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Hinduism (सनातन धर?म; San?tana Dharma, roughly Perennial Faith) is considered to be the oldest major world religion still practised today. It is the first religion to believe in reincarnation and rebirth.

Hinduists [people that believe in hinduism]pray in many different ways. Hinduism began at least as long ago as 2000 BCE. It is the third largest religion in the world, with about 1.05 billion followers worldwide. 96% of Hinduists life in India.

According to Hinduism, any kind of spiritual practice [for example praying or doing special exercises called yoga]that is followed with faith, love and much effort will help someone be good at doing something Hinduism encourages tolerance for what other people believe, since worldly systems cannot claim sole understanding of the one True god or deity. The Ultimate truth is expressed as Nirguna Brahman, or God without form, or God without personal attributes. All personal forms of God in Hinduism, such as Vishnu or Shiva, are different parts of God in personal form or God with attributes. Some examples: Saguna Brahman. God's energy is Devi, the Divine Mother. For Vaishnvaites who follow Ramunjacharaya's philosophy, Devi is Lakshmi, who is the Mother of all, and who pleads with Vishnu for mankind, who is filled with wrongs and sins. For Shaivites, Devi is Parvati. For Shaktas, who worship Devi, Devi is the personal form of God to attain the impersonal Absolute, God. For them, Shiva is personified as God without attributes. (please look here for more explanation.)

To the Hindu, this idea has been an active force in defining the 'Eternal Dharma.' It has been for Hinduism what the infinite divine Self of Advaita is to existence, remaining forever unchanged and self-luminous, central and pervasive, in spite of all the chaos and flux around it.


[edit] A brief overview

Hinduism rests on the spiritual foundation of the Vedas, the Upanishads, as well as the teachings of many Hindu gurus through the ages. Many streams of thought flow from the six Vedic/Hindu schools, Bhakti sects and Tantra Agamic schools, into the one ocean of Hinduism, the first of the Dharma religions. See Schools of Hinduism.

[edit] The Eternal Way

"The Eternal Way" (in Sanskrit सनातन धर?म, San?tana Dharma), or the "Perennial Philosophy/Harmony/Faith", is the one name that has represented Hinduism for many thousands of years. According to Hindus, it speaks to the idea that certain spiritual principles hold true for all time, going beyond man-made beliefs, representing a pure science of consciousness. This consciousness is not merely that of the body or mind and intellect, but of a soul-state above the mind that exists within and beyond our existence, the pure Self of all. Religion to the Hindu is the native search for the divine within the Self, the search to find the One truth that really never was lost. Truth looked for with faith shall give itself in blissful light, no matter the race, or what is believed. Indeed, all existence, from vegetation and beasts to mankind, are subjects and objects of the eternal Dharma. This inner faith, therefore, is also known as Arya/Noble Dharma, Veda/Knowledge Dharma, Yoga/Union Dharma, Hindu Dharma or, simply, the Dharma.

What can be said to be common to all Hindus is belief in Dharma, reincarnation, karma, and moksha (liberation) of every soul through a variety of moral, action-based, and meditative yogas. Still more basic principles include ahimsa (non-violence), the importance of the Guru, the Divine Word of Aum and the power of mantras, love of Truth in many manifestations as Gods and Goddessess, and an understanding that the essential spark of the Divine (Atman/Brahman) is in every human and living being, allowing for many spiritual paths leading to the One Unitary Truth.

An example of the pervasiveness of this paramount truth-seeking spirituality in daily life is the bindi, which is a common marker for Hindu women. It symbolizes the need to cultivate supramental consciousness, which is achieved by opening the mystic "third eye." Hindus across the board stress meditative insight, an intuition beyond the mind and body, a trait that is often associated with the ascetic god Shiva. Men, too, will bear on their foreheads the equivalent tilak mark, usually on religious occasions, its shape often representing particular devotion to a certain main deity: a 'U' shape stands for Vishnu, a group of three lines for Shiva. It is not uncommon for some to meld both in an amalgam marker signifying Hari-Hara (Vishnu-Shiva indissoluble).

  • Yoga Dharma

Hinduism tells about a particular way of life to lead as a Hindu. This is done by way of Yogas (spiritual practices), mainly as follows:

  1. Bhakti Yoga (loving devotion)
  2. Karma Yoga (selfless service)
  3. Raja Yoga (meditational Yoga) and
  4. Jnana Yoga (Yoga of discrimination)

The way to do all these have been described in the two principal texts of Hindu Yoga: the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras. The Upanishads also contain important texts about yoga.

  • The four goals of life

Hinduism believes in four main goals of life. They are kama, artha, dharma and moksha. It is said that all humans seek kama (pleasure, physical or emotional) and artha (power, fame and wealth), but soon, with maturity, learn to govern these legitimate desires within a higher, pragmatic framework of dharma, or moral harmony in all.

  • The four stages of life

In Hinduism, life of a human being is divided into four stages. These stages are called Ashramas, and they are:

  1. Brahmacharya, the first quarter of life as a bachelor - to be spent in learning, building the body and the mind.
  2. Grihasthya, the second quarter of life as a person with a family, and doing work for livelihood.
  3. Vanaprastha, the fourth phase of life, spent in forests and in meditation.
  4. Sanyasa, the last phase of life, spent without any feeling and attachment to the world.

[edit] Origins, nomenclature and society

[edit] Historical origins and aspects of society

Relatively little is known about the origins of Hinduism, as it predates recorded history. It has been said to derive from beliefs of the Aryans, Dravidians, and Harappans living in the Indian subcontinent. Hinduism subsequently birthed Buddhism and Jainism, which in turn affected the development of Hinduism itself. Varying ideas of the origin of the Veda and understandings of whether or not the Aryans were native or foreign to Indian soil can change estimates of Hinduism's age from 4000 to 6000 years.

Also see Early Hinduism and Aryan Invasion Theory.

Historically, the word Hindu predates the reference to Hinduism as a religion; the term is of Persian origin and first referred to people who lived on the other side (from a Persian point of view) of the Sindhu or Indus river. It was used as a signifier not only of ethnicity but of Vedic religion as far back as the 15th and 16th centuries by such figures as Guru Nanak (the founder of Sikhism). During the British Raj, the term's use was made standard, and eventually, the religion of the Vedic Hindoos was given the appelation 'Hinduism.' In actuality, it was merely a new signifier for a culture that had been thriving for millennia before. See the Hindu (ethnicity) page for more discussion.

  • Legal Definition of Hinduism

In a 1966, Supreme Court of India defined the Hindu faith for legal purpose. The Court's ruling gave a number of conditions to be considered a Hindu for any legal purpose.

[edit] Current geographic distribution

The nations of India, Mauritius, and Nepal as well as the Indonesian island of Bali are predominantly Hindu; significant Hindu minorities exist in:

There also exist strong Hindu communities in the countries of the ex-Soviet Union, especially in Russia and Poland. The Indonesian islands of Java, Sulawesi, Sumatra, and Borneo also have significant native Hindu populations. In its Yoga stream, Hinduism is even more widespread all over the world with 30 million practitioners in the United States alone.

[edit] Dharma in orthodox Hindu society: caste

According to one view, the caste system shows how strongly many have felt about each person following his or her dharma, or destined path. A perversion, according to many Hindus, of dharma's true meaning, caste plays a significant role in Hindu society, although it is now losing favor and is illegal in India.

In early Vedic periods, the established Brahmins began discriminating against young candidates for priesthood based on caste. This became more ingrained over centuries until social mobility all but became a thing of the past. In spite of centuries of numerous reform movements, notably within Vedanta, bhakti yoga and Hindu streams of Tantra, and reformers, with recent stalwarts like Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi, caste is so deeply ensconced in the Indian consciousness that even Christian converts have been known to separate church meetings for different castes. A number of Muslim communities have retained caste practices as well. What was first an injunction to living one's dharma in surrender to God became an oppressive mandate to surrender to Man. See caste for more.

[edit] Hindu philosophy: the six Vedic schools of thought

The six Astika or orthodox (accepting the authority of the Vedas) schools of Hindu philosophy are Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Purva Mimamsa (also called just 'Mimamsa'), and Uttara Mimamsa (also called 'Vedanta'). The non-Vedic schools are called Nastika, or heterodox, and refer to Buddhism, Jainism and Lokayata. The schools that continue to affect Hinduism today are Purva Mimamsa, Yoga, and Vedanta. See Hindu philosophy for a discussion of the historical significance of Samkhya, Nyaya, and Vaisheshika.

[edit] Purva Mimamsa

The main purpose of the Purva Mimamsa line of thought was to give an upper position to the Vedas. In the long term, this line of thought showed the way to better understanding of the Vedas. Adi Shankara and Swami Vivekananda followed this line of thought to explain the meaning of Hindu beliefs.

[edit] Yoga

The Yoga system is generally considered to have arisen from the Samkhya philosophy. The yoga referred to here, however, is specifically Raja Yoga (or meditational union). It is based on the sage Patanjali's extremely influential text entitled the Yoga Sutra, which is essentially a compilation and systematization of meditational Yoga philosophy that came before. Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita are also indispensable literature in the study of Yoga.

The most significant difference from Samkhya is that the Yoga school not only incorporates the concept of Ishvara (a personal God) into its metaphysical worldview but also that it holds Ishvara as the ideal upon which to meditate. This is because Ishvara is the only aspect of purusha (the infinite Divine Ground) that has not become entangled with prakrti (the temporal creative forces). It also utilizes the Brahman/Atman terminology and concepts that are found in depth in the Upanishads, adopting Vedantic monist concepts. Realization of the goal of Yoga is known as moksha or samadhi. It, like the Upanishads, seeks realization of the Atman as being nothing other than the infinite Brahman through ethical (mind), physical (body) and meditational (soul) practices of one-pointedness on the 'one supreme truth.' See Yoga for an in-depth look at its history.

[edit] Uttara Mimamsa: The Three Schools of Vedanta

The Uttara ("later") Mimamsa school is perhaps one of the cornerstone movements of Hinduism and certainly was responsible for a new wave of philosophical and meditative inquiry, renewal of faith, and cultural reform. Primarily associated with the Upanishads and their commentary by Badarayana, the Vedanta Sutras, Vedanta thought split into three groups, initiated by the thinking and writing of Adi Sankara. Most Hindu thought today in some way relates to changes affected by Vedantic thought, which focused on meditation, morality and centeredness on the one Self rather than on rituals and meaningless societal distinctions like caste. See Vedanta for greater depth.

[edit] Pure Monism: Advaita Vedanta

Advaita literally means "not two"; thus this is what we refer to as a monistic (or non-dualistic) system, which emphasises oneness. Its consolidator was Sankara (788?-820?). Sankara expounded his theories largely based on previous teachings of the Upanishads and his own guru Govinda Bhagavadpada. By analysis of experiential consciousness, he exposed the relative nature of the world and established the non-dual reality of Brahman in which Atman (the individual soul) and Brahman (the ultimate reality) are identified absolutely. It is not merely philosophy, but a conscious system of applied ethics and meditation, all geared towards attaining peace and understanding of truth. Adi Sankara denounced caste and meaningless ritual as foolish, and in his own charismatic manner, exhorted the true devotee to meditate on God's love and apprehend truth. See Advaita Vedanta for more.

[edit] Qualified Monism: Vishistadvaita Vedanta

Ramanuja (1040 - 1137) was the foremost proponent of the concept of Sriman Narayana as the supreme Brahman. He taught that Ultimate reality had three aspects: Isvara (Vishnu), cit (soul) and acit (matter). Vishnu is the only independent reality, while souls and matter are dependent on God for their existence. Because of this qualification of Ultimate reality, Ramanuja's system is known as qualified non-dualism.

[edit] Dualism: Dvaita Vedanta

Like Ramanuja, Madhva (1199 - 1278) identified god with Vishnu, but his view of reality was purely dualistic in that he understood a fundamental differentiation between the ultimate godhead and the individual soul, and the system is therefore called Dvaita (dualistic) Vedanta.

[edit] Alternative cultures of worship

[edit] The Bhakti schools

The Bhakti (Devotional) school is takes its name from the Hindu term that signifies a blissful, selfless and overwhelming love of God as the beloved Father, Mother, Child, or whatever relationship finds appeal in the devotee's heart. The philosophy of Bhakti seeks to tap into the universal divinity through personal form, which explains the proliferation of so many Gods and Goddesses in India, often reflecting the singular inclinations of small regions or groups of people. Seen as a form of Yoga, or union, it seeks to dissolve the ego in God, since consciousness of the body and limited mind as self is seen to be a divisive factor in spiritual realization. Essentially, it is God who effects all change, who is the source of all works, who acts through the devotee as love and light. 'Sins' and evil-doings of the devotee are said to fall away of their own accord, the devotee shriven, limitedness even transcended, through the love of God. The Bhakti movements rejuvenated Hinduism through their intense expression of faith and their responsiveness to the emotional and philosophical needs of India. They can rightly be said to have affected the greatest wave of change in Hindu prayer and ritual since ancient times.

The most popular means of expressing love for God in the Hindu tradition has been through puja, or ritual devotion, frequently using the aid of a murti (statue) in conjunction with the singing or chanting of meditational prayer in the form of mantras. Devotional songs called bhajans (written primarily from the 14th-17th centuries), kirtan (praise), and arti (a filtered down form of Vedic fire ritual) are sometimes sung in conjunction with performance of puja. This rather organic system of devotion attempts to aid the individual in connecting with God through symbolic medium. It is said, however, that the bhakta, through a growing connection with God, is eventually able to eschew all external form and is immersed entirely in the bliss of undifferentiated Love in Truth.

 Shri Ganesh is the son of Shiva and Parvati; beloved by many Hindus, he is widely worshipped as Vignesh, the remover of  obstacles.
Shri Ganesh is the son of Shiva and Parvati; beloved by many Hindus, he is widely worshipped as Vignesh, the remover of obstacles.

Altogether, bhakti resulted in a mass of devotional literature, music and art that has enriched the world and gave India renewed spiritual impetus, one eschewing unnecessary ritual and artificial social boundaries. See bhakti yoga for more.

[edit] Tantrism

According to the most famous Western Tantrik scholar, Sir John Woodroffe (pseudonym Arthur Avalon): "The Indian Tantras, which are numerous, constitute the Scripture (Shastra) of the Kaliyuga, and as such are the voluminous source of present and practical orthodox 'Hinduism'. The Tantra Shastra is, in fact, and whatever be its historical origin, a development of the Vaidika Karmakanda, promulgated to meet the needs of that age. Shiva says: 'For the benefit of men of the Kali age, men bereft of energy and dependent for existence on the food they eat, the Kaula doctrine, O auspicious one! is given' (Chap. IX., verse 12). To the Tantra we must therefore look if we would understand aright both ritual, yoga, and sadhana of all kinds, as also the general principles of which these practices are but the objective expression." (Introduction to Sir John Woodroffe's translation of "Mahanirvana Tantra.")

The word "tantra" means "treatise" or "continuum", and is applied to a variety of mystical, occult, medical and scientific works as well as to those which we would now regard as "tantric". Most tantras were written in the late middle ages and sprang from Hindu cosmology and Yoga. See Tantra for more.

[edit] Important symbolism and themes in Hinduism

[edit] Ahimsa and the cow

A note of the element of ahimsa in Hinduism is vital to understanding the society that has arisen around some of its principles. While Jainism as it was practiced was certainly a major influence on Indian society, what with its exhortation of strict veganism and non-violence as ahimsa, the term first appeared in the Upanishads. Thus, an ingrained and externally motivated influence led to the development of a large section of Hindus who grew to embrace vegetarianism in a bid to respect higher forms of life, restricting their diet to plants and vegetables. About 30% of today's Hindu population, especially in orthodox communities in South India, in certain northerly states like Gujurat, and in many Brahmin enclaves around the subcontinent, is vegetarian. Thus, while vegetarianism is not dogma, it is recommended as a sattwic (purifying) lifestyle.

Those Hindus who do eat meat predominantly abstain from beef, some even going so far as to avoid leather products. This is most likely because the largely pastoral Vedic people and subsequent generations of Hindus throughout the centuries relied so heavily on the cow for all sorts of dairy products, tilling of fields and fuel for fertiliser that its status as a willing 'caretaker' of humanity grew to identifying it as an almost maternal figure. Thus, while most Hindus do not worship the cow, and scriptural injunctions against eating beef arose long after the Vedas had been written, it still holds an honored place in Hindu society. It is said that Krishna is both Govinda (herder of cows) and Gopala (protector of cows), and Shiva's attendant is Nandi, the bull. With the stress on vegetarianism (which is usually followed even by meat-eating Hindus on religious days or special occasions) and the sacred nature of the cow, it is no wonder that most holy cities and areas in India have a ban on selling meat-products and there is a movement among Hindus to ban cow-slaughter not only in specific regions, but in all of India.

[edit] Hindu symbols

Hindus use many symbols and signs. The two most important symbols used by Hindus are named "Aum" and "Swastika".

[edit] Forms of worship: murtis and mantras

Contrary to popular belief, practiced Hinduism is neither polytheistic nor strictly monotheistic. The various gods and avatars that are worshipped by Hindus are understood as different forms of One truth, sometimes seen as beyond a mere God and as a formless Divine Ground (Brahman), akin but not limited to monism, or as one monotheistic principle like Vishnu or Shiva.

Whether believing in the One source as formless (nirguna brahman, without attributes) or as a personal God (saguna Brahman, with attributes), Hindus understand that the one truth may be seen as different to different people. Hinduism encourages devotees to describe and develop a personal relationship with their chosen deity (ishta devata) in the form of a God or Goddess.

While some censuses hold worshippers of one form or another of Vishnu (known as Vaishnavs) to be at 80% and those of Shiva (called Shaivaites) and Shakti at the remaining 20%, such figures are perhaps misleading. The vast majority of Hindus worship many gods as varicolored forms of the same prism of Truth. Among the most popular are Vishnu (as Krishna or Rama), Shiva, Devi (the Mother as many female deities, such as Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kali and Durga), Ganesha, Skanda and Hanuman.

Worship of the said deities is often done through the aid of pictures or icons (murti) which are said not to be God themselves but conduits for the devotee's consciousness, markers for the human soul that signify the ineffable and illimitable nature of the love and grandeur of God. They are symbols of the greater principle, representing and are never presumed to be the concept or entity itself. Thus, Hindu image worship is a form of iconolatry, in which the symbols are venerated as putative sigils of divinity, as opposed to idolatry, a charge often levied (erroneously) at Hindus. For more details on this form of worship, see murti.

[edit] Mantra

Hindus use several prayers and group of words. Some group of words are called mantras.

[edit] Hindu texts

There are many texts relating to Hinduism. Most of them have been written in Sanskrit. These texts are called Hindu scriptures. Important texts of Hindu religion include the following:

  • Shruti
  • Smriti

[edit] Shruti

The Vedas are considered scripture by all Hindus. While the overwhelming majority of Hindus may never read the Vedas, the reverence for the more abstract notion of eternal knowledge (Veda means knowledge) is etched deep into the hearts of all those who follow Veda Dharma. Classed with the Vedas (which specifically refer to the Rig/Rg, Yajur, Sama and Atharva Vedas) are their famous commentaries, the Upanishads. While the early Vedas lay the foundation for subsequent Hindu ritual, cosmology and developing philosophy, the Upanishads built the edifice of mystic insight and abhorrence for ritual at the expense of spiritual insight. Forming the core of the Vedanta (End of Vedas), they streamline the excessive litany of praise to Vedic gods and capture the essence of the Rig Vedic dictum "Truth Is One." They set Hindu philosophy apart with its embrace of a single transcendent and yet immanent force that is native to each man's soul, an identification of micro- and macrocosm as One. It can be said that while early Hinduism is most reliant on the four Vedas, Classical Hinduism, from the Yoga and Vedanta to Tantra and Bhakti streams, was molded around the Upanishads.

[edit] Bhagavad Gita

[edit] Smriti

The post-Vedic Hindu scriptures form the latter category, the most notable of which are the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, major epics considered scripture by most followers of Sanatana Dharma, their stories arguably familiar to the vast majoriy of Hindus living in the Indian subcontinent, if not abroad. Other texts considered important by today's Hindus include the Devi Mahatmya, an ode to Devi, the Divine Mother, and the Yoga Sutras, a key meditative yoga text of Shri Patanjali. There are also a number of revered Hindu Tantras and Sutras that command the respect of various Hindu sects of different persuasion, some including the Mahanirvana Tantra, Tirumantiram and Shiva Sutras.

[edit] References

  1. Rigveda. Britannica Concise Encyclopedia
  2. "Hinduism" on Microsoft Encarta Online
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