Hinduism, one of the great religions of the world, is the major religion of India, where approximately 80 percent of the population are classified as Hindu. In 2004 the religion had an estimated 851 million followers, most of them in India. Hinduism has developed over about 4,000 years and has no single founder or creed; rather, it consists of a vast variety of beliefs and practices. Organization is minimal and hierarchy nonexistent. Hinduism hardly fits most Western definitions of religion; rather, it suggests commitment to or respect for an ideal way of life, known as dharma.
The ideal way of life is sometimes referred to in classical sources and by Hindus as the "duties of one's class and station" (varnasramadharma). The term class (varna) is one of the words connoting the caste system peculiar to India. The ancient texts suggest four great classes, or castes: the Brahmins, or priests; the Ksatriyas, or warriors and rulers; the Vaisyas, or merchants and farmers; and the Sudras, or peasants and laborers. A fifth class, Panchamas, or Untouchables, includes those whose occupations require them to handle unclean objects. It is speculated that the Untouchables were originally assigned such lowly tasks because of their non-Aryan origins. This classification system hardly does justice to the modern complexity of the caste system, however. The classical works on dharma specify distinct duties for different classes, in keeping with the distinct roles each is expected to play in the ideal society.
The classical works also outline four ideal stages (asrama), or stations of life, each with its own duties. The first of these is studentship (brahmacarya), from initiation at 5 to 8 years of age until marriage; the second, householdership (grihasthya), when one marries, raises a family, and takes part in society; the third, forest dwelling (vanaprasthya), after one's children have grown; and the fourth, renunciation (samnyasa), when one gives up attachment to all worldly things and seeks spiritual liberation. Besides the duties that are derived from an individual's class and station, general duties (sanatanadharma) are also incumbent on all moral beings. These include honesty, courage, service, faith, self-control, purity, and nonviolence.
These ideal classes and stations encompass males only. The position of women in Hinduism has always been ambiguous: they are, on the one hand, venerated as a symbol of the divine; on the other, treated as inferior beings. Women were traditionally expected to serve their husbands and to have no independent interests. Recent movements within Hinduism, however, such as the Brahmo Samaj, have succeeded in altering this situation.
Dharma is only one of the four aims of life (purusartha) distinguished within Hinduism. It is thought of as superior to two others—kama, or enjoyment of desires, and artha, or material prosperity. These three constitute the aims of those in the world (pravritti). The fourth aim is liberation (moksa), the aim of those who renounce the world (nivritti), and this is classically viewed as the supreme end of man.
A widespread feature of classical Hinduism is the belief in transmigration of souls, or samsara, the passage of a soul from body to body as determined by the force of one's actions, or karma. The strict karma theory specifies that one's type of birth, length of life, and kinds of experiences are determined by one's previous acts. This is modified in popular understanding, but it probably has remained a strong influence on most Hindus throughout history. Liberation is release from this cycle of rebirth. It is typically to be achieved by working out those karmic residues which have already begun to mature, as well as by following certain practices to ensure that no further residues are produced to cause future rebirths. The practices by which one can achieve this are frequently termed yoga, and the theory of liberation is the core of Indian philosophy.
Hinduism is usually said to include six philosophical systems. The systems called Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Samkhya, and Yoga emphasize yogic practices coupled with an understanding of basic principles of metaphysics and epistemology. Nyaya, in addition, includes an analysis of logic. The systems called Mimamsa identify the performance of ritual—the Vedic sacrifice, or actions performed in that spirit—as the means to liberation. The many Vedanta systems, taking their inspiration from the Upanishads, tend to emphasize understanding of the relationship between the self (Atman) and ultimate reality (Brahman) as the critical aspect of any path to liberation. Philosophies associated with sectarian movements, such as the Bhakti cults, frequently localized in a linguistic or cultural area within the subcontinent, emphasize the path of theistic devotion.
The two great theistic movements within Hinduism are Vaishnavism, the cult of Vishnu, and Shaivism, the cult of Shiva. Hindu belief, however, usually holds that the universe is populated by a multitude of gods. These gods share to some extent the features of the Godhead but are seen as behaving much as humans do and as being related to each other as humans are. This view is similar to that of the ancient Greeks. For example, the supreme gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva and some of the other gods are often viewed as activated through their relationships with female deities. These female consorts to the deities are called Shakti. Other well-known gods are said to be relatives of a supreme god, such as Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, a son of Shiva and Parvati. Kali, or Durga, the consort of Shiva, is worshiped widely throughout India in the autumn. Hanuman, the monkey-faced god, is depicted in many shrines, and along with Lakshmi, Vishnu's wife, is among the most important deities associated with Vaishnavism. The sets of gods recognized by different sects are by no means mutually exclusive, however.
Hindu worship takes many forms. One of the least frequent is the congregational form so familiar in the West. Vedic sacrifices were conducted in any open place properly consecrated. Typical Hindu daily worship (puja) includes a stop at several shrines, a visit to a temple, and home worship. A Hindu may be devoted to several gods: the image of one god, frequently a family deity, is commonly installed in a small shrine in the home; a second god, worshiped at a nearby temple, may be the divinity to which the person's caste is committed; and still another may be the god to whom the individual makes obeisance as his guru (teacher) or his guru's tutor. Because everything is sacred in a Hindu's eyes, almost anything may be considered worthy of devotion; rivers, cowpens, and the retreats of holy men are among the holy places frequented by the devout.
Home worship typically involves purification of the area through fire, water, and the drawing of symbolic diagrams. Depending on one's class and station, the frequency with which a Hindu is expected to perform the rites, and the role performed in them, will differ. The rites involve offering food, flowers, or incense to the deity, together with appropriate recitations of sacred words or texts. An especially important ritual is known as sraddha, in which Hindu males symbolically support their father, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers in other worlds by offering water and balls of rice; this ritual dates from Vedic times. The worshiper requires the services of a priest on this occasion, as for other life-cycle ceremonies such as birth, initiation, marriage, and death.
The priests also carry out temple worship, although the devotee may participate in the reading of certain hymns or prayers and may give flowers or money to the god directly. The image of a god is believed to be the god, and the cycle of worship in a temple centers on the daily life of the god, involving preparation of the god for worship—waking him up with bells, purifying him with incense, bathing him, dressing him, and feeding him. The worshiper comes to the temple to view (darshana) the god and to receive the food (prasada) that the god has touched. As in the cycle of an ordinary person, special days occur in the cycle of the god of the temple, and on these days special ceremonies are held. These are frequently the times of festivals and may involve elaborate ceremonies: pilgrimages of vast numbers of devotees, processions bearing the god's image throughout the city or countryside, and special music, plays, and dances for the occasion.
The seven sacred cities of Hinduism are the following: Varanasi (Benares), Hardwar, Ayodhya, Dwarka, Mathura, Kanchipuram (Conjeeveram), and Ujjain. Other important pilgrimage spots include Madurai, Gaya, Prayaga (Allahabad), Tirupati, and Puri. Each of these places has one or more temples where annual festivals are celebrated that attract large numbers of pilgrims.
Certain festival days are celebrated throughout India on a day fixed according to the Hindu lunisolar calendar. Prominent among these is Dipavali, the "Festival of Lights," occurring in October and November, at which lamps are placed around the house to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. Holi, a spring festival in February or March, is a day of riotous funmaking; this frequently involves temporary suspension of caste and social distinctions, and practical jokes are the order of the day. In the fall (September and October) a ten-day period is set aside to honor the Mother Goddess, culminating in Dashara, the tenth day, a day of processions and celebrations. This festival is extremely important in Bengal, where it is known as Durga Puja.
Scholars sometimes distinguish Vedism, the religion of ancient India based on the Vedas, from Hinduism, although it is difficult to pinpoint a time that demarcates them. The Vedas were hymns of the Aryans, who invaded in the 2d millennium B.C.
Vedism stressed hope for a future existence in heaven and lacked the concepts of karma and rebirth; Hinduism characteristically includes karma and rebirth, and the greatest hope is for eventual release from their sway.
The Vedic deities were somewhat different from those which dominate in Hinduism, although scholars have traced the origins of Vishnu and Shiva back to Vedic counterparts. Later Vedism is sometimes called Brahmanism because of the authority accorded the Brahmins, or priests, who performed the ritual Vedic sacrifice. However, the challenge of non-Vedic religions, notably Buddhism and Jainism, led to the replacement of the rigid Brahmanical rules by more relaxed and varied forms of worship.
Although the Vedas continue to be spoken of as the final authority in Hinduism, other texts of equal importance exist. Thus a literature was developed for each of the four aims of life: various Dharmasastras, such as the Code of Manu, which detail the duties of class and station; Kamasastras, such as the Kamasutras of Vatsyayana, handbooks of pleasure, erotic and otherwise; the Arthasastra, attributed to Kautilya (fl. 300 B.C.), which, like Machiavelli's The Prince, offers advice to a ruler as to how to keep the throne; and the philosophical literature of the various systems, which deals with liberation and how to achieve it.
In addition, certain collections of tales came to be widely known in popular life, especially the two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Mahabharata tells of five princes who were cheated out of their kingdom and who, after a period of banishment in the forest, returned to fight a victorious and righteous war to regain it. An especially beloved portion of this epic is the section called the Bhagavad Gita, in which Arjuna, one of the brothers, is counseled by his charioteer Krishna, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. The Ramayana tells the story of the ideal Hindu man, Rama, whose wife, Sita, is abducted by a demon, and of Rama's journey to Sri Lanka to recapture her. Both epics are filled with didactic tales, edifying poems, and fables. It is probably through their constant retelling in the village that Hinduism is most efficiently disseminated from generation to generation. Another source of Hindu lore is the Puranas, collections of legends and myths.
The period from roughly 500 B.C. to A.D. 1000 is sometimes spoken of as that of classical Hinduism. It was during this period that the major literature was composed, the great philosophical systems developed, and the basic Vaishnava and Shaiva sects organized. After 1000, beginning in South India somewhat earlier, a spirit of devotional fervor coupled with social reform swept through India, and the period from that time until near the present is known as the bhakti period. During this time the forms of religious worship changed and diversified further. Singing devotional songs and poems in the vernacular, rather than in Sanskrit, is one example. Direct approach to the god was emphasized, and the mediating role of the priest somewhat curtailed. Love, a sentiment common to all but particularly to the most ordinary villager, is now celebrated as the way to the highest end; some bhakti philosophies hold that liberation is not the supreme goal and that loving service to God is a higher one.
Recent developments in Hinduism are indicative of a movement away from certain aspects of classical practice, such as suttee, a widow's suicide at her husband's funeral; caste distinctions; and even karma and rebirth.Karl H. Potter
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