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Hinduism (hinˈdo͞oĭzəm), 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 syncretism with the religious and cultural movements of the Indian subcontinent. Hinduism is composed of innumerable sects and has no well-defined ecclesiastical organization. Its two most general features are the caste system and acceptance of the Veda as the most sacred scriptures.

Early Hinduism

Hinduism is a synthesis of the religion brought into India by the Aryans (c.1500 B.C.) and indigenous religion. The first phase of Hinduism was early Brahmanism, the religion of the priests or Brahmans who performed the Vedic sacrifice, through the power of which proper relation with the gods and the cosmos is established. The Veda comprises the liturgy and interpretation of the sacrifice and culminates in the Upanishads, mystical and speculative works that state the doctrine of Brahman, the absolute reality that is the self of all things, and its identity with the individual soul, or atman (see Vedanta). Later Upanishads refer to the practices of yoga and contain theistic elements that are fully developed in the Bhagavad-Gita.

Post-Vedic Hinduism in all its forms accepts the doctrine of karma, according to which the individual reaps the results of his good and bad actions through a series of lifetimes (see transmigration of souls). Also universally accepted is the goal of moksha or mukti, liberation from suffering and from the compulsion to rebirth, which is attainable through elimination of passions and through knowledge of reality and finally union with God.

Responses to Buddhism and Jainism

In the middle of the first millennium B.C., an ossified Brahmanism was challenged by heterodox, i.e., non-Vedic, systems, notably Buddhism and Jainism. The priestly elite responded by creating a synthesis that accepted yogic practices and their goals, recognized the gods and image worship of popular devotional movements, and adopted greater concern for the daily life of the people. There was an increase in writings, such as the Laws of Manu (see Manu), dealing with dharma, or duty, not only as applied to the sacrifice but to every aspect of life. Their basic principle is varna-ashrama-dharma, or dharma in accordance with varna (class or caste) and ashrama (stage of life). The four classes are the Brahmans, Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (farmers and merchants), and Shudras (laborers). The four stages of life are brahmacharya or celibate student life (originally for study of the Veda), grihastha or householdership, vanaprastha or forest hermitage, and sannyasa, complete renunciation of all ties with society and pursuit of spiritual liberation. (In practical terms these stages were not strictly adhered to. The two main alternatives have continued to be householdership and the ascetic life.) The entire system was conceived as ideally ensuring both the proper function of society as an integrated whole and the fulfillment of the individual's needs through his lifetime.

The post-Vedic Puranas deal with these themes. They also elaborate the myths of the popular gods. They describe the universe as undergoing an eternally repeated cycle of creation, preservation, and dissolution, represented by the trinity of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer as aspects of the Supreme.

Medieval and Modern Developments

In medieval times the esoteric ritual and yoga of Tantra and sects of fervent devotion (see bhakti) arose and flourished. The groundswell of devotion produced poet-saints all over India who wrote religious songs and composed versions of the epics in their vernaculars. This literature plays an essential part in present-day Hinduism, as do puja, or worship of enshrined deities, and pilgrimage to sacred places. The most popular deities include Vishnu and his incarnations Rama and Krishna, Shiva, the elephant-headed god Ganesha, and the Mother-Goddess or Devi, who appears as the terrible Kali or Durga but also as Sarasvati, the goddess of music and learning, and as Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. All the gods and goddesses, each of which has numerous aspects, are regarded as different forms of the one Supreme Being. Modern Hindu leaders such as Swami Vivekananda, Mohandas Gandhi, and Aurobindo Ghose, have given voice to a movement away from the traditional ideal of world-renunciation and asceticism and have asserted the necessity of uniting spiritual life with social concerns.

After independence in 1947 the impact of Hinduism on the political life of a country in which more than 80% of the people are adherents was moderated by the long-term rule of the Congress party (see Indian National Congress, which has striven to maintain a secular democracy. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims, however, have long been a fact of life in India, as evidenced in the creation of Pakistan, the conflict over Kashmir, and the subsequent wars between India and Pakistan. There have also been tensions with the Sikh minority, some of whom have sought independence for the Punjab, leading to violence in the 1980s (see Sikhism).

Since the late 1980s there has been increasing popular support for Hindu nationalist parties among the people of India. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which has long rejected the secular state and called for orthodox Hindu religious practice, is influential in the mainstream Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), one of India's most important political parties. The extremist Shiv Sena and Vishwa Hindu Parishad parties have been relentless in their attacks on Muslims. The 1992 destruction in Ayodhya of a Muslim shrine and anti-Muslim riots in Mumbai in 1993 were sparked by Hindu nationalists and are among the events that have heightened Hindu-Muslim tensions, and in the 21st cent. tensions increased under the the strongly Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi.


See C. N. E. Eliot, Hinduism and Buddhism (3 vol., 1921; repr. 1968); A. B. Keith, The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads (1925, repr. 1971); S. Radhakrishnan, The Hindu View of Life (1927, repr. 1962); L. Renou, Religions of Ancient India (1953, repr. 1968) and Hinduism (1961); R. G. Zaehner, Hinduism (1962); A. T. Embree, ed., The Hindu Tradition (1966, repr. 1972); T. J. Hopkins, The Hindu Religious Tradition (1971); P. H. Ashby, Modern Trends in Hinduism (1974); A. L. Basham, The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism (1989).

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the main religion of India and the oldest of the great world religions. Hinduism is based on the doctrine of reincarnation and associated with the concept of CASTE. It is a polytheistic religion, with many gods and many different CULTS and practices, while JUDAISM, CHRISTIANITY and ISLAM are the main monotheistic religions.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
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Three Hindu gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, 1873. Fortean Picture Library.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

It is probably correct to say that Hinduism is the oldest of the world's major religions, but it is just as correct to say it is the newest. Some might make the case that Hinduism is not a world religion at all. There are those who would go so far as to say there is really no such thing as "a religion" of Hinduism, at least not as religion is usually defined.

In the nineteenth century, British scholars began learning about Indian religions and forced them into a category they could understand, calling it "Hinduism" and arbitrarily determining that India was the home of a world religion that could be compared to Christianity. Largely as a result of their discussions with Brahmin priests, these scholars deduced a theologically coherent system of doctrine that was quite foreign to most Hindus, who usually felt little need for self-description at all, unless they needed to fill in the official bureaucratic forms imposed on them with the coming of British rule.

Hinduism is not so much a single religion as it is a family of religions. A Hindu might be pantheistic or polytheistic, monotheistic, agnostic, or atheist. He or she might live a very active life or be contemplative in the extreme. Hindus might visit a temple daily or never go at all. They may be very involved in family life or leave loved ones completely behind in a search for ultimate meaning. Until the end of the official caste system (see Caste System), their one social requirement was to abide by the rituals and rules of their particular caste in the hope that by doing so, their next birth might be a happier one and bring them one step closer to spiritual completion.

In the last years of the nineteenth century, Swami Vivekananda first helped Westerners begin to understand Hindu thought. His lectures in England and America convinced a huge following that Hinduism was steeped in ancient wisdom. But at the same time, he convinced Hindus to accept other points of view and open themselves up to Western-style scientific, intellectual methods of thought. The resulting blend of Eastern spirituality and Western materialism produced thinkers such as Deepak Chopra, a brilliant lecturer who also happens to be a fully accredited medical doctor and engaging author.

After saying all this, though, we are no closer to understanding Hinduism. So we must do what we have just accused the early British scholars of doing. We must attempt to bring the various strains of Hinduism together under one roof and then describe it as if it were a single structure.

According to Advaita Vedanta, one of Hinduism's influential schools, Hinduism, reduced to its simplest idea, is that everything is one reality—one profound unity (see Brahman/Atman). Brahman, the undefined principle ("Him the tongue cannot reach"), is one with the essence of humanity and all things. "Thou art that" is the declaration of the Upanishads, one of the Hindu scriptures. The soul, Atman, is one with Brahman, who is both the cause and the substance of the universe.

But while that statement expresses essential Hinduism, to leave it at that makes it sound much too simplistic. To delve deeper, we have to muddy the water in an attempt to clarify. When we do so, we discover that much of what modern quantum physicists are currently saying about the way the universe essentially works, expressing their findings in numbers and patterns of thought that seem quite contrary to logic, the Hindu rishis, or holy men, said through metaphor more than three thousand years ago.

We begin with the human experience of reality. The Hindu will say that everything humans see and experience is real. But because it is in a constant pattern of flux and change, it is ultimately an illusion (maya). The book you hold in your hand seems very solid and permanent. Drop it on your foot and you will experience that fact with painful consequences. But that experience is not the only reality, because the truth is that the book is made up of atoms, constantly in motion and never at rest, as is the foot you dropped the book on. All is motion. Nothing is solid at all. It just appears that way. If you leave the book out in the rain for a few years, you will see a different reality. Bury it in the earth and come back a thousand years from now and you will discover that what it appears to be now is only one stage on a journey that lasts forever. On a totally different level, does the reality of the book consist of material elements at all? Is it paper and ink, or the essence of the ideas that are written on the paper with the ink? In other words, does the book continue long after it is destroyed? Are the paper and ink simply one incarnation of eternal ideas that may someday take the form of governments or corporations that the words of the book define?

Scientists tell us energy cannot be manufactured or destroyed. It just changes form. The Hindu has no problem with that concept at all. The book was once an acorn and then a tree. It might someday become soil that nurtures a flower that produces energy for a honey bee that creates nourishment for a reader who will someday hold a book in her hand. The process continues forever. This is the wheel of samsara, the unending wheel of life.

Humans experience life in four stages of consciousness: Ordinary Waking Consciousness. This is the consciousness you are experiencing right now. It is the condition in which we spend most of our time; it operates on the level of day-to-day activity that takes us through the process of living. Imagination, Fantasy, and Dreams. You never know quite where someone really is. She might appear to be standing at a bench, putting widgets on gizmos all day. But in her mind she could be riding the Outback or climbing Mount Fuji. You can't tell because you can only see the body. Sometimes, when you read a good book or think deep thoughts, imagination and fantasy can be more real than the activity the body happens to be involved in. Prajna ("Sleep without Dreams"). In this state, as in deep sleep without dreams, you are not limited to thinking about anything. When you think about something specific, you are limiting yourself, preventing yourself from thinking about an infinite variety of other things. So any thought is also a limitation, keeping you from being one with everything. Rather than being immersed in the One, you are entangled in the Many. This state escapes that limitation. The Om State. "Om" was the initial sound by which the universe was breathed into existence. The Svetasvatara Upanishad puts it this way:

The Self, whose symbol is Om, is the omniscient Lord. He is not born. He does not die. He is neither cause nor effect. This Ancient One is unborn, imperishable, eternal: though the body be destroyed, he is not killed.

The Self is not known through study of scriptures, nor through subtlety of the intellect, nor through much learning; but by him who longs for him is he known. Verily unto him does the Self reveal his true being.

By learning a man cannot know him, if he desist not from evil, if he control not his senses, if he quiet not his mind, and practice not meditation.

The self (Atman) is really Brahman, the only being, the universal being, the One. So the self, the ego, and the essence of the universe are really one. They just don't appear to be.

Put differently, we are the essence of the stars. We were both present at and formed by the Big Bang and will someday return to the singularity that began it all. The atoms in our body were once one with every single other atom ever formed and will again be one with all of them.

We don't experience it that way, but that's just because what we experience is an illusion. All we see is the present incarnation of atoms around us. The truth is that not one of them was present at our birth. Not one cell in our bodies is the same as those that formed us when we came into this life. And not a single cell now present in our bodies will accompany us to the grave.

So who is this illusion, the self, that feels so permanent? We can't point to anything that remains the same. It's all coming and going.

This is an example of very modern science and very old Hinduism saying exactly the same thing.

"I'm not the person I used to be," says the old-timer. Both the twenty-first-century scientist and the Hindu of three thousand years ago would agree.

We may know all of this, but we are usually not purposefully aware of it.

Why is it that a person will suddenly step in front of a speeding car to pull a baby to safety? He will risk his own life to save someone he has never seen before. Why? The Hindu would say that at the moment of extreme danger, the mind gets left behind and the senses take over. The person knows, in that moment of truth, that he and the baby are one, and that each is diminished if the other dies.

What is the purpose of a mountain with no one to appreciate it? What is the value of a person without a mountain to contemplate? The mountain and the person are one, engaged in a universal dance. Someday the person will be buried under the mountain and change form, adding to the bulk of the mountain while being reincarnated into a different form. The mountain will someday disappear. So will the person. But their essences will continue in different forms.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



one of the principal religions of the world.

Most Hindus are concentrated in India (approximately 95 percent) and in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and the Republic of Sri Lanka (Ceylon until 1972), but some live in the Republic of South Africa, the island of Bali (Indonesia), Mauritius, the Fiji Islands, Guyana (formerly British Guiana), and other areas (particularly Southeast Asia and Africa) where Hinduism spread during the various emigrations from India. According to the constitution of India (drawn up in 1950 when India became a republic), Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism are included in Hinduism, but in scholarly literature on India they are considered independent religions.

The sources of Hinduism go back to the naϊvely mythological naturalism of the religions of the ancient Aryans and the autochthonous Indian tribes. Brahmanism arose as a result of their synthesis, taking its basic structural pattern from the Vedic religion. In turn Hinduism is regarded as that form of Brahmanism practiced in the first millennium A.D. Thus, the Vedic religion, Brahmanism, and Hinduism are all stages of one religion, which, at a late period in its historical development, became extremely diffused and bound its followers together not so much through common ideological and theoretical principles as through a definite type of religious conduct and thinking.

By the eighth to sixth centuries B.C. the destruction of the native tribal democracy, coupled, among other things, with the increasing exploitation of working people, had given birth to numerous heresies and sectarian movements attacking the privileges enjoyed by Brahmans (who monopolized worship services and rituals) and the costly rites and sacrifices. In these teachings and sects the main criterion of a virtuous life was not the observance of formal rites and ritualism prescribed by the varna system (early caste system) but understanding, by various means, the inner meaning and essence of existence. The most important result of this dialectic was the appearance of the Upanishads (philosophical commentaries on the Vedas), the philosophical and ethical sections in the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, and the teachings of Buddhism and Jainism. Throughout the second half of the first millennium B.C., Brah-manism was engaged in a long process of interaction and struggle with these beliefs and sects, during which it assimilated them to a certain extent; finally, in the early Middle Ages it took the form usually known as Hinduism.

During the first half of the first millennium A.D., Hinduism divided into two main currents, Shivaism and Vishnuism. Hinduism proper exists primarily in the form of these two currents, although within them and apart from them numerous sects that are important regionally still remain, and new ones are constantly arising (for example, Tantrism, which preserves strong ties with ancient magic, and Shaktism within Shivaism).

At the foundation of Hinduism lie the actual everyday observances of folk beliefs and customs, which vary widely depending on local, ethnic, regional, and social conditions. These observances consist of the saying of prayers and the performance of prescribed ceremonies and rituals for all the more or less important occasions in the believer’s life.

Although there are numerous temples and sacred places (some, such as the Ganges River in the Varanasi [Benares] region are important throughout India), local shrines serve as the main centers of worship. The temple priesthood, the village Brah-mans, the wise men (gurus), and wandering monks serve as leaders and teachers at the local shrines. Many ritual practices are performed by the head of a family before the house altar.

Indian polytheism includes local divinities, who are usually considered partial manifestations of the principal gods—hence the multitude of images and names for the main gods. The related doctrine of avatara states that the specific gods are actually embodiments of the higher divinities, Vishnu and other gods. In the Middle Ages, Vishnu was worshiped almost solely as his avatars of Rama and Krishna, and in Shivaism, Shiva was thought able to embody himself in any form and in any divinity. All the male gods have wives who are goddesses, but among the female goddesses only Deva, the wife of Shiva (known also as Durga and Kali), is worshiped as a god in her own right. She is a national god in Bengal. In communal beliefs the worship of the Mother Goddess still plays an important role. Usually each village or community has its own god, and even in modern India (according to its census) the local divinities are the principal objects of worship for 80 percent of Hindus. Animism, ancestor worship, fetishism, idolatry, and magic, characteristic of popular belief, have become a part of Hinduism. Many mountains, rivers (especially the Ganges), plants (such as the lotus), and animals (the monkey, elephant, snake, and particularly the cow) are worshiped in Hinduism, and any unusual natural phenomenon becomes an object of veneration.

The caste system is the form of social organization among Hindus, and the individual forms of worship and religious conduct are largely determined by caste membership.

The belief in the reincarnation of the soul (samsara), according to which a man’s soul is reembodied in new form as a plant, animal, or a human after his death, is accepted by all Hindus. Karma, or recompense for deeds done in one’s former life, determines whether the soul will be reincarnated favorably or not. Release from the chain of reincarnation, moksha, is considered the highest religious goal.

The development and grounding of paths to and means for achieving moksha have been the central focus of the various religious and philosophical schools of Hinduism. The idealistic Vedanta system in its various forms has been the most significant Hindu philosophical school. In Vedanta, spiritual reality, or Brahman, is the ultimate and supreme ground of existence; the concrete empirical world is unreal, an outward appearance or illusion (maya), or the play (lila) of Brahman. The essential meaning of life therefore consists in grasping this spiritual absolute, in the merging of the individual soul (atman) with Brahman; the two are supposedly one, but most people, out of ignorance, consider them independent realities. Although Vedanta considered practical religion untrue, a delusion, it rationalized it as the fate of the uninitiated mind, as the lowest possible path (marga) by which one could comprehend the absolute. Other paths were through emotional devotion and love for god (bhakti), through knowledge of and meditation on the true principles of existence (jnana) as laid down in Vedanta, and finally through mystical meditation achieved through yoga practices (raja-yoga). Its religious philosophy contains the concept of the trinity (Trimurti) of the abstract figure of Brahman (as the god Brahman his worship is virtually unknown in India) and the two principal gods of Hinduism, Vishnu and Shiva. Of the three gods Brahman represents the creator of the universe, Vishnu its protector, and Shiva its destroyer.

The sacred literature for all Hindus includes the Vedas (hymns, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads), the epic Mahabharata (particularly such parts as the Bhagavad-Gita and the Ramayana), the Puranas, and the Dharmashastras.

The complex of Hindu beliefs and practices that had taken form by the early Middle Ages did not change substantially later, although various sectarian movements, heresies, and teachings have continually criticized its basis and have attempted to reform it. The most significant of these was the bhakti movement (12th-17th centuries). During the 16th century Sikhism grew out of one of its schools.

Despite the presence of a number of universally recognized doctrines and norms, Hinduism had neither a relatively harmonious or uniform system of beliefs nor a unified dogma and ritual, nor did it have a strictly canonized “holy scripture,” a centralized religious organization, or a priesthood appointed to oversee it. It has always remained a rather diffuse, amorphous phenomenon.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, during the formation and development of the national liberation movement in India, the prevailing ideology—bourgeois nationalism—to a significant degree took the form of the rebirth and reformation of Hinduism (the so-called Hindu renaissance, neo-Hinduism). Many of the countless religious reform groups and organizations, such as the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj, supported neo-Hinduism, as did such public, ideological, and philosophical figures as Ram-mohan Roy, Ramakrishna, S. Vivekananda, D. Sarasvati, R. Tagore, and M. K. Gandhi. Most religious and philosophical schools within neo-Hinduism based their theoretical position on an inner spiritual unity of all religions, which differ only in their formal practices; they believed that this universal, spiritual, and ideological substratum would be revealed and that it would form the basis of a “new,” “unified,” and “universal” religion, cleansed and freed of the fanaticism and obscurantism common to every existing religion. One of the most significant motives for such a movement was the fact that India contains almost every major religion in the world—Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam, and Christianity—and was thereby forced to reconcile religious and communal contradictions and hostilities that were stirred up during British colonial rule (from the mid-18th century until 1947).

After India won independence in 1947, freedom of conscience was proclaimed, discrimination on religious, caste, or ethnic grounds was banned, and a series of measures was passed abolishing many of the medieval customs once sanctified by Hinduism (the excesses of religious fanaticism were banned). In contemporary India the militant side of Hinduism is represented by religious and local parties, such as the Hindu Mahasabha and the Jan Sangh, which demand that India become a theocratic state. Yet, despite the fact that Indian society still preserves strong traces of her past and that discord among religious communities still exists, the social basis of Hinduism in independent India has begun to decline.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


, Hindooism
the complex of beliefs, values, and customs comprising the dominant religion of India, characterized by the worship of many gods, including Brahma as supreme being, a caste system, belief in reincarnation, etc.
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005