Origins of Hinduism
- Hinduism has its origins in the Indian subcontinent, although the Hindu way of life is more often referred to by Hindus as the Sanatana Dharma (eternal way of life).
- Hinduism has no single founding figure or point of historical origin and Hindus perceive the Sanatana Dharma to be eternal. It has developed in very diverse schools of thought, religious practice and focii of devotion.
Central Aspects of Hinduism
- Hinduism includes both monotheists and monists. The Divine can be understood either as an impersonal Brahman (the Advaita position) or as a Supreme Person (the Dvaita position).
- Hinduism also has many devas and devis or gods and goddesses, which present aspects of the divine. Among these are:
- Alongside the diversities of belief, philosophical orientation and practice which the Hindu tradition as a whole contains, it also shares a number of basic concepts.
- Atman, the eternal principle which animaties all life and brings consciousness.
- Moksha, the liberation which is the ultimate goal of all beings
- Dharma, which can mean either “religion”, “law”, “duty” or “righteousness”, depending on the context
- Karma, which is that all actions have consequences that shape one’s destiny
- Maya, which is life in ignorance of the Sanatana Dharma (the eternal truth)
The Four Aims and Pathways
- Hinduism sees human life in terms of four purusharthas or aims. These are:
- dharma, which is concerned with religious life
- artha, which is concerned with economic development
- kama, which is an appropriate gratification of the senses
- moksha, which is liberation from the cycle of birth and death
- Hinduism also traditionally teaches that the spiritual life has four main pathways:
- karma yoga, which is the way of action
- jnana yoga, which is the way of knowledge
- raja yoga, which is the way of self-control
- bhakti yoga, which is the way of devotion
The Four Ashramas and Varnas
- Hindu life is structured by what is known as Varnashrama Dharma, which is concerned with an understanding of one’s personal and social roles within the totality of life.
- The four Ashramas are seen in ideal terms as the four stages through which a maturing human life should pass. Whilst in contemporary life it is not often lived precisely in these terms, its broad outlines remain a powerful influence upon the Hindu perception of life. The ashramas are those of the:
- brahmacharin, or celibate student
- grihastha/grihini, or householder
- vanaprastha, or stage of retirement from society (traditionally into the forest)
- sannyasin, or renunciant who breaks all social ties
- The Four Varnas are traditionally seen as complementary in terms of both status and responsibility. Some Hindus see these in primarily hereditary terms, whilst others see them as more qualitative differences. The traditional varnas consist of:
- Brahmins, comprising the intelligentsia and priests
- Kshatriyas, comprising administrators and the military
- Vaishyas, comprising the generators and distributors of material wealth
- Sudras, comprising labourers and service workers.
- Associated with the broad, ideal classes of the four varnas, are many thousands of groups known as jatis, many of which are linked with traditional occupational groups. Examples include the following:
- Patidars, which are traditionally, traders
- Mochis, which are traditionally, shoemakers
- Lohanas, which are traditionally, traders
- Anavil Brahmins, which are traditionally, agriculturalists
- Khattris, which are traditionally traders
- Rarhi Brahmins, which are traditionally, priests
- Baidyas, which are traditionally, doctors
- Some jatis, officially known in India as the “scheduled castes” but now often preferring the self-description of Dalit (oppressed), were among those whom Mahatma Gandhi called Harijans, or children of God.
- There are two broad groupings of scriptures. The first group of sacred writings is known as the shruti (that which is heard) and the second is the smriti (that which is remembered). Some Hindus believe that the shruti and the smriti are on the same level, whilst the majority view is that the shruti are the more authoritative.
- The shruti include the four Vedas which are said, originally, to have been transmitted orally for many years before they were written down. The Four Vedas are the:
- Rig Veda, containing mantras for use in worship
- Sama Veda, containing sung mantras
- Yajur Veda, also containing mantras, and instructions concerning worship
- the Atharva Veda, containing mantras to be used in various other ways
- Each of the Vedas has four parts:
- the Samhitas, concerned with recitation
- the Brahmanas, concerned with ritual and sacrifice
- the Aranyakas, concerned with the role of Vedic rituals in the cosmos
- the Upanishads, concerned with the knowledge necessary for self-realisation
- The smriti present Hindu teaching in widely accessible ways and have six parts:
- Grihya Sutra
- Dharma Shastra
- Prasthana Vakya
- The Itihasas, or stories, contain the two famous epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
- The Ramayana tells the story of how King Rama fought against Ravana and the forces of evil. Rama and his wife Sita are, for many Hindus, models of right living.
- The Mahabharata incorporates the Bhagavad Gita, or Song of the Blessed Lord, which is the record of a discourse between Krishna and Prince Arjuna and has become a centrally important scripture for many contemporary Hindus because of its teachings about dharma.
- There are also, in addition, a range of other texts, including the Dharma Shastras, or law books and the Prasthana-vakyas, a range of literature which include, for example, the esoteric Tantras.
Diversity within Hinduism
- In classical Hinduism, there are six Darshanas or systems of Hindu philosophy, each of which focuses upon particular aspects of knowledge. These are the:
- Mimamsa, which focuses upon action with responsibility
- Nyaya, which focuses upon logic
- Vaisheshika, which is concerned with analysing matter and its structure
- Samkhya, which is concerned with how matter functions
- Yoga, which offers training for the body and the mind
- Vedanta, which is concerned with ultimate reality and spiritual knowledge
- The Vedanta, literally meaning “the conclusion of all knowledge”, is the most predominant among contemporary Hindus. It is, however, found in two main forms – the dvaita (dualist) and the advaita (monist).
- Dvaita is a monotheistic understanding of the nature of the divine, seen in terms of an unlimited supreme personality, in which the divine and the human soul are seen as distinct even though they might enter into union.
- Advaita is a monistic understanding in which there is no ultimate difference between the divine, understood as Brahman, and the human soul. Realisation of the identity between God and the soul that brings about liberation. Brahman is seen to have been manifested in many different times and places.
- Among its various schools of thought, the Vedanta encompasses a range of emphases, including:
- Advaita Vedanta
- Navya Vishishta-Advaita
- Shaiva Siddhanta
- In devotional practice, Hindus focus upon ishta-devata, their chosen deity. This focus of devotion is often associated with a particular sampradaya or movement.
- Vaishnavas worship Vishnu in terms of the Dvaita understanding
- Shaivas worship Shiva
- Shaktas worship Shakti or Durga/Parvati/the Goddess
- Swaminaryans build upon the teaching of Sahajananda Swami
- Pushtimargis follow the teachings of Vallabha and worship Krishna
- Krishna Consciousness follows the teachings of A C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
- Arya Samajis devotees follow the teachings of Swami Dayananda Saraswati
There are many other groups and movements which have been informed by Hindu philosophy and practice, such as the Divine Life Society and the Transcendental Meditation movement.
- Indra (god of rain)
- Surya (sun god)
- Chandra (moon god)
- Ganesha (remover of obstacles)
- Yama (god of death)
- Sarasvati (goddess of learning)
- Lakshmi (goddess of wealth)
- Hanuman (the ardent devotee of Rama)
- Murugan (who, with Ganesha, is one of the two sons of Shiva and Parvati).
Written by Professor Paul Weller