Hinduism is arguably one of the most difficult of the major world religious traditions to accurately define and explain in any concise manner, especially using Western models and modes of understanding. Unlike the Judeo-Christian approach to religion, in which a specific text, a unique prophet or set of prophets, and the teachings attributed to these prophets establish the main parameters of the faith, Hinduism cannot be contained or defined in this way. What has come to be called “Hinduism” has had multiple influences in its origins and evolution, and it has myriad different manifestations. Yet amidst all these differences, there are certain basic concepts, beliefs, and approaches to life that, in one form or another, provide a continuum and a thread to link present to past. These will be discussed herein.
Hinduism, like most of Asian-based traditions, is difficult to understand when viewed and analyzed through Western religious paradigms. Moreover, many of the methodologies for understanding religion in the academic environment today were developed by Europeans using Christian patterns and preconceptions. Thus, while these tools may be valid for dissecting and analyzing those traditions that originated in the Middle East, they are far less valid, and sometimes even distracting, when using them to look at indigenous or Asian traditions.
For many practitioners, Hinduism is not a religion in the Western sense, but more a philosophy, value system, and set of guidelines by which they lead their lives. Hinduism has no founder, no specific doctrine to which all followers must adhere, and no one leader. Membership is not dependent on faith in a specific text or prophet. For the most part, it is not viewed by its adherents as the only way everyone must live. Instead, many Hindus compare the various religious traditions to differing paths up a mountain. Each one follows a different route, but they all eventually end up at the top. This does not mean that Hindus see their tradition as no different than any other. It is that they tend to accept others and their traditions at face value and feel no need to convince them to follow the Hindu path. In fact, more orthodox Hindus feel that one must be born into the tradition.
Like all indigenous religious cultures and traditions, Hinduism arose out of the peoples and cultures of its birthplace, the land of India. Its origins are a topic of great debate and discussion by Hindus and by Western-educated scholars. While the former see the beginnings of the tradition going back thousands and even hundreds of thousands of years, the latter theorize a much more recent origin, perhaps three to four millennia ago. What is generally agreed upon, though, is that there was a thriving civilization in the Indus Valley region (now in Pakistan) prior to the second millennium BCE. Unfortunately, our knowledge of it is limited due to a lack of any historical records. What is apparent is that there, very early in the history of the tradition, was a rich heritage of sacred chants, the earliest of which are the Vedas. These come to be viewed within the orthodox tradition as the supreme source of truth and to this day are revered as the ultimate authority by many. Subsequent to the Vedas, yet a part of them, came the Upanishads. These texts are highly philosophical and address the nature of human existence, its relationship to divinity, and ultimate reality. The Puranas, another class of texts, focus on the origins of the universe, of the devis and devatas (female and males divinities), and of humans. They are the major literary source for Hindus’ understanding of their history and their rich mythological tradition. The two ancient Epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, are integral in the understanding and devotion to the two major forms of the divine in Hinduism, Ram and Krishna, respectively.
By the time Alexander the Great invaded India and the late fourth century BCE, the various elements of the developing religious tradition of India were both rich and diverse. Jainism and Buddhism were coming into form, although more as aspects of a broader tradition than as separate religions. Yet there was a thread of common beliefs and practices that connected most of the diverse streams. These commonalities have continued up to present day. They include a belief in transmigration of the soul, the concept of karma, the importance of nonviolence, the central role of the guru/disciple relationship and of religious practice, and acceptance of religious and philosophical diversity. In the last two millennia, there have been myriad philosophers, teachers, and movements within the tradition, as well as invaders from the West. All these have added to the fabric of what Hinduism is today.
The Theory and Practice of Hinduism
Western religious traditions, especially Christianity and Islam, place a central focus on belief, both in the uniqueness and supremacy of their respective traditions, prophets, and scriptures, which they typically promote as being absolute, unique, and inerrant. In the case of Hinduism, however, there is no one prophet or one sacred text. Instead, there are many of both, and each Hindu is relatively free to pick the text or teacher he or she wishes to follow. With regard to texts, Hindus generally give perfunctory deference to the Vedas, although most actually know little as to their content and have never read any parts of them. Instead, the sacred stories found in the Ramayana (in its various tellings), the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita, and in the multiple Puranas have been the primary written sources that have provided the vast majority of Hindus their understanding of their tradition, its beliefs, and its practices. However, more important than texts as sources of knowledge and practices for Hindus have been local traditions, the teachings of wandering sadhus (commonly translated as “ascetics” or “holy men”) and storytellers, and the words of one’s personal guru, or religious teacher. Thus, the way a Hindu typically understands and practices the religion is much more based on these sources than on any text or doctrine.
As a consequence of the enumerable written sources and the many teachings from wandering sadhus and gurus, Hinduism has a philosophical diversity, eclecticism, and tendency toward tolerance not found in other major religious traditions. Broadly speaking, each individual’s understanding and practice of Hinduism is grounded in his or her guru’s specific interpretation of the tradition, with an emphasis on practice over belief. Orthopraxy is stressed over orthodoxy. Moreover, a central focus of Hinduism is on what one does more than what one believes. It is the various religious practices (collectively known as sadhana) that define the religion for many of its adherents, far more than specific beliefs. For the faithful, to be a Hindu means to live the tradition by doing the practices associated with it. These can involve material things such as what one does or does not eat or wear; it can involve external practices, such as devotional singing and chanting, doing rituals at home or at a temple, or going on a pilgrimage; or it can involve one’s internal practices, such as meditation or prayer. Any or all of these can define what the practice of Hinduism is for its devotees.
Rituals, both personal and collective, make up an important part of the practice of Hinduism. It is not so much that a particular ritual is so important or even that a particular way is important, but what is most important is that one does rituals. This is because, for the most part, rituals are believed to have the power to effectuate an elevated state of religious or spiritual purity and consciousness, and they may grant power as well.
It would be virtually impossible to record all the diverse beliefs and practices found under the name Hinduism. There are hundreds of diverse ethnic and linguistic groups, hundreds of different caste groups, and thousands of different religious denominations and belief systems. While most of these share some common beliefs and practices, each also has its own peculiarities and unique elements. The Vedic and Tantric traditions have been the primary sources for many of the more popular orthodox rituals, especially the agnihotra, or fire ritual, but also various forms of chanting, fasting, and so on. The group of texts known as the Upanishads is the primary repository for many of the more popular Hindu theological and philosophical beliefs. Although there is a wide diversity of views expressed in these texts, they have several concepts in common, such as the unity of the divine, the inseparable connection between the individual soul (atman) and the Supreme Transcendent (Brahman), the importance of truth, wisdom, right action, reincarnation, and so forth. The Epics and Puranas and various devotional texts are important sources for popular beliefs, both mythological and doctrinal. These texts have also given rise to many rituals and practices as well. The following sections will be a discussion of some of the beliefs, rituals, and practices most commonly in found in Hinduism, both in India and in the Hindu Diaspora.
Hinduism is generally called a polytheistic religion by outsiders to the traditions. However, it is more rightly considered panentheistic, a belief in which all existence is subsumed in God, but is also transcended by God at the same time. In short, all is in God, but God is beyond all. Added to this is the belief that God is also omnipotent and omniscient. This being the case, Hindus then see all existence, all knowledge, and all power as, on one level, divine. However, because the totality of this Absolute Divinity is beyond human conception, it takes multiple forms through which it makes itself knowable and available to humans. These forms are known as devis and devatas. Although the terms are usually translated as “goddesses” and “gods,” they should not be confused with these Western theological concepts. A devi is a manifestation of the Absolute’s feminine energy, power, and divinity, formed to fulfill a particular function or serve as an expression of a particular quality. Likewise, a devata is a masculine expression of the Absolute. Therefore, because all the devis and devatas are aspects of the One, Hindus may pray to or worship many different ones simultaneously, while still seeing them all as none other than the expression of the One Absolute. Last, because of the omnipresent view of the divine, all aspects of nature are seen to contain divinity as well, including plants, animals, and rocks.
Most Hindus actually tend to focus on one or several related manifestations in their daily worship. They may actually believe a particular one as the ultimate manifestation of the Absolute, while also acknowledging other manifestations as being divine and praying to them as well. It is also for this reason that Hindus can easily attend religious services of other faiths, such as Christianity or Islam. After all, the divine being worshipped in those religions must either be the One or a manifestation of it. Thus, while Hinduism appears as polytheistic to outsiders, it is not so either in the ultimate Hindu vision, in the complexity of the tradition’s theological views, or in the minds of its practitioners.
Upanishadic philosophy is the primary source for understanding the concept of the Transcendent Absolute, as mentioned above. It is said to be undescribable, unknowable, and imperceptible, and it is the source and reality of all that exists, both visible and invisible. It is called Brahman. It is not only that which becomes manifest as the devis and devatas, but it is also the life force in each living being, called atman. Atman is qualitatively, but not quantitatively, equal to Brahman, the relationship between the two being somewhat like that of drop of ocean to the ocean, separate yet not separate, of the same essence but not the same. One’s true reality is atman, as is the reality of all living beings, and because of the intimate relationship between atman and Brahman, all beings are connected as well. With this belief, then, nonviolence, truth, compassion, and tolerance all follow naturally. The Brahman/atman concept is foundational to much of what is believed and practiced within Hinduism.
There are various approaches to the law of karma. In the Jain tradition, karma is the product of the interaction of soul (jiva), which is the life force in all visible and invisible creation and nonsoul (ajiva), which includes time, space, matter, and inertia. Every action, then, results in the production of karma, of which there are 148 different types. Those types that are particularly bad and lead to suffering and low rebirths include killing, violence, cheating, stealing, lying, and so forth. Other forms of karma can be uplifting, such as nonviolence, compassion, truth telling, charity, and so on. Although the latter help offset the former, the goal is to stop all karmic production in order to be liberated. The Buddhist concept of karma is somewhat similar, except that there is much more of a focus on intention over action. Selfless actions rid one of bad karma but do not necessarily create more karma. Thus, nonattachment is the vehicle to liberation, for which a teacher is important to point the way. It is this concept of karma that for the most part reflects the common Hindu view.
The worst karma in Jain, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions is the consequence of murder and violence. It is believed to weigh down the soul and lead it to rebirth in a hell realm, a realm of evil spirits, as an animal or possibly as a tortured human. The corollary to this, then, is nonviolence (Ahimsa), which elevates the soul, rids it of bad karma, and furthers its progress along the path to liberation.
Both Jains and Hindus believe in a soul and in rebirth (Punarjanam). Just as a student must go through a variety of courses and grades in order to gain the knowledge necessary for graduation, so the soul (atma) must go through a variety of births in order to learn all the lessons necessary for liberation. If a student fails to pass a course, he or she must retake it. In the same way, an individual who fails to learn certain lessons in a particular life must then reexperience them in a subsequent one. Both traditions, along with Buddhism, believe that liberation is an inevitable and ultimate goal, even though they disagree somewhat on what liberation actually is.
The relationship between the teacher and the disciple has been one of the most enduring aspects of Hinduism since its roots in ancient history. Teachers, or gurus, have been the primary vehicle through whom Hindus have learned their religious culture. The purpose of a teacher is to instruct the student on the path to liberation. Ideally, a guru is someone who has already traversed the path and thus knows the way, with all its pitfalls, signs, and curves. Because one’s guru is said to have the ability to guide each disciple on his or her path to the divine, the guru is to be treated with highest respect. More than a scripture, a particular school of thought, a sect, or a doctrine, the teachings of one’s guru are to be followed as truth. The role of the guru has earned such a high degree of importance within Hinduism that devotion to one’s guru has come to be seen as integral with devotion to God. While the orthodox tradition suggests only a Brahmin (a member of the priestly caste) as being qualified to be a guru, the reality is that most village Hindus learn more about the traditions and practices from wandering sadhus, many of whom are not Brahmins. Thus, the Hindu renunciant is a pivotal figure in the perpetuation of the tradition.
There is no single English word with which to translate dharma, no term to describe its complete meaning, which includes belief, moral duty, righteousness, justice, virtue, cosmic law, and harmony. Dharma compels humans to act in a manner in accordance with the virtues just mentioned so that their actions move them in the direction of enlightenment. Thus, it is the vehicle through which liberation is gained. Mahatma Gandhi considered both truth and nonviolence as the highest expressions of dharma. In contemporary times, it is also used in place of the English term religion. The term is used in all the religious traditions that are indigenous to India, including Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. However, in each one it has a slightly different meaning.
The term bhakti is used in reference to several aspects of the Hindu tradition. On one level, it simply means “devotion” or “love” and as such refers both to emotional feelings of love and respect toward a particular form of the divine as well as to any of a number of practices that one might do as a consequence of such feelings. It is the primary focus of the practice of Hinduism today. As mentioned above, because Hindus believe that the Absolute Brahman is unknowable, the focus of devotion and worship is generally on its manifestations. The most common of the many devis and devtas are in the form of male/ female couples, which include Ram and Sita, Krishna and Radha, Shiva and Parvati, Vishnu and Lakshmi. Each couple is seen either as dual expression of the Absolute or as the supreme expressions, depending upon the focus of one’s bhakti. Thus, Hindus can simultaneously express devotion to multiple forms as well as to the One. Since bhakti is fundamental in contemporary Hinduism, Hanuman, usually depicted in the form of a monkey, is one of the most popular divinities. He is an incarnation of Shiva, the servant of Ram, and the highest manifestation of devotion, humility, and selfless service. Devotion to him, then, brings together various manifestations into one. For most Hindus, bhakti defines their practice of their tradition.
Easily, the most controversial aspect of the Hindu tradition is the caste system. It is the ancient social and religious hierarchical stratification of Hindu society that has persisted up to present times. It is defended as a religious expression of one’s progression toward liberation or as a formalized division of labor. It is condemned as systematized oppression and racism.
Devotional Rituals and Practices
It is virtually impossible to list all the different beliefs and practices that are connected with devotional Hinduism. However, there are several that tend to be prevalent in most regions of India and have come to represent the general core of beliefs and practices. One category includes specific ritual practices done either at home or in a temple, such as sacred name chanting (nam jap or nam smaran), devotional singing (kirtan), and image worship (murti puja). Another category includes lifestyle practices, such as vegetarianism, nonviolence, abstinence from intoxicants, and charity.
Rituals found in contemporary Hinduism combine elements of indigenous, Brahmanical, and Tantric aspects and tend to be focused on a particular deity, although devotion to one or more associated deities is generally included. There are various ways to categorize the different types of rituals, such as who is actually performing the ritual, what it involves, what is its purpose, and where it is taking place.
This category of rituals involves those done by any of several types of individuals for the benefit of another. Brahmin priests (or someone recognized by a community to serve as one) are the major ritual officiants. All rites of passage and many periodic rituals are traditionally overseen and performed by priests. In some areas, shamans exist as well and are often called upon to mediate specific types of rituals, especially dealing with sickness, possession, and other instances needing intercession with the spirit world. While most sadhus, or renunciants, do not generally perform mediated rituals, some do, especially for their immediate disciples.
One element often found in mediated rituals, especially those performed by priests, is the fire sacrifice, commonly known as yagya (or yajha), homa, or havan. This practice is one of the earliest known Aryan rituals that has survived up to present day. The central element of the ritual is the fire itself, agni. Originally seen as a mediator between the divine and human worlds, Agni came to be viewed as a deity himself, while the priest now acts more as the mediator. The ritual involves the offering of various combinations of foodstuffs (including black sesame seeds, grains, nuts, dried fruit, clarified butter, and so on) into a sacred fire made of sandalwood, wood from the mango tree, or other woods considered sacred. A havan is generally a smaller fire sacrifice with only one priest in attendance, while a yagya often has more and can have as many as 108. When a yagya is performed, it is usually followed by a bhandara, which involves a feast for those in attendance and/or the poor.
These are rituals done by individuals for their own or their immediate family’s benefit. In most Hindu homes, there is an altar of some sort, where women perform daily rituals. These may be as simple as lighting a candle or piece of incense in conjunction with a small prayer, or they may be elaborate observances, involving the bathing and worship of an image, incense, food offerings, and meditation. At the same time, men, unless they are a priest, shaman, or sadhu, tend to do rituals less often, and then usually only for themselves. Among the various elements one might find in personal rituals are prayer, image worship, name recitation (jap), chanting, scriptural recitation, breath control practices, and meditation.
Chanting and Jap
Traditionally, most Hindu chants have come from Sanskrit sacred texts, as Sanskrit is said to be the language of the gods, thereby possessing great power. Even though only a minuscule number of the population has ever understood the language, this fact has mattered little: The gods understand it, and that is what is important. Chants usually involve invocation of a deity, through praise, supplication, or requesting forgiveness. In more recent times, non-Sanskrit chants have also become an integral part of Hindu practice. Jap refers specifically to either murmured or silent repetition of a particular mantra, sacred name, or collection of sacred names. Nam jap, or name repetition, is one of the most common forms of religious practice for Hindus today.
Prayer and Kirtan
Unlike chants, most prayers are understood by their speakers and are usually in the speaker’s native language. If a prayer happens to be in Sanskrit, the person reciting it likely knows what it generally means, if not its exact translation. Prayers can be and are recited at any time of day, in any situation, as is the case in all religious traditions. They can be internal and personal, or they can be spoken or sung aloud, alone, or with a group of persons. When done with a group, there maybe some sort of musical accompaniment as well. Such activities are called kirtan or bhajan and comprise a major element of the practice of Hinduism.
Yoga is arguably of the earliest religious practices known in the Indian subcontinent. The eight-limbed system has long been primarily practiced by renunciants and has never been commonplace among the lay population. Its traditional purpose is to attune the body and focus the mind to assist on the path to enlightenment. However, in more recent times, yogic practice has become a popular activity in urban areas of the West, primarily for the purpose of keeping physically fit. As a consequence, its popularity in urban India is also increasing.
The taking of a restrictive vow, or vrat, is an important religious undertaking for a Hindu. This can involve any form of sensual-pleasure restriction, and a food restriction fast is the most common. Many Hindus include some sort of dietary vrat on a regular basis, such as vegetarianism, a weekly fast (such as on Tuesdays for Hanuman or Fridays for the goddess), or a several-day fast once a year. The actual type and length of fast is to be self-determined. For renunciants, undertaking vrats is integral to that way of life.
Reading or chanting from sacred texts has increasingly become a popular form of Hindu religious practice, and of all the major religious traditions of the world, none has the diversity of sacred texts as does Hinduism. Starting with the Vedas, the number of texts that have been written and are viewed as sacred, by one group or another, is vast. Although formal deference is generally given to the orthodox texts, the Vedas and Upanishads, the vast majority of Hindus neither read them nor know much about them. Instead, devotional writings are the scriptural focus of Hinduism today. In north India, the primary sacred text is the Ramcharitmanas, a 16th-century telling of the Ramayana story by Tulsidas in a dialect of Hindi. It is regularly read, chanted, memorized, and recited in homes and gatherings thought north India. It was also made into a serialized television program in the early 1990s, and whenever it was being shown, urban India almost came to a standstill. For Krishna devotees, the Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagvata Purana are the most popular texts. In south India, the Periya Puranam both inspires and reflects the devotion to Shiva in the hearts of the populace.
Starting in the 1830s, the British government began shipping thousands of impoverished Hindus to British-owned plantations around the world to work as indentured servants. By the time the practice ended, more than a million Hindus had been sent to Fiji, the Caribbean, Mauritius, and South Africa. In the process, the Hindu Diaspora was born. Although the indentured servants were primarily rural, illiterate, and poor, and missionaries in these lands worked hard to convert them to Christianity, their faith in their Hindu traditions persisted, and today Hinduism is thriving in these lands. Moreover, many Diaspora Hindus have become important spokespersons for international Hinduism. Diaspora Hindus have also migrated to Western Europe, Canada, and the United States, taking with them a form of Hinduism that also reflects the Diasporic experiences and cultures.
The Diaspora religious practices mirror many of the practices in India, especially bhakti, and the Ramcharitmanas is likewise the most popular scripture. Unlike the Hinduism of India, however, there is essentially no caste system in Diaspora Hinduism, since the indentured servants wisely chose to reject the system in their new lands. The consequence is that Diaspora Hindus have also become important figures in the fight to remove the prejudice of the caste system from the practice of Hinduism altogether.
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