Suresh Basrur, Ph.D.
Hinduism is a complex subject whose in-depth understanding requires lifelong study. This brief outline is intended to give only an overview. The usual practice of denoting dates as B.C.E. (Before Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era), which is acceptable to all religions, and which are equivalent to B.C. and A.D., have been followed here. The author would like to encourage you to delve deeper by reading books, and by speaking with those who have in-depth knowledge. You are also encouraged to discuss these ideas with your children so that the Hindu heritage may be passed on to future generations of Indians in North America.
Terminology: The term “Hinduism” is an invention of 18th century European scholars who were fond of “-isms”, and had no exposure to the realities of Indian religions. The word “Hindu” was not created in India, but was probably coined by ancient Persians to denote people living beyond the “Indus” (Sindhu) river, which was the easternmost border of Persia at that time.
In very early times, the religion was called Vaidika Dharma, but the preferred name now is Sanatana Dharma, which means eternal truth or conduct.
Unique characteristics of Hinduism: It is important to note differences between Hinduism and other religions, namely, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Jainism. Hinduism has no single founder, no single historic event as its beginning, no central authority (such as the Pope), no common creed, and does not have just one single scripture. It has many founders of diverse schools of thought and sects, many spiritual leaders, and many scriptures.
Hinduism is more than a religion; it is a way of life, consisting of rituals, culture, philosophy, doctrines, literature, ethics, the arts, and laws governing morality and conduct of life. This makes Hinduism a very “rich” (that is multi-faceted, spiritually and intellectually deep) religion.
Origins of Hinduism : The earliest scriptures are the Vedas, with beginnings as early as 4000 BCE, when the Indus valley civilization of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro flourished. Rig Veda identifies Saptasindhava as the place where Vedic civilization developed. Late Vedic civilization spans the period 2700 BCE to 1700 BCE. This period is considered the earliest high civilization in the world, where technology, trade and urban centres were quite advanced. Hindu civilization also flourished along river Saraswati (river Saraswati cut across the present day Rajasthan, and its past existence has been scientifically verified by satellite technology). Between 1900 BCE and 1700 BCE, river Saraswati dried out, driving people who lived there to Ganga, which then became the focus of civilization.
Scriptures of Hinduism : The Vedas, which contain the beliefs and religious practices of Hindus, also contain astronomy, grammar. The Vedas consist of (1) four collections of hymns – Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda; (2) the Brahmanas and Aranyakas which contain philosophy and rituals; and (3) the Upanishads, which are considered amongst the world’s greatest spiritual and philosophical texts.
Vedangas and Upavedas are texts which augment the Vedas. There are six vedangas namely Siksa, Jyotisha, Kalpa, Nirukti, Candas, and Vyakarana. Jyotisha pertains to astrology and Kalpa explains the rituals. There are five upavedas namely Artha, Dhanur, Sthapatya, Gandharva, and Ayur-veda. The best known amongst these is Ayurveda which deals with health.
The significant deities of Vedic times are: mother goddess Aditi, and her children Adityas; the god of conquest Indra; the god of fire and sacrifice Agni; heavenly twins Ashwins and their mother Saranyu; the sky god Dyaus; gods of the storm Maruts, and the chief storm god Rudra; Prajapati the Lord of the creatures; earth goddess Prithivi; sun god Surya; Varuna the lord of waters; Yama the god of death; and Soma the diety of plants.
The total number of Upanishads is around 200, of which about 13 are considered the most important ones. The basic tenets of Hinduism (see below) are contained in the Upanishads.
The Itihasa and Puranas, which are resplendent with history and mythology, also contain state craft, cosmography, geneology, etc. The great epics of Hinduism, Ramayana and Mahabharata are rich in every sense of the word.
Through their stories, these epics demonstrate the highest standards for brotherly love, love and devotion between husband and wife, respect of children to their parents and teachers, obligations of the ruler to his subjects, importance of one’s duty to others, stewardship of and duty towards nature, etc. Through stories, they teach us how to lead our lives in a moral and ethical way, on the path to liberation.
[You can read epic stories and scriptures from books; this article will not go into details.]
Sects of Hinduism : In Hinduism, sect is not a breakaway from the mainstream, but a denomination or school of thought. (In other traditionally rooted religions, “sect” denotes breakaway groups who insist on conformity and self-righteousness).
An important sect called Advaita Vedanta was established by Shankaracharya in 8th century AD. Shankaracharya lived for only 32 years, from 788 C.E. to 820 C.E. Advaita Vedanta provides a monistic (i.e. non-dualistic) interpretation of Upanishads. Its teachings consider Brahman, the supreme being, as the only reality, and the world as an illusion or maya. The atman (soul) is considered one with Brahman.
Ramanuja (1017 C.E. to 1137 C.E.) established the Vishisht-Advaita school of Vadanta. The name means qualified non-dualism. It interprets atman as a fragment of Brahman, but not identical with it. It promulgates paths such as bhakti (devotion and complete surrender of heart and soul to God) for merging atman with Brahman. The world is not considered an illusion or maya in Vishisht-Advaita.
Madhvacharya (1197 C.E. to 1280 C.E.) differs completely from Shankaracharya and Ramanuja. His teachings are rooted in Dvaita or dualism. In Dvaita teachings, Brahman, the supreme being, is not only considered distinct from atman, but is deemed to be separate even after atman (the soul) has achieved moksha (liberation).
Ten schools of Vedanta have developed over time.
The bhakti (devotion) movement was promulgated in the 15th century and many saints spear-headed it until the 17th century. Bhakti movement focuses on complete surrender of heart and soul to god, without the philosophical and ascetic emphasis of earlier times. (It must be noted that even in the Upanishad, the heart and soul approach is described: “His form can not be glimpsed, none may see him within he eye; whoso should know him with heart and mind as dwelling in the heart becomes immortal”). The bhakti movement had great appeal to the common man because of its simplicity. The most important saints in the bhakti movement are Kabir (1440 – 1518), Chaitanya (1485 – 1533), Mirabai (1498 – 1550), Tukaram (1607 – 1649), and Tulsi Das (1543 – 1623). In Southern India, the Alvars (Vaishnavites) flourished from 500 C.E onwards. All of these bhaktas (devotees) were poets, and through their poems, inspired millions to follow the path of bhakti. One of the best known poetic composition is Tulsi Das’ Ramcharitamanas. Kabir transcended the boundaries of Hinduism and Islam, and integrated the best from both religions in his teachings.
Basic Tenets of Hinduism : Basic tenets of Hinduism are as follows. Even though the power of maya (illusion) makes the world appear real, the ultimate reality is Brahman, the supreme being. Every living organism has a soul called atman, which is indestructible and is identical with Brahman. The physical body in which the atman resides is determined by karma which is the result of all actions in the previous incarnation. The cycle of rebirth (reincarnation) called samsara, and its associated suffering, can be broken to achieve moksha (liberation) through various paths.
The various sects of Hinduism define different methods of how to break this cycle of rebirth. Basically, moksha can be achieved through dharma, which consists of following a code of conduct, performing worship, and behaving in a moral way to the family and to the society. In addition, one of four paths are to be followed for liberation from samsara : devotion (bhakti), action (karma), knowledge (jnana) and yoga.
The path of bhakti is available to anyone, with or without education or special skills; it does not require the assistance of a guru. It simply requires complete surrender to and an unquestioning faith in god.
The path of karma requires performing actions selflessly for the good of others and for the good of society at large. Well-known examples of those who have followed this path are Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa.
The path of jnana requires learning from a guru the interpretation of the scriptures to gain an understanding of the nature of atman, Brahman, the universe, and all creatures inhabiting it. This understanding leads to breaking the bonds of the materialistic world to attain moksha.
Yoga involves a series of disciplines of the body and the mind, including deep meditation and spiritual contemplation. The ultimate state achieved through yoga is called Samadhi, which is considered as superconsciousness. This is achieved by sanyasis (ascetics who have renounced all worldly possessions and attachments) and holy men.
In a very practical way, Hinduism provides for four stages, or ashrams, of life, so that every person can achieve moksha while living a normal life: (1) Brahmacharya, the celibate student whose responsibility is to learn; (2) Grihasthya, the married householder whose responsibility is to care for and provide for the family; (3) Vanaprasthya, the “forest dwelling”, or retirement stage; and (4) Sanyasa, when all worldly possessions and concerns are renounced.
Dieties of Hinduism and incaranations of Vishnu : The trinity of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the sustainer and Shiva the destroyer, are the central deities of Hinduism. Since Hindus are free to choose their personal god and direct their devotion to a personal god, there are many other deities. Most commonly worshipped are: the triad of Rama, Sita and Laxmana; Krishna; Shiva (Ishvara, Nataraja); Laxmi the goddess of wealth; Saraswati the goddess of learning and the arts, Ganesha the remover of obstacles, Hanuman (leader of Rama’s army), Durga, Kartikeya.
Vishnu descends to the earth as an avatar or incarnation at those times when evil threatens to overwhelm the good. The ten avatars (incarnations) are: Matsya the fish, Kurma the tortoise, Varaha the boar, Narasimha the half man and half lion, Vamana the dwarf, Parasurama, Ramachandra (Rama), Krishna, Buddha and Kalki. The mythological stories associated with each of these avatars are extensive and beyond the scope of this article.
Philosophy of Hinduism : In Hinduism, unlike in Western intellectual development, philosophy and theology are integrated. This enables Hindus to enquire and analyze philosophically the teachings and traditions of Hinduism. It allows scholars and philosophers to deal with the ultimate issues in a meaningful and understandable way.
It is important to understand therefore, that Vedanta tries to interpret Upanishads; it does not question it.
Hindu philosophy provides intellectual and ethical endeavours to realize the meaning of life. It addresses the question of how to seek liberation from the suffering of Samsara; suffering which is caused by ignorance concerning the true nature of reality. What is perceived as material reality by us mortals is therefore termed Maya or illusion.
There are six significant systems which have had great influence in the development of Hindu philosophy. The Nyaya system was established by Gautama, and describes logic, analysis, and the nature of reasoning. The atheistic and dualistic Vaisheshika system, whose proponent was Kanada, teaches that reality is made up soul and matter, and that matter is composed of atoms. The Samkhya system founded by Kapila is a dualistic system differentiating between matter or nature (prakriti) and countless souls (purusha); it goes on to say that the soul must separate itself from matter in order to be liberated from it. The Yoga system was systematized by Patanjali, but is thought to have been founded by Yajnavalkya; the Yoga system teaches that moksha can be achieved through a number of mental and physical disciplines. The Purva Mimansa system created by Jaimini interprets the philosophy and rituals of Vedas; this philosophy has been superseded by the Vedanta system.
Around the start of the common era, a philosopher named Badarayana developed the Vedanta philosophy and wrote the texts called Vedanta Sutra or Brahma Sutra.
The Vedanta system of philosophy is rooted in, and derives its ideas from, the Upanishads. The Upanishads are considered to be some of the world’s greatest spiritual and philosophical texts. Their depth and breadth of thought, profound insights, and evocative language have been appreciated by philosophers, poets and mystics all over the world.
Hindu philosophies are immensely sophisticated, often anticipating questions that only now are being raised by Western philosophy. Hundreds of works by Hindu philosophers, written over the past 1000 or more years are getting attention of Western philosophers.
Languages of Hinduism : Sanskrit was used for Puranas, Tantras, Agamas. Panini’s grammar was more or less strictly followed by the writers of these works. In the early days, only Brahmins and Kings were permitted to use Sanskrit. Common people used Prakrits, which are natural languages.
In more recent times, the Bhakti movement’s poets, such as Kabir, Tulsidas, Tukaram, Chaitanya, and Mirabai, started to use vernaculars, so that the common person could understand and participate in the Bhakti movement. Religious literature developed also in Tamil, Marathi, Bengali, Telugu, Brajbhasa, etc. Srivaisnavas felt so strongly about Tamil compositions of Alvars that they considered them equal to Sanskrit texts, and used them side by side in temple worship.
History of Hinduism : Development of the Vedas started as early as 4000 BCE. Vedic hymns were written between 4000 and 3000 BCE. Itihasa and Puranas place the war of Mahabharata at 3002 BCE based on the astronomical clues contained within the epic. The end of the Mahabharata era is considered as the start of Kali Yuga (meaning the Age of Strife).
Bhagavadgita was composed in 2nd century B.C.E. Ramayana was completed in 2nd century C.E., and Mahabharata was completed in 4th century C.E.
Rapid growth of Buddhism posed serious challenges to Hinduism. The Maurya dynasty, 323 BCE – 183 BCE, supported Buddhism. King Ashoka, 269 BCE – 232 BCE, “exported” Buddhism by sending Buddhist missionaries throughout South East Asia and beyond, and established many monuments.
In Southern India, Alvar poets flourished between 7th and 9th century C.E.
With Muslim incursion into Northern India in 12th century C.E., Hindu temples came under pressure, but temples in remote areas such as Khajuraho survived intact. Mughal emperor Aurangzeb was particularly zealous in his destruction of many temples in 17th century C.E.
Resurgence of Hinduism (and discovery of the rich heritage, achievements in various fields of art and science) started in the 18th century.
The reform movement of Hinduism was started by charismatic scholars. The first of these scholars was Ram Mohan Roy (1772 – 1833) who founded Brahmo Samaj in 1828. He campaigned against child marriage and sati, the immolation of widows on their husband’s funeral pyres. He rallied intellectuals around the revival of Hindu culture and spiritual heritage. Arya Samaj was founded by Dayanand Saraswati (1824 – 1883) in 1875. He was against the caste system and the notion of divine incarnation. In Maharashtra, Prarthana Samaj was founded in 1867. M.G. Ranade (1842 – 1901) was its eminent leader.
The leaders of the reform movements also gave Hindus self-confidence and pride in their country, their religion and their heritage. This was necessary in order to counter the socio-political stranglehold exerted by the British.
Ramakrishna Paramahansa (1834 – 1886) was the instrumental figure in bringing about modern Indian renaissance. He was a mystic with great vision, and his pithy sayings and illustrations were powerful yet easily understandable to the common person.
Not much of Hinduism was known to the Western world until the 19th century. All that changed in 1893, at the World Parliament of Religions which was held in Chicago. The brilliant scholar Swami Vivekananda (1863 – 1902) gave a very impressive and impassioned speech about Hinduism. His spirituality and his communication of the universality of Hinduism so impressed the audience that the word spread quickly around the world, inspiring Western scholars of religion as well as the media.
Vedanta Society was founded by Swami Vivekananda in 1895. Even though he died at the age of 39, Swami Vivekananda created a deep and lasting impression and influence on the Indian society.
In the 20th century, Self-Realization Fellowship was founded by Parahamsa Yogananda in 1935, and has spread all over the world. ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) was founded in New York in 1966 by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta. The devotees practice bhakti and devote themselves to Krishna. Transcendental Meditation established by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and the Sai Baba movement also have large followings in India as well as the West.