The term Hinduism applies to a very complex body if traditions accumulated through at least thirty centuries. These traditions are followed today by nearly 400 million people, who, in spite of divergence in details of belief an practice, are conscious of a common heritage.
Origins The two principal contributors to early Hinduism were: (1) the light-skinned Indo-Europeans who invaded India through the Khyber Pass about 1500 B.C. and (2) the people they conquered, the dark-skinned creators of the Indus culture of western and central India. The former brought with them some forty gods and goddesses bearing names common to Indo-European cultures, such as Dyaus Pitar (Jupiter, Zeus) Prithivi (Demeter), Mitra (Mithra), Varuna (Uranus), Agni (Ignis) and other. The latter supplied more earthly elements: a god presiding over reproduction (later know as Shiva), mother goddesses concerned with fertility, and (possibly) the beliefs in reincarnation and the Law of Karma.
After the invaders had established themselves is Western India, they produced an extensive oral literature, the four Vedas (the Rig-, Yajur-, Sama-, and Atharva-Vedas) which are still the basic scriptures of Hinduism. These were followed after 800 B.C. by a written literature in Sanskrit, the classical language of India, Based on the Vedas, the principal components of this literature were priestly treatises called the Brahmanas and philosophical conversations, the Upanishads.
One of the social effects if the Indo-European invasion was the establishment of color barrier (varna) to control miscegenation between the light-skinned conquerors and their dark-skinned vassals. This resulted in the early fixed castes, the Brahmins (priests), the Kshatriyas (warriors and princes), the Vaishyas (articians and peasants) and the Shudras (servants). These castes were forbidden to intermarry, sleep, or eat together. Their diets differed. In the course of centuries the subdivided further until there were 2,000 subcastes. Outside the pale were the outcastes and unclean persons, the untouchables. It is only recently, under the stress of social and economic change, that this complex system has begun to break down.
Dharma and the Way of Works What makes the Hindu feel he is a Hindu and therefore different from non-Hindus? The most comprehensive answer to this question is that it is the Dharma, the pattern of life which Hindus have followed for centuries as their religious and moral duty; in other words, it is the Way of Works (Karma Marga) laid down in tradition, the duties owing to the gods, the ancestors, priests, the family, the caste, the community, animals, and so on. Specifically, the Dharma governs the household life. The typical Hindu home begins its day with adoration of the rising sun. the household deity, Shiva, Vishnu, or some other god or perhaps goddess, is welcomed to the new day and the household with a morning ritual. In the evening another ritual puts the deity to rest for the night. At the birth of a child, and at its name giving, its first taking out to see the sun, its first feeding with boiled rice (weaning), its first hair cutting, there is a ceremony. For boys of the first three castes, there is a rite of initiation into manhood, comparable to the bar mitzvah of Jews and the conformation of Christians. For both sexes there are the rites of betrothal, marriage, death, and disposal of the dead (commonly by cremation). There are also the periodic shraddha rites for the spirits of the dead. The Dharma also includes visiting temples and going on pilgrimages to distant holy places. Nor is the subhuman world left out. The principle of ahimsa or noninjury to any sentient being calls for the practice of nonviolence toward the whole subhuman world, especially toward the cow. “The cow to me,” said Mahatma Gandhi, “means the entire sub-human world… She is the mother to millions of Indian mankind. The cow is a poem of pity.”
But there is yet another dimension to the Dharma. The next life depends on how the Dharma is practiced in this. Reincarnation (samsara) is a universal belief in India. Hindus believe that all souls in bodies, whether of gods, men, animals, reptiles, insects, plants, or souls in hell, are subject to death and rebirth. Births are not always on the same level. If one has accumulated favorable karma ("deeds") by obedience to the Dharma, birth will be at a higher level; if evil has been done, the birth will be lower: one may become an insect or a being in hell. This is governed by an inflexible law, the Law of Karma which determines whether one rises or falls in the scale of existence.
To follow the Way of Works (i.e., to perform what is called for by the Dharma) is one of the three ways of salvation. It will not get one into Nirvana, but it will procure a better rebirth, and may even get one to heaven. Salvation through the Way of Works is not so difficult as the salvation through the Way of Knowledge.
Brahmanism and the Way of Knowledge Brahmanism is a convenient term for a form of Hinduism originating in the post-Vedic period. In its first phase, beginning about 800 B.C., a vast body of sacrificial rituals honoring the various gods was created. They are contained in the ancient priestly manuals, the Brahmanas, and are no longer performed in their entirety. In the second and more lasting phase, Brahmanism turned to philosophy and provided a basis for the Way of Knowledge (Jnana Marga). Talented men and women of the Brahmin and Kshatriya castes began to speculate that the gods were symbolic of a single reality seen from various angles. All things, men, beasts, gods, all objects, had come from this One Thing or Being and would return to It. After calling It by various names, they finally settled on a neuter noun, Brahman. Brahman, they said, is the sole real existence; there is no second thing whatsoever. In a series of treatises called the Upanishads (Secret Knowledge), which were in the form of conversations, these conclusions were set forth with great subtlety.
According to the majority view, synthesized by Shankara in the eighth century A.D., that One Thing (Brahman) extrudes from itself millions of souls (each called an atman) and along with them a creative being called Ishvara ("Lord," Brahman in the for of a personal god, known to men by various names). There are two modes of Brahman: the unmanifested and the unknowable Nirguna Brahman (Brahman without attributes) and the knowable personal god Saguna Brahman (Brahman with attributes). As for the individual soul of self, each is Brahman in the form of an individual self; consequently, full realization of this fact leads the earnest thinker to see the identity of himself with Brahman, an experience not fully gained without a trance of oneness (yoga) coming at the end of concentrated meditation, with backbone rigid, eyes gazing down the nose. The best name for the ultimate reality is therefore Brahman-Atman, and each soul must say of itself Tat tvam asi ("That is what you are!").
Along with this goes another realization. Ishvara, the personal god, has had from the first a magic power (maya) to create appearances, the millions of things in the world perceived by individual atmans. The world is therefore in every part a kind of deception of the senses, an illusion. It is only our ignorance (avidya, nonseeing) that causes us to consider it as real as it appears to be. Acceptance of maya entails being “bound to the ever-turning wheel” of samsara, i.e., it entails being reborn from one life to another endlessly. If, on the other hand, one subdues his senses by yoga exercises until he ceases to accept maya and goes into a trance of oneness with Brahman (which is what Nirvana means), then one has reached salvation by following the Way of Knowledge.
Bhakti and the Way of Devotion This is the third way of salvation and is distinctly religious, for bhakti is ardent and hopeful devotion to a particular god or goddess in gratitude for aid received or promised. Whereas the Way of Works is basically legalistic and the Way of Knowledge philosophic, the Way of Devotion involves the religious act of surrender to a deity. The first Way seeks a better rebirth, the second entrance into Nirvana, the third union with a deity who may grant admission to heaven or enable one to make gigantic strides toward Nirvana in this or the next life. The classic literary expression of the way of bhakti is the Bhagavad Gita, an episode in the great epic, the Mahabharata. In the Gita the god Krishna, who is an earthly form of Vishnu, explains to a hesitant warrior, Arjuna, his duty in its cosmic setting. He tells Arjuna that if he is not able to do his caste duty (fighting) of pursue the way of knowledge, he should rely in utter faith and devotion on himself (Krishna) and enjoy the god’s loving assistance and saving powers.
In the lives of millions of Hindus, bhakti is of primary importance. It has led to the erection of temples to gods great and small, the proliferation of holy places, including sacred cities like Benares and Puri, the practice of going on pilgrimages to sacred shrines along the holy Ganges River, and the celebration of festivals (utsavas) at religious fairs to which millions throng in the hope of heavenly benefit. Bhakti also enters into the family rites centering in the patron deity of the house, whether Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna, or some other deity.
The Trimurti Although the polytheism of India embraces thousands of gods, goddesses, demons, ghosts, and powerful spirits, three manifestations of godhead are recognized as chief. They are Brahma the Creator, Shiva the Destroyer, and Vishnu the Preserver. When Brahman manifests Itself as Ishvara, creation follows, and along with the creation the eternal processes of preservation on the one hand and destruction on the other. The three gods symbolize these three natural process. Each has a consort and associates. Brahma does not have many temples erected to him, because he did his work long ago and now rides aloof on the back of a wild white goose, with his four heads attentively reading the Vedas. Shiva is a nearer presence, a name for decay and renewal, life, death, and reproduction. His feminine counterparts are called shaktis ("energies") and go by various names; some are benevolent like Uma and Parbati, others are dour like Durga and Kali. His associates are Ganesha, his elephant-headed son, and Nandi the sacred bull. His symbol is the lingam, a phallic column. Vishnu is more consistently benevolent, standing as he does for conservation of the good and necessary. Although he does not himself leave his heavenly seat, in times of need he comes to earth in avataras ("descents"), ten being generally listed. Two of these are of prime importance, Rama, the perfect hero described in the epic, the Ramayana, and Krishna, the god-hero of the Mahabharata. They are separately worshiped. Vishnu’s consort is the goddess of beauty and fortune. Lakshmi. She strokes his feet in wifely devotion as he reclines on the cosmic sea serpent, Shesha. He also uses Garuda, a great bird, as his vehicle. (This last is separately worshiped on the island of Bali.)
The Four Acceptable Ways of Life Within the general scheme of rebirth there are different qualities of existence. Hindus consider that men may justifiably follow four ways of life, that is, if they act with integrity at the level they choose. Beginning with the lower level, these are: (1) the way of kama or sensuous pleasure, (2) the way of artha or pursuit of wealth and power, (3) the way of the dharma or fulfilling one’s moral obligations, and (4) the way of moksha or salvation, with its twin aims of escape from illusion and entrance into Nirvana. It is expected that anyone who begins at either of the first two levels will find them less than fully satisfactory and will ascend to the third and fourth levels, either in this or a following life.
The Darshanas or Six Acceptable Systems of Philosophy During a period of 1,500 years of unhurried philosophical discussion six systems of philosophy emerged as orthodox: (1) the Nyaya, concerned with logical reasoning ("things to be proved"); (2) the Vaiseshika, conceiving the world as a combination of atoms, souls, and an “unseen force of deity” that is the cause of the world of composite things; (3) the Sankhya, rejecting monism (Brahman) and accepting two ultimate principles, prakriti (the natural world) and purusha (the infinite number of selves or spirits); (4) Yoga, a system of mental and physical self-discipline aiming at liberation of the soul from earthly bonds; (5) the Purva-Mimansa, a moral philosophy derived from the four Vedas and the Brahmanas regarded as the ultimate authorities on the Dharma; and (6) the Vedanta, literally “the conclusion of the Vedas,” a point of view including several philosophical systems of a monistic kind much like that described above as the majority view in Brahmanism. The great name here is that of Shankara (788-830 A.D. or earlier): His “unqualified non-dualism” (i.e., monism) was modified by Ramanuja (died 1137) and Madhva (1199-1276) to allow greater independent reality to the universe and its souls.
Sects Two major sectarian groups are the Shaivites, devotees of Shiva, and the Vaishnavites, devotees of Vishnu. The literature of the former is contained in numerous Hindu Tantras ("Threats") and in six books of the Puranas ("Ancient Stories"), while that of the latter is found principally in the Bhagavad Gita, mentioned above, and in six Puranas other than those devoted to Shiva. From about the eighth century A.D. on, teachers of the masses began to appear trying to meet the need for images and symbols that would enable ordinary folk to understand the major features of reality and give expression to their adoration (bhakti). In Shaivism the lingam became the chief symbol of the god. Groups of shaktas followers of the shaktis) formed. Some were the so-called right-handed shaktas (the Dakshina-charins), who looked upon the lingam as a significant symbol of the principle of life. The left-handed shaktas ( the Vama-charins) practiced secret rites, seeking to exhaust and subdue desire for meat, liquor, and sex by ritually indulging in them. The shaktas picture Shiva as half-woman on his left side and half-man on his right. The Lingayats, founded in the 12th century, carry with them at all times a soapstone lingam wrapped in a red scarf and will not be without it. They stress, however, the ascetic aspect of Shiva, remembering the time he was a sannyasin (holy man). The Vaishnavites are far less severe and give honor to the compassion of the kindly god who incarnates himself to save mankind from danger. Ramanuja, Madhva, and Ramananda (12th, 13th, 14th centuries) are their greatest thinkers.
Hinduism and the West The British rulers of India brought Hindus face-to-face with Western culture, science, and religion. The first result of this was a liberal movement of rapprochement with the West, started by Ram Mohun Rai and called the Brahmo Samaj. It welcomed insights from all religions, renounced idolatry, and proclaimed monotheism. More strictly Hindu in spirit was the Arya Samaj founded by Swami Dayanand. Its principles of reform come from “going back to the Vedas,” the all-sufficient scriptures, in which monotheism and the basic tenets of science are found. Broad tolerance and all-inclusiveness were taught be the 19th century Hindu saint Ramakrishna, whose followers developed the world-ranging Ramakrishna Movement. Secularism or the acceptance of science and humanism as the sole sources of truth, with a consequent rejection of the Dharma and all religion, is widespread in India today. On the other hand, Mahatma Gandhi distrusted Western technology as threatening India’s village economy and found in Hinduism an expression of religion wholly suited to his needs, although he felt all religions convey truth to their adherents in about equal measure.