Hinduism

Written by Michael Vlach.

I. Introduction to Hinduism

A. Hinduism is a religious tradition of Indian origin, comprising the beliefs and practices of the Hindus.

B. "Hindu" was a geographical term that referred to a region near India around the 6th century B.C.

C. The word Hindu itself is derived from the river Sindu, or Indus.

D. Hindus prefer the term sanatana dharma which means "eternal religion" or "eternal tradition."

E. Hinduism exists primarily in India although it has spread to many parts of the world. Hindu communities also exist in:

1. Sri Lanka

2. Bangladesh

3. Fiji

4. East Africa

5. South Africa

F. There are 900 million Hindus today.

G. 20 million Hindus live outside of India.

H. About 1.5 million Hindus live in the United States. This accounts for 0.5% of the U.S. population.

I. Hinduism is the third largest religious community in the world.

J. Hinduism is a universal worldview that accepts and celebrates diverse philosophies, deities, symbols and practices.

K. Technically, there are two characteristics of a Hindu:

1. does not belong to a religion of non-Indian origin.

2. does not claim to belong exclusively to another religion of Indian origin.

L. Hinduism has no central doctrinal system. It is very vast with many holy books that sometimes appear to teach contradicting things. It is also a very eclectic religion in that it easily incorporates elements of other religions and philosophies. Within Hinduism there are various schools of thought.

II. Hinduism in history

A. The origin of Hinduism is unclear. It is an ancient religion that was formed in the mists of antiquity. Hinduism does not have a specific founder.

B. Certain Hindu beliefs go back to 3000 B.C.

C. Hinduism started as the religion of a group of people called Aryans who migrated into India around 1500 B.C. These Indo-Europeans worshiped several gods through the use of animal sacrifices. Hinduism as we know it developed as these Aryans interacted with the Dravidians, who were dark-skinned inhabitants of India.

D. Around 1500 B.C. the earliest sacred texts were written.

E. In the fourth century B.C. Hinduism became separated from Buddhism and Jainism which are also religions that began in India.

III. Worldview summary of Hinduism

A. The Absolute of Hinduism

1. The absolute of Hinduism is Brahman, the ultimate reality, the highest deity.

2. Brahman is the unchanging reality, composed of pure being and consciousness.

3. Brahman is the ground of all gods.

4. Hindus debate whether Brahman has distinguishable personal attributes, yet it is clear that Brahman is mainly a non-personal entity.

a) When understood as a God among gods, Brahman can be said to be personal. In this mode Brahman is saguna Brahman.

b) In the role of ultimate reality Brahman is nirguna Brahman, impersonal without attributes (see Warren Matthews, World Religions, 90).

5. Brahman is supposed to transcend all limiting attributes. Shankara, an 8th century Hindu scholar wrote:

"Ishvara [Brahman], forgive these three sins of mine: that although you are everywhere I have gone on a pilgrimage; although you are beyond the mind I have tried to think of you; and although you are indescribable, I offer this hymn in praise of you."

6. Brahman takes the form of three main Hindu deities who correspond to the three stages in the cycle of the universe.

a) Brahma—the creative spirit from which the universe arises.

b) Vishnu—the force of order that sustains the universe. Through his incarnations (avatara), Vishnu preserves righteousness when the forces of evil threaten to prevail. (Krishna was the eighth incarnation of Vishnu.)

c) Shiva—the destructive principle of the universe, the force that brings cycle to an end.

7. Most Hindus choose a personal deity, a form of Brahman, with whom they can feel a personal connection. Devotion to this deity may include:

a) Prayer

b) Ceremonial worship

c) Chanting of deity's name

d) Pilgrimages

NOTE: The deity worshiped often depends upon one's social status within India. Thus, the caste system is a major factor in the determination of which deity to worship.

B. The World/Universe of Hinduism

1. The universe is eternal but constantly changing.

2. Brahman and the universe are closely related but there are some differences.

a) The universe arises from Brahman.

b) Brahman sustains the universe.

c) Brahman does not change.

3. The universe moves in endlessly recurring cycles, like the motion of a wheel.

4. Humans, including their minds and bodies, are part of the changing universe.

5. The universe is made of several different realms but basically the universe consists of tri-loka or "triple world system."

a) There is an upper heavenly realm that is the abode of gods, goddesses, demons and semi-divine beings.

b) There is a lower realm that is the abode of lesser demons, ghosts and other beings.

c) There is a middle, earthly realm where human beings live.

NOTE: The beings in the upper and lower realms can interact with beings in other realms.

C. The human person in Hinduism

1. Our self consists of more than mind and body.

2. At our core lies atman—our unchanging, universal self.

3. There is a very close connection between a person's atman and Brahman. In fact, some Hindus equate a person's atman with Brahman.

4. The current life that a person is living is not his first. In fact, our current life is one link in a chain of lives that extends into the past and future.

D. The human problem in Hinduism

1. Our atman, our eternal unchanging self, is supposed to be united with Brahman.

2. But through cravings and lusts and things such as greed, hatred, and ignorance, we lose sight of our atman and get off track to unification with Brahman.

3. Humans must struggle with Samsara which is the wheel of birth and rebirth that keeps turning.

4. Samsara is caused by lack of knowledge and unfulfilled desires.

5. The law that governs samsara is called karma.

a) According to Hindu karma, our present life is the consequences of the actions of our previous lives. Understanding this can lead to right choices, desires, and deeds.

b) Karma is the framework for Hindu ethics.

c) Karma is the moral law under which we function (just like our bodies are under the law of gravity). When we cause pain or injury we add to the karmic debt we carry into our future lives.

d) When selfless, we lighten our karmic debt load.

E. Solution to the human problem in Hinduism

1. The first step is to gain awareness of our atman and atman's relationship with Brahman. This relationship needs to be pursued diligently.

2. Discovery of the atman's relationship with Brahman can lead to the pursuit of moksha which is the liberation of the soul from the cycle of rebirths.

3. In the pursuit of moksha, the person diligently undertakes a process that will lead to the unification of his atman with Brahman. This involves the complete discarding of all cravings and desires. This process can take many lives to accomplish as the person is reincarnated.

4. Various yogas can be done in the pursuit of moksha.

a) Yoga—any technique that achieves union with Brahman.

b) Our personalities predispose us to a certain type of yoga.

(1) Hatha Yoga—for physically active people.

(2) Karma Yoga—for active people.

(3) Bhakti Yoga—for emotionally inclined people.

(4) Jinana Yoga—for reflective or intellectual person.

5. The pursuit of moksha involves the lightening of karmic debt. There are things a person can do to lighten and be free of karmic debt:

a) Selfless action (most important)

b) Yogas (disciplines)

c) Purification

d) Devotions

6. It should be understood that although moksha should be the ultimate aim of every Hindu, Hinduism does allow for the pursuit of other aims in the present life. There are four goals/pursuits of life that a Hindu can seek:

a) Kama—pursuit of pleasure

b) Artha—pursuit of wealth and power

c) Dharma—pursuit of righteousness

d) Moksha—pursuit of liberation from chain of lives

NOTE: All four of the above are considered valid pursuits although the ultimate aim should ultimately be moksha.

F. Community and ethics of Hinduism

1. Most Hindus are born into the Hindu community.

2. Some Hindus welcome outsiders who want to study their religion.

3. Yet many believe that only those born into Hindu families are true Hindus.

4. The caste system has been an important element in Hinduism and for the people of India.

a) Caste – the permanent social group into which a person is born.

b) The major groupings for the caste system are:

(1) Brahmans—priests, teachers, scholars

(2) Ksatriyas—kings, warriors, government officials

(3) Vaishyas—farmers, traders, merchants

(4) Shudras—unskilled workers

(5) The Untouchables

5. Important to Hindu community is the Stages of Life. An individual's life is divided into four successive stages (ashrama system):

a) Stage 1: Student—religious education for a proper life

b) Stage 2: Householder—Marriage and family

c) Stage 3: Retirement—spiritual contemplation

d) Stage 4: Sannyasin—pure focus on inner self and union with the divine

6. The ethical standards of Hinduism are generally high.

a) Family is considered sacred.

b) Husbands and wives are to be loyal to each other. (Hinduism is heavily patriarchal with women very much under the rule of their husbands.)

c) Children should be cared for.

d) Older people should be cared for.

e) Hindus should not harm people or their property.

f) Compassion should be shown to all humans and animals, especially the cows.

(1) Why Save the Cows? The cow is the symbol of the value of all living things.

(2) In Hinduism the cow is held sacred because it is dear to Lord Krishna.

(3) "The Vedic literatures [Hindu scriptures] state that protection must be given to weak and helpless living entities by the stronger members of society. It is the duty of a householder to protect and provide not only for one's family, but even for the ants that live within one's house; what to speak of higher living entities like the cow, who are at the mercy of their owners. The scriptures state that the cow is our mother. We drink the milk from the cow, therefore we must accept her as our mother and protect her. As such how can a civilized society allow violence to come to such helpless living entities, who sustain us all with their milk." --Jahnava Nitai Das

G. Interpretation of history in Hinduism

1. The Hindu view of history is cyclical or circular. The universe operates according to cycles.

2. "Hindus believe that the universe undergoes cyclical processes of creation, preservation, and destruction. Thus the current manifestation of the cosmos is just one of innumerable universes that have preceded it, and that will succeed it. Since antiquity, the Hindus have had a sense of the vastness of cosmic time, and thus each manifestation of the universe is measured in periods of immense duration" (Thomas A. Robinson and Hillary Rodriguez, eds., World Religions, 162).

3. "It is believed that we currently live in the Kali Yuga, the most degenerate period within a group of four yugas known as Mahayuga. The quality of life and human virtue progressively decline throughout a Mahayuga, which lasts 4,320,000 years. The Kali Yuga lasts for 432,000 years, and only recently began, its onset marked by the great war of the Mahabharata in about 3000 B.C.E." (Ibid.)

H. Life after death

1. Hinduism believes in reincarnation. All living things experience the cycle of rebirths until ultimate union with Brahman (moksha) occurs. Since moksha is very difficult with only a few attaining it, most people experience reincarnation thousands of times before even being close to experiencing moksha.

2. The way one acts in this life determines what his/her lot will be in the next. One's status in the next life is determined by karma.

3. Once can be born a lowly worm, a horse, a lion, etc. One can also be born as a human. Moksha is not available for women so it is considered better to be born a man. The best position to be born into is that of a man of a high caste or a guru. These are the ones most likely to achieve union with Brahman and end the cycle of lives (reincarnation).

4. There is no way to describe ultimate union with Brahman. It is a merging of one's self in the cosmic divine. One illustration is that union with Brahman is like the merging of a drop of water (your atman) with the ocean (Brahman). One loses all identity as he becomes part of Brahman.

I. Hinduism and other religions

1. It is probably best to identify Hinduism with inclusivism. It does not claim that it is the only way although it certainly holds that it is the best way.

2. Hindus are usually glad when others learn and incorporate principles of Hinduism.

3. Hinduism is very eclectic in that it is open to incorporating elements of other religions and philosophies. In regard to Christianity, Hindus often have no problem with adding Jesus to their list of Avatars (human manifestations of the divine). They are very resistant, though, to the concept of totally rejecting Hinduism for Christianity.

4. Hinduism generally lives in harmony with the other religions of India such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. These three religions spun off of Hinduism.

5. Hindus have often had conflicts with Muslims. Overall, though, Hinduism is not regarded as a militaristic or evangelistic religion.

J. Hindu rituals and symbols

1. Rituals are very important to Hindus.

2. Examples:

a) Pressing palms together symbolizes the meeting of two people.

b) Bowing to a person means "I bow to the divine in you."

c) Bindi—the red dot Hindu women wear on the forehead

(1) Its location over a chakra (energy point), is intended to help focus during meditation.

(2) Also a symbol of good fortune.

(3) Bindi was once only for married women but today is worn by girls and women of all ages.

3. 3 Categories of Ritual

a) Nitya—actions performed daily

b) Naimittika—performed on specific occasions

c) Kamya—performed voluntarily

4. 3 Kinds of Ritual

a) Yajna—involves sacrificial fire

b) Puja—devotional offerings, usually flowers

c) Dhyana–meditation

5. Sacred Sites of Hinduism

a) The whole earth

b) Mother India

c) Seven cities

(1) Mathura (where Krishna grew up)

(2) Kasi (sacred to Shiva)

d) Rivers

e) Events in Hindu epics

6. Sacred Times

a) Many religious festivals

(1) Dassera—marks victory of Prince Rama over demon king Ravana

(2) Diwali Festival—festival of lights

(3) Holi—celebrates arrival of spring.

7. Om

a) Om is a sacred syllable

b) Hindus chant Om as a means of connecting with the innermost self (atman) and Brahman.

c) If said correctly, om resonates through the body and penetrates the atman.

8. Guru

a) Means "teacher."

b) Spiritual authority who is a guide for others.

c) Represents the divine in human form.

d) The guru's role is crucial. He leads people to appropriate deity, practice, or yoga.

9. Swastika—this represents prosperity and good fortune.

10. Sacred Hindu Literature

a) Hinduism says that ultimate reality goes beyond all scriptures but scriptures help orient the mind toward Brahman.

b) Hindu literature is vast.

c) The four Vedas constitute the most important body of sacred Hindu literature.

(1) Rig-Veda

(2) Yajur-Veda

(3) Sama-Veda

(4) Atharva-Veda

d) Rig Veda is the oldest, composed about 1500 B.C. and written down about 600 B.C. It contains hymns, incantations, and rituals from ancient India.

e) Upanishadas. Written between 800 and 400 B.C., they elaborate on how the soul (atman) can be united with Brahman.

f) The Mahabharata, were written 540 to 300 BCE, and have been attributed to the sage Vyasa. They record "the legends of the Bharatas, one of the Aryan tribal groups."

g) The Bhagavad Gita is a poem describing a conversation between a warrior Arjuna and the God Krishna.

h) Another important text is the Ramayana. It is "a moving love story with moral and spiritual themes." It is dated to the first century A.D.

i) Shruti–Sacred writings based on what Hindu writers "what is heard" in revelation.

j) Smriti—"what is remembered."

K. Hinduism Today

1. Since 1947, India is officially a secular state but 82% of the population remains Hindu.

2. India has ongoing political conflict with Pakistan, a mostly Muslim nation.

3. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau drew upon Hinduism and its literature.

4. Martin Luther King, Jr. studied the teachings of Hindu leader Mohandas Gandhi on nonviolent protest.

5. George Harrison embraced Hinduism in the 1960s.

6. Some members of U.S. counterculture explored Hinduism.

7. Millions of Westerners today practice meditation or yoga for relief from stress or physical fitness.

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