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HINDUISM- a very brief introduction

First, I'd like to clear up a matter that can often be confusing.

1. Hindu- A practitioner or follower of the faith of Hinduism
2. Hindi A language spoken by a large number of people mostly in North India.
In English, the Hindu religion is called Hinduism- kind of along the same lines as
Judaism and Buddhism. So the proper response to the Jeopardy clue This religion's
followers worship Krishna is What is Hinduism? tho' Alex seems to accept What's
Hindu? as well.
Origins of Hinduism
Most major religions can point to a period in history when that religion began but
relatively little is known about the origins of Hinduism, as it predates recorded history.
Historically, the word Hindu predates the reference to Hinduism as a religion; the term is
of Persian origin and first referred to people who lived on the other side (from a Persian
point of view) of the Sindhu or Indus
During the British Raj, the term's use was made standard, and eventually, the religion of
the Vedic Hindoos was given the appelation 'Hinduism.
Many consider Hinduism to be a "way of life" rather than an organized religion, and it is
telling that neither do the vast majority of Hindu schools have an established practice for
formal conversion, nor do they actively seek converts (organizations like the
Ramakrishna Mission and ISKCON being exceptions and of 20th century origin).
By comparison the Judaic faith can trace itself to the term for a member of the tribe of
Judah or the people of the kingdom of Judah. The name of both the tribe and kingdom
derive from Judah, the fourth son of Jacob. Christianity likewise comes from Christ and
Islam was a name chosen by the Prophet Mohammed
Absence of a founder
One of the intriguing aspects of Hinduism is the absence of a single person from whom
the faith originated, a prophet or a founder-figure. Judaism has Abraham/Moses,
Christianity has Jesus Christ, Buddhism has Buddha, Islam Muhammad (though many
Muslims believe the religion dates back to the beginning of the world and the
Muhammad was merely the last prophet)the Mormons view Joseph Smith as a founder.
But Hindus do not claim that their religion originates with a single person.
Spread of Hinduism
Hinduism is practised in all the 5 continents, primarily by migrants from India but has a
number of local adherents. For example in Thailand the King is called Rama after the
Indian God. The biggest Hindu temple is in Cambodia, Angkor Vat.
While India has the biggest population of Hindus in the world, India also is home to 140
million Muslims and 25 million Christians.
Legal Definition of Hinduism
For those of you who are interested here is the legal definition, I will skip over it for now!

In a 1966 ruling, the Supreme Court of India defined the Hindu faith as follows for legal
Acceptance of the Vedas with reverence as the highest authority in religious and
philosophic matters and acceptance with reverence of Vedas by Hindu thinkers and
philosophers as the sole foundation of Hindu philosophy.
Spirit of tolerance and willingness to understand and appreciate the opponent's point of
view based on the realization that truth is many-sided.
Acceptance of great world rhythm vast periods of creation, maintenance and
dissolution follow each other in endless succession by all six systems of Hindu
Acceptance by all systems of Hindu philosophy of the belief in rebirth and pre-existence.
Recognition of the fact that the means or ways to salvation are many.
Realization of the truth that numbers of Gods to be worshiped may be large, yet there
are Hindus who do not believe in the worshiping of idols.
Unlike other religions, or religious creeds, Hindu religion's not being tied down to any
definite set of philosophic concepts, as such.

Hindu Practices and Way of Life


What do Hindus believe?

For many Hindus, religion is a matter of practice rather than of beliefs. It's more what
you do, than what you believe. Hindus believe in a universal soul or God called
Brahman. Brahman takes on many forms that some Hindus worship as gods or
goddesses in their own right. Hindus believe that there is a part of Brahman in everyone
and this is called the Atman.
Hindus believe in reincarnation - a belief that the soul is eternal and lives many
lifetimes, in one body after another. The soul is sometimes born in a human body,
sometimes in an animal body and sometimes in a plant body. Hindus believe that all
forms of life contain a soul, and all souls have the chance to experience life in different
Samsara means going through the cycle of repeated births and deaths (reincarnation).
Hindus believe that existence of this cycle is governed by Karma.

What I believe
As a Hindu I think it's important to lead a good life, to be honest and to be helpful and to
respect my elders.
I believe God watches over us all and when good things happen to me or my loved
ones I offer him thanks. I pray to God when starting anything so much so that when I
put my car into gear in the morning I touch a hand first to the steering wheel and then to
my forehead in a silent prayer.

I believe going to temple is an important part of my communion with God and chanting
prayers reinforces my belief.
I believe that observing festival and holy days and performing the rites and rituals are
important to reinforcing my faith and to giving my children a sense of their identity.
Most Hindus have a dedicated area in the house meant for worship. This could be an
entire room or just a shelf in the kitchen cabinets. We place murtis or other icons, and
usually, once a day, we light a lamp and say our prayers. The lighting of the lamp is an
integral part of worship and harks back to Vedic fire rituals.
These prayers are usually Sanskrit shlokas (Vedic chants) or hymns in other Indian
languages. We prefer to do this right after a shower or bath- the emphasis is to be
clean before communing with the Almighty. We also like to have pictures of deities on
the walls or other icons spread around the house.
A more formalised approach to prayer is called puja. Pujas follow ritual steps and
different kinds of pujas are prescribed in the Vedas for different occasions and holy
days. Pujas are usually performed by one member of the family who chants the
mantras and carries out the other ritual tasks and the other members are passive
Often the prayers are chanted by a priest who comes to the house for that purpose.
Hindus believe that merely listening to the chants or being in the presence of a puja
being performed is intrinsically sacred and brings one closer to God.
Mantras (sacred chantings) still continue to be in Sanskrit, a language not known to the
vast majority of Hindus but bhajans tend to be in Hindi or other Indian languages and
are similar to hymns. A bhajan is also the term used for a get together where these
hymns are sung.

Visiting temples is an important part of Hindu worship. Temples can be little
establishments at the street corner or giant edifices built by rulers in days past as a
show of their power and glory.
Whenever we visit friends or families in different parts of India or even the US we make
a point of worshipping at the well known temple or temples of that area. For example,
on a visit to DC we'd like to worship at the big Hindu temple in Maryland.
Depending on the part of India you are in temples differ in appearance but virtually all
temples have a sanctum sanctorum where resides the main deity. Priests are present
inside who perform various religious rites and worshippers usually have to stay outside.

Along with praying and puja, in temples, it is common to be offered a small offering of
holy water, usually water that the icons have been ritually bathed in. A small offering
of food or fruits is also common- such an offering is called prasad.
It's a must to remove shoes when entering a Hindu temple.
There is no specific time or day to visit a temple. People who live near one are likely to
go daily, others might go only on festival days.
In the US temples double up as community meeting places too where we gather for
collective celebration of our numerous festivals.

Vegetarianism, fasting and other dietary observances

About 30% of today's Hindu population, especially in orthodox communities in the South
of India, in certain northerly states like Gujurat, and in many Brahmin enclaves around
the subcontinent, is vegetarian. Thus, while vegetarianism is not dogma, it is
recommended as a sattwic (purifying) lifestyle.
I myself am vegetarian and have always been one as are my wife and children. It's our
expectation that our children will continue to be vegetarian
Along with praying and puja at home Hindus place a lot of importance on dietary
observances. Fasting for religious reasons is one such.
For example in North India, on a particular day of the year married women fast from
sunrise to moonrise for the well being of their husbands.
Many, otherwise meat eating Hindus will abstain from meat and seafood on specific
days of the week (typically Saturdays or Tuesdays).
The many festival days have associated foods that go with them, typically sweets. On
such holy days the foods are first offered to the deities as part of puja before being
There are no strictures against alcohol.

Hindu Scriptures
Unlike Christianity or Islam, Hindus don't have a single Holy Book. While the Vedas
(Veda means knowledge in Sanskrit, "Vedas" is an anglicisation for the fact that there is
more than one) are cited by Hindus as the most important of their scriptures, few Hindus
have any direct acquaintance with the Vedas.
For the average Hindu, the scriptures would refer to either the Ramayana or
Mahabharatha both of which are classified as itihasas or epics. The epics are available
in non-Sanskrit languages and for many Hindus a form of worship is reading a section

of these books in the mornings or evenings. Religious discourses, where learned men
read from the Sacred Books and translate for the common man, are also very popular.
Among the more common books that Hindus read from are "RamCharitManas", an
interpretation of Ramayana by the sage TulsiDas, Srimad Bhagavatham or the story of
Krishna, the Narayaneeyam a series of shlokas dedicated to the Lord in the Guruvayoor
temple in Kerala.
No discussion of the Hindu scriptures is complete without mention of the Bhagavat Gita
or "Song of the Lord". This is a sub-text of the epic, Mahabharatha, and is composed of
the lectures given by Krishna to Arjuna on every aspect of life. Many learned Hindus
believe that this is a microcosm of all the knowledge in the Vedas. What holds the
devotee's mind foremost is Krishna's repeated injunction to abandon the mortal self
to the infinite love of the Lord.
In courts in India the practice is to take the oath on the Bhagavat Gita.
Hindu Gods
Yes, Hindus do have a multitude of Gods, one for each occasion but all Hindus accept
the existence of the Trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Vishnu, in his incarnations of
Rama and Krishna, is the most commonly occurring deity in temples.
Other popular gods include Hanuman, who helped Rama in his wars against the
demons, Ganesh (Ganapathi, Ganesha) the son of Shiva and, especially in S India,
Karthik (Karthikeya, Muruga) another son of Shiva.
Pilgrimage is a major part of Hindu worship. This ties in with temple visits mentioned
above. Much as an American family might spend a vacation week driving around a
certain area of the country taking in parks and other tourist attractions, Hindus will plan
a trip that involves only visits to various temples.
There are many tour operators who cater to this.
The most common Hindu festival, probably the only one celebrated by all Hindus, is
Diwali (also spelt Deepavali in some parts of India). Literally, the festival of lights, Diwali
is celebrated on the new moon day of the Hindu month of Ashwin (October / November)
every year. Though there are mutliple stories behind Diwali the widely held belief is that
it celebrates the return of the King Rama from the jungle after his battles with the
The Hindu religion and Indian culture are intertwined. Indian classical arts of singing
and dancing are heavily influenced by religion. Much traditional Indian singing is songs
of praise to various Gods. Many dance forms depict scenes from Indian mythology. It's
sometimes quite difficult to know where culture stops and religion begins.

Cow Worship
Those Hindus who do eat meat mostly abstain from beef. This is most likely because
the largely pastoral Vedic people and subsequent generations of Hindus throughout the
centuries relied so heavily on the cow for all sorts of dairy products, tilling of fields and
fuel for fertiliser that its status as a willing 'caretaker' of humanity grew to identifying it as
an almost maternal figure. Thus, while most Hindus do not worship the cow, and
scriptural injunctions against eating beef arose long after the Vedas had been written, it
still holds an honored place in Hindu society. It is said that Krishna is both Govinda
(herder of cows) and Gopala (protector of cows), and Shiva's attendant is Nandi, the
bull. With the stress on vegetarianism (which is usually followed even by meat-eating
Hindus on religious days or special occasions) and the sacred nature of the cow, it is no
wonder that most holy cities and areas in India have a ban on selling meat-products and
there is a movement among Hindus to ban cow-slaughter not only in specific regions,
but in all of India.
Red Dot
The Dot (Called sindoor, bindi, kumkum etc) that many Indian women sport on their
foreheads has no simple explanation. For the most part this is a representation of the
state of being married and is said to represent female energy (or Shakti) and is meant to
protect the husband. Traditionally widows in India are forbidden from wearing a dot and
in many communities at the death of the husband the wife's bindi is symbolically rubbed
It has now become a decorative item and is worn today by unmarried girls and women
of other religions as well.
Different colours DO NOT mean different things, it is usually red.
The dot is often worn by men as well, this is tied to the belief that the dot represents the
Third Eye of Shiva.
Becoming a Hindu
As I said earlier there is no well documented procedure to become a Hindu as laid out in
the Scriptures. There is no concept of undergoing various ritualized steps like Baptism
or Bar Mitzvah. Anyone can choose to be a Hindu and start worshipping in a Hindu
place of worship though there are temples in S India where there are proclamations to
the effect that non-Hindus are not allowed admission.
Arranged Marriages
I mention this because a number of people I have met have asked me about this.
Arranged marriages are not a Hindu concept, I dare say it is not even Indian. As far as
India is concerned this practice is common among all religions, whether it was a Vedic
way of life or not cannot be said categorically since the practice exists elsewhere too.
Caste System
Caste is derived from a Portuguese word for lineage, breed or race, casta, and
originally used to refer to a social division in Hindu society
A perversion, according to many Hindus, of dharma's true meaning, caste plays a
significant role in Hindu society, although it is now losing favor and is illegal in India.

In early Vedic periods, the established Brahmins began discriminating against young candidates
for priesthood based on caste. This became more ingrained over centuries until social mobility
all but became a thing of the past. In spite of centuries of numerous reform movements, notably
within Vedanta, bhakti yoga and Hindu streams of Tantra, and reformers, with recent stalwarts
like Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi, caste is still ensconced in the Indian
consciousness that even Christian converts have been known to separate church meetings for
different castes. A number of Muslim communities have retained caste practices as well. What
was first an injunction to living one's dharma in surrender to God became an oppressive mandate
to surrender to Man.
In modern India the caste system is slowly fading as the spread of education makes
people more equal. Our ex-President Mr Narayanan comes from a community that was
considered an untouchable caste not very long ago.
These websites might prove interesting reading as well