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see HinduismHinduism
, Western term for the religious beliefs and practices of the vast majority of the people of India. One of the oldest living religions in the world, Hinduism is unique among the world religions in that it had no single founder but grew over a period of 4,000 years in
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name frequently employed in scholarly literature for the late Vedic religion, after the religion had changed considerably as a result of the development of class relations (particularly slavery) and the influence of the religion of the indigenous population of ancient India (first millennium B.C.). It got its name from the collection of ritual texts, the Brahmanas.

Brahmanism is characterized by polytheism with the inclusion of various local tribal deities in the pantheon, by the retention of animistic and totemistic views, and by ancestor worship. The supreme deities of Brahmanism are Brahma, the creator and embodiment of the universe, and the beneficent Vishnu and terrible Siva, which embody the productive forces of nature. At the basis of the dogma of Brahmanism are the notions of the animation of nature and the reincarnation of all living beings. Rebirth of the soul in one or another new corporeal form proceeds as requital (karma) for virtuousness or sinfulness in the preceding life: in the first case, a soul is reborn in the body of a human being of higher social standing or even as an inhabitant of heaven; in the second case, the soul is reborn in a person of lower social standing or even in an animal or plant. The criterion for the evaluation of a person’s behavior is his fulfillment or violation of dharma—the particular way of life allegedly established by Brahma for each varna. Brahmanism sanctified social inequality, proclaiming the division of society into varnas to be established by the gods.

Crucial significance was attributed by Brahmanism to rites—the complex ritual of sacrifice to the gods, memorial offerings to ancestors, and so on. The accurate execution of the ritual of reading the sacred texts in a language incomprehensible to the people (Sanskrit) required long training; this helped increase the importance of the Brahmins (the priestly class). The notion of ritual purity was extremely persistent; its violation required compulsory purifying rites. Brahmanism developed the notion of man’s ability to obtain the favor of the gods and acquire superhuman capacities by means of ascetic feats. In the struggle against Buddhism, and under its influence, Brahmanism was transformed into Hinduism in the first millennium A.D.


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Monier-Williams, M. Religious Thought and Life in India, 2nd ed. Part 1, “Vedism, Brahmanism, and Hinduism.” London, 1885.