Some Basic Facts:
The word “Hindu” is the Persian word for Indus, the river along which the ancient Indus Valley civilization flourished. Hindus themselves prefer to speak of their Religion as Sanatan Dharm or the True Teachings.
Hinduism has no known founder. Also, the followers of Hinduism do not recognize any “prophets” in their religious tradition. Non-Hindu scholars believe that personages such as Krishna and Ram Chandra were Hindu prophets.
Place of Origin:
The Hindu sacred literature is divided into two kinds: the Sruti or revealed and Smrti or remembered.
The Sruti or revealed literature:
Rig Veda: lyric hymns to various deities
Santa Veda: hymns in reference to the Soma sacrifice
Yajur Veda: sacrificial prayers Atharva Veda incantations
Brahmanas: commentaries of the Vedas and concerned with ritual and prayer
Upanishads: philosophical and speculative texts dealing with Brahman and Aatman
Smrti or remembered literature:
Mahabharata: epic literature of the third century BC. Ascribed to the sage Vyasa. The hero of the epic is the avatar Krishna. This epic contains the famous Bhagavad-Gita or the Song of the Lord.
Ramayana: epic literature of the second century BC and ascribed to the saint Valmiki. It narrates the life of the avatar Rama.
Puranas: devotional texts dealing with religious practices, mythology and cosmogony.
City of Varanisi or Banaras, on the Ganges. Allahbad, where Ganges and Jamna meet. Vrindaban
Holi: a spring festival associated with Krishna
Divali: the Feast of Lights, an autumn festival
Dasehra: a ten day festival celebrating Rama’s battle against Ravana
The word Hinduism covers a large number of indigenous faiths that developed and flourished in the Indian subcontinent, over the past four thousand years. On the lowest level, these faiths include the most primitive type of animism and, on the highest level, a rarefied monism.
The Hindu religion is very old, diverse, and evolved considerably over the first 1,000 to 1,500 years of its existence. Due to its great antiquity, a great deal of mythology got incorporated with the wisdom and philosophical speculation.
The history of the Hindu religion dates back to the arrival of the Indo Aryans in India around 1500 BC. The word “Aryan” is a linguistic term indicating a speech group of Indo European origin and is not an ethnic term. The arrival of the Indo Aryans coincided with the decline of the Indus Valley civilization which had existed in India since 3000 BC. The Indo Aryans came from the region of the Caspian Sea and the southern Russian steppes. They entered north India through the passes in the Hindu Kush mountains.
The Indo Aryans brought many beliefs with them. Over the centuries the beliefs of the Aryans mixed with those of the local Dravidian people giving rise to what is known today as Hinduism.
Essential Beliefs of Hinduism
Without any attempt to rank them in their order of importance, following are the essential Hindu beliefs:
1. The Hindu Triad
The central belief of Hinduism is that there is One Universal Spirit called Brahman which has no beginning or end. In Bhagavad-Gita, the Song of the Lord, we find the following description of the Supreme Spirit:
“I am He by Whom the worlds were created and shall be dissolved … There is nothing higher than Me… The whole world is pervaded by Me, yet My form is not seen. All living things have their being in Me, yet I am not limited by them… 1, the Supreme Self, am the cause and upholder of all. Under My guidance, Nature produces all things movable and immovable … I am the Father of the universe and its Mother. I am its Nourisher. I am the Knowable and the Pure …. I am the Goal, the Sustainer, the Lord, the Witness, the Home, the Shelter, the Lover and the Origin. I am Life and Death; I am the Fountain and the Seed Imperishable.
“I am the Source of all; from Me everything flows. The Supreme Spirit, the Eternal Home, the Holiest of the Holy, the Eternal Divine Self, the Primal God, the Unborn and the Omnipresent. The Source and Master of all beings, the Lord of Lords, the Ruler of the universe.
“Could a thousand suns blaze forth together it would be but a faint reflection of the radiance of the Lord God. He is the Light of lights, beyond the reach of darkness; the Wisdom, the only thing that is worth knowing.
“The aspects of My divine life are endless. Whatever is glorious, excellent, beautiful and mighty, be assured that it comes from a fragment of My splendour”
In the Hindu religious philosophy, Brahman, the Supreme Spirit, has three main attributes or manifestations which are identified as:
- Brahma, the Creator
- Vishnu, the Preserver
- Shiva, the Destroyer
Because of these three main attributes or forms of Brahman, He is also called Trimurti or the Three in One God. Besides Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, there are many other attributes of Brahman which are all symbolized in the Hindu religion as “gods”.
Brahman is the Absolute, impersonal World Soul Who cannot be known without its various manifestations which then become the personal deities. Different groups of Hindus worship Brahma or Vishnu or Shiva as their personal god.
Hindus believe that at the end of each cycle of creation, called a “Day of Brahma”, Shiva destroys the old world, Brahma creates a new one and Vishnu appears on earth in various forms or incarnations called “avatars”.
With this “usual belief in the Brahman on one hand and in its various manifestations on the other, Hinduism is at once a monotheism and a polytheism.
According to Hindu belief there are ten avatars or incarnations of Vishnu:
- Matsya, the fish
- Kurma, the tortoise
- Varaha, the boar
- Nara-Simha, the man lion
- Vamana, the dwarf
- Parusha-Rama, Rama with an axe
- Rama-Chandra, the hero of the Ramayana epic
- Krishna, the main character in the Bhagavad-Gita
- Buddha, the founder of Buddhism
- Kalki, the tenth avatar who is yet to come
3. World is Eternal
Hindus believe that the world is part of a beginingless and endless process which follows fixed cycles known as the Days of Brahma. Each day of the Brahma lasts for four and a half billion years.
4. The Soul is Eternal
Hindus believe that the souls have existed from time immemorial and are not necessarily created by Brahma.
5. The Law of Dharma
Very simply, this is the Law of Moral Order or right conduct. According to this law each person has his own dharma which depends upon his own race, caste or family. Although dharmas of various people may be different according to their station in society, they all lead to the same objective: reunion with Brahman, the World Soul.
6. The Caste System
Hinduism is the only religion in the world that believes in a caste system. Under this system people are assigned certain specific functions and duties in the society. The four castes recognized under
this system. are:
Brahmins: the priests, philosophers and holy people dedicated to the study of the sacred books. Brahmins belong to the highest caste.
Kshatriyas: engage in military and governmental activities. They represent the upper middle class.
Vaisyas: the tradesmen, merchants, farmers and Indus trialists
Shudras: these carry out menial jobs in the society and their essential purpose is to serve the other three castes.
Samsara is the endless cycle of birth and rebirth through which each soul goes until it attains liberation. This concept of reincarnation applies to the individual as well as the universe.
8. The Law of Karma
According to this law every action produces its inevitable result so that the conditions of each rebirth are determined by the acts performed during the previous life. Under this law, “From good must come good; and from evil, evil”.
9. Moksha or Salvation
Salvation is achieved in Hinduism when the soul is finally released from its continuous process of birth and rebirth and becomes one with Brahman, the World Soul.
Hindu Acts of Worship
In Hinduism, there are many ways and methods to achieve religious objectives. There is the way of penance and the way of sacrifice. There are the ways of meditation, of devotion, of renunciation and of religious acts.
There are no specific practices or creeds that are held essential in Hinduism and there are many forms of religious worship in this faith:
These are devotional rituals that are performed three times a day: at dawn, at midday and in the evening. These rituals begin by bathing oneself in the morning and include meditation, making of offerings and uttering of prayers.
Puja, which literally means worship, involves the paying of respect to the god. The Hindu gods are invariably in the form of idols. These idols are usually kept in the temple but may also be kept at home. The idol or statue of the god is the symbol of divine presence to the Hindus. The Hindu worship is seldom congregational and is largely individual. Certain rituals are followed during the puja both at home and in the temple.
Katha is the communal worship and involves recitations from the Scriptures.
Yoga is the general name for certain disciplines which, the Hindus believe, should be followed to achieve the state of “nirvana” or enlightenment. These disciplines are extremely ancient and are considered necessary to gain complete control of one’s emotions and morals. It is through the yogas that the Hindus try to identify with the Brahman.
In the Hindu religion certain rituals are performed which relate to the various stages of one’s life. These rituals include:
- name giving ceremony
- shaving of the child’s head initiation into the caste
- marriage ceremony
- funeral sacrament
- post cremation ceremonies
The pilgrimages are a very important aspect of Hindu religion. There are local, regional and national pilgrimage sites across India. The objectives of performing these pilgrimages are manifold: for salvation, for absolution of sins, for worship, for experiencing the divine, for obtaining relief from illness or for receiving some other specific blessings.
The Philosophy of Life in Hinduism
risk of over simplification, we could reduce the Hindu philosophy of life to four basic objectives:
(i) Dharma: The acquisition of religious knowledge through right conduct and right living
(ii) Artha: The lawful making of wealth
(iii) Karma: The satisfaction of human needs and desires covering the entire lifetime
(iv) Moksha: The quest for liberation and salvation.
Wisdom of Hinduism
Below is a sampling of some of the wisdom of Hinduism taken from its sacred books:
- “The end and beginnings of beings are unknown. We see only the intervening forms. Then what cause is there for grief”
- “Sacrifice is the noblest form of action”
- “All action originates in the Supreme Being”
- “Neither in this world, nor elsewhere, is there any happiness in store for the one who always doubts”
- “In sorrows not dejected, in joys not over joyed; outside the stress of passion, fear and anger, steadfastly calm in lofty contemplation; such a one is the wise man”
- “Be not overglad attaining joy, and be not oversad encountering grief”
- “That man alone is wise who remains master of himself”
- “Do your earthly duty free from desire, and you shall well perform your heavenly purpose”
- “If you were the worst of all wrong doers, the ship of truth would bear you safe across the sea of your transgression”
- “Four sorts of mortals know Me; he who weeps, the man who desires to know, he who toils to help, and he who is sure about Me”
- “Whoever offers Me in faith and love a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water poured froth, that offering made lovingly with pious will, I accept”
- “Those who worship Me with love, I love; they are in Me and I in them”
- “Be certain that none can perish, trusting Me”
- “Passion binds by toilsome strain; but ignorance, which shuts the beams of wisdom, binds the soul to sloth”
- “The doors of hell are threefold, through which men to ruin pass: the door of lust, the door of wrath, and the door of avarice”
- “The faith of each believer conforms itself to what he truly is”
- “Religion shown in acts of proud display is rash and vain”
Below, we will try to compare the various beliefs and acts of worship of Hinduism with their counterparts in Islam.
(i) Concept of God
Hinduism, with its belief in One Supreme God called Brahman, is basically a monotheistic religion. But the symbolization of the various attributes of Brahman into different deities turns this fundamental monotheism into a kind of polytheism. Furthermore, the concept of One God is not central to Hinduism as it is with the religion of Islam. In Islam, God is One and no manifestations of God exist in any form.
(ii) Inequality of people
With its institutionalized caste system, Hinduism advocates a strong inequality among people. This caste system is unique to this religion and nothing similar to it can be found in the other major religions of the world. It is conceivable that the caste system originated in ancient India essentially to bring certain order to the society and to allocate different duties to the people. With time, this social order could have become ingrained in the Hindu society and eventually became a source of considerable sorrow to the people in the lower castes.
The Hindu philosophy of reincarnation is obviously based on intellectual speculation regarding the nature of death and what happens to the soul afterwards. Belief in reincarnation also exists in two other faiths of Indian origin: Buddhism and Jainism. In Islam, the death in this life leads to resurrection on the Day of Judgment and then an everlasting life afterwards in a spiritual state.
Because of its belief in reincarnation, Hindu concept of salvation is concerned with release from this endless cycle of births and rebirths. In Islam the concept of salvation relates to the receiving of God’s pleasure and nearness on the Day of Judgment.
(v) The Worshiping of Idols
Although the Hindus worship idols, they do not believe that the statues themselves have any powers. To them the idols are mere representations of gods and help to create the proper mood for prayer. Other religions, such as Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Islam, consider this representation of divine existence into various statues, a rather primitive action and attribute it to the great antiquity of this religion. In Islam, all worship is performed to the One Invisible God and no representations of any nature are permitted.
(vi) The Hindu Sacred Books
The Hindus perhaps have the most extensive sacred literature of any religion in the world. But, because of their great antiquity, it is difficult to assign the various books to their original authors. Also, much of the sacred texts relate to intellectual speculation, a field that is continually challenged by man’s increasing knowledge.
How much of this sacred literature is the product of revelation and how much owes to human interpolation, is a question difficult to answer with any certainty. There is great wisdom in the Vedas to elicit the view that they were originally revealed. With the passage of time they could have easily suffered at the human hand, much like the sacred texts of many other religions. As regards authenticity, the Holy Quran is the only sacred book in the world today which has remained unchanged since it was first compiled during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet.
(vii) The Hindu Avatars
The avatar in Hinduism is perhaps the closest thing to the prophet in the Near Eastern faiths. Although the Hindus believe that the various avatars such as Rama Chandra and Krishna were manifestations of the god Vishnu, to the outsiders these avatars appear to be sages, saints or prophets who, because of the great reverence by the followers, were elevated to their divine status. Muslims believe that Rama Chandra and Krishna were indeed prophets of God, much like Moses, Jesus and Muhammad.