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Hinduism (सनातन धर्म; Sanātana Dharma, roughly Perennial Faith) is generally considered to be the oldest major world religion still practised today and first among Dharma faiths. Hinduism is characterized by a diverse array of belief systems, practices and scriptures. It has its origin in ancient Vedic culture at least as far back as 2000 CE. It is the third largest religion with approximately 1.05 billion followers worldwide, 96% of whom live in the Indian subcontinent.
- Sanskrit: एकम् सत् विप्रा: बहुधा वदन्ति
- Transliteration: Ekam Sat Viprāha Bahudhā Vadanti
- English: "Truth is One, though the Sages know it as Many."
- — The Rig Veda (Book I, Hymn CLXIV, Verse 46)
Essentially, any kind of spiritual practice followed with faith, love and persistence will lead to the same ultimate state of self-realization. Thus, Hindu thought distinguishes itself by strongly encouraging tolerance for different beliefs since temporal systems cannot claim sole understanding of the one transcendental Truth.
To the Hindu, this idea has been an active force in defining the 'Eternal Dharma.' It has been for Hinduism what the infinite Divine Self of Advaita is to existence, remaining forever unchanged and self-luminous, central and pervasive, in spite of all the chaos and flux around it.
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Hinduism: a brief overview
Hinduism rests on the spiritual bedrock of the Vedas, hence Veda Dharma, and their mystic issue, the Upanishads, as well as the teachings of many great Hindu gurus through the ages. Many streams of thought flow from the six Vedic/Hindu schools, Bhakti sects and Tantra Agamic schools into the one ocean of Hinduism, the first of the Dharma religions. See Schools of Hinduism.
The Eternal Way
"The Eternal Way" (in Sanskrit सनातन धर्म, Sanātana Dharma), or the "Perennial Philosophy/Harmony/Faith", is the one name that has represented Hinduism for many thousands of years. According to Hindus, it speaks to the idea that certain spiritual principles hold eternally true, transcending man-made constructs, representing a pure science of consciousness. But this consciousness is not merely that of the body or mind and intellect, but of a supramental soul-state that exists within and beyond our existence, the unsullied Self of all. Religion to the Hindu is the native search for the divine within the Self, the search to find the One truth that in actuality never was lost. Truth sought with faith shall yield itself in blissful luminescence no matter the race or creed professed. Indeed, all existence, from vegetation and beasts to mankind, are subjects and objects of the eternal Dharma. This inherent faith, therefore, is also known as Arya/Noble Dharma, Veda/Knowledge Dharma, Yoga/Union Dharma, Hindu Dharma or, simply, the Dharma.
What can be said to be common to all Hindus is belief in Dharma, reincarnation, karma, and moksha (liberation) of every soul through a variety of moral, action-based, and meditative yogas. Still more fundamental principles include ahimsa (non-violence), the primacy of the Guru, the Divine Word of Aum and the power of mantras, love of Truth in many manifestations as Gods and Goddessess, and an understanding that the essential spark of the Divine (Atman/Brahman) is in every human and living being, thus allowing for many spiritual paths leading to the One Unitary Truth.
An example of the pervasiveness of this paramount truth-seeking spirituality in daily life is the bindi (seen left), which is a common marker for Hindu women. It symbolizes the need to cultivate supramental consciousness, which is achieved by opening the mystic "third eye." Hindus across the board stress meditative insight, an intuition beyond the mind and body, a trait that is often associated with the ascetic god Shiva. Men, too, will bear on their foreheads the equivalent tilak mark, usually on religious occasions, its shape often representing particular devotion to a certain main deity: a 'U' shape stands for Vishnu, a group of three lines for Shiva. It is not uncommon for some to meld both in an amalgam marker signifying Hari-Hara (Vishnu-Shiva indissoluble).
Hinduism is practiced through a variety of Yogas (spiritual practices), primarily bhakti (loving devotion), Karma Yoga (selfless service), Raja Yoga (meditational Yoga) and Jnana Yoga (Yoga of discrimination). These are described in the two principal texts of Hindu Yoga: The Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras. The Upanishads are also very important as a philosophical foundation for this rational spiritualism.
The four goals of life
Another major aspect of Hindu dharma that is common to practically all Hindus is that of purushartha, the "four goals of life". They are kama, artha, dharma and moksha. It is said that all humans seek kama (pleasure, physical or emotional) and artha (power, fame and wealth), but soon, with maturity, learn to govern these legitimate desires within a higher, pragmatic framework of dharma, or moral harmony in all. Of course, the only goal that is truly infinite, whose attainment results in absolute happiness, is moksha, or liberation, (a.k.a. Mukti, Samadhi, Nirvana, etc.) from Samsara, the cycle of life, death, and existential duality.
The four stages of life
The human life is also seen as four Ashramas ("phases" or "stages"). They are Brahmacharya, Grihasthya, Vanaprastha and Sanyasa. The first quarter of one's life, brahmacharya (literally "grazing in Brahma") is spent in celibate, sober and pure contemplation of life's secrets under a Guru, building up body and mind for the responsibilities of life. Grihastya is the householder's stage, alternatively known as samsara, in which one marries and satisfies kama and artha within a married life and professional career. Vanaprastha is gradual detachment from the material world, ostensibly giving over duties to one's sons and daughters, spending more time in contemplation of the truth, and making holy pilgrimages. Finally, in sanyasa, the individual goes off into seclusion, often envisioned as the forest, to find God through Yogic meditation and peacefully shed the body for the next life.
Views of God
Within Sanatana Dharma, or Hinduism (as it is commonly called), a variety of lesser gods are seen as aspects of the one impersonal divine ground, Brahman (not Brahma). Brahman is the ultimate, both transcendent and immanent the absolute infinite existence, the sum total of all that ever is, was, or ever shall be. Brahman is not a God in the monotheistic since, as it is not imbued with any limiting characteristics, not even those of being and non-being, and this is reflected in the fact that in Sanskrit, the word brahman is of neuter (as opposed to masculine or feminine) gender.
Vedanta is a branch of Hindu philosophy which gives this matter a greater focus. Yoga is the primary focus in many ways of a Hindu's religious activities, being somewhere between meditation, prayer and healthful exercise.
Some of Hinduism's adherents are monists, seeing in multiple manifestations of the one God or source of being, which is often confused by non-Hindus as being polytheism. It is seen as one unity, with the lesser gods aspects of the one, like a single beam of light separated into colours by a prism, and seen by some as valid to worship. Some of the Hindu gods and goddesses include Devi, Vishnu, Ganesh, and Siva. Many even believe they may be able to bring worshippers closer to Moksha, end of the cycle of rebirth.
Some sects of Hinduism believe in a monotheistic ideal of Vishnu (often as Krishna), Shiva, or Devi; this view does not exclude other gods, as they are understood to be aspects of the chosen ideal (e.g. to many devotees of Krishna, Shiva is seen as having sprung from Krishna's creative force). Often, the monad Brahman is seen as the one source, with all other gods emanating therefrom. Thus, with all Hindus, there is a strong belief in all paths being true religions that lead to one God or source, whatever one chooses to call the ultimate truth.
Origins, nomenclature and society
Historical origins and aspects of society
Relatively little is known about the origins of Hinduism, as it predates recorded history. It has been said to derive from beliefs of the Aryans, ('noble' followers of the Vedas), Dravidians, and Harappans living in the Indian subcontinent. Hinduism subsequently birthed Buddhism and Jainism, which in turn affected the development of their mother religion. Varying ideas of the origin of the Veda and understandings of whether or not the Aryans were native or foreign to Indian soil can change estimates of Hinduism's age from 4000 to 6000 years. See Early Hinduism and Aryan Invasion Theory.
Historically, the word Hindu predates the reference to Hinduism as a religion; the term is of Persian origin and first referred to people who lived on the other side (from a Persian point of view) of the Sindhu or Indus river. It was used as a signifier not only of ethnicity but of Vedic religion as far back as the 15th and 16th centuries by such figures as Guru Nanak (the founder of Sikhism). During the British Raj, the term's use was made standard, and eventually, the religion of the Vedic Hindoos was given the appelation 'Hinduism.' In actuality, it was merely a new signifier for a culture that had been thriving for millennia before. See the Hindu (ethnicity) page for more discussion.
The Yoga system is generally considered to have arisen from the Samkhya philosophy. The yoga referred to here, however, is specifically Raja Yoga (or meditational union). It is based on the sage Patanjali's extremely influential text entitled the Yoga Sutra, which is essentially a compilation and systematization of meditational Yoga philosophy that came before. Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita are also indispensable literature in the study of Yoga.
The most significant difference from Samkhya is that the Yoga school not only incorporates the concept of Ishvara (a personal God) into its metaphysical worldview but also that it holds Ishvara as the ideal upon which to meditate. This is because Ishvara is the only aspect of purusha (the infinite Divine Ground) that has not become entangled with prakrti (the temporal creative forces). It also utilizes the Brahman/Atman terminology and concepts that are found in depth in the Upanishads, adopting Vedantic monist concepts. Realization of the goal of Yoga is known as moksha or samadhi. It, like the Upanishads, seeks realization of the Atman as being nothing other than the infinite Brahman through ethical (mind), physical (body) and meditational (soul) practices of one-pointedness on the 'one supreme truth.' See Yoga for an in-depth look at its history.
Uttara Mimamsa: The Three Schools of Vedanta
The Uttara ("later") Mimamsa school is perhaps one of the cornerstone movements of Hinduism and certainly was responsible for a new wave of philosophical and meditative inquiry, renewal of faith, and cultural reform. Primarily associated with the Upanishads and their commentary by Badarayana, the Vedanta Sutras, Vedanta thought split into three groups, initiated by the thinking and writing of Adi Sankara. Most Hindu thought today in some way relates to changes affected by Vedantic thought, which focused on meditation, morality and centeredness on the one Self rather than on rituals and meaningless societal distinctions like caste. See Vedanta for greater depth.
Pure Monism: Advaita Vedanta
Advaita literally means "not two"; thus this is what we refer to as a monistic (or non-dualistic) system, which emphasises oneness. Its consolidator was Sankara (788?-820?). Sankara expounded his theories largely based on previous teachings of the Upanishads and his own guru Govinda Bhagavadpada. By analysis of experiential consciousness, he exposed the relative nature of the world and established the non-dual reality of Brahman in which Atman (the individual soul) and Brahman (the ultimate reality) are identified absolutely. It is not merely philosophy, but a conscious system of applied ethics and meditation, all geared towards attaining peace and understanding of truth. Adi Sankara denounced caste and meaningless ritual as foolish, and in his own charismatic manner, exhorted the true devotee to meditate on God's love and apprehend truth. See Advaita for more.
Qualified Monism: Vishistadvaita Vedanta
Ramanuja (1040 - 1137) was the foremost proponent of the concept of Sriman Narayana as the supreme Brahman. He taught that Ultimate reality had three aspects: Isvara (Vishnu), cit (soul) and acit (matter). Vishnu is the only independent reality, 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.
Dualism: Dvaita Vedanta
Like Ramanuja, Madhva (1199 - 1278) identified god with Vishnu, but his view of reality was purely dualistic in that he understood a fundamental differentiation between the ultimate godhead and the individual soul, and the system is therefore called Dvaita (dualistic) Vedanta.
Alternative cultures of worship
The Bhakti schools
The Bhakti (Devotional) school is takes its name from the Hindu term that signifies a blissful, selfless and overwhelming love of God as the beloved Father, Mother, Child, or whatever relationship finds appeal in the devotee's heart. The philosophy of Bhakti seeks to tap into the universal divinity through personal form, which explains the proliferation of so many Gods and Goddesses in India, often reflecting the singular inclinations of small regions or groups of people. Seen as a form of Yoga, or union, it seeks to dissolve the ego in God, since consciousness of the body and limited mind as self is seen to be a divisive factor in spiritual realization. Essentially, it is God who effects all change, who is the source of all works, who acts through the devotee as love and light. 'Sins' and evil-doings of the devotee are said to fall away of their own accord, the devotee shriven, limitedness even transcended, through the love of God. The Bhakti movements rejuvenated Hinduism through their intense expression of faith and their responsiveness to the emotional and philosophical needs of India. They can rightly be said to have affected the greatest wave of change in Hindu prayer and ritual since ancient times.
The most popular means of expressing love for God in the Hindu tradition has been through puja, or ritual devotion, frequently using the aid of a murti (statue) in conjunction with the singing or chanting of meditational prayer in the form of mantras. Devotional songs called bhajans (written primarily from the 14th-17th centuries), kirtan (praise), and arti (a filtered down form of Vedic fire ritual) are sometimes sung in conjunction with performance of puja. This rather organic system of devotion attempts to aid the individual in connecting with God through symbolic medium. It is said, however, that the bhakta, through a growing connection with God, is eventually able to eschew all external form and is immersed entirely in the bliss of undifferentiated Love in Truth.
Altogether, bhakti resulted in a mass of devotional literature, music and art that has enriched the world and gave India renewed spiritual impetus, one eschewing unnecessary ritual and artificial social boundaries. See bhakti yoga for more.
According to the most famous Western Tantrik scholar, Sir John Woodroffe (pseudonym Arthur Avalon): "The Indian Tantras, which are numerous, constitute the Scripture (Shastra) of the Kaliyuga, and as such are the voluminous source of present and practical orthodox 'Hinduism'. The Tantra Shastra is, in fact, and whatever be its historical origin, a development of the Vaidika Karmakanda, promulgated to meet the needs of that age. Shiva says: 'For the benefit of men of the Kali age, men bereft of energy and dependent for existence on the food they eat, the Kaula doctrine, O auspicious one! is given' (Chap. IX., verse 12). To the Tantra we must therefore look if we would understand aright both ritual, yoga, and sadhana of all kinds, as also the general principles of which these practices are but the objective expression." (Introduction to Sir John Woodroffe's translation of "Mahanirvana Tantra.")
The word "tantra" means "treatise" or "continuum", and is applied to a variety of mystical, occult, medical and scientific works as well as to those which we would now regard as "tantric". Most tantras were written in the late middle ages and sprang from Hindu cosmology and Yoga. See Tantra for more.
Important symbolism and themes in Hinduism
Ahimsa and the cow
A note of the element of ahimsa in Hinduism is vital to understanding the society that has arisen around some of its principles. While Jainism as it was practiced was certainly a major influence on Indian society, what with its exhortation of strict veganism and non-violence as ahimsa, the term first appeared in the Upanishads. Thus, an ingrained and externally motivated influence led to the development of a large section of Hindus who grew to embrace vegetarianism in a bid to respect higher forms of life, restricting their diet to plants and vegetables. About 30% of today's Hindu population, especially in orthodox communities in South India, in certain northerly states like Gujurat, and in many Brahmin enclaves around the subcontinent, is vegetarian. Thus, while vegetarianism is not dogma, it is recommended as a sattwic (purifying) lifestyle.
Those Hindus who do eat meat predominantly abstain from beef, some even going so far as to avoid leather products. This is most likely because the largely pastoral Vedic people and subsequent generations of Hindus throughout the centuries relied so heavily on the cow for all sorts of dairy products, tilling of fields and fuel for fertiliser that its status as a willing 'caretaker' of humanity grew to identifying it as an almost maternal figure. Thus, while most Hindus do not worship the cow, and scriptural injunctions against eating beef arose long after the Vedas had been written, it still holds an honored place in Hindu society. It is said that Krishna is both Govinda (herder of cows) and Gopala (protector of cows), and Shiva's attendant is Nandi, the bull. With the stress on vegetarianism (which is usually followed even by meat-eating Hindus on religious days or special occasions) and the sacred nature of the cow, it is no wonder that most holy cities and areas in India have a ban on selling meat-products and there is a movement among Hindus to ban cow-slaughter not only in specific regions, but in all of India.
Forms of worship: murtis and mantras
Contrary to popular belief, practiced Hinduism is neither polytheistic nor strictly monotheistic. The various gods and avatars that are worshipped by Hindus are understood as different forms of One truth, sometimes seen as beyond a mere God and as a formless Divine Ground (Brahman), akin but not limited to monism, or as one monotheistic principle like Vishnu or Shiva.
Whether believing in the One source as formless (nirguna brahman, without attributes) or as a personal God (saguna Brahman, with attributes), Hindus understand that the one truth may be seen as different to different people. Hinduism encourages devotees to describe and develop a personal relationship with their chosen deity (ishta devata) in the form of a God or Goddess.
While some censuses hold worshippers of one form or another of Vishnu (known as Vaishnavs) to be at 80% and those of Shiva (called Shaivaites) and Shakti at the remaining 20%, such figures are perhaps misleading. The vast majority of Hindus worship many gods as varicolored forms of the same prism of Truth. Among the most popular are Vishnu (as Krishna or Rama), Shiva, Devi (the Mother as many female deities, such as Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kali and Durga), Ganesha, Skanda and Hanuman.
Worship of the said deities is often done through the aid of pictures or icons (murti) which are said not to be God themselves but conduits for the devotee's consciousness, markers for the human soul that signify the ineffable and illimitable nature of the love and grandeur of God. They are symbols of the greater principle, representing and are never presumed to be the concept or entity itself. Thus, Hindu image worship is a form of iconolatry, in which the symbols are venerated as putative sigils of divinity, as opposed to idolatry, a charge often levied (erroneously) at Hindus. For more details on this form of worship, see murti.
Reciting mantras is a fundamental practice that both originated and now continues in Hinduism. Much of mantra yoga, as it is called, is done through japa (repetition). Mantras are said, through their meaning, sound, and chanting style, to help meditational focus for the sadhaka (practitioner). They can also be used to aid in expression of love for the deity, another facet of Bhakti yoga akin to the understanding of the murti. They often give courage in exigent times and serve to help 'invoke' one's inner spiritual strength. Indeed, Mahatma Gandhi's dying words were a two-word mantra to the Lord Rama: "Hai Ram!" (pronounced Hey Ram).
The most representative of all the Hindu mantras is the famed Gayatri Mantra:
- ॐ भूर्भुवस्व: | तत् सवितूर्वरेण्यम् | भर्गो देवस्य धीमहि | धियो यो न: प्रचोदयात्
- Aum bhūrbhuvasvaH | tat savitūrvareṇyam | bhargo devasya dhīmahi | dhiyo yo naH pracodayāt
(/H/ stands for the voiceless aspirate called 'visarga'.)
A good explanation of this mantra can be found here:  (http://www.indiaoz.com.au/hinduism/prayer/gayatri_mantra.shtml). It is considered one of the most universal of all Hindu mantras, and invokes the universal Brahman as the principle of knowledge and the illumination of the primordial Sun, only in its feminine aspect. Many Hindus till today, in a tradition that has continued unbroken for at least 5,000 years, perform morning ablutions at the bank of a sacred river (especially the Ganga/Ganges). Known as a universal mantra, it is revered as being the most condensed form of Divine Knowledge (Veda). Its presiding principle, Ma (Mother) Gayatri, is also known as Veda Mata (Mother of the Vedas) and is strongly associated with the Goddess of Learning and Illumination, Saraswati.
The chief aim of the Vedic religion is to achieve moksha, or liberation, through constant dedication to Satya (Truth) and eventual realization of the Atman (Universal Soul). Whether this is achieved through meditation or pure love, this universal goal is achievable by all. But it should be noted that Hinduism is a very practical faith, and is embodied in every aspect of life. It believes equally in the temporal as in the infinite, only it encourages perspective. The great rishis (Hindu sages) have termed the samsaric (one who lives in samsara, i.e. the temporal or earthly plane) who succeeds in living an honest, loving and dharmic life a jivanmukta (living free soul). Hinduism's fundamental truth is best expressed in the Upanishadic dictum, Tat Twam Asi (Thou Art That), and the ultimate aspiration as follows:
- Aum Asato ma sad gamaya, tamaso ma jyotir gamaya, mrityor ma aamritaam gamaya
- "Aum Lead me from ignorance to truth, from darkness to light, from death to immortality."
For more details, see Mantra.
Hindu scripture is overwhelmingly written in Sanskrit. Indeed, much of the morphology and linguistic philosophy inherent in the learning of Sanskrit is inextricably linked to study of the Vedas and relevant Hindu texts. Hindu texts are typically seen to revolve around many levels of reading, namely gross/physical, subtle and supramental. This allows for many levels of understanding as well, implying that the truth of the texts can only be realized with the spiritual advancement of the reader. It is divided into two categories: Shruti- that which is heard (i.e. revelation) and Smriti- that which is remembered (i.e. tradition, not revelation).
For a more thorough look at the important texts of Hinduism, see Hindu scripture.
The Vedas are considered scripture by all Hindus. While the overwhelming majority of Hindus may never read the Vedas, the reverence for the more abstract notion of eternal knowledge (Veda means knowledge) is etched deep into the hearts of all those who follow Veda Dharma. Classed with the Vedas (which specifically refer to the Rig/Rg, Yajur, Sama and Atharva Vedas) are their famous commentaries, the Upanishads. While the early Vedas lay the foundation for subsequent Hindu ritual, cosmology and developing philosophy, the Upanishads built the edifice of mystic insight and abhorrence for ritual at the expense of spiritual insight. Forming the core of the Vedanta (End of Vedas), they streamline the excessive litany of praise to Vedic gods and capture the essence of the Rig Vedic dictum "Truth Is One." They set Hindu philosophy apart with its embrace of a single transcendent and yet immanent force that is native to each man's soul, an identification of micro- and macrocosm as One. It can be said that while early Hinduism is most reliant on the four Vedas, Classical Hinduism, from the Yoga and Vedanta to Tantra and Bhakti streams, was molded around the Upanishads.
The Bhagavad Gita occupies a special position in the hearts of most Hindus as a keystone yoga upanishad whose eternal words perhaps are the most representative of all Hindu thought, each shloka 'directly' from the mouth of the Lord Krishna. While technically it is considered Smriti, it has singularly achieved nearly unquestioned status as Shruti, or revealed, and is thus the most definitive single Hindu text, read by millions of bhaktas (devotees) and yogis on a largely daily basis throughout the Sanatana Dharmic world. See Bhagavad Gita to explore this text.
The post-Vedic Hindu scriptures form the latter category, the most notable of which are the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, major epics considered scripture by most followers of Sanatana Dharma, their stories arguably familiar to the vast majoriy of Hindus living in the Indian subcontinent, if not abroad. Other texts considered important by today's Hindus include the Devi Mahatmya, an ode to Devi, the Divine Mother, and the Yoga Sutras, a key meditative yoga text of Shri Patanjali. There are also a number of revered Hindu Tantras and Sutras that command the respect of various Hindu sects of different persuasion, some including the Mahanirvana Tantra, Tirumantiram and Shiva Sutras.
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