India defined the features of a Hindu in its 1995 ruling of the case, “Bramchari Sidheswar Shai and others Versus State of West Bengal.” At one place, it says that the court identifies the following seven defining characteristics of Hinduism and by extension Hindus:
- Acceptance of the Vedas with reverence as the highest authority in religious and philosophic matters and acceptance with reverence of Vedas by Hindu thinkers and philosophers as the sole foundation of Hindu philosophy.
- Spirit of tolerance and willingness to understand and appreciate the opponent’s point of view based on the realization that truth was many-sided.
- Acceptance of great world rhythm, vast period of creation, maintenance and dissolution follow each other in endless succession, by all six systems of Hindu philosophy.
- Acceptance by all systems of Hindu philosophy, the belief in rebirth and pre-existence.
- Recognition of the fact that the means or ways to salvation are many.
- Realization of the truth that Gods to be worshipped may be large, yet there being Hindus who do not believe in the worshipping of idols.
- Unlike other religions or religious creeds Hindu religion not being tied-down to any definite set of philosophic concepts, as such.
If you’re still confused…
When the question of who is a Hindu is discussed today, we get a multitude of confused and contradictory answers from both Hindu laypersons and from Hindu leaders. That we have such a difficult time understanding the answer to even so fundamental a question as “Who is a Hindu?” is a starkly sad indicator of the lack of knowledge in the Hindu community today. Below are some thoughts on the topic collated from a speech by Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya.
Some of the more simplistic answers to this question include: Anyone born in India is automatically a Hindu (the ethnicity fallacy), if your parents are Hindu, then you are Hindu (the familial argument), if you are born into a certain caste, then you are Hindu (the genetic inheritance model), if you believe in reincarnation, then you are Hindu (forgetting that many non-Hindu religions share at least some of the beliefs of Hinduism), if you practice any religion originating from India, then you are a Hindu (the national origin fallacy).
The Real Answer
The real answer to this question has already been conclusively answered by the ancient sages of Hinduism, and is actually much simpler to ascertain than we would guess. The two primary factors that distinguish the individual uniqueness of the great world religious traditions are a) the scriptural authority upon which the tradition is based, and b) the fundamental religious tenet(s) that it espouses. If we ask the question what is a Jew?, for example, the answer is: someone who accepts the Torah as their scriptural guide and believes in the monotheistic concept of God espoused in these scriptures. What is a Christian? – a person who accepts the Gospels as their scriptural guide and believes that Jesus is the incarnate God who died for their sins. What is a Muslim? – someone who accepts the Qur’an as their scriptural guide, and believes that there is no God but Allah, and that Mohammed is his prophet.
In general, what determines whether a person is a follower of any particular religion is whether or not they accept, and attempt to live by, the scriptural authority of that religion. This is no less true of Hinduism than it is of any other religion on earth. Thus, the question of what is a Hindu is similarly very easily answered.
By definition, a Hindu is an individual who accepts as authoritative the religious guidance of the Vedic scriptures, and who strives to live in accordance with Dharma, God’s divine laws as revealed in the Vedic scriptures.
Only If You Accept the Vedas
In keeping with this standard definition, all of the Hindu thinkers of the six traditional schools of Hindu philosophy (Shad-darshanas) insisted on the acceptance of the scriptural authority of the Vedas (shabda-pramana) as the primary criterion for distinguishing a Hindu from a non-Hindu, as well as distinguishing overtly Hindu philosophical positions from non-Hindu ones. It has been the historically accepted standard that, if you accept the Vedas (and by extension Bhagavad Gita, Puranas, etc.) as your scriptural authority, and lived your life in accordance with the Dharmic principles of the Vedas, you are then a Hindu. Thus, an Indian who rejects the Veda is obviously not a Hindu. While an American, Russian, Indonesian or Indian who does accept the Veda obviously is a Hindu.
The Sacred Texts of the Hindus
According to Swami Vivekananda, “the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times” constitutes the sacred Hindu texts. Collectively referred to as the Shastras, there are two types of sacred writings in the Hindu scriptures: Shruti (heard) and Smriti (memorized).
Sruti literature refers to the habit of ancient Hindu saints who led a solitary life in the woods, where they developed a consciousness that enabled them to ‘hear’ or cognize the truths of the universe. Sruti literatures are of two parts: the Vedas and the Upanishads.
There are four Vedas:
- The Rig Veda -“Royal Knowledge”
- The Sama Veda – “Knowledge of Chants”
- The Yajur Veda – “Knowledge of Sacrificial Rituals”
- The Atharva Veda – “Knowledge of Incarnations”
There are 108 extant Upanishads, of which 10 are most important: Isa, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taitiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka.Smriti Literature refers to ‘memorized’ or ‘remembered’ poetry and epics.
They are more popular with Hindus, because they are easy to understand, explains universal truths through symbolism and mythology, and contain some of the most beautiful and exciting stories in the history of religion world literature. The three most important of Smriti literature are:
- The Bhagavad Gita – The most well known of the Hindu scriptures, called the “Song of the Adorable One”, written about the 2nd century BC and forms the sixth part of Mahabharata. It contains some of the most brilliant theological lessons about the nature of God and of life ever written.
- The Mahabharata – The world’s longest epic poem written about 9th century BC, and deals with the power struggle between the Pandava and the Kaurava families, with an intertwining of numerous episodes that make up life.
- The Ramayana – The most popular of Hindu epics, composed by Valmiki around 4th or 2nd centuries BC with later additions up to about 300 CE. It depicts the story of the royal couple of Ayodha – Ram and Sita and a host of other characters and their exploits.
Theories About the Origin of Hinduism
According to historians, the origin of Hinduism dates back to 5,000 or more years. The word “Hindu” is derived from the name of River Indus, which flows through northern India. In ancient times the river was called the ‘Sindhu’, but the Persians who migrated to India called the river ‘Hindu’, the land ‘Hindustan’ and its inhabitants ‘Hindus’. Thus the religion followed by the Hindus came to be known as ‘Hinduism’.
It was earlier believed that the basic tenets of Hinduism were brought to India by the Aryans who invaded the Indus Valley Civilization and settled along the banks of the Indus river about 1600 BC. However, this theory has now been proved to be a flawed one and is considered nothing more than a myth.
The Various Periods of the Evolution of Hinduism
According to scholars, the evolution of Hinduism may be divided into three periods: The ancient (3000 BCE-1000 AD), the medieval (1000-1800 AD), and the modern (1800 AD to present). Hinduism is commonly thought to be the oldest religion in the history of human civilization.
Timeline: History of Hinduism
- 2500-1600 BCE: The earliest of Hindu practices form roots with the rise of the Indus Valley civilization in northern Indian sub-continent around 2500 BCE.
- 1600-1200 BCE: The Aryans are said to invade southern Asia in c. 1600 BCE., which would have a lasting influence on Hinduism.
- 1500-1200 BCE: The earliest Vedas, the oldest of all scriptures, are compiled in c. 1500 BCE.
- 1200-900 BCE: The early Vedic period, during which the main tenets of Hinduism were developed. The earliest Upanishads were written in c. 1200 BCE.
- 900-600 BCE: The late Vedic period, during which the Brahminical religion, which emphasized ritual worship and social obligations, came into being. During this time, the latter Upanishads are believed to have emerged, giving birth to concepts of karma, reincarnation and moksha.
- 500 BCE-1000 CE: The Puranas were written during this time giving rise to the concepts of deities such as trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, and their female forms or Devis. The germ of the great epics of the Ramayana & Mahabharata started to form during this time.
- 5th Century BCE: Buddhism and Jainism become established religious offshoots of Hinduism in India.
- 4th Century BCE: Alexander invades western India; Mauryan dynasty founded by Chandragupta Maurya; Composition of Artha Shastra.
- 3rd Century BCE: Ashoka, the Great conquers most of South Asia
- 2nd Century BCE: Sunga dynasty founded
- 1st Century BCE: Vikrama Era named after Vikramaditya Maurya begins
- 1st Century CE: Composition of the Manava Dharma Sashtra or Laws of Manu (?)
- 2nd Century CE: Composition of the Ramayana completed
- 3rd Century CE: Hinduism spreads to Southeast Asia
- 4th Century CE: Composition of the Mahabharata completed
The Main Tenets of Hinduism
Hinduism lacks any unified system of beliefs and ideas. It is a phenomenon and represents a broad spectrum of beliefs and practices which on one hand are akin to paganism, pantheism and the like, and on the other very profound, abstract, metaphysical ideas.
Since religion and culture are nearly interchangeable terms in Hinduism, emotive expressions like ‘bhakti’ (devotion) or ‘dharma’ (what is right) and ‘yoga’ (discipline) are used to depict essential aspects of the religion.
Hinduism believes in idol worship, reincarnation, karma, dharma and moksha. Some moral ideals in Hinduism include non-violence, truthfulness, friendship, compassion, fortitude, self-control, purity and generosity.
Human life is divided into four stages, and there are defined rites and rituals for each stage from birth till death.
Traditional Hinduism has two life-long dharmas that one can follow: ‘Grihastha Dharma’ (Domestic Religion) and ‘Sannyasin Dharma’ (Ascetic Religion).
The ‘Grihastha Dharma’ has four goals: ‘kāma’ (sensual pleasure), ‘artha’ (wealth and prosperity), ‘dharma’ (the laws of life), and ‘moksha’ (liberation from the cycle of births). The ‘Sannyasin Dharma’ recognizes ‘moksha’ as its ultimate goal.
Hinduism: The Only Religion to Exult the Greatness of Other Religions
Sanatana Dharma, authentic Hinduism, is a religion that is just as unique, valuable and integral a religion as any other major religion on earth, with its own beliefs, traditions, advanced system of ethics, meaningful rituals, philosophy and theology.
Unique & Original
The religious tradition of Hinduism is solely responsible for the original creation of such concepts and practices as Yoga, Ayurveda, Vastu, Jyotisha, Yajna, Puja, Tantra, Vedanta, Karma, etc. These and countless other Vedic-inspired elements of Hinduism belong to Hinduism, and to Hinduism alone.
Though they are elements of Hinduism alone, however, they are also simultaneously Hinduism’s divine gift to a suffering world. Thus, so many of the essential elements of Hinduism are now to be found incorporated into the structures and beliefs of many of the world’s diverse religious traditions.
The Greatness of Hindu Ideals
The world, both ancient and modern, has appreciated, either with direct acknowledgement or not, the greatness of Hindu ideals.
When we make the sentimentally comforting, yet unthinking, claim that “all religions are the same”, we are unwittingly betraying the grandeur and integrity of this ancient heritage, and contributing to weakening the philosophical/cultural matrix of Hinduism to its very core.
Each and every time a Hindu upholds Radical Universalism, and proclaims that “all religions are the same”, they do so at the expense of the very Hinduism she love. To deny the uniqueness and greatness of Hinduism leads, in turn, to a sense of unworthiness and a confusion on the part of anyone who wishes to consider themselves Hindu.
Why Hindu Youth Often Lack Interest in Hinduism
This is especially the case for Hindu youth. The effects of this inferiority complex, coupled with the lack of philosophical clarification are some of the reasons why Hindu parents find their children all too often lacking a deep interest in Hinduism and, in some cases, even abandoning Hinduism for more ‘rational’ religions. No one wants to follow a religion in which it is claimed that the very basis of the religion is to exult the greatness of other religions at its own expense.
Teach them the Eternal Way of Truth
If we want to ensure that our youth remain committed to Hinduism as a meaningful path, that our leaders teach Hinduism in a manner that represents the tradition authentically and with dignity, and that the greater Hindu community can feel that they have a religion that they can truly take pride in, then we must abandon Radical Universalism.
If we want Hinduism to survive so that it may continue to bring hope, meaning and enlightenment to untold future generations, then the next time our son or daughter asks us what Hinduism is really all about, let us not repeat to them that “all religions are the same”. Let us instead look them in their eyes, and teach them the uniquely precious, the beautifully endearing, and the philosophically profound truths of our tradition…truths that have been responsible for keeping Hinduism a vibrantly living religious force for over 5000 years. Let us teach them Sanatana Dharma, the eternal way of Truth.
Beacons of Hope
Fortunately, by no means have all present-day Hindu leaders allowed themselves to succumb to the influence of Radical Universalism. Indeed, in the present generation we have been blessed with the sagacious guidance of many truly authentic traditionalist Hindu gurus and teachers.
These gurus, many of whom represent some of the most ancient lineages (sampradayas) of classical Hinduism, have spoken out compellingly and courageously against both Radical Universalism and the neo-Hinduism from which it took birth, and have articulated the urgent need for the restoration of genuine and traditional Hinduism.
Among the many Hindu leaders in recent decades who have openly repudiated Radical Universalism and neo-Hinduism can be included: Swami Chinmayananda, Pujya Swami Dayananda Sarasvati, Shivaya Subramuniya Swami, Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Sri Vamadeva Shastri, Sri Chinna Jeeyar Swami, Sri Rangapriya Swami, among many others. We need to help facilitate the work of such truly genuine Dharma leaders if we wish to witness the renewal of authentic Hinduism.
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6 Myth Busters About Hinduism
Hinduism is a unique faith! The most obvious misconception about Hinduism is that we tend to see it as just another religion. To be precise, Hinduism is a way of life, a dharma. Dharma does not mean religion. It is the law that governs all action. Thus, contrary to popular perception, Hinduism is not just a religion in the tradition sense of the term. Out of this misinterpretation, has come most of the misconceptions about Hinduism.
1. ‘Hinduism’ is a Modern Term
Words like Hindu or Hinduism are ananchronisms. They do not exist in the Indian cultural lexicon. People have coined them to suit their needs in different points of history. Nowhere in the scriptures is there any reference to Hinduism.
2. Hinduism is a Culture More than a Religion
Hinduism does not have any one founder, and it does not have a Bible or a Koran to which controversies can be referred for resolution. Consequently, it does not require its adherents to accept any one idea.
It is thus cultural, not creedal, with a history contemporaneous with the peoples with which it is associated.
3. Hinduism Encompasses Much More than Spirituality
Writings we now categorise as Hindu scriptures include not just books relating to spirituality but also secular pursuits like science, medicine and engineering. This is another reason why it defies classification as a religion per se. Further, it cannot be claimed to be essentially a school of metaphysics. Nor can it be described as ‘other worldly’. In fact, one can almost identify Hinduism with a civilization that is flourishing even now.
4. Hinduism is the Dominant Faith of the Indian Subcontinent
The Aryan Invasion Theory having been completely discredited, it cannot be assumed that Hinduism was the pagan faith of invaders belonging to a race called Aryans. Rather it was the common metafaith of people of various races, including Harappans. The Sanskrit word ‘aryan’ is a word of honourable address, not the racial reference invented by European scholars and put to perverse use by the Nazis.
5. Hinduism is Much Older than we Believe
Evidence that Hinduism must have existed even circa 10000 B.C. is available: The importance attached to the river Saraswati and the numerous references to it in the Vedas indicates that the Rig Veda was being composed well before 6500 B.C. The first vernal equinox recorded in the Rig Veda is that of the star Ashwini, which is now known to have occurred around 10000 B.C. Subhash Kak, a Computer Engineer and a reputed Indologist, ‘decoded’ the Rig Veda and found many advanced astronomical concepts therein. The technological sophistication required to even anticipate such concepts is unlikely to have been acquired by a nomadic people, as the Invasionists would like us to believe. In his book Gods, Sages and Kings, David Frawley provides compelling evidence to substantiate this claim.
6. Hinduism is Not Really Polytheistic
Many believe that multiplicity of deities makes Hinduism polytheistic. Such a belief is nothing short of mistaking the wood for the tree. The bewildering diversity of Hindu belief – theistic, atheistic and agnostic – rests on a solid unity. “Ekam sath, Vipraah bahudhaa vadanti”, says the Rig Veda: The Truth (God, Brahman, etc) is one, scholars call it by various names.
What the multipicity of deities does indicate is Hinduism’s spiritual hospitality as evidenced by two characteristically Hindu doctrines: The Doctrine of Spiritual Competence (Adhikaara) and the Doctrine of The Chosen Deity (Ishhta Devata). The doctrine of spiritual competence requires that the spiritual practices prescribed to a person should correspond to his or her spiritual competence. The doctrine of the chosen deity gives a person the freedom to choose (or invent) a form of Brahman that satisfies his spiritual cravings and to make it the object of his worship. It is notable that both doctrines are consistent with Hinduism’s assertion that the unchanging reality is present in everything, even the transient.
Hinduism is thought to have gotten its name from the Persian word hindu, meaning “river,” used by outsiders to describe the people of the Indus River Valley. Hindus themselves refer to their religion as sanatama dharma, “eternal religion,” and varnasramadharma, a word emphasizing the fulfillment of duties (dharma) appropriate to one’s class (varna) and stage of life (asrama).
Hinduism has no founder or date of origin. The authors and dates of most Hindu sacred texts are unknown. Scholars describe modern Hinduism as the product of religious development in India that spans nearly four thousand years, making it the oldest surviving world religion. Indeed, as seen above, Hindus regard their religion as eternal (sanatama).
Hinduism is not a homogeneous, organized system. Many Hindus are devoted followers of Shiva or Vishnu, whom they regard as the only true God, while others look inward to the divine Self (atman). But most recognize the existence of Brahman, the unifying principle and Supreme Reality behind all that is.
Most Hindus respect the authority of the Vedas (a collection of ancient sacred texts) and the Brahmans (the priestly class), but some reject one of both of these authorities. Hindu religious life might take the form of devotion to God or gods, the duties of family life, or concentrated meditation. Given all this diversity, it is important to take care when generalizing about “Hinduism” or “Hindu beliefs.”
The first sacred writings of Hinduism, which date to about 1200 BCE, were primarily concerned with the ritual sacrifices associated with numerous gods who represented forces of nature. A more philosophical focus began to develop around 700 BCE, with the Upanishads and development of the Vedanta philosophy. Around 500 BCE, several new belief systems sprouted from Hinduism, most significantly Buddhism and Jainism.
In the 20th century, Hinduism began to gain popularity in the West. Its different worldview and its tolerance for diversity in belief made it an attractive alternative to traditional Western religion. Although there are relatively few western converts to Hinduism, Hindu thought has influenced the West indirectly by way of religious movements like Hare Krishna and New Age, and even more so through the incorporation of Indian beliefs and practices (such as the chakra system and yoga) in books and seminars on health and spirituality.
– “Hinduism.” Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions.
– “Hinduism.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Premium Service. 2004.
– Huston Smith, The World’s Religions.
– Linda Johnsen, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hinduism, pp. 222-24.
Main Point of Reference:
How Do You Define Hinduism?
Hinduism is essentially an Indian phenomenon. It is the dominant faith of India, practised by over 80% of the population. Since religion is a way of life in India, Hinduism forms an integral part of the entire Indian tradition.
It is not easy to define Hinduism, for it is much more than a religion in the Western sense. According to some scholars, Hinduism is not exactly a religion. Also known to practitioners as Sanatana Dharma, which means everlasting or eternal religion / truth / rule, Hinduism can best be defined as a way of life based on the teachings of ancient sages and scriptures like the Vedas and Upanishads. The word ‘dharma’ connotes “that which supports the universe” and effectively means any path of spiritual discipline which leads to God.
Hindu Dharma, as one scholar analogizes, can be compared to a fruit tree, with its roots (1) representing the Vedas and Vedantas, the thick trunk (2) symbolizing the spiritual experiences of numerous sages, gurus and saints, its branches (3) representing various theological traditions, and the fruit itself, in different shapes and sizes (4), symbolizing various sects and subsects.
However, the concept of Hinduism defies a definite definition because of its uniqueness.
Towards Clearly Defining Hinduism
Traditional Hindu philosophers emphasize the crucial importance of clearly understanding what is Hinduism proper and what are non-Hindu religious paths. You cannot claim to be a Hindu, after all, if you do not understand what it is that you claim to believe, and what it is that others believe.
“Vaidika” and “Avaidika”
One set of antonymous Sanskrit terms repeatedly employed by many traditional Hindu philosophers was vaidika and avaidika.
The word vaidika (or “Vedic” in English) means one who accepts the teachings of the Veda. It refers specifically to the unique epistemological stance taken by the traditional schools of Hindu philosophy, known as shabda-pramana, or employing the divine sound current of Veda as a means of acquiring valid knowledge. In this sense the word “vaidika” is employed to differentiate those schools of Indian philosophy that accept the epistemological validity of the Veda as apaurusheya, or a perfect authoritative spiritual source, eternal and untouched by the speculations of humanity, juxtaposed with the avaidika schools that do not ascribe such validity to the Veda.
In pre-Christian times, avaidika schools were clearly identified by Hindu authors as being specifically Buddhism, Jainism and the atheistic Charvaka school, all of whom did not accept the Veda. These three schools were unanimously considered non-Vedic, and thus non-Hindu (they certainly are geographically Indian religions, but they are not theologically/philosophically Hindu religions).
Views stated in the “Manava-dharma-shastra”
Manu, one of the great ancient law-givers of the Hindu tradition, states the following in his Manava-dharma-shastra:
“All those traditions and all those disreputable systems of philosophy that are not based on the Veda produce no positive result after death; for they are declared to be founded on darkness. All those doctrines differing from the Veda that spring up and soon perish are ineffectual and misleading, because they are of modern date.” (XII, 95)
Stated in simpler terms, “vaidika” specifically refers to those persons who accept the Veda as their sacred scripture, and thus as their source of valid knowledge about spiritual matters.
Views stated in the “Sarva-darshana-samgraha”
In his famous compendium of all the known Indian schools of philosophy, the Sarva-darshana-samgraha, Madhava Acharya (a 14th century Advaita philosopher) unambiguously states that Charvakins (atheist empiricists), “Bauddhas” (Buddhists) and “Arhatas” (Jains) are among the non-Vedic, and thus non-Hindu, schools. Conversely, he lists Paniniya, Vaishnava, Shaiva and others among the Vedic, or Hindu, traditions. Likewise, in his Prasthanabheda, the well-known Madhusudana Sarasvati (fl. 17th century C.E.) contrasts all the mleccha (or “barbaric”) viewpoints with Hindu views and says that the former are not even worthy of consideration, whereas the Buddhist views must at least be considered and debated.
The differentiation between “orthodox” and “heterodox”, from a classical Hindu perspective, rests upon acceptance of the Vedic revelation, with the latter rejecting the sanctity of the Veda.
“Astika” and “Nastika”
As a further attempt to clearly distinguish between Hindu and non-Hindu, Hindu philosophers regularly used the Sanskrit terms astika and nastika. The two terms are synonymous with vaidika and avaidika, respectively. Astika refers to those who believe in the Vedas, nastika to those who reject the Vedas.
Under the astika category Hinduism would include any Hindu path that accepts the Veda, such as Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, Advaita, Yoga, Nyaya, Mimamsa, among others. The nastika religions would include any religious tradition that does not accept the Veda: Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Christianity, Islam, Baha’i, etc.
Thus when it came to the importance of unambiguously differentiating between the teachings of Hinduism and the teachings of non-Hindu religions, the most historically important sages of Hindu philosophical and theological thought are clear advocates of “Vaidika Dharma” – Hinduism – as a systematic, unitive tradition of spiritual expression.
Main Point of Reference:
How Do You Define Hinduism – Subhamoy Das
Clearly Defining Hinduism – Dr. Frank Morales
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What is the story of the Hindu faith?
The history of Hinduism is unique among the world religions in that it has no founder or date of origin. While most major religions derive from new ideas taught by a charismatic leader, Hinduism is simply the religion of the people of India, which has gradually developed over four thousand years. The origins and authors of its sacred texts are largely unknown.
Although today’s Hinduism differs significantly from earlier forms of Indian religion, its roots date back as far as 2000 BC, making it one of the oldest surviving religions. Because of its age, the early history of Hinduism is unclear. The most ancient writings have yet to be deciphered, so for the earliest periods scholars must rely on educated guesses based on archaeology and contemporary texts.
In the last few decades, the history of India’s religion has also become a matter of political controversy. The history of any nation (or individual) is an important part of its self-identity, and this is especially true of India, which so recently gained independence after centuries of colonial rule. The controversy over India’s history centers on the origin of the Aryan culture, as we shall see in more detail below.
The Hindu religion: past and present
The Indus River Valley Civilization
In 1921, archaeologists uncovered evidence of an ancient civilization along the Indus River, which today runs through northwest India into Pakistan. The so-called Indus Valley civilization (also known as the “Harappan civilization” for one of its chief cities) is thought to have originated as early as 7000 BC and to have reached is height between 2300 to 2000 BC, at which point it encompassed over 750,000 square miles and traded with Mesopotamia.
Some writings of this period has been discovered, but unfortunately in such small amounts that they have yet to be deciphered. Knowledge of this great civilization’s religion must therefore be based on physical evidence alone. Baths have been found that may indicate ritual bathing, a component of modern Hinduism. Some altar-like structures may be evidence of animal sacrifice, and terracotta figures may represent deities. An important seal features a horned figure surrounded by animals, which some conjecture is a prototype of Shiva, but it could be a bull parallel to that found on Mesopotamian seals.
The Controversial Aryans
The Indus Valley culture began to decline around 1800 BC, due possibly to flooding or drought. Until recently, it was held that the Aryans (an Indo-European culture whose name comes from the Sanskrit for “noble”)  invaded India and Iran at this time. According to this hypothesis, both the Sanskrit language and the Vedic religion foundational to Hinduism is attributable to the Aryans and their descendants. The original inhabitants of the Indus Valley are thought to have had a Dravidian language and culture, which became subordinate to that of the invading peoples.
Proponents of this hypothesis point to similarities between Zoroastrianism (the ancient religion of Iran) and the Vedic religion of ancient India, as well as similar finds in ancient cemeteries in modern-day India and Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In addition, no trace of horses or chariots have been found in the remains of the Indus Valley culture, but were central to Aryan military and ritual life.
Since the 1980s, this “Aryan Invasion” hypothesis has been strongly challenged as a myth propagated by colonial scholars who sought to reinforce the idea that anything valuable in India must have come from elsewhere. Critics of the hypothesis note that there is lack of evidence of any conquest, among other historical and archaeological problems. One alternative hypothesis is explained by Encyclopædia Britannica as follows:
Between about 2000 and 1500 BCE not an invasion but a continuing spread of Indo-Aryan speakers occurred, carrying them much farther into India, to the east and south, and coinciding with a growing cultural interaction between the native population and the new arrivals. From these processes a new cultural synthesis emerged, giving rise by the end of the 2nd millennium to the conscious expressions of Aryan ethnicity found in the Rigveda, particularly in the later hymns. The 19th-century Aryan Invasion theory has generally been abandoned as inaccurate, but most scholars do not reject the notion of some outside influence on the Indus Valley civilization. For many, it is a political issue as well as a historical one, with the original theory is regarded as racist and offensive. BBC Religion & Ethics summarizes the matter this way:
Many people argue that there is now evidence to show that Muller [original proponent of the hypothesis], and those who followed him, were wrong. Others, however, believe that the case against the Aryan invasion theory is far from conclusive. Resources:
- – “History of Hinduism.” Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004).
- – “Indian Religions and the Hindu Tradition” The Cambridge Illustrated History of Religions (Cambridge University Press, 2002).
- – “Aryan.” Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2009).
- – “India » History » India from the Paleolithic Period to the decline of the Indus civilization » Post-Harappan developments » The appearance of Indo-Aryan speakers.” Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2009).
- – “Hinduism: History: Aryan Invasion Theory” – BBC Religion & Ethics
External Links – Indus Valley Civilization – Wikipedia
– Indo-Aryan migration – Wikipedia
– The Myth of the Aryan Invasion of India by David Frawley, hosted at Hindunet.org
Main Point of Reference:
Hinduism for Beginners
If you’re new to this faith, here’s where to begin. In this simple introduction to a complex religion, get your basic questions on Hinduism answered and explained in brief.
What is Hinduism?
Hinduism is the world’s oldest extant religion, with a billion followers, which makes it the world’s third largest religion. Hinduism is a conglomeration of religious, philosophical, and cultural ideas and practices that originated in India, characterized by the belief in reincarnation, one absolute being of multiple manifestations, the law of cause and effect, following the path of righteousness, and the desire for liberation from the cycle of births and deaths.
How is Hinduism unique from other religions?
Hinduism cannot be neatly slotted into any particular belief system. Unlike other religions, Hinduism is a way of life, a Dharma, that is, the law that governs all action. It has its own beliefs, traditions, advanced system of ethics, meaningful rituals, philosophy and theology.
The religious tradition of Hinduism is solely responsible for the creation of such original concepts and practices as Yoga, Ayurveda, Vastu, Jyotish, Yajna, Puja, Tantra, Vedanta, Karma, etc.
How and when did Hinduism originate?
Hinduism has its origins in such remote past that it cannot be traced to any one individual. Some scholars believe that Hinduism must have existed even in circa 10000 B.C. and that the earliest of the Hindu scriptures – The Rig Veda – was composed well before 6500 B.C. The word “Hinduism” is not to be found anywhere in the scriptures, and the term “Hindu” was introduced by foreigners who referred to people living across the River Indus or Sindhu, in the north of India, around which the Vedic religion is believed to have originated.
What are the basic tenets of Hinduism?
There is no “one Hinduism”, and so it lacks any unified system of beliefs and ideas. Hinduism is a conglomerate of diverse beliefs and traditions, in which the prominent themes include:
- Dharma (ethics and duties)
- Samsara (rebirth)
- Karma (right action)
- Moksha (liberation from the cycle of Samsara)
It also believes in truth, honesty, non-violence, celibacy, cleanliness, contentment, prayers, austerity, perseverance, penance, and pious company.
What are the key Hindu scriptures?
The basic scriptures of Hinduism, which is collectively referred to as “Shastras”, are essentially a collection of spiritual laws discovered by different saints and sages at different points in its long history. The Two types of sacred writings comprise the Hindu scriptures: “Shruti” (heard) and “Smriti” (memorized). They were passed on from generation to generation orally for centuries before they were written down mostly in the Sanskrit language. The major and most popular Hindu texts include the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata.
What are the major Hindu deities?
Hinduism believes that there is only one supreme Absolute called “Brahman”. However, it does not advocate the worship of any one particular deity. The gods and goddesses of Hinduism amount to thousands or even millions, all representing the many aspects of Brahman. Therefore, this faith is characterized by the multiplicity of deities. The most fundamental of Hindu deities is the Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva – creator, preserver and destroyer respectively. Hindus also worship spirits, trees, animals and even planets.
Who is a Hindu and how to become one?
A Hindu is an individual who accepts and lives by the religious guidance of the Vedic scriptures. While the teachings of the Hindu tradition do not require that you have a religious affiliation to Hinduism in order to receive its inner teachings, it can be very helpful to formally become a Hindu because it provides one a formal connection to the “world’s oldest continually existing enlightenment tradition.”
Top Hindu Deities
Hindus have a multitude of gods and goddesses that symbolize the one abstract Supreme Being or Brahman. The most fundamental of Hindu deities are the Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. But many other gods such as Ganesha, Krishna, Rama, Hanuman, and goddesses like Lakshmi, Durga, Kali and Saraswati top the popularity chart with Hindus across the world.
Easily recognizable as the elephant-deity riding a mouse, Ganesha is arguably he most popular Hindu God, and one of the commonest mnemonics for anything associated with Hinduism. The son of Shiva and Parvati, Ganesha is depicted has having a curved trunk and big ears, and a huge pot-bellied body of a human being. He is the lord of success and destroyer of evils and obstacles. He is also worshipped as the god of knowledge, wisdom and wealth.
The most powerful and fascinating deity in Hinduism, who represents death and dissolution. One of the godheads in the Hindu Trinity, and known by many names – Mahadeva, Pashupati, Nataraja, Vishwanath, Bhole Nath – Shiva is perhaps the most complex of Hindu deities. Hindus recognise this by putting his shrine in the temple separate from those of other deities and worshipping Shiva as a phallic symbol called the ‘Shiva Limgam’ in most temples.
The great exponent of the Gita, Krishna is the ninth and the most complete avatar of Vishnu, the Godhead of the Hindu Trinity. Of all avatars he is the most popular and perhaps the one closest to the heart of the masses. This blue-skinned deity has influenced the Indian thought, life and culture in myriad ways – not only its religion and philosophy, but also into its mysticism and literature, painting and sculpture, dance and music, and all aspects of Indian folklore.
Rama, the perfect avatar of the Supreme Protector Vishnu, is an all-time favorite among Hindu deities. The most popular symbol of chivalry and virtue, Rama is “the embodiment of truth, of morality, the ideal son, the ideal husband, and above all, the ideal king.” He is widely believed to be an actual historical figure – a “tribal hero of ancient India” – whose exploits form the great Hindu epic of Ramayana or The Romance of Rama.
Hanuman, the mighty ape that aided Lord Rama in his expedition against evil forces, described in the epic Ramayana, is one of the most popular idols in the Hindu pantheon. Believed to be an avatar of Lord Shiva, Hanuman is worshipped as a symbol of physical strength, perseverance and devotion. In times of trouble, it is a common faith among Hindus to chant the name of Hanuman or sing his hymn – “Hanuman Chalisa”. Hanuman temples are among the most common public shrines found in India.
The peace-loving deity of the Hindu Trinity, Vishnu is the Preserver or Sustainer of life with his steadfast principles of order, righteousness and truth. When these values are under threat, Vishnu emerges out of his transcendence to restore peace and order on earth. Vishnu’s earthly incarnations have 10 major avatars. The devout followers of Vishnu are called Vaishnavas, and his consort is Lakshmi. Vishnu is popularly worshipped as Lord Venkateshwara in the southern India.
Goddess Lakshmi means “Good Luck” to Hindus. The word ‘Lakshmi’ is derived from the Sanskrit word Laksya, meaning ‘aim’ or ‘goal’, and she is the goddess of wealth and prosperity, both material and spiritual. She is the household goddess of most Hindu families, and a favorite of women. Lakshmi is depicted as a beautiful woman of golden complexion, with four hands, sitting or standing on a full-bloomed lotus and holding a lotus bud, which stands for beauty, purity and fertility.
The Mother Goddess — known variously as Durga, Bhavani, Sherawali, Amba, Chandika, Gauri, Parvati, Vaishno Devi — represents the fiery powers of the gods. The name “Durga” means “inaccessible”, and she is the personification of the active side of the divine “shakti” energy of Lord Shiva. Durga is usually portrayed as riding a lion, and carrying weapons in her many arms. She is the protector of the righteous, and destroyer of the evil.
Kali, or the dark goddess, is the fearful and ferocious form of the mother goddess Durga. She is depicted as having born from the brow of Goddess Durga during one of her battles with the evil forces. Kali is represented with perhaps the fiercest features amongst all the world’s deities. Her tongue protrudes from her mouth, her eyes are red, and her face and breasts are sullied with blood. She stands with one foot on the thigh, and another on the chest of her husband, Shiva.
Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and learning, represents the free flow of wisdom and consciousness. She is the mother of the Vedas, and chants to her, called the ‘Saraswati Vandana’ often begin and end Vedic lessons. The goddess of wisdom, art and music, she is the daughter of Lord Shiva and Goddess Durga. It is believed that goddess Saraswati endows human beings with the powers of speech, wisdom and learning.