Vasudha Narayanan. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.
Hinduism is the religion of almost a billion people. While most of them are in India, there are almost two million in the United States and substantial numbers in Great Britain, Canada, the Caribbean, Australia, and East Africa. Marked by diverse beliefs, practices, and organizational structures as well as multiple chains of authority, Hinduism is one of the largest and oldest religious traditions in the world. The tradition has been transmitted through performing arts, texts, visual art, and architecture. Hindus may think of the supreme being as beyond thought and word; as a supreme power that is immanent in the universe and that also transcends it; as male, female, or simultaneously male and female; as beyond gender; as one, as many; as a local colorful deity; and as abiding in the human soul or even as identical with it. Hinduism can be spoken of both as one umbrella category or as several traditions, and the larger Hindu culture encompasses not just beliefs and texts but also practices that include healing, performing arts, astrology, geomancy, and architecture.
The Hindu tradition does not have a particular year or even century of birth. It is generally believed that the Hindu tradition originated in the civilization that existed in India about five thousand years ago and possibly in the culture of the Indo-European people. Whether these two cultures were the same or distinct is a matter of scholarly debate. While Hinduism has been largely associated with India over the last two millennia, it has spread to many parts of the world through maritime contacts, traders, businessmen, educators, bonded workers, and learned priests.
The names “Hindu” and “India” are derived from “Sindhu,” the original name of the river Indus. It was a word that most Hindus did not use for themselves in the past, and in India it had more geographical than religious overtones, at least until the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries C.E. The word “Hinduism” came to be used increasingly by the British in the eighteenth century, when they began to extend their colonial rule over India. There were numerous concepts and practices that connected the many “Hindu” groups and communities, but Western scholarship has questioned whether the concept of “Hinduism” as a unified tradition existed in the precolonial era. Despite their regional, sectarian, and linguistic differences, many Hindus point to concepts of caste, texts, and theologies—as well as practices such as pilgrimage and the celebration of festivals—to support the idea that there were diverse but connected precolonial traditions.
In the traditional recording of events in India (called iti-hasa, or “thus it has been”), the deeds of gods and goddesses are combined with those of heroic kings, thoughtful and resourceful women, celestial beings (devas), and the wicked demon-like characters known as danavas or asuras. The sense of “history” in many of the Hindu texts called Puranas (“Ancient Lore”) is a sense of valorous and gracious actions; it involves learning to act with a sense of what is righteous (dharma), compassion, and gratitude. This sense of “thus it has been” is different from narrating a linear sequence of events, which constitutes a customary understanding of “history” in other parts of the world. Recording linear history has also been, however, practiced by many Hindu rulers. It is important to recognize that the well-known markers in the last few millennia are those people, events, and movements that have been privileged by contemporary minds as worthy of being preserved and therefore tell us only some aspects of the history of the Hindu traditions.
Most scholars believe that the earliest civilization in India of which we have records existed from about 3000 to 1750B.C.E. near the river Indus. While some city centers were in Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro (both of which are in modern-day Pakistan, the country that borders India to the northwest), the civilization seems to have existed in many parts of the subcontinent. The people of the Harappa civilization were impressive builders and lived in what appears to have been planned urban centers. At Mohenjo-Daro there is a huge structure, resembling a swimming pool, that archaeologists call “the Great Bath.” Scholars believe that it was meant for religious rituals. Archaeological evidence also suggests that the people of this culture worshiped a goddess and a god with the characteristics of the later Hindu deity Shiva.
The original homeland of the Indo-European people (who called themselves Arya, or “noble ones”) is one of the most debated issues in Indian history. Although many Western scholars maintain that the Indo-Europeans migrated from Central Asia in about 2000 B.C.E., some scholars think that the migration began in about 6000 B.C.E.—and from other regions (possibly the areas near Turkey). The work of these scholars suggests that it was a peaceful migration, possibly undertaken because of the farming interests of the population. Others say that the original homeland of these people was the Indian peninsula and that the civilization was continuous with the Harappan civilization. The dates for the Indo-European occupation of this area could thus be several centuries—if not millennia—earlier than 1500 B.C.E.
The Indo-Europeans spoke a language that developed into the ancient language of Sanskrit. They composed many poems, and eventually manuals, on rituals and philosophy. For a long time none of these were written down. The traditions were committed to memory and passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. Mnemonic devices were used to ensure accurate pronunciation, rhythm, and utterance. Many Hindus think of their earliest history as being recorded in these Indo-European compositions, called Veda, or “knowledge.”
In the hymns that were composed by about 1000 B.C.E. there is speculation on the origins of the universe and a description of the sacrifice of a primeval man through which creation began. One of the hymns explicitly mentions the beginnings of the social divisions that are today called “caste.”
The sacrificial worldview of the early Vedic age gave way to philosophical inquiry and discussion in the Aranyakas and the Upanishads, composed during the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. The sophisticated philosophy of the Upanishads was coeval with the spirit of critical enquiry in many parts of northern India. Religious leaders—notably, Gautama Siddhartha (eventually called the Buddha, or the Enlightened One) and Mahavira the Jina (the Victorious One)—challenged the notion that the Vedas were revealed and authoritative. They relied on their own spiritual experiences to proclaim a path to liberation that was open to all sections of society. The followers of Mahavira are today called Jains. Early religious texts such as the Upanishads focus on the goal of liberation from the cycle of life and death, but most later Hindu literature in Sanskrit (after about 400 B.C.E.) deals directly or indirectly with dharma or righteous behavior.
Although Buddhism and Jainism were patronized by many monarchs, by the fourth century C.E. the Gupta dynasty in northern India had facilitated the growth of Hinduism by encouraging the building of Hindu temples and the composition of literary works. Temple construction was taken up enthusiastically by kings and queens as well as citizens in many parts of India after the sixth century.
Bhakti, the expression of devotional fervor, is perhaps most evident after the seventh century C.E. Men and women from different castes poured out their devotion to the gods and goddesses in vernacular languages. Several features contributed to the spread of bhakti. One was the use of vernacular languages; the composition after the sixth century C.E. of devotional hymns in the classical (but spoken) language Tamil was an important development in Hinduism. The songs became popular, appealing both to intellectual commentators and philosophers and to the larger population. Another factor was bhakti’s appeal across all social classes. A canon was anthologized, with poems drawn from various castes and classes. Many of the most renowned devotional poetsaints were perceived as being from low castes. The building of temples also promoted devotion; from at least the fourth or fifth centuries Hindu temples have been built in both India and Southeast Asia. Temples in India became centers for devotion, rituals, poetry, music, dance, scholarship, and economic distribution as well as emblems of power and prestige for patrons. Many temples were centers for art and, according to many scholars, also for astronomy. Kings and queens in the Gupta dynasty (fourth-sixth centuries C.E.) in northern India and the Western Chalukya dynasty in central India (c. sixth century C.E.) subsidized temples for the Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu and the various goddesses.
Treatises on healing, surgery, astrology, and architecture that were composed (by authors such as the physician Caraka) in the early centuries of the Common Era are all framed in religious discourses. These subjects are presented as conversations between Hindu gods and goddesses and holy men. In some cases the texts say that the practice of these arts and sciences will lead to liberation. There were several forms of healing, including systems such as Ayurveda (“knowledge of a long life”) and Siddha. Ritual prayers, pilgrimage, and exorcism were also used for healing. Descriptions of various hospitals and civic healing centers in India date back to the fifth century.
Hinduism spread to Southeast Asia during the first millennium of the Common Era. It was probably taken there by traders and merchants. By the fourth century there were kings with Indian names in the kingdom of Funan in Cambodia. The “Indianization” of Southeast Asia is a significant event in world history. It is a matter of scholarly debate whether Hindus migrated to Southeast Asia or whether scholars and ritual specialists from Southeast Asia had their training in India and selectively adapted practices to their regions. The cultural and religious worldviews of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions were selectively adapted by local populations, leading to the construction of some of the greatest temples and monuments in the world. By the early ninth century Jayavarman II was crowned in Cambodia in accordance with rituals specified by Hindu texts. Men and women in Southeast Asia donated manuscripts, endowed temples, and patronized religious rituals. In Cambodia, Indonesia, and other places large temple complexes were built following precise ritual regulations. Hindu temples flourished in Java and Bali. Buddhism became the prevalent religion after the thirteenth century in Cambodia and after the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Java and Bali. Hinduism continued to exist in Bali, but with the eventual dominance of Buddhism and Islam, it died out in many other Southeast Asian countries.
A number of renowned Hindu theologians lived between the seventh and fifteenth centuries C.E. Many of them, including Shankara (c. eighth century), Ramanuja (c. 1017-1137), and Madhva (c. thirteenth century), interpreted Sanskrit texts that were considered to be canonical.
Sailors and merchants from the Middle East took Islam to southern India probably in the seventh century C.E. The encounter between Hindus and Muslims in this region seems to have been relatively peaceful. Almost two centuries later Muslim conquerors went to northern India, and by the twelfth century the first Muslim dynasty had been established in Delhi. In the following centuries another Muslim dynasty, the Mughal empire, came to power. The relationships between the traditions differed in various parts of India.
After the fifteenth century the Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French made their way to India and established settlements there. In time the foreign powers became involved in local politics, and possession of territory became part of their agendas. The disintegration of the Mughal empire in the eighteenth century led to the formation of many small kingdoms that invited the military help of European traders. By the late eighteenth century the domination of the East India Company and the British had led to a loose unification of large parts of the Indian subcontinent under British control. While most Hindu and Muslim forms of rule had generally accepted local autonomy, the British, who were Christians, felt a moral and political obligation to govern the entire country. Many foreign missionaries scrutinized the Hindus’ social and religious practices. Their criticisms were particularly severe regarding “idolatry,” the caste system, and some of the practices applied to women.
In the early nineteenth century the Hindu theologian Ram Mohan Roy, discussed below under EARLY AND MODERN LEADERS, founded a reform movement that came to be called the Brahmo Samaj (society of Brahma). Later in the century Dayananda Sarasvati, also discussed below under EARLY AND MODERN LEADERS, started the Arya Samaj reform movement. Other significant religious leaders in the nineteenth century included Ramakrishna (1836-86) and his disciple Vivekananda (1863-1902). During the nineteenth century sanatana dharma (eternal dharma)—a term that had been used in the texts on dharma and in the epics to denote virtues that are normative for all human beings—became popular for denoting Hinduism in general. Some nineteenth-century Hindus, who saw the religion as one rather than many disparate traditions, began to use this term for their faith tradition.
The spread of Hinduism throughout the world has been one of the most significant developments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. After the abolition of slavery, colonial powers from the Western world (principally England) took Indians as workers—sometimes as indentured servants—to many parts of the world, including eastern and southern Africa, Fiji, and the Caribbean. Hindu practices in these lands depended on the origin, caste, and class of the Hindu workers who went there. As soon as they were financially and physically able to do so, these Hindus built temples.
Other forms of Hinduism or practices derived from Hindu teachings are also seen in the diaspora. Some practices, such as ISKCON (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a group that is more popularly known as the Hare Krishnas), require a fair amount of “Indianization”—such as adopting Indian names and clothing. Other practices, such as Transcendental Meditation and certain forms of yoga, have been separated from their cultural and religious contexts in India and are presented as physical and mental exercises that any-one, regardless of religious affiliation, can practice.
The many traditions that make the tapestry of Hinduism continue to flourish in the diaspora. Just as the Hindus who migrated to Southeast Asia in the first millennium C.E. sought to transmit their culture through the building of the great temples of Cambodia and Java, Hindu immigrants to England and the United States seek to perpetuate their culture into the next millennium through establishing temples, which serve as the religious and cultural nucleus of a Hindu community.
There are many Hindu schools of thought and practice and many Hindu communities. Only a few ideas and concepts are common to most Hindus. There is no creed or pillar of faith and no doctrine that all Hindus must believe in to be considered Hindus. Nevertheless, many schools of philosophy have held that acceptance of the sacred compositions called the Vedas as a source of divine authority is a litmus test of orthodoxy. Hindu doctrines are expressed and transmitted by epic narratives, which are frequently performed as music, dance, recitation, and drama. The sophisticated and extensive written traditions in Sanskrit and other languages have been the province of a small percentage of educated scholars.
In the Hindu tradition there are numerous gods and goddesses and many books and stories about them. According to one account, a conversation in the Upanishads (Hindu sacred texts composed in about the seventh century B.C.E.), there are three hundred million gods and goddesses. In the course of this conversation the question “How many are there?” is reiterated several times until the final answer is given: just one. Thus, it is correct to say that Hindus worship many gods and one god. Ultimately, the supreme being is infinite and beyond words—the same being can therefore be said to be both one and many. To deny the manifoldness or the unity of the supreme being would be to deny its infinity.
Hindus may say that they worship one God, even as they recite prayers and sing in devotion to the many deities of the Hindu pantheon. Some Hindus claim that, although there are many deities, only one is supreme. Others say that all gods and goddesses are equal but that one is their favorite or that their family worships a particular deity. Some believe that there is only one god, and all other deities are manifestations of that being. Many Hindus contend that numbers are like gender—they are human ideas foisted upon the divine.
The Upanishads call the supreme being Brahman. Brahman is considered to be ineffable and beyond all human comprehension. Other texts, such as the Puranas, say that this supreme being assumes a form and a name to make itself accessible to human beings. Viewed from these perspectives, Hindus speak of the supreme being as being both nirguna (“without attributes,” specifically “without inauspicious attributes”) and saguna (“with attributes” such as grace and mercy). Some texts identify this supreme being as the god Vishnu (“all-pervasive”); others call it Shiva (“the auspicious one”). Still others believe that the supreme being assumes the form of the Goddess and is called Shakti (Sanskrit for “energy”), Durga, Kali, or any one of a thousand names. Although Vishnu, Shiva, and the Goddess are the most important gods in the texts, others—such as Ganesha (a son of Parvati); Kartikkeya, or Murugan (a son of Shiva); and Hanuman (a devotee of Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu)—are popular among Hindus. Ganesha is depicted as riding a mouse. Hindus worship him before beginning any new task or before embarking on any journey or project.
Devotees of any deity may perceive him or her to be the supreme being. In some early accounts there was an idea of a trinity sharing various functions; Brahma was the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. This idea, however, was never really popular except in art and sculpture, and in time Brahma (a minor creator god who worked under the orders of a powerful being) became marginal. The functions of creation, preservation, and destruction were combined.
Shiva is one of the most important deities within the Hindu tradition. The manifold aspects of Shiva’s power are expressed by his simultaneous and often paradoxical roles: threatening but benevolent, creator but destroyer, exuberant dancer but austere yogi (practitioner of yoga). He is depicted as an ascetic and as the husband of the goddess Parvati. Stories of his saving powers describe him granting wisdom and grace to his devotees.
Many Hindus also deify natural phenomena such as rivers. Hindus revere planets and propitiate the navagraha (nine planets) with rituals. The “nine planets” include the Sun, the Moon, Venus, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and two mythical entities called Rahu and Ketu, identified with the ascending and descending nodes of the Moon. In addition to the pan-Hindu deities there are many local gods and goddesses who may have distinctive histories and functions. Because some of the deities have specific functions, a person may worship a particular deity for career success, a particular goddess for a cure from illness, and so on.
Hindus pride themselves on being part of a tradition that has continuously venerated the divine in female form for more than two thousand years. The Goddess, sometimes called Devi in Sanskrit literary tradition, has usually been seen as a manifestation of Parvati, the wife of Shiva. In her beneficent aspect she is frequently called Amba or Ambika (little mother). As a warrior goddess she is Durga, represented in iconography with a smiling countenance but a handful of weapons (which shows that she is ready to help her devotees). Durga is one of the most popular goddesses in India. As Kali, the Goddess is a dark, disheveled figure with a garland of skulls. Even in this manifestation she is called “mother” by her devotees. There are local goddesses in every part of India. In some regions a goddess may be known only by the provincial name and celebrated with local stories.
Many texts speak of the relationship between the human soul (atman) and the supreme being (Brahman), but invariably they suggest rather than declare the connection between the two. For instance, in a conversation in the Chandogya Upanishad, a father asks his son to dissolve salt in water and says that Brahman and atman are united in a similar manner. The father ends his teaching with the well-known dictum “tat tvam asi” (you are that). In this statement, the “that” refers to Brahman and the “you” to atman. Philosophers who later interpreted this passage understood it in different ways. The philosopher Shankara (c. eighth century C.E.) wrote that “you are that” means that Brahman andatman are the same identity. On the other hand, Ramanuja (eleventh century) interpreted it to mean that, while Brahman and atman are inseparably united, they are not identical. Shankara’s philosophy came to be called nondualist—that is, there is no ultimate distinction between Brahman and atman. Ramanuja’s philosophy, which nuances this identity, is called “qualified nondualism” by later devotees. Other philosophers declared that the human soul and the supreme being are different. The philosophy of Madhva (thirteenth century) is known as “dualism” because he speaks about the real and eternal difference between the human soul and the supreme being.
According to Hindu thought, there is a quest for a higher, experiential knowledge, the knowledge of Brahman. The Upanishads distinguish “lower” knowledge, or that which can be conceptualized and articulated, from the “higher” knowledge of true wisdom. This higher wisdom comes from experientially knowing the relationship between the human soul (atman) and the supreme being (Brahman). Brahman pervades and yet transcends the universe as well as human thought. Ultimately, Brahman cannot be described. According to many Upanishads, to know Brahman completely is to reach the ultimate goal of human beings: to enter a new state of consciousness. This state is said to be ineffable; with our lower conceptual knowledge, we cannot put into words what is ultimately beyond words.
The notions of karma and reincarnation are common to the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions. Karma literally means “action,” especially ritual action, but it has come to mean the system of rewards and punishments attached to various actions. Thus, it refers to a system of cause and effect that may span several life-times. The law of karma dictates that human beings are rewarded or punished according to their behavior. Actions produce merit or demerit, and this will affect the quality of one’s future life, either in this lifetime or several lifetimes later. Good deeds and bad deeds do not balance each other out; one has to experience the results of good actions and bad actions.
The idea of karma is closely connected with the concept of the immortality of the soul. Although in the early Vedas there was only a nebulous notion of the afterlife, by the time of the Upanishads the human soul was said to live beyond death. Thus, the theory of karma also implies continuing rebirths (samsara). Liberation from them (moksha), according to the Upanishads, comes from a supreme, experiential, transforming wisdom. When one gets this transforming knowledge, one is never reborn and never dies; one is immortal. Ultimately, therefore, even good karma is to be avoided, for it ties one to the cycle of reincarnation.
In general, the texts do not discuss the details of what happens immediately after death or what happens to a soul between lifetimes. Only the truly evolved souls are said to remember all their past lives. Some theistic texts speak about the soul’s journey after death. If the soul is emancipated, it is said to cross a river called Viraja (“without passion”) and enter a heaven-like place called Vaikuntha or Kailasa. Vaikuntha is Vishnu’s abode, and Shiva lives in Kailasa. Philosophical texts of the Hindu tradition give various accounts of what happens to the soul when it is liberated from the cycle of life and death. The many Hindu texts describe different relationships between the human soul and the supreme being. Theistic philosophies (which assert the ultimate reality of a personal deity) speak about a devotional relationship being joyously experienced in the afterlife. Some theistic schools think of the ultimate liberation as a state of passionate separation between the human soul and God. God is thought of as Krishna in this tradition, and the soul is cast in the role of one of Krishna’s cowherd girlfriends, who felt the intensity of their love for him only when separated from him.
While many texts speak about the miserable nature of this life and urge people to seek the everlasting “real” life of liberation, others say that glorifying God on Earth is like experiencing heaven in this lifetime. Sacred pilgrimage centers are considered to be a break in the earthly rhythm and to reflect divine revelation. In this devotional context, some Hindus consider life on Earth to be a joyful experience comparable to the status of liberation.
Although reincarnation and liberation are the most frequently discussed aspects of the afterlife, some of the Puranas talk of many kinds of heavens and hells. In some texts, seven states of netherworlds and seven heavens are described in detail. Different kinds of karma may entail rebirth in these states of heavens or hells. The difference between the hells in Hindu texts and the Judeo-Christian notion of hell is that, within the Hindu tradition, a soul’s stay in hells are temporary. Hindu texts recognize a heaven that could be permanent (Vaikuntha) as well as those that are like a temporary paradise (svarga). Descriptions of temporary paradises include dancing girls and wish-fulfilling trees—standard, generic imagery of an androcentric (male-centered) place of delight. A soul is reborn in these paradises if it has certain kinds of karma; once this karma is exhausted, the soul moves on into a different kind of life form.
For more than 2,500 years the religious traditions of India have portrayed the human being as caught in a cycle of life and death. The way out of this misery is to seek and obtain liberation from the cycle. There are several paths to liberation. These can be divided into two general perspectives. The first perspective is characteristic of the Hindu traditions that believe that the human soul (atman) is identical to the supreme being (Brahman) and that liberation is the final, experiential knowledge that one is, in fact, divine. The teacher Shankara (c. eighth century C.E.) described this worldview best. His followers (and those who belong to some other schools) ultimately emphasize human effort and striving, which will result in the transforming wisdom. The second perspective on paths to liberation comes from the theistic schools that speak of an ultimate distinction between the human being and God. Proponents of this worldview advocate devotion to the supreme being and reliance on God’s grace.
The Bhagavad Gita (“Sacred Song”) discusses the ways to liberation. Some Hindus say that the text portrays multiple paths to the divine, and others say that all paths are aspects of one discipline. In the course of the Bhagavad GitaKrishna, talking to the warrior Arjuna, describes three ways to liberation: the way of action (karma yoga), the way of knowledge (jñana yoga), and the way of devotion (bhakti yoga).
The way of action (karma yoga) entails the path of unselfish action; a person must do his or her duty (dharma), but it should not be done either for fear of punishment or for hope of reward. By discarding the fruits of one’s action, one attains abiding peace. The second is the way of knowledge (jñana yoga). Through attaining scriptural knowledge, a person may achieve a transforming wisdom that destroys his or her past karma. True knowledge is an insight into the real nature of the universe, divine power, and the human soul. This wisdom may be acquired through learning texts from a suitable and learned teacher (guru), meditation, and physical and mental control in the form of the discipline called yoga. Later philosophers say that when a person hears scripture, asks questions, clarifies doubts, and eventually meditates on this knowledge, he or she achieves liberation. The third way, the way of devotion (bhakti yoga), is the most emphasized throughout theBhagavad Gita. Ultimately, Krishna makes his promise to Arjuna: If a person surrenders to the Lord, he will forgive the human being all sins.
Bhakti yoga is perhaps the most popular path among Hindus. Many consider the only way to get salvation to be devotion to a god or goddess, surrendering oneself to that deity, and leaving oneself open to divine grace. Others believe that karma yoga, the way of “detached action,” is the best way to get rid of karma and acquire liberation from the cycle of life and death. This is acting for the good of humanity and not with selfish motives. It is believed that by doing all action in a compassionate manner, one can get supreme liberation. Jñana yoga, the path of striving with wisdom and yoga, is considered laudable but are not practiced much by the average Hindu.
Yoga entails physical and mental discipline by which a person “yokes” his or her spirit to a god. It has been held in high regard in many Hindu texts and has had many meanings in the history of the Hindu tradition. Its origins are obscure, but it is generally thought to have come from non-Aryan sources. Many Hindus associate yoga with Patañjali (c. third century B.C.E.) and consider his text, the Yoga Sutras (composed of short, fragmentary, and aphoristic sentences), significant. Yoga was probably an important feature of religious life in India several centuries before the text was written. Patañjali’s yoga requires moral, mental, and physical discipline; it involves meditation on a physical or mental object as the single point of focus. Proper bodily posture is one of the unique characteristics in the discipline of yoga. Detaching the mind from the domination of external sensory stimuli is also important.
Perfection in concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) lead one to samadhi, the final state of absorption into, and union with, the divine. Samadhi has many stages, the ultimate of which is a complete emancipation from the cycle of life and death. The state is spoken of variously as a coming together, uniting, and transcending of polarities; the state is empty and full, it is neither life nor death, and it is both. In short, this final liberation cannot be adequately described in human language.
While many scholars consider Patañjali’s yoga to be the classical form of yoga, there are dozens of other varieties. At the broadest level the word has been used to designate any form of meditation or practice with ascetic tendencies. More generally, it is used to refer to any path that leads to final emancipation. Since the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a distinction between two avenues of discipline—Raja Yoga and Hatha Yoga—has been drawn. Raja Yoga deals with mental discipline; occasionally, this term is used interchangeably with Patañjali’s yoga. Hatha Yoga largely focuses on bodily posture and control over the body. This form of yoga is what has become popular in Western countries.
A philosophical and ritual practice called Tantra (which etymologically means “loom”) began to gain importance in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions in about the fifth century. The Tantric tradition influenced many sectarian Hindu movements; Shaiva, Vaishnava, and Shakta (pertaining to Shakti, or the Goddess) temple liturgies, still practiced, are in large measure derived from tantric usage. Much of Tantra has fused with devotional practices and is no longer known officially as “tantra.”
In some forms of the Tantric tradition we find an emphasis on a form of yoga known as kundalini yoga. The term kundalini refers to the shakti (power of the Goddess) that is said to lie coiled at the base of one’s spine. When awakened, this power rises through a passage and six chakras, or “wheels,” to reach the final wheel, or center, located under the skull. This final chakra is known as a thousand-petaled lotus. The ultimate aim of this form of yoga is to awaken the power of the kundalini and make it unite with Purusa, the male supreme being, who is in the thousand-petaled lotus. With this union the practitioner is granted several visions and given psychic powers. The union leads eventually to final emancipation.
Whereas concepts of the deity, reincarnation, and the immortality of the soul are central to the texts, in practice many Hindus focus on notions of purity and pollution, auspiciousness and inauspiciousness. Ritual purity is not directly linked to moral purity. Certain actions, events, substances, and even classes of people can be ritually defiling. Thus, urinating, menstruating, the shedding of blood (even during childbirth), death, and some castes traditionally perceived to be “low” can be polluting. Physical cleansing or the lapse of certain time periods restores the ritual purity to a person or a family. While many of these practices are no longer followed, many held sway until the mid-twentieth century. A few practices, such as menstruation taboos, continue to be followed in some sectors of society, including by some people in urban situations and in the diaspora.
Concepts of what is auspicious and what is not are significant in understanding Hindu life. Certain times of the day, week, month, and year are propitious. In general, what is life-affirming and what increases the quality of life is considered to be auspicious. The right hand is associated with auspicious activities, such as giftgiving, eating, and wedding rituals. The left hand is associated with the inauspicious: insults, bodily hygiene, and funeral (including ancestral) rituals.
Doctrinally and theistically, the Hindu tradition is pluralistic. Each one of the many traditions (sampradayas) of Hinduism has specific doctrines and a precise theology. These theologies have been articulated with faith and in great detail, and the several commentaries hammer out the nuances of every word. Thus, if we look at individual traditions, we find that they are doctrine-specific; if we take Hinduism as a whole, we find a spectrum of ideas and concepts.
Moral Code of Conduct
Hindus today use the word “dharma” to refer to religion, ethics, and moral behavior in general and to their religion in particular. Since the nineteenth century the term sanatana dharma (the eternal or perennial dharma) has been used to designate the Hindu tradition. Buddhists, Jains, and Hindus use the term “dharma” to indicate a fairly wide variety of concepts and issues. In the last two centuries the texts on dharma (composed in the beginning of the Common Era) also formed the basis for formulating the administration of law in India. The “moral code” for most Hindus is a combination of traditional customs and practices that are ordinarily even more important than the code of behavior advocated in the texts on dharma. Hindus have been concerned with ritual purity and impurity and auspiciousness and inauspiciousness as areas of importance in correct behavior. In philosophy and in ordering their lives the two categories that have had overriding importance are dharma and moksha (liberation).
The meaning of dharma depends upon the context; further, there have been changes in the emphases over the centuries. Dharma may mean religion, the customary observances of a caste or sect, law usage, practice, religious or moral merit, virtue, righteousness, duty, justice, piety, morality, or sacrifice, among other things. The word “dharma” appears several times in the early Vedic texts. In many later contexts it means “religious ordinances and rites,” and in others it refers to “fixed principles or rules of conduct.” In conjunction with other words, “dharma” also means “merit acquired by the performance of religious rites” and “the whole body of religious duties.” The prominent meaning of dharma eventually came to refer to the duties and obligations of a human being (primarily a male) in connection with his caste and particular stage of life. Texts on dharma both described and prescribed these duties and responsibilities and divided the subject matter into various categories.
For many educated Hindus dharma deals with behavior, justice, repentance, and atonement rites. Dharma also includes the duties of each class or caste of society; sacraments from conception to death; the duties of the different stages of life; the days when one should not study the Vedas; marriage; the duties of women; the relationship between husband and wife; ritual purity and impurity; rites of death and rituals for ancestors; gifts and donations; crime and punishment; contracts; inheritance; activities done only at times of crises; and rules concerning mixed castes. It is obvious that the areas and concerns of what is deemed to be righteous behavior in the Hindu tradition differ from the Western notions of ethics.
The earliest texts on dharma are the Dharma Sutras. These are part of the Kalpa Sutras, which are considered to be ancillaries to the Vedas. By the first centuries of the Common Era many treatises on the nature of righteousness, moral duty, and law were written. These are called the Dharma Sastras and form the basis for later Hindu laws. The best known of these is the Manava Dharmasastra, or the “Laws of Manu.” These were probably codified in about the first century and reflect the social norms of the time.
Far better known than these treatises on dharma are the narrative literature of the epics (the Ramayana and the Mahabharata) and the Puranas (“Ancient Lore”). Hindus in India and the diaspora understand stories from these texts as exemplifying values of dharma and situations of dharmic dilemmas. The people in these epics are paradigms to be imitated or avoided.
Dharma is not homogenous, and there are many varieties that are discussed and practiced. There are some virtues and behavior patterns that are recommended for all human beings; others are incumbent on the person’s caste, stage of life, and gender. Many Hindus in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries emphasized what has been called the common (samanya or sadharana) dharma for all human beings; some speak of this as the “universal” dharma. The epics also call this the sanatana dharma (eternal dharma).
Gautama Siddhartha’s Dharma Sutra, one of the earliest texts on dharma, extols the ultimate importance of eight virtues: compassion toward all creatures; patience; lack of envy; purification; tranquility; having an auspicious disposition; generosity; and lack of greed. A person with these qualities may not have performed all sacraments but will still achieve the ultimate goal of being with Brahman, the supreme being. While these virtues and recommendations for behavior are considered to be common to all human beings, the texts on dharma really emphasize the specific behavior enjoined for people of the four major castes and for male members who are in various stages of life. There are also considerable discussions on women’s duties (stri dharma). The longest discussions focus on marriages, death rituals, food laws, and caste regulations.
While there are common virtues that all human beings should have, the texts on dharma speak of contextspecific dharma that is incumbent on the different classes (varna) of society. The texts say that male members of the upper three classes—the “priestly” Brahmans, the rulers, and the merchants—should ideally go through four stages (ashrama) of life. The behavior recommended for each class and each stage of life is called varna-ashrama dharma. The responsibility to behave thus is called sva (self) dharma. Whenever books describe the decline of the social order in the world, they refer to the abandoning of the duties that are incumbent upon a person by virtue of his or her station in life.
The “Laws of Manu” and the Bhagavad Gita say that it is better for a person to do his or her own dharma imperfectly than to do another’s well. The law books, however, acknowledge that in times of adversity a person may do other tasks. In many parts of India custom and tradition override the dharma texts. While the moral codes of Manu were much exalted by colonial rulers, scholars have shown that they had limited import—that in fact the law was mitigated by learned people, and each case was decided with reference to the immediate circumstances.
The texts of law recognized four stages of life, called the ashramas, for males of the upper three classes of society. First, a young boy was initiated into the stage of a student; his dharma was to not work for a living and to remain celibate. After being a student, a young man was to marry, repay his debt to society and his forefathers, and repay his spiritual debt to the gods. A householder’s dharma was to be employed and to lead a conjugal life with his partner in dharma (sahadharmachaarini).
The “Laws of Manu” give details of two more stages: those of a forest dweller and an ascetic. Manu says that when a man sees his skin wrinkled and his hair gray or when he sees his grandchildren, he may retire to the forest with his wife and spend the time in quietude and in reciting the Vedas. The final stage, sannyasa, was entered by few: A man apparently staged his own social death and became an ascetic. The ascetic owned nothing, living off the food given as alms and eating but once a day. He was to spend his time cultivating detachment from life and pursuing knowledge about salvation. With the increasing popularity of the Bhagavad Gita, which stresses detached action, the need to enter formally into this stage of life diminished considerably within the Hindu tradition.
Sanskrit and vernacular texts on dharma extol the importance of becoming an ascetic (sannyasi). Indeed, in India (and wherever Hindus have traveled) there are such ascetics in ochre or saffron clothes. While the texts on dharma specify that only male members of the upper three classes of society have the right to become ascetics, women have also embraced this stage of life. When a person enters this stage, he or she usually conducts his or her own death rituals. The ascetic is now socially dead and is formally disassociated from all relationships. An ascetic is religiously (and in India legally) a new person without connections.
There are multiple lines of religious authority in the Hindu traditions. While sacred texts are significant—and there have been hundreds of them—many were known only by a small minority of literate people. On the other hand, the popular epics and the stories from the books known as the Puranas have been passed on through oral and ritual traditions and through the performing arts.
The highest scriptural authority in philosophical Hinduism is a set of compositions known as sruti (that which is heard), more popularly known as the Vedas (“knowledge”). They date from about the second millennium B.C.E. Many Hindu traditions consider the Vedas to be of nonhuman origin. The Vedic seers (rishi) are said to have visually perceived and transmitted the mantras, poetry, and chants; according to traditional belief, they did not compose them. The rishitransmitted the words to their disciples, starting an oral tradition that has come down to the present. The words are said to have a fixed order that has to be maintained by a tradition of recitation.
There are four Vedic collections, known as Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva. Each one is divided into four parts. The first two parts—the samhita and the brahmana—deal with sacrificial rituals and the hymns to be recited during them, and the last two parts are more philosophical in nature. The last section, known as the Upanishads (literally “coming near” [a teacher for instruction]), focuses on existential concerns and the relationship between the human soul and the supreme being. The Upanishads were composed between the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. The Vedas also have appendices on the observance of ritual.
There are other fields of knowledge, called Vedangas, that are considered to be ancillary to the Vedic corpus. They include subjects such as phonetics and astronomy, which were considered to be extremely important. In addition, such areas of study as archery, music and dance (gandharva veda), and the science of health and long life (Ayurveda) were considered to be vital to the wellbeing of men and women.
The Vedic corpus was followed by a set of books called smriti (remembered) literature. Though acknowledged to be of human authorship, the smriti is nonetheless considered inspired. This literature is theoretically of lesser authority than the Vedas, but it has played a far more important role in the lives of Hindus for the last 2,500 years. Sometimes this category is divided into three subfields: the two epics, the old narratives (Puranas), and the codes of law and ethics (Dharma Sastras).
For most Hindus the two epics, the Ramayana (“Story of Rama”) and the Mahabharata (“Great Epic of India,” or the “Great Sons of Bharata”), are the most significant texts. They deal, above all, with situations of dharma. The epics are widely known among the many communities and sectarian divisions within the Hindu tradition, and they provide threads of unity through the centuries and across social divides.
The Ramayana has been memorized, recited, sung, danced, and enjoyed for 2,500 years. It has been a source of inspiration for generations of devotees in India and in other parts of the world. The story of the Ramayana centers on the young prince Rama. On the eve of Rama’s coronation his father exiles him. In the forest Ravana, the demon-king of Lanka, captures Rama’s beautiful wife, Sita; the epic focuses on Rama’s struggle to get her back. After a protracted battle Rama kills Ravana and is reunited with Sita. They eventually return to the kingdom and are crowned. Rama is held to be a just king; the term “Ramrajya” (kingdom or rule of Rama) has become the Hindu political ideal.
There have been many local versions of the Ramayana, including vernacular renderings, and the story has been theologically interpreted in many ways. The epic is regularly danced and acted in places of Hindu (and Buddhist) cultural influence in Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand). The capital of Thailand for several centuries was named after Rama’s capital, and the kings there bore the name “Rama” as part of their title.
The other epic, the Mahabharata, with approximately 100,000 verses, is considered to be the longest poem in the world. It is the story of the great struggle among the descendants of a king called Bharata; Indians call their country Bharat after this king. The main part of the story deals with a war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. They are cousins, but the Kauravas try to cheat the Pandavas out of their share of the kingdom and will not accept peace. A battle ensues in which all the major kingdoms are forced to take sides. The Pandavas emerge victorious but at a great emotional cost. All their sons and close relatives are killed in the battle.
The Bhagavad Gita (“Sacred Song”) is a book of 18 chapters from the Mahabharata. It is esteemed as one of the holiest books in the Hindu tradition. People learned it by heart for centuries. The complete Mahabharata is not a book one would find in a typical home, but the Bhagavad Gita is widely copied. It is a conversation that takes place on a battlefield between Krishna and the warrior Arjuna. Just as the war of the Mahabharata is about to begin, Arjuna (one of the Pandava brothers) becomes distressed at the thought of having to fight against his cousins, uncles, and other relatives. Putting down his bow, he asks his cousin Krishna (who is portrayed as an incarnation of Vishnu) whether it is correct to fight a war in which many lives, especially those of one’s own kin, are to be lost. Krishna replies in the affirmative; it is correct if we fight for what is right. One must fight for righteousness (dharma) after trying peaceful means. The Bhagavad Gitaspeaks of loving devotion to the Lord and the importance of selfless action. Krishna instructs Arjuna (who is generally understood to be any human soul who seeks spiritual guidance) on God, the nature of the human soul, and how one can reach liberation. A person may reach Vishnu/Krishna through devotion, knowledge, or selfless action. Some later interpreters think of these as three paths, and others consider them to be three aspects of the path of loving surrender to the supreme being.
The Puranas (“Ancient Lore”) contain narratives about the Hindu deities and their manifestations on Earth to save human beings as well as accounts of the cycles of creation and destruction of the cosmos. In recounting the deeds of the various gods and goddesses, most of the Sanskrit Puranas focus on the supremacy of either Shiva, Vishnu, or the goddess Durga (more popularly known as Devi). There are also Puranas dedicated to Ganesha and other deities; TamilPuranas speak about the valorous and saving acts of Murugan, the son of Shiva and Parvati. The Bhagavata Purana,one of the most popular of the Sanskrit Puranas, speaks at length about the various incarnations of Vishnu.
The Hindu understanding of time, which is explained in the Puranas, is that it has no beginning and no end. Time is an endless series of intervals, each one of which is the lifetime of a minor creator god called Brahma, which lasts for 311,040,000 million human years. Throughout each cycle the cosmos is periodically created and destroyed. At the end of each Brahma’s life, the universe is absorbed into Vishnu, a new Brahma emerges, and a new cycle begins.
According to the Puranas, the cosmos is continually created and destroyed in cycles that are understood as the days and nights of the creator god Brahma. Within each of these days there is a basic cycle of time, a mahayuga, composed of four smaller units known as yugas, or aeons. Each yuga is shorter and worse than the one before it. The golden age (Krita Yuga) lasts 4,800 divine years. The years of the divine beings called devas are much longer than earthly years; a divine year is 360 human years. Therefore, the golden age lasts 1,728,000 earthly years. During this time dharma (righteousness) is on firm footing. The Treta age is shorter, lasting 3,600 divine years; dharma is then on three legs. TheDvapara age lasts 2,400 divine years, and dharma is then hopping on two legs. During the Kali Yuga, the worst of all possible ages, dharma is on one leg, and things get progressively worse. This age lasts for 1,200 divine years. We live in the degenerate Kali Yuga, which, according to traditional Hindu reckoning, began in about 3102 B.C.E. There is a steady decline throughout the yugas in morality, righteousness, life span, and human satisfaction. At the and of the Kali Yuga—obviously still a long time off—there will be no righteousness, no virtue, no trace of justice.
One thousand mahayugas make up a day of Brahma, which is approximately 4,320 million earthly years. The nights of Brahma are of equal length; it is generally understood that during Brahma’s night creation is withdrawn. A total of 360 such days and an equal number of nights makes a year of Brahma, and Brahma lives for 100 divine years (311,040,000 million earthly years). After this the entire cosmos is absorbed into the body of Vishnu (or Shiva) and remains there until another Brahma is evolved.
The many texts of righteousness and duty, known as Dharma Sastras, were composed in the first millennium C.E.These focus on the issues of right behavior, including those that pertain to caste. Texts relating to astrology, medicine, sexual love, and power—all framed in religious discourses—were also composed in the first few centuries of the Common Era. The importance of many texts has been highlighted by calling them the fifth Veda.
While many of the Sanskrit texts are known in the vernacular all over India, there is also an extensive array of classical and folk literature that was composed in the vernacular languages. Tamil, a classical language that is still spoken, is one of the old languages and has a hallowed tradition of sophisticated literature going back well into the beginning of the Common Era. The earliest literature in Tamil, known as the Sangam texts, dealt primarily with love and war. Many local deities, including Ganesha and Murugan, sons of Shiva and Parvati, were greatly beloved in Tamil-speaking regions. Even from the earliest times there was extensive interaction and mutual influence between Sanskrit and vernacular texts. Tamil devotional literature was heavily influenced by the Sanskrit stories and texts. The Tamil “Sacred Utterance” (composed by the poet Nammalvar in the ninth century) was also known as the Tamil Veda and was introduced alongside the Sanskrit Vedas in temple and domestic liturgies.
The vernacular texts from the south moved north in the second millennium. By the second millennium there was extensive literature in many Indian languages. Particularly noteworthy are the poems written by the great devotional poets of South India as well as of the regions of Orissa, Bengal, Maharashtra, and Gujarat. These texts are well known and continue to be performed in many parts of India; they are more closely a part of Hindu life than the Vedas and other Sanskrit texts.
Hinduism is known for its numerous icons and images. Deities are represented in many postures and in various materials. The question of whether these are “symbols” or reality itself has been much contested within the Hindu traditions. Some philosophical schools think of them as symbols leading a person through meditation and concentration to reality; others think of the icons in the temples as actual incarnations of the deity itself. Some Hindus think that, just as the incarnations of the supreme being as Rama and Krishna are real manifestations and not illusory or symbolic, the infusion of the supreme in the material body of a sculpture or icon is real.
Gods and goddesses are identified with specific iconography and every position of the hands or feet. Many deities have several hands, each carrying a weapon or a flower to protect the devotees from harm. Some Hindus interpret the many arms of a deity as representing omnipotence. The numerous attributes of the deities, as well as their weapons, are seen as symbolic of values, concepts, or qualities, and there is no general agreement on their interpretation. For instance, the conch shell and wheel of Vishnu are sometimes understood to be the weapons he uses to destroy evil, but others think of them as representing space and time.
Many Hindu deities are associated with animals or birds. Although the sacred texts give traditional reasons for this, some believers understand the iconography in an allegorical way. Vishnu reclines on a serpent and flies on a bird called Garuda. Lakshmi is flanked by elephants; Murugan rides a peacock; and Ganesha has an elephant head and rides a small mouse. There is no uniform understanding of what these represent or symbolize, but there are many viewpoints. Vishnu’s serpent, called Sesha, is seen as a paradigmatic servant of Vishnu, transforming his form to serve the deity’s many manifestations. The serpent is also known as Ananta (literally “infinite”), and according to some people, it represents the coils of time. For some devotees the bird Garuda represents the celestial forces in contrast to the terrestrial powers of the serpent. Garuda also symbolizes the Vedas in traditional literature. Elephants are said to represent royalty, auspiciousness, and rain-laden monsoon clouds. Ganesha’s elephant head, on the other hand, is thought to symbolize his ability to overcome obstacles.
Shiva and Parvati are frequently represented as abstract forms known as linga and yoni. Linga means distinguishing mark or gender, and yoni is translated as a womb; thus, many textbooks on Hinduism tend to depict the linga and yonias sexual symbols. Most Hindus, however, do not see them as phallic or as having sexual connotations but rather as representing the masculine and feminine creative energies of the universe.
Many Hindus also venerate mandalas—large, geometric patterns that represent the supreme being in aniconic (abstract) form. These square or circular designs are symbols of the entire universe or of various realms of beings. The diagrams are a visual analog to the strings of words known as mantras. The most important mantra in the Hindu tradition is “Om,” which is recited either by itself or as a prefix to the many mantras dedicated to various deities. “Om” is considered to be made up of three letters: a, u, and m. The various Hindu traditions give different meanings to these letters, which may be understood as aural symbols.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous symbol in Hindu art is the lotus flower. Red and gold lotuses dominate literature, art, and theologies, and they have a wide variety of interpretations. The lotus is said to be a symbol of auspiciousness; for others, it may symbolize the grace of the Goddess (she is often depicted sitting on a lotus). Still other traditions think of the thousand-petaled lotus flower as being near the crown of the head and believe that the spiritual power that rises up a person’s spine reaches the lotus on enlightenment.
Early and Modern Leaders
Scholars, priests, teachers, and ritual specialists have all been considered inspired and inspiring teachers of the Hindu traditions. Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) was a theologian who is frequently called a reformer. Born into an orthodox Brahman family, he became familiar with Western social life and the Christian scriptures. He also read the Upanishads and the books of dharma and came to the conclusion that what he objected to in Hindu practice was not part of classical Hinduism. Roy discarded most of the epic and Puranic materials as myths that stood in the way of reason and social reform. In 1828 he set up a society to discuss the nature of the supreme reality (Brahman) as portrayed in the Upanishads. This organization came to be called the Brahmo Samaj (congregation of Brahman). Roy translated some of the Upanishads and other selected texts and distributed them for free. A pioneer for education, he started new periodicals, established educational institutions, and worked to improve the status of Hindu women.
Dayananda Sarasvati (1824-83) started the Arya Samaj, another reform movement. Dayananda considered only the early hymns of the Rig Veda to be the true scripture. Because these hymns were actionoriented, Dayananda advocated a life of education and vigorous work. He taught that a good society is one in which people work to uplift humanity and that this in itself leads to the welfare of a human soul and body. The Arya Samaj is popular in parts of northern India and is almost unknown in the south.
A well-known figure in the twentieth century was Vivekananda, founder of the Ramakrishna mission (in India). He spoke about the Hindu traditions at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893 and became the face of Hindu thought in the West. He had been inspired by Ramakrishna (1836-86; a Bengali teacher considered by many to be a saint), and he articulated a form of Vedanta philosophy based loosely on the interpretation of the eighth-century philosopher Shankara, discussed below under MAJOR THEOLOGIANS AND AUTHORS. Vivekananda’s influence on later Hinduism was tremendous. His vision of Hinduism as a “universal” and “tolerant” religion, a form of open tradition that incorporates many viewpoints, has been popular among Hindus in the diaspora in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Other twentieth-century teachers considered to be saints (a word that is used in the Hindu tradition to mean an enlightened teacher) include female gurus such as Anandamayi Ma (1893-1972), Amritanandamayi Ma (born in 1953), and Karunamayi Ma (born in 1956) and male gurus Shirdi Sai Baba (died in 1918) and Satya Sai Baba (born in 1926). The latter is a charismatic teacher from Andhra Pradesh in southern India. His followers believe he is an avatar (incarnation) of the deities Shiva and Shakti (the Goddess).
One of the best-known teachers in the West is Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (born c. 1911), whose articulation of Transcendental Meditation has explicit Hindu origins and overtones. Nevertheless, Transcendental Meditation is not ordinarily identified as Hindu or even as “religion” but more as a stress-reduction technique. The teachings, however, of Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada, who arrived in New York in 1965 and started a devotional school of Hinduism called the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), and Swami Chinmayananda (1916-93), who taught a nondualistic form of Vedanta, are identified with specific traditions within Hinduism.
While Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) is not considered to be a religious leader, his actions were strongly influenced by religious texts and practices. His ideas of nonviolence and actions based on truth-principles have all been part of the larger Hindu tradition in the last few millennia.
Major Theologians and Authors
Most of the important Hindu theologians in the last 1,500 years can broadly be classified as teachers of a philosophical school called Vedanta. This field of philosophical enquiry remains important in Hinduism. The term Vedanta was traditionally used to denote the Upanishads, the final part of the Vedas, but the term has more popularly been used to denote systems of thought based on a coherent interpretation of three works, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Brahma Sutra (a text composed possibly after the first century). The Brahma Sutra, which has short aphorisms, was meant to be a mnemonic aid, summarizing the teachings of the other two texts. Because many phrases did not have an obvious meaning, Vedantic philosophers wrote extensive commentaries on this text.
Shankara, who lived in about 800 C.E., was a prominent interpreter of Vedanta. He spoke of this Earth and life cycle as having limited reality; once the soul realizes that it is and always has been Brahman (the supreme being), “this life passes away like a dream.” For Shankara, reality is nondual (advaita). There is only one reality, Brahman, and this Brahman is indescribable and without any attributes. Liberation is removal of ignorance and a dispelling of illusion through the power of transforming knowledge. Shankara is said to have established monasteries in different parts of India. There is reportedly an unbroken succession of teachers in these monasteries, and all of them have the title of “Shankara, the teacher” (Shankaracharya).
Shankara’s philosophy was criticized by later Vedanta philosophers such as Ramanuja (traditionally 1017-1137) and Madhva (c. 1199-1278). Ramanuja was the most significant interpreter of theistic Vedanta for the Sri Vaishnava, a community in South India that worships Vishnu and his consorts Sri (Lakshmi) and Bhu (the goddess Earth). Ramanuja proclaimed the supremacy of Vishnu-Narayana and emphasized that devotion to Vishnu would lead to ultimate liberation. According to Ramanuja, Vishnu (whose name literally means “all-pervasive”) is immanent in the entire universe, pervading all souls and material substances but also transcending them. The philosopher Madhva, in classifying some souls as eternally bound, is unique in the Hindu tradition. For him, even in liberation there are different grades of enjoyment and bliss. He was also one of the explicitly dualistic Vedanta philosophers, holding that the human soul and Brahman are ultimately separate and not identical in any way. The devotional philosophy of Chaitanya (sixteenth century) has been popular in the eastern state of Bengal and, in the twentieth century, in the United States (through the ISKCON community).
Reactions to colonial rule can be seen in the teachings and activism of Ram Mohun Roy (1772-1833), Dayananda Saraswati (1825-83), and the poet-philosopher Aurobindo (1872-1950). Ram Mohun Roy, discussed above under EARLY AND MODERN LEADERS, advocated educational and social reforms. Dayanand Saraswati opened educational institutions for women and raised people’s consciousness about Vedic teachings. Aurobindo was initially a radical who protested against British rule. He eventually taught a new interpretation of Vedanta that portrayed the ascent of the human spirit combining with the descent of the divine into the human being.
Other leaders, such as the novelist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-94), also challenged the presence of the British in India; the philosopher, writer, and religious activist Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920) advocated a more activist approach to achieve independence from the colonial powers. Political and cultural philosophies came together in the writings of Veer Savarkar (1883-1966), who championed the concept of “Hinduness” (Hindutva). He distinguished this from the religion itself and argued—on the basis of shared culture, geography, and race—for the unification of the inhabitants of India.
The social organization of the Hindu tradition can be discussed in many ways. The word “Hindu” was not commonly used to describe people’s identity in India until the nineteenth century. A person’s social class (varna, literally “color”), subgroup or caste, sectarian community, philosophical group, and linguistic community contribute to creating the sense of “self” within the Hindu tradition. There are many communities within Hinduism, and many of them have their own chains of leaders. In addition to these communities, there are charismatic teachers (gurus) who command large followings around the world. Sometimes clan groups (gotra, literally “cowpen”) and the region of origin also figure in the organization of Hindus. In diaspora communities Hindus tend to congregate along linguistic lines.
The word “caste” (derived from a Portuguese word meaning “a division in society”) is used as a shorthand term to refer to thousands of stratified and circumscribed social communities that have multiplied through the centuries. “Caste” has sometimes been used to mean varna (class) and other times to mean jati (birth group). The beginnings of the caste system are seen in the “Hymn to the Supreme Person” in the Rig Veda, with its enumeration of four classes, or varna: priestly (Brahman), ruling (Kshatriya), mercantile (Vaishya), and servant (Sudra) classes. From the simple fourfold structure eventually arose a plethora of social and occupational divisions. The texts on dharma specify the names of various subcastes that come from marriages between the various classes. Ritual practices, dietary rules, and some-times dialects differ between the castes.
Although the Vedas spoke of four major social divisions (varnas), most Hindus historically have identified themselves as belonging to a specific birth group, or jati. In many parts of India the word jati may be translated as caste or community, but the numerous jatis do not neatly fit into the fourfold caste system. There are several hundred jatis in India. It has been a matter of controversy whether a person is born into a caste or whether caste could be decided by a person’s qualities and propensities. Although there have been many arguments in favor of the latter concept, the idea of birth group gained hold in India, and now a person’s caste in India is determined at birth. Caste is only one of the many factors in social hierarchies; age, gender, economic class, and even a person’s piety figure in the equation. At various times the hierarchies were reversed by exalting “lower”-caste devotees, but they were seldom discarded.
Contrary to popular perceptions, there was, historically, a great deal of caste mobility in India. This was particularly true in the case of warriors. Kings and warriors (kshatriyas) generally traced their ancestry to either the lineage of the sun (surya vamsa) or the lineage of the Moon (chandra vamsa), both of which go back to the primeval progenitors of humanity. This harking back to the right genealogies was even done in places such as Cambodia and Java, where there were Hindu rulers. These are classic instances of the ruling class seeking legitimacy by invoking divine antecedents; even usurpers of thrones eventually began to trace their ancestries thus. In the Hindu tradition, both then and now, lines of claimed biological descent are all important. The Kshatriya (“royal” or “warrior”) families held the power of rulership and governance, and rituals of later Hinduism explicitly emphasized their connection with divine beings.
Outside the circuit of the castes, there are many other groups collectively called “out-caste” in English. These resulted either from mixed marriages or, more often, from association with professions deemed inferior. Such occupations included working with animal hides and dealing with corpses, because dead animal or human flesh is considered polluting.
While texts and practices clearly imply hierarchy within the castes, some Hindus have interpreted the castes as a division of labor, with each caste being responsible for a particular function in society. This concept may have been predominant historically in the practice of social divisions in Hindu communities of Cambodia. From inscriptional evidence it seems probable that Cambodian kings awarded castes and caste names to groups of people or even to an entire village. These names suggest ritual functions in the palace or connections with work, and in Southeast Asia the caste system seems not to be based on birth groups.
Sectarian divisions cut across caste lines and form a different template for social divisions. Some Hindu groups are divided along lines of which god they worship; the followers of Vishnu are called Vaishnavas, Shiva’s devotees are called Shaivas, and so on. Members of sectarian communities and castes tend to be endogamous. In addition to caste and sectarian affiliation, philosophical communities have formed social divisions in many parts of India.
There is no single teacher or religious leader who speaks for all Hindus, nor are there neatly arranged denominations or groups. There are thousands of communities and groups, each with multiple leaders. There are several kinds of teachers in the Hindu tradition. A religious teacher within the many sectarian Hindu communities may be called acharya or guru. Usually, the term acharya designates any formal head of a monastery, sect, or subcommunity—a teacher who comes in a long line of successive leaders. Some of the more enduring lines of acharya succession can be seen in the communities that follow a noted theologian. The followers of teachers such as Shankara (eighth century), Ramanuja (eleventh century), Madhva (thirteenth century), Chaitanya (fifteenth century), and Swaminarayan (nineteenth century) have long, unbroken chains of teachers. The philosophical traditions founded by Ramanuja and Chaitanya, among others, venerate the religious teacher almost as much as the deity they worship. In their pious writings the living, human teacher is seen to be more important than God. Absolute surrender to the teacher is said to be a path to liberation. In addition to these, there have been thousands of ascetics—women and men possessed by a god or spirit—who have been revered. There have been mediums, storytellers, and sadhus (holy men) who have participated in the religious leadership of the Hindu traditions. These leaders have commanded anything from veneration to absolute obedience. Any charismatic leader may be known by his followers as guru (teacher) or swami (master).
Some followers consider their teachers to be an avatar (incarnation) of the supreme being on Earth. Others consider these teachers to be spiritual masters who are highly evolved souls—that is, beings who have ascended above the cares of human life to a state of self-realization or perfection.
In the late twentieth century the Internet became an important tool of communication for Hindus. Devotees of various traditional teachers or gurus or followers of a particular community organize cyber-communities for discussions on their teachings. These Hindu communities have been enormously successful, mobilizing and connecting people from around the globe. Teachers from India regularly address these devotees by what are called tele-upanyasam, or tele-sermons.
Houses of Worship and Holy Places
Hundreds of thousands of villages, towns, forests, groves, rivers, and mountains in India are considered sacred. In a larger religio-political context, India is personified as a mother in literature and practice, and almost every part of this motherland is said to be sacred. In recent centuries it has been hailed in many songs as “Mother India” (Bharata Mata) and as a compassionate mother goddess. While many early texts advocated living in India as part of one’s religious duties, Hindus have also migrated to other countries—starting with Southeast Asia in the centuries before the Common Era—and recreated the sacred lands in their new homes.
Although there are many standard Hindu pilgrimage itineraries, some places are considered especially sacred. Pilgrimage routes are often organized thematically. For instance, in India devotees may visit the 108 places whereshakti, or the power of the Goddess, is said to be present; the 68 places where emblems of Shiva are said to have emerged “self-born”; the 12 places where Shiva appears as the “flame of creative energies” (jyotir linga); the 8 places where Vishnu spontaneously manifested himself (a form called svayam vyakta); and so on. Hindu holy texts extol the sanctity of many individual sites. For pious Hindus, to live in such places or to undertake a pilgrimage to one of them is enough to destroy a person’s sins and to assist in the attainment of liberation from the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
Texts that discuss the sanctity of the holy places tend to have narratives about how a particular deity manifested himself or herself there and promised rewards in this life and in the afterlife for all the worshipers. Most holy places also have temples to mark this hierophany (divine revelation). The temple itself is like a “port of transit,” a place from which a human being may “cross over” (tirtha) the ocean of life and death. Because water is also considered to be purifying, many temples and holy places are located near an ocean, lake, river, or spring. When such a body of water is not close by, there is usually an artificial ritual well or pool, a feature that may date back to the time of the Harappan civilization (c. 3000 to 1750 B.C.E.). Pilgrims sometimes cleanse themselves in these pools before praying in the temple.
Mountains, lakes, groves, and rivers are also sacred. The Ganges, Yamuna, Cauvery, and Narmada rivers are believed to be so holy that bathing in them destroys a person’s sins. Confluences of two rivers or of a river and the sea are particularly sacred. Pilgrims journey regularly to bathe at Triveni Sangama (“Confluence of Three Rivers”) at Prayag (an ancient city now the site of Allahabad), where the Ganges, the Yamuna, and a mythical underground river, the Sarasvati, all meet. Small sealed jars of holy water from the Ganges are kept in homes and are used in domestic rituals to purify the dead and dying.
Many temples are located on hills and mountains because they are considered to be sacred. In Southeast Asia, where there were no hills, artificial mountain-temples were erected. It is not clear exactly when temples became popular in India, because the earlier houses of worship were probably made of perishable materials. Inscriptions in Champa (now Vietnam) mention Hindu houses of worship that existed in Southeast Asia during the early centuries of the Common Era.
Some of the early places of worship were in the Chalukya capital of Vatapi (modern Badami), where in the late sixth century C.E. exquisite carvings of Vishnu and Shiva were carved into rock caves. That an adjacent cave is a Jain holy site is evidence of the amicable coexistence of religious traditions in India. Experimental modes of temple architecture can be seen in nearby Aihole and Pattadakal (c. seventh-ninth centuries).
Temple architecture was different in northern and southern India, with many variations within both areas. Temples, palaces, and all buildings were part of the guided practices of the Hindu tradition. Texts on architecture, dwelling places, and choice of building sites gave instructions on how to build these structures and on the ratio of the measurements. Large complexes have many shrines, each oriented in a specific direction. Temples were major religious, cultural, and economic centers. They were (and to a large extent continue to be) built to represent the whole cosmos, and there are elaborate rules that determine their design. Many temples, such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia, also include proportions connected with Hindu systems of time measurement. For instance, the various measurements of a temple could correspond to the number of years in the various yugas (ages). Many temples were also built in accordance with the observed movements of the Sun, Moon, and stars. The sun would shine on icons, sculptures, or specific areas of the temple at certain times, such as the summer and winter solstices and the equinoxes.
The main part of a temple is an inner shrine where a deity is consecrated. Hindu worship is not generally congregational, so the entrances to the inner shrine allow only small groups of people to enter. For many sectarian movements, the deity in this shrine is not a symbol; it is the actual presence of the god or goddess in the midst of human beings, a veritable incarnation. The deity resides in the temple as long as the devotees worship there. Devotees believe that the presence of God in the temple does not detract from his or her presence in heaven, immanence in the world, or presence in a human soul. The deity is always complete and whole no matter how many manifestations take place.
In most parts of southern India the pan-Hindu deities are known and worshiped only with local names; in the Tirumala-Tirupati temple (the wealthiest religious institution in India), for instance, Vishnu is known as Venkateswara, or the Lord of the Venkata Hills. Many of the temple complexes in India are associated with the major sects—that is, they enshrine Vishnu, Shiva, or the Goddess and their entourages. In many of them the deities are known by their local or regional names. A typical temple may have separate shrines for the deity, his or her spouse, other divine attendants, and saints. Temples in the diaspora generally cater to a broader community of worshipers and have images of Shiva, Vishnu, the Goddess, and other deities enshrined under one roof.
What Is Sacred?
A holy space in the Hindu tradition is one in which devotees come to see the enshrined deity and hear sacred words from holy texts. In the past religious teachers were careful about whom they imparted their teachings to, and they screened their devotees care-fully. Today, however, the Internet allows anyone to see images of deities, teachers, and gurus and even to hear the recitation and music sacred texts and songs. Some websites call their home pages “electronic ashrams.” An ashram is a traditional hermitage or place of learning.
Some Hindus believe that there is no aspect of life that is not sacred to them, but not all Hindus interpret sacredness this way. In Hinduism the lines between the sacred and the secular are blurred and depend on context. Every paper and every book is sacred because they represent knowledge; if a person’s feet come into contact with a sheet of paper, a Hindu may spontaneously do a small act of veneration to compensate for the disrespect.
While many aspects of nature are sacred, a few important emblems are notably holy. Special ash that the devotees of Shiva put on their forehead is holy. Hindus venerate particular plants that are said to be sacred to Vishnu (tulsi leaves and flowers of the parijata tree) or Shiva (leaves of the bilva tree). Cows are not worshiped, but they are held as sacred and venerated. In ritual contexts snakes are considered emblematic of good fortune or fertility and are deemed worthy of respect.
Holidays and Festivals
Hindus celebrate festivals throughout the year. There are domestic, temple, and public celebrations. The birthdays of the many deities, especially Ganesha, Krishna, and Rama, are popular. Hindus have a lunar calendar that is periodically adjusted to the solar year; thus, while the dates of the festivals change, they come within the span of a month. Most festivals are marked in the lunar calendar, and many Hindus know whether the divine birthdays occur on the waxing or waning moon cycles.
Festivals can be local or pan-Indian. Holi and Onam are examples of regional festivals. Holi, a spring festival celebrated in some parts of northern India with bonfires and an exuberant throwing of colored powder on friends and crowds, commemorates various events narrated in the Puranas. In the state of Kerala, Onam is celebrated in August and September; the fifth incarnation of Vishnu as a dwarf-Brahman is remembered in that festival.
Other festivals, such as Navaratri and Dipavali (known as Divali in some areas), are more or less pan-Hindu festivals. The festival of Navaratri (a word meaning “nine nights”) lasts for nine nights and ten days. It is celebrated by Hindus all over India, but in different ways and for different reasons. The festival begins on the new moon that occurs between 15 September and 14 October. In southern India Navaratri is dedicated to the goddesses Sarasvati, Lakshmi, and Parvati, and in northern India it commemorates the battle between the prince Rama and the demon-king Ravana.
In the region of Tamil Nadu, Navaratri is largely a festival for women. A room is set apart and filled with exquisite dolls for the play of the goddesses. Elaborate tableaux are set up depicting epic and Puranic scenes. Every evening women and children dressed in bright silks visit one another, admire the kolu (display of dolls), play musical instruments, and sing songs, usually in praise of one of the goddesses. Some Hindus believe that the goddess Durga killed the buffalo-demon Mahisa during these nine or ten days. Hindus in the state of West Bengal call this festival Durga Puja. They make sumptuous statues of Durga and worship her. In the state of Gujarat the Navaratri celebration includes performing two traditional dances at night: garbha, a circular dance in which a sacred lamp is kept in the center as a manifestation of the goddess, and dandiya, a dance with sticks, reminiscent of the dance that Krishna is said to have done with the cowherd girls.
The last two days of Navaratri are called Ayudha Puja (veneration of weapons and machines). Hindus acknowledge the importance of all vehicles and many other instruments that day. On the ninth day of the festival the goddess Sarasvati, the patron of learning and music, is worshiped. People place musical instruments, writing implements, and textbooks in front of her and the display of dolls, to be blessed by her for the rest of the year. The next day is the victorious tenth day (Vijaya Dasami), dedicated to Lakshmi. People start new ventures, account books, and learning on that day.
Dipavali (literally “necklace of lamps”), one of the most popular Hindu festivals, occurs on the new moon between 15 October and 14 November. Seen as the beginning of a New Year in some parts of India, it is celebrated by decorating houses with lights, setting off fire-crackers, and wearing new clothes. As with Navaratri, Hindus celebrate Dipavali for many reasons. In southern India it is believed that on that day at dawn, Krishna killed the demon Narakasura, thus insuring a victory of light over darkness. Fireworks are used in celebrations all over India. In North India Rama’s return to the city of Ayodhya and his coronation are celebrated on Dipavali.
Mode of Dress
Every region and every community in India has its own code of dress. Historically, most Hindu communities celebrated the body and wore clothes to enhance and adorn it. After the arrival of Islam in northern India in the twelfth centuryC.E., the covering of the body initially became fashionable and then a way of depicting one’s modesty, especially in northern India. In the south there was less covering, and even now on ritual occasions men in the Brahmanic communities may not wear much on the upper part of their bodies. In the north, however, women cover their heads, a custom that is completely avoided in the south.
Most women wear the sari; they wrap a piece of cloth (varying between six and nine yards) around the waist, and a piece of it is then draped over the breasts and over one shoulder. While the six-yard sari has become standard in post-independence India, there are many variations in the way it is tied. Many urban Hindu women have adopted Western clothes.
In the Hindu tradition the human body is a carrier of a person’s cosmology and worldviews. The way Hindus care for it, adorn it, carry and move it, and dispose of it all reflect something about their engagement with the world, the universe, and the divine.
The most common, yet ambiguous, manifestation of Hindu religion and culture is the forehead mark worn by many adherents. Traditionally women most often wear the mark, but in many parts of India male ascetics, temple priests, and devotees also put on the marks in a prominent manner. While women wear it every day, many men wear it only for religious rituals. These marks have several meanings. How the mark is interpreted depends upon factors such as the gender and marital status of the person wearing it, the occasion for which the mark is worn, the shape and materials with which it is made, the particular sectarian community from which the person comes, and occasionally a person’s caste.
At the simplest level the mark, known as a tilaka (meaning “small, like a tila” [sesame seed]), is a form of adornment with decorative value, part of a large repertoire of ornamentation used to enhance appearance. Over the centuries men and women in India have painted different parts of their bodies and faces; the drawing of the tilaka was one central piece in this decorative exercise. In this spirit most of the marks worn by women today are stickers in different colors and shapes with little theological value. As such, many people dismiss it as not being a “religious” mark because it seems more distinctive of a geographic region than of a religious tradition. Kumkum, a red powder made from turmeric, is frequently dabbed onto the image of the Goddess in a temple and then distributed among the devotees. Hindus regularly use this kumkum, which is blessed by the deity, to make their forehead marks. Even women who wear plastic stickers often pause to put a hint of this sacred powder on their foreheads to proclaim that their husbands are alive.
The marks are not always merely decorative. Many also denote sectarian or religious affiliation. When worn correctly in ritual situations, the shape and color not only indicate which god or goddess the person worships but also to which socioreligious community he or she belongs. It also specifies which theologian or philosopher is important in the religious community from which the person hails.
Some texts and images portray the god Shiva as having a third eye in the center of his forehead. While most Hindus believe that this eye is unique to Shiva, occasionally, in folklore and meditative practice, it is held that all human beings have a nascent “eye” of wisdom in their foreheads. This eye is said to generate spiritual heat and will be opened at a time of intense religious experience. Thus, the forehead mark is said to represent this third eye of wisdom. Some interpreters say that the use of herbal powders on the skin of the forehead regulates this spiritual energy for the devotee.
A round, decorative, forehead mark is seen as a symbol of saubhagya (good fortune) in many texts and in popular practice in India. Androcentric (male-centered) texts interpret good fortune for a woman as the state of being married and having her husband alive. Thus, married women often wear the mark as a symbol of their married status and as a sign of the role that they play in society. In many communities of Hinduism, it is mandatory for the woman to remove this symbol of good fortune if she is widowed. Such practices display a long tradition of customs that belittle and objectify some women. In certain traditions, such as the Vaishnava (followers of Vishnu), however, marital status does not affect the wearing of the sectarian mark. A woman who belongs to any of these communities would consider herself to be in a state of “good fortune” in being a devotee of Lakshmi and Vishnu and would always wear it.
Perhaps one of the most important areas of Hindu life is food. The treatises on dharma spend the most amount of time discussing the issue of marriage, and the second area of interest is food. What is consumed, who consumes it, who prepares the food, when it is done, how much is eaten, with whom one eats, what direction one faces when one eats, and more details are all addressed with great detail—but are often negated in the contexts of faith and devotion.
Food regulations may differ not only between the various castes and communities of the Hindu traditions but also by region, gender, the stages of a person’s life, the times of the year, the phases of the Moon, the ritual calendar, and an individual’s obligations. Contrary to the perception of many Westerners, most Hindus are not vegetarians. Whether a Hindu practices vegetarianism is determined by his or her membership in a specific community or caste. The cow is seen as a nurturing mother. Sometimes cows are considered the “residence” of the goddess Lakshmi. Hence, most Hindus in the last two millennia have tended not to consume beef.
There are regular periods of fasting and feasting in the Hindu calendar, and these periods differ for each community. Many Vaishnavas (followers of Vishnu) have typically fasted or avoided grain on ekadashi day (the 11th day of the waxing or waning Moon). Others fast during specific festival seasons such as Navaratri. Some fasts are specific—refraining from grains, rice, salt, and so on for a period of time. Men and women sometimes fast for half a day or for several hours on days when they have performed rituals to the ancestors.
For many Hindus it is not enough just to be a vegetarian; food, like many other material substances, is said to have three qualities. These are sattva (purity); rajas (passion, energy, movement); and tamas (sloth, stupor, rest). Thus, some Hindu communities refrain from having onions and garlic because they are said to have a pre-ponderance of rajas andtamas. Several vegetables are also prohibited for similar reasons; for example, food that has been tasted by others and leftover food are considered to be ritually polluted and are also prohibited. While there are hundreds of restrictions on food, there are certain devotional contexts where food that can be considered ritually polluting is made acceptable because of a devotee’s faith. There are several Hindu narratives about how prohibited food was offered to the deity and it was accepted because the devotee offered it with love.
In many temples ritual food is offered to the deity and then distributed to the worshipers as divine favor (prasada). For more than a thousand years devotees have endowed land and monies to temples so that the revenue from them could be used for the preparation of food and then distributed to the pilgrims. Many families even now sponsor feasts or donate food in temples to celebrate birthdays or in memory of family members.
Right eating is not just what a person can eat or avoid; in the texts on dharma as well as in orthoprax (orthodox in practices) houses, it involves issues such as the caste and gender of the cook (preferably a high-caste male or any woman, except at times when she is menstruating); the times a person may eat (for example, twice a day and not during twilight); and not eating food cooked the day before.
The greatest amount of discussion in the Dharma Sastra texts is spent on forbidden foods, which varied in different time periods and between authors. It is generally agreed that most people ate meat, even beef, possibly up to the beginning of the Common Era. It is a matter of some controversy whether Indians ate beef during the time of the Vedas and whether the cow was a protected animal; however, it is fairly well accepted that most Indians ate other kinds of meat and fowl then.
Hindu temple rituals are complex, and in many temples there may be a celebration almost every other day. Ritual worship is divided into daily, fortnightly, monthly, and annual cycles. On ritual occasions in southern India the deity is taken in a procession through the streets near the temple in special floats or enormous chariots. Most of the larger temples take notions of ritual purity seriously, and therefore women are not allowed to worship during the time of menstruation. In many South Indian temples there is not much gender segregation during the rituals. Worship is individual rather than congregational, and the modes of prayer are dictated by many texts. Frequently the priest—a male member of the Brahman caste—offers the prayers on behalf of the devotee. Usually only the priests are allowed to enter the inner shrines of a temple. After the ritual prayer a lamp or camphor light is waved in a circle in front of the deity in a ritual called arati, and in northern India a special song is sung at this time.
Rituals performed in the home are generally called puja (literally “worship”). Worship of the deity or of a spiritual teacher at a home shrine is one of the most significant ways in which Hindus express their devotion. Many Hindu households set aside some space (a cabinet shelf or an entire room) at home where pictures or small images of the deities are enshrined. Puja may involve simple acts of daily devotion, such as the lighting of oil lamps and incense sticks, recitation of prayers, or offering of food to the deity. In home worship simpler versions of some temple rituals take place. In daily worship family members lead the rites, but more elaborate or specialized rituals of worship, such as the ones to Satyanarayana (a manifestation of Vishnu) on full-moon days, may involve the participation of a priest or special personnel. The concept of appropriate hospitality guides home worship. The image of the deity receives the hospitality accorded to an honored guest in the home, including ritual bathing, anointing with ghee (clarified butter), offerings of food and drink, lighted lamps, and garlands of flowers.
Domestic rituals by women may be performed on a daily, recurring, or occasional schedule. While many of the well-known rituals are performed for the welfare of the family and for earthly happiness, a few are performed for personal salvation or liberation. Many rituals, such as pilgrimages, worshiping at home shrines or temples, and singing devotional songs, are similar to patterns of worship practiced by men, but some are unique to married women whose husbands are alive. Underlying many of the rites is the notion that women are powerful and that rites performed by them have potency. While many rituals conducted by Hindu women share certain features, there are significant differences among the many communities, castes, and regions.
Perhaps in no rite within the Hindu tradition is there more regional variation than in a wedding ceremony. Choosing the right spouse for a daughter or son is usually accomplished with the help of an extensive family network and sometimes by advertising in newspapers or on the Internet. In many communities, after the prospective couple’s caste, community, economic, and educational compatibility is addressed, the detailed horo-scopes of the bride and bridegroom are matched. Apart from the several regional and community rites that accompany it, the sacrament of marriage involves several basic features for it even to be considered legal. These include the kanya dana (the gift of the virgin by the father), pani grahana (the clasping of hands), sapta padi (taking seven steps together around fire, which is the eternal witness), and mangalya dharana (the giving of auspiciousness to the bride). In addition to these, the bride and bridegroom exchange garlands.
The ceremony itself lasts several hours and may involve several changes of elaborate clothing for the bride, who is adorned with expensive jewelry. Often the couple sits on a platform with a fire nearby, to which offerings are made. The bride’s parents have an active role to play, as do specific relatives (the groom’s sister and the bride’s brother and maternal uncle) at particular moments in the ritual, but the hundreds of guests are free to come and go as they please. In one of the central rituals the bridegroom’s family presents the bride with “the gift of auspiciousness.” The gift is a necklace or string, called the mangala sutra (string of auspiciousness or happiness). It may be a gold necklace, a string of black beads, a yellow thread, or anything else that the woman may wear around her neck. The necklace is adorned with the insignia of the god the family worships. The South Indian bridegroom ties this string or places the necklace around the bride’s neck as her symbol of marriage. It corresponds to a wedding ring in Western society. There is no equivalent symbol for the bridegroom, but in the castes in which a man wears the sacred thread, married men wear a double thread. The central rituals are to take place only near a sacred fire.
Death causes a state of pollution for the family. This pollution is observed for a period that may last from 12 days to almost a year. The body is usually removed from the home within a few hours. In most communities cremation is the final sacrament, and the eldest son usually performs these rites. In a few communities, and for people in certain stages of life (such as an infant or an ascetic), the body may be interred. Until the body is removed and the cremation fire is lit, no fire is to be lit or tended in the house where death occurred. Each religious community has its own list of scriptures from which to recite. These include portions of the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita.
Rites of Passage
Two factors are important to note in discussing life-cycle rites. First, not all are pan-Hindu, and even those that are may have little importance in some communities. Second, many of the important rites, especially those that are celebrated for girls or women, may not be discussed in any classical text on dharma. This is possibly because many of the texts were written by men. Women were treated as the partners of males, who were the main focus of the books. It may also be that some of these rites emerged after these texts were written.
Many life-cycle rituals are called auspicious. The English word “auspiciousness” has been used as a shorthand term for a rather wide category of features in Hindu life. Auspicious times are chosen for the conduct of all sacraments; these times are in agreement with the person’s horoscope.
A person’s sacraments (samskaras; literally “perfecting”) begin prenatally. Two of these, called pumsavana (seeking a male offspring) and simanta (hair parting), are followed by many communities in India. Although formerly performed in the fifth month of pregnancy, they are done much later now for the safe birth of a child, preferably a male. After childbirth a ceremony called jatakarma (birth ceremony) is performed. In earlier days this was supposed to be done before the umbilical cord was cut, but it is now done much later. The moment of birth is also noted, so that the exact horoscope of the child can be charted. Childhood sacraments include naming, the first feeding of solid food, tonsure or cutting of the child’s hair, and piercing of the ears (which was historically done for both boys and girls but now only applies to girls). The beginning of education for a child is called vidya arambha (literally “the beginning of learning”).
The ritual that initiates a young Brahman boy into the study of the Vedas is called upanayana or brahma upadesa. The word upanayana has two meanings; it may mean “acquiring the extra eye of knowledge” or “coming close to a teacher” to get knowledge. Brahma upadesa means receiving the sacred teaching (upadesa) concerning the supreme being (Brahman). The ritual of upanayana traditionally initiates a young boy at about age eight into the first stage of life, called brahmacarya. This word literally means “traveling on the path that will disclose the supreme being,” that is, studenthood. The central part of the ritual is the imparting of the sacred teaching. As the boy sits with his father and the priest under a silk cloth (symbolizing the spiritual womb, according to some), a sacred mantra (sentence for chanting) is given to him. He is to repeat this mantra 108 times, 3 times a day. The mantra, known as the gayatri, is short: “I meditate on the brilliance of the sun; may it illumine my mind.” In Vedic times, and possibly even well into the first millennium of this era, the young boy began his Vedic studies at this stage and went to live with his new teacher for several years. The ceremony is now conducted with considerable social overtones in many communities. Traditionally, male members of the upper three classes went through this ritual, but it is now performed mainly by the Brahmanic sections of the Hindu community.
The auspicious marriage is a way to fulfill obligations to society. According to the Dharma Sastra texts, a wife is a man’s partner in fulfilling dharma, and without her a man cannot fully perform his religious obligations.
Hindu traditions have not sought to convert, nor have they actively proselytized. It has been widely debated whether a person has to be born a Hindu or whether it is possible to convert to the tradition. A widely held opinion is that a person may be initiated to specific traditions (sampradaya) such as ISKCON or the Sri Vaishnava faith within Hinduism, but the word “convert” is largely seen as an irrelevant concept. Because Hinduism is used as an umbrella category for hundreds of castes, communities, and traditions, a person cannot be a generic Hindu; a Hindu always has to be part of a group, whether he or she is born into it or not. Because there is no formal organization or institution for all Hindus (or even for most of them), the question of membership is problematic. Legally, however, it is important to know who a Hindu is because family law in India is different for Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Zoroastrians. A Hindu, according to legal texts, is held to be anyone who is not a Christian, Muslim, or Zoroastrian and who is domiciled in the territories of India. Thus, at least for the purposes of the law, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs in India are considered to be Hindus, even though theologically, and sometimes socially, they are distinct groups.
There are also thousands of people around the world who adopt facets and selected practices of Hindu life, such as meditation, yoga, diet, and recitation of mantras. While those who are initiated into specific traditions such as ISKCON consider themselves part of the larger Hindu tradition, others may accept some features of Hindu life without necessarily having any formal affiliation with the tradition.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries religious leaders such as Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi emphasized the importance of tolerance in the Hindu tradition. For centuries, if not millennia, Hindus have lived with Buddhists, Jains, Parsis (also called Zoroastrians), Sikhs, Jews, Christians, and Muslims in relatively long periods of peace. Hindu rulers have funded and encouraged the building of monasteries and houses of worship for Buddhists in India and Southeast Asia; in India they endowed lands to Muslim saints as well as to Jain and Buddhist institutions. Because Hindus are the majority in post-independence India (after 1947), many of the minority traditions are given special privileges.
While religions in India have for the most part peacefully coexisted, historically there have been a few instances of tension between the Shaiva and Vaishnava traditions as well as between these groups and Jainism. There have also been both harmonious as well as extraordinarily acrimonious relationships between Hindus and Muslims in South Asia. Hundreds of Hindu temples in South Asia were destroyed for political, economic, and religious reasons. The real and perceived persecutions under Muslim rulers culminated in violence in 1947, when the subcontinent was partitioned into the separate countries of India (with a Hindu majority) and Pakistan (with a Muslim majority). In the last few years of the twentieth century political parties with Hindu nationalist interests were perceived to be encouraging hostility toward minority religions. Unlike in colonial days, when the missionary activity of Christian churches in India was accepted, some Hindu groups now try to stem the strong evangelizing exercises.
Issues of social justice in Hinduism revolve around the caste system and the status of women. The caste system has been complex and different in the many regions of India. Power has been distributed in different ways across the community groups; in many areas there has been discrimination against those who do not fall within the traditional caste system. There are many communities that are collectively called “outcaste” in the Western world and that, in India, are now given the administrative labels of “scheduled caste” or “scheduled tribe.” The names of these groups are part of a larger governmental program in India of granting not just equal opportunity but preference to those perceived as not having had the advantage of formal education in the last few centuries. Thus, many federal and state jobs as well as admissions to professional colleges and institutions of higher learning depend to a large extent on one’s caste, and there are quotas and reservations exceeding 70 percent in some places for the “scheduled caste” applicants. The quota system has been controversial, especially for those who believe that they have been passed over in favor of those who are less qualified.
The status of women has largely depended on caste, economic class, age, and even piety. It is extremely difficult to make generalizations about the role of women in Hindu society. Androcentric (male-centered) texts have tended to disparage them, yet they had specific religious roles, and without them men could not perform their own duties. It has been a general rule that women in the so-called higher castes had less freedom than those in the so-called lower castes. Widows, especially, were discriminated against in the past, particularly in Brahmanic societies. Unlike many other religions, however, Hinduism has had varied resources that it has drawn upon for the advancement of women in society. Historically there have been powerful women—devotees, poets, patrons of arts, and philosophers—many of whom were known only regionally. These women have served as role models in the late twentieth century and into the twenty-first century.
Several groups in India are dedicated to various forms of social justice. One of the best-known movements was initiated by Vinoba Bhave (1895-1982). His movement focused on bhu daan (literally “gift of land”) to the poor as a way of redistributing resources. Swami Agnivesh (born in 1939) has mobilized mass campaigns to fight bonded labor, child labor, and the ecological destruction of Third World countries. He attacks these problems primarily through the legal system as well as with direct activism and social work.
Hinduism is not just a religion focusing on the individual’s relationship to the divine but a network of social relationships and power. Elaborate kinship arrangements and connections are laid out in text and practice, and every family member has specific ritual functions to perform. The family is the center of most social, cultural, and religious events. Social divisions are part of a complex system of castes, communities, subcommunities, and linguistic groups. Among some higher castes, families may have a name called a gotra (literally a “cow-pen”), a word referring loosely to a clan. While a person is expected to marry within a subcommunity and caste, he or she must marry outside his or hergotra.
Throughout the history of the Hindu tradition some men have practiced polygamy, but since the passing of the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955-56 monogamy has been the only legal option. Inheritance, succession, divorce, adoption, and other issues are all dealt with under codified Hindu family acts. There have been occasional instances of polyandry in Hindu narratives, and it was not uncommon in matrilineal states. Except for the matrilineal culture in the state of Kerala and a few other castes and tribes, Hindu traditions have largely been patriarchal and patrilineal.
Large extended families were common in India until the late twentieth century. Marriages were and still are arranged between men and women of the same caste, and marriage is seen not so much as a union of individuals but of families. While divorce has become increasingly accepted in many levels of society, it remains relatively rare.
In many Hindu communities a woman who is “auspicious” is honored and respected. Auspiciousness refers to prosperity in this life. It is seen in terms of wealth and progeny, along with the symbols and rituals connected with these. In the classical literature dealing with dharma, and in practice, it is auspicious to be married and to fulfill one’s dharmic obligations. A sumangali—a married woman whose husband is alive—is the ideal woman with the ideal amount of auspiciousness, who can be a full partner in dharma (duty), artha (prosperity), and kama (sensual pleasure); through whom children are born; and through whom wealth and religious merit are accumulated. Only a married woman bears the title Srimati (meaning “the one with sri [auspiciousness]”). She is called griha-laksmi (the goddess Lakshmi of the house) and is the most honored woman in Hindu society, especially if she bears children.
The ethical issues surrounding reproductive technology are debated. Some of their basic logic may at first seem to run contrary to the smriti literature dealing with dharma. Books on dharma written about 2,000 years ago by Manu and others emphasized the importance of married couples having children. Many Hindus today accept advances in reproductive technology, such as artificial insemination, as a means of achieving this goal. Members of higher castes sometimes reject sperm banks as a source because they value the purity of their lineage. For similar reasons, adoption of an unknown child is not always acceptable for caste-conscious Hindus. The Hindu epics and the Puranas offer stories about supernatural means of conception and giving birth. Even though these tales, which legitimate the new reproductive technologies, are generally not invoked, the technologies seem to have been accepted easily.
Abortion, homosexuality, and other issues that are controversial in the West are not often publicly spoken about in India. While the texts of dharma condemn abortion and encourage the birth of many children, laws permitting abortion passed in India without prolonged debate or any strong dissent from religious leaders. Many Hindus are not even aware of the pronouncements of the texts of dharma; the dharma texts simply have not had the compelling authority that religious law has had in some other religious traditions. Preference for male children in some parts of India has led to cases of female feticide (sex-selective abortion), which was made illegal in 1996.
Homosexuality is explicitly acknowledged only in some groups. Many middle-class families would not approve of it, but to a considerable extent it is not seen as a political embarrassment or liability for elected officials. Extramarital sex, on the other hand, is frowned upon if a married woman is involved; premarital sex with someone who does not become one’s spouse may be extremely damaging to a woman and her family. As in many cases, the rules and mores of the Brahmanic and the so-called higher castes are more stringent than others.
Many traditional teachers argue against the authority of women and some so-called “lower castes” to recite the Vedas or conduct religious rituals. Despite these opinions, there are several movements that periodically bypass such Brahmanic values and simply initiate practices that may have been forbidden earlier. Thus, some groups train women to recite the Vedas, and in some families women may perform funeral rites that were forbidden to them; all these activities become woven into the social fabric without any chastisement or repercussions because there is no centralized authority to condemn such acts.
India’s contribution to religion, culture, art, and science has been tremendous. Many of these fields have been framed in religious discourses; thus, healing, astronomy, and architecture are all presented as part of religion. Many of these concepts and practices, however, have spread to other cultures with-out the religious framework and have been adapted for local consumption.
Hindu philosophies had a major impact in many parts of the world from about the third century B.C.E. Many philosophies and practices traveled to East and Southeast Asia with Buddhism; others were spread to the western hemisphere by trade routes and through traffic with West Asia and Greece. Beginning in the eighteenth century, through colonial scholarship, many of the important Sanskrit texts were transmitted through translation to Europe and then to the United States. Thus, in the nineteenth century American Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau selectively took what they considered to be the best offerings of India and integrated texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Vishnu Purana into their writings. Entire passages from these texts, for instance, can be seen in Emerson’s poems “Brahma” and “Hematreya.”
With the arrival of Vivekananda (1863-1902) and other teachers in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, yoga and some Hindu forms of meditation became well known in the West. These were presented without connection to Indian cultures and were initially adapted as spiritual exercises. With the spread of counterculture movements in the 1960s, yoga became popular as a physical exercise, and today it is taught in practically every gym and physical education class in the United States and Canada. Its popularity is so overwhelming that most practitioners do not perceive it as being connected with Hindu culture.
Perhaps the greatest impact within India itself has come from the cumulative dance traditions; dance itself has been considered to be sacred. Although there are parts of dance traditions that have been continuous for several centuries, many of the formal classical dances that had fallen out of practice were reconstituted in the twentieth century by studying sculptures in temples. The revival of musical and dance forms along with the religious culture in which they are embedded has been a significant development in the late twentieth century. The performing arts, especially music and dance, have thrived in the diaspora, and they help transmit the stories of the epics, the Puranas, and the Iti-hasa (the stories of “thus it has been”) to a new generation of Hindus.
Much of the cultural impact in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has occurred through learning from oral traditions and through selecting and adapting traditional thought and practices rather than from textual materials. In this regard Hinduism in the twenty-first century has been congruent with the traditions of two millennia ago.
In Java and Bali the many inscriptions in Hindu temples are evidence of the popularity of the epics, the Puranas, and the books on dharma. Parallels can be seen in origin stories, art, and architecture from particular parts of India (such as Kanchipuram and Kalinga) and Cambodia. While one can certainly speak of the “Indianization” of Southeast Asia, it is important to realize that stories and practices significant in India were not all transferred in the same hierarchical order to other places. For example, stories relatively minor in the Hindu tradition in India became extremely significant in Cambodia.