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LOCATION: India; Nepal; Bangladesh; Sri Lanka; Pakistan; Bhutan; many other countries worldwide
POPULATION: over 1.1 billion followers
LANGUAGE: Sanskrit (sacred language); language of the region in which they live
RELIGION: Hinduism


Hindus are followers of a religion that has its origins on the Punjab plains in northwestern India over 3,000 years ago. The western boundary of early Āryan settlements in the region was the river called Sindhu, an Indo-European word meaning "river." The Persians pronounced the word as "Hindu," a term that came to be applied to the peoples of the area. "Hinduism" described the religion of these peoples. "Hindu" passed into Greek usage as "Indos," from which is derived the names of the Indus River and India itself.

Hindus themselves have no specific name for their religion. One of its designations is sanātana dharma, which can be loosely translated as "eternal truth." Hinduism has no founder, no common set of beliefs or practices, no established "church," and no uniformity of worship. Over the centuries, Hinduism has absorbed beliefs ranging from primitive animism to the most sophisticated abstract philosophy. It is less of a religion than a collection of faiths linked by some common traits. Yet there are certain broad, distinguishing characteristics that set Hinduism apart from other religions. These include reverence for the Vedas, acceptance of the existence of God, belief in reincarnation and related doctrines, an emphasis on ritual, and the caste system.

For many years, India was under the rule of first, the Muslim Mughals, who established themselves in northern India (Delhi and Agra) and then the British, but the masses remained true to Hinduism. There were conversions of Hindus, mainly from the lower and untouchable castes to Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity, largely to escape the inequities of the Hindu caste system, but even then Hinduism retained its tolerance for other religions. When the British left India in 1947, they had hoped to leave a successor state that encompassed all British possessions in mainland South Asia. However, the intransigence of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League in demanding a homeland for Indian Muslims and the haste of the British withdrawal from the region meant that the sub-continent was partitioned, on the basis of religion, between a Muslim Pakistan and a predominantly Hindu India. Regions of the subcontinent with a Muslim majority fell to Pakistan, which was made up of a West and East Wing (now Bangladesh), separated by hundreds of miles of Indian territory, areas with a Hindu majority were to become India, and the rulers of the numerous princely states that were scattered across British India were to decide which country they would join (the problem of Kashmir dates from this time). The migration of Hindus and Muslims between India and Pakistan that accompanied this partition is estimated to have numbered around 10 million people and is thought to be the largest the world has ever known. Partition in 1947 was also accompanied by an estimated one million deaths of both Muslims and Hindus. Pakistan was established specifically as a homeland for Muslims in the South Asian subcontinent. On the other hand, India, even though it was essentially a Hindu land, remained steadfast in its objective of remaining a secular state. Under the Nehru dynasty and, after Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984, under her son Rajiv Gandhi, India, even though it contained most of the world's Hindus, remained a strongly secular democracy.

However, the rise within the last couple of decades of national political parties committed to "Hindutva" has changed the situation. Hindutva means "Hinduness" and the word was first coined in 1923 by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in his pamphlet entitled Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? There have been political parties and groups, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), that have espoused Hindutva but, prior to the 1990s, these never had power on a national scale. However, two events that occurred towards the end of the 20th century attracted a large number of mainstream Hindus to the Hindutva movement. The first of these was the Shah Bano case (1986) in which Rajiv Gandhi's government, under pressure from conservative Muslims, used its large parliamentary majority to overturn a Supreme Court verdict granting alimony to an old Muslim woman that had angered many Muslims. (Muslims in India are subject to "The Muslim Personal Law (Sharia) Application Act, 1937," whereas Hindus are subject to Hindu Law.) The second was the dispute over the 16th century Mughal Babri Masjid (Mosque) in Ayodhya—built by Babur after his first major victory in India. Many Hindus saw it as a sacrilege that a mosque should stand on the site of the birthplace of Ram (Ram Janmabhoomi), the Hindu deity seen by many Hindus as an incarnation of Vishnu. For centuries, the mosque was a cause of tension between the Muslim and Hindu communities, with legal actions over the mosque dating back to the 19th century. In 1990, however, Lal Kriskna Advani, a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (Indian People's Party, founded in 1980), undertook a rāth yātrā with the professed objective of building a Ram temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya. (Technically, Rath Yatra [rāth means "carriage" and yātrā means "journey"] is a Hindu festival associated with Jagannath [origin of the English word "juggernaut"] of Puri in Orissa involving a procession of towering raths being pulled through the streets of Puri by devotees, but in this case it refers to a "symbolic religious caravan" across the country) The yatra, which was accompanied by violence and bloodshed and is estimated to have been responsible for 3,000 Muslim deaths across India, failed in its avowed objectives, but in late 1992 a huge number of nationalist Hindus from all parts of India razed the mosque to the ground. The destruction of the mosque and subsequent conflict arguably lifted the BJP and Hindutva to national and international prominence. The 2002 Godhra violence in Gujarat, which pitted Hindu vs. Muslim, originated largely from the communal feelings raised by the Babri mosque issue.

The BJP was briefly in power in New Delhi during May 1996, but, having gained widespread support in the country for its political platform as a result of the events of the preceding two decades, formed the Union government between 1998 and 2004, with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as prime minister. The deputy prime minister, LK Advani, the same Advani who supported the destruction of the Babri Masjid and led the 1990 rath yatra, attributed the BJP's shocking loss of the general election in 2004 to the party straying from its platform of Hindutva.


Hinduism is one of the world's major religions, with over 1.1 billion people among its followers. Hindus make up 80% (approximately 905 million people according to the 2001 Census) of India's population. Nepal has another 22.5 million Hindus (80.2% of the population). Elsewhere in South Asia, Hindus number 11.4 million in Bangladesh (2001 Census), 1.5 million in Sri Lanka (according to government sources, though this may be a serious undercount) 30 million in Pakistan (c. 2%), and 0.25 million (25%) in Bhutan. All the preceding figures are based on 2001 census data, so allowing for population growth at the rate of national averages, and including Hindus overseas, the estimate of 1.1 billion is realistic.

Hindus have taken their religion to other parts of the world as well. Following the beginning of the Christian era, Indian colonists spread into Southeast Asia, where Hinduism strongly influenced local cultures. Although later replaced by Buddhism and Islam, Hinduism still survives in the Indonesian island of Bali. In the colonial period, the British introduced Indian labor (and thus Hinduism) into the Caribbean and Fiji. Indians also emigrated to South Africa, East Africa, and other British possessions. The later decades of the 20th century have seen a sizable immigration of Indians into Britain, Canada, and the United States.


Sanskrit (samskrta, "refined") is the sacred language of the Hindus. It is a later form of Vedic, the tongue in which the sacred literature of the Āryans was composed. Sanskrit dates to about 300 BC. It belongs to the Indo-Āryan branch of the Indo-European family of languages. There is a vast literature in Sanskrit, ranging from the early Vedic hymns to the numerous works (religious treatises, dramas, stories, poetry, etc.) associated with the flowering of Classical Sanskrit from the 3rd and 4th centuries AD onward. The script used today for writing Sanskrit is Nagari or Devanagari.


Hindus have an immensely rich tradition of myth and legend, ranging from the creation myths of the Vedas to the animistic beliefs surrounding local godlings. Of this vast treasury of material, only two works can be mentioned here. The Mahābhārata, composed probably sometime after 200 BC, is the world's longest epic poem. It tells of a great civil war in the region of modern Delhi and of the struggle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas for control of the kingdom. The centerpiece of the epic is the battle of Kurukshetra, but interwoven with the main story is a collection of myths, folk tales, and legends of Vedic gods mingled with discussions of statecraft, the science of war, and philosophy. One of the most famous sections of the epic is the Bhagavad Gītā ("Song of the Lord"). On the eve of the conflict, Arjuna, one of the Pandava princes, is surveying the opposing armies drawn up ready for battle. Distraught at the thought of killing his kinsmen, he seeks guidance from his charioteer, who is the god Krishna (Krsna). Krishna replies that it is his duty as a ksatriya (warrior) to fight his foes, and that this duty comes above all else.

The Rāmāyana, the second great Indian Hindu epic, relates the story of Rama and his wife, Sita. Sita is abducted by Ravana, who carries her off to his kingdom of Lanka (Ceylon). Rama and his brother Lakshman set out for Lanka to rescue Sita. There, with the aid of Hanuman, the monkey king, and his monkey people, they burn Lanka and free Sita. However, Sita has been associated with another man and Rama refuses to have her back as his queen, despite her protestations of innocence. After many years, Rama and Sita are reconciled. Rama is viewed as a god and his worship is universal in India. Sita is upheld as the ideal of the faithful wife.

Of all the heroes and myths of India, none are more deeply embedded in the Hindu mind than those of the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyana. During recent broadcasts of the epics as long-running serials on Indian television, the entire country came to a standstill. Villagers even turned their television sets into shrines, performing pūjā (worship) before their ancient gods and heroes.


Central to Hindu philosophy is the concept of the soul (ātman). Each individual has a soul, which is a fragment of the Supreme Soul, Brahma. As such, it is the only part of human beings that is eternal and indestructible. It is, however, bound by the physical body and further surrounded by illusion (māyā). Furthermore, the soul is caught up in an endless cycle of rebirths (samsāra). The nature of each birth or incarnation is determined by actions in one's last existence (the law of karma). Bad deeds hinder the progress of the soul on its journey and result in rebirth as a lower form of life—perhaps as a member of an untouchable caste or as an animal. On the other hand, if one pursues righteous behavior (dharma), the soul returns as a higher life form, moving up the ladder of existence towards the obliteration of the physical self. Practicing noninjury to living things (ahmsā) is a means to this end. The ultimate aim of the Hindu is total release (mokśa) of the soul from the physical world and its merging with the universal soul.

Such beliefs are uniquely Indian, yet other aspects of Hinduism have their origins among the Indo-European peoples who entered South Asia around 1700 BC. These invaders called themselves Āryas and were part of the great migrations of people that carried Indo-European culture over much of the Old World. In India, the urban civilization of the Indus Valley gave way before the simpler—though no less vigorous—Āryan culture. The Āryans were seminomadic pastoralists, depending largely on the herding of cattle. They brought with them the horse and the chariot and spoke a language that was Indo-European in origin. Their gods were male, rather than the female deities of the Harappans. But most important of all, they had a class of priests who had developed poetic techniques for composing hymns in praise of their gods. Over the centuries, these hymns were collected to form the Veda (literally "knowledge"), the most sacred scriptures of the Hindus.

There are four Vedas: the Rg Veda, the Atharva Veda, the Sāma Veda, and the Yajur Veda. The earliest and most important of these is the Rg Veda, composed between 1200 and 900 BC. Vedic religion was based on a primitive animism in which forces of nature were seen as divine and personified as gods. Thus Indra was the great war-god, riding in his chariot at the head of the Āryans against their enemies. He was a slayer of dragons, the god of thunder, and maker of rain. (Indra had replaced the original Indo-European father god Dyaus Pitr, the Zeus of the Greeks and Jupiter of the Romans.) The Vedic pantheon included Agni, god of fire; Surya, the sun god; and Soma, god of the intoxicant soma. Animal sacrifice was central to the Vedic religion.

Modern Hinduism, although it embraces Āryans gods and sacrifice, differs from the religion of the Vedas. The worship of mother-goddesses and tree-worship, for example, are non-Āryans and come from the Harappan cultural tradition. Some Hindu concepts appear much later than the Vedic period. But one feature of modern Hinduism can be traced directly to the Vedas, namely the division of society into distinct classes. The Sanskrit word for these categories was varna, or "color." The highest ranked class were priests (brāhmana), followed by warriors (ksatriya), peasants (vaiśya), and serfs (sūdra). Varna form the basis of the caste system in India today, and many Hindus see caste as divinely ordained because of its Vedic origins.

The historical development of Hinduism is far too complex to be presented here in more than its barest outlines. By the 7th and 6th centuries BC, popular discontent with Vedic religion was widespread. This was a period of religious ferment that saw old ideas reexamined and new ones emerge. Wandering ascetics rejected the authority of the Brahmans and began reexamining the spiritual values of the Vedas. Many concepts fundamental to modern Hinduism (e.g., samsāra, karma, and ahimsā) first appear at this time in philosophical works known as the Upanisads.

This was also the time when Buddhism, which came to challenge Hinduism for supremacy in the Indian subcontinent, had its origins. Buddhism gained the upper hand when the Emperor Ashoka made it the state religion in the 3rd century BC, and the next millennium was one of continual struggle between Hinduism and Buddhism. It was during this period that the sanctity of the cow, a fundamental belief of modern Hinduism, came to be accepted as Hindu doctrine. There is no evidence that the cow was viewed as sacred in the Vedas. Cattle were an important economic asset in Vedic society, they were sacrificed, and their meat was eaten. Some scholars have argued that the Brahmans took the general principal of ahimsā from Buddhism and applied it specifically to the cow in their struggle to win over the mass of the population to Hinduism. By the 5th century AD, the sanctity of the cow was firmly established in Hinduism. The cow later came to be a symbol of Hindu religion and culture in the face of challenges from Islam and the Europeans.

The fortunes of Hinduism rose in the early centuries of the Christian era with what has been called the "Brahmanical revival." This was a period that saw the Brahmans assert themselves as the dominant class in Hindu society. Buddhism entered a period of decline and was to receive its death blow with the arrival of the Muslims after the 12th century AD. A reinvigorated Hinduism, however, was able to face the challenge of five and a half centuries of Muslim rule. It was also able to withstand nearly five centuries of European colonization and remain essentially unaffected by its contact with Christianity.


Holi, which is identified as the worship of Krishna, is one of the more important festivals in India. A spring celebration that falls in February–March, it clearly incorporates pre-Hindu fertility rites into its observances. The three-day festival is a time for drinking and the singing of lewd songs. Men dance in the streets, singing and carrying phallic emblems. Men and women squirt each other with colored water and red powder. The usual rules of caste behavior are relaxed, and the festival is seen by some sociologists as a "safety-valve" by which people in the rigid caste structure of Hindu society can let off steam. Bonfires are lit to celebrate the burning of the demoness Holika.

Divali, another major festival, is celebrated in the fall (October–November). The name comes from the Sanskrit Dīpāvalī, meaning "cluster of lights." Houses are decorated with hundreds of oil lamps (nowadays electric lights are often used). In some parts of the country, Divali marks the beginning of the New Year. It is particularly important among the mercantile castes (Jains, Vaiśyas) of western India, who worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, at this time. They close their accounts for the year, begin a new set of books, redecorate their houses, and send gifts of sweets to friends and relatives. In Bengal, it is believed that the lights are intended to guide the souls of the departed ancestors. Other regions have their own legends associated with Divali. Divali is an auspicious time for gambling, and even the most respectable of women will gamble at this time.

Among other major festivals celebrated by Hindus all over India are Dasahara or Durga Pűjā (called Dasain in Nepal), Shivratri (dedicated to Shiva), and Janamashtami (Krishna's birthday). The Pongal festival of the Tamils and Kerala's Onam festival, with its snake-boat races, are important regional celebrations. In Rajasthan, the Teej festival honors the goddess Parvati.

Every Hindu temple in India has an annual festival honoring its presiding deity. Some are local events, but others are of regional, and even national, significance. One such festival is held at the Jagannath Temple at Puri in Orissa. Every year, the temple images, including that of Jagannath ("Lord of the Universe"), a form of Krishna, are taken to a "country house" some two miles away. The images are placed in cars or chariots and pulled by pilgrims. Jagannath's car is as tall as a three-storied building (roughly 14 m or 45 ft high), with wheels over 2 m (7 ft) in diameter. The English word "juggernaut" comes from Jagannath and refers to the (incorrect) belief that devotees would allow themselves to be crushed beneath the wheels of Jagannath's chariot.

Periodic fairs (melās) and festivals are an integral part of Hindu religious life. The most important of these is the Kumbha Mela, held every three years in turn at Nasik, Ujjain, Hardwar, and Prayag (near Allahabad). An estimated 20 million pilgrims attended the melā held at Prayag in 1995. Pilgrimage is one of the main religious duties of the Hindu. There are thousands of holy places in India, each sanctified by association with a deity, saint, or legend. Some may just be local shrines. Others may be sacred to specific Hindu sects (there are six major ones) such as the Vaishnavas, followers of Vishnu, or Shaivites, devotees of Shiva. Still others are of importance to all Hindus. Major sacred centers include Varanasi (Banaras), Mathura, Dwarka, and Rameshwaram. Certain rivers are considered sacred, the most important being the Ganga (River Ganges).


The ancient Hindu law-givers prescribed 12 important rites, from conception to marriage. Though not all of these are observed today, the name-giving ceremony is still usually performed on the tenth or twelfth day after birth. The infant's name is suggested by the family astrologer. Boys are often named after gods (e.g., Krishna, Rama, Ganesh), and girls after goddesses (Parvati, Lakshmi), flowers (Padma, meaning "lotus") or precious stones (Moti, or "pearl"). Among some groups, the ears are pierced (and, for girls, the left nostril) at this time. Other important rites at this stage of life are the first feeding of solid food and the first cutting of the hair and shaving of the head. High-caste Hindus may leave a single lock of hair uncut.

One of the most important of all Hindu rituals is the sacred-thread ceremony (upanayana). Usually performed between the ages of 7 and 10, it is the initiation ceremony for males of the three higher varnas (caste-groups). The donning of the sacred thread is viewed as a symbolic rebirth, and members of the three higher caste groups are referred to as the "twice-born." The ceremony is performed by a Brahman, who consecrates the thread before placing it on the boy. The sacred thread is made of three white cotton threads, each made up of three intertwined strands of cotton (the number three is symbolic of the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva). It is draped over the left shoulder and tied under the right arm in a sacred knot.

Ceremonies connected with death also hold great significance for Hindus. The corpse is washed, wrapped in a shroud, garlanded with flowers, and carried in procession on a bamboo stretcher to the cremation ground. In North India, the people who accompany the body chant "Ram Nam Satya Hai," meaning "The name of [the god] Ram is truth itself." At the cremation ground, a Brahman performs certain rituals before the body is placed on the funeral pyre. The chief mourner, usually the eldest son, lights the pyre. Relatives and friends remain until the corpse is consumed. If the skull does not burst during the burning, it is broken open so that the soul can escape the body. A purificatory bath is taken by the mourners before their return home.

On the third day after the funeral, the pieces of bone are collected from the remains of the funeral pyre. Ideally, these should be taken to the sacred Ganges River, but they may be placed in any nearby stream. Sometime between the tenth and thirty-first day after the cremation, the śrāddha is held. This is an important (and often expensive) ceremony involving numerous rituals, a feast for relatives and friends, and the giving of gifts to Brahmans in the name of the deceased. It is believed that if the funeral rites are not performed properly, the soul of the departed will be adversely affected. As some funeral rituals have to be performed by a son, it is important for a Hindu to have male offspring.


Hindus greet each other by saying "Namaste" ("Greetings to you") while joining hands, palms together and held upright, in front of the body. In parts of India, "Namaskar" is used instead. In northern India, especially in rural areas, people commonly say, "Ram, Ram" (the name of the god Rama repeated twice), when they meet. Children may greet parents, or pupils their teachers, by bowing down and touching the feet. Hindus make the same gesture when meeting their gurus or important religious figures. It is usual for the person being honored in this manner to interrupt the gesture before it is complete, implying that he or she is not worthy of such homage.


Hindus mirror the living standards of Indian society at large. At one extreme, the wealthy (e.g., millionaire industrialists or some former princely ruling families) have lifestyles as luxurious as any in the world. In stark contrast is the life of the poverty-ridden rural peasant, or the destitute who live and die in the streets and slums of Calcutta or Bombay. These, of course, far outnumber the rich. An estimated 25% of India's population live below the poverty level.


A unique feature of Hindu society is the caste system, the division of the population into a hierarchy of ranked social categories. The term "caste" is a European word, derived from the Portuguese casta, meaning "breed" or "race." Hindus have several terms describing the same social structures. Varna refers to the broad division of society into four classes identified in the Vedas. Jāti ("birth") and the South Indian kulam are also used to refer to caste. In its most restricted sense, caste refers to a kin group from which marriage partners must be selected (i.e., an endogamous kin group). There are some 3,000 castes and over 25,000 subcastes found in India.

Castes are ranked according to the number of ritually pure practices they observe. The concepts of ritual purity and pollution are important in understanding Hindu society. One is born into a caste and acquires the ritual status of that caste. This is often determined by the caste's traditional occupation. Brahmans are priests and are ritually pure, but even Brahman castes are ranked. For example, Brahmans who perform death rituals at cremations are among the lowest of the Brahman castes (but above all other castes because they still are Brahmans). Sweepers who handle human waste, or Chamars who remove animal carcasses, are ritually polluted by their occupations. They rank at the bottom of the caste hierarchy. Whether or not sweepers or Chamars follow their traditional occupation, in Hindu eyes they still partake of the pollution of their caste. If they should touch a Brahman or member of a higher caste, their touch is considered polluting. The higher-caste individual would then have to undergo a ritual purification to remove this pollution. This, of course, is the origin of the term "untouchables." Concepts of purity and pollution thus underlie many aspects of caste behavior. The higher the caste, the greater the restrictions on social activity. Among other things, caste limits the nature of social and physical contact with other peoples; it restricts the food one can eat; it limits the people one can dine with; and it defines the marriage pool from which spouses are drawn.

A Hindu marries within his or her caste or subcaste. There are, however, important differences in the selection of spouses between north and south, reflecting the Āryans-Dravidian division in India. In North India, one marries outside one's clan (gotra), and there is a required degree of separation in blood relations for a spouse. In South India, however, the preferred partner is one's eldest sister's daughter, or a cross-cousin (i.e., father's sister's daughter, or mother's brother's daughter). Such unions are viewed as incestuous in North India.

Hindu marriages are arranged. Though now prohibited, child marriage was common in traditional Hindu society. Once the horoscopes of the boy and girl are cast and deemed suitable, negotiations concerning details of the dowry, date of betrothal, etc., are pursued. A date and time for the marriage is determined by astrologers. There are certain "seasons" when marriages are performed, with spring being considered the most auspicious time for the ceremony. Rituals are performed at the houses of both families, followed by the barāt, or procession of the groom to the bride's house. Among some castes, the groom arrives on a horse (Rajputs may ride an elephant). Both bride and groom are elaborately dressed, with the bride wearing red and gold and bedecked with jewelry. The actual wedding ceremony is performed in the presence of the sacred fire by a Brahman, who recites the appropriate passages from the Vedas. In the central marriage ritual, a cloth is tied to the clothes of the bride and groom, and the groom leads the bride in the "Seven Steps" around the sacred fire. A marriage is a time of feasting and entertaining, and among the rich the ceremonies may last as long as 10 days. For the less fortunate, the marriage of a daughter may result in considerable debt (this is one reason why male children are preferred over females).

Life for the new bride may start out as anything but rosy. She moves into a new household as part of an extended joint family. She is the most junior woman in the household, which is overseen by the mother-in-law. Unless the family is wealthy enough to have servants, she is assigned household chores. The power of the mother-in-law in traditional households was such that she even determined when her married children could have sexual relations (men and women lived in different parts of the house). A woman's status in the family changes only when she gives birth to children, preferably sons. The dearest wish of a Hindu woman is to bear her husband male heirs. Divorce was rare in traditional Hindu society, though failure to bear children was one reason for returning a wife to her family, the ultimate disgrace for a woman. Modern legislation concerning Hindu marriage and divorce contains a more liberal provision for divorce.


Traditional dress for Hindus is the dhotī for men and the sārī for women. The dhotī is a single piece of cotton, wrapped around the waist for half its length and then drawn between the legs and tucked into the waist behind. In southern India, the torso is usually left bare, although in the north a shirt may be worn. Southern Indians tend to go bareheaded, while in the north turbans are common. The style of the turban often identifies the wearer as a member of a particular community (e.g., Pathan or Sikh) or from a particular region or village. The kurtā, a long tunic-like shirt, and the pyjāmā, loose baggy trousers, are common in northern India, especially in urban areas. Men in the countryside areas often wear a variety of gold or silver ornaments.

The sārī is a length of cotton or silk cloth measuring up to 10 m (approximately 30 ft) in length. It is wrapped around the waist, with one end left free and thrown over the right shoulder. This end can be drawn across the head and used to cover the face when necessary. A cholī a tight bodice that leaves the midriff bare, is worn under the sari. There are regional variations in the way the sārī is worn. In Maharashtra, for example, rural women draw one end of the sārī through the legs and tuck it into the waist at the small of the back. In some rural areas, women do not wear the bodice, using just the end of the sārī to cover the upper body. A married woman wears a stripe of red coloring along the parting in her hair and a tīkā or red dot in the center of the forehead. Nowadays, the tīkā is often worn as decoration. Women are fond of jewelry and wear a variety of earrings, bracelets, bangles, anklets, and other ornaments such as a jewel inserted in the nostril.


Hindus follow the dietary patterns of Indians as determined by broad agricultural and ecological factors. The staple in northern and western areas is cereals (wheat, millet, barley) made into flat, unleavened bread called rotī. This is eaten with pulses (dāl) and spiced dishes called "curries" (from the Tamil karī). In the wetter south and east, rice (chāwal) replaces the breads.

For Hindus, however, food is more than mere nourishment. It has ritual and symbolic meaning. The cow, for example, is considered sacred by Hindus, as are its five products (milk, curd, ghī or clarified butter, dung, and urine). The cow is worshipped, and its products are used in Hindu rituals. It is considered a sin to kill a cow, and the devout Hindu will avoid beef. In fact, strict adherence to ahimsā means that all animal flesh should be avoided. Yet there are Hindus such as Chamārs and other untouchable castes who eat beef, chicken, and pork. Such behavior brings ritual impurity on several counts: eating beef violates the sanctity of the cow; killing animals for food violates ahimsā; and animals such as chickens and pigs are regarded as unclean by many Hindus.

Food habits among Hindus are thus closely linked to social status and standing in the caste hierarchy. As a rule, the higher the caste, the stricter are the food taboos one must follow. Brahmans form the highest castes and are strict vegetarians, eating no animal flesh and even avoiding eggs. But they also shun foods such as onions and garlic that grow in the ground and are viewed as unclean. Some will not even eat off plates on which proscribed food has been served at some time. Alcohol is also forbidden. One outcome of this concern of the higher castes for ritual purity is strict rules of commensality (i.e., rules concerning dining with other castes).

Another dimension of food in Hindu society is the concept of "hot" and "cold" in Ayurvedic medicine, the system of medicine found in the Vedas. Foods (and diseases) are classified as possessing varying degrees of heat or cold. Hot foods (e.g., apples, radishes, or honey) are prescribed to treat diseases that are cold, and vice versa.


Hindus follow the general educational and literacy patterns of India, with social and economic factors being important in determining access to modern education. In traditional Hindu society, however, formal education was limited to the Brahman male. The nature and stages of this education, which focused on the study of the Vedas, are set out in the Sanskrit texts.


Sanskrit literature includes sacred texts such as the Vedas, and the various works attached to them that are called the Brāhmanas and Upanisads. Later works of importance are the epic Mahābhārata and Rāmāyana. The 18 Purānas dating from the 6th to 16th century AD are non-Vedic works that have exerted a strong influence on present-day Hinduism. Dharma Śāstras is the collective name of various works setting out laws governing the political, social, and religious life of the Hindus. In the tradition of secular Sanskrit literature, Kalidasa is considered to the greatest of all playwrights and poets.

Classical Hindu music and dance derive from temple performances. A 3rd century AD work called Nātya Úāstra is the ancient authority for these art forms. Today, the main classical dance in India is Bharata Natyam, while Kathakali is a less formal dance from southern India. Stylized hand and facial gestures are an important aspect of both dance types. Kathak and Manipuri are other dance forms. Classical Indian music attaches more importance to melody than to harmony. The "raga" is a basic melodic pattern that provides a framework within which the musician improvises. Instruments used include the sitār (a long-necked lute), vīnai (a South Indian stringed instrument), śahnāī (a wind instrument similar to the oboe), and tabalā (double hand-drums).

Architecture and sculpture in the Hindu tradition are religiously inspired art forms. The soaring towers of the North Indian temple style represent the peaks of the Himalayas, the abode of the gods. South Indian temples, with their elaborate gateways (gopuram), are pyramidal in shape and covered with elaborately carved figures from Hindu mythology. Famous examples of Hindu temple are the temples complex at Mahabalipuram (Tamil Nadu), the Khajuraho temples (Madhya Pradesh) with their erotic carvings, and the Sun Temple at Konarak (Orissa). The rock-cut temple at Ellora (Maharashtra) and the cave temple at Elephanta, near Bombay, are also worthy of note.

Rajput painting is the only body of Hindu painting surviving today. It covers a period from the mid-16th to the early 19th centuries and is comprised of works painted in Rajasthan and the western Himalayas under Rajput patronage. Most of the paintings are "miniatures," presenting religious and epic themes, episodes from the life of Krishna, hunting scenes, and portraits. Last, but by no means least, is an accomplishment of Hindu science. Although the matter is still debated, it is accepted by many that the concept of zero is a Hindu contribution to mathematics.


Hindus participate in all areas of the modern Indian economy. In traditional Hindu village society, however, castes were integrated into an economic system known as the jajmānī system. The focus of this system was the jajmān or patron, one of the landholders in the village. The patron was involved in relationships with specific families of the service castes in the village. A Brahman priest provided his services for religious ceremonies and rituals. A potter made earthenware pots and jars for the jajmān's household; a carpenter mended his carts and agricultural equipment; a Chamar removed and skinned his dead animals; and a sweeper would remove the refuse from his house. In return, they received as payment grain, food, or cash. The relationship between the patron and the service-provider (kamīn) was a hereditary one, passing from generation to generation. It was, moreover, more than just an economic one. The patron, for example, would be obliged to assist the kamīn at times of crisis such as sickness or death.

The jajmānī system required few cash transactions, integrated occupational castes in the village, and contributed to stability in traditional village life. The breakdown of the system and the emergence of a cash economy is one of the changes that has affected Indian village communities in modern times.

With India's economy growing at over 9% a year, many Hindus are participating in and experiencing the material benefits of this growth. While Hindus are still primarily agricultural, urban Hindus—and especially middle class urban Hindus—have access to a range of conveniences such as automobiles, refrigerators, computers and mobile telephones. This "development," however, is being achieved at a cost—air pollution is bad in Delhi and throughout northern India, while traffic congestion and environmental degradation remain major issues.


Children amuse themselves with hide-and-seek, marbles, kite-flying, and other games common among Indian children. Dice and card-playing are popular with adults, and chess is thought to have originated in India. Other pastimes include cock-fighting, camel-racing, wrestling, gambling, and hunting. Hindus, of course, participate in modern sports such as cricket, soccer, and field hockey that are popular in Indian society.


Hindus today have access to modern forms of entertainment such as radio, television, and movies.

In traditional society, entertainment was derived to a considerable degree from participation in religious fairs and festivals and in folk traditions of music and dance.


The Hindu tradition identifies nine basic handicrafts believed to have been originated by the divine artisan Vishvakarman. These were gold working and jewelry-making; carving (of ivory, shell, and animal bones); pottery; weaving textiles; garland-making and weaving reeds and rushes; leatherworking; painting and sculpture; carpentry; and metalworking. Many of these crafts are associated with the occupational castes of India. In addition, there is a rich heritage of arts and crafts rooted in the folk traditions and regional cultures of the Hindu peoples.


Hindus, who make up the bulk of the Indian population, face the usual problems of poverty, low standards of living, and unemployment associated with developing countries. There are, however, economic and social problems that are specifically religious in origin. Hindu attitudes towards the cow and reluctance to kill cattle, even nonproductive animals, are seen by some economists as an inefficient use of resources. The fatalism associated with Hindu philosophy, it has been argued, has also been a hindrance to initiative and economic enterprise. But perhaps the most serious problems facing Hindus today are the social divisiveness of caste and the rise of Hindu fundamentalism. Caste has been made illegal in India, but it still provides the context in which Hindu society functions. With the breakdown of traditional social structures and pressure on resources as population increases, conflict (usually between higher and lower castes) has led to violent confrontation. This situation is made worse by rising Hindu fundamentalism and the increasing political strength of fundamentalist parties that would like to see India become a Hindu state. While such an achievement—though unlikely—would be a triumph for some Hindus, it goes against the longstanding tradition of Hindu tolerance for other peoples.

The rise of Hindu nationalism and Hindu nationalist political parties, such as the BJP, which specifically promote Hindu values, has introduced an element of conflict into modern India. "Hindutva" has raised tensions between Hindus and Muslims, as evidenced by the Godhra killings in 2002. The issue of fundamental Islamic terrorism remains, with Muslim groups apparently claiming responsibility for the 13 May 2008 bombings in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan state, which killed 63 people and injured several hundred more. Two days after the blasts, a previously unknown Islamic militant group known as the Indian Mujahideen sent an e-mail to the Indian media in which they claimed responsibility for the attacks and said they would "demolish the faith (Hinduism)" of the "infidels of India." However, Indian Home Ministry sources said that a Bangladesh-based organization, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI) or "Islamic Holy War Movement," was suspected of being behind the attack. The bombings were only the latest in a series of periodic acts of violence apparently committed by Muslims against Hindus (though the indiscriminate nature of the blasts have killed Muslims as well as Hindus), viz. the Bombay Stock Exchange bombings (1993), the Delhi market bombings in 2005, the Bombay train bombings (2006) and the 2007 blast at the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer in Rajasthan. In Kashmir, of course, where India is basically fighting a Muslim insurgency, conflict between Muslims and Hindus is commonplace.

Concerns also exist regarding the intentions of a nuclear-armed Pakistan. Muslim Pakistan, after losing the 1971 war with India, embarked on a program of developing nuclear weapons. Under the direction of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, it acquired the ability to carry out a nuclear explosion in 1987. India had already tested a nuclear "device" in 1974. Of major concern is the relatively short distance between the two capitals, Islamabad and New Delhi, which are about 450 miles from each other, a distance that could easily lead to a nuclear mistake. Unlike the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War who had enough weapons to destroy the opposing nation several times over after surviving a nuclear strike, India and Pakistan have relatively few nuclear weapons. Pakistan is generally estimated to have between 25 and 50 nuclear weapons, with some designated for delivery by its F-16s and some outfitted for its missiles. India likely has between 30 and 60 nuclear weapons, also available for planes and missiles. The leaders of each country, despite public assurances to the contrary, may worry that the other nation could destroy its nuclear arsenal with a surprise first strike, necessitating quick trigger fingers. This problem is of greater concern for Pakistan, because without its nuclear weapons, the weaker Pakistani army might be at India's mercy. In 1999, when Pakistani freedom fighters crossed the Line of Control into Indian-held Kargil, in Kashmir and were repulsed by the Indian Army, Pakistan is thought to have prepared its intermediate-range missiles for nuclear strikes, perhaps to deter India from attacking Pakistani territory. U.S. diplomacy helped persuade then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to pull his troops out of India and temporarily head off full-scale war. Experts estimate at least 12 million dead in a nuclear exchange between the two countries and that this would result in a humanitarian crisis so great that every medical facility in the Middle East and Southwest Asia would be quickly overwhelmed.


It is difficult to generalize about the status of Hindu women, because they belong to a variety of groups, in different levels of society and each having their own customs and practices. Thus, the life of the high-caste urban Brahman woman is likely to be quite different to that of the rural untouchable. Nonetheless, Hinduism traditionally tends to treat women as second-class citizens, whose main purpose in life is to marry and have male children.

In the past, Hindu women were subject to child marriage, arranged marriages, which were often arranged by families with brides never meeting their husbands before the nuptials, the payment of dowries, the custom of sati, and bans on widow remarriage. Except in matriarchies, Hindu women do not inherit property, which remains in the name of male relatives.

Many traditional practices have been made illegal by state and national governments. Child marriage has, for instance, been illegal in India since the passing of the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 and, in an effort to curb the practice of child marriages, the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Himachal Pradesh have passed laws that mandate the registration of all marriages in order to make them valid. But child marriage still occurs in India, mainly in rural villages and areas that usually have little legal supervision. According to the "National Plan of Action for Children 2005," published by the Department of Women and Child Development of India, a goal has been set to eliminate child marriage completely by 2010, but it is very difficult to monitor all children due to the sheer size of the Indian subcontinent and one only has to read the press on Akha Teej, a time that is favored for child marriages—some brides are as young as one year old—to see that it still goes on. A recent report by UNICEF revealed that 82% of girls in Rajasthan are married before they are 18, 15% of girls in rural areas across the country are married before 13 and a majority 52% of girls have their first pregnancy between 15 and 19. (According to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act of 2006, it is illegal to allow or facilitate marriage of a boy under 21 and a girl under 18.) Consequences of child marriage include anemia, sacrifice of education, domestic violence, and early pregnancies, which weaken the mother and lead to higher mortality in children during their first year of life. Even though the Supreme Court of India has upheld the government's 1994 Prenatal Determination Act, which bans the use of technology, such as ultrasounds and sonograms, for the purpose of sex-selective abortion, females fetuses are still aborted, resulting in male-dominated sex ratios among Hindus in India.

Though "love" marriages do occur, marriages in India are still generally arranged by the families involved, such marriages often being as much business alliances between families as marriages between a boy and a girl. One only has to read the marriage ads in the Indian Sunday papers to see the extent to which this practice continues. It is customary for the bride's family to provide a dowry, even though this is banned by law (The 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act). It is not uncommon for the husband or husband's family to be unhappy with the amount of the dowry (demands often include items such as automobiles, scooters, and refrigerators) resulting in "dowry deaths," whereby a women's clothing "accidentally" catches fire in the kitchen. Some estimates place the number of "dowry deaths" in the country as high as 25,000 women with numerous more maimed or scarred for life as a result of attempts to kill them.

The custom of sati, when a widow burns herself on her dead husband's funeral pyre, is a thing of the past, although a sati in Rajasthan in 1987 resulted in the state government passing the Rajasthan Sati Prevention Ordinance of 1987, which makes the glorification of sati a crime.

Many groups now permit widows to remarry, but the general treatment of women in Hindu society and laws of inheritance make the lot of women in Hindu society unenviable.

Attempts to improve the lot of women have made an impact on the place of women in Hindu society. Many of the ancient customs affecting them are now illegal, women have been making strides in accessing education (studies have shown that, because more women are remaining longer in the educational system, they are delaying the age at which they marry), and among the more educated, Western concepts such as feminism and women's rights are taking root. More and more Hindu women are out in the workplace and are becoming financially more independent. But rural Hindu women still have to face problems of poverty, illiteracy, and casteism, while even in the cities women exist in a male dominated society, have to face "Eve teasers" (Eve teasing is a euphemism used for sexual harassment or molestation of women by men) and still have to prove themselves by bearing sons when they marry.


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—by D. O. Lodrick