The History of Hinduism

The term “Hinduism” was coined by Greek and Persian travelers to the Indus Valley in the 16th century. Though many Hindus have adopted the name for themselves, they also use the terms “Veda,” or “Vedic religion,” which refer to the ancient texts at the core of the tradition, or Sanatana Dharma (Eternal Law).

Hinduism originated in the Indus Valley in modern Pakistan. The Vedic texts were not written by any single person, but “heard” by rishis, or seers, and passed down orally until they were recorded in writing. The oldest of the texts is the Rigveda (Wisdom of the Verses), a collection of 1028 hymns thought to have been recorded around 1500-1200 BCE. Other important Vedic texts include the Yajurveda (Wisdom of Sacrificial Formulas), Samaveda (Wisdom of Chants), and Ataravaveda (Wisdom of Atharvan Preists) were also recorded. The Upanisads, secret teachings concerning cosmic equations, were recorded from 1000-600 BCE. From the 2nd century BCE to the 4th century CE two great Hindu epics were recorded: the Ramayana and the Mahabarata. The Mahabarata contains the Bhagavad Gita (“Song of the Lord”) that describes three paths to salvation: the path of duties (karma-marga), the path of knowledge (jnana-marga), and the path of devotion (bhakti-marga). Though the Upanisads emphasized renunciation and asceticism, these later dharma texts emphasize that these three paths can be used simultaneously for the maintenance of the world order (dharma) and release from the the world (moksha). Thus the goal for many Hindus is an equilibrium between social and ritual duties and the stability of the cosmos.

For a long time it was popularly believed that the Vedas originated from an Aryan people who invaded the the ancient Harappan civilization of India around 1500 B.C. However, there is no literary or archeological support for the theory and it has become associated with the racist ideology of colonialism.

Basic Beliefs of Hinduism

“When you hear about the Self, meditate upon the Self, and finally realize the Self,

you come to understand everything in life.”

-Brihadaranyaka Upanisad 4.5

Hinduism is a diverse religion found primarily in India. Ganesh There is variation in local practices and the worship of particular deities. However, there are central tenants that unify it as one religion. The core of Hinduism is the belief in Brahman, the underlying universal life force that encompasses and embodies existence. According to Hindu scriptures, one’s ignorance of the true nature of the self (atman) as one with Brahman is what traps one in the cycle of endless death and reincarnation (samsara). Thus, the highest goal of Hinduism is liberation (moksha) from the karmic cycle of death and rebirth.

krishnaHowever, Hinduism is much more than an esoteric practice. For the millions of people who practice this religion, it is a way of life that encompasses all aspects of life including family, social life, politics, business, art, and health behaviors. The sacred scriptures contain instructions on these aspects of life and have a strong influence on art and drama. While the ascetic practices of yoga are a well-known aspect of Hinduism, family life is also considered a sacred duty.

Most households have a shrine to a particular deity. Women conduct a household puja, the offering of fruit, raw rice, flowers, incense, and other items to the deity, on a regular basis. People may be invited to join puja on occasion, making it a communal event. After the food has been offered it is considered to have been spiritually consumed and blessed by the deity’s power. It is redistributed as a way to share the deity’s blessings.

Hindus are very conscious of Shivathe paradoxes that make up the universe. Siva is simultaneously the creator, maintainer, and destroyer of life. All phenomena is a constant interplay between hot and cold, male and female, light and dark. Vedic medicine teaches that keeping these opposing forces in balance is central to the maintenance of bodily, social, and cosmic well-being.

GsarawtThe belief that one’s karma determines one’s birth in the next life has supported the structure of the caste system in India, made up of four varnas that determine one’s occupation: Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (nobles and warriors), Vaishyas (commoners) and Sudras (servants). Though the former colonial government officially abolished the caste system and implemented affirmative action policies to rectify imbalances in wealth and education, there are still socioeconomic advantages to belonging to a higher caste. The hierarchy of caste is a contested subject. There is evidence in the Upanisads that Brahmanhood is attained by depth of learning rather than birth. The tradition of bhakti (devotion) is sometimes an expression of criticism against caste and other practices such as image worship. Bhakti is associated with devotional poems composed across all social classes and emphasizes loving God over any practice or doctrine.

Hindu TermsCopyright 2008 IndiaStockPhotography.com

Ātman The real self, the eternal life principle which underlies physical human form.

Brahmā The god of creation. A member of the triad (trimūrti) of principle gods, which includes Visnu and Siva.

Brahman The Ultimate Reality that underlies all of existence.

Dharma “Law,” or “Truth” that is eternal and all-encompassing. The order of the universe and the way to maintain that order.

Karma “Action.” The universal law that every deed has a consequence that will come back to the doer. Good actions will reap good life circumstances and bad ones will do the opposite. The cumulative effect of one’s karma can influence one’s position in future rebirths.

Mahaābhārta A national epic of India.

Māyā “Supernatural power.” The power that produces the phenomena of physical existence.

Moksha “Release,” or “Liberation” from the cycle of endless death and rebirth. The ultimate goal of Hinduism which is attained by overcoming ignorance and desire.

Purānas “Ancient.” Non-Vedic Hindu scripture containing mythological accounts of ancient times. It is thought they were compiled between 500 and 1500 CE.

Pūjā “Respect, homage, worship.” The offering of food, flowers, incense, and other items to a deity. Often the food will be distributed and consumed afterword and is thought to impart the goodwill of the deity.

Samsāra “Wandering.” The continuous cycle of death and reincarnation caused by karma.

Siva “Auspicious.” A god of the Hindu trinity that is simultaneously creator, destroyer, and preserver. His creative powers come to life in conjunction with Sakti, his female aspect. He is the supreme yogi and lord of the animals.

Upanishad Literally, “To sit close by,” referring to the method of transmission from guru to student. Part of the Vedic texts containing esoteric teachings on the nature of the self (atman) as one with the Ultimate Reality (Brahman) and the way to liberation from the cycle of samsara.

Veda “Knowledge.” The scriptures that are the basis of Hindu belief and practice. The Vedas were “heard” or “seen” by priests from a divine source and passed orally through the family line.

Visnu “The pervador.” A god of the Hindu trinity that preserves the universe and embodies goodness and mercy.

Yoga “Yoking, joining.” The path to liberation from samsara through focusing the mind to experience higher states of consciousness.

Hindu Scripture

The Hindu scriptures are massive, and were written between 1400 B.C. and A.D. 500.  The oldest of the Hindu scriptures is the Veda, which literally means “wisdom” or “knowledge.”  The Vedas contain hymns, prayers, and ritual texts composed from about 1400 to about 400 B.C.

The Upanishads are a collection of writings composed between 800-600 B.C.  Over one hundred of them still exist.  These writings marked a definite change from the sacrificial humans and magic formulas in the Vedas, to the mystical ideas about man and the universe – specifically the Brahman, and the atman (the self or soul).  The Upanishads had a great influence on Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism.

The Ramayana is one of the two major epic tales of India, the other being the Mahabharata. A sage-poet named Valmiki wrote the Ramayana. The work consists of 24,000 couplets based upon the life of Rama, a righteous king who was supposedly an incarnation of the God Vishnu.  The Mahabharata is the second epic.  It is an the story of the deeds of Aryan clans, and consists of some 100,000 verses and was composed over an 800-year period beginning about 400 B.C. Contained within this work is a great classic, the Bhagavad Gita, or the “Song of the Blessed Lord.”

The Bhagavad Gita is not only the most sacred book of the Hindus, but it is also the best known and the most read of all Indian works in the entire world, despite the fact it was added late to the Mahabharata, sometime in the first century A.D.  The story revolves around man’s duty, which, if carried out, will bring nothing but sorrow. The significance this story has on Hindu belief is its endorsement of bhakti, or devotion to a particular god, as a means of salvation, since Arjuna, the story’s main character, decides to put his devotion to Vishnu above his own personal desires. The Gita ends with Arjuna devoted to Vishnu and ready to kill his relatives in battle.

Published in: on June 29, 2008 at 4:59 am  Leave a Comment  

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