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Hinduism, a religious tradition of Indian origin, comprising the beliefs and practices of Hindus. The word Hindu is derived from the river Sindhu, or Indus. Hindu was primarily a geographical term that referred to India or to a region of India (near the Sindhu) as long ago as the 6th century BC. The word Hinduism is an English word of more recent origin. Hinduism entered the English language in the early 19th century to describe the beliefs and practices of those residents of India who had not converted to Islam or Christianity and did not practice Judaism or Zoroastrianism.

In the case of most religions, beliefs and practices come first, and those who subscribe to them are acknowledged as followers. In the case of the Hindu tradition, however, the acknowledgment of Hindus came first, and their beliefs and practices constitute the contents of the religion. Hindus themselves prefer to use the Sanskrit term sanātana dharma for their religious tradition. Sanātana dharma is often translated into English as “eternal tradition” or “eternal religion” but the translation of dharma as “tradition” or “religion” gives an extremely limited, even mistaken, sense of the word. Dharma has many meanings in Sanskrit, the sacred language of Hindu scripture, including “moral order,” “duty,” and “right action.”

The Hindu tradition encourages Hindus to seek spiritual and moral truth wherever it might be found, while acknowledging that no creed can contain such truth in its fullness and that each individual must realize this truth through his or her own systematic effort. Our experience, our reason, and our dialogue with others—especially with enlightened individuals—provide various means of testing our understanding of spiritual and moral truth. And Hindu scripture, based on the insights of Hindu sages and seers, serves primarily as a guidebook. But ultimately truth comes to us through direct consciousness of the divine or the ultimate reality. In other religions this ultimate reality is known as God. Hindus refer to it by many names, but the most common name is Brahman.

In many religions truth is delivered or revealed from a divine source and enters the world through a single agent: for example, Abraham in Judaism, Jesus in Christianity, and Muhammad in Islam. These truths are then recorded in scriptures that serve as a source of knowledge of divine wisdom: the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an. In the Hindu tradition, by contrast, there is no single revelation or orthodoxy (established doctrine) by which people may achieve knowledge of the divine or lead a life backed by religious law. The Hindu tradition acknowledges that there are many paths by which people may seek and experience religious understanding and direction. It also claims that every individual has the potential to achieve enlightenment.

The Hindu community today is found primarily in India and neighboring Nepal, and in Bali in the Indonesian archipelago. Substantial Hindu communities are present in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, Mauritius, Fiji, the West Indies, East Africa, and South Africa. Scattered Hindu communities are found in most parts of the Western world. Hindus today number nearly 900 million, including about 20 million who live outside India, making them the third largest religious community in the world, after Christians and Muslims.

Since ancient times, Hindu thought has transcended geographical boundaries and influenced religious and philosophical ideas throughout the world. Persian, ancient Greek, and ancient Roman thought may well have been influenced by Hinduism. Three other religions that originated in India are closely related to Hinduism: Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. In the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer read both Hindu and Buddhist scriptures and based much of his thinking on them. In the United States, 19th-century writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau drew on Hinduism and its scriptures in developing their philosophy of transcendentalism. More recently, civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., studied the teachings of Hindu leader Mohandas Gandhi on nonviolent protest. In the sphere of popular culture, rock musician George Harrison embraced Hinduism during the 1960s, and some members of the United States counterculture explored Hinduism and Buddhism, as did the Beat poets (Beat Generation). Millions of Westerners today practice meditation or yoga to achieve relief from stress or physical fitness, indicating Western receptiveness to Hindu practices.

An encyclopedia article should have a definition at the outset, but this requirement presents unique difficulties in the case of Hinduism. This difficulty arises from Hinduism’s universal worldview and its willingness to accept and celebrate diverse philosophies, deities, symbols, and practices. A religion that emphasizes similarities and shared characteristics rather than differences has a difficult time setting itself apart—unless this very quality is considered its defining feature.

This is not to say that there are no beliefs and practices that may be identified as Hindu, but rather that the Hindu tradition has concerned itself largely with the human situation rather than
the Hindu situation. Instead of basing its identity on separating Hindu from non-Hindu or believer from nonbeliever, Hinduism has sought to recognize principles and practices that would lead any
individual to become a better human being and understand and live in harmony with dharma.

The distinction of dharma from the Western sense of religion is crucial to understanding Hindu religious identity. To the extent that Hinduism carries with it the Western meaning of being a religion the words distort Indian reality. In the West a religion is understood to be conclusive—that is, it is the one and only true religion. Second, a religion is generally exclusionary—that is, those who do not follow it are excluded from salvation. Finally, a religion is separative—that is, to belong to it, one must not belong to another. Dharma, however, does not necessarily imply any of these. Having made this point, this article will bow to convention and use the expression Hinduism.

A – The Dharmic Tradition

Dharma is an all-important concept for Hindus. In addition to tradition and moral order, it also signifies the path of knowledge and correct action. Because of Hinduism’s emphasis on living in accordance with dharma, anyone who is striving for spiritual knowledge and seeking the right course of ethical action is, in the broadest sense, a follower of sanātana dharma.

Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism share with Hinduism the concept of dharma along with other key concepts, and the four religions may be said to belong to the dharmic tradition. At one level Hinduism can refer to the beliefs or practices of followers of any of the dharmic traditions. The word Hinduism retains this sense in some usages in the Indian Constitution of 1950. In the field of religious studies, however, Hinduism is used in a narrower sense to distinguish it from the other religions of Indian origin.

A Hindu is thus identified by a dual exclusion. A Hindu is someone who does not subscribe to a religion of non-Indian origin, and who does not claim to belong exclusively to another religion of Indian origin—Buddhism, Jainism, or Sikhism. This effort at definition produces a rather artificial distinction between Hinduism and other dharmic traditions, which stems from an attempt to limit a system that sees itself as universal to an identity that is strictly religious. In many ways, labeling the other dharmic traditions as non-Hindu has a basis that derives more from politics than from philosophy. Indeed, greater differences of belief and practices lie within the broad family labeled as Hinduism than distinguish Hinduism from other dharmic systems.

Indian historian Irfan Habib makes this point when he quotes an early Persian source that Hindus are those who have been debating with each other within a common framework for centuries. If they recognize another as somebody whom they can either support or oppose intelligibly, then both are Hindus. Despite the fact that Jains reject many Hindu beliefs, Jains and Hindus can still debate and thus Jains are Hindus. But such discourse does not take place between Hindus and Muslims because they do not share any basic terms.

B – Sanātana Dharma

Evidence from inscriptions indicates that Hindus had begun to use the word dharma for their religion by the 7th century. After other religions of Indian origin also began to use this term, Hindus then adopted the expression sanātana dharma to distinguish their dharma from others. The word sanātana, meaning immemorial as well as eternal, emphasized the unbroken continuity of the Hindu tradition in contrast to the other dharmas. The Buddhist, Jaina, and Sikh dharmas possess distinct starting points, whereas Hinduism has no historical founder.

The Hindu tradition might be said to begin in the 4th century BC when the growth and separation of Buddhism and Jainism provided it with a distinctive sense of identity as sanātana dharma. Some scholars prefer to date its beginnings to about 1500 BC, the period when its earliest sacred texts originated, although recent evidence suggests these texts may be even older. Certain beliefs and practices that can clearly be identified as Hindu—such as the worship of sacred trees and the mother goddess—go back to a culture known as Harappan, which flourished around 3000 BC. Other Hindu practices are even older. For example, belief in the religious significance of the new and full moon can be traced to the distant proto-Australoid period, before 3000 BC. It is with good reason that Hinduism perceives itself as sanātana dharma or a cumulative tradition. Its origins are shrouded in the mist of antiquity, and it has continued without a break.
C – A Comprehensive and Universal Tradition


The Hindu tradition aims at comprehensiveness so far as religious beliefs and practices are concerned. First, it wishes to make the riches of Hinduism available to the Hindu and to any genuine seeker of truth and knowledge. But it does not limit Hindus to their tradition. Instead, it encourages them to explore all avenues that would lead to a realization of the divine, and it provides a system with many paths for such realization.

Second, in the manner of science, Hinduism is constantly experimenting with and assimilating new ideas. Also like science, it is far less concerned with the origin or history of ideas than with their truth as demonstrated through direct experience. Hinduism’s openness to new ideas, teachers, and practices, and its desire for universality rather than exclusivity, set it apart from religions that distinguish their followers by their belief in particular historical events, people, or revelations.

Two events in the life of Mohandas Gandhi exemplify aspects of the Hindu tradition. First, Gandhi entitled his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1929). In doing so, he was practicing the Hindu willingness to experiment continually as a means of discovering truth and to record the results of such experiments. Although Gandhi was seeking spiritual truth, he approached it in the spirit of science. Second, when asked, “What is your religion?” in 1936, Gandhi answered, “My religion is Hinduism, which for me is the Religion of humanity and includes the best of all religions known to me.” Saintly figures such as Gandhi have periodically renewed Hinduism throughout its history and kept it abreast of the times. Because Hinduism has no central orthodoxy, and no belief in the need for one, renewal of its tradition has invariably come from sages in every age who base their knowledge on experience of the divine.


Because defining Hinduism is so difficult and because we have called it the sum of the belief and practices of Hindus, it is best to approach Hinduism through its teachings.

Within Hinduism there are various schools of thought, which Hindu scholars have systematized in different ways. All of these schools have enriched Hinduism with their individual emphases: Nyāya on rigorous logic, Vaiseshika on atoms and the structure of matter, Sānkhya on numbers and categories, Yoga on meditation techniques, Mīmāmsā on the analysis of sacred texts, and Vedānta on the nature and experience of spirituality. Their teachings are usually summarized in texts called sūtras or aphorisms. These sūtras can be memorized easily and recited as a means of gaining spiritual focus.

A – Brahman: The Ultimate Reality


Various schools have contributed to Hindu thought, each school with a different emphasis. The school known as Vedānta has been the standard form of intellectual Hinduism. According to Vedānta, the highest aim of existence is the realization of the identity or union of the individual’s innermost self (ātman) with the ultimate reality. Although Vedānta states that this ultimate reality is beyond name, the word Brahman is used to refer to it.

Whether this ultimate reality is itself ultimately without distinguishing attributes (nirguna) or with personal attributes (saguna) has been a subject of extensive debate among Hindu scholars. To be ultimate Brahman must transcend (exist above and beyond) all limiting attributes, such as name, gender, form, and features. But how can the human mind, with its limitations, conceive of this transcendent reality? Human comprehension requires a more personal reality, with attributes.

Saguna Brahman is also called Ishvara, a name best translated as “Lord.” A quotation attributed to 8th-century Hindu scholar Shankara illustrates the subtlety of these ideas: “Ishvara, forgive these three sins of mine: that although you are everywhere I have gone on a pilgrimage, although you are beyond the mind I have tried to think of you; and although you are ineffable [indescribable] I offer this hymn in praise of you.”

B – Brahmā, Vishnu, and Shiva: Aspects of Brahman


Saguna Brahman—that is, Brahman with attributes—generally takes the form of one of three main Hindu deities: Brahmā, Vishnu, or Shiva. These personified forms of Brahman correspond to three stages in the cycle of the universe. Brahmā corresponds to the creative spirit from which the universe arises. Vishnu corresponds to the force of order that sustains the universe. Shiva corresponds to the force that brings a cycle to an end—destruction acting as a prelude to transformation, leaving pure consciousness from which the universe is reborn after destruction. Other forms of Ishvara widely worshiped by Hindus are Shakti, the female aspect of divinity, and Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity associated with the removal of obstacles. Brahman also may choose to take birth in a knowable form, or avatar (incarnation), to uphold dharma and restore balance to the world. Krishna, a well-known avatar of Vishnu, appears at times to save the world. Rāma, another well-known avatar of Vishnu, is the subject of the Hindu epic Rāmāyana (Way of Rāma). Whether nirguna or saguna, Brahman represents the ultimate reality (sat), ultimate consciousness (sit), and ultimate bliss (ānanda).

Vishnu has ten major avatars, which are described in Hindu texts called the Purānas. These incarnations and their Hindu names are: fish (matsya), tortoise (kūrma), boar (varāha), man lion (narasimha), dwarf (vāmana), axe-wielding human (Parashurāma), ideal person (Rāma of the Rāmāyana), all-attractive perfect person (Krishna), the enlightened (Buddha), and a future incarnation (Kalkī). The majority of Hindus choose a personal deity, a saguna form of Brahman with whom they can feel a direct personal connection. Devotion to this deity can take a number of forms, including prayer, ceremonial worship, chanting of the deity’s name, and pilgrimage to sites sacred to the deity.

C – Brahmānda: The Universe


The relationship of the universe, which Hindus call brahmānda, to the ultimate reality poses a deep philosophical problem: Whereas Brahman represents a permanent reality, the universe is constantly changing. The universe is also eternal, but it is eternally changing, whereas Brahman is eternal in another sense in that it is beyond change. According to Vedānta, Brahman alone is real. Such reality as the universe possesses is derived from Brahman, just as the light of the Moon really belongs to the Sun.

All of creation arises from Brahman, according to Hindu teaching. Brahman is both the efficient cause of the universe (creator) as well as the material cause (substance of which the universe is created). For this reason, all of creation is divine and deserving of our respect.

Time in the Hindu universe moves in endlessly recurring cycles, much like the motion of a wheel. The duration of the various phases of the universe’s existence are calculated in units of mindboggling astronomical duration organized around such terms as yugas, mahāyugas, manvantaras, and kalpas.

D – Ātman: The Innermost Self

We as individuals are also a part of this changing universe. Our bodies are constantly undergoing change, while our minds, formed of thoughts and feelings, are also in a state of flux. According to Vedānta, however, our self consists of more than mind and body. At its core lies the unchanging ātman, our innermost, transcendental self, as opposed to the material self (our body, thoughts, and feelings) that is part of the universe. The ātman is our true self. But we lose sight of it because of our passionate involvement with our material self and its search for happiness in this universe. The universe can never provide perfect and permanent happiness, however, because it, like our material self, is in a state of constant flux. We attain true happiness only through an awareness of our ātman and the discovery of its true relationship with Brahman. By achieving awareness of our ātman and its unity with Brahman, we attain not only happiness, but also moksha, or liberation. But liberation from what? At one level, the liberation is from unhappiness, but the answer provided by Vedānta Hinduism goes deeper: Moksha is liberation from a chain of lives.

E – Samsāra: The Chain of Lives


We normally think of ourselves as coming into being when we are born of our parents and as perishing when we die. According to Hinduism, however, this current life is merely one link in a chain of lives that extends far into the past and projects far into the future. The point of origin of this chain cannot be determined. The process of our involvement in the universe—the chain of births and deaths—is called samsāra.

Samsāra is caused by a lack of knowledge of our true self and our resultant desire for fulfillment outside ourselves. We continue to embody ourselves, or be reborn, in this infinite and eternal universe as a result of these unfulfilled desires. The chain of births lets us resume the pursuit. The law that governs samsāra is called karma. Each birth and death we undergo is determined by the balance sheet of our karma—that is, in accordance with the actions performed and the dispositions acquired in the past.

F – Karma: Action and Its Consequences


Karma is a crucial Hindu concept. According to the doctrine of karma, our present condition in life is the consequence of the actions of our previous lives. The choices we have made in the past directly affect our condition in this life, and the choices we make today and thereafter will have consequences for our future lives in samsāra. An understanding of this interconnection, according to Hindu teachings, can lead an individual toward right choices, deeds, thoughts, and desires, without the need for an external set of commandments.

The principle of karma provides the basic framework for Hindu ethics. The word karma is sometimes translated into English as “destiny,” but karma does not imply the absence of free will or freedom of action that destiny does. Under the doctrine of karma, the ability to make choices remains with the individual.

We are subject to the “law” of karma just as our physical movements on earth are subject to the law of gravitation. But just as the law of gravitation does not take away our freedom to move about, the doctrine of karma does not leave us unfree to act. It merely describes the moral law under which we function, just as the law of gravitation is a physical law governing our being.

When we cause pain or injury, we add to the karmic debt we carry into our future lives. When we give to others in a genuine way, we lighten our karmic load. In the Bhagavad-Gītā, an important Hindu text, Krishna states that the best way to be free of debt is by selfless action, or by dedicating every action as an offering to Krishna himself. In addition, human beings can purify themselves of karmic debt through different yogas (disciplines), kriyās (purification processes), and bhakti (devotions).

G – Purushārthas: Goals of Human Life


Hinduism takes a comprehensive view of our human condition and has classified all the things we seek in the world and beyond into four broad categories: kāma, artha, dharma, and moksha. Kāma includes the pleasure of the senses, both aesthetic (refined artistic) pleasures and sensual and sexual pleasure. Artha includes the pursuit of material well-being, wealth, and power. Dharma includes our striving for righteousness and virtue. Moksha describes our desire for liberation from the chain of lives.

The first three goals pertain to the world we know, whereas moksha involves freedom from the world and from desires for kāma, artha, and dharma. Attaining moksha is an extraordinary goal, which only some people specifically seek. In preparing for it, the prior pursuit of dharma can be a great help. Dharma, in the sense of duty or desire to do right, occupies a central role in regulating artha and kāma and promoting moksha. On account of dharma’s centrality, the goals of human life are often listed in the following order: dharma, artha, kāma and moksha.

Hinduism accepts all four purushārthas as valid goals of human endeavor. It does not look down upon kāma or artha, as indicated by the Kāmasūtra, a work on sexuality from about the 4th century AD, and by the Arthashāstra. The latter text by Kautilya, a minister to a king of the 4th century BC, discusses how a king should wield political and economic power.

However, the ultimate aim of human life is moksha, liberation from sorrow and desire and realization of the union with the Ultimate Reality. In our future lives we may not always enter the world in human form. Thus, Hindus consider that birth as a human being is a unique and valuable opportunity for seeking moksha, an opportunity that should not be wasted. To guide us along the way, the system of Vedānta and the yogas provide a good road map for the journey.

H – Jīva: The Individual

Our personality has a strong influence on the goal we seek. According to one Hindu scheme a human being consists of not one but three bodies. There is the gross physical body; a subtle body of thought and feelings; and an even subtler body, known as the causal body, where our primal ignorance of our true nature is located, along with the knowledge of that ignorance. The physical body disintegrates after our death; only the subtle and causal bodies travel from one life to the next.

Another Hindu system envisions the human being as consisting of five layers or sheaths, called koshas, that cover up the true self or ātman. Beginning with the outermost, these layers are constituted by food or the physical body (annamaya), energy (prānamaya), mind (manomaya), consciousness (vijñānamaya), and bliss (ānandamaya). Identification with one or more of these koshas—for example, imagining, “I am my physical body”—limits people and prevents knowledge of their true nature.

Other Hindu concepts of personality employ other schemes. One popular concept visualizes a person’s dormant energy residing at the bottom of the spine like a coiled serpent (kundalinī). Upon awakening, it confers liberation when it reaches the head after piercing nodal points, called chakras, along the spine. Hinduism offers spiritual and physical exercises for awakening and liberating all these aspects of the personality.

I – Yogas: Paths to Brahman

How do we proceed if we wish to rise toward Brahman? Hindu thought takes the personality of the seeker as the starting point. It divides human personalities into types dominated by physicality, activity, emotionality, or intellectuality. The composition of our personality intuitively predisposes us to a type of yoga—that is, a path we might follow to achieve union with Brahman. Although many people associate the word yoga with a physical discipline, in its original Hindu meaning yoga refers to any technique that unites the seeker with the ultimate reality.

While physical fitness buffs may seek such a union by practicing hatha yoga, people with different personality traits have other choices. For the action-oriented person there is karma yoga, the yoga of action, which calls for a life of selfless deeds and actions appropriate to the person’s station in life. For the person of feeling, bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, calls for unconditional love for a personal divinity. For the person of thought, jñāna yoga, the yoga of knowledge, calls for spiritual and physical discipline intended to bring direct insight into ultimate reality. The yogas do not represent tightly sealed compartments, merely convenient classifications. A well-balanced personality might well employ all four. These yogas are sometimes called mārgas (paths), suggesting that the same destination can be approached by more than one route, and indeed by more than one mode of travel.

J – Varna: Social Organization

The individual stands in relationship not only to Brahman but also to the society in which he or she lives. Two Hindu concepts—varna and āshrama—address this social dimension of human existence. Every society distinguishes among occupations on the basis of power, wealth, education, or other factors. Hindu thought has long recognized four major occupational groupings. In the first group
are priests, teachers, scholars, and others who represent knowledge and spirituality. People in this group are called brāhmanas, or brahmans. Those in the second group, called ksatriyas, are represented by kings, warriors, government bureaucrats, and others who represent power. Those in the third group, called vaishyas, are represented by farmers, traders, merchants, and other skilled workers. Those in the fourth group, called shūdras, are represented by unskilled workers. A group sometimes known as untouchables has at times constituted a subcategory within the shūdra class, sometimes referred to as a fifth group.

Hindu thinkers visualized these groups as constituting the four limbs of society conceived as a body. This hierarchical system, with brahmans as the first category and shūdras as the last, is known as the varna system. The system also indicates the different roles and responsibilities of each group within society and the relationship of the groups within a harmonious whole. The varna system was never intended as a permanent assignment of hereditary roles, and it once possessed considerable flexibility even though people tended to inherit the family profession, as in many other traditional societies.

The process of establishing the varna system was completed by the 4th century BC. By that time Hindu social organization accommodated thousands of subgroups called jātis, which were based upon marriage and other associations as well as on occupational specialization in crafts. Hindu law books from the 4th century BC onward bear witness to the blending of the varna and jāti systems.

In this process each jāti became loosely linked with a varna. Yet the standing of jātis altered with changes in wealth, education, and political power. Over time, especially during the long period of Islamic rule, the groupings hardened into what became known as the caste system. The British census in the late 19th century helped formalize this system by mapping each jāti to a specific

K – Āshrama: Stages of Life

Much as the varna system provides the organizing principle of Hindu society, the āshrama system provides the organizing principle of an individual’s life. According to the āshrama system, human life is divided into four stages, each succeeding the other. Āshrama provides a road map for the journey through these stages and provides a clear sense of purpose for each stage, including old age. Hindus consider the last stage of life highly meaningful. Āshrama also addresses the four goals that constitute a fulfilling life: dharma, artha, kāma, and moksha.

The first stage is the life of a celibate student, a time when an individual acquires the values of dharma—that is, preparation and training for leading a proper life. It is followed by that of the
householder, during which the individual seeks artha and kāma by marrying, working, and raising a family as an active member of society. During this second stage, Hindu householders are expected to carry out their responsibilities in accordance with dharma and free themselves of debts owed to the gods, the sages, and their ancestors.

After the years of enjoyment and responsibility, the third stage of life begins. Around age 50, when the children are grown, the individual gradually begins to give up acquisitions and worldly ties and to take up spiritual contemplation in preparation for the next stage. The fourth and final stage involves renunciation of the world to seek liberation in sublime isolation. Renunciation allows the individual to be free of external responsibilities and to concentrate on an inner search. The life of the sannyāsi (renunciant) focuses on achieving realization of the innermost self (ātman) and union with the divine (moksha).

The āshrama system recognizes the division between active participation in life (pravrtti) and ascetic withdrawal from life (nivrtti). Although this division has applied to all Hindus, regardless of gender or caste, men of the three higher varnas (brahmans, ksatriyas, and vaishyas) have been more likely to enact it through the āshrama system. Some Hindus choose to devote their entire lives to the quest for moksha. They become renunciants and are free from the obligations of varna and āshrama. Such people are called sannyāsis. A sannyāsi who joins a monastic order takes the title swami.

In addition to the duties belonging to each stage of life, Hinduism also emphasizes duties belonging to all human beings, especially cultivation of truth and nonviolence. Many Hindus choose not to eat meat because of their cultivation of nonviolence.


Hindus consider all of creation worthy of worship, and thus religious activity in Hinduism takes many forms. Rituals may be performed by the individual, the family, the village, the community or region; at home or in a temple; and frequently or infrequently. The prevalence and persistence of Hindu ritual may well provide the stabilizing factor in a tradition that is so flexible in doctrine. Ritual might even be considered the glue that holds Hindus and Hinduism together.

Many rites and observances that Hindus practice daily have come down from ancient times. Others grew up around the lives and teachings of Hindu saints and sages. While details of rituals may differ from region to region and jāti to jāti, their meaning and central practices have remained consistent over vast distances of time and space.

Virtually all rituals in Hinduism possess multiple meanings, including symbolic interpretations. Even the way Hindus regularly greet each other may be regarded as symbolically bowing to the
divine. The Hindu greeting involves pressing the palms of the hands together, which symbolizes the meeting of two people; placing the hands over the heart where Brahman dwells, indicating that one meets the self in the other; bowing the head in recognition of this meeting; and saying namaste, a Sanskrit word that means “I bow to you” and signifies “I bow to the divine in you.”

Bindi, the red dot that many Hindu women wear on the forehead, is an auspicious mark and symbol of good fortune. Once worn only by married women, bindi can be seen today on girls and women of all ages. Its location, over a chakra (energy point), is intended to help focus concentration during meditation.

A – Categories of Ritual

The school of Hindu philosophy called Mimamsa, which is specially concerned with ritual, divides all religious activities in Hinduism into three types: (1) actions that are performed daily, called nitya; (2) actions performed on specific occasions, called naimittika; and (3) actions performed voluntarily according to personal desire, called kāmya.

Hindus fulfill all three religious activities—nitya, naimittika, and kāmya—through three types of ritual. These rituals are yajña, (involving a sacrificial fire); pūjā (devotional offerings, usually flowers); and dhyāna (meditation). Yajñas are performed on major occasions, such as marriage and housewarming, when sacred substances are offered into the sacrificial fire. Pūjā may be performed publicly or privately. Public pūjā, usually performed in a temple, consists of anointing a statue of a deity and offering flowers, incense, and carefully prepared food to the deity. Chanting and devotional singing follow, accompanied by the waving of a small, camphor-burning lamp that illuminates the image of the deity. Most ceremonies have clearly marked opportunities for dhyāna, or meditation.

B – Household Worship

Hindu religious activities also can be divided into those that take place at home and those that take place in public. Many rituals are performed at home, either by individual family members or by the head of the household. Some of these household rituals involve a deity or a sacred fire; other rituals commemorate important passages in life.

B1 – Pūjā: Devotion

Many Hindus worship daily the deity they have personally chosen. This personal deity is known as the ishta-devatā. Household pūjā usually consists of worshiping the ishta-devatā with prayer and offerings of food, accompanied by chanting and the waving of a lamp or light. The offering of food acknowledges that all food has a divine source. After the offering, the food is ready to be shared by the worshipers. Household pūjā generally takes place in front of an image or statue of the ishta-devatā, which may be set up as a domestic shrine. Hindus who are more deeply involved in ritual may also tend a domestic fire.

Pūjā possesses a markedly personal character and is more often performed privately by individuals and families than publicly at temples. The private nature of pūjā may arise from the extremely personal relationship that Hinduism nurtures with the divinity, as parent, friend, or other supportive person. It also could have evolved from Hindu historical experience under foreign occupation, during which expression of Hindu identity in public was frowned upon and even dangerous.

B2 – Samskāras: Sacraments to Mark Passages

Sacraments called samskāras punctuate the life cycle of the individual and have greater religious significance than pūjā. A standard list cites 16 samskāras, but in other sources samskāras range in number from a maximum of about 40 to a minimum of 2, marriage and death. The number varies with varna and gender.

The samskāras cluster in the early phases of life, including the prenatal phase. Four samskāras occur between birth and the beginning of studies at about age five. At birth a simple ceremony welcomes and blesses the newborn. The naming of the child, a significant event, occurs shortly after birth. Then come the taking of the first solid food and the first ritual shaving of the head. When the child is ready to study the Vedas (sacred Hindu scriptures), the major samskāra of upanayana occurs. In the course of it, the child receives a sacred thread and chants a mantra whispered into the child’s ear: “Let us meditate on the glorious splendor of enlivening Sun-god. May he inspire our minds.” In early times, a Hindu boy traditionally moved to the home of a guru (teacher) to study the Vedas after the upanayana samskāra. After completing study of the Vedas, the student shaved the hair and was ready for marriage.

A Hindu wedding consists of ceremonies performed over several days, culminating in the joining of the bride and groom. As part of the marriage samskāra, a knot is tied to join the bride’s and the groom’s garments, after which they walk around a sacred fire seven times. The sacred fire servesas a witness to the vows exchanged between the bride and the bridegroom. They then take seven steps together, symbolizing friendship and emphasizing the idea of companionship in marriage. To strengthen the union, the bride and groom place their right hands on each other’s heart; the groom then recites a prayer from the Vedas, “I give you my heart. May our minds be as one.” At the end of this ritual the pair become man and wife. Additional rites before and after the main Hindu marriage ritual vary from region to region.

The sacrament of death calls for cremation (burning of the dead body), at the end of which the ashes are collected and deposited, usually by the side of or in a river. For ten days after cremation, family members offer rice balls to the person who has departed. This offering provides a good example of the persistence of ritual in Hindu tradition: The rice symbolizes growth and is meant to provide the person with a body in which to dwell in the world of the ancestors. The alternative, while waiting for the next birth, is the less pleasant prospect of wandering in the world of ghosts. These actions are required only of the Hindu householder and do not apply to the renunciate.

B3 – Other Domestic Rituals

Some Hindu rituals are performed to obtain a specific reward, according to instructions in the Vedas. Such rewards include securing a suitable life partner, conceiving a child, or attaining wealth, as well as warding off negative outcomes.

C – Communal Worship

Household religious activities involve the family or an individual member of the family. Other Hindu religious activities involve a larger community. A cluster of families may have a shrine where they worship periodically. Beyond the family and the cluster of families lies the village. At the village level, worship of the favored deity of the village dominates. From the village level, worship moves to public rituals, which may be performed at temples and other sacred sites or at sacred times.

C1 – Temple Worship

Rituals performed at temples, like household rituals, may be described as those that take place daily, nitya; those performed on specific occasions, naimitikka; and those performed voluntarily, kāmya. Hindu temples are dedicated to a deity or several deities who are believed to preside over the temple. Hindus visit temples to worship the temple deity or to worship another deity of their choosing by means of these three types of rituals. As at household shrines, they worship sculptures or painted images of the presiding deity and make offerings. Basic rituals performed daily at most Hindu temples include rousing the deity from sleep at dawn, making the deity available for worship and offerings by visitors at midday, and putting the deity to bed at dusk. At some temples, the additional rituals of bathing and feeding the deity take place between dawn and midday. These rituals express the personal nature of Hindu love of and devotion to their deities.

Naimittika at temples is an occasion for carrying about the image of the temple deity. For example, a festival at the temple of Jagannātha in the town of Puri celebrates the god Jagannātha’s annual visit to his birthplace, the temple site, in his chariot. More than 4,000 celebrants pull the god’s wooden chariot, which stands about 14 m (45 ft) high. The English word juggernaut comes from Jagannātha. Public processions and festivals at the temples of Rāma and Krishna mark the birthdays of these avatars of Vishnu.

Kāmya pūjā is typically performed at temples to gain a specific end. A visitor to a temple might request the performance of pūjā, or daily prayers, at the temple and make a donation for that purpose.

C2 – Sacred Sites

Hindus consider the entire Earth, as well as the Indian land mass known as mother India (Bhārata Mātā), to be sacred. This view once found expression in such practices as visiting the four corners
of India as represented by the pilgrimage sites of Badrinath to the north, Puri to the east, Rameshvaram to the south, and Dwarka to the west. Hindus make pilgrimages to sacred sites in the hope of cleansing themselves of sins and lessening their karmic debt. Certain parts of India are held in special veneration. For example, Hindu tradition regards seven cities as holy: Ayodhyā (the birthplace of Rāma); Mathurā (where Krishna grew up); Haridwār (where the Ganges River widens onto a plain); Kāsī (sacred to Shiva); Kāñcī (associated with the Hindu philosopher Shankara); Avanti or Ujjain (site of the temple of Mahākāla); and Puri (associated with the later life of Krishna).

Other sacred Hindu locations involve rivers and events in Hindu epics. Particular regions also have their own sacred locations. Certain sites in India are sacred because of their association with the Great Goddess, Devi, who takes many forms. In the form of Devi Satī, according to legend, her dismembered body parts fell on 51 locations that became sacred to worshipers of Shakti (the female aspect of the divine). The Jvālā Mukhī Temple near Jullundur, for example, is said to represent her tongue. Worshipers visit the Kāmākshya Temple in Assam to partake of her cosmic energy.

C3 – Sacred Times

Religious festivals dot the Hindu calendar. A number of them commemorate events in the great Sanskrit epic Rāmāyana (Way of Rāma) or in the life of Krishna. The timing of these festivals is related to the movements of the Sun and the Moon.

An important festival known as the Dassera marks the victory of Prince Rāma over the demon king Rāvana in a struggle between good and evil that is related in the Rāmāyana. Dassera takes place in September or October and is followed by Diwāli (also known as Deepvali), the festival of lights. Diwāli commemorates events that restored truth and light in early times: the victorious return of
Rāma with his bride Sītā to Ayodhyā in the north and the victory of Krishna over the monster Narakāsura in the south.

The festival of Holi celebrates the arrival of spring in February or March. During this festival people spray each other with colored powders and colored water, forget the cares of winter, and rejoice in the onset of spring. A popular family festival, Raksābandhana, occurs in July or August and renews the bonds of affection between brothers and sisters. Sisters tie lucky threads around the wrists of brothers and are rewarded with gifts. Other important festivals are Shiva-ratri, the night sacred to Shiva when worshipers recite prayers to be freed of sins, and Ganesha-Chaturthi, dedicated to the elephant god Ganesha, when worshipers recite prayers to remove obstacles in their lives. Shivaratri falls in the winter months, and Ganesha-Cahturthi in August or September. Among the major regional festivals are the Dolāyātrā, a spring festival in the eastern state of Orissa; Pongal, a winter festival in southern India; and Onam, a harvest festival in the southwestern state of Kerala.

C4 – Satsanga: Fellowship

A popular form of participation in religious life is the satsanga, which literally means keeping company with sat (truth and goodness). The satsanga may consist of Hindus who gather for discussions of Hindu scripture or of a circle of devotees who have formed around a saintly figure. A saint (“sant” in Sanskrit) in Hinduism in someone who has realized the truth and attained recognition from the community for doing so. Other forms of worship that occur at satsangas are chanting or singing, especially devotional songs called bhajans. On religious occasions the chanting the om sound is considered particularly holy.

C5 – Om: Sacred Symbol and Sacred Sound

The sacred syllable om or aum functions at many levels. Hindus chant it as a means of meditating on the ultimate reality and connecting with the innermost self (ātman) and Brahman. At one level, om possesses a vibrational aspect apart from its conceptual significance. If pronounced correctly, its vibrations resonate through the body and penetrate the ātman. At another level, the three sounds that constitute the syllable—a, u, and m—have been associated with the states of waking, dreaming, and deep sleep, states to which all life can be reduced. Thus, by repeating the syllable the chanter passes through all three states. Other associations of the three sounds are with the three states of the cosmos—manifestation, maintenance, and dissolution—and with the three aspects of Ishvara who preside over these cosmic states: Brahmā, Vishnu, and Shiva. Om thus functions at a practical level as a mantra and at a cosmic level as signifying the trinity.

C6 – Guru: Teacher

Spiritual authority in Hinduism flows from enlightened sages called gurus. The guru is someone who has attained realization and acts as a guide for other human beings. He or she guides the individual seeker of truth and self-realization to the appropriate deity, practice, or yoga within Hinduism. The disciple’s goal is to transcend the need for a guru through direct experience of the divine and self-awareness. Having a guide is considered critical for traversing the complexities of spiritual practice and self-discovery. The guru thus constitutes an important center of spiritual activity in Hinduism. Numerous Hindu hymns express adoration for the guru.


Although Hindu tradition maintains that the ultimate reality lies beyond all scriptures, it is equally convinced that the scriptures help people orient their minds and lives towards Brahman. This attitude has given rise to a body of sacred literature so vast that by one calculation it would take 70 lifetimes of devoted study to read all of it.

A – The Vedas

The four Vedas constitute the most important body of sacred Hindu literature, at least in theory. Other sacred literature, especially the Hindu epics, may be more popular with readers, but the Vedas, written in the ancient Sanskrit language, are the oldest and most respected scriptures. They are separately titled the Rig-Veda, Yajur-Veda, Sāma-Veda, and Atharva-Veda, and collectively referred to as the Veda.

Each of the Vedas can be divided into four types of texts, which are roughly chronological in order: mantra or samhitā, brāhmana, āranyaka, and upanishad. The mantra or samhitā portion largely
consists of hymns addressed to the various deities. The brāhmana texts gather the authoritative utterances of brahmans (those with knowledge of Brahman, the ultimate reality) and describe the
rituals, chiefly sacrificial offerings, in which the hymns are employed. The third section consists of āranyakas, or forest texts, presumably composed by sages who sought seclusion in the forests. The last section consists of the Upanishads, philosophical texts that have an air of mystery and secrecy about them.

Scholars have suggested that the four types of texts represent four different stages in the spiritual evolution of the Aryans, the peoples of the Vedas. During the earliest stage in their religious life, the Aryans may have recited simple hymns of praise for the divinities they felt dwelt around them. In the next stage ritual evolved out of the early worship and became increasingly elaborate, until people were driven to ask what it was all about. Sages then retired to the forests to reflect on the meaning of sacrifice and the person who makes the sacrifice. This reflection opened the floodgates of philosophical speculation found in the Upanishads.

Hindus traditionally have viewed the four types of texts as dating from the same period but serving different purposes. The first three texts deal with the realm of action and are concerned with dharma, artha, and kāma, whereas the last text concerns knowledge of the self and moksha. In this view, following dharma while experiencing the ups and downs of life produces a devout and mature mind that is then able to fully grasp what the Upanishads have to say.

The Upanishads are also called Vedānta (meaning “end of the Vedas”) because they represent the final essence of the Vedas. The Vedānta marks the culmination as well as the conclusion of the Vedas, although the Vedic canon was never formally closed.

B – Shruti and Smriti: Eternal Truth and Tradition

Hindu scriptures can be classified into two types: shruti and smriti. Shruti, meaning “heard,” may be thought of as revelation or eternal truth, whereas smriti, meaning “remembered,” is comparable to tradition. By distinguishing that which is eternally true from that which holds true for a specific time and culture, the categories of shruti and smriti enable Hindus to reform outdated practices while remaining faithful to Hinduism’s essence. Where there is a conflict between the two, shruti takes precedence over smriti. The Vedas constitute shruti, whereas there are many different smriti texts.

The Vedas correspond, among the Hindus, to the Bible among Christians and the Qur’an among Muslims. However, unlike the revealed texts of Christianity and Islam, whose source is considered to be God speaking through the son or the prophet, the Vedas have no author. According to Vedānta, shruti is revelation without a revealer. Because in Hinduism the universe is without beginning or end, the Vedas appear along with creation at the beginning of each cycle of time. Then Brahmā, who presides over the remanifestation of the universe, recites the Vedas and sages hear them anew. These divinely heard scriptures are then transmitted orally from master to disciple.

The Vedas as also called shruti because they are divinely “heard” by the sages at the beginning of a cycle; and also because they are transmitted orally from master to disciple thus once again justifying the meaning of shruti as audition.

The word smriti is applied to a vast category of literature in Hinduism. Unlike shruti, Sanskrit scripture without an author, smriti is considered to have an author and may even be written in one of the regional languages of India.

One category of smriti consists of more than 20 law books that lay down in detail the rules to follow in life, especially the rules that pertain to varna (social order) and āshrama (stages of life). Another category includes texts called Purānas, which deal with the lives of the gods and celestial beings. There are 18 Purānas, and they can be classified according to which of the three gods of the Hindu trinity they focus on—Brahmā, Vishnu, or Shiva. The most famous of these is the Bhāgavata Purāna, which deals with the life of Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, in the pastoral surroundings of Vrndāvana. A third category of smriti consists of two texts of legendary history: the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata. These are the two well-known epics of Hinduism. Scholars believe the Rāmāyana assumed its present form between 300 BC and AD 200, while the Mahābhārata evolved over a period extending from about 400 BC to about AD 400.
C – The Epics

C1 – Rāmāyana

The Rāmāyana of Vālmīki consists of about 24,000 verses and describes the life of Prince Rāma, an incarnation of Vishnu. The author, Vālmīki, according to later tradition, belonged to the shūdra varna and made his living by robbing travelers. After an encounter with the sage Narada, Vālmīki turned his life around and became a poet and scholar. Classical Hinduism recognizes him as a brahman and as India’s first poet. Rāma and his wife Sītā embody virtue and righteousness, and their lives demonstrate dharma in various spheres of activity. Their life stories contain lessons for Hindus on ideal behavior in various roles, such as son, brother, wife, king, and married couple. Rāma’s reign ushers in a golden age, and the expression Rāma-rajya (rule of Rāma) describes the best of times in which the divine presence rules on Earth.

C2 – Mahābhārata

The Mahābhārata, an epic story of 100,000 verses, is attributed to a sage named Vyāsa and considered to be the longest poem in the world. It traces the descendants of two sets of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pāndavas, whose disputes eventually lead to the Mahābhārata war. Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, is central to the story. Like the Rāmāyana, the Mahābhārata addresses many questions related to dharma and the actions of individuals and society. These discourses have provided inspiration for Hindus in many areas of life.

C3 – Bhagavad-Gītā

One part of the Mahābhārata, the Bhagavad-Gītā, functions virtually as a text on its own in Hinduism. On the eve of the Mahābhārata war, the hero Arjuna suddenly develops a disinclination to fight. Arjuna’s decision leads to a prolonged dialogue with Krishna during which Krishna tries to resolve Arjuna’s moral and metaphysical dilemmas in 700 verses. The way in which Krishna seeks to guide Arjuna has endeared the text to the Hindus as a guide to their faith.

In the Bhagavad-Gītā Hinduism comes closest to possessing a universal scripture. Since the Gupta period (AD 320 to 550; see Gupta Dynasty) it has inspired a stream of commentaries, summaries, and translations, all of which attest to its wide popularity. The process shows no signs of letting up. The Bhagavad-Gītā’s doctrine of svadharma (understanding one’s own role and responsibility) implies a cosmic mirroring of the essential nature of reality (Brahman) in the reality of the individual’s essential nature (ātman). This implication has proved spiritually intriguing for practitioner, believer, and scholar alike.

The Mahābhārata and the Bhagavad-Gītā carry meaning on multiple levels. In one interpretation, the Pāndavas and Kauravas represent the forces of good and evil that exist within each person, and the contest between them represents the perpetual battle between these tendencies. The Bhagavad-Gītā describes the techniques and paths by which the individual can attain realization of the Ultimate Reality with Krishna as the guide. As part of the Mahābhārata, the Bhagavad-Gītā technically falls in the category of smriti rather than shruti. However, it virtual enjoys the status of shruti by representing the words of the divinity, incarnated as Krishna and addressed to human beings through Arjuna.

D – Tantric Literature

Tantra represents another vast body of Hindu literature. After centuries of neglect, it has gradually begun to receive fuller recognition. The word tantra has two meanings. In one sense it refers to sacred literature which appeared from the 5th century onward and focused not only on Vishnu and Shiva, but also on the cults of earlier deities: Ganapati (another name for the elephant-headed god, Ganesha), Kumāra (a son of Brahmā), Sūrya (sun) and Shakti (the goddess). The second sense restricts tantra to texts that deal with the worship of Shakti.

After the Gupta age ended in the 6th century the Tantric tradition heavily influenced Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. If elite or intellectual Hinduism is Vedic in nature, then mainstream
Hinduism is Tantric in orientation. Some accounts consider both traditions equally revelatory. Tantric literature largely eliminates caste distinctions in terms of religious practices. It also holds women in high regard. It thus provides a useful corrective to the negative stereotypes of Hinduism as patriarchal (male-controlled). Although smriti literature can be described as male oriented, Tantric literature is female oriented.

Consider these statements from Tantric literature. The Gautamīya Tantra clearly states that tantra is open to women and members of all castes. The Mahānirvāna Tantra requires a man to fast for a day for talking rudely to a woman. The Kubjikāmata Tantra states that all houses of women should be worshipped as holy shrines. In the Shakta model of Hinduism, which focuses worship on the Great Goddess, all women are regarded as gurus and may initiate others by reading out the mantra from an authoritative text. Men have no authority to do so. In addition, the Devi (goddess) is worshiped in her own right, rather than in relation to a male god.

Hindu gods are regularly displayed with their female counterparts. When they are invoked together, the female partner is named first, as in Sītā-Rma and Rādhā-Krishna. In the case of Shiva and Shakti the relationship gets so close that they are represented as inhabiting a single body in the Ardhanrīshvara (Lord-who-is-half-female) form. Tantra at times involves the balancing of these two aspects—Shiva (representing consciousness) and Shakti (representing energy)—in a manner reminiscent of yin and yang in Daoism.

E – Literature in Regional Languages

Most Hindus first encounter Hinduism through their regional languages, despite the special significance of Sanskrit. Almost every regional language in India has produced its own version of the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata, sharing in the religious admiration given to the original versions. Deservedly famous translations of the Rāmāyana include one in the Tamil language by the 9th-century Hindu scholar Kamban and one in Hindi and by the 16th-century poet and saint Tulsīdās. A wave of literature in Tamil appeared in the 7th to 9th centuries as the result of a surge of devotion of Vishnu and Shiva. Most of the influential works of modern Hinduism were originally composed in English. Masters who have realized Brahman continually renew the Hindu tradition and express themselves in a language appropriate to their time and place.

The utilization of these various bodies of literature provides insight into how Hinduism tries to sanctify what it touches. Thus the title of Veda came to be conferred on any worthwhile body of knowledge, including writings on architecture, on music, and even on military science. Highly esteemed sacred texts that came after the Vedas have come to be described as the fifth Veda.


Hinduism does not attach the same religious significance to historical events that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam do. Some have compared Hinduism’s indifference to the history of a religious idea or practice to a scientist’s indifference to the history of science. What is of value to both is the idea or practice as such.

The history of Hinduism thus becomes a history of its quest to incorporate the various developments it has encountered or generated, rather than a history of conquest of or triumph over these historical developments. The contrast is apparent in the Biblical injunction to believe in one God who is the only God and the Vedic perception that “Truth is one, sages call it variously.”

Considerable controversy remains over Hinduism’s historical origins. At one time scholars believed that the arrival of the Aryan people in India about 1500 BC represented a critical moment in the history of Hinduism. The Aryans replaced the earlier Harappan culture in the Indus valley, and they are the people described in the Vedas, the earliest sacred literature of Hinduism. Although linguistic evidence tends to support the notion of an Aryan migration, most scholars now believe this view awaits confirmation by archaeology, especially because it has been challenged by the discovery of extensive sites in northwestern and western India. So far there is no clear-cut answer to the key question: Did Hinduism as described in the Vedas originate in India or did it arise as a result of migrations from outside? What is clear is that the Hinduism of the Vedas goes back at least to 1200 BC in India and perhaps much earlier.

A – Vedic Hinduism

The beginnings of Vedic Hinduism, no later than 1200 BC, trace back to the Rig-Veda, which contains hymns of praise to various deities called devas. Agni (deva of fire) and Indra (king of devas and deva of the atmosphere, storms, rain, and battle) were prominent, judging by the number of hymns addressed to them. Fire was the deity of the domestic hearth as well as of public ritual. The Rig-Veda calls the deity “smoke-bannered” as it carries the offering made into it toward the gods. Indra was a martial leader in the Rig-Veda who carried his followers to victory in battle and also battled drought as a rain-god. An entire book of the Rig-Veda is devoted to soma, a plant whose juice produced ecstatic experiences. It is already clear in the Rig-Veda that all these devas were aspects of one underlying reality.

By the 4th century BC Vedic Hinduism had appeared in virtually all of India and had assimilated and absorbed various local religious beliefs and practices. The resulting mixture is what we refer to
comprehensively as Vedic Hinduism.

B – Classical Hinduism

The period from the 3rd century BC to the late 7th century AD is known as classical Hinduism. Even as Vedic Hinduism flourished throughout India, various aspects of its world-view had come under
challenge by the 6th century BC. This challenge came from Upanishadic thinkers and from the rise of new sects including the Jains and the Buddhists. The Upanishadic thinkers considered themselves in the line of descent from Vedic seers, while the followers of Buddhism and Jainism tended to question Vedic authority, although they retained many concepts from the Vedas. All were concerned about release from eternal rebirth and generally agreed that release was obtained
not by sacrifice but by meditation and contemplation.

Buddhism and Jainism gradually gained strength in India during the centuries just before and just after the beginning of the first millennium. Buddhism benefited in the 3rd century BC from the patronage extended to it by King Ashoka, who ruled almost all of India. Jainism similarly benefited from royal patrons. By the start of the Gupta period, which lasted from about AD 320 to 550, Hinduism resurged, having integrated a variety of Buddhist and Jain beliefs and practices. These included the doctrine of ahimsā (nonviolence) and an emphasis on vegetarianism. The Gupta period is celebrated as a glorious epoch of classical Hindu culture.

During this classical Gupta period, Hindu thought and its systematization flourished. By then many shāstras (classical works) of Hindu philosophy had been compiled. These shāstras include the Arthashāstra (principles of statecraft), Nayashāstra (aesthetics of performing arts), poetry and dramatic works by writers such as Kālidāsa and Bhavabhūti, grammars by Pānini and Patañjali, works on human sexuality such as the Kāmasūtra, and the medical compendia of Charak and Susruta. In addition, the major epics—the Rāmāyana and Mahābhārata—received their present form. Also during this period, rules were developed for representations of the deities and for building structures to house these statues and images.

C – Medieval Hinduism

As a vigorous and multifaceted Hinduism unfolded in India during the 7th century, a new religion made its appearance in Arabia: Islam. Within a century, Islam’s dominions extended from Spain to Sind (now part of Pakistan). By the 10th and 11th centuries the followers of Islam consolidated their hold on northwestern India. By 1200 Islamic rule was established in the city of Delhi in northern India, and it then spread in two waves over nearly the whole of India. The first wave of expansion occurred under the Delhi Sultanate, which ruled from 1206 to 1526. During the second wave, under the Mughal Empire (1526-1858), Islamic rule achieved its maximum extension.

This encounter between Hinduism and Islam lasted more than 800 years. During most of this time, Islam had the upper hand politically, a fact that had enormous consequences for Hinduism and that presented challenges for both Hinduism and Islam which continue to this day. Islam’s military victories outside India were followed by the conversion of the masses to Islam, with the possible exceptions of Spain and the Balkans. In India, however, Islam succeeded in converting barely a quarter of the population to Islam by 1900. Although Hinduism had successfully incorporated all previous invaders and political conquerors within the Hindu religious system—from the Persians in 6th century BC to the Huns in the 6th century AD—its powers of assimilation failed in the face of Islam.

One response of Hinduism to the presence of Islam was political. It included the emergence of the Hindu Vijayanagar kingdom, which held power in southern India from about 1336 to 1565, and the Hindu Marāthā state in western India during the 17th and 18th centuries. The rise of Sikhism and the Sikh Empire (1767-1846) in the Punjab can also be considered part of this response. Willing to use violence in self-defense, Sikhs took a militant stance toward the conquerors.

The Islamic presence evoked a paradoxical Hindu religious response that blended hostile rejection and active emulation. Mainstream Hinduism retreated into a defensive position under the protective cover of orthodoxy (conformity to rule), judging by the number of Hindu religious codes produced during this period. At the theological level, however, Hinduism witnessed the rise and flowering of the bhakti (devotion) movement. This movement of ecstatic devotion to Vishnu or Shiva had gained a firm foothold in the south by the 9th century, and it swept over the rest of the country by the 17th century. Devotion to the divine (bhakti), rather than knowledge of the divine (jñana), became the dominant form of Hinduism, perhaps reflecting the historical circumstances. Bhakti poetry expressed love for the divine, often in the forms of Krishna and Rāma. Among the mystical bhakti poets were Chaitanya, Tulsīdas, Mīrābāī, and Kabīr.

The bhakti movement also provided a point of contact with a mystical movement in Islam known as Sufism. Sufis were religious figures known for their piety and love of God. As they carried out their work in India, the two traditions of Hinduism and Islam came together in their love of God.This coming together, however, never crossed over from communion to union, but the rise ofSikhism points to a possible crossover. Sikhism rejects image worship and ritualism in keeping with Islam, while retaining many aspects of the Hindu world-view.

D – Modern Hinduism

Following the decline of the Mughal Empire during the late 17th century, the British gradually succeeded in establishing themselves as the paramount power in India during the next century.The process began with a British victory in the Battle of Plassey in 1757, followed by the defeat of the Marathas in 1818. British victory over the Sikhs in 1846 completed the process. By this time the British had made two decisions of far-reaching importance for the future of Hinduism: to allow Christian missionaries to operate within the British dominions, in 1813; and to introduce English as the language of public instruction, in 1835. These decisions forced Hinduism to confront Christianity and Western modernity. At the same time, the Western world was exposed to Hindu scriptures translated into European languages.

D1 – Movements for Reform

One response to the encounter with Europe was reform. The Bengali scholar Ram Mohan Roy set the tone for reform in the early 19th century. Roy campaigned against medieval or regional Hindu practices that were objectionable in the modern world. He advocated allowing widows to remarry and abolition of the relatively rare practice of sati (self-immolation of a wife after her husband’s death; see suttee). In 1828 Mohan Roy founded the Brahmo Samaj (Society of Brahma) to spread his ideas.

Another movement kept India from moving too far toward imitation of the modern Christian West. The movement was named after Ramakrishna, a Hindu spiritual leader who served as a priest at the Dakshineshwar Temple in the city of Kolkata (Calcutta). His reputation as a mystic drew many to him, including Swami Vivekānanda, who founded the Ramakrishna movement after Ramakrishna’s death in 1886. Vivekānanda, a representative Hindu product of India’s new Englishlanguage education system, became a devotee of Ramakrishna and renounced the world after the priest’s death. His message was a return to the timeless wisdom of the Vedas. As an unknown swami, he turned up uninvited at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893 to present Ramakrishna’s teachings. He won instant celebrity and was hailed as a hero in India for his vigorous advocacy of Hinduism. In 1895 he founded the Vedānta Society in New York City to promote Hindu ideas.

Vivekānanda primarily used English in his work of reforming Hinduism and stressing the inclusive aspects of Hindu spirituality over ritual and rules. Another reform-minded leader of the 19th century, Dayānanda Sarasvati, used Hindi in responding to the challenges of Christianity and modernity. Sarasvati founded the Arya Samaj, a movement also dedicated to modernizing Hindu practices and asserting the universality of the Hindu tradition. These movements helped revitalize Hinduism.

Another issue that engaged Hindu reformers was the plight of the lowest social class, the panchama jātis who are also known as untouchables. Local movements, such as one led by Sri Narayana Guru in Kerala, were most successful at reform. Narayana, who was born in 1856, believed that education and greater self-esteem, rather than confrontation and blame, would elevate the untouchables. He established temples where all castes could pray together.

D2 – India’s Struggle for Independence

The rise of Indian nationalism in the 20th century further contributed to Hindu self-awakening. In the work of Indian philosopher and statesman Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the Hindu tradition found intellectual expression; in the work of Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, Hinduism found humanist expression; and in the life of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, Hinduism found political and social expression. Another important figure in the development of Hindu nationalism was Sri Aurobindo Ghose. Ghose promoted revolutionary activism early in his life but later withdrew to an ashram, practiced yoga, and influenced his followers through his writings.

Gandhi’s innovative use of nonviolence and civil disobedience on a massive scale under the name of satyagraha made traditional Hindu values relevant to India’s political struggle against British rule. By linking the elevation of the untouchables with the struggle, Gandhi added social justice to his campaign. By raising social awareness within the Hindu tradition and by lifting that tradition to a new level of political awareness, Gandhi provided modern Hinduism with its defining features. These features took firm root in a century of reformist effort and half a century of political struggle against the British. Although the movement led by Gandhi succeeded in winning independence for India in 1947, it failed to prevent the partition of the Indian subcontinent on a religious basis. The partition of the subcontinent between a primarily Hindu India and a primarily Muslim Pakistan was to have profound consequences for contemporary Hinduism.

Once the movement against British rule gained strength, the relationship between India’s Muslim minority and its Hindu majority became an issue. The movement led by Gandhi aimed at a state based on mutual accommodation, and it was able to subdue those elements within Hinduism that sought to assert Hindu political identity at the expense of Muslim political identity. The partition of India in 1947 weakened the forces of accommodation. After partition India created a secular state in keeping with Hindu principles, whereas Pakistan created a religious state in keeping with Islamic principles. Continuing political tension between Pakistan and India, especially over Kashmīr, further eroded hopes for peaceful accommodation.

D3 – Hindu Nationalism

A vision of Hindu nationalism known as Hindutva gained force before and after partition. Hindutva took its name from the title of a book published in 1923 by revolutionary theorist V. D. Savarkar, which advocated a militarily strong Hindu India. The Hindu majority was also alienated by a perception that Hindu political parties courted Muslim voters as the swing vote in tight elections.

A movement to reclaim the presumed birthplace of Rāma in the city of Ayodhyā in northern India became the lightning rod of Hindu grievances. Hindus alleged that Mughal rulers had constructed a mosque in 1528 over a Hindu temple that had once marked the site. The demolition of this mosque in 1992 by a Hindu mob contrasts strongly with the nonviolent struggle led by Gandhi against the British, and represents one aspect of Hinduism’s coming to terms with its past. Hindu political ideas served as a model for state formation in much of southeast Asia during ancient times. But the succeeding period of foreign rule over India, which lasted about 1,000 years, has made Hindus particularly sensitive to the charge of political failure in facing Islam and Christianity. How Hindu culture will overcome this sensitivity remains to be seen. Christian evangelization among Hindus and consequent conversions to Christianity have provoked controversy and promoted a need for Hindu self definition.

D4 – Contemporary Challenges

The modern age, like every age, poses challenges for humanity and for the various religions that engage humanity. The aim of Hinduism has always been to enlighten rather than to convert. The Hindu world-view of pluralism and respect for multiple paths points to one model for reconciliation of religious conflicts, without calling for conversion to any one creed and with each religion maintaining its unique identity and practices.

Contributed By:
Arvind Sharma

This article was borrowed from www.sankrant.org.


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Shourie Bannai
Shourie Bannai

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