Photograph:Children in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, participate in the colourful Hindu festival of Holi. Holi is …
* Children in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, participate in the colourful Hindu festival of Holi. Holi is …
Hinduism is the oldest of the world's major religions. Some of its traditions and practices date back more than 3,000 years. Over the centuries, however, its followers – called Hindus – have accepted many new ideas and combined them with the old ones. Modern Hinduism mixes diverse religious beliefs and practices with social, economic, literary and artistic elements. More than 800 million people practise Hinduism worldwide. The great majority of them live in India, where Hinduism began.
Hinduism has neither a founder nor a central authority or organisation. No one has set down a list of beliefs for all Hindus to follow. This makes defining Hinduism a difficult task. Nevertheless, a number of beliefs can be identified as distinctively Hindu.
All Hindus revere the ancient Veda as the source of ultimate truth. The Veda, meaning ‘Knowledge', is a body of sacred literature written over the course of centuries. The oldest writings are the Vedas, sacred hymns and verses composed in the Sanskrit language from about 1500 to 1200 BC. The most important collection of these is the RigVeda. Later other texts – the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads – were attached to the Vedas. Together these texts form the central scripture of Hinduism.
Basic to Hinduism is the belief in an ultimate spiritual power called Brahman. Brahman is the source of all existence, and it is present in every thing and every place. The human soul, called atman, is part of the universal Brahman. Hindus generally believe that when someone dies, the atman is reborn in another body. An individual soul may return many times in human, animal or even vegetable form. This idea is known as reincarnation. The law of karma says that a person's actions in the present life will affect the quality of the next life. The cycle of rebirth continues until the individual accepts the truth that the individual soul (atman) and the absolute soul (Brahman) are one. Most Hindus consider breaking free from the cycle to be a person's highest purpose in life.
Photograph:Hindus have built many shrines to honour Siva. Siva is one of the main gods of Hinduism.
* Hindus have built many shrines to honour Siva. Siva is one of the main gods of Hinduism.
Hindus worship many gods, but the major ones are Vishnu and Siva. Vishnu is thought of as the protector and preserver of life. Siva is a more difficult god to understand. He represents the forces that create life as well as those that destroy it. Both Vishnu and Siva appear in many different forms. The worship of Vishnu, known as Vaishnavism, and the worship of Siva, or Saivism, are two major branches of modern Hinduism. Another deity, Brahma (not to be confused with Brahman), is thought of as the creator of the universe. In ancient times he was widely worshipped, but his following is now small. These three figures – Vishnu, Siva and Brahma – make up the Hindu Trinity. The supreme goddess of Hinduism is most commonly called Shakti. Like Siva, she can be either beneficial or fierce, depending on her form. The worship of Shakti, known as Shaktism, is the third major form of modern Hinduism.
Another important idea of Hinduism is ahimsa, which means ‘non-injury or ‘non-violence'. All Hindus are expected to act according to this principle, never wishing to harm anyone or anything. Because of ahimsa, Hindus consider many animals to be sacred, especially the cow. Devout Hindus eat only vegetarian food.
Like the belief system, the practices of Hinduism have also changed over the centuries. In ancient times people practised the main form of worship put forth in the Veda – making animal sacrifices to the gods. Later, as the concept of ahimsa developed, Hindus began to disapprove of the killing of animals as sacrifices. Gradually another form of worship, puja, replaced the sacrificial ritual. In the act of puja, Hindus pray for a god to enter a building and then treat the god as an honoured guest. They worship an image of the god and offer up food, water and other items. Puja rituals take place either in a temple or at home.
Tantrism is another form of worship. It is the search for spiritual knowledge and for release from the cycle of rebirth. This is achieved by chanting sacred syllables and phrases called mantras, drawing symbols called mandalas, and other methods explained in the writings known as tantras.
Most Hindus also take part in ceremonies marking major life events. The rituals are intended to make a person fit for a certain purpose or for the next stage in the cycle. The ceremonies are also meant to remove the effects of past sins and to produce new personal qualities. In modern times, ceremonies for the birth of a child, marriage and funerals are widely practised.
Hindu festivals are combinations of religious ceremonies, worship, music, dances, magical acts, feeding the poor, fasting, feasting and other activities. Most festivals are related to the cycles of nature. The New Year celebration, Diwali, lasts five days. It includes exchanges of gifts, lighting of ceremonial lamps, gambling (a ritual designed to gain luck for the coming year) and fireworks to frighten away spirits of the dead.
Pilgrimages to holy places have been common since ancient times. They are one of the most remarkable parts of Hindu life. Hindus think that certain places are sacred because of a historical event, a connection with a legendary person, the appearance of a god, or its location on the bank of a holy river. A number of pilgrimage sites lie along the Ganges River in northern India, which Hindus consider the holiest of rivers. Visits to sacred places are supposed to bring some benefit to the pilgrim, such as the healing of a disease.
The history of Hinduism began in India in about 1500 BC. Around that time people called Aryans invaded India from the region that is now Iran. They brought with them the Sanskrit language and certain religious ideas. The Aryans wrote the Vedas, developing a religion that centered on ritual sacrifices. This religion, known as Vedism, was the starting point of Hinduism.
It is impossible to say when Vedism eventually gave way to classical Hinduism. Beginning in the 400s BC, however, the number of Vedic writings began to decrease and more distinctively Hindu texts started to appear. Certain ancient rites of Vedism have survived in modern Hinduism. Some of the rituals of the Hindu wedding ceremony, for example, have their roots in the remote past. But the influence of other peoples and ideas over the years made Hinduism a very different religion from Vedism. In the early stages the religious ideas of the non-Aryan peoples of India greatly contributed to the development of Hinduism. In later centuries Hinduism was influenced by Buddhism and Jainism, the two other major religions to develop within ancient India.
Centuries of Change
The period from the 100s BC to the AD 300s was a time of great change. The primary older gods of the Vedas – including Brahma – were slowly replaced by newer deities – mainly Vishnu, Siva and Shakti. Over the following centuries many new hymns were written, especially to Vishnu and Siva.
Muslims who invaded northern India in the 1000s made more changes to Indian religion. Some new schools of Hinduism developed that were influenced by Islam. In the late 1400s a new religion, Sikhism, combined Hindu and Islamic elements.
In the early 1800s a number of people began to criticise some elements of traditional Hinduism. They used some Western ideas to modernise Hinduism. The reformer Ram Mohun Roy, for example, encouraged education and spoke out against the ancient form of social organisation called the caste system. Under this system, members of Indian society were treated differently depending upon which social class they were born into. A later reformer, Dayananda Sarasvati, opposed the caste system as well as idol worship, animal sacrifice, child marriage, temple offerings and other traditional practices. Narendranath Datta, under the name Vivekananda, founded the Ramakrishna Mission to send out monks to do good works and to promote scholarship. He also carried the message of Hinduism around the world.
In the 1900s Hinduism became a powerful force in the movement for independence from British rule. The British had ruled much of India as a colony since the early 1800s. The spiritual and political leader Mahatma Gandhi brought the Hindu idea of ahimsa into politics. He helped lead India to independence from Great Britain using only non-violent means.
Differences between Hindus and Muslims grew after the colony of British India was divided into the independent countries of India and Pakistan in 1947. Millions of Hindus left their homes in Pakistan for India, and millions of Muslims migrated in the opposite direction. During this period many Hindus and Muslims were killed. Religious violence between Hindus and Muslims continued in India and elsewhere into the 21st century.