What is Hinduism? History
Hinduism, the religion of over a billion people, is the world’s oldest religion and the most confusing one to non-Hindus.
Some say it isn’t even a religion, more a way of life. Hindus themselves call it Sanātana Dharma, the eternal tradition.
So what is Hinduism?
Hinduism is the world’s oldest active religion. It’s the result of the merging of the ancient Indus Valley civilisation and nomads that came into India around 1500BC.
Some scholars say it could even go back many more thousands of years…
but we won’t delve too deep into dates.
As dates in Hinduism are very controversial. But one thing is certain. Hinduism is old.
Like, at least, 36 Betty White’s. Hinduism has been around so long that it and the concept of India are inseparable.
Hindu and India even come for the same word.
Sanskrit was the ancient language of the Hindus, and the Sanskrit name for the Indus River is Sindhu.
The Ancient Persians who sat across the Indus tended to switch S’s to H’s. So Sindhu became Hindu.
So people living across the river became Hindus.
The Persians told the Greeks who dropped that not very Greek-like H, stuck a very Greek-like “a” to the end and boom, India.
Hinduism has a long long history. But today we’ll be focusing just on the core beliefs of Hindus because I don’t have the willpower to write complete Hinduism . Hinduism is like a sea.
Hindus are a diverse group. Some are strict, dedicating their lives to prayer. While others don’t believe in any gods but follow Hindu philosophy.
To make things easier to understand let’s break Hinduism down into 7 core beliefs.
So here’s my rap about the 7 Hindu beliefs…
Here’s the regular version…
1. Belief in a One Universal Soul: Hindus believe in a Universal Soul know as Brahman. A formless, genderless, source of all reality. Brahman is the universe and the material that makes up the universe. It’s a trippy concept. Think of Brahman as an ocean and everything else as drops propelling out of that ocean. Separate for a time, but still the same thing.
2. Belief in an immortal individual soul. In Hinduism, souls are known as Atman. Actions of the soul while in a body have effects on that soul’s next life. When you die your soul moves to another new body. This is called transmigration. The kind of body the soul inhabits next is determined by karma.
3. Belief in karma: Karma is action, usually good or bad actions that affect society. For Hindus karmic actions in the past affect us today and our actions today affect our soul’s future.
4. Belief in Moksha: The goal in Hindu life is to somehow get back to Brahman. If Hindus can do this they will be freed from the cycle of life and death. This is called moksha. You can achieve moksha by realising your oneness with Brahman. How you realise this is up to you. For this reason, Hindus pray “Lead me from the unreal to the real.”
5. Belief in the Vedas: The Vedas are Hindu sacred books of knowledge. There are four Vedas. Hindus believe that all four were divinely revealed to ancient Hindu sages. We’ll take a look at them in a while.
6. Belief in cyclical time: For Hindus, there are no beginnings or endings. Time is series of cycles. With each cycle containing four ages or yugas: Krita, Treta, Dwapara, and Kali. Added together, the four yugas total about 4.32 million years. At the end of each cycle, declining human morality lead to total destruction of reality. Hindus believe were are in the 4th and final yuga, Kali.
7. Belief in dharma: Dharma is a difficult word to translate to English. “Proper Behavior” is the best I could come up with. Dharma maintains balance in the universe. As long as everything in the universe like animals, plants, and humans follows their dharma, then everything will be fine. If they break from their dharma, things will to super not fine. Each being has its own dharma. A lion’s dharma is to kill and eat antelope. A King’s dharma is to rule well. A subscriber’s dharma is to smash that like button and ring the notification bell. For humans, their specific dharma is usually based on their age and caste. An old priest will have different dharma than a young merchant for example.
So those are the 7 core beliefs of Hinduism. With them, you can understand the Hindu mindset.
Unlike Christianity or Islam, Hinduism is a non-prophet organisation. There is no Jesus or Mohammed for Hindus.
There is no Bible, Koran, or Torah. Instead, they have a bunch and I mean a bunch of sacred texts.
The 4 Vedas form the basis of the Hindu faith. So let’s take a look at them.
1. Rig Veda:
The Rig Veda is a collection of songs that praise the gods and discusses ideas like Truth, Reality, and The Universe. Along with the discussion on war, weddings, and rituals.
2. Yajur Veda:
The Yajur Veda covers stuff such as for sacrificial rites and rituals.
3. The Sama Veda:
Sama literally means “the sweet song that destroys sorrow.” It is mostly songs dedicated to praising gods. It’s different than the rest because it is set to music.
4. Atharva Veda:
The Atharva Veda is my favourite one! Do you want to curse your enemies and charm that special someone?
Maybe learn to invoke rain or discover herbal medicine along with tips on warfare. Like how to make poison arrows!.
Along with a bunch of charms and curses.
It even has a curse against cursers: “Avoid us, O curse, as a burning fire avoids a lake! Strike here him that curses us, as the lightning of heaven the tree!”
A link to the Atharva Veda is in the description just in case you need a spell to get a wife or another to banish pigeons from your presence.
After the Vedas come to the Upanishads which are like a sequel that makes the original make much more sense. They were probably written down between 800BC and 500BC.
During a time when some Hindus started to question the Vedas. Their ideas became the Upanishads.
The Upanishads are books on philosophy. Like we would expect for Plato or Aristotle.
They’re all about questioning, doubt, debate, and finding the answers to life’s difficult questions.
A theme in the Upanishads is that people are not their minds, or bodies, or egos but their Atman.
Your soul is you, everything else is unreal and temporary.
After the holy texts like the Vedas and Upanishads are other less divine but still important texts.
These include stuff like the Puranas, Bhagavad Gita, and the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
The Puranas are like encyclopedias of Hindu beliefs.
What is Hinduism?
There are 18 well-known Puranas. The Puranas cover things from yoga to army organisation, to taxation, the caste system, hell, gods, and everything in between.
The Bhagavad Gita, Gita for short, is one of Hinduism’s most important texts.
The Gita takes place on a battlefield where Arjuna a great warrior refuses to fight.
Lord Krishna steps in to urge Arjuna to fight and their discussion covers things such as dharma and how to live your best life.
Arjuna eventually fought after Lord Krishna taught him the truth about dharma.
As a member of the warrior caste, Arjuna’s dharma was to fight against evil.
The lesson of the Gita is that everyone faces difficult choices but they must act on them according to their dharma.
No matter how unpleasant.
Along with all these philosophical texts Hinduism also has two action-packed epics.
The Ramayana and Mahabharata:
Ramayana, the earlier of the two epics, tells the story of Prince Rama. In the epic, you find out about his 14-year exile, the abduction of his wife Sita, his battle with the demon Ravana, and his awesome monkey sidekick Hanuman.
The second epic, the Mahabharata is the longest poem in the world. 5 times the length of the Bible and 8 times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined.
It rivals any soap opera you’ve seen when it comes to drama. Murder, betrayal, love, love-murder, and giant battles.
The Mahabharata has it all.
The theme running throughout the Ramayana and Mahabharata is that dharma must be followed for society to function.
In Hinduism, there 4 goals a person should aim for to have a good life. The first of these is dharma. Followed by artha, the pursuit of prosperity, and a good reputation. Kama, pleasure both in body and mind. And moksha the release for the cycles of rebirth. Hindus should practice artha and kama with dharma in order to attain moksha.
There are also six temptations Hindus should try hard to avoid.
Kama: Lust and materialism. This kama is different from the good kama mentioned above.
Moha: Unrealistic attachment to things, people, and power
By following their dharma and avoiding these six temptations a Hindu can break the cycle of rebirth and have their soul merge back into Brahman. Like a drop of water merging back into the ocean.
But even though everything comes from Brahman who is the One real thing in Hinduism, Hindus do have thousands of gods.
So let’s take a look at some of them.
There is Brahma, the creator. He created everything in the universe but he is not the universe itself.
Because that’s Brahman. They aren’t the same thing. That last letter changes a lot.
He has four heads. The heads face each of the four directions, to represent the four Vedas which he created and the four yugas. He also holds a book, which represents knowledge.
Oh and he rides a giant swan because he’s just that fancy.
His consort is Saraswati, the goddess of learning.
Vishnu, the Preserver is the second member of the Hindu Trinity. He preserves the world created by Brahma until it is destroyed by Shiva.
He holds a discus, which he uses to cut down anyone that’s trying to mess with dharma.
Along with a conch, which symbolizes victory and the five elements. Vishnu has many avatars, such a Krishna or Rama, who he uses to defend dharma on Earth. and he rides the giant eagle Garuda.
Vishnu has two consorts: the goddesses Lakshmi and Bhu Devi. Bhu Devi is the earth goddess and Lakshmi is the goddess of good fortune and wealth.
What is Hinduism?
Shiva, the Destroyer, is the third member of the Hindu Trinity. It’s his job to destroy the universe in order to prepare for its renewal at the end of each cycle of time.
The most identifiable of his features is his third eye, which he almost always keeps closed.
If it does open and you’re in front of it you will have your face melted off.
When not unmaking existence Shiva enjoys rides on his bull named Nandi.
At the end of the Kali Yuga, the fourth age of the world, Shiva performs a dance that destroys the universe. People have told me that my dance moves make them wish the world ended, so I and Shiva have quite a bit in common.
Parvati and Sati are Shiva’s consorts.
Shiva also has two sons: Ganesha and Murugan. Ganesha is worshipped as the remover of obstacles and Murugan is the god of war.
Ganesha holds a special place in the hearts of Hindus, due to him being the remover of obstacles.
The elephant head is the obvious clue to identifying him. He was born with a human head but after Shiva cut that one off he had to make do with an elephant one.
If you’re Christian or Muslim you’re aware that your religion has a bunch of different denominations. Like Catholics and Protestants. Sunni and Shia. Hinduism has these too.
Hindus developed four major denominations, some of which have their own subdivisions:
Vaishnavas primarily worship Vishnu and Shaivas primarily worship Shiva and his sons.
Smartas follow sacred texts, like the Puranas and the Ramayana and Mahabharata rather than the Vedas.
They worship five gods and goddesses: Ganesha, Durga, Surya, Shiva, and a preferred avatar of Vishnu.
Finally, Shaktas worship the goddess, Devi.
Shaktas see Devi as the ultimate and eternal reality. Like a feminine Brahman.
Even though there are all these variations and more, the core beliefs remain mostly the same.
Hindus believe that dharma keeps the balance in the universe. If the scales between good and evil start tipping towards evil then something needs to intervene to fix the universe’s dharma.
This divine intervention is known as an avatar.
The literal meaning of the word avatar is “descent,”. Avatars are gods that descend to earth to intervene whenever help is needed to restore dharma.
For example, when the Earth was dragged underneath the ocean Vishnu descended to Earth as the avatar Varaha, a boar, and dragged the Earth back out.
In other cases, Vishnu was born on Earth as an avatar, like Rama or Krishna. Where he spent his avatar’s life fixing dharma.
The caste system. If you know only one thing about Hinduism this is probably it.
People see it as an oppressive system that locks people in place based on their birth and for a huge part of history that is what it has been, unfortunately.
What is Hinduism?
Let’s do a quick explanation of what the caste system is. In Hinduism, there are 4 castes or classes that you can be born into.
Brahmin, the Priests Kshatriyas, the Warriors Vaishyas, the Traders, and Shudras, the Manual labourers
The main basis for the caste system can be found in the Bhagavad Gita and Rig Veda.
Krishna says in the Gita “I have created a fourfold system in order to distinguish among one’s qualities and functions.”
The Rig Veda also refers to the four castes. It says humans were created from parts of the god Purusha.
The brahmin from his face, the Kshatriya his arms, the vaishya his thighs, and the shudra his feet.
This system was supposed to assign people functions based on their abilities. Not birth.
If someone had to qualities of a Brahmin or Vaishya they could fill those roles.
The Gita didn’t restrict movement among castes and the caste system functioned as intended for a while.
Until a document is known as the “laws of Manu” came about around the fifth century BC. Popularly referred to as the Manu Smrti, they created hard rules for Hindu life.
Two rules presented in it contributed to the way the caste system turned out.
Manu states that the Brahmin was the lords of all castes.
and he forbid moving among the castes. The caste you’re born into is the caste you’re stuck in.
If you give humans a hierarchy they’ll exploit it and things go sour pretty quickly.
As time passed, Hindus began thinking in terms of upper and lower castes.
Soon cleaning toilets, tanning leather, and dealing with meat products were thought to be “impure”.
The people doing those jobs became untouchables, the lowest of the low, a people without caste.
The rest is history.
What is Hinduism?
The modern world has brought changes though. Now Hindus mix freely while working together in the same businesses, attending the same schools, and generally just living together.
But when it comes to marriage many Hindus still stick to their own caste.
But this too is changing and on Hindu dating websites you can see people list a non-preference for caste.
So those are the basics of Hinduism. It isn’t even close to covering everything.
One article simply can’t do it. Hinduism is too diverse, too deep, and means too many different things to different people.
But learning even the basics of this fascinating and ancient religion gives us an insight into the worldview of over a billion people and I hope you enjoyed it 😀