Hinduism has long been thought of as the oldest religion in the world, and some refer to it as Sanātana Dharma, or “the eternal way”. It is thought of as transcending time and history by its adherents. Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world and has about 1.15 billion members. It has a presence in many countries today, but the most concentrated areas of Hindu followers are in India, the birthplace of Hinduism, Mauritius and Nepal.
The Hindu religion has a rich history of tradition but no clear founder. It is thought to be a mesh of many Indian traditions that developed between 500 BC and 300 AD. While adherents to the Hindu way of life do not all ascribe to identical philosophies, there are several common ideas present between all of the faithful. All Hindus use the same religious texts, share the same cosmology and go on pilgrimages to the same holy sites. Their religious texts contain information about temple building, mythology, philosophy, ritual and yoga.
Beliefs in Hinduism include rituals, rites of passage, meditation, work/prosperity (artha), passions/desires (kama), the cycle of death and rebirth (saṃsāra), freedom/liberation from this aforementioned cycle (moksha), the right way of living (dharma), the individual soul in each living being (atman), action, honesty, intent and consequences (karma) and puja (worship).
Dharma and Moksha are frequently thought of as the two key concepts in Hinduism. Fulfillment of one’s destiny is important in the faith. Renouncing society and refining and preserving the world is a way this can be accomplished. Moksha is liberation from the restrictions of this temporal existence. The demand these two create can cause tension within the human existence. The idea that humans are simply social animals with physical needs that are essentially tied to other humans seems to be at odds with the spiritual person who desires release from the temporal world and solitude that is found within each of us. Dharma is typically associated with the physical human and moksha with the spiritual.
The centrality of Dharma within the Hindu faith is underlined by its mythology and Vishnu, the universal king within Hinduism. His main purpose is to sustain and create the world and the things within it. Vishnu restores cosmic balance by fighting off demons and preserving the Earth. The deities Shiva, the destroyer, and Parvati, his wife, also fight off demons to preserve cosmic balance. Through puja given by Hindus, the gods are sustained and assisted in fighting off these demons.
Dharma has served as the basis for the caste system found within the subcontinent of India. Dharma supports a tradition that divides all people into a hierarchy and perpetuates the idea that this hierarchy is the only way to accomplish a balanced and civilized society. Castes are usually divided based on the occupation of those belonging to the caste.
Society is held together by the members of each caste dutifully fulfilling their obligations of their occupation, whether it be a person involved in business, farming or construction, so that the society remains functional. The caste system believes that the hierarchical order of people is intrinsic to proper human relationships. A person’s place in this system is determined at birth. Having an occupation that is considered dirty, such as a garbage collector or barber, would mean that person is at the bottom of the hierarchy. Despite this, every level of the caste system is believed to be absolutely necessary for society as a whole.
Many believe that karma plays a role in what caste system a person will be in, since karma is a system of cause and effect. They believe that someone must have lived a bad previous life since they were reborn into the lowest level of the hierarchy. The future can be certain if we mind our actions in the present. Vedic literature, religious texts written in India that are part of the Hindu faith, emphasizes the importance of finding a unity between both dharma and moksha. Happiness and order can only exist when these two things are balanced with one another. The Law Books in Hinduism say that rulers must execute proper punishment to maintain order within the world. Without this, the weak are destroyed by the strong and social order ceases to exist.
While dharma is one’s eternal destiny, moksha is the release from the confines of this world. Society and the world we live in are both illusions. Time in Western civilization is seen as linear, having both a beginning and an end. Time in the Hindu religion, on the other hand, is seen as cyclical. There is no beginning or end, and time is a repetitive cycle that never ends. The world operates in cycles of varying lengths. The individual is unimportant, as there are billions just like us. There are many worlds, not just the planet we call home.
All worlds, including our own, go through four time periods after their initial creation until their destruction. These periods are known as yugas, and each one is a different length of time. The first yuga is known as the krita yuga, which lasts 1,728,000 years. The next is called the treta yuga, which is 1,296,000 years in length, the third is called the dvapara yuga with a length of 864,000 years, and the last is called the kali yuga, which last 432,000 years. The reason the cycles get progressively shorter is that more and more immorality is present on the earth as time passes. The cycle of the four yugas is known as a great age, or mahayuga. The time of all four of these yugas added together equals 4,320,000 years, and ten of these together equals 4,320,000,000 years. The last number represents the amount of time within one day to Brahma, the god of creation. One of these days is called a kalpa. At the end of each mahayuga, the world is dissolved and remains nonexistent for the length of one mahayuga in which there is a state of rest. In one of these cycles, the world is created and destroyed a total of 1,000 times.
This cycle of time is determined by the life cycle of Brahma. Brahma lives for one hundred Brahma years (311,040,000,000,000 human years) and then all things, including Brahma himself, cease to exist. After an additional Brahma century, the world is recreated and begins anew. This cycle is unceasing.
With such massive amounts of time elapsing and the short lifespan of each human, it is easy to feel insignificant when viewing existence in this way, especially since it is a cycle that never ends. This life may even seem pointless, since because of samsāra and karma, we are continuously reincarnated into different bodies, playing different roles in endless lives.
It is not only humans, however, who are destined to forever be recycled into different existences. Even the gods, with the exception of Shiva, Vishnu and the Great Goddess, are continuously reborn. This is because the other deities are believed to be righteous humans who attained deification. Since they are ultimately exalted humans, they too are destined to fall at some point and re-enter the human cycle of reincarnation.
While many Hindus do not focus on the concept of a heaven and hell, they do exist to some extent. Whenever a world exists, so do heaven and hell. These are not the same as they are in Western religions, however. They are different in that they can eventually be escaped. They are places where karma eventually wears off so the person can re-enter the cycle of reincarnation.
Moksha is the ultimate release from this cycle. It is the goal of practicing Hinduism so that we can be free from suffering and ignorance. It is an impersonal and indescribably happy existence, though the person who attains it is anonymous and unaware of their identity. Many Hindus believe that it is most easy to attain moksha by living a monastic life.
Monastic life has an important part to play in Hinduism. Some Hindus abandon their material possessions, family and friends and decide to practice monasticism, or sannyasa, for the rest of their lives. Living a monastic life in Hinduism is fairly similar to monastic life in other religions, such as Christianity. Hindus who choose sannyasa will remain celibate and detached from the world and worldly possessions. They must never have any contact with or thoughts about women. Some will live in monasteries, while others will travel and trust the gods to provide for their needs. Those who choose monastic life are known as sadhus. It is considered honorable for Hindus to provide sadhus with resources, such as food. Sadhus are required to hold no prejudice against different groups and to treat all social groups with kindness. They should remain unfazed in the event that they are criticized, complimented, injured or happy.
The only items that sadhus are permitted to own are two outfits to wear and a bowl and cup. They must never even imagine having wealth, let alone touch valuable items. They must also refrain from personal relationships with others.
Many believe that Hinduism is solely polytheistic, but things are not quite that simple. Hinduism, while it does have a pantheon of over 3330 million deities, believes that all of these deities are different manifestations of one supreme being, Brahman. The belief in only one deity would technically make the religion monotheistic. The deities are just different aspects or representations of the one supreme god. While worship may be directed towards an individual deity, this deity itself is part of the supreme being. The atman, or soul, of every living creature is also part of Brahman.
Others say that Hinduism is pantheistic, since there are many deities and Hindus believe that god is the world and the world is god. God is in everything and is totally inseparable from the universe. Since a sound argument can be made for placing Hinduism in either of these categories, it is hard to come to a definitive answer as to what the theistic nature of the faith truly is.
Hinduism has a type of holy trinity, called the triumvirate, or trimurti, which is comprised of Brahma, the first god who created both the universe and all the creatures within it, Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, and Shiva, who destroys the universe so that it can be re-created.
While Brahma was the first god, he is rarely the subject of devotion today. Hindu mythology provides a few explanations as to why this is so. The first explanation is that Brahma’s role in creation is over. Since he no longer creates, he is no longer deserving of puja.
Another explanation says that Brahma, at the beginning of time as we know it, created a woman to assist him in creation. Her name was Shatarupa, and Brahma could never keep his eyes off of her. He was completely overtaken with his desire for her, which embarrassed her and caused her to try to hide from him. Wherever she would move, Brahma would sprout another head so that his gaze could follow her. He did this until he had five separate heads.
Shiva, the destroyer, reprimanded Brahma for his obsession with Shatarupa and cut off his fifth head. Shiva cursed Brahma which caused people to cease worshiping him. Hinduism also teaches that all of our animal species today exist because Shatarupa would change her form to that of different animals to try to hide from Brahma, and he would then change his form to the male image of whatever creature she became, leading to reproduction within animal species.
Hinduism says that Brahma is constantly reciting the four Vedas, of which Shiva is the protector, with each of his four heads as a form of repentance. The four Vedas can be found within Hindu Vedic literature.
The four major denominations of Hinduism are Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism and Smartism. While all of these denominations recognize each other’s respective gods, the denominations differ in that they each view a different god as being supreme.
Hindus who believe in Shaivism worship Shiva as the supreme god. Shiva is the creator and destroyer of worlds and one of the most important gods in the Hindu pantheon. He can represent not only destruction, but also benevolence and goodness. He is considered to serve as a protector, though he is also the leader of evil creatures such as vampires, ghosts, villains, beggars and thieves. He also controls time. Every 2,160,000,000 years, Shiva destroys the universe and then allows creation to begin again.
Shiva abstains from all forms of pleasure and indulgence, choosing instead to focus on meditation. He has a wife named Parvati with whom he had a son, Ganesha. Ganesha was created from dirt to protect Parvati while Shiva went away to meditate. Shiva once returned to find Ganesha guarding Parvati, and not recognizing him, cut off his head. Once Parvati realized what had happened, that there had been a mistake, Shiva went to find a new head to restore Ganesha, but the nearest was that of an elephant. That is why Ganesha is portrayed with the head of an elephant.
Each denomination has a different path towards an ideal way of life. The path of Shaivism has four stages. These are kriya, yoga, charya and jnana. Through virtuous living, the soul can be refined through karma and reincarnation. Outward devotion displayed at temples, as well as yoga, internal worship and meditation, aid the Shaivist in becoming closer with Shiva. Jnana, or wisdom, is attained when the soul becomes mature.
Vaishnavism, another denomination of Hinduism, believes that Vishnu is the supreme god. Vishnu is worshiped not only as his true form, but also in his other incarnations, such as Krishna and Rama. Vishnu is usually depicted as having four arms and blue skin with a mace in his lower right hand, a lotus in his lower left hand, a conch shell in his upper left hand and a discus in his upper right hand.
While both Vaishnavism and Shaivanism are focused on male deities, there is one denomination that holds a female deity as supreme. Shaktism believes Adi Parashakti to be the supreme being. She is thought to be the source of all creation and of all divinity. While one goddess is worshiped as supreme, many other goddesses are honored as manifestations of the supreme goddess. Some even associate the supreme goddess with Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva. This denomination of Hinduism is believed to share many ideas with Tantric Buddhism, which is found in Tibet and Nepal. Both of these groups view female power as the driving force behind creation and femininity as the origin of the universe.
Smartism developed in the early part in the 8th century AD during the classical period. Adi Shankara was a philosopher from India who unified the different ideas within Hinduism, rejecting sectarianism. His writings profess that the atman, or soul, is one with Brahman. He wrote extensive commentary on the Vedas, and while his ideas were philosophical, he wanted to differentiate them with those of Buddhism. Shankara was a firm believer in the existence of the individual human soul, while Buddhism teaches that there is no soul.
Shankara taught that worship directed towards any of the gods has the exact same purpose, whether it be Vishnu or Shiva, etc. Smartism, in rejecting sectarianism, encourages unity among Hindus. All gods are thought to be equal since Brahman is transcendent and universally present. Since all gods are ultimately a manifestation of Brahman, all worship is being directed towards the same place. Smartism is a unique denomination in that the adherents do not worship only one of the gods as supreme. Instead, one or more of five of the main gods in the Hindu pantheon. These are Shiva, Vishnu, Surya, Shakti and Ganesha. Some Smartists may even choose to worship another god instead of or in addition to these five. An important aspect in worship among all sects are temples.
Hindu temples throughout the world are not all the same. While most temples are built according to the instructions found in Hindu scriptures, this is not always the case, but an ideal temple will always contain a few common characteristics. The first is a central sanctum with a shrine for the main deity honored at the temple, and the second is a section for secondary shrines which honor other deities in the Hindu pantheon. There are also no basements in the ideal Hindu temple and a separate area for social functions. There must also be trained priests to facilitate puja for the members of the temple.
Puja, meaning “adoration” or “worship”, is the main focus of any Hindu temple. The priest conducting the worship first purifies himself and the items that will be used for worship. He uses hand gestures to invoke the deities to become present in the images of them that are set in the shrines. He does this while chanting in Sanskrit. He then rings a bell and chants hymns from the Agamas and Vedas while presenting offerings to the deity such as holy ashes, sandalwood paste, uncooked rice and/or water. Fruits, flowers, milk, saffron, honey, yogurt, citrus juice, rose water or coconut water are also sometimes used.
Those present to participate in puja sit on the floor and sing songs of worship to the deity. The priest then decorates the image of the god being worshiped with the finest clothing and flowers available. He then lights oil lamps, incense and presents the food offerings. It is at this time that bells are loudly rung as the god becomes manifest in the holy image. An oil lamp is then brought out to the congregation to provide blessings for them. In some temples, the offerings are then given away to the congregants. By consuming these offerings, it is thought that the blessings of the deity are absorbed into the human person.
Hinduism is a complex and sometimes confusing faith. It has many layers with different ideas, ways of living and beliefs about humanity. While all aspects of it may not always be understood, it is clear that Hinduism has many important truths to offer all of humanity.