Religions in India
HINDUISM. Hinduism is probably the oldest of all living religions.
The term 'Hindu' is a corruption of Sindhu, a river that flows through the
northwest of the Indian sub-continent. The Greeks called this river the Indus
and the people who inhabited the region southeast of it were called Hindus.
Their faith came to be called Hinduism. These people were the Aryans who
migrated to India from Central Asia about 3,000 BC.
Over time, their beliefs and
practices mingled with those of the indigenous people to become Hinduism, as we
know it today. They define the religion of the Hindus as Sanatan Dharma or
Eternal Faith. It is not based on the teachings of a single preceptor but is the
collective wisdom of great sages since the beginning of civilization. The
Aryans, in awe of natural forces and phenomena and unable to control or even
understand them, personified and prayed to them.
As early man, the Hindus faced
grave danger from other life forms, and therefore developed respect for them
early on. This explains the presence of the various animal gods in the Hindu
pantheon. The two most important aspects of Hinduism are the sanctity of the
Vedas and the caste system. The four Vedas - Rig-Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and
Atharva Veda - are poetic compilations of the teachings of the ancient sages.
These teachings form the basis of Hinduism.
However, since this faith is based
on collective wisdom, it has no scriptures in the traditional sense. Most Vedic
hymns are addressed to various forces of nature and deal with Aryan ritual
worship or yagya. In time, the concept of a Supreme Being who caused and
affected everything in the universe assumed a definite shape.
Supreme Being found its manifestation in three forms to carry out the three main
tasks of Creation, Preservation and Destruction. This Being came to be
represented and revered as the Supreme Triad of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The
second characteristic feature of Hinduism, the caste system, began as a loose
economic division of society, based on an individual's capabilities and the
profession he chose to follow.
However, the economic divisions slowly
transformed into a rigid system of social distinction based on color, between
the fairer Aryans and the darker Dravidians. Society was divided into Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Each caste had its distinctive rules of
profession, education, food, dress, behavior, and marriage. With increased
education and urbanization, today the rigidities are not as severe but it may be
sometime yet till centuries-old caste distinctions are completely eradicated
from the Hindu mind-set. Classic Hindu thought defines the four goals of man as
dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Dharma broadly means righteousness, justice,
morality and duty. To lead a righteous and just life is the first goal of every
Hindu. Artha, or wealth, and its acquisition are the second goal and Kama or
love, the third. Moksha or liberation of the soul from the cycle of rebirth is
the ultimate goal of Hinduism. It is so much a part of Hindu belief that the
later years of atman's life are believed best spent satisfying the yearnings of
As mentioned earlier, Hinduism is based on collective wisdom of many
down the ages and has no one scripture. The Vedas, as the oldest texts and
covering a huge gamut of subjects, are considered the basis of the faith. The
two sacred epics of Hinduism that animate almost all the performing and visual
arts across India are the Ramayana and the Mahabharata; the Shrimad Bhagavata
Gita (the song of God), though a part of the Mahabharata, is independently
considered a sacred text.
The Puranas however, are the source of the most
interesting mythological stories and explanations, especially about festivals,
despite being more recent. A common but erroneous perception of Hinduism is that
it is polytheistic because of the vast array of iconography, symbols, gods and
goddesses. But these are all different expressions of the same single divinity:
the Supreme Being or Brahman, who is formless, shapeless, and all pervading.
Since it is difficult to concentrate one's thoughts and energies on so
conceptual a god, idols and images provide a focus for supplication. The two
most widely worshipped gods are Shiva and Vishnu. Shiva's wife, Parvati is also
worshipped in various forms like Durga, Kali and Shakti. Vishnu is worshipped as
the Creator, as well as in the form of his many incarnations. The ten most
important ones are collectively known as the dashavatara, or ten incarnations.
Of these, Rama and Krishna are most widely worshipped. In fact they are the only
two deities whose birth anniversaries were important religious festivals in the
ancient times and are still celebrated all over India. Other than the icon
graphic images of various deities, two important symbols in Hinduism are Om and
the swastika. Om represents Brahman, the all-pervading divinity, and the word is
chanted aloud or silently during meditation. The swastika is widely used as a
symbol of good luck and well being. The Hindu place of worship is called a
temple. Devotion to the deities is usually expressed by performing puja, the
ritual of worship. Puja can be performed in a temple by the priest or within a
home by any member of the family. The three deities, Shiva, Vishnu and Parvati,
are the focus of the major sects of Hinduism: Shaiva, Vaishnava, and Shakta
respectively. More than 80 per cent of India is Hindu. Elsewhere, Nepal is the
only Hindu country in the world. And although Hinduism is largely confined to
Indians living in different parts of the world, it has influenced and left its
mark in Sri Lanka, parts of Southeast Asia, Fiji and Mauritius.
is much changed from the faith the Aryans brought with them over 4,000 years
Food, clothing, languages, even beliefs, like Buddhism, are integrated,
internalized and 'Hinduism'. In fact, present-day Hinduism represents an
amalgamation of Vedic culture with a wide variety of other influences - from the
Indus Valley Civilization, through Central Asian cultures and Islam to British
Christian beliefs. This is reflected even in the way festivals are celebrated
today. Though retaining their original flavor, most festivals have adapted to
include current trends. In earlier times, agriculture provided man's basic
A good harvest was always a reason for joyous celebrations,
dancing and singing. In their time of happiness, people worshipped their
implements, cattle, land, and other sources of prosperity as a community. It was
from this practice perhaps that the first form of a harvest festival arose. With
time, this was regularized and ritualized with the help of mythology, until it
assumed its current form. Even today, the seasons and harvest are of great
significance in India, and almost every month has at least one related festival.
Though most festivals have a practical rationale, they are usually accompanied
by a mythological explanation, probably so as to provide religious sanction.
Most Hindu festivals can be traced to the Puranas.
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