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Hinduism

A general introduction

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Name of the religion:

This religion is called:

  • Sanatana Dharma, "eternal religion," and
     
  • Vaidika Dharma, "religion of the Vedas," and

  • Hinduism -- the most commonly used name in North America. Various origins for the word "Hinduism" have been suggested: 
    • It may be derived from an ancient inscription translated as: "The country lying between the Himalayan mountain and Bindu Sarovara is known as Hindusthan by combination of the first letter 'hi' of 'Himalaya' and the last compound letter 'ndu' of the word `Bindu.'" Bindu Sarovara is called the Cape Comorin sea in modern times.
      1
    • It may be derived from the Persian word for Indian. 

    • It may be a Persian corruption of the word Sindhu (the river Indus)

    • It was a name invented by the British administration in India during colonial times.
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Early history of Hinduism:

Beliefs about the early development of Hinduism are currently in a state of flux:

  • The classical theory of the origins of Hinduism traces the religion's roots to the Indus valley civilization circa 4000 to 2200 BCE. The development of Hinduism was influenced by many invasions over thousands of years. The major influences occurred when light-skinned, nomadic "Aryan" Indo-European tribes invaded Northern India (circa 1500 BCE) from the steppes of Russia and Central Asia. They brought with them their religion of Vedism. These beliefs mingled with the more advanced, indigenous Indian native beliefs, often called the "Indus valley culture.". This theory was initially proposed by Christian scholars in the 19th century. Their conclusions were biased by their pre-existing belief in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). The Book of Genesis, which they interpreted literally, appears to place the creation of the earth at circa 4,000 BCE, and the Noachian flood at circa 2,500 BCE. These dates put severe constraints on the date of the "Aryan invasion," and the development of the four Veda and Upanishad Hindu religious texts. A second factor supporting this theory was their lack of appreciation of the sophisticated nature of Vedic culture; they had discounted it as primitive. 2 The classical theory is now being rejected by increasing numbers of archaeologists and religious historians. The originators of the theory were obviously biased by their prior beliefs about the age of the earth and the biblical story of the flood of Noah.

  • Emerging theory: The Aryan Invasion view of ancient Indian history has been challenged in recent years by new conclusions based on more recent findings in archaeology, cultural analysis, astronomical references, and literary analysis. Archaeologists, including Jim Schaffer and David Frawley, have established convincing arguments for this new interpretation. 3 Archaeological digs have revealed that the Indus Valley culture lasted from about 3500 to 1800 BCE. It was not "destroyed by outside invasion, but...[by] internal causes and, most likely, floods." A "dark age" that was believed to have followed the Aryan invasion may never have happened. A series of cities in India have been studied by archaeologists and shown to have a level of civilization between that of the Indus culture and later more highly developed Indian culture, as visited by the Greeks. Finally, Indus Valley excavations have uncovered many remains of fire altars, animal bones, potsherds, shell jewelry and other evidences of Vedic rituals.

    Author David Frawley wrote:

    "In other words there is no racial evidence of any such Indo-Aryan invasion of India but only of a continuity of the same group of people who traditionally considered themselves to be Aryans...The Indo-Aryan invasion as an academic concept in 18th and 19th century Europe reflected the cultural milieu of the period. Linguistic data were used to validate the concept that in turn was used to interpret archeological and anthropological data." 2

    "There was no invasion by anyone." 7

During the first few centuries CE, many sects were created, each dedicated to a specific deity. Typical among these were the Goddesses Shakti and Lakshmi, and the Gods Skanda and Surya.

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Sacred texts:

Hindu sacred texts are perhaps the most ancient religious texts still surviving today. Some appear to be millennia older than the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) which conservative Christians date to circa 1500 BCE and liberal scholars date to circa 900 BCE.

  • The primary sacred texts of Hinduism are the Vedas: the Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda. The Vedas contain hymns, incantations, and rituals from ancient India. 4 The Rig Veda (a.k.a. Rigveda) may be the oldest of the four. Estimates of its date of composition in oral form range from 1500 BCE to 4000 BCE. The Yajur and Atharva Vedas refer to the vernal equinox having occurred in the Pleiades constellation -- an event dating to about 2500 BCE.

    The date when the Vedas were placed in written form is unknown. Various dates from 600 to after 300 BCE have been suggested.
    • The Upanishadas deal with Vedic philosophy and form the conclusions of each of the Vedas. "They elaborate on how the soul (Atman) can be united with the ultimate truth (Brahman) through contemplation and mediation, as well as the doctrine of Karma-- the cumulative effects of a persons' actions." 4
  • An important text is the Ramayana. Various sources have dated it to:
    • The first century CE in written form, based on oral traditions dating back six or seven centuries earlier. 4
    • 4th century BCE in written form, based on oral traditions dating back to 1500 BCE. 6
    • Between the 8th and 9th century BCE for the origins of the text. 9
    • 4000 BCE in oral form, based on astronomical constellations and other features mentioned. 6

    It is "a moving love story with moral and spiritual themes that has deep appeal in India to this day" 6 It concerns the exploits of the hero Rama who is viewed as an avatar of Vishnu, and as "...a principal deity in his own right." 7 The written form has been attributed to the poet Valmiki.

  • The Mahabharata is a group of books attributed to the sage Vyasa. They have been variously dated as having been composed between 540 and 300 BCE, between 200 BCE and 200 CE, and to the 15th century BCE. They record "the legends of the Bharatas, one of the Aryan tribal groups." The Bhagavad Gita is the sixth book of the Mahabharata. It is a poem describing a conversation between a warrior Arjuna and the God Krishna. It is an ancient text that has become a main sacred text of Hinduism and other belief systems.

  • Other texts include the Brahmanas, the Sutras, Puranas, and the Aranyakas.

Many of these sacred texts are available online. 4 One web site has a search engine available. 5

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Hindu beliefs and practices:

Categorizing the religion of Hinduism is somewhat confusing:

  • Hinduism has commonly been viewed in the west as a polytheistic religion -- one which worships multiple deities: gods and goddesses. Although a widespread belief, this is not particularly accurate.

  • Some have viewed it as a monotheistic religion, because it recognizes only one supreme God: the panentheistic principle of Brahman, that all reality is a unity. The entire universe is seen as one divine entity who is simultaneously at one with the universe and who transcends it as well.
     
  • Some view Hinduism as Trinitarian because Brahman is simultaneously visualized as a triad -- one God with three persons:
    • Brahma the Creator who is continuing to create new realities
    • Vishnu, (Krishna) the Preserver, who preserves these new creations. Whenever dharma (eternal order, righteousness, religion, law and duty) is threatened, Vishnu travels from heaven to earth in one of ten incarnations.
    • Shiva, the Destroyer, is at times compassionate, erotic and destructive.

  • The earliest Hindu scriptures are henotheistic; they recognize a multiple male and female deities, but recognize one as supreme.

Most urban Hindus follow one of two major divisions within Hinduism:

  • Vaishnavaism: which generally regards Vishnu as the ultimate deity.

  • Shivaism: which emphasizes Shiva.

However, many rural Hindus worship their own village goddess or an earth goddess. She is believed to rule over fertility and disease -- and thus over life and death. The priesthood is less important in rural Hinduism: non-Brahmins and non-priests often carry out ritual and prayer there.

Hindus believe in the repetitious Transmigration of the Soul. This is the transfer of one's soul after death into another body. This produces a continuing cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth through their many lifetimes. It is called samsara. Karma is the accumulated sum of ones good and bad deeds. Karma determines how you will live your next life. Through pure acts, thoughts and devotion, one can be reborn at a higher level. Eventually, one can escape samsara and achieve enlightenment. Bad deeds can cause a person to be reborn as a lower level, or even as an animal. The unequal distribution of wealth, prestige, health, disability, suffering, etc. are thus seen as natural consequences for one's previous acts, both in this life and in previous lives.

Hindus organize their lives around certain activities or "purusharthas." These are called the "four aims of Hinduism," or "the doctrine of the fourfold end of life." They are:
  • The three goals of the "pravritti"-- those persons who are in the world, are: 
    • dharma: righteousness in their religious life. This is the most important of the three.
    • artha: success in their economic life; material prosperity.
    • kama: gratification of the senses; pleasure; sensual, sexual, and mental  enjoyment.

  • The main goal for the "nivritti" -- those persons who renounce the world -- is:
    • moksa: Liberation from "samsara." This is considered the supreme goal of mankind.

Meditation is often practiced, with Yoga being the most common. Other activities include daily devotions, public rituals, and puja, a ceremonial dinner for a God.

Hinduism has a deserved reputation of being highly tolerant of other religions. Hindus have a saying: "Ekam Sataha Vipraha Bahudha Vadanti," which may be translated as: "The truth is One, but different Sages call it by Different Names"

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References:

  1. "Origin of 'Hindu'," at: http://www.hindunet.org/
  2. David Frawley, "The myth of the Aryan invasion of India," at: http://www.hindunet.org/ 
  3. David Frawley, "Gods, Sages and Kings," Morson Publ, (1991). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  4. "Sacred Texts: Hinduism," at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/
  5. "Sacred Scripts" has a search engine at: http://www.sacredscripts.org
  6. "Ramayana," Manas: India and its neighbors, at: http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/
  7. "Date of the Rigveda," Saksi, at: http://www.vedah.com/org/
  8. "Vedic Astronomical Lore," Hindu Books Universe, at: http://www.hindubooks.org/
  9. "Mahabharata," Wikipedia, as on 2014-FEB-14, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
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Site navigation: Home page > Hinduism menu > here

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Copyright © 1995 to 2014, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2014-MAR-04
Author: B.A. Robinson

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