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Hinduism is a term for a set of cultural practices that originated on the Indian subcontinent. Although Hinduism is frequently classified as a religion, its belief and practices are do not always dovetail with that which is usually considered to be a religion. It is even debatable whether there is any unitary phenomenon which can be referred to as Hinduism.
The early stage in the development of Hinduism-- what is sometimes called the Vedic religion-- was centered on the performance of rituals, and on the worship and propitiation of gods different from those prominent in later Hinduism. Though it is difficult to say with precision, this Vedic religion shares some features with the Avestan religion and Paganism, and itself seems to be a development of an earlier Indo-European religion. It is considered by some to be the world's oldest extant religion. 
Hinduism contains a vast body of scriptures, which are divided between revealed and remembered (or traditional) works. (However, only the Vedas are considered to be revealed.) These works cover a broad range of theology, philosophy and mythology, providing spiritual insights and guidance on the practice of dharma (religious living). Among such texts, the corpus of Vedic literature is at the fore in terms of authority, importance and antiquity. This includes a large number of hymns in the Saṃhitā Veda, works detailing the performance of ritual, works interpreting the symbolic meanings of ritual, and works which contain broader philosophical and theological speculation (the Upanisads).
The Hindu tradition includes a large variety of texts. This includes everything from later elaborations of Indian religious and philosophical thought to the two large epics, the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata. The Mahābhārata also contains one of the most popular texts in the Hindu tradition, the Bhagavad Gītā, a devotional poem which seems to have been a late textual interpolation of the Mahābhārata.
Hinduism has approximately a billion practitioners, of whom about 905 million live in India and Nepal, placing it as the world's third largest religion after Christianity and Islam. Other countries with large Hindu populations include Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Fiji, Suriname, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago.
The Persian term Hindū comes from the Sanskrit Sindhu, i.e. the Indus River. The Rig Veda mentions the land of the Indo-Aryans as Sapta Sindhu (the land of the seven rivers in the northwestern Indian subcontinent, one of them being the Indus). This corresponds to Hapta Həndu in the Avesta (Vendidad or Videvdad: Fargard 1.18)—the sacred scripture of Zoroastrianism of the Iranian Empire. It is mentioned as one of the 16 lands where Iranians (arya) live. The term was used for those who lived in the Indian subcontinent on or beyond the "Sindhu".
The British used the term to differentiate between the Muslims and Christians on the one hand and all the others on the other.
Hinduism originates from the ancient Vedic tradition and other indigenous beliefs, incorporated over time. Due to its diversity Hinduism can only be defined in terms of peoples and places. It is possible to find Hindu groups whose beliefs have nothing in common and it is impossible to identify any universal belief of practice. Prominent themes in Hinduism include Dharma (ethics and duties), Samsāra (The continuing cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth), Karma (action and subsequent reaction), and Moksha (liberation from the cycle of samsara). Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism share traits with Hinduism, because these religions originated in India and focus on self-improvement with the general aim of attaining personal (first hand), spiritual experiences. They along with Hinduism are collectively known as Dharmic religions.
Concept of God
Hinduism is sometimes considered to be a polytheistic religion, but such a view oversimplifies a diverse system of thought with beliefs spanning monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, monism and even atheism. For instance, the Advaita Vedanta school holds that there is only one causal entity (Brahman), which manifests itself to humans in multiple forms while many scholars consider the Samkhya school of thought to have had atheistic leanings.
According to the monistic/panentheistic theologies of Hinduism, Brahman (the greater Self or God) is in the highest sense One and nondifferentiated from the world and its beings (hence 'nondualist'). In connoting Brahman's absolutely unparalleled nature, it is also called Parambrahman, where the Sanskrit prefix param- denotes "ultimate". Brahman is also sometimes seen as synonymous with the concept of Paramatma (Supreme Spirit). Beyond time and space, both immanent and transcendent, Brahman is often described succinctly as sacchidananda, meaning 'Truth-Consciousness-Bliss', not only possessing the qualities but also being their very essence. Advaita philosophy declares that ultimately Brahman (the impersonal God) is beyond mere intellectual description and can be understood only through direct spiritual experience, where the 'knower' and the 'known' are subsumed into the act of 'knowing'. The goal is to "wake up" and realize that one's atman, or soul, is really identical to Brahman, the uber-soul.
On the other hand, monotheistic (for example, Dvaita Vedanta) and other devotional (bhakti) schools, understand Brahman as a Supreme Being who possesses personality. In these conceptions, Brahman is associated with Vishnu, Shiva or Shakti depending on the sect. Brahman is seen as fundamentally separate from its reliant souls (humanity) so, in achieving liberation, individual beings experience God as an independent being, a living personality, and retain their individual identities.
When God is viewed as the supreme personal being (rather than as the infinite principle) God is called Ishvara ("The Lord";), Bhagavan ("The Auspicious One";), or Parameshwara ("The Supreme Lord"). Ishvara thus refers to the personal aspect of God in general; it is not specific to a particular deity. Ishvara transcends gender, yet can be looked upon as father, mother, friend, child, or even as sweetheart. Some schools of Hindu philosophy do not believe in Ishvara, while others interpret Ishvara in different ways. Some schools do not distinguish between Ishvara and Brahman. The Dvaita school holds that Ishvara is not incorporeal, but is infinite and a personal being.
Devas and devis
The Hindu scriptures refer as many celestial entities, called Devas ("The heavenly or shining ones", also called devatās). The word Devas may be translated into English as gods, demigods, deities, celestial spirits or angels. The feminine of deva is devī.
The Vedas and Purānas depict the devas in their mythological stories. The latter lauds the Trimurti of Mahādevas ("Great Gods"), which are the three aspects of God: Brahmā, Vishnu and Shiva. Other Devas have been worshipped throughout Hinduism's history. The devas are an integral part of Hindu culture and are depicted in art, architecture and through icons. In their religious practices, Hindus can primarily worship one of these deities, known as their iṣṭa devatā, or chosen ideal. The particular form of God worshipped as one's chosen ideal is a matter of individual preference and needs, influenced by regional and family traditions.
Many denominations of Hinduism teach that from time to time God descends to Earth in corporeal form to help humans along in their struggle toward enlightenment in the form of bhakti or liberation from rebirth known as moksha. Hindus believe that God's incarnations bring the dharmic order back into balance whenever necessary. Such an incarnation of God is called an avatar. The most famous avatars are of Vishnu, the two most popular being Rama, whose life is depicted in the Ramayana, and Krishna, who is a central figure in the Mahabharata and whose life is depicted in the Srimad Bhagavatam.
Mainstream Hindu philosophy talks about the existence of God, being heavily influenced by the Vedanta school, the dominant philosophical school of Hinduism. Nonetheless, there were earlier atheistic schools such as Samkhya, which did not acknowledge the existence of God.
Most Hindus believe that the spirit or soul, the true "self" of every person, called the ātman, is eternal; as is Brahman, which may be seen as either the greater Self or as God, depending on the outlook. According to the Advaita (non-dualist) schools of philosophy, the individual self and greater Self are not fundamentally distinct. They argue that the core spirit, or "Self", of every individual person is identical with the greater Spirit. Referring to 'Brahman' unequivocally as God may reveal problems of semantics, where certain traditions understand God to be a motivating agency with personality and others that it is without personality and form, beyond any sort of definition and thus non-equivalent to the 'God' as understood by dualist schools of Hinduism or Abrahamic understandings of God. According to the Upanishads, whoever gains insight into the depths of his own nature and becomes fully aware of the ātman as the innermost core of his own Self will realize his identity with Brahman and will thereby reach Moksha (liberation from the birth and death cycle). According to the Dvaita (dualist) school, (often associated with Vaishnavism), the ātman is not identical with Brahman, which is seen as being God with personality (though not limited); instead, the ātman is dependent on God. Moksha depends on love towards God and on God's grace.
Karma, samsara and moksha
Karma translates literally as action, work or deed and is often described as the "moral law of cause and effect". According to the Upanishads, an individual, known as the jiva-atma, develops samskaras (impressions) from actions, whether physical or mental. The "linga sharira", a body more subtle than the physical one, but less subtle than the soul, retains impressions, carrying them over into the next life, establishing a unique trajectory for the individual. Thus, the concept of a universal, neutral and never-failing karma intrinsically relates to reincarnation as well as one's personality, characteristics and family. Karma threads together the notions of free will and destiny.
As a person puts on new clothes, discarding old and torn clothes, similarly an embodied soul enters new material bodies, leaving the old bodies.(B.G. 2:22)
Samsara provides ephemeral pleasures, which lead people to desire rebirth to enjoy the pleasures of a perishable body. However, escaping the world of samsara through moksha (liberation from the death and re-birth cycle) is believed to ensure lasting happiness and peace. It is thought that after several reincarnations, an atman eventually seeks unity with the cosmic spirit (Brahman/Paramatman).
The ultimate goal of life, referred to as moksha, nirvana or samadhi, is described as the realization of one's union with God; realization of one's eternal relationship with God; realization of the unity of all existence; perfect unselfishness and knowledge of the Self; liberation from ignorance; attainment of perfect mental peace; or detachment from worldly desires. Such a realization liberates one from samsara and ends the cycle of rebirth. The exact conceptualization of moksha differs among the various Hindu schools of thought. For example, Advaita Vedanta holds that after attaining moksha an atman no longer identifies itself with an individual but as part of Brahman. The followers of dualistic schools such as dvaita on the other hand, expect to spend eternity in a loka, or heaven, in the company of their chosen form of Ishvara. Thus, it is said, the followers of dvaita wish to "taste sugar," while the followers of Advaita wish to "become sugar."
The goals of life
Classical Hindu thought accepts two main life-long dharmas: Grihastha Dharma and Sannyasin Dharma.
- kāma: Sensual pleasure and enjoyment
- artha: Material prosperity and success
- dharma: Following the laws and rules that an individual lives under
- moksha: Liberation from the cycle of samsara
Among these, dharma and moksha play a special role: dharma must dominate an individual's pursuit of kama and artha while seeing moksha, at the horizon.
The Sannyasin Dharma recognizes, but renounces Kama, Artha and Dharma, focusing entirely on Moksha. As described below, the Gṛhasthi eventually enters this stage eventually. However, some enter this stage immediately from whichever stage they may be in.
Yoga: multiple paths to the goal
In whatever way a Hindu defines the goal of life, there are several methods (yogas) that sages have taught for reaching that goal. Someone who practices yoga is called a yogi. The chief texts dedicated to Yoga are the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and, as their philosophical and historical basis, the Upanishads. Paths one can follow to achieve the spiritual goal of life (moksha, samadhi, or nirvana) include:
- Bhakti Yoga (the path of love and devotion),
- Karma Yoga (the path of right action),
- Rāja Yoga (the path of meditation) and
- Jñāna Yoga (the path of wisdom).
An individual may prefer one yoga over others according to his or her inclination and understanding. For instance some followers of the Dvaita school hold that Bhakti ("devotion") is the only practical path to achieve spiritual perfection for most people, based on their belief that the world is currently in the age of Kali yuga (one of four epochs part of the Yuga cycle). Practice of one yoga does not exclude others. Many schools believe that the different yogas naturally blend into and aid other yogas. For example, the practice of jnana yoga, is thought to inevitably lead to pure love (the goal of bhakti yoga), and vice versa. Someone practicing deep meditation (such as in raja yoga) must embody the core principles of karma yoga, jnana yoga and bhakti yoga, whether directly or indirectly.
The bhakti traditions emphasize cultivation of love and devotion for God as the path to perfection. Followers of bhakti typically worship God as a divine personal being or avatar, such as Rama or Krishna. Followers of the bhakti path strive to purify their minds and activities through the chanting of God's names (japa), prayer, devotional hymns (bhajan) and treating all living creatures with compassion. Bhakti followers seek to enjoy a loving relationship with God, rather than to merge their consciousness with Brahman.
Followers of karma yoga seek to achieve freedom by acting without attachment to the results of their actions. According to Hinduism, action is inevitable, and has one great disadvantage—any act done with attachment to its fruits generates karmic or psychological bondage. Followers of karma yoga follow the injunction in the Bhagavad Gita:
Without being attached to the fruits of action, one should act as a matter of duty; for by working without attachment, one attains the Supreme.
Many followers of karma yoga offer the results of every action to God, thus combining karma yoga with bhakti yoga. Karma yoga is supposed to bring purification of the heart, freedom from bondage to the ego, humility, and the growing understanding that Brahman is in all people.
Followers of Raja yoga seek to experience the spiritual truth directly through meditation. Raja yoga is based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which has eight 'limbs' that describe the stages a yogi must pass through to reach the goal of samadhi. The eight limbs begin with right action (yamas and niyamas) and perfect meditative posture (asana), and continue with control of the body's life force (pranayama). From there, the yogi practices techniques of meditation that take him through the progressive stages of interiorization (pratyahara), concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana). The final goal of the raja yogi—and the eighth limb of Patanjali's Sutras—is samadhi, or oneness with Brahman.
Jnana yoga is the path of wisdom, or true knowledge, and appeals to people with an intellectual nature. The jnana yogi typically practices the four interrelated means to liberation:
- Viveka: discriminating between what is real (the immortal Atman, or true self), and unreal (the physical universe)
- Vairāgya, dispassion for material pleasures
- Shad-Sampat, the six virtues, which bring about mental control and discipline.
- Mumukshutva, intense desire for liberation from the birth and death cycle.
These practices lead to the unfoldment of wisdom (intuitive perception), rather than mere intellectual knowledge. Through discrimination and introspection, the jnana yogi eventually realizes the highest truth, that "I am Brahman, the pure, all-pervading Consciousness."
The earliest evidence for certain (minor) elements of Hinduism may date back as far as the late neolithic and the early Harappan period (ca. 5500–2600 BCE). The beliefs and practices of the pre-classical era (ca. 1500-500 BCE) are called the "Vedic religion". The oldest surviving text of Hinduism is the Rigveda, which is dated to between 1700–1100 BCE based on linguistic and philological evidence.
The Vedic period
Modern Hinduism grew out of the Vedas. The earliest of these, the Rigveda, centers on worship of deities such as Indra, Varuna and Agni, and on the Soma ritual. The early Indo-Aryans performed fire-sacrifices, called yajña and chanted Vedic mantras. They did not build temples or icons. Buddhist and Jain texts claim that Animals were sacrificed in larger yajñas. The oldest Vedic traditions exhibit strong similarities to Zoroastrianism and with other Indo-European religions, like Paganism.
Epic and Puranic periods
The epic poems Ramayana and Mahabharata were composed roughly from 400 BCE to 200 CE but were transmitted orally for hundreds of years prior to this period. The Ramayana and Mahabharata contain secular and mythological stories of the rulers and wars of ancient India as well as on the avatars Rama and Krishna respectively. They are interspersed with treatises on various Hindu philosophical concepts and themes, including the nature of the atma, karma, dharma, moksha, and the organisation of society and government. The later Puranas recount tales about devas and devis, their interactions with humans and their battles against demons.
The age of Mahajanapadas
During the Iron Age in India, several schools of thought arose and developed in Hindu philosophy including Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Purva-Mimamsa and Vedanta. Three key revolutions underpinned the nascence of a new epoch in Hindu thought. These were the spiritual upheaval initiated by the Upanishads, and the arrival of Mahavira (founder of Jainism) and the Buddha (founder of Buddhism). Charvaka, the leader of an atheistic materialist school, also came to the fore in North India in the sixth century BCE. The Upanishads, Mahavira and Buddha taught that to achieve moksha or nirvana, one did not have to accept the authority of the Vedas or the caste system; the Buddha went a step further and claimed that the existence of a Self/soul or God was unnecessary. In this intellectual ferment, many Hindus became Buddhists while others were influenced by Buddhist and Jain teachings. The arrival of new philosophies substantially changed the religion between the end of the Maurya and beginning of the Gupta periods..
Islam and Bhakti
From the seventh century, successive waves of armies from Muslim kingdoms invaded and to varying degrees, gained control over North India. During this period Buddhism declined rapidly and many Hindus were forcibly converted to Islam. Some Muslim rulers such as Aurangzeb destroyed Hindu temples and otherwise persecuted non-Muslims, while others, such as Akbar, were more tolerant.
Hinduism underwent profound changes due in large part to the influence of the prominent teachers Ramanuja, Madhva, and Chaitanya. Followers of the Bhakti movement moved away from the abstract concept of Brahman, which the philosopher Adi Shankara consolidated a few centuries before, to focus on the more accessible avataras, especially Krishna and Rama. A new attitude toward God—emotional, passionate love—replaced the old approaches of sacrificial rite and meditation on the formless Brahman.
The 19th and 20th centuries
The 19th and 20th centuries saw an unprecedented interaction between Hindu and European thought (in the form of Abrahamic religions and Western Philosophy). This intercultural correspondence catalyzed developments in Indology, formations of new schools of Hindu thought, the global spread of Hinduism and changes within Hindu society. Meanwhile, traditional systems of Hinduism witnessed revivals and new developments that flourished independently.
Indology as an academic discipline of studying Indian culture from a European perspective was established in the 19th century, led by Max Müller and John Woodroffe. They brought much of the Vedic, Puranic and Tantric literature and philosophy to Europe and the United States of America. At the same time, societies such as the Brahmo Samaj and the Theosophical Society attempted to reconcile and fuse Abrahamic and Dharmic philosophies, endeavouring to institute societal reform.
This period also saw the emergence of more traditional movements in origin though still innovative, sometimes based on the personalities and teachings of individuals, as with Shri Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharshi. Prominent Hindu philosophers, including Sri Aurobindo and Swami Prabhupada (founder of ISKCON) translated, reformulated and presented Hinduism's foundational texts for contemporary audiences in new iterations, attracting followers and attention in India and abroad. Others such as Swami Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda, B.K.S. Iyengar and Swami Rama have been instrumental in raising the profiles of traditional Yoga and Vedanta in the West.
In the Indian subcontinent, Hinduism is still practised by the majority of India's inhabitants although the number in the areas of modern Pakistan and Bangladesh have dwindled after the Partition of India. Hinduism is the official religion in Nepal, which is the world's only Hindu state. Indonesia has experienced a Hindu revival in recent years due to the efforts of Parisada Hindu Dharma.
Scriptures and theology
Hinduism is based on "the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times." The scriptures were transmitted orally, in verse form to aid memorization, for many centuries before they were written down. Over many centuries, other sages refined the teachings and expanded the canon. The majority of the sacred texts are in the Sanskrit language. Sanskrit continues to be used in religious and literary settings. The scripture are collectively referred to as Shastras and are classified into two classes: Shruti and Smriti.
Shruti: Vedic literature
Shruti (lit: that which has been heard) refers to the Vedas which form the earliest record of the Hindu scriptures. While they have not been dated with much certainty, the most conservative estimates date their origin to 1200 BCE or earlier.
Hindus revere the Vedas as eternal truths revealed to ancient sages (Ṛṣis) through meditation. Some of these sages were women, called Ṛṣikās. A number of modern Hindus do not associate the creation of the Vedas with a God or person. They are thought of as the laws of the spiritual world, which would still exist even if they were not revealed to the sages.
There are four Vedas (called Ṛg-, Sāma- Yajus- and Atharva-). The Rigveda is the first and most important Veda. Each Veda is divided into four parts: the primary one, the Veda proper, being the Saṃhitā, which contains sacred mantras in verse or prose. The other three parts form a three-tier ensemble of commentaries, usually in prose and are believed to be slightly later in age than the Saṃhitā. These are: the Brāhmaṇas, Āraṇyakas, and the Upanishads. The first two parts were subsequently called the Karmakāṇḍa (the ritualistic portion), while the last two form the Jñānakāṇḍa (the knowledge portion). Hindus normally use the term "Veda" in a broad sense as covering all this literature, while Westrn scholars tend to restrict its use to the Saṃhitā only.
Whereas the Vedas focus on rituals, the Upanishads focus on spiritual insight and philosophy. They constitute a major portion of the Jnāna Kānda, and explore philosophical teachings. The Upanishads discuss Brahman and reincarnation. While the Vedas are not read by most lay Hindus, they are revered as the eternal knowledge whose sacred sounds help bring spiritual and material benefits. Theologically, they take precedence over the Smriti. and local custom (ācāra).
Smriti: non-Vedic literature
Hindu texts other than the Shrutis are collectively called the Smritis (memory).
The most notable of the smritis are the Itihāsa (epics), which consist of the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa. Bhagavad Gītā is an integral part of the Mahabharata and one of the most popular sacred texts of Hinduism. It contains philosophical teachings from Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, told to the Pāṇḍava prince Arjuna on the eve of a great war. The Bhagavad Gītā is described as the essence of the Vedas.
Another set of venerable Smriti are the Purāṇas ("ancient histories"), which illustrate Hindu ideas through vivid narratives dealing with deities, and their interactions with humans. There are texts with a more sectarian nature such as Devī Mahātmya, the Yoga Sūtras, the Tantras as well as the Mahanirvāṇa Tantra, Tirumantiram, Shiva Sutras and the Hindu Āgamas. A more controversial text, the Manusmriti, is a prescriptive lawbook which epitomizes the societal codes of the caste system.
Most Hindu scriptures, especially the epics and Puranas, are not typically interpreted literally. More importance is attached to the ethics and metaphorical meanings derived from them. Hindu exegesis leans toward figurative interpretations of scriptures rather than literal ones.
"Many scriptures, many paths"
In contrast to the scriptural canons of some religions, the Hindu scriptural canon is not closed. Hindus believe that because the spiritual truths of the Vedas are eternal, they continue to be expressed in new ways. Some Hindus even venerate the scriptures of other religions. One much-quoted verse from the Rigveda that emphasizes the diversity of paths to the one goal is:
ekam sad viprā bahudhā vadanti
- Truth is one, the wise call it in many different ways
- —Rig Veda 1.164.46
Schools of philosophy
The six Āstika or orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, which accept the authority of the Vedas, are Nyāya, Vaisheshika, Sāṃkhya, Yoga, Pūrva Mīmāṃsā (also called Mīmāṃsā), and Uttara Mīmāṃsā (also called Vedānta). The Heterodox Nāstika schools, which do not rely on the authority of the Vedas, are Buddhism, Jainism and Lokāyata. Although scholars mainly study these philosophies, they influence the beliefs of average Hindus.
Hindu practices generally involve seeking awareness of God and sometimes also seeking blessings from Devas. Therefore, Hinduism has developed numerous practices meant to help one think of divinity in the midst of everyday life. According to Swami Vivekananda:
"The ideal of man is to see God in everything. But if you cannot see Him in everything, see Him in one thing, in that thing you like best, and then see Him in another. So on you go . . . Take your time and you will achieve your end."
Hindus can engage in formal worship (Sanskrit: pūjā, worship or veneration) either at home or at a temple. At home, Hindus often create a shrine with icons dedicated to the individual's chosen form(s) of God. Veneration may involve offering food, water, or flowers and may be expressed through the burning of incense, lighting of candles or oil-lamps, ringing a bell, waving a fan, or sounding a conch-shell. Other practices of Puja include meditation, chanting mantras, and reciting scriptures.
Devotional singing is an important part of bhakti. Devotional singing occurs in temples, in ashrams, on the banks of holy rivers, at home and elsewhere. Hymns are in Sanskrit or in modern Indian languages such as Hindi, Marathi, Bengali or Tamil. Musical instruments accompanying devotional singing include the manjeera, tanpura, harmonium, and tabla. Another form of community worship is Satsang (fellowship), the practice of gathering for study or discussion of scriptures and religious topics as well as chanting mantras.
Vedic rites of fire-oblation (yajna) are now only occasional practices although they are highly revered in theory. In a Hindu wedding ceremony however, the presence of sacred fire as the divine witness, the yajña and chanting of Vedic mantras is still the norm. The same applies to death rituals.
Worship of God through icons
Hindus may perform their worship through icons (murti), such as statues or paintings symbolic of God's power and glory. The icon serves as a tangible link - a point of concentration - between the worshipper and God. Another view is that the image is a manifestation of God, since God is immanent. The Padma Purana states that the mūrti is not to be thought of as mere stone or wood but as a manifest form of the Divinity. A few Hindu sects, such as the Arya Samaj, do not believe in worshiping God through icons.
Hindu temples are a place of worship for Hindus. They are usually dedicated to a primary deity along with associated subordinate deities. However, some temples are dedicated to multiple deities. Most major temples are constructed as per the āgama shāstras and many are pilgrimage sites.
Visiting temples is not obligatory for Hindus. Many Hindus go to temples only during religious festivals, though others do so more regularly. Temples are not used for funerals, or as social hubs but some are used for weddings. Many Hindus view the four Shankaracharyas (the abbots of the monasteries in Joshimath, Puri, Shringeri and Dwarka) as the Patriarchs of Hinduism.
Hinduism has a developed system of symbolism and iconography to represent the sacred in art, architecture, literature and worship. The icon serves as a tangible link - a point of concentration. These symbols gain their meaning from the scriptures, mythology, or cultural traditions. The symbols Om (which represents the Parabrahman), Swastika (which symbolizes auspiciousness) have grown to represent Hinduism itself, while other markings such as tilaka identify a follower of the faith. Hinduism associates many symbols, which include the lotus, chakra and veena, with particular deities. These associations distinguish their physical representations in sculptures and pictures and are based on allegorical references in Hindu mythology. While most representations of deities are largely anthropomorphic there are exceptions. For instance, the deity Shiva can be worshipped in the form of a lingam, a pillar-like stone.
The guru-disciple tradition
In many Hindu sects, spiritual aspirants adopt a personal spiritual teacher, called a guru. Traditionally, during brahmacharya (see Ashramas) a Guru taught a disciple all things necessary to lead a dharmic life. The student is expected to follow the instructions of the guru and to have a spiritual life.
Japa and mantra
Mantras are prayers that through their meaning, sound, and chanting style help a person focus their mind on holy thoughts or to express devotion to God. Mantras are meant to give courage in exigent times and invoke one's inner spiritual strength.
After the pranava or "fundamental" mantra of "Aum", one of the most revered mantras is the Gayatri Mantra. Hindus are initiated into this most sacred mantra at the time of their Upanayanam (thread ceremony). Many Hindus perform morning ablutions at the bank of a sacred river while chanting the Gayatri or Mahamrityunjaya mantras.
Japa (ritualistic chanting) is extolled as the greatest duty for the Kali Yuga (what Hindus believe to be the current age) in the epic Mahabharata. Many Hindu traditions adopt Japa as their primary spiritual practice. The Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition of chanting the Hare Krishna mantra is one such example. The chanting of Mantras, is also a kind of meditation that gives spectacular results to the meditator. For example, children may be born with a Chakra (divine whorl) on their back, because the father/mother was chanting the Mantra, 'Om Namo Bhagavathae Vaasudaevaaya', just before conception, when making love, which means that the child and it's parents are blessed by Lord Vaasudaeva (Vishnu). A specific mantra is used as a japa mantra to invoke the blessings or get a boon / darshan (theophany - manifestation of a particular God / Godess).
Pilgrimage is not mandatory in Hinduism though many adherents undertake them. There are many Hindu holy places in India. One of the most famous is the ancient city of Varanasi. Other holy places in India include Kedarnath and Badrinath in the Himalayas, the Jagannath temple at Puri, Rishikesh and Haridwar in the foothills of the Himalayas, Prayag, Rameshwaram in the South and Gaya in the east. The largest single gathering of pilgrims is during the annual Kumbh Mela fair held in one of four different cities on a rotating basis. Another important "set" of pilgrimages are the 51 "Shakti Peethas," where the Mother Goddess is worshipped, the two principal ones being Kalighat and Kamakhya. Vaishno Devi, the Shakti temple near Katra, Jammu and Kashmir is the second most visited religious shrine in India, after Tirupati Balaji Mandir (temple).
Hinduism has many festivals throughout the year. Their dates are usually prescribed by the Hindu calendar and typically celebrate events from Hindu mythology, often coinciding with seasonal changes and occasions of importance in an agrarian society. There are festivals which are primarily celebrated by specific sects or in certain regions of the Indian subcontinent.
Some widely observed Hindu festivals are,
- Dussera, or Durga Puja, celebrates events from Hindu mythology symbolizing the triumph of good over evil;
- Diwali, the festival of lights;
- Ganesh Chaturthi, the festival celebrating the birth of Ganesha;
- Maha Shivaratri, the festival dedicated to Shiva;
- Ram Navami, celebrates the birth of Rama, the seventh incarnation of Vishnu;
- Krishna Janmastami, celebrates the birth of Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Vishnu;
- Holi, a spring festival of colors and light;
- Sankranti, a harvest festival of India
On death, cremation is considered obligatory for all except sanyasis, hijra, and children under five. Cremation is typically performed by wrapping the corpse in cloth and burning it on a pyre. Manikarnika Ghat, in Varanasi, is a famous site where bodies are cremated by the side of the river, in full view of the public. Those not cremated may be simply wrapped in cloth, weighted with stones and cast into a river.
Hinduism obliges the closest male relative (son, father, husband, etc.) of the deceased to immerse the cremated remains in the holy river Ganga, preferably at the holy city of Haridwar, India. The cremated remains may also be entombed, in case the deceased was a well-known person.
Hinduism has no central doctrinal authority and many practising Hindus do not claim to belong to any particular denomination at all. However, academics categorize contemporary Hinduism into four major denominations: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shakthism and Smarthism. The denominations differ primarily in the God worshipped as the Supreme One and in the traditions that accompany worship of that God.
Vaishnavas worship Viṣhṇu; Shaivites worship Shiva; Shakthas worship Shakthi (power) personified through a female divinity or Mother Goddess, Devi; while Smarthists believe in the essential sameness of all deities.
There are also many movements that are not easily placed in any of the above categories, such as Swami Dayananda Saraswati's Ārya Samāj, which rejects image worship and veneration of multiple deities. It focuses on the Vedas and the Vedic fire sacrifices (yajña). The Tantric traditions in Hinduism have various sects, as Banerji writes in "Tantra in Bengal":
Tantras are ... also divided as āstika or Vedic and nāstika or non-Vedic. In accordance with the predominance of the deity the āstika works are again divided as Śāktha, Śaiva, Saura, Gāṇapatya and Vaiṣṇava.
As in every religion, some view their own denomination as superior to others. However, many Hindus consider other denominations to be legitimate alternatives to their own. Heresy is therefore generally not an issue for Hindus.
Ashramas: Stages of life
Traditionally, the life of a male Hindu was divided into four Āshramas ("phases" or "stages"; unrelated meanings of āshrama include "monastery" or "refuge").
The first part of one's life, Brahmacharya, the stage as a student, is spent in celibate, controlled, sober and pure contemplation under the guidance of a Guru, building up the mind for spiritual knowledge.
Grihastha is the householder's stage, in which one marries and satisfies kāma and artha within one's married and professional life respectively (see the pursuits of life). Among the moral obligations of a Hindu householder are the duties to support one's parents, children, guests, priests (Brahmins), and monks (sanyāsis).
Vānaprastha, the retirement stage, is gradual detachment from the material world. This may involve giving over duties to one's child
- Some content on this page may previously have appeared on Wikipedia.
- Kenoyer, J. M. "Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization" pages 180-183. Oxford University Press 1998
- Osborne, E: "Accessing R.E. Founders & Leaders, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism Teacher's Book Mainstream.", page 9. Folens Limited, 2005.
- Klostermaier, K:"A Survey of Hinduism", page 1. SUNY Press, 1994;
- e.g. in "Hinduism and the Clash of Civilizations" by David Frawley, Voice of India, 2001. ISBN 81-85990-72-7
- Religion: Hinduism - National Geographic
- Generalizations concerning Hinduism must be qualified, however, and it is important to note that there are traditions within Hinduism which deny the authority of Vedic literature. cf. Flood, p. 7
- Major Religions of the World Ranked by Number of Adherents, Adherents.com (2005 figure)
- "Meaning of Hindu"
- See Indo-European sound laws for a discussion of the transition from "Sindhu" to "Hindu"
- Weightman, Simon (1997). “Hinduism”, Hinnells, John: Handbook of Living Religions. Penguin books, 262. ISBN 0-140-51480-5.
- Weightman, Simon (1997). “Hinduism”, Hinnells, John: Handbook of Living Religions. Penguin books, 263. ISBN 0-140-51480-5.
- "Polytheism", Encyclopedia Britannica, 2007
- See generally, Swami Bhaskarananda, The Essentials of Hinduism (Viveka Press 1994) ISBN 1-884852-02-5
- Swami Bhaskarananda, Ritualistic Worship and Its Utility
- Brahman: Supreme God in Hinduism
- See generally, Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda ISBN 81-85301-75-1
- The presence of God within the heart of every living being is mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita at 9.29, 15.15 and 18.61, which says that God is the source of inner direction and that it is through God's power alone that we have consciousness.
- Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary
- See generally, Sinha, H.P. (1993), Bhāratīya Darshan kī rūprekhā (Features of Indian Philosophy). Motilal Banarasidas Publ. ISBN 81-208-2144-0.
- Vedic cosmology
- Devas once translated as angels
- C.J. Fuller, The Camphor Flame 32 (Princeton 2004) ISBN 0-691-12048-X
- Karel Werner, A Popular Dictionary of Hinduism at 80 (Curzon Press 1994) ISBN 0-7007-0279-2
- Louis Renou, The Nature of Hinduism 55 (New York 1962)
- Harman, William, "Hindu Devotion" 106 in Contemporary Hinduism, Robin Rinehart, ed. (2004) ISBN 1-57607-905-8
- Harman, William, "Hindu Devotion" 104 in Contemporary Hinduism, Robin Rinehart, ed. (2004) ISBN 1-57607-905-8
- Monier Williams, Religious Thought and Life in India 27 (New Delhi 1974)
- Karl Werner, A Popular Dictionary of Hinduism at 37 (Curzon Press 1994) ISBN 0-7007-0279-2; See also the Vedic statement "ayam ātmā brahma" (This Atman is Brahman).
- Vaman S. Apte, Sanskrit-English Dictionary, (Nag Publishers, 1997)
- Huston Smith, The World's Religions, pg 64 (HarperSanFrancisco 1991) ISBN 0-06-250799-0
- S. Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy - Vol.1, pg. 254 (Oxford University Press, 1996) ISBN 0 19 563819 0
- Bhagavad Gita 2.22
- See Bhagavad Gita XVI.8-20
- See Swami Vivekananda, Jnana Yoga 301-02 (8th Printing 1993)
- Rinehart, Robin, ed., Contemporary Hinduism19-21 (2004) ISBN 1-57607-905-8
- Swami Bhaskarananda, Essentials of Hinduism, 79-86 (Viveka Press 1994) ISBN 1-884852-02-5
- The concepts of Heaven and Hell do not translate directly into Hinduism. Spiritual realms such as Vaikunta (the abode of Vishnu) or loka are the closest analogues to an eternal Kingdom of God.
- Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Translation by Swami Nikhilananda (8th Ed. 1992) ISBN 0-911206-01-9
- Werner, Karel, "A Popular Dictionary of Hinduism", Curzon Press, 1994. ISBN 0-7007-0279-2
- Swami Bhaskarananda, Essentials of Hinduism 7
- B-Gita 11.54 "My dear Arjuna, only by undivided devotional service can I be understood as I am, standing before you, and can thus be seen directly. Only in this way can you enter into the mysteries of My understanding."
- B-Gita 5.5 "One who knows that the position reached by means of analytical study can also be attained by devotional service, and who therefore sees analytical study and devotional service to be on the same level, sees things as they are."
- See Monier Williams, Religious Thought and Life in India 116 (New Delhi 1974)
- Sivananda, Swami, Karma Yoga (Life and works of Swami Sivananda). Integral Yoga, 1987. ISBN 978-0949027047.
- Bhagavad Gita 3:19
- Patanjali's Yoga Aphorisms II.29, English translation & commentary (side-by-side with original Sanskrit) in Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda Vol. I, 29 ISBN 81-85301-75-1
- Kriyananda, Swami, The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita: Explained by Paramhansa Yogananda, As Remembered by His Disciple, Swami Kriyananda. Crystal Clarity Publishers, 2006. ISBN 978-1565892194
- Sivananda, Swami, Raja Yoga, Divine Life Society.
- Bhaskarananda, Swami, Meditation, Mind, and Patanjali's Yoga (Viveka Press 2001) ISBN 1-884852-03-3
- Kriyananda, Swami, Art and Science of Raja Yoga. Crystal Clarity Publishers, 2002. ISBN 978-8120818767
- Sivananda, Swami, Jnana Yoga. Divine Life Society, 1982.
- Kriyananda, Swami, Awaken to Superconsciousness. Crystal Clarity Publishers, 2000. ISBN 978-1565891364
- "Hindu History" The BBC names a bath and phallic symbols of the Harappan civilization as features of the "Prehistoric religion (3000-1000 BCE)".
- T. Oberlies (Die Religion des Rgveda, Vienna 1998. p. 158) based on 'cumulative evidence' sets wide range of 1700–1100.
- The Ṛgvedic deity Dyaus, regarded as the father of the other deities, is linguistically cognate with Zeus—the king of the gods in Greek mythology, Iovis (gen. of Jupiter) —the king of the gods in Roman mythology, and Tiu/Ziu in Germanic mythology, cf. English 'Tues-day'. Other Vedic deities also have cognates with those found in other Indo-European speaking peoples' mythologies; see Proto-Indo-European religion.
- Robin Rinehart, Contemporary Hinduism 28 (2004) ISBN 1-57607-905-8
- A.L. Basham, Ed., A Cultural History of India (Oxford 1999) ISBN 0-19-563921-9
- Sir Charles Eliot, Hinduism and Buddhism, Vol. I (London 1954)
- Olivelle, Patrick, "The renouncer tradition", pp. 273-274; in "Blackwell companion to Hinduism", Ed. Flood,Gavin, Blackwell Publ., 2003. ISBN 0-631-21535-2
- Between the Empires. Ed. P. Olivelle, Oxford University Press 2006
- J.T.F. Jordens, “Medieval Hindu Devotionalism,” in A.L. Basham, Ed., A Cultural History of India (Oxford 1999) ISBN 0-19-563921-9
- Constitution of Nepal: Part I, Government of Nepal website. Accessed: April 9, 2007
- Country profile: Nepal , CIA Factbook.Accessed: April 9, 2007
- Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda Vol III. 118-120; Vol. I. 6-7.
- Sargeant, Winthrop, Introduction to The Bhagavad Gita at 3 (New York, 1984) ISBN 0-87395-831-4
- Swami Nikhilananda, The Upanishads: A New Translation Vol. I, at 3 (5th Ed. 1990) ISBN 0-911206-15-9
- Swami Nikhilananda, The Upanishads: A New Translation Vol. I, at 7 (5th Ed. 1990) ISBN 0-911206-15-9
- Coulson, Michael, Sanskrit: An Introduction to the Classical Language (2d Ed. 1992) ISBN 0-8442-3825-2
- Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda Vol III. 118.
- Hindu Wisdom - Women in Hinduism. Retrieved on 2006-01-02.
- Note: Nyaya-Vaisheshika believe that the Vedas were created by God, and are not eternal.
- Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda Vol. I. 6-7.
- Swami Harshananda, "A Bird's Eye View of the Vedas," in Holy Scriptures: A Symposium on the Great Scriptures of the World (2d Ed.) ISBN 81-7120-121-0
- Rigveda is not only the oldest among the vedas, but is one of the earliest Indo-European texts. See: Hindunet.org
- Hinduwebsite.com explaining the yajnas
- Swami Shivananda's mission
- What is Veda?, Vedah.com
- See Karel Werner, A Popular Dictionary of Hinduism 166 (Curzon Press 1994) ISBN 0-7007-0279-2
- Monier-Williams, Religious Life and Thought in India 25-41 (New Delhi 1974)
- ISCKON site
- "The Smritis" by Swami Sivananda
- Sarvopaniṣado gāvo, etc. (Gītā Māhātmya 6). Gītā Dhyānam, cited in Introduction to Bhagavad-gītā As It Is.
- See Swami Nikhilananda, The Upanishads: A New Translation Vol. I, at 8 (5th ed. 1990) ISBN 0-911206-15-9
- Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda II.374 (18th Printing 1995) ISBN 81-85301-75-1
- Brahmachari Siddheshwar Shai v. State of West Bengal (Supreme Court of India), available at 
- See Monier Williams, Religious Thought and Life in India 64, 66 (New Delhi 1974)
- "Schools of Philosophy"
- Swami Vivekananda, Vedanta: Voice of Freedom, Ed. Swami Chetanananda (1990) ISBN 0-916356-63-9
- MSN Encarta on Hinduism
- Hindu Marriage Act, 1955
- Swami Bhaskarananda, Essentials of Hinduism 137 (Viveka Press 1994) ISBN 1-884852-02-5
- arcye viṣṇau śīlā-dhīr. . . narakī saḥ.
- Swami Bhaskarananda, Essentials of Hinduism 157 (Viveka Press 1994)
- More pilgrim rush to Vaishno Devi this year (October 08, 2006).
- Karl Werner, A Popular Dictionary of Hinduism at 73 (Curzon Press 1994) ISBN 0-7007-0279-2
- Banerji, p. 2.
- Religions of the World India and Hinduism - Background of relativism