Hinduism is the religion of the majority of people in India and Nepal. It also exists among significant populations outside of the subcontinent. With nearly one billion people (approximately 14 percent of the world population) belonging to the faith, Hinduism is the third-largest religion in the world. About 80 percent of the Indian population regard themselves as Hindu. Hinduism is also strong on Bali in Indonesia and places with large numbers of people of India ancestry such as Mauritius, Trinidad and Fiji and, yes, the U.S. and Britain.

Hinduism is referred to as Sanatana Dharma, the eternal faith. Hinduism is not strictly a religion. It is based on the practice of Dharma, the code of life. Since Hinduism has no founder, anyone who practices Dharma can call himself a Hindu. He can question the authority of any scripture, or even the existence of the Divine.

Nearly all of them are in India or are people of Indian descent. Outside India, the only places where Hindus dominate is Nepal (where they make up 90 percent of the population) and the Indonesian island of Bali. They are found in significant numbers in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Trinidad, Suriname and Guyana and in the Indian communities in Britain, the United States and Canada (there are 1.4 Hindus in North America) and Africa. Among those of non-Indian descent that have had a deep interest in Hinduism was the late Beatle George Harrison.

Hinduism defies easy definition in part because it embraces such a vast array of practices and beliefs. According to the BBC: “Unlike most other religions, Hinduism has no single founder, no single scripture, and no commonly agreed set of teachings. Throughout its extensive history, there have been many key figures teaching different philosophies and writing numerous holy books. For these reasons, writers often refer to Hinduism as 'a way of life' or 'a family of religions' rather than a single religion...Although it is not easy to define Hinduism, we can say that it is rooted in India, most Hindus revere a body of texts as sacred scripture known as the Veda, and most Hindus draw on a common system of values known as dharma... It is also closely associated conceptually and historically with the other Indian religions Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism.” [Source: BBC]

Hinduism is a religion that had no single founder, no single spokesman, no single prophet. Its origins are mixed and complex. One strand can be traced back to the sacred Sanskrit literature of the Aryans, the Vedas, which consist of hymns in praise of deities who were often personifications of the natural elements. Another strand drew on the beliefs prevalent among groups of indigenous peoples, especially the faith in the power of the mother goddess and in the efficacy of fertility symbols. Hinduism, in the form comparable to its present-day expression, emerged at about the start of the Christian era, with an emphasis on the supremacy of the god Vishnu, the god Shiva, and the goddess Shakti (literally, "Power").” [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art <|>]

Rama and Hanuman fighting Ravana,
scene from the Ramayana
It is important to understand that Hinduism is not only a religion but also a cultural way of life. Some practices and beliefs may not be common to all Hindus as regional differences occur. The pluralism evident in Hinduism, as well as its acceptance of the existence of several deities,is often puzzling to non-Hindus. Hindus suggest that one may view the Infinite as a diamond of innumerable facets. One or another facet—be it Rama, Krishna, or Ganesha—may beckon an individual believer with irresistible magnetism. By acknowledging the power of an individual facet and worshipping it, the believer does not thereby deny the existence of many aspects of the Infinite and of varied paths toward the ultimate goal. <|>

World religions: 1) Christianity (33 percent); 2) Islam (20 percent); 3) non-religious and atheist (15.4 percent); 4) Hinduism (13 percent); 5) Chinese folk religions (6 percent); 6) Buddhism (6 percent); and 7) Other (7 percent).

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; Heart of Hinduism (Hare Krishna Movement) iskconeducationalservices.org ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Religious Tolerance Hindu Page religioustolerance.org/hinduism ; Hinduism Index uni-giessen.de/~gk1415/hinduism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Hindusim Today Image Gallery himalayanacademy.com ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article britannica.com ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Shyam Ranganathan, York University iep.utm.edu/hindu ; Vedic Hinduism SW Jamison and M Witzel, Harvard University people.fas.harvard.edu ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), Wikisource ; Hinduism by Swami Nikhilananda, The Ramakrishna Mission .wikisource.org ; All About Hinduism by Swami Sivananda dlshq.org ; Advaita Vedanta Hinduism by Sangeetha Menon, International Encyclopedia of Philosophy (one of the non-Theistic school of Hindu philosophy) ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press academic.oup.com/jhs ; Hindu Texts: Sanskrit and Prakrit Hindu, Buddhist and Jain Manuscripts Vol. 1 archive.org/stream and Volume 2 archive.org/stream ; Clay Sanskrit Library claysanskritlibrary.org ; Sacred-Texts: Hinduism sacred-texts.com ; Sanskrit Documents Collection: Documents in ITX format of Upanishads, Stotras etc. sanskritdocuments.org ; Ramayana and Mahabharata condensed verse translation by Romesh Chunder Dutt libertyfund.org ; Ramayana as a Monomyth from UC Berkeley web.archive.org ; Ramayana at Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org ; Mahabharata Online (in Sanskrit) sub.uni-goettingen.de ; Mahabharata holybooks.com/mahabharata-all-volumes ; Mahabharata Reading Suggestions, J. L. Fitzgerald, Das Professor of Sanskrit, Department of Classics, Brown University brown.edu/Departments/Sanskrit_in_Classics ; Mahabharata Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org ; Bhagavad Gita (Arnold translation) wikisource.org/wiki/The_Bhagavad_Gita ; Bhagavad Gita at Sacred Texts sacred-texts.com ; Bhagavad Gita gutenberg.org gutenberg.org

Books: 1) O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger, Hindu Myths. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1975; 2) Zimmer, Heinrich., Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992; Ions, Veronica; 3) Indian Mythology. New York: Peter Bedrick, 1984; 4) Jaffrey, Madhur, Seasons of Splendour: Tales, Myths, and Legends of India, New York: Athenaeum, 1985; 4) Wangu, Madhu Bazaz, Hinduism. New York: Facts on File, 1991.

Origin and Definition of the Word Hindu

The words “Hindu” and “Hinduism” have no easy translation in languages spoken in India. In India, a Hindu is simply defined as someone who is not a Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Jew (or Sikh or Jain). Many Hindus have no name for the religion they follow and have scarcely even heard the word Hindu. The words “Hindu” and “Hinduism” are used primarily by Westerners and non-Indians, though many modern Indians have adopted them. In India, the common name for Hinduism is Sanatana Dharma (“eternal duty of God”). Followers are called Dharmis, which means “followers of Dharma.”

The terms “Hindu” and “Hinduism” originally appear to have had nothing to do with religion. The term refers to the people of the Indus River region of India and Pakistan. “Hindu” is a Persian word derived from Sindhu, the Sanskrit name of the Indus River. Invaders from Persia in the 6th century B.C. named the people of the Indian subcontinent "people living near the Indus River." Ironically the Sindh, the region around the Indus, lies mostly in modern Pakistan, which is almost exclusively Muslim. Hindustan is still the name used by some to describe India. Hinduism wasn’t used to describe South Asia’s dominant religion until the 19th century when Europeans and educated Indians began to use it as such.

According to the BBC: “The term 'Hindu' was derived from the river or river complex of the northwest, the Sindhu. Sindhu is a Sanskrit word used by the inhabitants of the region, the Aryans in the second millennium B.C. Later migrants and invaders, the Persians in the sixth century B.C., the Greeks from the 4th century B.C., and the Muslims from the A.D. 8th century, used the name of this river in their own languages for the land and its people. [Source: BBC |::|

Hindu distribution worldwide

“The term 'Hindu' itself probably does not go back before the 15th and 16th centuries when it was used by people to differentiate themselves from followers of other traditions, especially the Muslims (Yavannas), in Kashmir and Bengal. At that time the term may have simply indicated groups united by certain cultural practices such as cremation of the dead and styles of cuisine. The 'ism' was added to 'Hindu' only in the 19th century in the context of British colonialism and missionary activity. |::|

“The origins of the term 'hindu' are thus cultural, political and geographical. Now the term is widely accepted although any definition is subject to much debate. In some ways it is true to say that Hinduism is a religion of recent origin yet its roots and formation go back thousands of years. Some claim that one is 'born a Hindu', but there are now many Hindus of non-Indian descent. Others claim that its core feature is belief in an impersonal Supreme, but important strands have long described and worshipped a personal God. Outsiders often criticise Hindus as being polytheistic, but many adherents claim to be monotheists. |::|

“Some Hindus define orthodoxy as compliance with the teachings of the Vedic texts (the four Vedas and their supplements). However, still others identify their tradition with 'Sanatana Dharma', the eternal order of conduct that transcends any specific body of sacred literature. Scholars sometimes draw attention to the caste system as a defining feature, but many Hindus view such practices as merely a social phenomenon or an aberration of their original teachings. Nor can we define Hinduism according to belief in concepts such as karma and samsara (reincarnation) because Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists (in a qualified form) accept this teaching too.” |::|

Defining Hinduism

Hinduism is a religion with different gods and often different beliefs that go with each god. Most Hindu sects, castes and towns have their special god which they worship somewhat like a patron saint. Two things bind Hinduism together: 1) acceptance of sacred Veda scriptures and 2) the caste system. Beliefs in reincarnation and karma are also linked to Hinduism and are also found in Jainism and Buddhism as are other elements of Hinduism. Many Muslims and Christians view Hindus as pagans. A belief in only one God is a cornerstones to Muslim and Christian religions.

Concentrations of Hindus is India

Otherwise Hinduism is quite difficult to describe. The religious scholar Jeffrey Parrinder wrote, "Hinduism is a vast subject and an elusive concept...without a defining creed, a group of exclusive adherents or a centralized hierarchy." Another religious scholar A.L. Bashan called Hinduism “a set of beliefs and a way of life” based on “a complex system of faith and practice which has grown up organically in the Indian sub-continent over a period of three millennia.”

Hindu followers in different places follow different Hindu gods and practice different teaching associated with one god or a group of gods. Consequently there is no such thing as Hindu orthodoxy and religious beliefs of different Hindu sects varies widely. The main thing that holds traditional Hindus together is their adherence to the caste system. It has been said that "No [Hindu] is interested in what his neighbor believes, but he is very must interested in knowing whether he can eat with him or take water from his hands." ["The Sacred Writings of the World's Great Religions," Edited by S. E. Frost, McGraw Hill Paperbacks]

Hinduism is not like other formal religions. It doesn't have a central organization, sacred book, central doctrine, founding figure, ecclesiastical order, established church or ecclesiastical hierarchy. It is both elaborately ritualist and deeply philosophical but "does not demand adherence to one set of dogmas nor does it prescribe the form of devotion to its myriad gods.” Worship can be conducted anywhere. There are no rules about prayer. Temple attendance and knowledge and study of certain texts are not required. It is possible to follow almost any form of religious practice and still be considered a Hindu. Some Hindus worship Buddha and even Jesus Christ as incarnations of Hindu gods.

Hinduism has been described more as a “way of life” than a “faith” because many of its guiding principals provide instructions on eating, conducting business, farming and taking care of one’s body and are not concerned with salvation and the afterlife. Good Hindus fulfill their responsibilities to their families and their castes and show devotion to gods. There are many variations of Hinduism. The Hinduism practiced in villages is very different from that practiced by religious scholars. The former is often very closely linked to animism and incorporates beliefs in nature spirts and ghosts of ancestors while the latter is more intellectual and philosophical.

Sacred Hindu Texts

Hinduism have many sacred documents but no single sacred text such as the Bible. "The result," writes historian Daniel Boorstin, is "a wonderfully varied and constantly enriching Hindu jingle-jangle of truths, but no one path to The Truth." Hindu texts are so closely associated with Sanskrit that all translations are regarded as profanation.

Hindus in Bangladesh

There are five primary sacred texts of Hinduism, each associated with a stage of Hinduism’s evolution. They are: 1) the Verdic Verses , written in Sanskrit between 1500 to 900 B.C.; 2) the Upanishads , written 800 and 600 B.C.; 3) the Laws of Manu , written around 250 B.C.; and 4) Ramayana and 5) the Mahabharata , written sometime between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200 when Hinduism was popularized for the masses.

Hindu cosmology was explained in the Vedas. The Upanishads provided a theoretical basis for this cosmology. The Brahmanas , a supplement to the Vedas, offers detailed instructions for rituals and explanations of the duties of priests. It gave form to abstract principals offered up in the earlier texts. Sutras are additional supplements that explain laws and ceremonies.

Hindu Organization and Worship

Christianity is an organized religion with a hierarchy that emphasizes community worship and social service. Eastern religion is not organized in the same way. Hindus have special religious communities but the religion itself is not organized and worship has traditionally been done individually rather than in groups. Even when there are gathering of large numbers of people, individuals tend to engage in worship as individuals.

Hindus and Buddhists are not required to visit temples. There is generally no liturgy or community worship for a congregation at a temple. The largest gathering usually take place at festivals, when some public ceremonies are held. Otherwise temples are mostly empty of people unless they are tourist attractions or are very popular. As a rule individuals come and go to temples when they please and worship on a one on one basis with the god they are praying to. Temples are often sought as quiet places for meditation. Worship can often be done in front of altars at home just as well as it can be done at a temple.

Reverence toward sacred images is very important. Sacred images are treated as kings in their temples and honored guest in people’s homes. This reverence is an expression of darshan (See Below). Common prayer times are sunrise and sunset when priests conduct ritual offering to the icon in the sanctuary of the temple.

The religious scholar A.L. Basham, wrote: “The most important religious acts of the Hindu are performed within the home. The life of the individual is hedged with sacraments of all kinds, which accompany him not merely from cradle to grave, but even from conception to long after death; for rites are performed while an unborn child is still in the womb to ensue its safety; and an ancestor is cared for in the after-life by special ceremonies performed by his descendants.”

Hanuman, Fall of Laxmanai
At certain times of the day family members make offerings and say prayers at the family altar. Sometimes they say their prayers together, with the head of the household leading. Other times they do them at separate times. The lighting of a lamp and incense is a usual part of the ritual. Sweets, coconut, money and fruit are left as offerings. Prayers are usually said every day. Thursday is regarded as a particularly auspicious time to say them.

See Temples.

Hindu Beliefs

Hindus believe in four purushartha (aims of the living, or instrumental and ultimate goals): 1) artha (material prosperity); 2) kama (satisfaction of legitimate desires); 3) dharma (moral conduct and duties associated with one’s station in life); and 4) moksha (obtaining release from the cycle of deaths and rebirths). These aims are thought to apply to everyone, regardless of caste, from Brahmin to Untouchables.

According to the advaita philosophy the world and everything in it is an illusion and is one. There is only one divine principle in Hinduism and all the different gods are manifestations of this cosmic unity. Hindus often say, "We believe God is everywhere...We believe God is you, too." The only essential truth and desire is the one that is possessed within. Other things found in life are generally distortions and untruths.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “From its beginnings, Hinduism has possessed a remarkable ability to assimilate rather than reject new ideas. It has developed complex overlays of beliefs, cults, gods, and forms of worship. Hindus recognize no single founder or prophet. There is no single holy book similar to the Bible or Qur’an; the religion is not supervised and interpreted by a hierarchy of priests, and its great texts were not inscribed but handed down as an oral tradition. Hindu worship is based on a one-to-one relationship between devotee and god rather than being congregational. This practice intensified beginning in the seventh century with the popularity of bhakti, passionate personal devotion to an individual god or goddess. Over the centuries, a number of important poets and musician-saints emerged from the bhakti tradition whose works, such as the Gita Govinda, became classics of Indian culture.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

Many Hindus view life, existence and cosmology as too complicated to be followed a simple creed. It is therefore up to an individual or group to pick the aspects of the religion that they feel applies to them.

Monotheism and Hinduism, See Hindu Gods

Hinduism, Reincarnation and Transmigration

Gandhi cremation
Reincarnation is the transmigration of the soul from one life form to another. It doesn’t just apply to humans but to all creatures and some non-living things too. Transmigration of the soul can take place from a human or creature into another human or creature up or down a scale based on good and evil deeds (See Karma Below). If a person has lived a virtuous life he moves up the scale, say, from a low caste to a high caste. If a person has lived an unworthy life he moves down the scale, say, from a low caste to a rat.

Reincarnation is a belief found in most Asian religions and is a cornerstone of all the major religions found in India except Islam. The Hindu idea of reincarnation is roughly the same regardless of which Hindu god an individual venerates most.

The Hindu concept of reincarnation first appeared in the Upanishads and is believed to have originated in the Ganges Plain and was absorbed b the Aryan-centered Hinduism as the Aryans moved into the Ganges Plain. Beliefs in reincarnation are not just found in India and Asia but are found in tribal cultures all over the world and were held by the ancient Greeks, Vikings and other groups in the West. Ideas about reincarnation are probably very old and were held by people who lived in Neolithic times.

Hindu Beliefs About Reincarnation

The Upanishads, originating as commentaries on the Vedas between about 800 and 200 B.C., contain speculations on the meaning of existence that have greatly influenced Indian religious traditions. Most important is the concept of atman (the human soul), which is an individual manifestation of brahman . Atman is of the same nature as brahman , characterized either as an impersonal force or as God, and has as its goal the recognition of identity with brahman . This fusion is not possible, however, as long as the individual remains bound to the world of the flesh and desires. In fact, the deathless atman that is so bound will not join with brahman after the death of the body but will experience continuous rebirth. This fundamental concept of the transmigration of atman , or reincarnation after death, lies at the heart of the religions emerging from India. [Source: Library of Congress]

Reincarnation is viewed as a never-ending set of cycles ( yugas and kalpas ). One may be reincarnated millions of times. The doctrine that the soul repeatedly dies and is reborn is called samsara (Sanskrit for migration). Karma determines what a person is reincarnated as. Escape from the weary cycle of reincarnation can be achieved through escape into “an unchanging anonymous Absolute" and attaining moksha , the Hindu equivalent or nirvana . For More on These Ideas See Below.

According to Hindu theology an atman (an internal self or soul) dwells in each person as a kind of cosmic energy that exists beyond worldly reality and karma and doesn’t require good deeds or prayers to improve on itself. The problem is that few creatures can tune into their atman and thus require deeds and prayer to help them establish their place in the world Reincarnation helps them do this and evolve to reach closer to their atman.

Hierarchy of Beings according to Jain Thought
but also applicable to Hindu, Buddhist Thought
The cycles of birth and death are perceived a continuations of the disintegrating force of Creation while transmigration of the soul from one life to another is viewed a perpetuation of the separation of the individual from the unifying force of existence. The aim of the individual is to "get off the wheel," to escape the cycle and merge finally with the Oneness that was there before Creation began. into the original One. Methods used on the path of escaping reincarnation include yoga, meditation, and charity. Since the chances of escaping it are quite low people are encouraged to work to achieve a better position in their next life by doing good deeds, living simply and praying a lot.

Behavior at the end of one’s life and last thought before dying are believed to be very important in determining how an individual will be reincarnated. Thus a great deal of care goes into making sure a person is well cared before they die and after. This is achieved by creating a calm atmosphere and reading Vedic scriptures and reciting mantras so the soon-to-be-dead can earn as much merit as possible.


Karma is the means in which a person controls his or her destiny through good or evil deeds. Defined by some scholars as “the whole ethical consequences of one’s actions,” it is a moral force that survives death, determines one’s existence in future lives and has defined existence in past lives.

Karma is a Sanskrit word that means "work" or "action” and the “result of a work or action.” It describes a "reap what you sow" and the “cause and effect” doctrine in which good actions will be rewarded and bad actions will be punished on both universal and individual levels and influence one’s reincarnation. The emphasis in karma beliefs is not based on punishment for bad deeds but rather on improving one's karma by learning from one's mistakes and performing pure deeds, praying, mediating and taking actions to purify oneself.

The concepts of reincarnation, caste and karma are linked, with karma being carried over from one life to the next, determining the life or caste of a person in their next life. Based on whether their karma is generally good or bad, people are reborn in higher or lower castes. Some sinners come back as animals that befits their crimes. A meat stealer may come back as a jackal, a grain thief as a rat. The worst sinners are condemned to the lowest hells where they are eaten by birds or cooked in pots.

Indian religious tradition sees karma as the source of the problem of transmigration. While associated with physical form, for example, in a human body, beings experience the universe through their senses and their minds and attach themselves to the people and things around them and constantly lose sight of their true existence as atman , which is of the same nature as brahman . As the time comes for the dropping of the body, the fruits of good and evil actions in the past remain with atman , clinging to it, causing a tendency to continue experience in other existences after death. Good deeds in this life may lead to a happy rebirth in a better life, and evil deeds may lead to a lower existence, but eventually the consequences of past deeds will be worked out, and the individual will seek more experiences in a physical world. In this manner, the bound or ignorant atman wanders from life to life, in heavens and hells and in many different bodies. The universe may expand and be destroyed numerous times, but the bound atman will not achieve release. [Source: Library of Congress]

Hindu Gods

20120501-Lakshimaaja_Ravi_Varma 1896.jpg
According to Hindu scriptures there are 330 million devas (Hindu Gods). These gods come in many forms and types. Some well-known ones are featured in well-known Hindu myths. Some local ones are worshiped in only a few villages or even by a few villagers. Some are associated with animals, plants (all living things are regarded as divine) as well as natural objects and forces. Others are deified ancestors or historical figures. Many deities are associated with particular places or specialized powers or seasons.

The pantheon of gods is as complex as it is vast. Identifying which god is which is often very difficult because they are usually depicted as eternally young and have the same serene expressions. Identification is often made from certain features or certain object they are holding or the animal they are riding on. Making matters even more complex is the fact that the names of gods, their stories, ancestry and links with other god often varies quite a bit from place to place. Many gods have been created over the years through the amalgamation of different gods and cults.

Individual Hindus generally recognize a multiplicity of gods but are only devoted to one or a few of them. In Hinduism there is no real hierarchy of gods. Each god and goddess in Hinduism occupies its own heaven and is worshiped with a different set of doctrines and beliefs. Each gets its turn receiving darśan from Hindu followers.

Many Hindu rituals are oriented towards specific deities. Most of the practices are based on sacred treatises of relatively recent origin. Devout Hindus invoke the names of deities at the beginning of business and religious ceremonies. After winning a big case some Hindu lawyers thank the mother goddess Kali with a sacrificed goat.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Today the great majority of Indian people are Hindus. Although Hindus may select one deity for personal worship among the great gods and goddesses and the countless regional and local gods, all of these deities can be under- stood as representing the many aspects of the One.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

Hinduism and the West

Many Westerners travel to India to seek enlightenment. They take part in pilgrimages; live in ashrams; take yoga and meditation classes; receive ayuvedic treatments; and study with gurus. The trend began in the 1960s, with The Beatles among those who participated, and is currently experiencing a revisal with 50 ashrams that cater to Westerners in the holy town of Rishikesh alone. Today travelers are not just hippies but people of all ages from a wide spectrum of society. Interestingly, some of the spiritual center set up for Westerners have become increasingly fashionable among Indians as well.

Hindu nationalists have issued death threats to American academics for having controversial theories about Hindu gods. Emory University’s Paul Courtright, for example, angered such people by suggesting that the god Ganesha might symbolize a limp penis. He became the target of an Internet campaign in which participants said things like “The professor should be hanged” and “wish this person was next to me. I would shoot him dead.” An aide for a professor who wrote a book about the 17th century Hindutva hero Shivaji was attacked by the group of Hindu nationalist thugs Shin Sheva.

Madonna appeared as Shiva at the 1998 MTV awards. The World Vaishnava Association were upset by her suggestive dancing while wearing make-up that represented purity and devotion. Madonna did a Hindu yoga chant (Shanti/ Ashtangi) on her album “Ray of Light.”

Hinduism and Other Religions

Hindus considers Jesus to be a self-realized saint who has reached the highest level of God consciousness.” There are some stories that Jesus traveled to South Asia when he was a teenager to study meditation and returned to Palestine to be a guru for the Jews. The idea of the halo did not originate with Christianity. Gods and spirits in ancient Hindu, Indian, Greek and Roman art sometimes had light radiating from their heads.

Hindus are not required to visit temples and Christians and Muslims are with churches and mosques. Hindus have special religious communities but the religion itself is not organized. Buddhism has monasteries for those who have decided to devote themselves entirely to the religion but no communal place for lay people to worship. Temples attract large crowds during festivals and they are often sought as a quiet place for meditation but worship and initiation rites are often performed in front of an altar at home.

Hindus often seek the blessing of Muslim holy men at Sufi shrines.

20120501-Karma Depiction_of_Violence_Gujarat 4.jpg

Hinduism and Hindutva: A Faith and Its Place in Modern Politics

Professor Val wrote: “Even as Gandhi took Indian politics by storm, some Hindus were forging a more virile and masculine conception of Hinduism, and by the 1930s, as contemporary research has indubitably established, they had established links with Italian fascists and Nazis. India was proudly declared to be the original homeland of the Aryans. Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, had been associated both with the Hindu Mahasabha, a political party which strove without much success to ensure the primacy of Hindu interests, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary organization which even today is viewed as the principal force behind the resurgence of Hindu militancy. The idea of a Hindu rashtra or nation did not bear fruit, and well until the 1980s any political party that openly championed the cause of Hindus was destined to remain an orphan in politics. However, by the late 1980s Hindu nationalists were able to come out of their wilderness, and many of them galvanized their forces around a sixteenth-century mosque in the north Indian city of Ayodhya. They alleged that a Hindu temple, built to commemorate the birth of Lord Rama at that exact spot, had been destroyed to make way for the mosque in 1526, and they demanded the removal of the mosque, which was also described as a palpable reminder to Hindus of their humiliation at the hands of Muslim conquerors. Finally, on 6 December 1992, notwithstanding the assurances of the Indian state that they would not permit the mosque to be desecrated, the Babri Masjid was destroyed when a huge crowd set to work on taking it apart. [Source: Vinay Lal, “Hinduism” in “Encyclopedia of the Modern World,” ed. Peter N. Stearns (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), Vol IV, pp. 10-16. ==]

“In 1997, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a political party that represents the interests of Hindus, and had hitherto held office in only a few northern states, triumphed at the polls and became the leading partner in a coalition that would govern India until 2004. If the BJP did the more explicit work of Hinduism, the cultural work of a resurgent Hinduism was carried out by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an organization that seeks to install pride in Hindu culture, disseminate Hindu writings, oppose conversions from Hinduism to other faiths, and project a favorable view of Hinduism to the outside world. The VHP has also taken upon itself the responsibility to facilitate knowledge of Hinduism around the world, and to embrace the religion aggressively in public forums, and it has active chapters in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Fiji, Trinidad, and elsewhere in the Indian diaspora. During the BJP’s years in power, there were frequent reports of attempts by the BJP and VHP, hotly contested by secularists, to Hinduize cultural institutions, promote the “Hindu science” of astrology as a university-level course, drastically alter the content of Indian history textbooks, and the like. Though the electoral defeat of the BJP in 2004 put some of these concerns into cold storage, the more substantive question is whether the advocates of Hindutva, which is most aptly described as a militant form of Hinduism whose adherents swear by modern realpolitik and the idea of an India that is in its fundamentals a Hindu nation-state, were ever seriously committed to Hinduism, or whether they opportunistically rode the faith to political power. Indeed, one of Hindutva’s most famous ideologues, Vinayak Savarkar, openly stated his dislike for the word ‘Hinduism’, which he described as reminding him of a chaotic and rudderless faith that he thought could not be shepherded to lead India to glory in the modern age of brutal nation-state politics. If Hindu nationalists have arrogated to themselves the role of Hinduism’s defenders, it is also remarkable that many have trashed the faith. Thus the Bajrang Dal, the ‘Army of Hanuman’, which has openly resorted to violence to intimidate Muslims as well as soft Hindus, is quite oblivious of the fact that Hanuman has traditionally been viewed as the very personification of courage, selfless service, and learning. ==

Future of Hinduism

20120502-Puja Brahmana_performing_puja_Taptapani_Orissa.JPG
Brahman performing puja
Professor Val wrote: “Contemporary Hinduism is too diverse, polyphonic, and multi-layered to be encapsulated through only its stellar figures, institutional histories, and the meta narratives which dwell on pan-Indian deities or the familiar sectarian histories of Vaishnavism and Saivism. The worship of minor deities persists, and moreover gods and goddesses die, take birth, or witness some rejuvenation. It will suffice to draw attention to a few of the more arresting developments of recent times. First, both abroad and even among the more affluent classes in India, Hinduism is increasingly being understood through such allied phenomena as yoga, ayurveda, vegetarianism, and even vastu shastra, the science which purports to establish how architecture and building structures could be propitious to human well-being. It is not clear, for instance, whether Jawaharlal Nehru had any propensity towards Hindu beliefs, but he was a keen advocate of yoga. For some Hindus, it is no exaggeration to say, vegetarianism is their dharma, the moral law of their being. To the Hindus in the United States who successfully filed a class-action lawsuit against McDonald’s for using beef fat in the preparation of allegedly “vegetarian” french fires, vegetarianism, and in particular the complete disavowal of beef products, was the most explicit manifestation of their Hinduism. Certainly contemporary accounts of Hinduism can ill-afford to ignore these phenomena. [Source: Vinay Lal, “Hinduism” in “Encyclopedia of the Modern World,” ed. Peter N. Stearns (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), Vol IV, pp. 10-16. ==]

“Secondly, Hinduism is now present world-wide, even though the vast bulk of its practitioners reside in the Indian sub-continent. Diasporic Hinduism takes many forms, and an even more arresting question is whether it simply mimics Hinduism in India, or if it sometimes generates new Hindu practices and even helps to determine Hinduism’s contours in the land of its birth. The nearly 2-million strong affluent Hindu community in the United States is opting for opulent, indeed ostentatious, temples the construction of which is increasingly being handed over to architects and craftsmen imported from India. Hindu communities seem eager to embrace what they view as the most ‘authentic’ forms of Hinduism. Scholars of Hindu nationalism have noted that Hindu militancy in India receives considerable support from Hindus settled in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, and disputes and controversies originating in India often get replayed in the diaspora. The agitation among certain Hindus over the content, regarding Hinduism and ancient India, of sixth-grade world history textbooks in California is a case in point as nearly the same controversies had previously broken out in India. On the other hand, Hinduism has displayed a characteristic versatility in the diaspora. The comparatively minor village deity sometimes encountered in Tamil Nadu, Munisvaran, has been raised to the status of a major god among Malaysian Hindus, and everywhere, from Southeast Asia to Fiji, Mauritius, and Australia, the Tamil diaspora has been successful in transforming the worship of the god Murugan into a major public festival. Using the traditional form of popular Hindu literature called the Puranas as a model, the Indo-Fijian writer, Subramani, published the first Purana ever written in Bhojpuri. It is important to recognize that an overwhelmingly Muslim country such as Indonesia continues to derive much cultural sustenance from Hindu epics and mythological stories.==

student at a Veda school

“Thirdly, Hinduism is, like most other phenomena of our times, a part of the cinematic, television, and digital age. A genre of films called ‘mythologicals’ made popular Hindu narratives from the 1930s onwards, and the film Jai Santoshi Maa (1975) won the goddess many new converts. Santoshi Mother’s ritual fast (vrat) over sixteen consecutive Fridays began to be observed by millions. The observance by the unmarried heroine in the film Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) of another fast, the Karwa Chauth, customarily kept by married Hindu women, apparently instigated many young girls to emulate the film’s heroine. Ramanand Sagar’s epic TV serials, Ramayana (1986-88) and Krishna (1989) brought the Puranic literature to television screens, and B. R. Chopra followed with the mega-serial, Mahabharata (1988-90), relayed on successive Sunday mornings over two years. This seems unobjectionable enough, but some scholars have argued that the television Ramayana homogenizes the Ramkatha (story of Rama), elevating the conservative version of Tulsidas over competing versions. Hinduism has now entered cyberspace, appropriately enough for a religion that, like the world wide web, is extraordinarily decentered, polymorphous, and comparatively lacking in doctrinal authority. New Hindu histories, which are not very attentive either to Hinduism or to the protocols of historical scholarship, are constantly being generated on the web. One website features the “Hindu Holocaust Museum” to document what is alleged to be the murder of millions of Hindus by Muslim invaders over the last millennium. Strangely, some websites on Hinduism not only give an overview of the faith, but also document Islamic terrorism, a decisive sign that Islam is critical to Hindutva’s self-identity.==

“As one contemplates the future of Hinduism, one is also struck by the fact that modernizing Hindus, while eager to project Hinduism as a uniquely tolerant and ancient faith that has been fed by diverse strands, are ironically also tempted to bring Hinduism into conformity with the major semitic faiths. They resent, for example, the description of Hinduism as a polytheistic faith and are keen that Hindus should be viewed as monotheists. They are animated by a feverish sense of history and adamant in suggesting that Hinduism’s truths are compatible with the findings of modern science. The ideologues of Hindutva and their supporters who demolished the Babri Masjid are historical-minded to the extent that they have, unlike Hindus of the past, historicized Hindu deities. The tendency to scientize Hinduism is most palpably on display both in the argument, encountered frequently among Hindu nationalists, that the Vedas are repositories of scientific truths that are now only now being discovered by the scientific community, and in the worldwide dissemination of ‘scientific Hinduism’ by the (many wealthy) Gujarati adherents of Swaminarayan Hinduism. Their extraordinary opulent structures, in London, Delhi, and Bartlett (outside Chicago) are not so much temples as museums of Hinduism. If one accepts that Hinduism is largely a religion of mythos, a religion without a historical founder or a central text, and perfectly at ease with its own indifference to history as a category of knowledge, then there is no question that the attempted transformation of Hinduism into a religion of history among some of its advocates will be one of the most contested elements in its continuing evolution as a faith responsive to one-eighth of humanity.==

'The Hindus: An Alternative History' by Wendy Doniger

1939 meeting of the Hindu nationalst group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)

In a review of the book: “The Hindus: An Alternative History” by Wendy Doniger, Michael Dirda wrote in the Washington Post, “ Any of us might make the same mistake: I didn't really notice the subtitle of Wendy Doniger's massive study, "The Hindus." I knew that she was an eminent Sanskrit scholar at the University of Chicago, author of many books about cultural, religious and folkloric beliefs, and a translator of several Indian classics, including "The Rig Veda" and "The Kamasutra." Her annotations to the latter, that notorious manual of sexual practice, are, I can attest, as entertaining and informative as the book itself. [Source: Michael Dirda, Washington Post, March 19, 2009 <<>>]

“However, "The Hindus: An Alternative History" is probably too scholarly and specialized for readers looking simply for an introduction to Indian philosophy and religion. In its notes Doniger suggests that her book could be used for a 14-week course, and I suspect that it originated as a series of class lectures. She herself recommends some more conventional histories and guides, including Gavin Flood's "An Introduction to Hinduism," John Keay's "India: A History" and that old standby, A.L. Basham's survey "The Wonder That Was India." While Doniger does trace the evolution of Hinduism from the time of the Indus Valley Civilization (2,500 B.C.) to the present, she deliberately emphasizes a small number of recurrent threads, in particular the ways that "women, lower classes and castes, and animals" have endured or surmounted their traditional status. Horses, for instance, are typically glamorous, cows sacred and dogs despised -- but not always. <<>>

“Having been trained as a philologist, Doniger organizes her history around interpretations of the most revered classics of Sanskrit poetry and philosophy. She begins with the Rig Veda, a collection of hymns to the Zeus-like Indra and other ancient gods. This is a work so sacred that manuscripts display no textual differences: To alter a word was unthinkable. She also examines women, castes and animals in the Upanishads -- essentially, meditations on the meaning of the Vedic rituals and myths -- and the 2,000-year-old Indian epics "The Ramayana" and "The Mahabharata." <<>>

“Consider, for instance, the portrait of Sita in "The Ramayana." In this long poem, the beautiful Sita is kidnapped by an ogre but eventually rescued by her husband, Rama. Unfortunately, after the initial happiness of their reunion, Rama starts to wonder about his wife's chastity during her long imprisonment. Would she not have succumbed or been forced to submit to the lecherous ogre's embrace? Although Sita proves and proves again her innocence, Doniger underscores the crassness of Rama's jealous-husband behavior but also notes certain textual hints that Sita is more sexual than she appears and that her feelings for Rama's brother Lakshmana might well be more than familial. As Sita is the classic model of Indian womanhood, such sacrilegious speculation once led to Doniger being egged at a London lecture. <<>>

RSS march in Bhopal

“"The Mahabharata" is an immensely long poem -- seven times the combined length of the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" -- that relates the history of the five Pandava brothers (who are all married to the same woman, Draupadi -- Doniger expresses regret that she, rather than Sita, didn't provide the template for Indian womanhood). The Pandavas eventually go to war against their cousins, the 100 sons of Dhritarashtra, and the poem climaxes in a great battle. But just before the two armies clash, the formidable warrior Arjuna suddenly recoils from the coming slaughter, overwhelmed by horror and sorrow. In a still moment outside of time, he begins to discuss the meaning of life with his charioteer, the god Krishna in human form. This section of the epic is often read separately, being one of the supreme masterpieces of spiritual literature: the "Bhagavad-Gita," or "Song of the Blessed One." In the end, Krishna persuades Arjuna to let go of personal desire, unite his will to that of God and perform his sacred duty (dharma) in a spirit of acceptance and detachment, without thought of either success or failure. <<>>

“Doniger also tells another story from "The Mahabharata," one in which the five Pandavas are all trying to reach heaven and each drops away, until only Yudhishthira continues on the straight and narrow path, alone except for a stray dog that follows him. At the story's climax, Indra appears to this most virtuous Indian brother and, praising him, requests that he step into his celestial chariot and be transported to heaven -- just as soon as he gets rid of that mangy dog. In the words of the old Christian hymn, "once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide," and Yudhishthira refuses to abandon this animal who has been so loyal to him. At which point the dog reveals himself to be Dharma, the god of right behavior: "Great king . . . Because you turned down the celestial chariot, by insisting, 'This dog is devoted to me,' there is no one your equal in heaven." Since dogs were traditionally unclean, Doniger notes of this story that "it is as if the god of the Hebrew Bible had become incarnate in a pig." This is characteristic of her cheeky tone, given to jokes and wordplay: According to Doniger, when Sita glimpses a golden deer encrusted with jewels, she is "delighted to find that Tiffany's has a branch in the forest." Such humor -- sometimes charming, as here -- reflects that strange desire of modern academics to be viewed not only as learned but also as hip and funky. <<>>

“While deconstructing her various Indian texts, Doniger duly explores such concepts as karma ("action, or the fruits of action"); ahimsa (nonviolence); bhakti ("passionate devotion to a god"); samsara (the circle of transmigration of souls); and the caste system, consisting of Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors and kings), Vaishyas (merchants) and Shudras (servants), as well as that fifth class, the Dalits, or so-called Untouchables. Just learning Sanskrit words like moksha (release) is an education in itself. <<>>

RSS volunteers helping out after the 2004 tsunami

“Doniger's last chapters are the most historical and by far the easiest. She traces the impact of the British on Indian culture and writes movingly about Kipling's "Kim," that great-hearted novel packed with colonialist attitudes yet full of the utmost sympathy and love for India and its people. She discusses Orientalism, Gandhi, right-wing Indian political groups and Bollywood, before finishing her story by touching on the reception and distortion -- Tantric sex! -- of Hindu culture in the West. Wendy Doniger's erudite "alternative history" shouldn't be anyone's introduction to Hinduism. But once you've learned the basics about this most spiritual of cultures, don't miss this equivalent of a brilliant graduate course from a feisty and exhilarating teacher.” <<>>

Book: “The Hindus: An Alternative History” by Wendy Doniger, Penguin Press,, 2009. Doniger is a University of Chicago professor.

Wendy Doniger’s Book Withdrawn from Publication in India

In February 2104, Penguin India, an arm of US-based publisher Penguin Random House, announced it was going to stop publication of “The Hindus: An Alternative History” by Wendy Doniger, after rightwing Hindu activists complained that it denigrated their religion. Amy Kazmin wrote in the Financial Times, “Confronted with several criminal complaints and a civil lawsuit, Penguin India agreed to destroy all unsold copies of... the critically acclaimed book. As part of the out-of-court settlement, India’s Shiksha Bachao Andolan – or Save Education Movement, a conservative Hindu activist group which sued Penguin in 2011 over the book – has agreed to withdraw its lawsuit and criminal complaints against Penguin and Ms Doniger. [Source: Amy Kazmin, Financial Times, February 12, 2014 |~|]

“In a statement, Ms Doniger said she was “angry and disappointed” at the events, and “deeply troubled about what it foretells for free speech in India in the present, and steadily worsening, political climate”. She said she did not “blame” Penguin, which published the book “knowing it would stir anger in the Hindutva ranks” and defended it legally for four years. She said Penguin was “finally defeated by the true villain of the piece – Indian law, which makes it a criminal rather than civil offence to publish a book that offends any Hindu, a law that jeopardises the physical safety of any publisher, no matter how ludicrous the accusation”. Her works would remain available in India electronically, Ms Doniger said, including on Kindle. “I am glad that in this age of internet, it is no longer possible to suppress a book,” she said. “If legal means of publication fail, the internet has other means of keeping books in circulation. People in India will always be able to read books of all sorts, including some that may offend some Hindus.” |~|

Christian girl burned after Hindu nationalists threw a firebomb into her family's home

“Penguin India’s decision to destroy all copies of a 692-page academic tome on ancient Hindu mythology by a leading Sanskrit scholar has caused a storm, with some Indians accusing the publisher of capitulating on critical principles of free speech and academic freedom. “It was very unwise for Penguin to agree to this,” said Swapan Dasgupta, a political commentator. “When publishers get intimidated and cowed down by fringe groups, rather than stand up to scrutiny, then it’s very dangerous. It opens the floodgates for all sorts of little fringe groups.” Penguin appeared to have “taken the line of least resistance” in settling with Shiksha Bachao Andolan’s demands, Mr Dasgupta said, calling the deal “very disturbing”. Lawrence Liang, an attorney and expert on cultural politics with the Bangalore-based Alternative Law Forum, said Penguin’s decision “smacks of convenience”, as the book had already been widely sold. |~|

“India ostensibly protects free speech, and is known for its vigorous political debate. But it also has highly elastic laws against inciting hatred, or “hurting the sentiments” of religious communities, which conservatives from across the religious spectrum have successfully used to suppress creative works not to their tastes, such as paintings of Hindu deities by the late artist M.F. Husain. “The political economy of hurt sentiment has been extremely well-played by the religious right,” Mr Liang said. “Every religious community knows how to play this game. But publishers have to be willing to take this fight on.” |~|

“Ms Doniger has written 16 books, including modern translations of Sanskrit literature with annotations and commentary. However, her “joyful, sexual, pagan account of Hinduism,” as Mr Liang describes it, has made her the bête noire of rightwing Hindu groups, which embrace more puritanical aspects of their faith. Hindu critics claimed The Hindus contained errors and that Ms Doniger’s use of Freudian psychoanalytical tools to analyse ancient myths was disrespectful to Hindu deities. The settlement comes as India gears up for parliamentary elections, which India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is widely expected to win.” |~|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Indian History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “The Creators” by Daniel Boorstin; “A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples” by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications

Last updated September 2018

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