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Archive for the ‘Vedantism’ Category

An introduction to Hinduism in less than 1,200 Words

In Culture, Hinduism, History, Philosophy, Religion, Vedantism on August 5, 2011 at 4:03 pm

About one year ago, my aunt asked if I would help her with a presentation on Hinduism that she had been requested to make at a community center. In agreeing to do so, I wrote up a concise series of questions-and-answers that I hoped would provide, at the very least, a general picture of what it means to be a “Hindu” in today’s world. It was also my hope that it would gently but firmly dispel some of the misconceptions about Hindu beliefs and practices that all too often creep into the way many of us, especially in North America, understand this admittedly confusing and complicated topic.

After creating this very general text, I decided to make it widely available. There are a lot of introductions to Hinduism online and in publication. However, more than a few can be misleading and convoluted. I sincerely hope interested readers will find my piece informative and useful. Thank you for taking the time to read this. Please feel free provide me with questions, comments, and feedback!

I. What is “Hinduism?”

The term “Hinduism” is often used to describe one of the many belief systems, traditions, and philosophies that almost all took shape in South Asia. Unlike other religious groups that originated on the Indian subcontinent (e.g., Sikhism and Jainism), sects and communities considered Hindu today base their beliefs and customs on the scriptural authority of the Vedas, teachings and hymns that were compiled into large bodies of texts sometime during the first millennium B.C.E. However, it should be acknowledged that these Vedic-based groups are to some extent influenced by the beliefs and practices of other religious groups (e.g., Theravada Buddhists and Sufi Muslims). They also differ very much from each other and in some cases, even promote opposing doctrines (e.g., Shaivism and Vaishnavism).

II. What role do stories play in Hinduism?

Stories play an important role in the various Hindu traditions of today. The Vedas and their commentaries, known as Upanishads, are written very abstractly and are very difficult to understand. Unsurprisingly, it is quite difficult for most believers to associate most of the content of these revered texts to their own existence. Stories then, from ancient times until present, have not only served to provide timeless moral guidance that everyday people can relate to, but have made the central principles and teachings of the Vedas understandable for general audiences. The impact of these tales on their audience cannot be underestimated. After all, when one reads or hears the many stories, it is difficult not to appreciate how the dilemmas and challenges that the central characters within them confront reflect the sort of problems that we, as individuals and members of a family, society, and country encounter in day-to-day situations. The tales can be found in literary works known as the Puranas as well as in Sanskrit epics, the most well known of the latter being the  Ramayana and Mahabharata.

III. Is Hinduism a polytheistic religion?

Admittedly, it is all too tempting to think of Hindu belief systems as being polytheistic. The vast Hindu pantheon, the presence of various deities in Hindu mythology, as well as the existence of sects and temples devoted to specific gods and goddesses certainly encourage this idea. Indeed, most Hindu traditions are not without a polytheistic element. However, they all recognize that creation is linked to a supreme reality, entity, and/or phenomenon within existence, known as Brahman. The gods and goddesses are usually understood as manifestations of Brahman that become directly involved in worldly affairs. Their activities can range from responding to prayers for a good harvest to assuming human form in order to help restore the balance of righteousness and virtue in the world. It is never clearly defined in most Hindu traditions whether Brahman is a monotheistic, monist, pantheistic, or panentheistic God.  Although the ambiguity of Brahman has spurred the creation of various schools of thought in Hindu philosophy, it is generally not considered a very important question among devotees. It is widely accepted that Brahman is truth, and that this truth is one, even if sages called it by different names.

IV. Are there rituals & festivals in Hinduism?

There are numerous rituals in Hindu traditions that are unique to specific cultural and regional groups within India. However, there are a number of rituals that the majority of believers partake in. Devotees, either among their family members or community, participate in prayer services, known as Pooja. Pooja is either conducted in a family home or in a temple known as a Mandir. During Pooja, believers will chant prayers, read passages from sacred texts, and sing prayer songs. The prayer service usually concludes with a ritual called Aarti and the offering of blessed food, known as prasadam. Other significant rituals are usually performed at important junctures of an individual’s life such as birth, marriage, and death.

There are also various festivals that are celebrated by Hindu believers. Diwali, Holi, and Raksha Bandhan are among the most widely recognized. Diwali, the festival of lights, celebrates Lord Rama’s return from exile after defeating the tyrannical king of Sri Lanka, Ravana. Lord Rama’s victory over Ravana and return to his ancient kingdom of Ayodhya represents for many devotees the triumph of good over evil. The event is celebrated with great enthusiasm, with the exchange of gifts and good wishes, over-consumption of delicious foods and sweets, evening prayers, companionship of friends and family, the lighting of many candles, and sight of many fireworks in the night sky. Holi, the festival of colours, celebrates young Lord Krishna’s fun-filled play with the cow-herd girls that he grew up with, especially his childhood friend and later lover, Radha. The festival marks the beginning of spring and a time of romance. Devotees celebrate this festival with much singing, dancing, and throwing of colours at one another. Raksha Bandhan celebrates the relationship between female and male members of the family. The sacred bond between brother and sister is a major theme in Hindu mythology. This festival is highlighted by a female member of the family tying a holy thread known as a rakhi on her male relative’s arm. In turn, the male relative gives a gift to his female relative and promises to protect her. They then feed each other sweets.

V. Did Mahatma Gandhi base his ideology on Hinduism?

When leading the civil disobedience movement against British rule on the Indian subcontinent, M. K. Gandhi not only made himself the leader of a nationalist movement, but strove to be a living and breathing example of principles based on Hindu teachings and traditions. His aim was to simultaneously facilitate the worldly and spiritual regeneration of the Indian people. Gandhi practiced an ethic of non-violence known as ahimsa. Ahimsa, a Hindu as well as Jain concept, requires its believers to remain committed to a pacifist lifestyle, to abhor any form of violence, and to not consume animal flesh of any kind. Gandhi also sought to promote simplicity, frugality, and asceticism by conducting his life according to the principles of a Brahmacharaya. A Brahmacharaya follows a mystic tradition based on a prominent Hindu philosophy called Vedantism. He or she is required to not only devote their life to realizing Brahman, but in doing so, to renounce worldly pleasures and material desires. Lastly, Gandhi’s willingness to endanger his personal welfare in order to end British imperialism and to oppose bloodshed was inspired by the verses of a sacred Hindu text called the Bhagavad-Gita. The Gita, the Song of the Lord, is among the most influential of Hindu scripture. It endorses karma-yoga, the path towards oneness with Brahman through a life of virtue and righteous action.

Further Reading:

There are excellent books on this topic that I’d strongly recommend to anyone who has a genuine interest in learning more about Hinduism:

(1) Jeaneane D. Fowler, “Hinduism Belief, Practices & Scripture”

(2) Rabindernath Tagore, “Sadhana: The Realisation of Life”

(3) Works of C. Rajagopalachari

(4) The latest editions of “Sources of Indian Tradition,” Vol. 1 & 2

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