Here’s a look at what you need to know about Hinduism, the third largest religion after Christianity and Islam. “Hinduism” is derived from a Sanskrit word that means “dwellers by the Indus River.”
Statistics: 13.8 percent of the world population is Hindu.
80.5 percent of India’s population is Hindu.
0.4 percent of American adults practice Hinduism.
Beliefs/Practices: There is no single founder or founding incident of Hinduism. It grew out of cultural and religious changes in India.
The Hindu belief is that gods or divinities can take many forms, but all form one universal spirit called Brahman. The three most important representations of Brahman are Brahma, the creator of the universe, Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, and Shiva, the destroyer of the universe.
The Hindu belief involves reincarnation of the soul, which is rebirth after death. Hindus believe one is born into a particular caste due to karma, or accumulated good or bad behavior in past lives. People can be reincarnated as animals or vegetables in future lives.
One must accept his/her position in life and earn a better life in future incarnations by good behavior. Eventually the soul will achieve moksha, or salvation, and stop the cycle of rebirths to become a part of the absolute soul.
There are three paths to salvation called the margas. – karma-marga – performing social obligations. – jnana-marga – meditation and yoga to gain insight into one’s self. – bhakti-marga – devotion to one’s personal god.
There are multiple sects, theologies, and beliefs in Hinduism, and there is no single book of doctrine, but many. It is an inclusive religious group, allowing for much diversity.
The Vedas are the primary, literary works containing sacred verses and hymns and are the literature of the Aryans who invaded India in 1500 B.C. The Rig Veda was the first of the four Vedas. The Samaveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda followed later.
Two other important texts are the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.
Pilgrimages and festivals are common in Hinduism. Diwali, the New Year’s celebration, features giving of gifts and lighting of ceremonial lamps. Holi, the Festival of Colors, marks the arrival of spring each year.
Caste System: Hindu society is divided into a hierarchical system called the caste or jati. It is hereditary and each caste has its own set of values, rules, dietary beliefs, etc. Many do not marry outside their castes.
There are four major varnas or social classes most caste members fall into: – Brahmans – the priests and other educated professionals. – Kshatriyas – warriors and those who own a lot of land. – Vaishyas – formerly the farmers, now those involved in commerce; merchants. – Shudras (some sources say Sudra) – the lowest of the social classes. Made up of laborers, artisans, and other servants.
There are some that do not fall into any of these categories called the Dalits, or the “untouchables.” They are lower than the Shudras on the hierarchy, and they are people who perform “unclean” work, such as leather working and street cleaning. Although the Hindu religion teaches against discrimination and prejudice, both sometimes exist within the caste system.
Mahatma Gandhi called the untouchables “children of God.” Although the 1950 Indian constitution outlawed “untouchability,” violence against the Dalits continues.
History: 2300-1500 BC – A very developed civilization dwelled in the Indus Valley with its own religion and culture, and is believed to be the beginnings of Hinduism.
1500 BC – Indo-Europeans called Aryans invade the Indus Valley, and the Aryans impose some of their beliefs on the inhabitants of the area.
1500-1200 BC – The Rig Veda is written and is composed of 1,028 hymns devoted to the gods.
800-600 BC – The Brahmans are written and added to the Vedas. They are prose writings that explain certain ceremonies found in the Vedas.
600 BC – The belief in reincarnation develops.
300-650 AD – The worship of images, especially female divinities, becomes common.
800-1800 AD – The most divisive period. Many different schools and sects emerge, and Islam becomes a major influence in India.
October 2, 1869-January 30, 1948 – Mahatma Gandhi is considered the father of modern India. He was raised in a highly religious family and studied and practiced law. He led a campaign of non-violent protests against British rule, which eventually led to India’s independence in 1947. He was shot and killed by a Hindu fanatic who disagreed with his efforts to reconcile Hindus and Muslims.