Learn about Hinduism. Primary beliefs, symbol, founder, sacred texts, branches, major holidays, and key terms.
Name: Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma)
Worldview category: Monotheism, pantheism, polytheism, or henotheism (refer to “Supreme being” below for an explanation)
Symbol: AUM (OM) – the Divine Word
Description: Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion behind Christianity and Islam. It is considered to be the world’s oldest organized religion. Hinduism consists of many different beliefs and practices and is called "Sanatana Dharma" by its adherents.
Founder: The founding of Hinduism cannot be tied to a specific person or event.
Date founded: Between 1750 BCE and 1500 BCE
Place founded: The Indus River valley of India
Number of adherents: 900 million
Countries with largest number of adherents: India, Nepal, United States
There are many sacred Hindu texts, which have been written over a long time span.
Vedas – The Vedas are the oldest Hindu texts, although exact dates for their composition are difficult to determine. The Vedas are an entire set of literature, written in Sanskrit and attributed to the Aryans, who settled in India thousands of years ago. They are considered to be divinely revealed. "The Veda contains accounts of creation, information about ritual sacrifice, and prayers to the gods. The Rig Veda, the earliest of the Vedic text, is a collection of hymns to the gods."
There are four collections within the Vedas:
- Rig Veda
- Sama Veda
- Yajur Veda
- Atharva Veda
Upanishads – The Upanishads, which were written between 700 and 500 BCE, are also considered to be divinely revealed. They consist primarily of dialogues between a teacher and his pupil. The concepts of karma, samsara and moksha are first found in the Upanishads.
Hindu epics – There are two great Hindu epics – the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. They are stories about great warriors and were written between 500 and 100 BCE. Krishna is the central figure in the Mahabharata, while Rama is the central figure in the Ramayana. The Mahabharata includes the Bhagavad-Gita, which is an epic story in which "Krishna teaches the warrior Arjuna about the importance of doing one’s duty and about how to achieve liberation from suffering and repeated rebirth."
Brahmanas – The Brahmanas were written around 700 BCE and prescribe how fire sacrifices are to be conducted.
The Laws of Manu – A text written by a sage between 200 BCE and 200 CE that prescribes right behavior. The Laws of Manu have become the most accepted standard of behavior in Hindu society.
Puranas – The Puranas, which were written between 300 and 900 CE, contain stories about Hindu gods and goddesses.
Sutras – A series of texts written by Brahmins that deal with moral teachings and ritual practices.
Vaishnavism - Focuses on Vishnu; the largest sect of Hinduism.
Shaivism - Focuses on Shiva; the second largest sect of Hinduism.
ISKCON (International Society of Krishna Consciousness); also known as Hare Krishna. A movement founded by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in the United States in 1965. According to the ISKCON web site, it is a movement aiming at the spiritual reorientation of mankind through the simple process of chanting the holy names of God. The focus of worship is Lord Krishna, the Supreme Being. The Bhagavad-Gita serves as the sacred text for members of the ISKCON movement.
Supreme being: It is difficult to categorize Hinduism into a single worldview category. Hindus believe in god, but it is important to understand the complex nature of the Hindu god.
The following excerpt from the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance web site presents a good explanation of Hinduism’s view of God:
Reality: Everything is a part of and manifestation of Brahman, the ultimate reality and Supreme Being.
Man’s primary problem: To be stuck in samsara.
Solution to man’s primary problem: To escape samsara and achieve moksha. To merge the Atman (the cosmic spirit within us) with the Brahman (the ultimate reality) and become one with God. These goals can be achieved through one of three ways – ritual practice, following the mystical path and bhakti, which is the way of devotion.
Afterlife: Reincarnation (referred to as samsara)
Place of worship: Temple
Divali (Diwali) - Divali is known as the Festival of Lights. It occurs in October or November, in honor of the goddess Lakshmi and Rama.
Ganga Dussehera – This holiday celebrates the holy Ganges River and its descent to earth. Devotees bathe in the Ganges to wash away sins from many lifetimes.
Holi – Holi is celebrated across India in the spring. It is a day of great celebration and chaos, where powder and colored water are smeared on each other’s faces. The holiday symbolizes the triumph of good over evil.
Kumbha Mela – The Kumbha Mela is the largest gathering in the world, with 70 million pilgrims, devotees, and gurus. It is held every 12 years in one of 4 rotating locations and lasts for one month. The highlight of the celebration is purifying oneself in the river.
Maha Shivaratri (Shiva Ratri) – Maha Shivaratri is one of India’s largest festivals. It is observed in February or March and celebrates Shiva (Krishna’s greatest devotee).
Raksha Bandhan - A family ceremony honors the brother-sister relationship. The sister ties thread around her brother’s wrist, and the brother commits to help and protect his sister.
Caste system - Hindu society is made up of four classes of people, called castes or varnas. The four castes, from highest to lowest, are:
- Brahmins – priests
- Shatriyas – nobles and warriors
- Vaishyas – merchants and farmers
- Shudras – servants
Along with these castes are a number of sub-castes, which are called jatis. The lowest sub-caste is the Untouchables, which is now called Dalits. If a Brahmin, Shatriya, or Vaishya marries a Shudra or a person of a different race, a child from that marriage is considered an untouchable. Dalits are considered lower than domestic animals. Karma does not apply to them, so there is no hope for changing their caste or status.
Karma - Karma is the concept that the deeds performed in this life determine the type of life that will be experienced in the next life. Good deeds result in a good next life, whereas bad deeds result in a bad next life.
Moksha - Eternal unity or oneness with Brahman. The goal of a Hindu is to escape samsara and achieve moksha, which is release from this world.
Sacred cow - Cows are considered the symbol of life and important source of food. They are revered and protected, but not worshipped. Cows are not to be harmed (as commanded in the Rg Veda). Cow milk is frequently used in rituals.
Samsara (reincarnation) - The continual cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth is called samsara. This cycle applies to people as well as all living things. Another word for rebirth is reincarnation.
"Samsara is a belief in the transmigration, or continual passing, of a soul from one body to another. It can be described as follows. The soul of a person who dies does not pass into heaven, or hell, or elsewhere. It is reborn into another body, which may be of higher or lower order than one’s previous existence. Rebirth follows rebirth in an endless chain. Thus, a person of low status may be reborn as a priest, or a king, or an animal, or even a worm."
Adherents.com – www.adherents.com
CIA World Factbook – www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/
Hindunet – www.hindunet.org
3Madha Bazaz Wangu, Hinduism - World Religions (New York: Facts on File, 1996), 38.