Hinduism, a religious tradition of Indian origin, comprising the beliefs and practices of Hindus. The word Hindu is derived from the river Sindhu, or Indus. Hindu was primarily a geographical term that referred to India or to a region of India (near the Sindhu) as long ago as the 6th century bc. The word Hinduism is an English word of more recent origin. Hinduism entered the English language in the early 19th century to describe the beliefs and practices of those residents of India who had not converted to Islam or Christianity and did not practice Judaism or Zoroastrianism.
In the case of most religions, beliefs and practices come first, and those who subscribe to them are acknowledged as followers. In the case of the Hindu tradition, however, the acknowledgment of Hindus came first, and their beliefs and practices constitute the contents of the religion.
Hindus themselves prefer to use the Sanskrit term sanatana dharma for their religious tradition. Sanatana dharma is often translated into English as “eternal tradition” or “eternal religion” but the translation of dharma as “tradition” or “religion” gives an extremely limited, even mistaken, sense of the word. Dharma has many meanings in Sanskrit, the sacred language of Hindu scripture, including “moral order,” “duty,” and “right action.”
The Hindu tradition encourages Hindus to seek spiritual and moral truth wherever it might be found, while acknowledging that no creed can contain such truth in its fullness and that each individual must realize this truth through his or her own systematic effort. Our experience, our reason, and our dialogue with others—especially with enlightened individuals—provide various means of testing our understanding of spiritual and moral truth. And Hindu scripture, based on the insights of Hindu sages and seers, serves primarily as a guidebook. But ultimately truth comes to us through direct consciousness of the divine or the ultimate reality. In other religions this ultimate reality is known as God. Hindus refer to it by many names, but the most common name is Brahman.
In many religions truth is delivered or revealed from a divine source and enters the world through a single agent: for example, Abraham in Judaism, Jesus in Christianity, and Muhammad in Islam. These truths are then recorded in scriptures that serve as a source of knowledge of divine wisdom: the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an. In the Hindu tradition, by contrast, there is no single revelation or orthodoxy (established doctrine) by which people may achieve knowledge of the divine or lead a life backed by religious law. The Hindu tradition acknowledges that there are many paths by which people may seek and experience religious understanding and direction. It also claims that every individual has the potential to achieve enlightenment.
The Hindu community today is found primarily in India and neighboring Nepal, and in Bali in the Indonesian archipelago. Substantial Hindu communities are present in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, Mauritius, Fiji, the West Indies, East Africa, and South Africa. Scattered Hindu communities are found in most parts of the Western world. Hindus today number nearly 900 million, including about 20 million who live outside India, making them one of the largest religious communities in the world.
Since ancient times, Hindu thought has transcended geographical boundaries and influenced religious and philosophical ideas throughout the world. Persian, ancient Greek, and ancient Roman thought may well have been influenced by Hinduism. Three other religions that originated in India are closely related to Hinduism: Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. In the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer read both Hindu and Buddhist scriptures and based much of his thinking on them. In the United States, 19th-century writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau drew on Hinduism and its scriptures in developing their philosophy of transcendentalism. More recently, civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., studied the teachings of Hindu leader Mohandas Gandhi on nonviolent protest. In the sphere of popular culture, rock musician George Harrison embraced Hinduism during the 1960s, and some members of the United States counterculture explored Hinduism and Buddhism, as did the Beat poets (Beat Generation). Millions of Westerners today practice meditation or yoga to achieve relief from stress or physical fitness, indicating Western receptiveness to Hindu practices.
II What Is Hinduism?
An encyclopedia article should have a definition at the outset, but this requirement presents unique difficulties in the case of Hinduism. This difficulty arises from Hinduism’s universal world-view and its willingness to accept and celebrate diverse philosophies, deities, symbols, and practices. A religion that emphasizes similarities and shared characteristics rather than differences has a difficult time setting itself apart—unless this very quality is considered its defining feature. This is not to say that there are no beliefs and practices that may be identified as Hindu, but rather that the Hindu tradition has concerned itself largely with the human situation rather than the Hindu situation. Instead of basing its identity on separating Hindu from non-Hindu or believer from nonbeliever, Hinduism has sought to recognize principles and practices that would lead any individual to become a better human being and understand and live in harmony with dharma.
The distinction of dharma from the Western sense of religion is crucial to understanding Hindu religious identity. To the extent that Hinduism carries with it the Western meaning of being a religion the words distort Indian reality. In the West a religion is understood to be conclusive—that is, it is the one and only true religion. Second, a religion is generally exclusionary—that is, those who do not follow it are excluded from salvation. Finally, a religion is separative—that is, to belong to it, one must not belong to another. Dharma, however, does not necessarily imply any of these. Having made this point, this article will bow to convention and use the expression Hinduism.
A The Dharmic Tradition
Dharma is an all-important concept for Hindus. In addition to tradition and moral order, it also signifies the path of knowledge and correct action. Because of Hinduism’s emphasis on living in accordance with dharma, anyone who is striving for spiritual knowledge and seeking the right course of ethical action is, in the broadest sense, a follower of sanatana dharma.
Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism share with Hinduism the concept of dharma along with other key concepts, and the four religions may be said to belong to the dharmic tradition. At one level Hinduism can refer to the beliefs or practices of followers of any of the dharmic traditions. The word Hinduism retains this sense in some usages in the Indian Constitution of 1950. In the field of religious studies, however, Hinduism is used in a narrower sense to distinguish it from the other religions of Indian origin.
A Hindu is thus identified by a dual exclusion. A Hindu is someone who does not subscribe to a religion of non-Indian origin, and who does not claim to belong exclusively to another religion of Indian origin—Buddhism, Jainism, or Sikhism. This effort at definition produces a rather artificial distinction between Hinduism and other dharmic traditions, which stems from an attempt to limit a system that sees itself as universal to an identity that is strictly religious. In many ways, labeling the other dharmic traditions as non-Hindu has a basis that derives more from politics than from philosophy. Indeed, greater differences of belief and practices lie within the broad family labeled as Hinduism than distinguish Hinduism from other dharmic systems.
Indian historian Irfan Habib makes this point when he quotes an early Persian source that Hindus are those who have been debating with each other within a common framework for centuries. If they recognize another as somebody whom they can either support or oppose intelligibly, then both are Hindus. Despite the fact that Jains reject many Hindu beliefs, Jains and Hindus can still debate and thus Jains are Hindus. But such discourse does not take place between Hindus and Muslims because they do not share any basic terms.
B Sanatana Dharma
Evidence from inscriptions indicates that Hindus had begun to use the word dharma for their religion by the 7th century. After other religions of Indian origin also began to use this term, Hindus then adopted the expression sanatana dharma to distinguish their dharma from others. The word sanatana, meaning immemorial as well as eternal, emphasized the unbroken continuity of the Hindu tradition in contrast to the other dharmas. The Buddhist, Jaina, and Sikh dharmas possess distinct starting points, whereas Hinduism has no historical founder.
The Hindu tradition might be said to begin in the 4th century bc when the growth and separation of Buddhism and Jainism provided it with a distinctive sense of identity as sanatana dharma. Some scholars prefer to date its beginnings to about 1500 bc, the period when its earliest sacred texts originated, although recent evidence suggests these texts may be even older. Certain beliefs and practices that can clearly be identified as Hindu—such as the worship of sacred trees and the mother goddess—go back to a culture known as Harappan, which flourished around 3000 bc. Other Hindu practices are even older. For example, belief in the religious significance of the new and full moon can be traced to the distant proto-Australoid period, before 3000 bc. It is with good reason that Hinduism perceives itself as sanatana dharma or a cumulative tradition. Its origins are shrouded in the mist of antiquity, and it has continued without a break.
C A Comprehensive and Universal Tradition
The Hindu tradition aims at comprehensiveness so far as religious beliefs and practices are concerned. First, it wishes to make the riches of Hinduism available to the Hindu and to any genuine seeker of truth and knowledge. But it does not limit Hindus to their tradition. Instead, it encourages them to explore all avenues that would lead to a realization of the divine, and it provides a system with many paths for such realization.
Second, in the manner of science, Hinduism is constantly experimenting with and assimilating new ideas. Also like science, it is far less concerned with the origin or history of ideas than with their truth as demonstrated through direct experience. Hinduism’s openness to new ideas, teachers, and practices, and its desire for universality rather than exclusivity, set it apart from religions that distinguish their followers by their belief in particular historical events, people, or revelations.
Two events in the life of Mohandas Gandhi exemplify aspects of the Hindu tradition. First, Gandhi entitled his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1929). In doing so, he was practicing the Hindu willingness to experiment continually as a means of discovering truth and to record the results of such experiments. Although Gandhi was seeking spiritual truth, he approached it in the spirit of science. Second, when asked, “What is your religion?” in 1936, Gandhi answered, “My religion is Hinduism, which for me is the Religion of humanity and includes the best of all religions known to me.” Saintly figures such as Gandhi have periodically renewed Hinduism throughout its history and kept it abreast of the times. Because Hinduism has no central orthodoxy, and no belief in the need for one, renewal of its tradition has invariably come from sages in every age who base their knowledge on experience of the divine.
III Hindu Teachings: What Do Hindus Believe?
Because defining Hinduism is so difficult and because we have called it the sum of the belief and practices of Hindus, it is best to approach Hinduism through its teachings.
Within Hinduism there are various schools of thought, which Hindu scholars have systematized in different ways. All of these schools have enriched Hinduism with their individual emphases: Nyaya on rigorous logic, Vaiseshika on atoms and the structure of matter, Sankhya on numbers and categories, Yoga on meditation techniques, MÄ«mamsa on the analysis of sacred texts, and Vedanta on the nature and experience of spirituality. Their teachings are usually summarized in texts called sutras or aphorisms. These sÅ«tras can be memorized easily and recited as a means of gaining spiritual focus.
A Brahman: The Ultimate Reality
Various schools have contributed to Hindu thought, each school with a different emphasis. The school known as Vedanta has been the standard form of intellectual Hinduism. According to Vedanta, the highest aim of existence is the realization of the identity or union of the individual’s innermost self (atman) with the ultimate reality. Although Vedanta states that this ultimate reality is beyond name, the word Brahman is used to refer to it.
Whether this ultimate reality is itself ultimately without distinguishing attributes (nirguna) or with personal attributes (saguna) has been a subject of extensive debate among Hindu scholars. To be ultimate Brahman must transcend (exist above and beyond) all limiting attributes, such as name, gender, form, and features. But how can the human mind, with its limitations, conceive of this transcendent reality? Human comprehension requires a more personal reality, with attributes.
Saguna Brahman is also called Ishvara, a name best translated as “Lord.” A quotation attributed to 8th-century Hindu scholar Shankara illustrates the subtlety of these ideas: “Ishvara, forgive these three sins of mine: that although you are everywhere I have gone on a pilgrimage, although you are beyond the mind I have tried to think of you; and although you are ineffable [indescribable] I offer this hymn in praise of you.”
B Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva: Aspects of Brahman
Saguna Brahman—that is, Brahman with attributes—generally takes the form of one of three main Hindu deities: Brahma, Vishnu, or Shiva. These personified forms of Brahman correspond to three stages in the cycle of the universe. Brahma corresponds to the creative spirit from which the universe arises. Vishnu corresponds to the force of order that sustains the universe. Shiva corresponds to the force that brings a cycle to an end—destruction acting as a prelude to transformation, leaving pure consciousness from which the universe is reborn after destruction. Other forms of Ishvara widely worshiped by Hindus are Shakti, the female aspect of divinity, and Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity associated with the removal of obstacles.
Brahman also may choose to take birth in a knowable form, or avatar (incarnation), to uphold dharma and restore balance to the world. Krishna, a well-known avatar of Vishnu, appears at times to save the world. Rama, another well-known avatar of Vishnu, is the subject of the Hindu epic Ramayana (Way of Rama). Whether nirguna or saguna, Brahman represents the ultimate reality (sat), ultimate consciousness (sit), and ultimate bliss (ananda).
Vishnu has ten major avatars, which are described in Hindu texts called the Puranas. These incarnations and their Hindu names are: fish (matsya), tortoise (kÅ«rma), boar (varaha), man lion (narasimha), dwarf (vamana), axe-wielding human (Parashurama), ideal person (Rama of the Ramayana), all-attractive perfect person (Krishna), the enlightened (Buddha), and a future incarnation (KalkÄ«).
The majority of Hindus choose a personal deity, a saguna form of Brahman with whom they can feel a direct personal connection. Devotion to this deity can take a number of forms, including prayer, ceremonial worship, chanting of the deity’s name, and pilgrimage to sites sacred to the deity.
C Brahmanda: The Universe
The relationship of the universe, which Hindus call brahmanda, to the ultimate reality poses a deep philosophical problem: Whereas Brahman represents a permanent reality, the universe is constantly changing. The universe is also eternal, but it is eternally changing, whereas Brahman is eternal in another sense in that it is beyond change. According to Vedanta, Brahman alone is real. Such reality as the universe possesses is derived from Brahman, just as the light of the Moon really belongs to the Sun.
All of creation arises from Brahman, according to Hindu teaching. Brahman is both the efficient cause of the universe (creator) as well as the material cause (substance of which the universe is created). For this reason, all of creation is divine and deserving of our respect.
Time in the Hindu universe moves in endlessly recurring cycles, much like the motion of a wheel. The duration of the various phases of the universe’s existence are calculated in units of mind-boggling astronomical duration organized around such terms as yugas, mahayugas, manvantaras, and kalpas.
D Atman: The Innermost Self
We as individuals are also a part of this changing universe. Our bodies are constantly undergoing change, while our minds, formed of thoughts and feelings, are also in a state of flux. According to Vedanta, however, our self consists of more than mind and body. At its core lies the unchanging atman, our innermost, transcendental self, as opposed to the material self (our body, thoughts, and feelings) that is part of the universe. The atman is our true self. But we lose sight of it because of our passionate involvement with our material self and its search for happiness in this universe. The universe can never provide perfect and permanent happiness, however, because it, like our material self, is in a state of constant flux. We attain true happiness only through an awareness of our atman and the discovery of its true relationship with Brahman.
By achieving awareness of our atman and its unity with Brahman, we attain not only happiness, but also moksha, or liberation. But liberation from what? At one level, the liberation is from unhappiness, but the answer provided by Vedanta Hinduism goes deeper: Moksha is liberation from a chain of lives.
E Samsara: The Chain of Lives
We normally think of ourselves as coming into being when we are born of our parents and as perishing when we die. According to Hinduism, however, this current life is merely one link in a chain of lives that extends far into the past and projects far into the future. The point of origin of this chain cannot be determined. The process of our involvement in the universe—the chain of births and deaths—is called samsara.
Samsara is caused by a lack of knowledge of our true self and our resultant desire for fulfillment outside ourselves. We continue to embody ourselves, or be reborn, in this infinite and eternal universe as a result of these unfulfilled desires. The chain of births lets us resume the pursuit. The law that governs samsara is called karma. Each birth and death we undergo is determined by the balance sheet of our karma—that is, in accordance with the actions performed and the dispositions acquired in the past.
F Karma: Action and Its Consequences
Karma is a crucial Hindu concept. According to the doctrine of karma, our present condition in life is the consequence of the actions of our previous lives. The choices we have made in the past directly affect our condition in this life, and the choices we make today and thereafter will have consequences for our future lives in samsara. An understanding of this interconnection, according to Hindu teachings, can lead an individual toward right choices, deeds, thoughts, and desires, without the need for an external set of commandments.
The principle of karma provides the basic framework for Hindu ethics. The word karma is sometimes translated into English as “destiny,” but karma does not imply the absence of free will or freedom of action that destiny does. Under the doctrine of karma, the ability to make choices remains with the individual.
We are subject to the “law” of karma just as our physical movements on earth are subject to the law of gravitation. But just as the law of gravitation does not take away our freedom to move about, the doctrine of karma does not leave us unfree to act. It merely describes the moral law under which we function, just as the law of gravitation is a physical law governing our being.
When we cause pain or injury, we add to the karmic debt we carry into our future lives. When we give to others in a genuine way, we lighten our karmic load. In the Bhagavad-GÄ«ta, an important Hindu text, Krishna states that the best way to be free of debt is by selfless action, or by dedicating every action as an offering to Krishna himself. In addition, human beings can purify themselves of karmic debt through different yogas (disciplines), kriyas (purification processes), and bhakti (devotions).
G Purusharthas: Goals of Human Life
Hinduism takes a comprehensive view of our human condition and has classified all the things we seek in the world and beyond into four broad categories: kama, artha, dharma, and moksha. Kama includes the pleasure of the senses, both aesthetic (refined artistic) pleasures and sensual and sexual pleasure. Artha includes the pursuit of material well-being, wealth, and power. Dharma includes our striving for righteousness and virtue. Moksha describes our desire for liberation from the chain of lives.
The first three goals pertain to the world we know, whereas moksha involves freedom from the world and from desires for kama, artha, and dharma. Attaining moksha is an extraordinary goal, which only some people specifically seek. In preparing for it, the prior pursuit of dharma can be a great help. Dharma, in the sense of duty or desire to do right, occupies a central role in regulating artha and kama and promoting moksha. On account of dharma’s centrality, the goals of human life are often listed in the following order: dharma, artha, kama and moksha.
Hinduism accepts all four purusharthas as valid goals of human endeavor. It does not look down upon kama or artha, as indicated by the KamasÅ«tra, a work on sexuality from about the 4th century ad, and by the Arthashastra. The latter text by Kautilya, a minister to a king of the 4th century bc, discusses how a king should wield political and economic power.
However, the ultimate aim of human life is moksha, liberation from sorrow and desire and realization of the union with the Ultimate Reality. In our future lives we may not always enter the world in human form. Thus, Hindus consider that birth as a human being is a unique and valuable opportunity for seeking moksha, an opportunity that should not be wasted. To guide us along the way, the system of Vedanta and the yogas provide a good road map for the journey.
H Jiva: The Individual
Our personality has a strong influence on the goal we seek. According to one Hindu scheme a human being consists of not one but three bodies. There is the gross physical body; a subtle body of thought and feelings; and an even subtler body, known as the causal body, where our primal ignorance of our true nature is located, along with the knowledge of that ignorance. The physical body disintegrates after our death; only the subtle and causal bodies travel from one life to the next.
Another Hindu system envisions the human being as consisting of five layers or sheaths, called koshas, that cover up the true self or atman. Beginning with the outermost, these layers are constituted by food or the physical body (annamaya), energy (pranamaya), mind (manomaya), consciousness (vijñanamaya), and bliss (anandamaya). Identification with one or more of these koshas—for example, imagining, “I am my physical body”—limits people and prevents knowledge of their true nature.
Other Hindu concepts of personality employ other schemes. One popular concept visualizes a person’s dormant energy residing at the bottom of the spine like a coiled serpent (kundalinÄ«). Upon awakening, it confers liberation when it reaches the head after piercing nodal points, called chakras, along the spine. Hinduism offers spiritual and physical exercises for awakening and liberating all these aspects of the personality.
I Yogas: Paths to Brahman
How do we proceed if we wish to rise toward Brahman? Hindu thought takes the personality of the seeker as the starting point. It divides human personalities into types dominated by physicality, activity, emotionality, or intellectuality. The composition of our personality intuitively predisposes us to a type of yoga—that is, a path we might follow to achieve union with Brahman. Although many people associate the word yoga with a physical discipline, in its original Hindu meaning yoga refers to any technique that unites the seeker with the ultimate reality.
While physical fitness buffs may seek such a union by practicing hatha yoga, people with different personality traits have other choices. For the action-oriented person there is karma yoga, the yoga of action, which calls for a life of selfless deeds and actions appropriate to the person’s station in life. For the person of feeling, bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, calls for unconditional love for a personal divinity. For the person of thought, jñana yoga, the yoga of knowledge, calls for spiritual and physical discipline intended to bring direct insight into ultimate reality. The yogas do not represent tightly sealed compartments, merely convenient classifications. A well-balanced personality might well employ all four. These yogas are sometimes called margas (paths), suggesting that the same destination can be approached by more than one route, and indeed by more than one mode of travel.
J Varna: Social Organization
The individual stands in relationship not only to Brahman but also to the society in which he or she lives. Two Hindu concepts—varna and ashrama—address this social dimension of human existence.
Every society distinguishes among occupations on the basis of power, wealth, education, or other factors. Hindu thought has long recognized four major occupational groupings. In the first group are priests, teachers, scholars, and others who represent knowledge and spirituality. People in this group are called brahmanas, or brahmans. Those in the second group, called ksatriyas, are represented by kings, warriors, government bureaucrats, and others who represent power. Those in the third group, called vaishyas, are represented by farmers, traders, merchants, and other skilled workers. Those in the fourth group, called shÅ«dras, are represented by unskilled workers. A group sometimes known as untouchables has at times constituted a subcategory within the shÅ«dra class, sometimes referred to as a fifth group.
Hindu thinkers visualized these groups as constituting the four limbs of society conceived as a body. This hierarchical system, with brahmans as the first category and shÅ«dras as the last, is known as the varna system. The system also indicates the different roles and responsibilities of each group within society and the relationship of the groups within a harmonious whole. The varna system was never intended as a permanent assignment of hereditary roles, and it once possessed considerable flexibility even though people tended to inherit the family profession, as in many other traditional societies.
The process of establishing the varna system was completed by the 4th century bc. By that time Hindu social organization accommodated thousands of subgroups called jatis, which were based upon marriage and other associations as well as on occupational specialization in crafts. Hindu law books from the 4th century bc onward bear witness to the blending of the varna and jati systems. In this process each jati became loosely linked with a varna. Yet the standing of jatis altered with changes in wealth, education, and political power. Over time, especially during the long period of Islamic rule, the groupings hardened into what became known as the caste system. The British census in the late 19th century helped formalize this system by mapping each jati to a specific varna.
K Ashrama: Stages of Life
Much as the varna system provides the organizing principle of Hindu society, the ashrama system provides the organizing principle of an individual’s life. According to the ashrama system, human life is divided into four stages, each succeeding the other. Ashrama provides a road map for the journey through these stages and provides a clear sense of purpose for each stage, including old age. Hindus consider the last stage of life highly meaningful. Ashrama also addresses the four goals that constitute a fulfilling life: dharma, artha, kama, and moksha.
The first stage is the life of a celibate student, a time when an individual acquires the values of dharma—that is, preparation and training for leading a proper life. It is followed by that of the householder, during which the individual seeks artha and kama by marrying, working, and raising a family as an active member of society. During this second stage, Hindu householders are expected to carry out their responsibilities in accordance with dharma and free themselves of debts owed to the gods, the sages, and their ancestors.
After the years of enjoyment and responsibility, the third stage of life begins. Around age 50, when the children are grown, the individual gradually begins to give up acquisitions and worldly ties and to take up spiritual contemplation in preparation for the next stage. The fourth and final stage involves renunciation of the world to seek liberation in sublime isolation. Renunciation allows the individual to be free of external responsibilities and to concentrate on an inner search. The life of the sannyasi (renunciant) focuses on achieving realization of the innermost self (atman) and union with the divine (moksha).
The ashrama system recognizes the division between active participation in life (pravrtti) and ascetic withdrawal from life (nivrtti). Although this division has applied to all Hindus, regardless of gender or caste, men of the three higher varnas (brahmans, ksatriyas, and vaishyas) have been more likely to enact it through the ashrama system. Some Hindus choose to devote their entire lives to the quest for moksha. They become renunciants and are free from the obligations of varna and ashrama. Such people are called sannyasis. A sannyasi who joins a monastic order takes the title swami.
In addition to the duties belonging to each stage of life, Hinduism also emphasizes duties belonging to all human beings, especially cultivation of truth and nonviolence. Many Hindus choose not to eat meat because of their cultivation of nonviolence.