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Hinduism (Dharma)


HINDUISM (DHARMA) The term "Hinduism" is derived from Hindu, the Old Persian form of the name of the River Indus (Sanskrit Sindhu, hence also India). This Iranian, and then Arab, term for all Indians was only slowly accepted as the self-designation of non-Muslim Indians, such as by the Kashmiri Jonarāja (early 15th century). It commonly signifies the indigenous religion(s) of South Asia, now increasingly called by the Epic term Sanātana Dharma (eternal religion). "Hinduism" is a loose agglomerate of many of the interlinking religions and worldviews of South Asia (and Bali); though over-lapping with some other religions, it basically includes those that are neither Islamic, Christian, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, Sikh, or "tribal" (i.e., ādivāsī, "aboriginal"; vanavāsī, "forest dwellers").

As this negative description indicates, an effectual definition of Hinduism (used here for brevity's sake) is virtually impossible: it is the sum of the traditional beliefs, rituals, customs, and pertinent social structures of South Asia, including the philosophical and theological representation of these beliefs in some two dozen of schools of thought. Less encompassing definitions (especially those deriving Hinduism simply from Vedic origins, do not sufficiently cover the realities on the ground or in the available texts. The Veda is expressively rejected by many Tantric sects, Vīrashaivism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Nor does the fashionable description of Hinduism as a colonial creation apply: Greek and Chinese visitors (c. 450 b.c.–a.d. 600) saw it as different (as "deva worship") from Buddhism and other ascetic religions (gymnosophists); indigenously, Hinduism was often referred to simply as dharma.

However, the religions that emerged from early Hinduism, such as Jainism and Buddhism, and later on, Sikh religion, have had shifting boundaries with Hinduism; they were both included as well as excluded. The authoritative fourteenth-century Sarvadarshanasam. graha (or the 11th-century Shivaite Somashambhupaddhati) do include them. All these "views" (darshana) and religions were influenced by developments that spread from one religion to the other. Nevertheless, some religions, such as Buddhism, are excluded by their own self-understanding and definition. Interestingly, even in recent times, politically active Hinduism (Hindūtva) cannot yet give a good definition of itself: "reciting prayers, reading the Gītā, worshiping the image (mūrti) of a deity, reciting om. , planting the tulsi plant" should make one a Hindu. Many South Asians would disagree.

Frequently, Hinduism is indeed more of a weltanschauung and a way of life than a "religion" in the traditional Western sense. There is no common "creed" or "statement of faith" or "catechism." Instead, people can choose which god(dess) they want to worship (iṣṭadevatā), even the impersonal "deity" Brahma or none at all. A common aspect, however, is the (almost) universal acceptance of the idea of rebirth combined with the effects on a next life of actions in this world (karma). Most Hindus also follow a series of rituals from birth to death and beyond (ancestor rituals, shrāddha). Another early, still strongly held belief is that of three "obligations" (ṛṇa) incurred by birth: those owed to the deities (deva), ancestors (pitṛ), and the ancient seers (ṛṣi). All must be worshiped and fed in various rituals carried out by the family's priests (Brahman purohitas). All these customs, rites, and beliefs bind a Hindu individual into the Hindu community, but they also separate Hindus from non-Hindus, with whom there cannot be, for reasons of purity, any interdining and intermarriage.

Nevertheless, Hinduism has not been static at all but has clearly evolved over time. Some aspects of later Hindu folk religion seem to emerge already in the Indus Valley Civilization (2600–1900 b.c.), though in the absence of script, we cannot be sure. The famous Shiva Pashupati probably is nothing but a neolithic hunting god, and bull-killing scenes may not represent Mahiṣāsuramardiṇī but rather Mediterranean or South Asian bull fights, while the worship of certain trees (pipal/Ashvattha) and snakes seems reasonably certain.

Roots of Hinduism in the Veda

However, the major roots of Hinduism are found in the Veda (roughly, 1500–500 b.c.), composed by newly arrived Indo-Aryan–speaking people in the northwestern subcontinent and later concentrated in the Kuru realm, which saw many foundational changes in religion, texts, social structure, and politics. Vedic religion has mostly male deities of nature (personifications of the sun, fire, wind, heaven; or the feminime Aditi, dawn, and earth), of social organization (Āditya such as the gods "agreement, share, lot," including the demiurge and warrior god Indra), and many vaguely personalized "powers" (brahman, fever, revenge, heat, etc.). These, and even more so the rituals (yajña) performed in public (soma, etc.) and domestic situations (birth, marriage, death, ancestor worship), along with the recitation of sacred verses and formulas (mantras of the four Vedas), have in part survived to this day. The large literature of the period, orally composed in archaic Sanskrit and perfectly transmitted, is collected in the Vedic Saṃhitās, their Brāhmaṇa/Āraṇyaka commentaries (the fountainhead of much of Hindu thought and sciences), the late Vedic Upanishads, and the Sūtras.

In the Upanishads, the traditional belief in an automatic reincarnation as human beings was joined with the new theory of karma, which had gradually developed in the newly acculturated eastern region of North India. This foundational combination has influenced virtually all later religions and sects of South Asia. Such new developments were discussed at length in the Socratic-style dialogues of the early Upanishads, which advanced a monism identifying the personal soul (ātman) with the universal spirit (brahman). In the ascetic mood of the period (note the gymnosophists of Herodotus [c. 485–425 b.c.], the birth of Jainism and Buddhism), a shift occurred away from ritualism to a symbolic interpretation and internalization, much of which is based on the correlating and identificatory procedures of the Brāhmaṇa texts. All of this was foundational for later Hinduism: it abounds in the identification of deities with each other (including even that of Vishnu = Buddha, or now of the Devī = Mary of Lourdes), of the deity with the universe (such as Krishna in the Gītā), of the worshiper with the deity or the universal Brahman, and of various concepts, ideas, and practices as being of equal value in attaining the spiritual goal.

Such new ideas were constantly added to existing older forms of Hinduism, often in framelike fashion, surrounding the Vedic core. However, many of the older forms have also continued independently and still coexist today, so that a solemn Vedic ritual can be performed today by a Brahman who may be a worshiper of Vishnu in his public and family religion, and a Tantric in his private rituals. These developments accrued in several stages. The Vedic period was followed, at least in our texts, by that of the Epics, caused by the ever-changing societal and religious conditions. The ever popular and often re-adapted, fairy tale–based Rāmāyaṇa has recently shown its resilience in a year-long television series; the more complex, giant Mahābhārata (collected c. 100 b.c.), too, has local adaptations (Pāṇḍava in the Himalayas; Draupadī in South India; the Newar god Bhīmsen in Nepal; the five Pāṇḍavas in Indonesia, etc.). In the Epics (including the Harivamsha) some Vedic gods survive, but several new ones were added, such as Krishna and Rāma (both were later incorporated into Vishnu), or Shiva, who developed out of Rudra, and the Devī (Lakshmī, Shrī, Kālī, Pārvatī, etc.). Vedic ritual was superseded by pūjā and stotra ("praise" of the gods), or even by the recitation of their names or their texts, which was declared worth many Vedic yajñas. The famous Bhagavad Gītā, the "song of the Lord (Krishṇa)," is a late (first century a.d.?) insertion into the Mahābhārata. Krishna's teachings initially stress, in rather sophistic manner, the moral and societal duties (dharma) of a Kshatriya to fight (even his relatives), but with "detachment" as to avoid karmic outcomes; the later sections of the text focus on karmayoga and bhakti, and finally, on some additional topics such as Sāṃkhya philosophy. The lasting impact of this supposedly unitary, but clearly stratified text is due to the fact that it provides several views to choose from individually; people of all stripes quote from this (frequently translated) text, find solace in it, or bolster their views, from moral action and pacifistic bhakti to violent chauvinism.

Guptan Hinduism

The post-Vedic epoch overlapped with the period "between the empires" (c. 230 b.c.–a.d. 320) that saw continuous cultural influence by peoples invading from the northwest (Alexandrian and Bactrian Greeks, Hellenistic Parthians, north Iranian Saka, Central Asian Yue-ji/Kushana). In reaction to this and to the challenge of the prominent contemporary Buddhism and Jainism, new forms of Hindu religion developed, syncretistically incorporating both local trends and foreign influences. In classical Hinduism, under the Guptas (from a.d. 320), a conservative synthesis emerged, after five hundred years of ferment, which set the stage for medieval Hinduism. The hallmark of Guptan Hinduism is its stress on old (often Vedic) features, which hides substantial new developments; it is retrospective and "progressive" at the same time.

The most important innovations include: creation and destruction of the world (viewed as illusion) in cyclical time; pūjā and temple worship with figures of deities, pilgrimages, planets (based on the still all-important post-Vedic astrology); yoga; deliverance from saṃsāra during one's lifetime; vegetarianism; a strict social system (see below); and the deification of kings (as a walking Vishnu), just as the gods are treated like kings. Further, the codification of the standard Hindu gods (Brahmā as creator, Vishnu as preserver, Shiva as destroyer, the Devī, Gaṇesha, etc.), with their various forms (avatāras), and their beneficial as well as destructive aspects, always simultaneously with the identification of many local deities (a process still visible with Jagannātha in Orissa, Pattinī in Sri Lanka, or Mastā in the Himalayas). All of this was collected in the eighteen great Purāṇas that, like the Epics, have been eternally popular. They project divine and human history against the framework of cyclical time, with the present, evil Kālī age starting on 18 February 3102 b.c., but they also include, as virtual encyclopedias, subjects from art to medicine. Stories from these genres were retold in local languages and by wandering bards, with the help of paintings. This practice has now been supplemented by adaptations in films and on television.

In the late Guptan period, a new element emerged, again directed against formal "Brahmanical" Hinduism, in the form of Tantra and Bhakti. The latter is the fervent worship of a single, selected deity. It emerged from South India (Ālvār poetry, 8th century), which had just been Hinduized, largely replacing the older Dravidian religion. The new religious outlook gradually traveled northward and is encountered in Sanskrit texts such as the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, or in eastern India, in Jayadeva's Gītā Govinda (12th century) where it was strongly propagated by Caitanya (1486–1533). The various well-known sects of Vishnuism and Shaivism (Bhāgavata, Pāñcarātrin, Kashmiri Shaiva, Shāivasiddhāntin, etc.), of Devī or Gaṇesha worship, and many other, sometimes rather transitory, sects have produced a large amount of narrative, poetical, and devotional texts in Sanskrit and later, especially since about a.d. 1000, also in local languages.

Tantric Movement

From the mid-first millennium a.d. onward, the pan-Indian and pan-religious Tantric movement made its appearance as well. It is based on the dichotomy between the male Purusha and female Prakṛti, the origin of all creation. Identification with them (or other deities) can be reached through a combination of meditation and yoga, with inner and outer rituals. In the left-handed (vāma) Tantra, they also are of a sexual nature; this was at first rejected but still persists, especially in Nepal, Bengal, Assam. There is great and still continuing importance of various goddesses (whether of beneficial or destructive forms, such as the nine Durgās or eight Mātṛkās). Tantra forms yet another frame around Vedic, Epic, and classical Hinduism, and it permeates, whether acknowledged or not (and in spite of still prevailing Victorian prudery in sexual matters), much of modern Hinduism, as seen in the reinterpretation of the Mahābhārata by Nīlakaṇṭha (17th century) and in current ideas about the secret spiritual and mundane power of the recitation of (Vedic) mantras (e.g., in transcendental meditation).

Such new religious developments and the representations of local forms of deities and their myths were collected in local Sthala Purāṇas and Māhātmyas, which often show little similarity with the "official" pan-Indian versions of the deities and their mythologies. Many of such data are available only in local brochures sold at temples, important though largely neglected sources. However, folk religion can be Pan-Indian, too; for example, the minor deity Maṇināga is found in Nepal, Orissa, and Maharashtra (and probably elsewhere). Such data usually slip under the radar of textual scholars or village-based anthropologists. Folk religion can be astonishingly archaic, for example, with still common animal sacrifice and non-vegetarianism. In addition, the study of local art, inscriptions, and manuscript colophons is important. For example, manuscript colophons indicate the spread of Krishna worship in Nepal and Gujarat around 1550 or 1600. Such historical and geographical data of the spread of certain cults have largely been neglected thus far.

Influence of Islam and Christianity

Medieval Hinduism also saw considerable influence of Islam (especially since the 13th century), which resulted, due to long persisting, soft religious boundaries, in the improbable religious overlap of Muslim Sufi saints and their Bhakti-following Hindu compatriots (e.g., Lallā, the Islamic ṛṣi sect in Kashmir, Tulsīdās, Eknāth, Sūrdās), also Kabīr (1440–1518, who equated Allah with Rāma) and the founder of the Sikh religion, Nānak, as well as many leaders of new theistic sects (including Rāmānuja, Madhva, Basava, Nāmdev, Jñāneshvara), some of a militant and chauvinistic nature.

Due to the influence of British colonialism and Christian missionaries (at first only grudgingly admitted by the British), still another form developed, Neo-Hinduism. Reformers such as Dayanand (1827–1883) or Vivekananda (1863–1902) insisted on eliminating certain traditional aspects and adding other features, often inspired by Christian or Western sources. The movement began with social reforms (Brahmo Samaj, 1828) but soon included tendencies of abolishing "idol" worship, access of worship and "priestly" duties by all, and a perceived return to Vedic times and values (Ārya Samāj, 1875). This was followed by important social and nationalistic trends, such as the uplift of the low caste population, propagated by Mahatma Gandhi.

The Hindutva (Hinduness) movement, active since the 1920s and especially since the 1980s, surprisingly adds a large amount of "Abrahamization," such as the reliance on a narrow band of indigenous, foundational texts (Veda, Gītā, Rāmāyan. a, etc.), general public access to them, sometimes even a catechism. The texts are reinterpreted as containing the seeds of all human culture. This still ongoing rewriting of history underlines the uniqueness and superiority of "Hinduness" and glorifies a golden age, before the "damage done by the Muslims and the British," in short: god Rāma's realm. The aim to regain this Hindu India was propagated by M. S. Golwalkar (1939) and V. N. Savarkar (1923, repr. 1989) with the slogan: "one country, one culture, one religion," which excludes non-Hindus. However, given the derivation of Hindu-tva from a Perso-Arabic term, joined with the Sanskrit suffix -tva (-ness), the word is as composite as modern India itself. The movement has resulted in the emergence of right-wing Hindutva political parties since the 1980s. All of this is reminiscent of the great restoration and glorification project of the Guptas.

Still another frame surrounding medieval Hinduism is that of modern science and technology. Many Indian scientists merely add selected scientific data to their traditional beliefs, and do not perceive any clash; rather, they use the amalgam to defend the ancient glory and superiority of Hindu India. Subhash Kak (1994), for example, "discovers" items such as planetary distances or the speed of light in the Vedas; others, from Dayanand onward, have found steam locomotives, airplanes, rockets, atomic bombs, and laser beams, always post factum.

Hinduism thus has always been a living, constantly changing religion, in which new trends developed, in the absence of any central authority or dogma, in reaction to social and political developments, such as Kuru Sanskritization, the reactions against Buddhist and foreign influences (c. 150 b.c.–a.d. 320 ), or Tantra and Bhakti against the Brahmanical Hinduism of the Gupta/Harṣa period. Recently, new popular deities such as Santoṣi Mā and even an AIDS Ammā have emerged.

At the local, still predominantly village level, many of the formal divisions and characteristics collapse: local folk religion is intermingled with archaic local traditions, previous forms of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and even Islam. Hindus visit an Islamic Pīr's grave and Muslims go to Hindu festivals, or the Buddhist goddess Harītī is still in pūjā in the guise of a Muslim Pīr, protecting against smallpox. Many basic South Asian concepts (such as the power of sight, heat) are found both in Hinduism and local Islam, though under different names. Conversely, constant Sanskritization, ever since the Kuru realm, can be witnessed in the increasing Hinduization of "tribal" religions in the mountains of Nepal or the more secluded areas of central India, and among the lower caste Hindu communities that imitate higher caste, preferably Brahmanical, lifestyle; for example, the low caste goldsmiths of Karnataka have even claimed Brahman status.

Concepts of Life and Class

In light of the many concurrent forms of Hinduism, even in the daily life of one person, what then are its overarching characteristics? The societal aspects cannot be overestimated; indeed, some want to see Hinduism as a social system rather than a religion. In endocentric classifications, three sets of concepts have been claimed to be encompassing: the four aims of life (purus.ārtha), the four stages in life (āshrama), and the four "classes" (varṇa) of Hindu society, which are subdivided into several thousands of castes (jāti).


The "aims in life" that can be achieved seriatim include artha (material success), kāma (sexual desire), and mokṣa ("release" from the cycle of recurrent rebirth, saṃsāra), to which dharma is sometimes added. Dharma covers everything from customs, incidental and general beliefs, rituals, ṛṇa (duty), organization of society, and procedure in law courts, to the laws that govern nature, the gods, and the universe. It relates to the whole of Hindu culture, not just its religious or societal aspects. This Epic (and medieval) construct offers "feeling at home" in a fixed, ordered universe and society, the rules of which are spelled out at great length in the respective texts (Dharma Sūtra, Manusmṛti, etc.). Many of its societal aspects are summarized by the three Vedic r.ṇas (obligations): one is born with the primordial obligations (not guilt) toward the gods, ancestors, and primordial poets (ṛṇi); they are sometimes extended to include one's teachers. A first summary is found in the Taittirīya and Kaṭha Shikṣā Upanishads: "Speak the truth, behave according to custom (dharma), carry out the (ritual) actions, do not neglect your recitations, . . . do not cut off your family line ..treat your mother, father, teacher, guests like a god."

Ashrama and Varna

Much of this obligation involves rituals, which leads to, as Indians complain, a "ritual-ridden" society, governed by the varṇāshrama system. The term refers to the four classes (varṇa) of society and the four stages (āshrama) in life, from childhood to old age, concepts that are socially imprinted early on. After early childhood, the four stages are: brahmacārya, "living as a (celibate Veda) student" in the home of a teacher; gṛhastha, married life as a "householder"; vānaprastha, living as a married "retiree in a (nearby) forest"; sannyāsa, living as a (celibate) ascetic who has "completely thrown away" all strictures of society and strives, alone, for his personal emancipation from the cycle of rebirth. None of these stages, which must be attained by appropriate rituals, are prescriptive, though the gṛhastha stage is considered normal, since it ensures the required birth of a son who must carry out the ancestor rituals. The system is an early medieval Brahmanical construct; the Veda had only two stages, the brahmacārin and the gṛhastha; the sannyāsin was added during the Maurya period, while the separate vānaprastha stage is still more recent.

Similarly, the division of society (Vedic: shūdrārya) into varṇas ("colors," the four classes), is already attested in the famous Puruṣa hymn (Rig Veda 10.90, c. 1000 B.C.). The Vedas enumerate the classes as the three ārya varṇa s: the Brāhmaṇa (poets/priests); Kshatriya (or rājanya, nobility); Vaishya (belonging to the people), who alone are entitled to perform the solemn (shrauta) rituals; the fourth, the non-ārya Shūdra varṇa, originally was one of artisans—who are thus excluded and included at the same time. Another large group (pañcama) outside and below this system has developed, the Dalit (harijan, pariah, pore, formerly called the "untouchables"), who can perform only the most menial and degrading work. These five levels represent a corresponding decline in purity.

The varṇa system has been overlaid by several thousands of occupational castes (jāti), as exemplified in Manu's law book (c. 100 b.c.), representing a conservative Brahmanical reaction to Buddhist/Jain and foreign challenges. One is born both into a varṇa and into a caste and can practically change this status—if ever—only with great effort over several generations, by social upward movement, now called Sanskritization. Occupational castes are perhaps first visible in certain Vedic designations, such as the (always impure) caṇḍāla, vrṣala, washermen, most artisans, fishermen, and so on, and appear, around the beginning of the common era, in normative dharma texts or early inscriptions (at Mathura). Caste certainly is not just a colonial invention, as some now want to have it. In the never-colonized Nepal, where good historical records exist (unutilized in fashionable "colonial" investigations), there is not just talk of restoring the varṇas—as is always done by new dynasties—but also, around a.d. 1390 , of restoring the thirty-six castes by the Malla kings. In 1851 the Rān . ās went even further in their Mulukī Ain, and compiled the strictest caste regulations anywhere, which lasted until 1960. The current caste altercations and "voter bank" politics show the persistence of caste, in spite of its abolishment after Indian independence (and in Nepal, after 1960). It remains endemic in South Asian society, including Muslims, Jews, and Christians.

As the caste of caste indicates, such modern representations, or the anthropological study of contemporaneous village communities, cannot, however, reliably inform about the situation in the past, for which the (roughly datable) texts and the evidence of archaeology and art must be included. Texts are studied by philologists and historians of religion. They cover the past three thousand years, from the Veda to modern temple booklets; however, they do not always indicate the contemporary social importance of certain forms of Hinduism and related religions. Many forms did not make it into the texts (e.g., village religion), or did so only belatedly (Tantra), once the local form was adapted to "standard" (often Brahmanic) Hinduism and represented by Sanskrit texts. All local forms must therefore be studied, not just "privileged" Brahman rituals and texts: folk tales and songs, accounts and observations of traditional festivals and rites, religious dance, theater, processions, pilgrimages, local and folk art, and so on.

Finally, it must be emphasized again that Hinduism has been an ever-changing entity, with many local variations within South Asia, and now also in its diaspora areas, where acculturation is steadily proceeding: new holy places, such as American rivers, are created, but pūjā and many life-cycle rituals remain, as does part of the mythology—if often only in Bollywood fashion and as ahistorical comics. Conversely, traditional dance is elevated from a low caste performing art to one aspired to by immigrants' daughters. What, then, will be the future of Hinduism, now followed by some 800 million of the more than 1 billion people of the subcontinent? Will it develop like the indigenous, not centralized religion of another modern Asian country, the Shinto of Japan—with foundational though little known myths, pūjā-like rituals performed out of habit ("one never knows what it may be good for"), and with specialized temples (such as for electronics, success in school, etc.)—while religion plays a relatively small role in daily life. Or, will it develop rather like an "Abrahamic" religion, with an increasing focus on selected normative texts and rituals, bolstered by a newfound self-consciousness and pride in an emerging India, and accompanied by increasing interaction with the distant diaspora, who see all things Indian in sharper focus, though in nostalgic and idealistic ways. We can be certain about one thing: "Hinduism" will remain dynamic.

Michael Witzel

See alsoAstronomy ; Brāhmaṇas ; Buddhism in Ancient India ; Devī ; Jainism ; Rāmāyaṇa ; Sikhism ; Upanishadic Philosophy ; Vedic Aryan India


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——. "Macrocosm, Mesocosm, and Microcosm: The Persistent Nature of 'Hindu' Beliefs and Symbolical Forms." International Journal of Hindu Studies 1, no. 3 (1998): 501–553.

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