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Hinduism, the religion of nearly one billion people mostly of South Asian provenance or descent, is notoriously difficult to define or even to describe with accuracy and comprehensiveness. Like all complex and ancient religious traditions, it is problematic to speak about Hinduism as if it were one monolithic religion rather than merely a label for many different traditions. The conglomeration of religious traditions sheltered under this umbrella incorporates a bewildering array of texts, beliefs, practices, and sectsso disparate a collection that some modern scholars have questioned the legitimacy of artificially unifying them. According to these scholars, one cannot really speak about a single Hinduism but at best only a variety of Hinduisms.

Defining Hinduism

The word Hinduism itself derives from one of the principal rivers of South Asia, the Indus, and was probably first used by the ancient Persians to designate the people and territory of the northwestern portion of the subcontinent. As a name for a religion (at first inclusive of what is now differentiated as Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism), it probably owes its origin to the Muslim invaders of the early part of the second millennium c.e., and as a discrete (but still enormously variegated) Indian religion, Hinduism was the term the British gave in the nineteenth century to all those in India who were neither Muslim nor Christian.

Diversityhistorical, cultural, linguistic, doctrinal, and sectarianis descriptive of all world religions also designated by a unitary label, including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam. Hinduism may be an extreme example, but it is hardly unique in this regard. And as is true in other religions, in Hinduism conceptual unity can be identified within this diversity. Some scholars have identified a set of key concepts or beliefs they regard as distinctively Hindu, including the beliefs in karma and rebirth; the impermanent and fundamentally suffering nature of the world (samsara); and the possibility of liberation from suffering and rebirth and the attainment of a permanent state of bliss (moksha ). None of these beliefs, however, belongs exclusively to Hinduism. Buddhism, Jainism, and other "non-Hindu" Indian religions also hold these doctrines. Other observers content themselves with the notion that Hinduism is distinguished by religious methods and practices that may be categorized under three broad headings or paths: the way of action or ritual (karma marga ), the way of knowledge or wisdom (jnana marga ), and of devotion (bhakti marga ).

Still others argue that what is truly distinctive of Hinduism is its social structurethe caste systemand the religious ideology that underlies it, especially the notion of the superiority and spiritual purity of the Brahman castes. Indeed, some scholars use the term Brahmanism (or Brahminism ) as synonymous with Hinduism to emphasize the notion that the essence of this religion is its belief in caste hierarchy, with the Brahmans at the top. But although it is true that caste and Brahman privilege are ancient and enduring features of Indian society, it is not clear that a religion is defined by the social structure it promotes, nor is caste confined to "Hinduism"there are Muslim, Christian, Sikh, and Parsi castes as well as Hindu ones.

Perhaps the most promising way to envision the underlying unity of Hinduism is to concentrate on the way Hindu traditions understand and use scriptural authority to legitimate a variegated set of beliefs and practices. Hinduism can thus be understood as a unified and continuous religious tradition in terms of the particular sources and strategies used to establish, legitimate, and maintain its religious authority. The most common way Hindus of various sorts do this is to appeal to the authority of the Veda, the most ancient and most universally acknowledged of Hinduism's sacred texts. Hinduism, then, might be envisaged as the label for those traditions that legitimate themselves through the authority of the Veda. Traditions that deny the sacrality and authority of the Veda and posit alternative sources of such authority (those traditions called Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, and so on) are, for this reason, not Hindu. Although the subject matter of the Vedic texts is not always, or even usually, of importance to any given Hindu sect or tradition, the legitimating authority of the Veda has been one, and perhaps the only, mark of orthodoxy in the long history of this complex group of Indic traditions.

Hinduism has had an incalculable impact on Indian society. Indeed, some modern religious nationalists in India would argue that Indian and Hindu culture and history are synonymous, although this turns a blind eye to the enormous contribution of Muslims and others who are, under virtually any definition, not Hindus. Nevertheless, in virtually all areas of Indian society and culture, including social structure, art, music, architecture, literature, and government, Hinduism has left its imprint, such that India cannot really be understood without some understanding of its majority religion.

Historical Overview

Most scholars trace the earliest origins of Hinduism to two different sources. The first of these is the Indus Valley civilization, which dates back to the third millennium b.c.e. and reaches its high point around 2000 b.c.e. The characteristics of this civilization remain somewhat elusive, since the inscriptions on the artifacts that have been recovered remain undeciphered. Nevertheless, on the basis of both large-scale and small-scale remains, scholars have postulated that certain features of later Hinduism may have their earliest foundations and expressions in the Indus Valley civilization. These features include the emphasis on ritual purity, the worship of a goddess figure connected to fertility, and the sacrality of certain animals and trees. The most famous of the depictions found on seals dug up at the various archeological sites is what has been called proto-Shiva. A horned figure, surrounded by animals and sitting in what appears to be a yogic position with an erect phallus, seems to indicate a possible connection to the later Hindu deity who is similarly conceptualized and symbolically represented.

The second root of Hinduism is the Aryans or Indo-Europeans who, it is thought, began to enter the Indic sub-continent from the northwest in several migratory waves beginning sometime in the second millennium b.c.e. The South Asian branch of the far-flung Indo-European peoples is associated with the Vedic period of Indian history. Named after the texts called the Vedas (or, collectively, the Veda), which are written in Sanskrit, this historical epoch is known to us almost entirely on the basis of those ancient texts. The Vedas depict a religion entirely oriented to the performance of and philosophical speculations concerning fire sacrifice. Sacrifices, or yajna s, were offered to the pantheon of deities located in one or another of the three worlds of sky, atmosphere, and earth; some of the gods of the later Hindu pantheon were already worshipped in the Vedic era. Sacrifices to the gods were performed with oblations of cakes made of grain but also with animals (goats, rams, bulls, stallions, and, at least theoretically, human males) and with the apparently intoxicating juices from the plant known as soma.

The basic assumption of the Vedic sacrifice was that if the gods were pleased through such offerings, the cosmos would be put into order and beneficial results would be procured by the sacrificer. These results included prosperity of all sorts, worldly success and fame, long life, and a place in heaven after death. As time went on, it seems as though the sacrifice took on power of its own, apart from the will and favor of the gods. If the ritual was performed correctly by the Brahman priests, who knew all the rules of the sacrifice, results would occur automatically.

Also over time, an increasing emphasis seems to have been put not only on the simple performance of the ritual but also on mystical knowledge of the hidden meanings of or connections between the sacrifice, the cosmos, and the individual. These speculations reached their apogee in the middle centuries of the first millennium b.c.e. as is recorded in the texts known as the Upanishads. Mystical knowledge or wisdom (jnana ) in these texts supersedes ritual action (karma) as the way to attain the highest goal, now conceived of not as a place in heaven but rather as the realization of one's true nature, expressed in the equation between one's true self (atman ) and the underlying cosmic unity (brahman ).

The Upanishads are also associated with a world-renunciatory movement of the middle centuries of the first millennium b.c.e. that also brought Buddhism and Jainism into being. For the renouncers, ascetics, and mystics of this period, the Vedic sacrifice was regarded as, at best, of lesser importance than practices associated with self-discipline, meditation, yoga, and renunciation of ritual and worldly pursuits. Action, or karma, especially when motivated by desire, was seen as problematic in that it was supposed to result in repeated, and potentially endless, rebirth. The world was seen as a place of suffering and imprisonment, and a new goal, release from this wheel of birth, death, and rebirth, was posited.

As a result both of challenges within the tradition (the world-renouncing strains that were manifest in the Upanishads) and without (the heterodox traditions of Buddhism, Jainism, and other new religions), Hinduism was reformulated. Texts dating to around 400 b.c.e. and those produced subsequently over the course of several centuries reflect characteristic and definitive shifts in the religion. Among these was a sense of orthodoxy, which can be seen both in the way the Vedas were now understood as revealed, or shruti, and in the religio-social importance given to caste and the hierarchically superior place of the Brahmans. Especially important was the concept of dharma, or religious duty, and the reinstatement of religious value to worldly life. From this time on, Hinduism has harbored within itself both an emphasis on doing one's duty in the world and the importance of renouncing the world.

By the early centuries of the first millennium c.e. can be seen the earliest manifestations of another development within the increasingly variegated mix of traditions collectively called Hinduism. This was the rise of a new form of theistic religion called the bhakti movement, which brought with it the rise to supreme importance of the major deities of the Hindu pantheon, especially Vishnu (in all his incarnations, including Krishna and Rama), Shiva, and the various forms of the Goddess. The first temples where such deities were worshipped date to this period, as do Sanskrit and Tamil texts that center on one or another of these principal divinities. From this time forth, in addition to the notion (dating to the Upanishads) that the divine is "without qualities" (nirguna ), one finds within Hinduism the conceptualization of God "with qualities" (saguna ) and the representation of the divine in the form of images.

Dating also to this period is another widespread and influential movement that would add yet another ingredient to Hinduism. This movement, itself varied in its beliefs and practices, has been called Tantrism. Originating perhaps in the peripheral areas of northwest and northeast India, Tantric ideas and practices probably date to the fifth century c.e. or before, although most of the texts in which the distinctive doctrines of this strain within Hinduism appear are several centuries later. With an emphasis on radical and unconventional methods (including, in some cases, ritual sex) for attaining liberation in the present lifetime, and with an array of deitiesalmost always including a goddess figureoften depicted in quite horrific forms, the Tantric movement was always esoteric and controversial. Nevertheless, by the medieval period and in subsequent centuries Tantrism influenced all forms of Hinduism. It has been noted that the pantheon of present-day Hinduism is largely made up of Tantric deities. Tantrism also left its imprint on the temples, iconography, and rituals of the more mainstream Hinduism.

The mainstreamby which is usually meant the elite, Sanskritic tradition of orthodox or Brahmanic Hinduismwas philosophically systematized beginning in the early centuries of the first millennium c.e. into six schools. Perhaps the most influential of these is Vedanta and its greatest teacher was Shankara (c. 800 c.e.). Based on a particular reading of the earliest Upanishads, the Vedanta philosophy in all its forms (and there are several) argues for some version of monism and regards the phenomenal world of experience as fundamentally illusory. The philosophical schools of Yoga and Samkhya, by way of contrast, envision a kind of dualism between matter and spirit and see the goal of the religious quest as the isolation of the pure spirit. Other and less influential of the philosophical schools emphasize analysis of Vedic ritual and ritual speech (Mimamsa), logic and methods of argumentation (Nyaya), and a theory of atomism (Vaisheshika).

The second millennium c.e. saw the further development of bhakti, or devotional, forms of Hinduism, especially among poet-saints, who composed often ecstatic songs and poems in the vernacular languages of India. These poet-saints sometimes included women and members of the lower castes, and in general the devotional movement became more and more the religion of the Hindu masses. As Muslim influence and eventually rule was established in north India, syncretistic devotional figures and groups emerged. The bhakti of a saint like Kabir (14401518), for example, was heavily influenced by Islamic monotheism, iconoclasm, and other concepts.

The European impact on Hinduism came primarily in the form of British imperialism and colonialism. Modern Hinduism, especially as it is conceptualized by the educated elite of India, was shaped by the interactions and dialectical relations between outside influences and rising nationalist aspirations. Nineteenth-century reformers such as Rammohan Roy, Dayananda Sarasvati, and Vivekananda created what has sometimes been called Neo-Hinduism in an effort to modernize and respond to the challenges of Western colonialism while retaining pride in the traditions of ancient Hinduism. The reforming impulse put into motion by these leaders and others has also sometimes been labeled the back-to-the-Vedas movement because of its emphasis on returning to the ancient past's purity to validate innovations such as rights for women, opposition to image worship, and caste reform.

In the twentieth century, two different and contrasting influences have exerted influence on the shape of Hinduism. On the one hand, Mohandas Gandhi (18691948; the Mahatma, or Great Soul) put forward an inclusive, tolerant Hinduism that picked up one strand of the ancient past: the non-violence and self-control of the world-renouncers. On the other hand, the twentieth century also saw the rise of an often militant form of Hindu nationalism that emphasized an exclusivist Hinduism and valorized powerful Hindu kings of the past and divine ruler-warriors like the god Rama.

Sacred Texts and Sects

The Veda are earliest texts of Hinduism. Written in Sanskrit and for millennia preserved only orally, the oldest portion of the Vedathe Rig Veda, composed about 1200 b.c.e. or beforeis also among the oldest known texts of the Indo-European world.

The Vedas are entirely centered on the performance of and speculations surrounding the ancient religion of the Aryans in India, the cult of fire sacrifice. Each of the four Vedasthe Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharvaconsists of a Samhita (collection of hymns, verses, and chants), a Brahmana (in which the mythical origins, contexts, and meanings of the ritual are explained), an Aranyaka (a forest text, where the more esoteric and secret significances of the rites are detailed), and an Upanishad (comprised of mystical speculations and philosophical ruminations). The Samhitas of the four Vedas are correlated to the functions of the four main priests of the Vedic sacrifice and were composed and preserved by these priests for ritual use. Each of the four Vedas has several recensions due to the varying practices of different ritual schools; some of these recensions have survivedcompletely or in fragmentsand many have not.

The Veda is traditionally thought to be unauthored (either by a god or humans); rather, it is believed to exist eternally in the form of sound. Ancient sages are said to have heard it (or part of it) and then recited it to others. The Veda was, and continues to be, memorized syllable by syllable and transmitted orally by means of an intricate method of recitation. Although ancient India had a writing system by the middle of the first millennium b.c.e., it was only in relatively recent times that the oral Veda was written down.

Hinduism traditionally accorded the Vedic texts the status of revelation, or shruti. All the other sacred texts of Hinduism, no matter the esteem in which they are held by their adherents, are technically classified not as revelation but only as traditional or remembered (smriti ). The smriti texts are admittedly authored by great teachers of the past.

The earliest of the traditional texts are collectively known as the Vedangas or limbs of the Veda. Composed mainly from about 700 b.c.e. to about 200 c.e., these works were technical treatises written in the shorthand, aphoristic form called the sutra. The Vedangas make up the six sciences necessary for the correct and exact performance of the Vedic rituals: vyakarana (the study of grammar, linguistics, and philology); nirukta (etymology); chanda (the explanation and practice of verse meters); shiksha (the study of faultless pronunciation); and jyotisha (the science of astronomy and astrology). The sixth limb of the Veda is the Kalpa Sutras, manuals in which the rules for performing the various types of Vedic sacrifice are given. The Shrauta Sutras lay out the rules for performing the most elaborate of these sacrifices, and the Grhya Sutras detail the protocol for executing the simpler rites of the domestic ceremonial performed by the householder himself. Also included are the Shulba Sutras, in which geometrical rules are laid out for the proper construction of the sacred space and altars of the Vedic ritual.

The last component of a Kalpa Sutra (and again, different versions of these texts were composed and preserved by a variety of ritual schools) is the Dharma Sutra (also known as the Dharma Shastra, or Teaching, or the Dharma Smriti). These encyclopedic texts extend the rules governing human activity, which were previously confined to the ritual sphere, to nearly every aspect of daily life, and especially concentrate on the specific obligations or duties (dharma ) one has as a member of a particular social class or caste at various stages of life.

The sutra form was also favored by the authors of several other important texts. The Mimamsa Sutras, attributed to Jaimini and dated at about 200 b.c.e., is the root text of the philosophical school of Mimamsa, or enquiry into the cosmic and moral significance of the Vedic sacrifice. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (c. 200300 c.e.) are the first systematic presentation of the practice and theory of yoga, or psycho-physical discipline. And the Vedanta Sutras of the great teacher Shankara (c. early ninth century c.e.), which are actually commentaries on an earlier text, form the most important enunciation of the highly influential Hindu philosophical tradition known as Advaita Vedanta, which teaches an absolute monistic doctrine of the oneness of all being.

Among the most popular and best-known of the Hindu scriptures are the two great epics The Mahabharata and The Ramayana. Both of these enormous works (The Mahabharata is a collection of over 100,000 stanzas and The Ramayana is about one-fourth of that) were composed, in various recensions, over a period of almost a thousand years between approximately 400 b.c.e. and approximately 400 c.e. Both consist of a heterogeneous assortment of materialmythology, pseudo-historical lore, folktales, teachings concerning religious duty, the meaning of life, and salvationbut both also relate narratives that have come to be regarded as the backbone of the Indian cultural heritage.

The Mahabharata claims to be divinely inspired and all-encompassing. The text tells the story of a legendary battle for rule over India fought between two sides of the same family. After many twists and turns in the plot, the warring parties meet at the battlefield for the climactic battle. It is at this point in the story that perhaps the single most popular Hindu text and one of the world's greatest religious works is found. The Bhagavad Gita, or Song of the Lord, is a discussion of duty and faith conducted by one of the warriors, Arjuna, and his charioteer, Krishnawho is, the reader learns in the course of the text, God in human form.

The Ramayana, attributed to the seer Valmiki, is the story of Rama, the Prince of Ayodhya: his birth and childhood, his marriage to Sita, his unjust banishment and exile into the wilderness, Sita's abduction by the wicked Ravana, Rama's battle with and defeat of Ravana and his rescue of Sita, and Rama's triumphant return to Ayodhya as king. Whereas the characters in The Mahabharata tend to be flawed in various ways, Rama and Sita are widely regarded as ideals of obedience, loyalty, fidelity, strength, courage, and heroism. Both of the great Hindu epics were traditionally recited by bards at the courts of kings but were also often recited or dramatically enacted for the masses as religious performance and popular entertainment. Both have also been made into television serials and videotapes, thus metamorphosing into a somewhat different kind of sacred text.

Beginning in the early middle centuries of the Common Era, Sanskrit texts that codified the worldviews, doctrines, and practices of the various Hindu theistic sects were composed. Chief among these are the Puranas (Stories of antiquity). Centering on one or another of the principal deities of sectarian HinduismVishnu, Shiva, or the Goddessthese texts are traditionally said to comprise five topics: the creation of the world, the dissolution of the world, the ages of the world, genealogies, and the history of dynasties. In actuality, however, the Puranas are as encyclopedic as the epics, replete with all sorts of myths, legends, didactic passages on religious duty and salvation, ritual instructions for temple and image worship, and tales about holy places and pilgrimage sites. Early-twenty-first-century scholarship has indicated that most, if not all, of the Puranas were composed under the auspices of one or another ruler of particular Hindu kingdoms by priests associated with the dominant sect of the region.

Other sectarian texts are known by different names. The 108 sacred texts of the Vaishnava sect known as the Pancaratras are designated Samhitas (collection of hymns, verses, and chants) or Agamas; certain sects worshipping the god Shiva have also produced texts called Agamas; and sects worshipping one or another form of the goddess have composed Tantrassectarian treatises that are similar in content and purpose to the Puranas but tend to be more purely theological in their orientation and to specify ritual practices to be followed in the temple and at home.

Whereas all the literature discussed above is in Sanskrit, the sacred texts of what might be called popular Hinduism were composed in one or another of the vernacular languages of South Asia. Among the most important of these are the Tamil works of the poet-saints who served as figureheads for the devotional, and often ecstatic and emotional, movements that began in South India as early as the seventh century c.e. Led by the devotees of Vishnu known as the Alvars and the worshippers of Shiva called the Nayanmars, the devotional movement became popular and spread throughout India. The poems and songs of later Hindu saints of north IndiaKabir, Caitanya (14851533), Surdas (14851563), Mirabai (sixteenth century), and othersalso depict the longing for God and the bliss of union with the divine in simple yet moving terms.

Principal Beliefs

While it is difficult to list doctrines that all Hindus and Hindu traditions would accept, there is a group of core beliefs that come close to being universally shared by all those called "Hindu."

Karma and Rebirth.

The original meaning of the word karma is "work," and the earliest application of the term in Vedic texts is "ritual action or labor"that is, correctly and precisely executed activity that will have a salutary effect on the participants of the ritual and on the universe as a whole. Rituals beginning with the samskara s, rites of passage performed at critical junctures in the life of a youth, had as their purpose to repair the imperfections of birth. Ritual work thus also consisted of the construction of a religiously viable self, and while Vedic fire sacrifices tended to be eclipsed by other forms of religious practice in later Hinduism, the performance of the samskara s has continued to the present day and is done for much the same reason. Finally, already in the Vedic period, ritual work was also the means for creating a desirable afterlife for oneself. A divine, or heavenly, self is "born out of the sacrifice"that is, it is the product of one's ritual résumé, of the work one has done throughout one's lifetime.

The notion that one's own ritual acts (for in Vedic times these were the only acts that really mattered) had consequencesin the future as well as the presentis one of the possible sources for a doctrine that was to have huge implications for the Hindu religious worldview: the notion that all actions produced fruit, good or bad, that determined the quality of one's life. This causal and moral law of karma first appears in the early Upanishads and also features as a prominent doctrine in the new religions that arose in India at this time, Buddhism and Jainism. From this time forward, the nature of one's actionsand the attitude with which actions were performedwas believed to have determinative consequences over one's future, both in this lifetime and in future rebirths.

This concept of a "law of karma"whereby good acts result in good results, bad in badextends the Vedic notion of consequential action from the confines of the ritual to the whole of life. Just as in the Vedic period one's future life is the product of one's activity, here too one's rebirth is directly correlated to actions performed in this life. But the law of karma also presupposes a series of past lives; the deeds done in those lives determine the circumstances of one's present existence. And the theory assumes future lives, not just in heavens or hells but in this world or any of a potentially infinite number of world systems. Finally, it presupposes that one may be reborn in any of these locales as any number of entities, ranging from gods to inanimate objects; good karma obviously would entail a better rebirth, bad karma results in a worse existence.

Dharma and the Varnashrama Dharma system.

Another key concept of Hinduism, and one that is closely connected to those of karma and rebirth, is dharma, a multivalent term that includes within its semantic range religion or righteousness, but also duty. Doing one's dharma means not only remaining ethical but also assuming the duties that are proper to the class or caste one is born into (due to one's past karma), and to the stage of life one is presently in. Performing one's own duty (svadharma ), as it has been assigned to by birth and by the stage of life, has traditionally been an important Hindu ideal: "Your own duty done imperfectly is better than another man's done well. It is better to die in one's own duty; another man's duty is perilous" (Bhagavad Gita, 3.35).

The doctrine of svadharma, backed up by the concepts of karma and rebirth, underlies one of the most important and enduring institutions of Hindu India, the caste system. Inequalities in the present life are regarded as a result of differing past karma, and the inequalities of a projected future will reflect the rewards and punishments of actions done in the present: "Now people here whose behavior is pleasant can expect to enter a pleasant womb, like that of a woman of the Brahman [the priestly class], the Ksatriya [the warrior class], of the Vaisya [agriculturalist and trader] class. But people of foul behavior can expect to enter a foul womb, like that of a dog, a pig, or an outcaste woman" (Chandogya Upanishad, 5.10.7).

From the time of the Veda onward, the four basic classes of Hindu societyBrahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras (servants)were assigned specific roles and functions and urged not to deviate from such in-born duties. The naturalness of this arrangementor even its divine sanctionwas asserted in part by integrating the origins of the social classes within stories about the cosmos's origins. The most famous of the texts in which the social classes are depicted as part of the original creation is Rig Veda 10.90, which tells of the universe originating from a primordial sacrifice of God, here called the Cosmic Man. From that sacrifice and dismemberment, the various elements of the cosmos came into being: the worlds, the sun and moon, the seasons, the various types of supernatural beings, the animals, and so forth. The social classes originated then, brought forth from the parts of the body of the creator god: "When they divided the Cosmic Man, into how many parts did they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his two arms and thighs and feet? His mouth became the Brahmin; his arms were made into the Kshatriya; his thighs the Vaishya; and from his feet the Shudras were born" (Rig Veda, 10.90.1112).

Such is the basic outline of the caste system: four principal classes, each with its own assigned occupation, hierarchically ranked (and correlated with the appropriate body part of the creator god). At the top is the class whose job concerns the religious sphere; the Brahman priest is, according to the texts (not coincidentally composed by members of this class), to be regarded as a kind of human god. The Kshatriyas are to be rulers and warriors and engage in the activities appropriate to their birth. As for the commoners, they are to pursue occupations concerned with wealth and prosperity, tending to livestock and trade. The servants' duties and occupations are straightforward: to humbly serve members of the higher classes and hope for a better rebirth. Finally, there are the occupations of those who live below this hierarchy, the so-called untouchables, who are below even the servants.

Dharma, or proper duty, is thus differentiated according to class and caste but also according to stage of life. The first stage in the ideal structure laid out in Hindu texts is that of a student. A young boy is given over to a teacher, or guru, with whom he lives and serves for a period of many years while studying the sacred Veda under the teacher's guidance. The lifestyle assigned to this stage of life is one of austerity, asceticism, and discipline. Among the other duties laid out for those in the student stage of life are chastity, study of the sacred texts, and obedience to the teacher.

The next stage of life, that of the householder, begins when the student leaves his teacher's home, marries, and takes up his proper profession. In the householder stage of life, he properly pursues not only dharma (used here in the specific sense of religious duties) but also the human ends of artha private gain, understood as material prosperity, self-interest, political advantage, and in general getting ahead in the worldand kama or pleasure. The householder is charged with supporting not just his household but also other community members through alms and other gifts to those in other stages of life.

After having raised a family as a householder, a man may enter the third stage of life as what is called a forest-dweller. This stage is characterized by ascetic practices and gradual detachment from the world, including the renunciation of cultivated food (he should live on food that grows in the jungle) and of "all possessions":

After he has lived in the householder's stage of life in accordance with the rules in this way, a twice-born Vedic graduate should live in the forest, properly restrained and with his sensory powers conquered. When a householder sees that he is wrinkled and gray, and (when he sees) the children of his children, then he should take himself to the wilderness. Renouncing all food cultivated in the village and all possessions, he should hand his wife over to his sons and go to the forestor take her along. He should eat vegetables that grow on land or in water, flowers, roots, and fruits, the products of pure trees, and the oils from fruits. He should not eat anything grown from land tilled with a plough, even if someone has thrown it out, nor roots and fruits grown in a village, even if he is in distress [from hunger]. (Manu, 6.13, 13, 16)

The final stage of life is that of the world-renouncer, who continues and furthers the ascetic practices of the forest-dweller. In this stage, the wandering hermit should live entirely detached from the things of this world, alone and without companionship, perfectly content and in a state of equanimity. He should beg but once a day, and not be "addicted to food," hope for lots of alms, or be disappointed should he receive nothing:

He should always go all alone, with no companion, to achieve success; realizing that success is for the man who is alone, he neither deserts nor is deserted. The hermit should have no fire and no home, but should go to a village to get food, silent, indifferent, unwavering and deep in concentration. A skull-bowl, the roots of trees, poor clothing, no companionship, and equanimity to everythingthis is the distinguishing mark of one who is freed. He should not welcome dying, nor should he welcome living, but wait for the right time as a servant waits for orders. He should live here on earth seated in ecstatic contemplation of the soul, indifferent, without any carnal desires, with the soul as his only companion and happiness as his goal. He should go begging once a day and not be eager to get a great quantity, for an ascetic who is addicted to food becomes attached to sensory objects, too. He should not be sad when he does not get anything nor delighted when he gets something, but take only what will daily sustain his vital breath, transcending any attachment to material things. (Manu, 6.42-45; 49; 55; 57)

Samsara, liberation, and the ways to attain liberation.

Yet another central concept in Hinduism is the notion that perpetual birth, death, and rebirth occur not just at the level of human beings but of the universe as a whole. The Sanskrit name for this theory is samsara, a word that literally means to wander or pass through a series of states or conditions. Samsara describes the beginningless and endless cycle of cosmic or universal death and rebirth; all of phenomenal existence is transient, ever-changing, and cyclical. Correlative to this understanding of the world is belief in the fundamentally illusory nature of the world of appearancesa concept known in Hinduism as maya. It is because one is ignorant of reality's true nature that one perceives a world of differentiation and change; and it is through our own ignorance that we suffer and produce karma.

Samsara is contrasted to an unconditioned, eternal, and transcendent state that is equated with freedom or liberation from such ignorance, transience, suffering, and rebirth. All Hindu traditions posit an alternative to karma and rebirth and the wheel of samsara. This state of release, freedom, or liberation from karma and rebirth is called moksha. To obtain this liberation, most Hindu traditions believe that one must find a way to stop the workings of karma and the ignorant desire that motivates ordinary action. Among the various groups of world-renouncers that have arisen in the history of Hinduism, a kind of pessimism surrounds the value of worldly life. Release from the wheel of phenomenal existence among these groups often entails eliminating desire through ascetic practices and renouncing the world of ordinary activity:

On knowing him [the true self], one becomes an ascetic. Desiring him only as their home, mendicants wander forth. Verily, because they know this, the ancients desired not offspring, saying: "What shall we do with offspring, we whose is this Soul, this world?" They, verily, rising above the desire for sons and the desire for wealth and the desire for worlds, lived the life of a mendicant. For the desire for sons is the desire for wealth, and the desire for wealth is the desire for worlds; for both these are desires. (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.4.22)

Another strategy for eliminating karma and its bonds to samsara was the development of the discipline called yoga. Yoga was intended to calm the mind and body, obtain equanimity and tranquility, by ceasing to act ("curbing his movements," as the text below states) and focusing the mind:

When he keeps his body straight, with the three sections erect, and draws the senses together with the mind into his heart, a wise man shall cross all the frightful rivers. Compressing his breaths in here and curbing his movements, a man should exhale through one nostril when his breath is exhausted. A wise man should keep his mind vigilantly under control, just as he would that wagon yoked to unruly horses. (Svetesvatara Upanishad, 2.89)

Yet another method to final liberation within the traditions that comprise Hinduism is the development of wisdom, or jnana. The path of wisdom requires, first and foremost, that one understand properly the nature of the universe. In the monistic philosophy first encountered in the Upanishads and later forming one of the principal schools of Hindu philosophy, jnana means penetrating the illusory appearance of the world as differentiated, and attaining a mystical wisdom of the unitary true nature of the universe and all that is in it. Attaining such transformative wisdom is itself equated with moksha, or liberationliberation from ignorance, and also liberation from karma.

True knowledge is the knowledge of the true self's unity and identity (the atman ) with the cosmic One, the brahman. Both the real self (which is not the individual ego but one's changeless true nature) and the cosmic One are depicted as unborn, unchanging, and therefore not affected by karma: "Verily, he is the great, unborn Soul, who is this [person] consisting of knowledge among the senses. In the space within the heart lies the ruler of all, the lord of all, the king of all. He does not become greater by good action nor inferior by bad action" (Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, 4.4.22). Wisdom acts as a kind of fire that burns up the individual's accumulated past karma, and uproots desire, which is the very source of karma and the rebirths it provokes.

Another strand within the Hindu tradition also accepts the necessity for wisdom and self-discipline to attain the final goal but denies that action can simply be avoided or somehow arrested. The point is not to renounce society and duty but rather to attain a desireless state within the world of activity. Although upholding the doctrine of duty, or svadharma, The Bhagavad Gita also teaches that such actions should be performed without desire. Since desire is the root cause of karma, desireless action in accordance with one's dharma will have no karmic consequences. Such a person is said to be truly wise, like the world-renouncers, but unlike them does not abandon action but rather performs it in the right way.

Also in The Bhagavad Gita are found the earliest expressions in the Sanskrit texts of what would become an enormously influential movement in Hinduism, that of devotion to a personalized deity. The theistic strains within Hinduism emphasize a different method to liberation, that of bhakti, or devotion to and faith in God. In the Gita, desireless action is also represented as sacrificial action, with the karmic fruits of all acts being given up to God. It is, finally, devotion, or bhakti, to Krishna that the Gita teaches is the way to salvation:

Whatever you dowhat you take, what you offer, what you give, what penances you performdo as an offering to me, Arjuna! You will be freed from the bonds of action, from the fruit of fortune and misfortune; armed with the discipline of renunciation, your self liberated, you will join me. (Bhagavad Gita, 9.2728)

The devotionalistic wings of Hinduism, with their array of deities, each one regarded by devotees as supreme, all assume that it is by God's grace that suffering can be overcome and salvation made possible. In some of its forms, the bhakti movement seems to have attracted many low caste followers and others who had been left out or diminished by caste-oriented Hinduism. The movement's emphasis on simple devotion, humility, and the power of God's grace to redeem even the sinner had obvious appeal, and the power attributed to bhakti to short-circuit the karmic process is often said to be enormous and unfathomable. The bhakti movement also reinterpreted a long-standing Hindu belief that desire was the product of ignorance and the root of karma, rebirth, and suffering. For in devotionalistic traditions, longing for Godoften portrayed in erotic termsand the pain of separation from the object of desire become the emotional means for ratcheting up one's devotion to fever pitch. At the same time, most devotionalistic cults eschewed the goal of merging with or achieving identity with the object of their devotion, for that would preclude the bliss of remaining distinct while basking in God's love.

The set of traditions collectively termed Tantrism likewise reworked desire from its conceptualization as the ultimate source of human suffering into a religious tool. Esoteric tantric groups gained notoriety for their radical and transgressive methods, often arguing that the best way to attain liberation from suffering and its causes was not to renounce but rather to confront them and, under ritual conditions, engage in practices that for the uninitiated would result in the most disastrous karmic ends. Through various meditative and ritual techniques, the tantric practitioner could practice what others prohibited and could eradicate desire by means of desire.

For some tantric groups, methods to liberation included antisocial ascetic practices such as eschewing clothing and ordinary hygiene, meditating in cemeteries, carrying human skulls as begging bowls, practices involving human corpses, and the worship of deities in gruesome, terrifying forms. For others, it has meant engaging in ritualized sex and exchange of bodily fluids, or rituals that call for the ingestion of otherwise prohibited substances. In all cases, the purpose of such antinomian behavior seems to have been in one way or another to transcend the world of dualities (including pure/impure, good/bad) and achieve the liberation from samsara all Hindu groups posit as the highest goal.

For most Hindus, however, final liberation seems to be out of reach in this life. The vast majority, past and present, simply try to live virtuously and obtain, as a result, a pleasant life here on earth and a better rebirth in the future. From Vedic times to the present, rituals such as sacrifice and the worship service known as puja (performed either in the temple or at home), whereby one ritually honors the deity in the form of an image, had pleasing the gods as their goal in the hopes that the gods would protect and aid the worshipper. Festivals, pilgrimages, and lifecycle rituals are also popular among ordinary Hindus, as they are among religious practitioners the world over. Although religious virtuosi may follow the various methods laid out to attain the highest ends of Hinduism, the vast majority of Hindus content themselves with more modest goals.

See also Buddhism ; Christianity ; Islam ; Jainism ; Judaism ; Religion .


Embree, Ainslie T., ed. Sources of Indian Tradition. Vol. 1: From the Beginning to 1800. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Herman, A. L. A Brief Introduction to Hinduism: Religion, Philosophy, and Ways of Liberation. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1991.

Hopkins, Thomas J. The Hindu Religious Tradition. Encino, Calif.: Dickenson, 1971.

Kinsley, David R. Hinduism: A Cultural Perspective. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1993.

Klostermaier, Klaus K. A Survey of Hinduism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

The Laws of Manu. Translated by Wendy Doniger, with Brian K. Smith. London, New York: Penguin Books, 1991.

Brian Smith

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The study of Hinduism

Hinduism and the social order

Dominant theological ideas of Hinduism


Nonsectarian Hinduism

Hinduism and the polity


Hindus are found living in many parts of the world, but the vast majority of them (approximately 376.5 million) are concentrated in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent. Of this population, approximately 366.5 million are in India and ten million in Pakistan. Hindus are also found in the Himalayan states of Nepal (the only contemporary Hindu state), Sikkim, and Bhutan; in Burma, Ceylon, Malaysia, and other countries of south east Asia; and in east and south Africa, the Carib bean islands, Guyana (British Guiana), Fiji, and the United Kingdom.

The study of Hinduism

The doctrines of Hinduism, unlike those of Christianity and Islam, are not embodied in any one sacred book, nor does Hinduism have a single historical founder. There are not one but innumerable gods, and it is not essential to believe in the existence of God in order to be a Hindu. Hinduism is rich in contradictions, there being no particular beliefs or institutions that are common to all Hindus. Every belief considered basic to Hinduism has been rejected by one Hindu group or another.

A major problem in the study of Hinduism, as in that of any world religion, is to understand the interaction between the theological and popular levels. There is a vast body of sacred literature in Hinduism, including the Vedas, Brahmanas, Upan-isads, Vedāngas, Dharmaśāstras, Nibandhas, Purānas, Itihāsas, Darsanas, Āgamas, and Tantras. These texts contain elaborate and abstract philosophies and theologies, mythologies, manuals for the performance of sacrifices and other sacred rites in temples and homes, and codes of conduct for daily life. Generally speaking, until recently Indian and foreign scholars concentrated on the literature, while the description of actual institutions, rites, and beliefs was left to missionaries, travelers, and administrators. It is only in the last twenty years that bibliocentricism has been replaced by a more rounded view of Hinduism and the relation between the texts and actual behavior.

The social scientist’s concern for understanding any religion in its social context is likely to be satisfied more for the modern than for the earlier periods of history. Source materials are almost entirely lacking for the study of the history of popular Hinduism; even in the study of the history of literary Hinduism, data are not available for the reconstruction of the social context. For example, the date, provenance, and authorship of texts are not certain. And finally, the student of contemporary Hinduism is faced with the problem that the systematic reconstruction of Indian history, which began with the coming of the British, has brought to light material that has since become an active part of the Hindu religion. In the reinterpretation of Hinduism that has been occurring since the nineteenth century, the philosophical and literary levels have been emphasized, to the neglect of actual institutions, rites, and beliefs.

Hinduism and the social order

Hinduism, lacking a centralized church, is so inextricably entangled with Hindu society that it is very difficult to say where one ends and the other begins. This is particularly true of caste, which according to creation beliefs expressed in the Rg Veda has a divine origin. The four varnas, or caste orders, emerged from the limbs of primeval man, who is a victim in the divine sacrifice that produced the cosmos. The brāhmans emerged from his mouth, ksatriyas from his arms, the vaiśyas from his thighs, and the śūldras from his feet. (The untouchables are not mentioned in the hymn.) There are in reality not four but innumerable castes, called jātis, each of which claims to belong to one of the four varnas. When the Hindu sacred or legal texts discuss caste, it is mostly varna that they have in view and very rarely jāti.

Certain ideas regarding pollution and purity are cardinal in Hinduism, although there are differences among the various castes in the strictness with which rules deriving from these ideas are adhered to and the degree of elaboration found in behavior governed by them. Intercaste relations are generally defined by ideas of pollution. Normally, each caste is endogamous and complete commensality prevails only within it. Thus, there are many kinds of restrictions between castes— on the free acceptance of food and drink, on intermarriage and sex relations, on touching or going near a member of another caste, etc.—and they are expressed in terms of pollution. This means that failure to observe the rules makes the uppercaste person impure, and he has to perform a purificatory rite, simple or elaborate, according to the seriousness of the violation.

While caste is central, it does not entirely determine Hindu religious behavior. There are other aspects of the social structure that embody, religious behavior. The village community and the family also function as cult groups. There are deities—usually goddesses—in every village who, if suitably propitiated, keep out epidemics and drought and look after the villagers. There is an elaborate complex of rites de passage, including wedding rituals and funeral rites that may take several days to perform. Calendrical festivals and vratas, or ritual austerities carried out for specific periods to attain particular ends (e.g., birth of a son), consume a good part of people’s energies, time, and money.

It is important to demarcate those aspects of religious behavior that are affected by caste from those that are not. The relation between sect and caste, in particular, offers a fruitful area for research.

Dominant theological ideas of Hinduism

Hinduism does not have a body of clearly defined dogma, but some theological ideas may be considered basic. And while the many sects and schools have taken different standpoints on theological issues, the issues themselves are common to most. Since the time of the Upanisads, which laid the foundations of Hindu philosophical thinking, certain concepts recur again and again. A major issue has been the nature of Brahman (universal soul) and its relation with Ātman (the individual soul). One view is concerned only with this dichotomy, does not posit the existence of God, and considers Brahman as absolute and attributeless. (There was also the Chārv̄ka school, which was atheistic and hedonistic.) Most other views, however, recognize the existence of God and consider the issue of his relation with Brahman, on the one hand, and Ātman, on the other. The Ātman is considered to be indestructible and passes through an endless migration, or series of incarnations. The character of any incarnation, human, animal, or superhuman, is influenced by karma, the net balance of good and bad deeds in previous births. Goodness or badness is defined by reference to dharma. The reward for a saintly life is moksa, which releases the individual from the chain of births and deaths and brings him into contact with God.

The ideas of karma, dharma, and moksa are intimately related to the caste system. The Dharmasutra states that if a man does good deeds, he will be reborn in a high caste and well endowed, while if he does sinful acts, he will be reborn in a low caste or even as an animal. Dharma is thus identified with the duties of one’s caste, and birth in a particular caste becomes an index of the soul’s progress toward liberation.

The nature of moksa and how to achieve it are major issues in Hindu theology. The main ways of achieving moksa are through knowledge, deeds, and love and devotion toward God. Generally, the way of knowledge requires an individual to renounce the world, including caste and family, and lead the life of an ascetic. This way has been followed by only a few. It was the Bhagavad Gita that first emphasized the way of works and devotion and thus brought liberation within reach of the “man-in-the-world,” including women and the lower castes. The most popular form of devotion, however, is the worship of one’s chosen god according to tradition. In the last hundred years the Bhagavad Gita has been reinterpreted by Indian political leaders, including Gandhi and B. G. Tilak, to provide the basis for a life devoted to altruistic action.

Discussion of these issues by theologians has been in Sanskrit and in the context of ideas developed in logic, metaphysics, astronomy, grammar, literature, law, and other branches of traditional learning. The basic theological positions have, however, reached the common people through myths and stories narrated in local languages. How influential these ideas were and the nature of their relation to strictly local or sectional ideas and beliefs are still subjects for research (see, in this connection, Srinivas 1952, p. 227).

Sanskritic deities. Those deities whose attributes and modes of worship are described in mythological, liturgical, and other texts may be called Sanskritic. The Vedic pantheon reflects the syncretism that resulted from the conquest by nomadic Indo-European Aryans of the ancient urbanized civilizations of the Indus Valley and a continuing contact with the aboriginal tribal peoples of the subcontinent. Most of the deities, major and minor, are nature gods: Indra, the most prominent of all, is the sky god; Agni, the fire god; Varuna, the water god; Süryā, the sun god; and so on. Visnu, who later became a high god, began as only a minor figure, a mere aspect of the sun god. The Vedic god of thunder, Rudra, was at first associated with Siva, who eventually became the dominant partner. The chief Vedic gods were gradually transformed into the trinity of Brahma, the creator; Visnu, the protector; and Siva, the destroyer. Brahma does not appear in the Vedas but seems to have developed during the period of the Brāhmanas. His importance subsequently declined, and nowadays Visnu and Siva are the two most important gods.

Every major deity in Hinduism has many forms, and around each form there is a myth. Visnu has a number of incarnations, the chief of which are Rāma (man), Krishna (man), Narasimha (manlion), and Varaha (boar). The idea behind the many forms is that God periodically allows himself to be reborn on earth, to overcome evil and restore righteousness. In addition to incarnations, Visnu has one thousand names, according to the Mahābhārata, and many more according to other texts. Ramā and Krishna, originally incarnations of Visnu, became important gods in themselves, each with many forms and names. The idea of incarnation is not associated with Śiva, but he, too, has many names. In addition, each deity or each form of a deity has a wife, who is usually worshiped along with her husband.

Śakti, the personification of the female principle in the creation of the universe, occupies almost as important a place in the Hindu pantheon as Visnu and Śiva. In the Śakti cult a female deity is sometimes worshiped independently of association with a male deity, but when a male deity alone is worshiped, generally he is some form of Śiva rather than of Visnu. Further, Skanda and Ganeśa, the sons of Śiva, and Hanumant, the chief of the monkey army of Rāma, are also popular deities. The birds and animals on which the gods sit are called vahanas (“vehicles”) and are worshiped. The sun, moon, stars, fire, mountains, lakes, animals, snakes, trees, and plants continue to be objects of worship. Frequently river deities are anthropomorphized. For example, Ganga, or Ganges, is a form of the goddess Pārvatī, and many smaller rivers are be lieved to be manifestations of Ganga. The cobra cult in southern India is identified with Skanda. There are also deities symbolizing the synthesis of different deities, such as the three-headed Trimūrti and Dattatreya, representing the unity of Brahmā, Visnu and S̄iva. The union of S̄iva and Visnu is expressed in the composite god Harihara; Ardhanārīśvara represents an attempt to symbolize the unity of S̄iva and Pārvatī.

The henotheistic tendency is important in Hindu mythology and ritual: the deity who is being wor shiped is praised above all others. Pantheism prevails, but all deities, from Visnu or Śiva to the lowest village deity, are considered to be manifestations of the same god. These ideas have enabled Hinduism to absorb local cults and deities and even accept all other religions as true.

A Hindu temple embodies the henotheistic idea. There is, accordingly, one principal deity, from whom a temple derives its name and whose image occupies a prominent place in the temple, and there are also a few minor deities, represented by smaller images in different parts of the temple. Thus, in a Sivá temple Sivá would be the principal deity, and PārvatI, Ganesá, and the bull Nandi would be minor deities; whereas in a Sákti temple, Sákti would be the principal deity and Sivá would be one of the minor deities. Not all Hindu deities are associated with temples, however. Some of the Vedic deities, such as Varuna and Agni, are invoked mostly during sacrifices, while Brahmā and Sūrya seem to have had temples in the past but do not have them nowadays. Some deities (e.g., Ganeśa) have temples only in certain regions.


Like other religions, Hinduism has given birth to many sects in the course of its history, and it is not always easy to say whether a sect is within the Hindu fold or outside. Buddhism and Jainism had emerged as distinct sects by about the fifth century B.C., and both spread over wide areas, Buddhism, in particular, spreading over almost the entire country. But over the centuries their influence declined, and Buddhism had almost entirely disappeared from the country of its origin by about a.d. 1000. It is only in recent years that large numbers of Untouchables, in particular the Mahar of Maharashtra, became converted to Buddhism in protest against the indignities they were subjected to under the caste system. There is a sizable Jain population in India today, and Jains are very similar to Hindus. Not only are there castes among them, but some trading castes of Gujarat̄ have Jain and Hindu subdivisions, and marriage occurs across sect lines. Islam has presented a serious challenge to Hinduism. There are about 129.5 million Muslims (nearly 47 million in India and 82.5 million in Pakistan) in the subcontinent. While a small proportion of them came from the Middle East, the majority were converts from among the Hindus. They have a caste system in some ways similar to that of the Hindus, and the converts have retained many Hindu practices —so much so that in the case of some groups it is even now extremely difficult to say whether they are Hindu or Muslim. There are also sects (Kablrpanthi, Sikhism) and cults that combine both Hindu and Muslim traits. One of them, Sikhism, has claimed to be a distinct religion, but this does not mean that Sikhs do not have anything in common with Hindus. The Sikhs are divided into castes, with even an Untouchable division, and have veneration for Hindu holy places. Until recently, in many families in rural Punjab one son would become a Sikh while the others remained Hindu. Many Hindu castes became Sikhs in an effort to improve their status. The Pir̄na sect in Gujarat̄ and the recent Saibaba cult have both Hindu and Muslim followers. In its later phase the Bhakti movement was influenced by Sufism.

At the present time there are a very large number of sects, a few major and many minor. Each sect has a founder, a cult, a body of doctrine, and a social organization of its own.

In most sects one deity is considered to be supreme and is identified with the supreme Brah man. While Visnu, Sivá, and Śakti are the most important nuclei for the formation of sects, they are not, however, the only nuclei, sects having also arisen around Suryā, Ganesá, and Dattatreya. It is wrong to speak of a single, homogeneous sect associated with any of these deities. The many Vaisnavite sects, for example, are distinguished from each other, first, by the particular form of Visnu and his consort that they worship; and second, where the same form and consort are worshiped, by differences in the mode of worship and body of theological doctrine; and finally, by their internal organization. There are elaborate rules regarding the making of idols, and there is a systematized iconography. The Śrī-Vaisnavas worship Visnu and his consort Laksmī; the Madhvas worship Krishna but not R̄dhā; the Nim-barkas, Vallabhacharis, and Chaitanyaites worship both Krishna and Rādhā but differ in several other respects; and the Rāmanandis worship only Rāma and his associates. Comparable differences exist among Śivá and Śakti sects.

Each sect recognizes several minor deities, in cluding its chief deity’s spouse, but they rarely include the entire Hindu pantheon. In each sect the founder and the things associated with him are objects of special veneration. Each sect has an elaborate complex of rituals for temple and domestic worship and for life-cycle ceremonies. It has its own specially emphasized festivals and sacrifices and its own identifying word or sentence of great religious potency. A sect mark put on the forehead easily distinguishes a member of one sect from that of another.

The major sects are known for their distinctive philosophical standpoints, as for example, the pure monism of the Smartas, the qualified monism of the Sri-Vaisnavas, and the dualism of the Madhvas. Minor sects do not have elaborate philosophies, although they do have their own special ideas and beliefs. While the philosophical and ethical position of a sect is important in understanding its religious practices, other elements are influential.

Each sect has not only its own sacred literature, written by its founder and other leaders, but also a selective attitude toward the great texts of Hinduism.

Another major problem in the study of sects is understanding the nature of their relation to ascet icism. Sects composed entirely of ascetics repre sent a bizarre element in Hinduism. The members of these sects go about scantily clothed, smear their bodies with funeral ashes, wear long, matted hair, and perform a number of physical feats. They maintain monasteries (akhādas, literally “gymnasiums”), where they are reputed to carry on occult practices, and they also manage temples, which enable them to keep in touch with the masses and recruit members.

Sects composed entirely of householders and those consisting of both ascetics and householders are the most numerous and popular. The ascetics in the latter sects are grouped into different mon asteries, each having its own core of hereditary adherents and its corporate property in temples, land, etc. Many ascetics are found to be involved in intersectarian rivalry and politics. When a sect is composed only of householders, the patrilineal descendants of the founder preside over the sect.

There are many small sects, whose membership is confined to a single linguistic region or to a small area within a linguistic region, but the membership of the major sects cuts across language barriers. In the case of a major sect, it is necessary to distinguish between areas with a high concen tration of its members and areas with relatively few members. Thus, while the majority of the Madhvas are found in southern India, there are small groups of them in Gujarat̄, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar̄, and Bengal. While the majority of Valla bhacharis are found in Gujarat̄ and Rājasthān, there are small groups of them all over northern, western, and eastern India. Another noteworthy feature is that, while the majority of the members, temples, and monasteries of a sect may be found in one part of the country, it may have a temple or a monastery in each of the major pilgrim centers in the country. The founder of every major sect traveled about the country, first in search of knowledge, then to win dialectical battles, and finally, to give discourses and recruit followers. Frequently the founder and his followers came from different regions. There were centers of religious learning in different areas, and there was a convergence of schools of learning at each center; finally the centers were woven into networks. Some of these centers, such as Banāras, Vrindāban, and Śrīrangam, enjoyed high prestige, and a scholar’s victory in religious disputation may have taken place at the court of the king or at a religious fair.

Normally, membership in a sect, unlike that in a caste, is not hereditary but comes through initiation. And there is hardly any sect that is composed of only one jāti. Even the Lingāyat sect of the Kannada region, which is commonly regarded as a caste, is composed of a number of jātis, or endog-amous units. And even when a whole caste is included in a single sect, membership in the sect is not automatic but by initiation. Sometimes the members of a caste will be distributed among more than one sect, and some may not belong to any sect at all. Some castes in Gujarat̄ contain not only members of two or three Hindu sects but also Jains. Sometimes the members of a single family have different sectarian affiliations. The rise and fall of various sects over the centuries indicates that religious positions were not always determined by birth.

No sect recruits members from all castes. Untouchables are very rarely admitted into sects including the high castes; even a sect admitting “touchable” castes would cover only a certain span in the caste hierarchy. Generally speaking, Un touchables have produced their own sects. The older sects recruited brāhmans and higher non-brāhmans but not lower non-brāhmans, and there are sects founded by non-brāhmans that do not include brāhmans. Even though a sect includes members from more than one caste, caste distinctions are not entirely obliterated.

Nonsectarian Hinduism

Nonsectarian Hinduism is found both in towns and villages; it is largely Sanskritic in towns and non-Sanskritic in villages.

Non-Sanskritic Hinduism is, however, an ideal type and has the following characteristics: the deities have non-Sanskritic names and oral myths attached to them; they are represented by unhewn stones or crude images; the modes of worship are local and do not follow any liturgy; offerings in clude meat and liquor, and the priests, or shamans, as well as the devotees, are generally drawn from the lower castes. All these conditions rarely occur simultaneously, and it is more common for the Sanskritic and non-Sanskritic elements to be mixed in varying proportions. Thus, a deity’s name may be a corrupt form of a Sanskritic name or a compound of a Sanskritic and a non-Sanskritic name. Usually village goddesses are regarded as manifestations of ParvatI, and village gods of Sivá. Such identification makes possible the acquisition of Sanskritic characteristics by non-Sanskritic deities, and it is not unknown for a deity with a single name to be worshiped according to non-Sanskritic modes in one village and Sanskritic modes in another. In one village the deity’s image may be housed in a fine temple, while in another it is embedded in the earth at the foot of a tree. Fre quently, there are institutionalized links between a village deity and the pilgrim center of the San skritic deity with which he is identified.

There are also temples to Sanskritic deities, where brāhmans are priests, the offerings vege tarian, and the mode of worship Sanskritic. But on certain occasions, such as the deity’s festival, the brahman withdraws and animals are sacrificially decapitated by a non-brahman. The brahman priest re-enters the temple only after purifying it. In temples where non-brāhmans are priests, brah mans may propitiate such a deity during an epi demic or other disaster. In exceptional situations a brahman might even make an offering of a fowl to a non-Sanskritic deity through a non-brahman friend.

It is important to note that the attitude of brāhmans and other high castes toward non-Sanskritic deities is not fixed and unalterable. There are different types of brāhmans, high as well as low, and learned as well as ignorant. (Among the Smarta brāhmans of Tamilnad, the priests, Kurukkals, are regarded as lower than other brāhmans. In Gujarat̄, the priestly Tapodhan brāhmans are rated very low indeed.) A learned brahman may have to oblige his powerful non-brahman patrons by manufacturing a myth in Sanskrit for one of their deities. Hindu mythology has grown in this manner (see the Appendix on “The Kaveri Myth” in Srinivas 1952, pp. 241-246).

A temple is sectarian only when it is part of a sectarian organization. In this sense a large ma jority of Hindu temples, including some of the biggest, are nonsectarian. Many of these are extremely wealthy, having vast land estates, large amounts of jewelry and precious metals, and also a considerable income from offerings by devotees. They employ many people and have an elaborate and complex body of ritual, calendrical festivals, special pūjās, etc. Although nonsectarian, these temples are subject to regional sectarian influ ences. For example, the modes of worship in non-sectarian temples of Krishna in Gujarat̄ are influ enced by the modes of worship prevalent in Krishna temples of the dominant Vallabhachari sect of the area.

In the majority of temples dedicated to San-skritic deities, the priests are brāhmans; only vege tarian and nonalcoholic offerings are made, and the rituals are conducted according to a liturgical text. Even in some Sivá temples, where priests are Lingayats (southern India) or Gosais (Gujarat̄), they perform liturgical rituals and make only vegetarian and nonalcoholic offerings. In many Sákti temples, particularly those influenced by the left-hand Sákti sects, the deity is worshiped according to the Tantric texts and offerings of meat and liquor are made. However, although Sanskritization has had a widespread effect, some temples continue to sacrifice animals and make liquor offerings on certain occasions. In Bengal, Bihar̄, and Assam blood sacrifice still remains a normal mode of worship.

Nonsectarian Hindus generally worship many deities, although there are some who are devotees of a single deity, sometimes a deity in a particular temple. It is common to see a devout Hindu going on a daily round of the principal temples in a village or in a ward of a city. They observe the festivals of Sivá, Visnu, and others, and they go on pilgrimages to great shrines all over the country.

Hinduism and the polity

Devout Hindus regarded their king as a repre sentative of God on earth. This belief was common to all, including brāhmans, who themselves claimed to be gods on earth. The social order, as repre sented by the caste system, was also believed to be divinely created. The rules of the social and moral order were subsumed under the ethicoreligious concept of dharma. In his role as the guardian of dharma, the king had to maintain the caste system. This meant that the idea of inequality expressed in the caste system had the king’s support and sanction. Different castes had different rights, duties, and privileges, and punishment had to take into account the caste of the offender and that of the victim. The disabilities traditionally imposed on untouchables also had the king’s sanction. His powers included the right to promote or demote individual castes, and he was the final court of appeal in any matter pertaining to caste. This power was so integral to kingship that it was exercised by the Mughal rulers and also by the British in their very early days in India.

It is important to remember that the king had this power, inasmuch as uncritical reliance on the sacred literature conveys the impression that the brāhmans were all-powerful and that kings only carried out their decisions. The privileges enjoyed by brāhmans and religious personages were in fact conferred on them by the king, and they could be withdrawn. As recently as 1892, in the princely state of Mysore, the government passed an order that all nominations to the headship of monasteries must have the prior approval of the maharaja, and failure to obtain this approval would involve the retraction of grants of land and money made by the state (Smith 1963, pp. 302-303). A swāmī, or head of a monastery, is revered, and the maharaja even performs the ritual of washing the feet of some swāmīs; but he also has the power to determine who becomes a swāmī.

The Hindu king had the same beliefs and values and took part in the same ceremonies as his peo ple, although the manner of his celebrating a festival or his devotion to a particular deity or temple often set the religious style of the kingdom. Temples favored by royalty (e.g., Tirupati, Tanjore, and Madurai) developed into great pilgrimage centers. They were generously endowed with land and jewelry; famous sculptors were invited to lavish their skill on them; and great musicians sang there on certain occasions. The conversion of a prince to a sect was an important event in its history, and a large number of people followed their king into the new faith. And while there is a tradition of tolerance in Hinduism, discrimination against the members of a rival sect was not unknown.

It is clear that no conceptual separation between the state and the church was possible in the Hindu system of ideas. Nor was the need for such a distinction very necessary. First, Hinduism did not possess a powerful, centralized church, with a sin gle pontiff and a hierarchy of officials, which would constitute a potential threat to kingly su premacy. Second, the castewise division of functions confined brāhmans to the religious realm, while the ksatriyas had the political realm to themselves. That a separation between the two did not always obtain should not surprise us. In fact, the development of sacrifice during the late Vedic period marked an increase in brahman power and arrogance, and Buddhism and Jainism both ap pealed to ksatriyas and vaiśyas, partly because of their rejection of brahman pretensions (Ghurye 1932, pp. 65, 69, 70, in 1950 edition). Speaking generally, it was not so much the throne that attracted brāhmans as the power behind it.

Hinduism has a tradition of tolerance, and Hindu rulers in general seem to have been hos pitable to different sects and religions. Hindu tolerance is, however, related to the caste system in several ways. First, each caste has its own style of life, and from childhood onward people accept diversity as a basis for relationship. Second, caste, along with village and extended kin groups, ensured conformity in practice, and a stable society could afford to give its members intellectual free dom. The other source of such freedom was the institution of the holy man, who ritually renounced the world—his relatives even performed funeral rites for him at his initiation into the order—and who could then preach as he wished. Max Weber has rightly said, “The freedom of thought in ancient India was so considerable as to find no parallel in the West before the most recent age” (quoted in Smith 1963, p. 62).

Hindu tolerance of other religions and its hospitality to new ideas provided a favorable soil for the eventual declaration of India as a secular state. There were, however, other tendencies, and certain nineteenth-century attempts (e.g., the Arya Samaj) to purge Hinduism of its many evils by advocating a return to the Vedas contained frankly revivalist elements. Moreover, Indian nationalism also expressed itself occasionally in the Hindu idiom, and this had the effect of alienating the Muslims. But during British rule there emerged a highly westernized Hindu elite, which, while rooted in the country and its traditions, was committed to independence, democracy, egalitarianism, and secularism. It is this elite that not only declared India a secular state but also attempted wholeheartedly to establish the principle of the equality of man.

Hinduism and economic development. Weber (1921) thought that the Hindu belief in the trans migration of the soul and the related doctrines of karma and dharma, seen in the context of caste, produced an irrational, otherworldly social ethic that prevented the development of industrial capi talism. Weber’s thesis has gained wide popularity, and Hinduism is now believed to be one of the major obstacles in India’s economic development. This belief, however, rests on a partial view of Hinduism. Weber himself noted a few elements of a “rational” ethic in Hinduism—the existence of this-worldly asceticism and positive economic motivation among Jains, Lingāyats, and Madhvas, and an occupational ethic among merchants and arti sans. There are elements in Hinduism favorable to economic development (Singer et al. 1958; Lambert & Hoselitz 1963). The very ascetics whom Weber considered disseminators of irrational and otherworldly ideas among the masses are often the heads of large and wealthy monasteries and temples, the management of which calls for considerable administrative ability.

Hindu reform and modernization. Hinduism has, in the course of its long history, undergone many and radical changes, and several diverse forces have contributed to making Hinduism what it is today. The establishment of the Pax Britannica released many new forces, affecting Hinduism at every point. The disruption by the British of some of the social institutions of Hinduism, such as caste, untouchability, satī, human sacrifice, female infanticide, infant marriage, etc., made it clear to the orthodox that the state could use its power to alter their religious institutions. European missionaries who came to India for evangelical pur poses sharply criticized Hinduism, and Hindus were made to realize poignantly that some influential outsiders thought that everything was wrong with their religion. Reformist Hindus—many of whom had attended mission schools—could not help remembering missionary criticisms of their religion, and in creating institutions to bring about changes in their society, they naturally emulated the organizations and work of their critics. From a long-term point of view the most important element in the reinterpretation and reformulation of Hinduism was the emergence of a westernized Indian elite, which eventually took over power from the British and which used that power to introduce fundamental changes, such as the abolition of untouchability, the legalization of inter-caste marriage, widow marriage, and divorce, and the enforcement of monogamy. It is this elite that after a century and a half of Western influence declared India to be a secular state. Secularism does not mean that evil social institutions will be allowed to flourish, just as the principle of equality has not prevented the state from giving a variety of special privileges to Scheduled Castes and Tribes for a specific period of time, in order to enable them to catch up with the others.

One of the great reforming leaders of the new elite was Rājā Rām Mohan Roy, who founded a religious society, the Brāhma Samāj, in 1828. A daring religious thinker, scholar, and educator, Ram Mohan Roy was influenced by Vedānta and Islam before he studied Christianity; he was a monotheist and opposed to idolatry. He was an able and courageous controversialist and fought the or thodox pandits with arguments they could appreciate. For instance, in his efforts to purge Hinduism of the idolatrous accretions it had acquired over the centuries, he advocated a return to Vedic Hinduism: “Like Luther, who appealed to the Bible as an authority against medieval corruptions, he took his stand on the Vedas, the earliest Hindu scriptures, in which he found a form of pure Hinduism, of which the basis was a belief in one God, which was not vitiated by idolatry, and which gave no sanction to distinctions of caste or such practices as suttee” (O’Malley 1941, p. 67). (Dayananda Saraswati, who founded the Ārya Sāmaj, a religious brotherhood, in 1875, was only following Ram Mohan Roy in his efforts to introduce radical changes in Hinduism by championing a revival of Vedic Hinduism.) Ram Mohan Roy was aware that an appeal to the authority of the Vedas would carry weight with the orthodox pandits, and he set the style for a debate that went on for nearly a hundred years between reformists and diehards, both of whom quoted the scriptures in support of their views.

Ram Mohan Roy also discovered that a principle of reason lay at the basis of the classical Indian philosophy of Vedanta, as set forth in the Upanisads. “Ram Mohan Roy abandoned the traditionally accepted bases of Hindu religion and Brahminic authority in favor of reason. Hinduism could be justified in its essentials on the ground that it provided a reasoned explanation of reality. Everything from the West could be considered in the same light. There could be assimilation and not merely borrowing at random” (Spear 1961, p. 296). He thus laid the foundation for a reinterpretation of Hinduism freeing it not only from social institutions such as caste and untouchability but also from a welter of beliefs, ideas, myths, and ritual. He did not regard these as the “essence” of Hinduism. The essence was selected portions of the Vedanta, the Bhagavad Gita, and bhakti or devotional literature. Subsequent reformers, such as Vivekānanda, Saraswati, Aurobindo Ghose, Tilak, Gandhi, and Rādhākrishnan, carried on the work of reinterpretation. Over the years the reformers, the greatest of whom was Gandhi, built up a body of public opinion in favor of introducing drastic changes in Hinduism. It was this opinion which later enabled the state to take legislative action against certain Hindu practices that were repugnant to the modern outlook.

The second half of the nineteenth century saw the beginnings of the growth of nationalist sentiment among Hindus, and nascent patriotism drew upon Hindu sentiment and traditions. A concern for the people and the country inevitably meant activism, and the Bhagavad Gita provided a religious source for political activism and altruism. The karma marga, or “path of works,” received emphasis at the expense of the other two paths. Two contrary processes have been gaining strength in modern India. The first one is Sanskritization, a process by which the rites, customs, beliefs, and style of life of the higher castes, and in particular the brāhmans, are taken over by the lower groups, including the Untouchables and the tribal peoples. But while the lower groups in creasingly Sanskritize their style of life, the higher strata become increasingly westernized. Westernization, like Sanskritization, is a multilayered process, including the acceptance of Western technology, Western political, legal, and social institutions, and Western literature, philosophy, and science. The spread of Sanskritization and west ernization across the country and to different structural levels is beginning to produce nationwide uniformities in religion and culture. Everywhere village deities traditionally associated with epidemics of diseases such as plague, smallpox, and cholera seem to be losing ground, while the prestigious Sanskritic deities are becoming more popular. Blood sacrifices and offerings of liquor to deities are also becoming less popular. The horizon of the peasant is widening, and the richer peasants now visit pilgrimage centers several hundred miles away from their villages. Films, radio, textbooks, newspapers, journals, and paper back books are strengthening “regional” and “all-India” Hinduism, at the expense of strictly “local” forms. Life-cycle rituals are becoming abbreviated, while the purely social aspects of such rituals get elaborated; this seems to be particularly true of educated Hindus in towns. In fact, the forms Hinduism is taking among the educated urban Hindus is only beginning to be explored by social scientists (see, for example, Singer 1959). The search for a satisfying philosophy leads many members of this class to become devotees of one or another spiritual leader. Some of these leaders are traditional heads of monasteries, while others are modern figures. Hinduism has in the past depended upon caste, village, joint family, Hindu kings, monasteries, and centers of pilgrimage for its perpetuation. Radical changes have occurred in all of them. Moreover, there has been a growth in secularization, egalitarianism, and rationalism. But new organizations such as the Ramakrishna Mission, the various hermitages of religious leaders, the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, and finally, departments of the central government such as the All-India Radio, and in some states departments supervising temple administration, are reinterpreting Hinduism in a modern direction.

M. N. Srinivas and A. M. Shah

[See alsoAsian Society, article onSouth Asia; Caste, especially the article onThe Indian Caste System; Pollution.]


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The word Hinduism is used to denote the religious beliefs, practices, and social views of people who form the religious majority (approximately 80%) of India. Approximately 90 percent of Hindus live in India, and almost 70 percent of Indians live in its villages. The earliest stages of religious life in India date as far back as between 3000 and 1500 it was practiced in the Indus Valley civilization. The Aryans, a people who spoke an Indo-European language, invaded India around 1500 b.c.e., conquering and subduing the indigenous inhabitants, and assimilating some elements of the latter's religious worldview into their own. Subsequently, the Vedic religion of the Aryans gained prominence as they settled and spread throughout India. Since then, orthodox Hinduism has evolved for almost 3500 years and has undergone numerous changes in the face of challenges from within (Buddhism and Jainism) and without (Islam and Christianity). These extensive evolutionary developments have kept Hinduism from becoming a homogeneous religious system. Hinduism is complex, and the beliefs and practices of the various traditions within Hinduism are diverse to the extent that they may seem contradictory. However, there are some beliefs that are commonly held by almost all Hindus.

Basic Beliefs of Hindus

Hindus hold to a cyclical view of human life. All sentient beings (human beings and members of the animal world) have an atman (the true self, or loosely translated as soul), which reincarnates by undergoing a number of births and rebirths. This notion of reincarnation is called samsara. An atman can reincarnate as an animal or human being, and rebirth as a human being is considered superior to an animal form of life. The bodily form an atman assumes in the next life is determined by the totality of one's karma (deeds or actions) of the present life. If, as a human being, a person lives a life in which good deeds outnumber bad deeds, then the atman reincarnates into a human being with a purer spiritual nature, which enables the possibility of further superior rebirths. The opposite is true if one's bad deeds outnumber one's good deeds. The goal of all human beings is to attain moksha—liberation from the endless cycle of births and rebirths. When a person attains moksha, he or she is believed to enter into a state where one's atman becomes one with Brahman. Brahman is the impersonal term referring to the eternal, universal, infinite, spiritual reality, and essence that humanity personally refers to as God (Brahman is often confused with the priestly group in Hinduism called Brahmans. However, to distinguish between the two, the latter is spelled either as Brahmin or without a capital "b").

In Hinduism, there are three margas (paths) through which a person can attain moksha. The first path is jnana-marga. Jnana can be translated as awareness or insight. When a person becomes aware that he or she is simply a drop in the ocean of Brahman and begins to detach him or herself from worldly statuses and possessions, he or she can begin to move towards moksha through jnana-marga. The second path is karma-marga, which entails faithful participation in ritual sacrifices that are often dictated and presided over by a Brahmin (priest). The third path is bhakti-marga. Bhakti refers to a selfless devotion and commitment to a personal deity.

The two most commonly worshipped deities in Hinduism are Vishnu and Shiva. Vishnu is the deity who preserves life, and is also worshipped as Krishna or Rama, who are believed to be two of Vishnu's nine earthly incarnations (avataras). Vishnu will incarnate for the tenth time when our present age morally deteriorates into injustice and chaos. Unlike Vishnu, Shiva does not incarnate into human form. Shiva is worshipped based on the variety of attributes he manifests. Shiva shows benevolence towards devotees who appeal to him for assistance. Shiva is also feared as the deity who takes away human life and destroys the cosmos, and yet, he is also believed to be the one who recreates a new cosmos after destroying the previous one. As the god of death, Shiva is believed to frequent cremation grounds. Shiva is also the model of an ascetic since he is believed to be sitting in calm meditation in the Himalayan Mountains. Reverence and worship of the female counterparts of Vishnu and Shiva are equally significant. Lakshmi is the divine consort of Vishnu. Parvati is that of Shiva when she is imaged as a benevolent mother; in her fierce forms, Parvati is manifested as the goddesses Kali and Durga. Devotion to Durga and Kali is referred to as the Shakti tradition. Shakti (often translated as energy) is the active dimension of the passive ascetic Shiva. Apart from these main deities, almost each village in India has its own local grama-devatas (village deities). Nevertheless, when a Hindu is questioned about the complexity of multiple deities, the common response is, "there are many names, but God is One."

The oldest scriptures in Hinduism are the Vedas, but the three most popular Hindu scriptures are the two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and the Bhagavad-Gita, which is a philosophical section in the Mahabharata. The Puranas are a collection of stories of the Hindu gods and goddesses, and the lives of the great heroes and heroines of the Hindu faith.

Caste System

The traditional caste system consists of a hierarchy of four castes (varnas): Brahmins (priests and teachers), Kshatriyas (rulers and warriors), Vaishyas (merchants and cultivators), and Shudras (servants). The non-Aryans who were incorporated into the Aryan society belonged to the Shudra caste. Those who were rejected on the grounds of ritual impurity were treated as and called Untouchables because members of the four castes did not associate with them. With the expansion and spread of the Hindu worldview throughout India, the division, hierarchy, and names of the traditional castes were not maintained, with the exception of the Brahmins, who claimed and were acknowledged as possessing a degree of ritual purity that retained their superiority above the other castes. The word dharma is central to Hindu belief. Hindus often refer to their religion as Hindu Dharma, basically stating that Hinduism is a way of life rather than a religion.

The key constructors and defenders of the caste system, the Brahmins, claimed that the presence of an organized caste system, with its elaborate rules and required caste duty (dharma), prevented society from degenerating into chaos. The Brahmins thus devised rules for each caste (varna) in accordance with the four stages (ashramas) in the life of a man (the Vedic society was patriarchal): celibate student, married householder, retired forest dweller, and the ascetic stage. This whole system was called varnashrama dharma— the duties of each caste in the four stages of a man's life. In the first stage, a boy receives his education by studying under a guru, and in the second stage he marries and has children. In the third stage, he retires with his wife to the forest after handing over the responsibility of the household to his oldest son. In the final stage he sends his wife home to their son and renounces all contact with the society by becoming an ascetic, and attempting to pursue moksha with greater intention. Among the four stages of the ashramas, most people only completed the first three. Retired couples usually stayed with their oldest son, and very rarely did a man become an ascetic in his old age. Basically, the concept of the four ashramas sought to synthesize the necessity of order in society and the spiritual liberation (moksha) of the individual.

With the advent and expansion of modern industries and Western education in the postindependent (after 1947) cities of India, the significance and demands of the caste system has weakened. In the major cities, a person's professional and economic status often determines his or her social standing. The secular constitution of India also outlaws untouchability and recognizes all Indian citizens as equal. Almost all urban Hindus intermingle professionally and socially, and many marry outside their caste. However, in rural areas and smaller towns, the stringent nature of the caste system and its requirements continue to define society and the lives of its members.

Hinduism and the Family

The Hindu view of caste, ashramas, and family are inseparable—every person is born into a family belonging to a particular caste, and passes through the four stages of life by practicing dharma appropriate to each stage of life.

Among the four ashramas, the second stage of the married householder is central because it births and sustains the three other ashramas. When a man marries, he pays the three debts he owes to the ancestors, the gods, and his teacher (guru). To the ancestors, a married man pays his debt by having children, especially a male child, to continue the family lineage. Since the surname of the average Hindu is usually the family name, when a son is born the family name continues. This is not the case with daughters, who marry into another family and take up the surname of their husbands. Continuing the family lineage and its name is crucial because the memories and integrity of the ancestors are kept alive through these. The name (specifically surname) of a family is often synonymous with integrity and respect. Maintaining family integrity is necessary because it reflects the extent to which family members are faithful to theirdharma. When a son marries a woman from a reputable family, earns a living through a just and honest vocation, and provides for his family, he honors the ancestors. Furthermore, because dharma is inclusive of religious traditions and practices relating to moksha, when a man imparts family dharma to his children, he enables their salvation and that of generations to come.

As a householder, a man pays back debts owed to the gods, the providers of prosperity and comfort, by offering appropriate sacrifices and prayers to them. Giving alms to the poor and religious mendicants, and occasionally feeding Brahmins and financially remunerating them for their services, are also deemed as acts symbolizing gratitude to the gods for material benefits enjoyed by a family. A man pays back debts owed to his guru by transmitting knowledge and wisdom received from the guru to his children. However, in the cities and towns of India, and in some villages, the average child rarely studies under a guru. In these contexts, a Western school system is the common mode of education. Furthermore, girls are equal recipients of education in cities and major towns. Urban Indian women who receive a Western form of education hold professional jobs just like their Western counterparts. Many of these women also contribute substantially to household income and have an equal voice in family decisions.

For Hindus, a family is larger than the nuclear family; family includes the extended family— maternal and paternal grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. In India, especially in towns and villages still untouched by a free-market economic structure and modern culture that dominates the cities, many people are born into a joint family system. A joint family basically comprises paternal parents, their sons, daughters-in-law, unmarried daughters, and grandchildren. Here, the oldest male is the head of the entire household. Respect for a family member is based on age because the older a person, the wiser he or she is about family dharma. The older men make the financial decisions, and the older women are often informally consulted. In instances where a joint family does not exist, older members as still consulted before important decisions are made, especially in relation to marriage. Among Hindus, the family is the ideal environment through which Hindu dharma is passed from one generation to another—a child begins learning about religious traditions, epic stories, ethics, norms, and values, especially by the example set by family members.

When a person marries in the context of a Hindu family, he or she may literally wed an individual, but on a broader level a person marries into a family. Because a family is the embodiment of dharma, a prospective bride is considered a candidate only when the traditions, practices, and economic status of her family match that of the prospective bridegroom's family. Most Hindu marriages are arranged—relatives and friends suggest the name and family of prospective brides or bridegrooms. Before a family considers a person as a candidate for their son or daughter, the family Brahmin is consulted to examine the horoscopes of the two individuals concerned, and to suggest whether there is a possible match. In a rural setting, after the approval of the family Brahmin, the decision regarding marriage is almost always made by the parents and the extended family of the people involved. In this context, very rarely are the prospective bride or groom's opinions considered. If this process does not result in a wedding, the family search for a bride and bridegroom continues until two families agree that their son and daughter would make a good couple. Among middle class families in Indian cities, depending on the level of conservatism, the man and woman may be allowed to meet alone on one or a number of occasions before a marriage decision is made. Since the 1990s, with the increase of the influence of Western culture, many young men and women in major Indian cities find a prospective bride or bridegroom through the process of a friendship or dating, and then inform their parents of their mutual attraction. However, in the final decision, the families of the man and woman are definitely involved. Unlike in the West, a man and a woman do not get engaged and then inform their families of the "good news."

Household Religious Practice

Almost every Hindu home has a shrine or altar that contains metal, wood, stone, or print images of the family deity and other gods and goddesses. After bathing in the morning, family members, especially married adults, devote time to a brief ritual and prayers (puja) in front of the altar before they begin their daily tasks. Prayers are performed at least twice a day, in the morning and at night. In most families, the mothers play a central role in maintaining the religious life of the family. Mothers pray for the well-being of their husbands and children, teach their children about the basic elements of the family faith, lead the family prayers and rituals on significant religious days, and undergo fasts on behalf of the family.

Major Hindu Family Rituals

There are four major samskaras, or life-cycle rites, that mark the prominent transitions of a Hindu's life. These are namakarana (naming of a child), upanayana (initiation thread ceremony for males of the first three castes), vivaha (wedding), and antyeshi samskara (funeral sacrament). A Brahmin is usually involved in conducting these rituals. Along with the nuclear and extended family, relatives and friends attend and participate in these rituals. The death rite has to be performed by the son (preferably the oldest), or the closest male extended family member or relative who is available. In the case of the wedding and funeral rites, the ceremonies can last for many days. The most expensive of these rituals is the wedding ceremony because most families like to celebrate it with pomp and show.

Hinduism Beyond India

There is not one single form of Hinduism practiced outside India. Hindus from all parts of India belonging to various castes have migrated overseas, taking with them the traditions and practices that they were brought up in at home. The social, political, and economic environment of the countries that Hindus have migrated to influence their faith and practices. However, the basic beliefs and practices of Hindus in and outside India do not differ.

Outside India, religious movements devoted to the teachings of a particular guru (religious teacher and usually the founder of the movement) have flourished. Gurus have been instrumental in nurturing the faith of Hindus, functioned as mediators of tradition, and offered advice on how the faith is to be practiced in foreign lands. Many of these gurus and their movements have often attracted followers from other ethnic backgrounds. This has altered the traditional definition of Hinduism as a religion whose members are strictly ethnic Indians. Many Hindus of other ethnic backgrounds founded religious movements that promote Hinduism and make it attractive to mostly non-Indian ethnic groups. These movements follow the basic teachings and practice of Hinduism, but do not contain elements of the faith that are influenced by the Hindu social world in India, such as the caste system. Common practices of these groups are the chanting of mantras, meditation, hatha yoga, and belief in reincarnation and vegetarianism. These movements have often successfully filled a spiritual vacuum and offer an alternative to Christian and Western ideas and practices.

Among Hindus outside India, the family continues to be the place where children are nurtured in Hindu dharma. In this context, women particularly are influential in the spiritual lives of children. For diaspora Hindus, a developed Hindu identity becomes a crucial issue for their children because they live among people of numerous faiths; therefore, efforts are made to inculcate the Hindu faith to their children more deliberately. Children often attend classes (similar to Christian Sunday school) on the Hindu faith at temples and religious centers, where the Hindu community gathers on Sundays and religious holidays. However, Hindu children outside India do not share the same experience as those in India who are surrounded by the Hindu social world, and where Hinduism is the largest religious group. Hindus outside India are always part of a religious minority, which alters some of the dynamics of the social beliefs and practices in which children are brought up. Thus, it is common for families to visit India during vacations to expose their children to Hinduism as family relatives living in India practice it. During such trips, families make pilgrimages to holy sites and make special vows and offerings to the deities.

See also:Asian-American Families; Family Rituals; India; Interfaith Marriage; Religion


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laju m. balani

scott w. taylor

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Hinduism embraces a great diversity of beliefs and forms of worship, and it has therefore been called a family of religions rather than one religion. Hindus form the majority population of India (approximately 82% of Indias 1.25 billion people). About 45 million Hindus live outside of India, mostly in the neighboring countries of Nepal (where Hinduism is the state religion), Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. About 2.5 million Hindus live in North America, where they have established dozens of temples.

British authors in the early nineteenth century coined the term Hinduism by adding -ism to the word Hindu, which had been used by the Ancient Persians to identify the inhabitants of the land beyond the Indus River. Hindus themselves had called their tradition Vaidika dharma (the Vedic Dispensation) or Sanātana dharma (the Eternal Law). The Vedic civilization arose in northwestern India around 4000 BCE, and the Indus civilization (c. 25001900 BCE) may have been part of it. When the settlements had to be abandoned around 2000 BCE, due to a major climate change, most moved east into the Yamunā-Ganges Doab, which became the new home of Vedic civilization, with Mathurā (on the Yamunā) and Vārāņasī (on the Ganges) as main cultural centers.

Hinduism is closely tied to the land, and the Mātrī-bhūmī (Motherland) has a unique emotional appeal for Hindus. The physical features of the country are associated with Hindu gods and goddesses and with Hindu religious practices and eschatological expectations. The great rivers of India are not only important bodies of water; they are also sources of inspiration and ritual purification, as well as divinities to be worshipped. Many towns and cities along their banks are places where pilgrims congregate to obtain supernatural blessings. In addition, mountains such as the Himālayas, the Vindhyas, the Ghats, and the Nilgiri Hills are the abodes of gods. Hundreds of thousands of temples, small and large, embellish Indias landscape, visibly transforming the country into the Hindu Holy Land.


Hindu scriptures have come down through the ages in two major streams: the Vedas and the Āgamas. The Vedas are the literature of the religious professionals, to be memorized and recited only by Brahmins. They comprise the four Samhitās (collections of hymns) and a large number of Brāhmaṇas (ritual texts), Āraṇyakas (forest treatises), and Upaniṣads (mystical writings). The Āgamas are the sacred literature of the people at large. The Great Epics, the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, are also important sources of Hindu religion.

Many Hindus consider the Bhagavadgîtā, a section of the Mahābhārata, an epitome of their religion. The Purāṇas, bible-like compendia of Hindu lore, are widely read by Hindus from all classes. Numerous texts are considered to be revealed scriptures by the followers of specific worship traditions. They contain creation narratives, moral teachings, worship rituals, genealogies of kings and patriarchs, myths of gods and goddesses, edifying stories, and eschatological lore. Based on these texts, poets and playwrights such as Kālidāsa and Bāna (fifth or sixth century CE) produced dramatic literature of a high order in Sanskrit. Poet-saints such as Tulasīdāsa and Kamban (sixteenth century CE) created popular vernacular versions of the classics that continue to be performed, while countless Bollywood films take their stories from these books.

The language of the most ancient literary documents of Hinduism, Vedic is an archaic form of Sanskrit, the refined language, standardized around 600 BCE by Pānini. Sanskrit was called Deva-vāni, or the language of the gods. It became the language of Hindu scholarship and classical poetry as well as Hindu religious literature. All modern North Indian vernaculars are largely derived from Sanskrit.

Domestic and public rituals were a prominent feature of early Vedic culture and were considered indispensable for the well-being of individuals and society. In their performance, hundreds of intricate and interrelated rules had to be observed. The construction of the altars demanded the solution of difficult arithmetic and geometric problems, and the timing of sacrifices was based on precise astronomical observations. The change of seasons was accompanied by rituals, as were the various life stages. Public offerings ensured the fertility of fields and domestic animals, while home rituals accompanied birth, adolescence, marriage, and death. In later centuries pūjā, the worship of great gods like Visnu and Śiva, became the predominant form of religion. But the performance of Vedic rituals continues to this very day. For example, Brahmins still recite Vedic hymns at upanayaṇa (initiation), vivāha (marriage), and antyṣṭi (last rites). Many Hindus participate in daily temple worship and partake of consecrated food (prasāda), and the major temple festivals are great public events for every village and town. Domestic rituals, such as offering food to the deity or waving lights before the image of the deity, are also still widespread in India.


Traditional Hindu society functioned on the assumption that humans are not born equal and that their birth in different varṇas (classes) defines their specific rights and duties. According to the Puruṣa Sūkta, the Vedic creation myth, Brahmins, born from the Great Beings mouth, were the custodians of the Veda, the highest in rank. Kṣatriyas (or Kshatriyas), born from its chest, were rulers and warriors. Vaiśyas (Vaisyas), born from its bellybusinesspeople, artisans, farmers and clerkshad to provide the necessities of life for society at large. Śūdras (Sudras), originating from its feet, were to serve the upper three varṇas. The three higher varṇas alone were entitled to receive the saṃskāras (sacraments) that made them dvi-jātis (twice-born). Ati-śūdras (Ati-sudras), the people below the Śūdras (also called Asprihyas or untouchables) were outside the pale of Hindu society proper. They were relegated to doing work that was considered ritually polluting, such as skinning carcasses, cleaning latrines, and disposing of the dead. They were not allowed to dwell in the village proper and were not entitled to using amenities reserved for caste people. Each of the four varṇas consists of hundreds of jātis (birth lines, or subcastes) that also observe ranking among themselves.

Duties also varied with respect to stages in life. A twice-born male was to spend the first twelve years after initiation with a reputable teacher (brahmacarya). He then had to marry and to procreate children. After the children had grown up he was to live as a forest-dweller in a life of simplicity and meditation. Finally he was to enter the stage of renunciation, and as a homeless pilgrim he was to visit holy places until death relieved him of the burden of his body. While this schema was never literally carried out on a large scale, it provided a value orientation that was widely respected.

Early in their history, Hindus developed principles of theory and practice of government (rajya-dharma). The Mahābhārata devotes long sections to this, and the Kautilîya Arthaśāstra, ascribed to the prime minister of Chandragupta Maurya (321293 BCE), provides a detailed description of a well-ordered professional administration. One of the aims of the Hindu jāgaran (awakening) that began in the early twentieth century was to reestablish India as a Hindu nation. The Hindū Mahāsabhā, the first modern Hindu political party, was founded in 1909. It maintained that Hindus have a right to live in peace as Hindus, to legislate, to rule themselves in accordance with Hindu genius and ideals and establish by all lawful and legal means a Hindu State, based on Hindu culture and tradition, so that Hindu ideology and way of life would have a homeland of its own (Pattabhiram, p. 217). Vir Savarkar, one of its main ideologues, strove to unify Hindu-India under the banner of Hindutva, a cultural Hindu identity. In 1926, K. V. Hedgewar founded the Rāṣṭrīya Svayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in order to counteract Muslim influence in Indian politics. The RSS leader M. S. Golwalkar was instrumental in creating the Viśva Hindū Pariṣad in 1964, which aims at unifying all Hindus across the different denominations. It vigorously promotes and defends Hindu interests both within India and abroad.


In the sixth century BCE, movements arose in India that challenged the necessity of rituals (especially the animal sacrifices) and the mediating function of Brahmins. Among the breakaway factions that survived the centuries are Jainism and Buddhism. Jîna Mahāvîra, the last reformer of a more ancient religion, declared ahiṃsā (nonkilling) to be the highest moral principle. Gautama Buddha, the latest of a long series of Enlightened ones, taught that ethical perfection, rather than birth, made a person a Brahmin. For several centuries the traditions based on the teachings of these sages, Jainism and Buddhism, respectively, were the majority religions in India. Under the Imperial Guptas (320540 CE), the Brahmins launched a major campaign to lure people back to Hindu rituals. They built temples and encouraged the composition of popular religious books. After the disintegration of the Gupta Empire, many smaller kingdoms arose in various parts of India. Hindu culture also reached out to Southeast Asia as far as the Philippines, and the languages and arts of Southeast Asia still show a strong Indian influence. From the twelfth century onward, most of India came under the rule of Muslim invaders, who destroyed many Hindu temples and built mosques on their sites. These actions are still the cause of much friction between Hindus and Muslims today.


Vedic religion was family based. Specific branches (śākhas) of the Veda were preserved in individual families, who held hereditary offices in public rituals. The home was also a center for religious practices, and the sacred hearth-fire was not allowed to die out. Families were responsible for the life-cycle rituals, and husband and wife together had to perform the domestic rituals. Young boys moved into the families of gurus to be taught. The role of the guru reached great prominence when specific worship communities developed under the leadership of charismatic personalities, who often claimed to be the embodiment of a deity. These ācāryas (Masters) shaped mainstream Hinduism and still exercise great influence on Hindus at large, regulating the lives of their followers and reinterpreting scriptures and traditional teachings.

Pluralism was a hallmark of Hindu religion from its very beginning. Many gods and goddesses are invoked in Vedic hymns, and Hindus continue to worship a great variety of deities in their temples. There is no common creed to which all Hindus subscribe, nor is there a single doctrine or practice that is followed by all Hindus, except perhaps the nominal acceptance of the Veda as a revealed scripture and the belief in karma and rebirth. It is natural for Hindus with an inquiring mind to analyze and investigate the teachings of their traditions, and professional philosophers with a Hindu background also deal with religious issues in a philosophically meaningful way. Hindu philosophical systems (darśanas) are not mere abstract constructs, they are also paths for the realization of the highest purpose of life (sādhanas). Among the qualifications required for beginning philosophical study is the earnest desire to find liberation from the sufferings of the cycle of rebirths (samsāra), caused by ignorance concerning the true nature of reality.

Education was always a high priority for Hindus: the early life of Brahmins was devoted to study, and continued private study (svādhayāya) was one of their lifelong obligations. In addition to the private, tutorial-like teaching from guru to disciple, imparted in the gurus home, schools were attached to ashrams and temples from early on. The well-organized, ancient Indian universities, which were publicly as well as privately sponsored, taught not only the Veda, but also the eighteen sciences, later supplemented by the sixty-four arts. The basic curriculum included linguistics, arts and crafts, medicine, logic and spirituality. High ethical standards were expected both from students and teachers. The most famous of these universities were Takṣaśīlā in the Punjab, and Nālandā and Mithilā in Bihar.

Hindus believe in a balance of values, expressed in the four aims of life (puruṣārthas): the acquisition of wealth (artha), the enjoyment of life (kāma), the practice of morality (dharma), and the search for final emancipation (mokṣa).


The central ritual of Vedic culture was performed at astronomically fixed times on altars built with specifically produced bricks arranged in a prescribed geometric pattern. The altar was conceived as a symbol of the human body as well as of the universe: the 360 bricks of an altar represented the 360 days of the year and the 360 bones in the human body. The building of altars in different configurations, and their change in shape and volume, involved a sophisticated geometry. The Śulva-sūtras provided the rules for constructing a variety of shapes of altars and their permutations. Astronomical knowledge of a fairly high order was required to determine the right time for the performance of Vedic sacrifices. One of the auxiliary Vedic sciences, the Jyotiṣa, explains how to determine the positions of the sun and moon at solstices, and of the new and full moon in the circle of the twenty-seven nakṣatras. Geometry and other fields of Indian mathematics developed out of the requirements for the Vedic sacrifice. Algebra, in spite of its Arabic name, is an Indian invention, as are the concept of zero, the decimal system, and Arabic numerals.

The Atharvaveda contains invocations relating to bodily and mental diseases. Its auxiliary Āyurveda, (life-science) was mainly oriented toward preventing diseases and healing through herbal remedies. Good health was not only considered generally desirable, it was viewed as a precondition for reaching spiritual fulfillment. Medicine as a charity was widely recommended and supported by Hindu rulers. Two Indian medical handbooks, the Cāraka-saṃhitā and the Suśruta-saṃhitā, were the result of centuries of development and became famous in the ancient world far beyond India. Āyurveda was also applied to animals and plants, and there is an ancient handbook for professional gardeners and a text for cattle veterinarians. Other works deal with veterinary medicine relating to horses and elephants. Ancient India had both hospitals and animal clinics, and Gośālas, places in which elderly cattle are provided for, are still popular in some parts of India. Āyurveda was the source of much of ancient Greek and Roman, as well as mediaeval Arabic medical knowledge. In modern times, Ayurvedic pharmacology has become recognized by major Western pharmaceutical companies and researchers.

In connection with the building of temples, Hindus developed a great architectural tradition. No village or city was deemed inhabitable without a temple. Professional handbooks like the Manasāra and the Mayamata provide artistic and religious canons for the architects and sculptors.

Adhyātma-vidyā, the science relating to Brahman, the Supreme Reality, was considered the highest branch of science. It rested on personal experience, a coherent episte-mology, and the exegesis of revealed utterances. The ideas of the Upanishads were further developed into the systematic of Vedānta philosophy, mainly laid down in numerous commentaries on the Brahma-sútras ascribed to Bādarāyaṇa (second century BCE). Beginning with Śaākara (eighth century CE), through Rāmānuja (eleventh century) to Madhva (thirteenth century), the greatest minds of India have endeavored to cultivate the science of the eternal spirit.


For many centuries, membership in the Hindu community was restricted to those who were born from Hindu parents and who had undergone the various prescribed rituals that made a Hindu a full member of the Hindu community. But even in ancient times, many foreigners who came to India adopted Hindu thought and culture. With the establishment of British rule in India and the advent of Christian missionaries, the interest of Hindus in spreading their religion abroad was awakened. Swami Vivekanandas much celebrated presentations at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, and his subsequent journey through the United States and England, resulted in the establishment of Vedanta Centers. Mahatma Gandhi, who led the Indian independence movement to success on the basis of the Hindu ideal of nonviolence, did much to gain worldwide respect for Hinduism. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the president of India from 1962 to 1967, became the voice of the twentieth-century Hindu intelligentsia, representing Hinduism as the most advanced form of universal spirituality. The numerous Hindu swamis and gurus who came to the West beginning in the 1960s familiarized thousands with sectarian Hinduism and attracted many Westerners to joining Hindu religious communities. In the twenty-first century, many Hindu authorities have given up their reservations and freely accept Western converts to Hinduism.

SEE ALSO Buddhism; Caste; Caste, Anthropology of; Jainism; Religion; Sikhism


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Klaus K. Klostermaier

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In India "death in the midst of life" is a literal, not figurative, notion. Along the Ganges River, for instance, bodies are regularly cremated, and the odor of burning flesh fills the air. And in the city of Calcutta, dead bodies become a problem to those responsible for keeping the streets clean. Thus, it is not surprising that in India's sacred texts and stories, how one lives one's life determines one's fate after death.

Hinduism As a Religion

The roots of Hinduism go back to the Indus civilization in the third millennium B.C.E., but it is only with the migratory waves of Indo-European Aryans in the late second millennium B.C.E. that researchers have access to Hindu ideas about death and afterlife. The religious rituals that were brought by the Aryan pastoral nomads mingled with the customs of the native peoples, the Dravidians, and the culture that developed between them has come to be known as classical Hinduism. The word Hindu comes from the Sanskrit name for the river Indus. Hindu was not originally a religious term but was used by Persians and Greeks in the first millennium B.C.E. as a name for the people east of the Indus River. Muslims later borrowed the term Hindu to designate the non-Muslim population of India, and the British (who governed India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) used it in much the same way. In its current usage, Hindu refers to those who follow the mainstream religious traditions of India and accept, at least nominally, the authority of the ancient priestly scriptures known as the Vedas.

Adherents of the Hindu path, or sanatana dharma (universal, eternal teaching), made up about 83 percent of India's population, or about 808 million people, as of 1997. While a vast majority of Hindus reside in India, over the last several hundred years varied expressions of Hinduism have migrated to such places as Sri Lanka and Indonesia, in part because of the political and economic domination by England from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century. Beginning with Vivekananda's (a disciple of Ramakrishna) attendance at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, held in conjunction with the World Fair, about 1.3 million Hindus have emigrated to North America over the past century.

While Hinduism is not a religion in the familiar Western senseit has no specific founder, no clear time of origin, and no organizational structureat the core of its cumulative tradition are the three margas, or paths to spiritual liberation, which include ritual action (Karma-marga ), the path of knowledge (Jnana-marga ), and the path of devotion (Bhakti-marga ). Each of these systems has its own justification, and each presents a distinctive view of death.

The Path of Ritual Action

Sacrificial celebration (yajna ) was a central feature of the evolving Aryan religious tradition. By around 1200 B.C.E.a collection of hymns used for these sacrifices was brought together in the earliest scripture, the Rig Veda, and by the first millennium B.C.E. its complex rituals had come under the control of a class of priests or Brahmins. It was one of their special responsibilities to perform rituals correctly and to maintain and transmit the knowledge required for their proper performance.

Two major principles emerged in this period: the concepts of ritual knowledge (veda ) and of ritual action (karma ). At the center of these ritual celebrations was Agni, the lord of fire. It was to Agni that an offering was made, and by Agni that it was consumed and transformed. In the Rig Veda, one reads, "At yajna the prayerful community worships Agni, / Priest of all joy, blessed with youth, / He, untiring envoy for the Gods at the hour of offering, / He is the Lord of all treasure" (7.10.5). The Brahmins taught that fire sacrifices, properly conceived and correctly performed, reciprocally embodied the fundamental structures of the universe. Ritual action thus had cosmic consequences. Indeed, proper ritual action could produce desired results at a personal level.

The final sacrificial fire ritual is performed after one dies. In the Vedic view, early Hindus believed that cremation returned the physical remains of the deceased back to nature as smoke and ashes. Properly performed, the karma of this ritual established the departed in the "World of the Fathers." To this early Vedic understanding was added the need for a special set of postcremation rituals to complete a transition to the ancestral world. Afterlife is thus not only a matter of individual effort but also depends on correct ritual performances.

The Path of Liberating Knowledge

After about 800 B.C.E., the viewpoints and values of the Vedic ritual tradition were challenged by another system that emerged from within the Vedic system and developed into the classic scripture of Hinduism, known as the Upanishads ("Sitting near the feet of the teacher"). Upanishadic thinkers distinguished what is permanent and unchanging from what is transient and impermanent. At the cosmic level, the unchanging reality is Brahman, the absolute that underlies the transient names and forms of phenomena. At the personal level, this same reality is called the atman, or true self, the essential, unalterable being that underlies each person in the midst of activity.

The goal of the Upanishadic teachers was to escape from the ceaseless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that was called samsara. Freedom from rebirth was made possible only by giving up one's attachments to desires. In turn, this was only possible if one realized that true self, atman, was not part of the transient phenomenal world. The idea of samsara, including reincarnation (also called transmigration), refers to successive life embodiments of an individual soul (jiva ). This life flux embodies a continual series of births, deaths, and rebirths. Reincarnation blends the natural evolution with a spiritual evolution toward awakening. For example, at the subhuman level, growth is automatic and progresses toward ever-increasing complexity from inorganic to organic to vegetative to human levels. At the human level, however, the soul has the opportunity to break out of this cycle of births, deaths, and rebirths.

To illustrate what happens at death from the Hindu standpoint, the outer or gross body (skin, bones, muscles, nervous system, and brain) is said to fall away. The subtle body sheath (composed of karmic tendencies, knowledge, breath, and mind) that coats the jiva, or psychic substratum, also begins to disappear. After death the jiva initially remains within or near the body before it completely departs from the body to eventually enter an otherworldly reality conditioned by one's susceptibility to earthly sensual cravings. When these cravings have ceased, the jiva enters a temporally blissful existence until, at a karmically determined time, it takes on a new physical body and is reborn.

Upanishadic teachers agreed that moksha, the final liberation from a cycle of painful rebirths, is the goal of life. This final union with Brahman which takes place before deathis described as a state of sat (being), chit (consciousness), and ananda (pure joy). The early Hindu sages, therefore, sought a realization that liberated the mind from the fear of death. This realization, or moksha, can be described as a spiritual death, a dying before dying, which accentuates at least four consequences: liberation (moksha) from the endless cycle of birth and death and birth and death; activation of samadhi, or the void, which is also absolute fullness and compassion; freedom from the effects of the reincarnation cycle at death; and a return to full identification with atman.

One of the most dramatic examples of this view occurs in the Katha Upanishad (800500 B.C.E.), which relates the visit of Nachiketas to the Land of Death, Yama's kingdom. In the story, a teaching dialogue occurs between an archetypal seeker and an immortal teacher. Nachiketas, the seeker, asks Yama, "What is the purpose of life, given the certainty of death?" Yama replies by affirming the way to freedom from attachments through realizing atman (the deathless Self): "Unborn is he, eternal, everlasting and primeval, / He is not slain when the body is slain. / Should the killer think 'I kill.' / Or the killed 'I have been killed,' / Both these have no [right] knowledge"(2.19). That is, for Yama, when the body dies, atman does not die. The secret of death, then, is realized not by preaching, not by sacrifice, but through meditation and grace. This realization of the supreme self hidden in the cave of the heart emancipates one from the vagaries of samsara.

The Path of Devotion

Both the Vedic rituals and the Upanishadic path of knowledge are products of the Vedic priesthood. The appeal of these paths was mostly confined to the elite social classes, and thus each path denied access to the majority of Hindus. In response to this limitation, by the second century B.C.E.a third path was emerging, one with both greater popular appeal and greater accessibility. This new path devotional theismwas based not on Vedic rituals or Vedic knowledge, but on the worship of various popular deities. The way of devotion (bhakti ) is dramatically expounded in the Bhagavad Gita, or Song of the Lord (500200 B.C.E.). Not a Vedic text, the Bhagavad Gita is a part of a long popular epic known as the Mahabharata that was accessible to the populace.

Devotional theism took root, expanded rapidly, and, by the early centuries of the common era, had become, in terms of numbers of followers, the dominant form of Hinduism. In this path, many gods and goddesses are worshipped (e.g., Vishnu, the protector, with his incarnations as Krishna and Rama; Shiva, the destroyer, the divine Yogi and cosmic Lord of dance; and Devi, the goddess in a variety of names and forms). Devotional theism, this third path within Hinduism, emphasized above all faith and grace. Release from rebirth was no longer viewed as a matter of knowledge alone but also could be received as a divine gift by faithful devotees. The sought-for afterlife, then, was not the sterile or abstract "World of the Fathers" but a lifeor afterlifeof devotion to God.

The Bhagavad Gita presents a dialogue between Krishna, the divine teacher, and Arjuna, the warrior disciple. Unlike the Buddha (the awakened one), Krishna is the incarnation of Vishnu. Krishna, disguised as a charioteer, listens to Arjuna's despair at the prospect of fighting his kinsmen to retrieve land that is rightfully his. Then Krishna speaks: "All things born must die," and "out of death in truth comes life" (2:27). Echoing Yama's words to Nachiketas, Krishna goes on to say that death is an illusion. Like those of the Katha Upanishad, Krishna's teachings on death argue four basic attitudes: the death of one's physical body is inevitable and should not cause prolonged grief; the subtle dimension of the person (jiva) does not die at death, rather takes on a new body; the eternal self (atman) is birthless and deathless, and cannot be destroyed; and one who realizes the eternal self while yet alive will not be reborn but, at death, will merge with ultimate reality, or Brahman.

Whereas the practice of sacrifice in the Vedas referred to an external ritual that included fire, drink, chants, stories, and grain or animal offerings, Krishna teaches devotional sacrifice. Performing all actions without attachment to the results, the devotee sacrifices even attachments to the divine. However, Arjuna is left with a significant question: How does one realize atman? Krishna provides several clues. Beyond jnana yoga, the way of knowledge (intuitive, single-minded awareness of the eternal self), Krishna emphasizes karma yoga (self-sacrificing, detached activity) and bhakti yoga (self surrendering devotion to the divine). In fact, the highest secret of the Bhagavad Gita is most appropriately practiced at the time of death. Krishna teaches: "Let him [the dying person] utter [the sound] Om, Brahman in one syllable, / Keeping Me in mind; / Then when his time is come to leave aside the ody, / tread the highest Way" (8:13). And then Krishna promises that a person will be freed from the bonds of misfortune when "Armed with the discipline of renunciation, / Yourself liberated, you will join me . . . / Keep me in your mind and devotion, sacrifice / To me, bow to me, discipline yourself to me, / And you will reach me!" (9:28, 34). These verses express a constant refrain of devotional Hinduismnot only to be freed from karma-caused traces of rebirth, but also to achieve a permanent union with one's personal deity through a devotional relationship. While the Gita represents only one version of the path of devotion, its teachings are broadly typical with respect to both devotion and the afterlife.

Death Ritual

All of the views of afterlife outlined above became part of the continuing Hindu religious tradition, and they and their related systems of liberation the three margashave provided the basic framework of Hinduism for the past 2,000 years. What Hinduism offers with regard to death and afterlife is thus not a final decision that must be made in one's present lifetime, but a process that leads through many cycles of death and rebirth until one is able to reach the goal of liberation.

Typically, as a Hindu approaches death, he or she is surrounded with religious rites and ceremonies that support the dying person. Before a Hindu dies, the eldest son and relatives put water taken, if possible, from the Ganges River into the dying person's mouth. At this time, family and friends sing devotional prayers and chant Vedic mantras (sacred sounds). More than the words, which are themselves comforting, the tone of the communal chanting soothes the dying person and comforts relatives in their time of stress and grief.

Hinduism requires cremation as soon as possible (unless the deceased is less than three years old, in which case he or she is buried). In New Delhi alone, it is estimated that 50,000 bodies are cremated annually. In response to the depletion of forests caused by wood-burning cremations, the Indian government has begun building electric crematoriums throughout India. Some traditional Hindus, however, have argued that ending wood-burning cremations could violate their religious rights.

Prior to cremation, the body is washed and anointed, the hair (and beard) is trimmed, and the corpse is given new or clean clothes. During the procession, relatives and mourners, who carry the body to the cremation ground, chant verses that invoke Yama's help. The body is then placed on a funeral pyre. The eldest son finally walks around the pyre three times, each time pouring sacred water on the deceased. He then sets fire to the wood with a torch that has been blessed. Throughout the sacred ritual, relatives and mourners chant Vedic mantras to quicken the soul's release.

See also: Buddhism; Chinese Beliefs; Islam; Reincarnation; Widow-Burning


Basham, A. L. The Wonder That Was India. New York: Grove Press, 1954.

Borman, William. "Upanishadic Eschatology: The Other Side of Death." In Arthur Berger, Paul Badham, Austin Kutscher, Joyce Berger, Michael Perry, and John Beloff eds., Death and Dying: Cross-Cultural and Multi-Disciplinary Views. Philadelphia: The Charles Press, 1989.

Easwaran, Eknath. Dialogue with Death. Petaluma, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1981.

Holck, F. H. "The Vedre Period." In Frederick H. Holck ed., Death and Eastern Thought. New York: Abington Press, 1974.

Hopkins, Thomas. "Hindu Views of Death and Afterlife." In Hiroshi Obayashi ed., Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions. New York: Praeger Press, 1992.

Knipe, David. "Sapindikarana : The Hindu Rate of Entry into Heaven." In Frank Reynolds and Earle Waugh eds., Religious Encounters with Death. University Park: Penn State University Press, 1977.

Koller, John. The Indian Way. New York: Macmillan, 1982. Kramer, Kenneth. "Hindu Attitudes toward Death." The Sacred Art of Dying: How World Religions Understand Death. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1988.

Long, J. Bruce. "Death as a Necessity and a Gift in Hindu Mythology." In Frank Reynolds and Earle Waugh eds., Religious Encounters with Death. University Park: Penn State University Press, 1977.

Pearson, Anne M. "Hinduism." In Christopher Jay Johnson and Marsha G. McGee eds., How Different Religions View Death and Afterlife, 2nd edition. Philadelphia: The Charles Press, 1998.

Prashad, Jamuna. "The Hindu Concept of Death." In Arthur Berger, Paul Badham, Austin Kutscher, Joyce Berger, Michael Perry, and John Beloff eds., Death and Dying: Cross-Cultural and Multi-Disciplinary Views. Philadelphia: The Charles Press, 1989.

Sundararajan, K. R. "The Orthodox Philosophical Systems." In Frederick H. Holck ed., Death and Eastern Thought. New York: Abington Press, 1974.

Zaehner, R. C. Hindu Scriptures. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1966.


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Hinduism. The major continuing and connected religions of India, which have now spread throughout the world. About 80 per cent of India's approx. one billion people regard themselves as Hindu, and there are about 30 million Hindus elsewhere in the world. The word ‘Hinduism’ derives from the Persian hindu (Skt., sindhu, ‘river’), belonging to the Indus Valley, hence ‘Indian’. The term is misleading if it gives the impression of a unified system of belief and practice: it was replaced for a time in academic circles by ‘Indian religion’, but even that has now become ‘Indian religions’ in the plural (though that too is ambiguous, since Jains, Sikhs, and Christians are also religions of India, as for many centuries was Buddhism). The term ‘Hinduism’ is used here and throughout this work as a convenient shorthand. A name for the tradition which is in common use among Hindus is sanātana dharma, everlasting dharma; another with more specific focus on the brahmanical system is varṇaśramadharma (see VARNA; ĀŚRAMA).

Historically, Hinduism is seen as unfolding through successive stages, but this again is misleading, since many beliefs and practices from earlier stages persist through to the present, often little affected by subsequent developments. The roots are set down in the traditions of the original stone-age inhabitants of India; the Indus Valley civilization; the more developed Dravidian culture, related to the Indus Valley, and persisting especially among the Tamils; and the Āryan invasion leading to Vedic religion (the religions based on the Vedas).

The Vedas (eternal truth) are believed to be eternal (sanātana). They are made known through ṛṣis, who received them by a kind of intuition (dṛṣti). The revealed scriptures are known as śruti (revelation, that which has been perceived through hearing; for details see VEDA). Āgama (scripture) denotes all writings which at least some Hindus regard as revealed, which may therefore extend beyond the core corpus. Revered by most Hindus is Bhagavad-gītā, and the majority regard it as revealed. Gathering śruti material are many sūtras, but since they do not contain new material they are not usually cited as authorities in debate.

The second major source of authority is found in the texts of smṛti (‘that which has been remembered’, tradition) which are much more closely concerned with the details of everyday life; among these texts, Manusmṛti is held in particularly high esteem. Much of śruti and smṛti has been gathered into itihāsapurāṇa (ancient histories), of which the two great epics Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa probably have far greater direct influence on the population than the scriptures as such.

The Vedas gave rise to the elaborate ritual instructions and explanations of the texts known as Brāhmaṇas, and this ritual-based religion is often referred to as brahmanical religion. It gave rise also to reflections on the meanings and implications of the rituals, in the Āraṇyakas and the Upaniṣads. Based on the consummations of the Veda in Vedānta, the major forms of philosophical religion were elaborated (see ŚAṄKARA, RĀMĀNUJA, and MADHVA). But philosophical systems had already been established, some of them atheistic or materialist. There are traditionally six ways of orthodox (āstika) insight (darśana, for list); there is a continuing debate about those which should be considered nāstika (unorthodox: not just, from a Hindu point of view, the obvious aberrations of the Jains and Buddhists, but perhaps also e.g. Sāṃkhya).

But for the majority of Hindus, religious life is a matter, not so much of philosophy, as of ordering one's life according to the principles and practices which will lead to a better rebirth or even to mokṣa (release). This ‘ordering of life’ is to live it according to dharma, or, less usually, to live it according to particular vows or devotions (see SĀDHU; TANTRISM). Dharma has many meanings, but in this case it means roughly ‘appropriateness’: ‘Hinduism’ as sanātana dharma is the map of how to live appropriately. It is this ‘mapping’ of the ways to live appropriately which is expressed in the divisions of labour (varna), and even more specifically in the caste-system (jāti). In general, Hindus can aim legitimately for four goals (puruṣārtha): within the bracket of controlling dharma and of mokṣa, the aims of kāma and artha are wholeheartedly endorsed.

Although the Vedas do not reveal any lively expectation of a worthwhile life after death, the concentration on prāṇa (breath) in the period of the Brāhmaṇas and Āraṇyakas gave rise to the belief that there is an underlying self or soul (ātman) which persists through the process of living and dying, and which subsists through all the changing appearances of a body. By the time of the Upaniṣads, this had become a belief that Brahman, the unproduced Producer of all that is, pervades the fleeting appearances of this or any other universe as ātman, as the underlying guarantor of appearance, but not in any way identical with it. While ātman is entangled in desire for the world, it continues to be reborn (saṃsāra), at many different levels of appearance, in heavens and hells, as animals or as humans: the outcome, for better or for worse, is governed by a natural moral law of karma, as inexorable as that of gravity. To be born as a human is a rare opportunity to advance toward mokṣa, release from the round of rebirth.

The nature of that attainment is variously described. At the philosophical end, advaita envisages a reunion of undifferentiated reality.

Theism, however, dominates Indian religion. Each person (or often region or village) is likely to have a particular focus of devotion (iṣṭadevatā), but these will usually complement, not supplant the major deities. The sense of God as Lord (bhagavān) is usually expressed as Īśvara; but God may become manifest in many different forms, hence the (initially bewildering) proliferation of gods and goddesses from the Vedic period onward. The manifestation of these on earth (especially of Viṣṇu) are known as avatāra.

Amidst the myriad theistic devotions, three are of extensive importance: those to Śiva (Śaivism, regarded by some as the oldest continuing Indian religion), to Viṣṇu (Vaiṣṇava, numerically the largest, though divided into many subdivisions), and to Śakti (see also ŚĀKTISM), in whom, as Goddess and divine mother, are gathered all the functions that Viṣṇu has for the Vaiṣṇavites and that Śiva has for the Śaivites. But the breakdown of these into particular traditions is prolific in its diversity. The traditions of devotion and teaching are transmitted through gurus and protected in organized systems (saṃpradāya).

Worship of God is pūjā (worship). The evocation of the real presence of God is particularly important also in the focus of mantra/maṇḍala and yantra (sounds and diagrams); and in places or rivers closely associated with manifestations of God (see SACRED CITIES/SACRED RIVERS, SEVEN).

The three major paths (mārga) of progress toward mokṣa are karmamārga (the way of works, following dharma), jñānamārga (the way of knowledge or of philosophical truth), and bhaktimārga (the way of devotion to God). Bhagavad-gītā makes an attempt to reconcile all three. All three are united also by being called yoga.

At Independence (1947), India was designated a secular state with recognition of all religions: the eclectic genius of Indian religion (which does not mean that there cannot be sharp conflicts and divisions) makes this a natural outcome. However, the remarkable ability of Indians to put this into practice (e.g. with the possibility of a Muslim president; contrast the status of Islam in Pakistan) has already come under strain with a growing sense that Hindus should affirm their identity over against the separatist tendencies of Sikhs and (in some areas) Muslims—hence the emergence of specifically Hindu political movements and parties (see BHARATYA JANATA PARTY). The contrast between these two attitudes (of inclusive toleration and Hindu self-affirmation) were already apparent in the many 19th-cent. attempts to revive and restate Hinduism: see ROY, RĀM MOHAN; BRAHMO SAMĀJ; SEN, KESHUB CHANDRA; DAYĀNANDA SARASVATĪ; ĀRYA SAMĀJ.

For many, the purpose of Hinduism is summarized in the prayer of Bṛhādārānyaka Upaniṣad 1. 3. 27, ‘Lead me from the unreal to the real; lead me from darkness to light; lead me from death to immortality.’

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Hinduism (hin´dōōĬzəm), Western term for the religious beliefs and practices of the vast majority of the people of India. One of the oldest living religions in the world, Hinduism is unique among the world religions in that it had no single founder but grew over a period of 4,000 years in syncretism with the religious and cultural movements of the Indian subcontinent. Hinduism is composed of innumerable sects and has no well-defined ecclesiastical organization. Its two most general features are the caste system and acceptance of the Veda as the most sacred scriptures.

Early Hinduism

Hinduism is a synthesis of the religion brought into India by the Aryans (c.1500 BC) and indigenous religion. The first phase of Hinduism was early Brahmanism, the religion of the priests or Brahmans who performed the Vedic sacrifice, through the power of which proper relation with the gods and the cosmos is established. The Veda comprises the liturgy and interpretation of the sacrifice and culminates in the Upanishads, mystical and speculative works that state the doctrine of Brahman, the absolute reality that is the self of all things, and its identity with the individual soul, or atman (see Vedanta). Later Upanishads refer to the practices of yoga and contain theistic elements that are fully developed in the Bhagavad-Gita.

Post-Vedic Hinduism in all its forms accepts the doctrine of karma, according to which the individual reaps the results of his good and bad actions through a series of lifetimes (see transmigration of souls). Also universally accepted is the goal of moksha or mukti, liberation from suffering and from the compulsion to rebirth, which is attainable through elimination of passions and through knowledge of reality and finally union with God.

Responses to Buddhism and Jainism

In the middle of the first millennium BC, an ossified Brahmanism was challenged by heterodox, i.e., non-Vedic, systems, notably Buddhism and Jainism. The priestly elite responded by creating a synthesis that accepted yogic practices and their goals, recognized the gods and image worship of popular devotional movements, and adopted greater concern for the daily life of the people. There was an increase in writings, such as the Laws of Manu (see Manu), dealing with dharma, or duty, not only as applied to the sacrifice but to every aspect of life. Their basic principle is varna-ashrama-dharma, or dharma in accordance with varna (class or caste) and ashrama (stage of life). The four classes are the Brahmans, Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (farmers and merchants), and Shudras (laborers). The four stages of life are brahmacharya or celibate student life (originally for study of the Veda), grihastha or householdership, vanaprastha or forest hermitage, and sannyasa, complete renunciation of all ties with society and pursuit of spiritual liberation. (In practical terms these stages were not strictly adhered to. The two main alternatives have continued to be householdership and the ascetic life.) The entire system was conceived as ideally ensuring both the proper function of society as an integrated whole and the fulfillment of the individual's needs through his lifetime.

The post-Vedic Puranas deal with these themes. They also elaborate the myths of the popular gods. They describe the universe as undergoing an eternally repeated cycle of creation, preservation, and dissolution, represented by the trinity of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer as aspects of the Supreme.

Medieval and Modern Developments

In medieval times the esoteric ritual and yoga of Tantra and sects of fervent devotion (see bhakti) arose and flourished. The groundswell of devotion produced poet-saints all over India who wrote religious songs and composed versions of the epics in their vernaculars. This literature plays an essential part in present-day Hinduism, as do puja, or worship of enshrined deities, and pilgrimage to sacred places. The most popular deities include Vishnu and his incarnations Rama and Krishna, Shiva, the elephant-headed god Ganesha, and the Mother-Goddess or Devi, who appears as the terrible Kali or Durga but also as Sarasvati, the goddess of music and learning, and as Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. All the gods and goddesses, each of which has numerous aspects, are regarded as different forms of the one Supreme Being. Modern Hindu leaders such as Swami Vivekananda, Mohandas Gandhi, and Aurobindo Ghose, have given voice to a movement away from the traditional ideal of world-renunciation and asceticism and have asserted the necessity of uniting spiritual life with social concerns.

After independence in 1947 the impact of Hinduism on the political life of a country in which more than 80% of the people are adherents was moderated by the long-term rule of the Congress party (see Indian National Congress, which has striven to maintain a secular democracy. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims, however, have long been a fact of life in India, as evidenced in the creation of Pakistan, the conflict over Kashmir, and the subsequent wars between India and Pakistan. There have also been tensions with the Sikh minority, some of whom have sought independence for the Punjab, leading to violence in the 1980s (see Sikhism).

Since the late 1980s there has been increasing popular support for Hindu nationalist parties among the people of India. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which has long rejected the secular state and called for orthodox Hindu religious practice, is influential in the mainstream Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), one of India's most important political parties. The extremist Shiv Sena and Vishwa Hindu Parishad parties have been relentless in their attacks on Muslims. The 1992 destruction in Ayodhya of a Muslim shrine and anti-Muslim riots in Mumbai in 1993 were sparked by Hindu nationalists and are among the events that have heightened Hindu-Muslim tensions.


See C. N. E. Eliot, Hinduism and Buddhism (3 vol., 1921; repr. 1968); A. B. Keith, The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads (1925, repr. 1971); S. Radhakrishnan, The Hindu View of Life (1927, repr. 1962); L. Renou, Religions of Ancient India (1953, repr. 1968) and Hinduism (1961); R. G. Zaehner, Hinduism (1962); A. T. Embree, ed., The Hindu Tradition (1966, repr. 1972); T. J. Hopkins, The Hindu Religious Tradition (1971); P. H. Ashby, Modern Trends in Hinduism (1974); A. L. Basham, The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism (1989).

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HINDUISM. Hinduism is a religion, a philosophy, and a way of life. It guides people along paths that will ultimately lead to the individual soul (Atman) becoming one with the Universal Consciousness.

The religion recognizes that everyone is different and has a unique intellectual and spiritual outlook. Therefore, it allows people to develop and grow at their own pace by making different spiritual paths available to them. It allows various schools of thought under its broad principles. It also allows for freedom of worship so that individuals may be guided by their own spiritual experiences. This freedom of worship permits individuals to worship in any place, be it a church, mosque, or gurudwara. The tolerance shown by this religion to other faiths is unmatched. Hinduism has never been imposed on anyone, whether on a subjugated people through wars, or by offering spiritual or economic benefits to the poor.

The strength of Hinduism lies in its adaptability to the infinite diversity of human nature. It has a highly spiritual and abstract side suited to the philosopher, a practical and concrete side suited to the worldly individual, an aesthetic and ceremonial side suited to the person of poetic feeling and imagination, and a quiescent and contemplative side suited to the lover of peace and seclusion.

Hinduism is also unique in that it has adapted itself to include numerous ideals and precepts of other religions, such as those of Jainism and Buddhism. For instance, among many communities, offerings of rice and ghee (or clarified butter) took the place of animal sacrificea compromise with Vedic ritualism. Many of the early Aryans had been meat eaters, but under the influence of Buddhist and Jain ideas, numerous groups of Brahmins and non-Brahmins became vegetarian.

Another feature unique to Hinduism is its belief that liberation or deliverance (moksha ) can be achieved in this life itself: one does not have to wait for a heaven after death.

Hindu Beliefs as Reflected in Food

Rebirth or reincarnation. The Hindus believe that one must go through several births and rebirths before attaining liberation. The hardships of the current world are a result of the actions of a previous life that have to be atoned for in the present life.

Karma. The law of karma (or action) also supports the above theory. It suggests that every action has a similar or related reaction. Although it is not possible to change one's past life, it is possible for one to shape the future and to pave the way for a better life in rebirth through the actions of the present.

Dharma. Dharma refers to duties that have to be performed at different stages of one's life. These must be completed without a thought of possible rewards or benefits and should also be accomplished to the best of one's ability. They are responsible for the prevailing social order in the world. There are four stages of Dharma:

  • Student or BrahmachariThis first phase involves living and studying with a guru.
  • Householder or GrihasthaThis next phase starts with marriage.
  • Retirees or VanaprasthaThe third phase occurs when the duties of child rearing and work are over.
  • SanyasiThis is the final phase when all worldly desires are renounced and the individual spends all of his or her time in meditation.

Hindu Scriptures

Hinduism is based on the Eternal Truth as it has been explicitly defined in the scriptures:

  1. The Srutis come from the Vedas, of divine origin and unchangeable. They encapsulate the greatest truths.
  2. The Smritis, referred to as the Dharma Shashtras, are of human composition. They govern the daily conduct of people, including the actions of the individual, the community, and the nation, and may change over time.
  3. The epics are those stories or fables in which the philosophy of the Vedas is told. The most important epics are the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
  4. The Puranas are the Hindu scriptures that convey the truths of the Vedas and the Dharma Shashtras in the form of tales. These stories form the basis of religious education for the common man.
  5. The Agamas record the doctrine for the worship of different deities, including Shiva, Vishnu, and Shakti.
  6. The Darshanas encompass the six schools of Hindu philosophy; they guide scholars.

Hindu Gods and Goddesses

Hinduism has many gods and goddesses, some of whom were worshipped by early peoples who later came into contact with this faith. The aim of Hinduism is not the worship of any one of these deities, but rather the means with which the individual soul or Atman will become one with the Brahman, or the Universal Soul. Among the most commonly worshipped gods are:

  • Nirguna BrahmanThe Universal Soul who transcends time and space and is formless.
  • Saguna BrahmanThe concept of Ichwara, the Great God, with a form upon which the individual mind may fixate during prayer and meditation.
  • The TrinityAs personified by the three attributes of Ichwara, including their feminine dimensions: creation (Brahman), preservation (Vishnu), and destruction (Shiva).

Attaining Moksha

There are essentially three paths to attain oneness with the Universal Consciousness:

  1. Bhakti yoga (the path of devotion)The vast majority of people choose this path of single-minded devotion to a favorite god.
  2. Karma yoga (the path of action)Those who choose this path believe in the dictum "work is worship." No job is too menial or too low for this devotée, as all work is a means of realizing God.
  3. Jnana yoga (the path of knowledge)This is perhaps the most difficult of the three paths and therefore chosen by very few, usually scholars. Knowledge of the Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita is essential.

See also Buddhism; Fasting and Abstinence: Hinduism and Buddhism; Festivals of Food; Hindu Festivals; India; Religion and Food; Weddings .


Khare, R. S., ed. The Eternal Food: Gastronomic Ideas and Experiences of Hindus and Buddhists. SUNY Series in Hinduism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Morgan, Kenneth William. Asian Religions: An Introduction to the Study of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, and Taoism. New York: Macmillan, 1964.

Ross, Nancy Wilson. Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen: An Introduction to Their Meaning and Their Arts. London: Faber & Faber, 1968.

Toomey, Paul M. Food from the Mouth of Krishna: Feasts and Festivities in a North Indian Pilgrimage Centre. Delhi, India: Hindustan, 1994.

Thangam Philip

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Unlike the Western religions, Hinduism does not have an easily identifiable beginning. Although records of its early history are not available, Hinduism dates back at least three thousand years in the subcontinent of India. However, within Hinduism there is a great diversity of practice and belief so that it is difficult to identify a distinctive essence. Hinduism contains many traditions that share distinctive characteristics such that they are identifiable as members of the same cultural family. Some traditions share more of these characteristics, making them more strongly Hindu. Over the centuries one such characteristic has been the practice of caste distinctions. Another is seeing Hinduism as a religious way of life that in one way or another reaches back to scriptures, the oldest of which is the Veda.

Historical origins

The term Hindu derives from the Indus River in the northwest part of the Indian subcontinent. Flowing some three thousand kilometers from the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea, the Indus served as a natural boundary for those attempting to enter India through the passes of the Hindu Kush. During the period 1500 to 1000 b.c.e., people known as the Aryans, who may have come through these mountain passes, began to dominant the Indus River area of northwest India. Their view of the world was described in the Veda, spoken and written in the Sanskrit language. In the oldest portion of the Vedas, called the Rg samhita, there are references to a river called the Sindhu, which may have been the Indus. By association, the word Sindhu seems also to have been used to refer to the people who lived in the Indus valley. The later term Hindu seems to have derived from Sindhu.

From the earliest historical times, military invasions and trade have flowed through the mountain passes of the northwest, such as the Khyber. Those who invaded India from the Mediterranean area (e.g., the Persian Darius I and Alexander of Macedon) used the term Hindu to refer to those who lived on or beyond the Sindhu River boundary. Over the centuries the term Hindu has increasingly been used to refer to those Indians who share some connection with the Veda as a basis for their way of life. Within the Vedic scriptures are found the overarching concepts of caste, karma, and rebirth that knit together the many diverse Hindu groups. Karma is the idea that each action or thought leaves behind a seed or memory trace that predisposes one to a similar action or thought in the future. These karmic traces, stored up in one's unconscious, as it were, originated not only in this life but also from previous lives, and cause one to be reborn in a future life. This cycle of birth, death, and rebirth is held to be beginningless (anandi ) and is seemingly endless. However, for those wishing to escape from this cycle of rebirth, the Hindu scriptures offer three general paths or disciplines (Yogas ) by which release may be realized: the paths of knowledge, work, and devotion. In orthodox or Brahmanical Hinduism, the source of these paths, and indeed of all knowledge, including science, is said to be the Vedic scriptures.

Cosmology and the concept of God

In the Hindu view, the whole of the universe is held to have existed beginninglessly as a series of cycles of creation going backward into time infinitely. Although the Hindu scripture is spoken anew at the start of each cycle of creation, what is spoken is identical with the scripture that had been spoken in all previous cycles. The very idea of an absolute point of beginning for either creation or the scripture is not present in Hindu thought. A close parallel to this Hindu notion of the eternal presence of scripture is found in the Western idea of the Logos, especially as expressed in the Gospel of John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (1:1). The rsis or seers, identified as speakers of particular Vedas, are understood to be channels through which the divine word passes to make itself available to humans at the start of each creation cycle. The same rsis are said to speak the same Vedas in each cycle of creation, and the very language in which the Vedas are spoken, Sanskrit, is itself held to be divine.

This view of the Vedas and Sanskrit as being divine had important implications for the traditional Hindu understanding of all forms of knowledge, including science. The rsi's initial mystical vision is of Brahman's consciousness, God's omniscient knowledge. This unitary vision is broken down and spoken as the words and sentences of the Veda so that through this revelation people will be enabled to realize release. In addition to this ultimate spiritual goal, the Veda, as the authoritative speaking of divine omniscience, contains in seed form the fundamental knowledge of all the disciplinesthe arts, medicine, and science. This is why the Grammarian philosophers of India argue that correct word use (following Sanskrit rules) is essential for science for two reasons. First, it is essential because only when language is spoken and heard correctly will the seeds of scientific ideas inherent in the Veda be able to manifest themselves. Second, correct word use is essential in formulating and communicating scientific knowledge so that it does not become confused but is clearly conveyed.

Such thinking lies behind the traditional Hindu notion that all knowledge, including science, comes from and through the Vedas. It is just this kind of thinking that anchors the claim of the modern Hindu reformer Swami Vivekananda (18631902) that science and religion are complementary, cross-validating, and are both based on experience of the same Brahman. Just as science is based on the empirical experience of the outer world (whose essence is Brahman) so also religious knowledge arises from the direct experience of the Vedic word; at base both are experiences of the same ultimate reality.

See also Karma


coward, harold g. and raja, k. kunjunni. the philosophy of the grammarians. princeton, n.j.: princeton university press, 1990.

coward, harold. scripture in the world religions: a short introduction. oxford: oneworld, 2000.

klostermaier, klaus k. a survey of hinduism. albany: state university of new york press, 1994.

rambachan, anantanand. the limits of scripture: vivekananda's reinterpretation of the vedas. honolulu: university of hawaii press, 1994.

harold coward

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Hinduism A belief-system with a history stretching back some five thousand years, and practised today by approximately five hundred million people, mainly in India. This religious tradition is very diversified: there is no generally acknowledged single teacher or creed, and some commentators speak of the Hindu tradition embracing several religions, while not a few question whether the Western concept of religion is at all applicable in this context.

The distinctive features of Hindu religion (its vast complexity aside) are the caste system and the view of life referred to by the term samsara. Hindus think of their present life as merely one in a succession of lives, taking various forms, not all human and not all lived on this earth. This is linked to the concept of karma, which denotes a moral causation whereby what and where a person is today is largely a consequence of how he or she has conducted him- or herself in all of his or her past lives, especially in regard to dharma (or sacred law). Finally, the associated concept of moksha signifies emancipation from the bonds of present existence, to be attained through transcending avidya (ignorance) and maya (illusion). However, these basic ideas have not existed from the beginning of the tradition, and some scholars apply the term Hinduism only to the beliefs and practices which were established around the beginning of the Christian era.

The disparate nature of Hinduism is well illustrated in Hindu scripture, which includes the Vedas (knowledgeable texts written some two thousand years before the Christian era), a mixture of hymns to various Gods, philosophical texts, and prose dealing with rituals; and the enormously diverse smirti, which include the great Hindu epics, manuals and law-books, as well as popular stories and legends. Not surprisingly, no fewer than twelve schools are described as orthodox, including Sankhya dualism (which names no god), Sankara non-dualism (which embodies a qualified belief in god), and the theism of Ramanuja (which posits no belief in god). There are numerous well-established sectarian movements, such as the Jains and bhakti, who appeal for different reasons to different castes.

Sociological interest in Hindusim has mainly taken the form of studies of the caste system, as an extreme form of ascriptive stratification, and speculations about the likely consequences of Hindu beliefs for the development of rational capitalism of the Western type. The latter tradition was initiated by Max Weber's essays on the ‘Economic Ethics of the World Religions’ (1916–19, the relevant sections being translated as The Religion of India, 1958)
, which argue that Hinduism effectively blocked this form of economic development. The debate about Weber's interpretation continues today (see, for example, G. R. Madan , Western Sociologists on Indian Society, 1979
). The classic study of caste is Louis Dumont's Homo Hierarchicus (1970), although this makes the controversial claim that the Indian caste system cannot be analysed in terms of concepts applicable to other forms of social stratification, a claim that would seem to be undermined by anthropological and historical research demonstrating that social mobility processes of a kind familiar elsewhere (involving status usurpation resulting from status incongruities associated with shifts in the distribution of power) were also endemic in the traditional caste order.

The literatures on stratification and religion come together in the dispute about whether or not Weber's claim that a form of fatalism, arising out of the belief in the karma doctrine of compensation, was a major factor in stabilizing the caste system—despite its extreme inequalities of condition and social rigidity. This issue is pursued in David Lockwood 's essay on ‘Fatalism: Durkheim's Hidden Theory of Order’, in Anthony Giddens and and Gavin Mackenzie ( eds.) , Class and the Division of Labour (1983)

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206. Hinduism

See also 151. FAITH ; 183. GOD and GODS ; 349. RELIGION ; 392. THEOLOGY .

Ayurvedism, Ayurveda
the conventional Hindu system of medicine, founded chiefly on naturopathy and homeopathy. Ayurvedic , adj.
Brahmanism, Brahminism
the doctrines and practices of Brahmans and orthodox Hindus, characterized by the caste system, a diverse pantheism, and primary devotion to Brahma, the creator-god of the Hindu trinity.
the practices and doctrines of the Brahmos, members of a Hindu theistic society noted for its belief in social reform and monotheism.
the worship of Krishna as the eighth incarnation of the god Vishnu, the preserver-god of the Hindu trinity.
the worship of Rama, a hero of Hindu epic, as an incarnation of the god Vishnu. Ramaite , n.
Shaktism, Saktism
1. a Hindu sect worshipping Shakti as a mother goddess under such names as Kali and Durga through contemplation and humility; right-hand Shaktism.
2. a Hindu Tantric sect worshiping Shakti as the feminine principle of gen-eration through rites involving ritual eating and orgy; left-hand Shaktism. See also Tantrism . Shakta, Shakti , n., adj.
the doctrines of a reformed Hindu sect opposed to the caste system, supremacy of Brahrnan priests, magic, idolatry, and pilgrimages. Sikh , n., adj.
Sivaism, Shivaism, Saivism
a cult made up of the worshipers of Siva, the destroyer-god of the Hindu trinity. Sivaite , n.
the Hindu practice or custom, now forbidden, of a widows self-immolation upon her husbands funeral pyre. suttee, sati , n.
1. the teachings of the Tantras, Sanskrit religious writings concerned with mysticism and magic rituals.
2. the beliefs and practices of Hindu adherents to the Tantras in place of the Vedas, especially magic rituals for healing, averting evil, and union with the female creative principle. Tantrist , n. Tantric , adj.
thuggeeism, thuggee
a semi-religious Hindu cult with a highly organized system of murder and robbery, suppressed in India in the 19th century. Also thuggery . thug , n.
the worship of Vishnu in any of his forms or incarnations. Vaishnava, Vaishnavite , n.
Vedaism, Vedism
1. the teachings of the Vedas, the four most sacred writings of Hinduism.
2. an adherence to these teachings; orthodox Hinduism. Vedaic, Vedic , adj.
the beliefs and practices of Vedanta, an orthodox Hindu philoso-phy emphasizing the teachings on contemplation found in the Vedas. Vedantist , n. Vedantic , adj.
Yogism, Yoga
1. an orthodox Hindu philosophical system concerned with the liberation of the self from its noneternal elements or states.
2. any system of exercises and disciplines for achieving such liberation of self. Yogi, Yogin , n.

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HINDUISM. Americans learned about Hinduism in the late eighteenth century from European scholars and from missionaries and traders returning from India. Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson incorporated Hindu themes in their transcendental philosophy in the 1830s and 1840s. The first Indian to successfully promote Hinduism in America was Swami Vivekananda, who represented Hinduism at the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition. He went on to establish Vedanta Societies in major American cities, teaching a variety of Hinduism that emphasizes social reform, religious tolerance, and the unity of self (atman) and Absolute (Brahman). Swami Paramahansa Yogananda's Self-Realization Fellowship, established in 1935 to teach kriya yoga, soon surpassed Vedanta in popularity. In the 1960s, transcendental meditation and the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, or Hare Krishna Society, gathered large numbers of followers among Americans seeking spiritual alternatives to mainstream religion, and the civil rights movement drew inspiration from Indian nationalist Mohandas K. Gandhi's interpretation of the Hindu tradition of ahimsa (nonviolence).

After the passage of less restrictive immigration laws in 1965, a large influx of Asian Indian immigrants brought a new plurality of Hindu practices to the United States. They contributed the first major, Indian-style Hindu temples, built to accommodate immigrant Hindus, to the American landscape. In 2000, there were approximately one million Hindus in the United States.


Jackson, Carl T. The Oriental Religions and American Thought: Nineteenth-Century Explorations. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981.

———. Vedanta for the West: The Ramakrishna Movement in the United States. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Tweed, Thomas A., and Stephen Prothero, eds. Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.


See alsoAsian Religions and Sects .

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Hinduism Traditional religion of India, characterized by a philosophy and a way of life rather than by a dogmatic structure. It was not founded by an individual and has been developing gradually since c.3000 bc, absorbing external influences. There are several schools within Hinduism, but all Hindus recognize the Vedas as sacred texts. Dharma is the eternal moral law underpinning existence. Karma is the law of cause of effect that energises reincarnation. Liberation from the cycle of suffering and rebirth (moksha) and a return to Brahman is the chief aim in life. One of the features of Hindu society is the caste system, but modern Hindu scholars maintain that it is not part of the religion. The main Hindu gods are Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva (the Trimurti). Popular deities include Krishna, Ganesh, Parvati, Lakshmi, and Indra. Brahmanism, the early phase of Hinduism, culminated in the classic texts of the Mahabharata (incorporating the Bhagavad Gita) and the Ramayana (relating the adventures of Rama). Today, there are c.800 million Hindus worldwide. See also Advaita; ahimsa; Hare Krishna; mantra; Upanishads; Vedanta

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Hinduism a major religious and cultural tradition of the Indian subcontinent, which developed from Vedic religion.

Hinduism is a diverse family of devotional and ascetic cults and philosophical schools, all sharing a belief in reincarnation and involving the worship of one or more of a large pantheon of gods and goddesses, including Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu (incarnate as Rama and Krishna), Kali, Durga, Parvati, and Ganesh. Hindu society was traditionally based on a caste system.

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Hin·du·ism / ˈhindoōˌizəm/ • n. a major religious and cultural tradition of the Indian subcontinent, developed from Vedic religion. DERIVATIVES: Hin·du·ize / -ˌīz/ v.

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