Hinduism is the world’s third large religion, with around 850 million followers. One out of ever seven people in the world is a Hindu. 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.

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).

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.

“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.

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: heart of Hinduism hinduism.iskcon.com/index ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; ; Religious Tolerance Hindu Page religioustolerance.org/hinduism ; Hinduism Index uni-giessen.de/~gk1415/hinduism ; Hindu Universe hindunet.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hinduism Home Page uwacadweb.uwyo.edu/religionet/er/hinduism ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Hindusim Today Image Gallery himalayanacademy.com/resources/books/wih/image-library ; India Divine Pictures of Hinduism indiadivine.org/pictures

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.

Indian Religion

Religions in India: 1) Hindu (80.5 percent); 2) Muslim (13.4 percent); 3) Christian (2.3 percent); 4) Sikh (1.9 percent); 5) Buddhists (0.5 percent); and 6) Jain (0.4 percent). Another 0.6 percent belongs to other faiths, such as Zoroastrianism and numerous religions associated with tribal groups. There are about 180 million Muslims in India. Only Pakistan and Indonesia have more. There are few members of the Baha’i faith. [Source: 2001 Indian census, Library of Congress, 2005]

The above percentages have changed little since the 1961 census. In spite of Hinduism’s inherent pantheism, adherents often focus much of their devotion on a specific deity—such as Vaishnivites (those primarily devoted to Vishnu and related deities) and Shaivites (Shiva and related deities)—but these denominations rarely have notable social, economic, or political consequences. The Indian constitution confers religious freedom for individuals and prohibits religious discrimination, but in spite of this, there have been enduring tensions—and occasional conflict—among religious communities, most notably between Hindus and Muslims. [Source: Library of Congress 2005]

It is impossible to know India without understanding its religious beliefs and practices, which have a large impact on the personal lives of most Indians and influence public life on a daily basis. Indian religions have deep historical roots that are recollected by contemporary Indians. The ancient culture of South Asia, going back at least 4,500 years, has come down to India primarily in the form of religious texts. The artistic heritage, as well as intellectual and philosophical contributions, has always owed much to religious thought and symbolism. Contacts between India and other cultures have led to the spread of Indian religions throughout the world, resulting in the extensive influence of Indian thought and practice on Southeast and East Asia in ancient times and, more recently, in the diffusion of Indian religions to Europe and North America. Within India, on a day-to-day basis, the vast majority of people engage in ritual actions that are motivated by religious systems that owe much to the past but are continuously evolving. Religion, then, is one of the most important facets of Indian history and contemporary life. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995]

The richness of India's religious life is evident every morning in Delhi. The dawn is greeted with the chanting of the Sikh guards, bells and prayers from Hindu temples, and the sound of the muezzin calling the Muslim faithful to prayer. Before the partition of India and Pakistan, and to a lesser degree today, there has traditionally been a certain amount of intermingling of faiths on the Indian subcontinent—Hindus praying at the tombs of Muslim saints; Muslims warding off disease by offering coconuts to the Hindu goddess Shitala; Sikhs participating in the Hindu Festival of Lights. The poet-saint Kabir is revered by Hindus, Muslim and Sikhs.

Hindu distribution worldwide

Major Religions in India

A number of world religions originated in India, and others that started elsewhere found fertile ground for growth there. Devotees of Hinduism, a varied grouping of philosophical and devotional traditions, officially numbered 687.6 million people, or 82 percent of the population in the 1991 census. Buddhism and Jainism, ancient monastic traditions, have had a major influence on Indian art, philosophy, and society and remain important minority religions in the late twentieth century. Buddhists represented 0.8 percent of the total population while Jains represented 0.4 percent in 1991. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Islam spread from the West throughout South Asia, from the early eighth century, to become the largest minority religion in India. In fact India has at least the fourth largest Muslim population in the world (after Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh). Some analysts put the number of Indian Muslims even higher, which would give India the second largest Muslim population in the world. Sikhism, which started in Punjab in the sixteenth century, has spread throughout India and the world since the mid-nineteenth century. *

Christianity, represented by almost all denominations, traces its history in India back to the time of the apostles and counted 19.6 million members in India in 1991. Judaism and Zoroastrianism, arriving originally with traders and exiles from the West, are represented by small populations, mostly concentrated on India's west coast. A variety of independent tribal religious groups also are lively carriers of unique ethnic traditions. *

Religious Diversity, Tolerance and Intolerance in India

The listing of the major belief systems only scratches the surface of the remarkable diversity in Indian religious life. The complex doctrines and institutions of the great traditions, preserved through written documents, are divided into numerous schools of thought, sects, and paths of devotion. In many cases, these divisions stem from the teachings of great masters, who arise continually to lead bands of followers with a new revelation or path to salvation. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In contemporary India, the migration of large numbers of people to urban centers and the impact of modernization have led to the emergence of new religions, revivals, and reforms within the great traditions that create original bodies of teaching and kinds of practice. In other cases, diversity appears through the integration or acculturation of entire social groups--each with its own vision of the divine--within the world of village farming communities that base their culture on literary and ritual traditions preserved in Sanskrit or in regional languages. The local interaction between great traditions and local forms of worship and belief, based on village, caste, tribal, and linguistic differences, creates a range of ritual forms and mythology that varies widely throughout the country. Within this range of differences, Indian religions have demonstrated for many centuries a considerable degree of tolerance for alternate visions of the divine and of salvation. *

Concentrations of Hindus is India

Religious tolerance in India finds expression in the definition of the nation as a secular state, within which the government since independence has officially remained separate from any one religion, allowing all forms of belief equal status before the law. In practice it has proven difficult to divide religious affiliation from public life. In states where the majority of the population embrace one religion, the boundary between government and religion becomes permeable; in Tamil Nadu, for example, the state government manages Hindu temples, while in Punjab an avowedly Sikh political party usually controls the state assembly. One of the most notable features of Indian politics, particularly since the 1960s, has been the steady growth of militant ideologies that see in only one religious tradition the way toward salvation and demand that public institutions conform to their interpretations of scripture. The vitality of religious fundamentalism and its impact on public life in the form of riots and religion-based political parties have been among the greatest challenges to Indian political institutions in the 1990s.

In rural India, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs generally coexist peacefully and often live together side by side. But often though they live in separate neighborhoods as different castes do. Tensions between members of different religious communities are often most intense in the cities, where politicians ruthlessly fan fears and animosities.

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.

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.

Hindus in Bangladesh

Early Religious Practices in India

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “An ancient form of religious practice was the worship of spirits believed to dwell in trees, rivers, and rocks. Many Indians still hold such beliefs. One form these beliefs took is the worship of yakshas and yakshis, male and female deities associated with the fertility of the earth. Serpent kings called nagarajas and their consorts, naginis, as well as makaras, fabulous crocodilelike creatures, are all associated with the cult of life-giving waters. These early deities were incorporated into the major Indian religions as minor gods. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Only fragmentary information can be pieced together about the religion of the Indus Valley civilization. Horned animals, trees, many female figurines (probably mother goddesses), and phallic sculptures suggest that the people practiced some kind of fertility worship. Depictions of figures in yogic postures suggest that meditation was used. These images relate to those of later Indian religions, and some may be prototypes of later Indian deities. <*>

“Some time after the collapse of the Indus civilization, Aryans migrated down to the subcontinent from Central Asian steppes, bringing with them beliefs in gods, predominantly male, who personified forces and nature and were worshipped in elaborate sacrifices performed by Brahmins, the priestly class. The Aryans composed religious texts beginning with the Rig Veda, Soma Veda, and Athar Veda (ca. 1500–1200 B.C.), which contained hymns to the gods and descriptions of the customs, behavior, and traditions of Aryan life. The Upanishads, composed later (700–500 B.C.), contain profound philosophical speculations about the “One who lies behind.” This “One,” called Brahman, is eternal, formless, all encompassing, and the origin and essence of all things.” <*>

History of Hinduism

Hinduism is the oldest of the great religions. Its birth has been dated to between 2000 and 1500 B.C., a period of time when Aryans invaded the Indian subcontinent and grafted their religion onto beliefs of the people they conquered, namely the Dravidians. It is thought to have emerged from a kind of animism that predated organized religion and is still alive among some tribal peoples. Its origin however is unknown and difficult to date with any precision.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “There is no single founder or doctrine of Hinduism. It has evolved over the centuries, incorporating previous doctrines and deities, for instance, maintaining reverence for the ancient Vedic texts and adopting some of the Vedic deities but in new guises, and responding to non-Vedic religious movements such as Buddhism and Jainism. Hinduism as we know it seems to have coalesced at the beginning of the first millenniumA.D.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

The earliest form of Hinduism was essentially nature worship. Based on study of its earliest scriptures, scholars say it “was full of childhood's simple faith" and was "not yet burdened with intellectual brooding." Under the Aryans Hinduism and the caste system evolved together.

Hinduism has a history of amalgamating everything that has come in its path. As it expanded it absorbed rather than conquered or drove out the religions, beliefs and gods that it encountered. Buddhism grew out Hindu. It developed in the 6th century B.C. partly as a rejection of the caste system. Hinduism and Buddhism still have many similarities and shared beliefs.


Early Indo-European charioteers
in this case, the Hittites
The Hindu religion is thought to have originated with the Aryans, a loosely federated, semi-nomadic herdsmen people who spread both east and west from Central Asia, taking their sky gods with them. The Aryans first settled in the Punjab and later moved on to the Ganges Valley. They are also ancestors of pre-Homeric Greeks, Teutons and Celts.

Between 2000 and 1000 B.C. successive waves of Aryans migrated to India from Central Asia (as well as eastern Europe, western Russia and Persia) . The Aryans invaded India between 1500 and 1200 B.C., around the same time they moved into the Mediterranean and western Europe. The relatively light-skinned Aryans drove many of the original dark-skinned Dravidian inhabitants south. Some scholars believe they conquered the Indus River civilizations of Harappa ad Mohenjo--daro. Others think the Indus civilization had already been destroyed or was moribund when they arrived.

Aryans are defined as early speakers of Vedic Sanskrit, an Indo-European language that provided the basis for all the languages in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as the majority those in Europe.

Based on linguistic evidence Aryans are believed to have originated from the steppes of Central Asia. They were led by a warrior aristocracy whose legendary deeds are recorded in Rig Veda. The term arya in Sanskrit means “noble.” The Aryans introduced the horse-drawn chariot, the Hindu religion and sacred books known as the Vedas to present-day India.

The term “Aryan” has been used by European writers since 1835 but fell into disfavor in the mid 20th century because of its association with Nazi propaganda, which described the people of northern and central Europe as being the purest representatives of an “Aryan race.” Today, historians and ethnologist who discuss Aryans make it very clear they are taking about speakers of Aryan languages and are not taking about Aryan blood, hair, eyes or other features.

Aryan Religion

Hindu fire ritual
The Aryans were originally nature worshipers who revered a number of gods and believed that their gods represented forces of nature. Most of the important deities were male, including a celestial father and a king of gods who lit up the sun, exhaled the wind and knew the pathway of the birds.

Brahmins, a priestly class sort of like the Druids, were the only people who could perform religious ceremonies based initially on knowledge that was passed down orally over the centuries. Their ability to memorize was quite extraordinary because the rituals they presided over were quite involved and complex. The hymns and knowledge associated with these rituals has survived intact since 1000 B.C.

Aryans that settled in the Punjab and wrote hymns to natural deities of which 1028 were recorded in the Verdic verses. The Brahmanas were written between 800 and 600 B.C. to explain the hymns and speculate about their meaning.

Among the differences between the early Aryan religion and Hinduism are: 1) Aryan religion had no icons and no personal relationships with a single supreme deity whereas Hinduism does; 2) Aryan offering were made for something in return while Hindus make offering as a sign of worship; 3) The Aryan gods rode chariots while Hindu ones ride mounted on their animals; and 4) nearly all the early Aryan gods were male while Hindus have male and female gods as well as ones with cobra heads and ones that are worshiped with phallic symbols. ["World Religions" edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Aryan Sacrifices

Sati, Hindu widow burning
The Aryans conducted elaborate sacrifices and incorporated fire and an inebriating drink called soma ("Drink of Strength") into them. The sacrifices were often so complex and expensive only the upper classes could afford them. In royal sacrifices the king was sprinkled with soma and a horse was set free for year and then captured and sacrificed in the name of the queen to insure good health for the royal family.

In the early days cattle were sometimes sacrificed. The Vedas describe funerals in which a cow was slaughtered while mantras were chanted and the body of the animal was used to cover the human body on the funeral pyre, limb by limb, in a clear effort to create a double of the human body and direct negative energy into it. In most cases however it seems that milk, ghee and vegetable substance were offered up at ritual ceremonies rather than cows or any other animals.

Sacrifices were festive events meant to be enjoyed and bring fertility and prosperity. They were not intended to help people in the afterlife. Aryan religion was concerned mostly with the here and now not the hereafter. Some elements of the sacrifice though were identified with parts of the cosmos and the sacrifice was regarded as a re-enactment of creation.

Sometimes human sacrifices were held. The victims were usually criminals provided to the king or volunteers who hoped to gain quick trip to a better world. Animal sacrifices are largely a thing of the past. The ritual lives on the offerings of rice balls and marigold pedals left at temples.

See Ancient Cow Eating, Sacred Cows

Mixing of Indus, Aryan and Dravidian Beliefs

20120501-519px-Civilta ValleIndoMappa.png
Indus Valley Civilization
Hinduism and Hindu culture is believed to have originated from a intermixing of Aryan and Dravidian beliefs. It is believed that one reason there are so many gods and different customs in Hinduism is that is how the Aryan and Dravidian beliefs accommodated one another.

The source of Dravidian culture, is believed to be the ancient Indus Civilization, which flourished around 2000 B.C. in what is now Pakistan. Members of this civilization worshiped an earth goddess, similar to the Hindu goddess Shakti, and revered yogi-like male figures that surrounded themselves with animals and were worshiped with phallic symbols, suggesting Shiva. As is true in Hinduism today certain animals, such as bulls, and certain plants such as pipal trees, were held sacred.

Scores of stone phallic, vulva and bull figures have been found in Indus ruins and some archaeologists and historians present them as evidence this culture may have been the precursor to Hinduism because the bull was mount of the Hindu god Shiva and the phallic symbols' resembled the lingams (phallic emblems) used to worship Shiva.

One three sided Indus seal that was unearthed depicts a squatting god surrounded by animals which, some scholars say, may have been a forerunner of Shiva. Some of the most beautifully carved images on seals are of cattle, which suggests a link to cattle worship. Some tokens show humans bowing before a pipal tree shading figures that may be deities. Pipal trees symbolize fertility and protection in Hinduism.

The Mother Goddess did not become a major part of Hinduism until relatively late. It is believed that she existed on the fringe in the early years of Hinduism and became incorporated when the time was right. The Shiva-like practices were absorbed at a much earlier time.

Transition From the Aryan Religion to Hinduism

Indus swastika seal
As Aryans spread throughout India, they absorbed legends and beliefs of the people they conquered, including ideas about karma, reincarnation and strict laws that grew into the caste system. The Brahmanas or Priestlies , written between 1000 and 800 B.C., gave more and more power to Brahma priests at the expense of the old Vedic Gods. The Upanishads , written between 800 and 600 B.C., addressed reincarnation and karma and the unity of the soul with the cosmos.

About the same time the idea of reincarnation gained importance the status of religious ascetics was elevated. Ascetics were perceived as people who sought religious holiness by tapping into the forces of the universe and aimed to escape the endless series of deaths and rebirth of reincarnation to attain moksha (Hindu nirvana). This idea made religious life accessible to everybody not just the Brahmins.

Indus cow seal
At the same time this was occurring there was a movement against the power of the Brahmas, the grip of the caste system and the emphasis on sacrifices. Buddhism and Jainism grew out of this movement. Beginning in the 3rd century B.C. Hinduism went into decline and was largely replaced by Buddhism in India. Hinduism itself went through dramatic changes, namely the rise of Shiva and Vishnu and the transformation of their identity and the incorporation of ideas like Tantrism

Hindu Revival

The Gupta Empire (A.D. 320 to 647) was marked by the return of Hinduism as the state religion. The Gupta era us regarded as the classical period of Hindu art, literature and science.

After Buddhism died out Hinduism returned in the form of a religion called Brahmanism (named after the caste of Hindu priests). Vedic traditions were combined with the worship of a multitude of indigenous gods (seen as manifestations of Vedic gods). The Gupta king was worshiped as a manifestation of Vishnu, and Buddhism gradually disappeared.

20120501-Sanskrit Atashgah-inscription-jackson1911.jpg
ancient Sanskrit inscriptions
The caste system was reintroduced. Brahmans held great power and became wealthy landowners, and a great many new-castes were created, in part to incorporate the large number of foreigners that moved into the region.

Buddhism all but disappeared from India by the A.D. 6th century. The Chinese monk Fa-hsien ventured as far west as India around A.D. 400 to study Buddhism. He traveled from Xian to the west overland and cross into India over Himalayan passes and sailed back to China on route that took him through present-day Indonesia.

Attempts to reform Hinduism only led to new sects that still follow the basic tenets of the Hindu mainstream. During medieval times, when Hinduism was influenced and threatened by Islam and Christianity, there was a movement toward monotheism and away from idolatry and the caste system. The cults of Rama and Vishnu grew in the 16th century out of this movement, with both deities being regarded as supreme gods. The Krishna cult, known for its devotional chants and song meetings, highlighted Krishna’s erotic adventures as a metaphor for the relationship between mankind and God. [ World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Modern Changes in Hinduism

The process of modernization in India, well under way during the British colonial period (1757-1947), has brought with it major changes in the organizational forms of all religions. The missionary societies that came with the British in the early nineteenth century imported, along with modern concepts of print media and propaganda, an ideology of intellectual competition and religious conversion. Instead of the customary interpretation of rituals and texts along received sectarian lines, Indian religious leaders began devising intellectual syntheses that could encompass the varied beliefs and practices of their traditions within a framework that could withstand Christian arguments. [Source: Library of Congress *]

One of the most important reactions was the Arya Samaj (Arya Society), founded in 1875 by Swami Dayananda (1824-83), which went back to the Vedas as the ultimate revealed source of truth and attempted to purge Hinduism of more recent accretions that had no basis in the scriptures. Originally active in Punjab, this small society still works to purify Hindu rituals, converts tribal people, and runs centers throughout India. Other responses include the Ramakrishna order of renunciants established by Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), which set forth a unifying philosophy that followed the Vedanta teacher Shankara and other teachers by accepting all paths as ultimately leading toward union with the undifferentiated brahman. One of the primary goals of the Ramakrishna movement has been to educate Hindus about their own scriptures; the movement also runs book stores and study centers in all major cities. Both of these paths are directly modeled on the institutional and intellectual forms used by European missionaries and religious leaders. *

The perception that one's religion is in danger receives periodic reinforcement from the phenomenon of public mass religious conversion that receives coverage from the news media. Many of these events feature groups of Scheduled Caste members who attempt to escape social disabilities through conversion to alternative religions, usually Islam, Buddhism, or Christianity. These occasions attract the attention of fundamentalist organizations from all sides and heighten public consciousness of religious divisions. The most conspicuous movement of this sort occurred during the 1950s during the mass conversions of Mahars to Buddhism. In the early 1980s, the primary example was the conversion of Dalits to Islam in Meenakshipuram, Tamil Nadu, an event that resulted in considerable discussion in the media and an escalation of agitation in South India. Meanwhile, conversions to Christianity among tribal groups continue, with growing opposition from Hindu revivalist organizations. *

Rise of Political Hinduism

During the 1930s and 1940s, again responding to institutional models from Europe, the more activist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS--National Volunteer Organisation) emerged to protect Hinduism. The RSS had been founded in 1925 by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar (1889-1944), a native of Maharashtra who was concerned that Hinduism was in danger of extinction from its external foes and needed a strong, militant force of devotees to protect it. Members believe that the Indian nation is the divine mother to whom the citizen devotes mind and body through karma-yoga , or disciplined service. Training consists of daily early morning meetings at which the saffron, white, and green Indian flag and the swallow-tailed, red-ocher RSS banner are raised as rows of members salute silently. [Source: Library of Congress *]

There are then group drills in gymnastic exercises, sports, discussions of patriotic themes from a primarily Hindu viewpoint, group singing of nationalist songs, and a final assembly with saluting. Throughout India in the early 1990s, there were cells (shakha ) of fifty to 100 members from all walks of life (the RSS rejects class differences) who were devoted to the nation. Although it has attracted hundreds of thousands of members from all over India, the RSS has never projected itself as a political party, always remaining a national club that is ready to send its members to trouble spots for the defense of the nation and the national culture, embodied in Hinduism. The Jana Sangh, established in 1951, was the RSS's political arm until it joined the Janata Party in 1977 and its membership split away in 1980 to form the BJP. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Another activist organization is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP--World Hindu Council), founded in 1964. The VHP runs schools, medical centers, hostels, orphanages, and mass movements to support Hinduism wherever it is perceived as threatened. This ultraconservative organization played a role in the extensive agitation for the demolition of a mosque in Ayodhya, leading to the destruction of the structure during a huge demonstration in 1992. As a result of the VHP's complicity in the affair, the Ministry of Home Affairs imposed a two-year ban on the Vishwa Hindu Parishad under the Unlawful Activities Act. When the ban expired in December 1994, the government reimposed it for two additional years. *

Political Hinduism and Violence

The spread of Hindu "communal" (that is, religious) sentiment parallels a similar rise in religious chauvinism and "fundamentalist" ideologies among religious minorities, including Muslims and Sikhs. Against this background of agitation, the periodic outbreak of communal riots in urban areas throughout India contributes to an atmosphere of religious tension that has been a hallmark of the national political scene during the twentieth century. Hindu-Muslim riots, especially in North India, reached a peak during the partition of India in 1947 and periodically escalated in urban areas in the early 1990s. [Source: Library of Congress]

This strife typically involves low-income groups from both communities in struggles over land, jobs, or local resources that coalesced around a religious focus after seemingly trivial incidents polarized the two communities. In practice, although members of other religious communities are the victims of violence, rioters are rarely motivated by religious instructors, although fundamentalist agitators are often implicated. The situation in North India became complicated during the 1980s by Sikh terrorism connected with the crisis in Punjab, the widespread anti-Sikh riots after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination in November 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards, and a series of terrorist or counterterrorist actions lasting into the 1990s. In all of these cases, many observers believe that religion has appeared as a cover for political and economic struggles. *

Alongside the more publicized violent outbreaks, there have been major nonviolent changes, as new sectarian movements continue to grow and as established movements change. For example, the Radhasoami Satsang movement of North India, which includes adherents in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, encompasses yogic ideas on the relationship between humans and the universe, the bhakti saint tradition including select Sikh influences, and the veneration of the enlightened guru. The dominant tendency of these new religions, following the example of the great teachers of the past that was reiterated by Mahatma Gandhi and most modern gurus, remains nonviolence to all living beings and acceptance of the remarkable diversity of Indian religion. *

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.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: 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.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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