Understanding Hinduism

Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest religions, originating in India and Nepal and spreading throughout the world. Over 900 million people follow the precepts of Hinduism, making it the third largest religion in the world. It consists of many traditions and practices, some very diverse, affecting peoples and cultures around the globe. Hinduism is often called “Sanatana Dharma.”

The term “Hindu” comes from the Sanskrit word “sindhu” which is the name of a river in northwest India. It was a word that was used to describe the peoples of the region. Used to distinguish people of a religion, the term itself probably only goes back to the 15th century when it was used to contrast those from the area who were not Muslim or Christian.

Rather than one religion, Hinduism is actually a term used to describe several philosophies and traditions native to the subcontinent of India. As such Hinduism cannot be connected to a specific point of origin or a specific founder. Hindus believe that their tradition and truths are timeless.

The Origins of Hinduism

Because Hinduism does not have a specific founder, its early history has often been debated. Like many religions, Hinduism’s history is tied closely with political developments. Historians tend to divide Hinduism into periods of history following this or a similar chronology: The Indus Valley Period (before 2000BCE); The Vedic Period (1500 – 500BCE); The Classical Age (500BCE – 500CE); Medieval Period (500 – 1500CE); Pre-Modern Period (1500 – 1757CE); British Period (1757 – 1947CE); and the Independent Period (1947CE – present).

Beliefs & Sects

Hinduism has no central organized authority for doctrine or practice. Some have speculated that there may be over a thousand sects or traditions of Hinduism. Over time four have emerged as leading practices or schools of thought: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, and Smartism. Each of the sects differ primarily in the god worshipped as the Supreme One or Brahman.

These four divisions provide one of many ways to attempt to categorize the sects within Hinduism. Many of the teachings and practices overlap from group to group. There can be wide theological and ritual differences between the sects. Here are some essential teachings that most sects share to help better understand the religion.

Deities

Traditionally most Hindus believe that there is only one supreme Absolute, called Brahman. Hinduism does not advocate the worship of any particular deity. Some have speculated that there may be thousands of gods and goddesses in the Hindu traditions, each representing the many characteristics of Brahman. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are three of the deities that are most widely accepted. Some Hindus may also worship spirits, animals, planets and trees.

Scriptures

The basic sacred texts of Hinduism are known together as the Sanatana Dharma. They are a collection of spiritual truths and laws discovered by teachers at points throughout Hinduism’s history. The truths were passed from generation to generation until eventually written down in the Sanskrit language. The most popular Hindu scriptures Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, Vedas, and the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Truths

The Hindu worldview in two foundational doctrines, samsara (the cycle of rebirth) and karma (the universal law of cause and effect). Together they hold that one’s thoughts and actions have a direct impact on how one’s life and future lives will play out. Most sects of Hinduism hold to five main principles and ten practices of dharma, or the universal law that sustains society.

Five Principles or Strands

Many see five elements or principles that have given shape to the Hindu traditions: doctrine, society, practice, story and devotion. These principles are seen as relating to one another as strands in a braid.

  • One absolute deity. The one supreme being can be seen in many different manifestations.
  • All humans are divine. Everyone has a portion of the divine within. The ultimate goal is to become eternally united with the divine.
  • Mankind is to strive for unity of existence through love.
  • All are to practice religious harmony. Hindus have a genuine respect for other faiths. Many of the traditions accept that all religions are essentially different paths searching for the same truth.
  • There should be a dedication to knowledge of 3 G’s – Ganga (the sacred river), Gita (the sacred Scriptures), and Gayatri (the sacred mantra).

Ten Disciplines

  • Satya – the value and importance of truth
  • Ahimsa – commitment to non-violence
  • Brahmacharya – commitment to a celibate life until marriage, then a non-adulterous life
  • Asteya – no desire to possess things or to steal things
  • Aparighara – a commitment to a non-corrupt lifestyle
  • Shaucha – a commitment to cleanliness
  • Santosh – a commitment to contentment
  • Swadhyaya – the reading of scriptures
  • Tapas – a lifestyle of perseverance, penance, and austerity
  • Ishwarpranidhan – daily offering of prayers

Death & Mourning

Death is seen in most traditions of Hinduism as a natural part of the life cycle events, which are very important in their belief system. Birth rites are the first of those events, which include baby showers and many of a child’s “firsts” – like first time out of the house, eating solid food, steps, ear piercing and haircut. Other life cycle events are designated at weddings, child birth, and death.

Like most religions, Hinduism has well-defined rituals for honoring the dead and supporting the family during their time of grief. The specific practices will vary greatly from sect to sect, and may also incorporate cultural and political preferences. In India, the traditions regarding death and mourning may also be influenced by the nation’s caste system.

After Life

The traditions of Hinduism vary greatly on the understanding of the afterlife. Most traditions believe that the entire universe undergoes endless cycles of creation, preservation and destruction. They believe strongly in karma, the idea that every action has a corresponding reaction. They would see that a person’s thoughts and actions can affect the placement in the next life cycle. They see the soul reincarnating many times and in many cycles until all karmas have come to a resolution.

The release from these cycles of life is called moksha and is the ultimate desire. The individual who attains this is absorbed into the Brahman in the same way small tributaries are absorbed into a river. When this occurs, rebirth stops, one is released from the cycle and becomes one with Brahman forever.

Traditions, Customs & Rituals

In most Hindu traditions, the rituals involved in honoring the deceased are performed within a twenty-four hour period of the death. Circumstances and convenience may affect these customs, as in the case when a parent dies and children have to return a great distance to mourn the passing.

In many of the scared Hindu texts, the last rites for an individual can only be performed by a male family member. Some traditions allow for a putrika, a time when a daughter assumes the role of the son. The last rites include a variety of traditions of honor and preparation of the body, prayers and mantras. While cremation is the preferred tradition of most Hindu sects, there are some schools of Hindu thought which practice burial.

Following the burial or cremation, family members will return home, bathe and change into fresh clothes. Some traditions will put away or destroy the clothes worn following a death. A Hindu priest may visit the home, console the family and purify the house with prayers, mantra and incense.

Grief & Mourning

The specific rituals for honoring the deceased vary within Hindu traditions and are dependent upon a number of variables including religious and political practices. The cremation or burial begins a mourning period for the family which lasts thirteen days in many traditions. During the mourning period, the family stays in the home. Friends and distant family members visit the home during these days, building good karma and comforting the bereaved.

The year anniversary of the death is marked by a ritual called “sraddha” which honors the deceased. The oldest surviving male relative, called the karta, will invite members of the highest caste to the home, providing them with an elaborate meal and treating them as he would his own parents. Some traditions have the family refrain from participating in any festival or celebration until the sraddha is observed.