Hinduism, the major religion of India, is one of the oldest living religions in the world. The roots of Hinduism date to prehistoric times in India. About 750 million people practice the religion. Although most Hindus live in India, Hindu literature and philosophy have influenced people throughout the world.

Through the centuries, Hinduism has been the most important influence on the culture of India. For example, the caste system of India is a basic part of Hinduism. The caste system determines the way of life of most Hindus, including what occupations they enter.

Beliefs of Hinduism. Hinduism developed gradually over thousands of years, and many cultures and religions helped shape it. Many sects (groups) arose within Hinduism, and each developed its own philosophy and form of worship. Like most religions, Hinduism has basic beliefs about divinities, life after death, and personal conduct.

Sacred writings. Hinduism has no single book that is the source of its doctrines. But it has many sacred writings, all of which have contributed to its fundamental beliefs. The most important include the Vedas, the Puranas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata with its section called the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Manu Smriti.

The Vedas are the oldest Hindu scriptures and are older than the sacred writings of any other major religion. The teachings of the Vedas existed for centuries before they were finally written down. There are four Vedas--the Rigveda, the Samaveda, the Yajurveda, and the Atharvaveda. Each has four parts--the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads. The Samhitas contain prayers and hymns and are the oldest part. The Brahmanas deal with ritual and theology and include explanations of the Samhitas. The Aranyakas and the Upanishads are works of mysticism and philosophy written as dialogues.

The Puranas are long verse stories that contain many important Hindu myths about Hindu gods and goddesses and the lives of great Hindu heroes. They also describe the Hindu beliefs about how the world began and how it periodically ends and is reborn.

The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are long epics. The Ramayana tells of Prince Rama and his attempts to rescue Sita, who has been kidnapped by the demon king Ravana. The Mahabharata describes a conflict between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, two families who are cousins. Generally, the Pandavas are considered to be morally and ethically superior to the Kauravas.

The Bhagavad-Gita, a philosophical work, forms part of the Mahabharata. In it, the god Krishna and the Pandava warrior Arjuna discuss the meaning and nature of existence.

The Manu Smriti (Code of Manu) is a basic source of Hindu religious and social law. Part of the Manu Smriti sets forth the basis of the caste system.

Divinities. Early Hindus worshiped gods that represented powers in nature, such as rain and the sun. Gradually, some Hindus came to believe that, though divinities appear in separate forms, these forms are part of one universal spirit called Brahman. These Hindus believe that many divinities make up Brahman. The most important ones are Brahma, the creator of the universe; Vishnu, its preserver; and Shiva, its destroyer.

One of the most important Hindu divinities is Shiva's wife, who has several names. She is best known as Durga, Kali, Parvati, or Uma. As Parvati or Uma, she is the beloved goddess of motherhood. As Durga or Kali, she is the feared goddess of destruction. For many Hindus, these contrasting natures of the goddess represent the way in which time and matter constantly move from birth to death and from creation to destruction. Many Hindus find great religious truth in this symbolism and worship the goddess as their most important divinity.

According to Hindu doctrine, animals as well as human beings have souls. Hindus worship some gods in the form of animals. Cows are sacred, but Hindus also revere monkeys, snakes, and other animals.

The six schools of philosophy. Many schools of Hindu thought have developed through the centuries. Six of these schools have become especially prominent. In their traditional order, they are (1) nyaya, (2) vaisheska, (3) sankhya, (4) yoga, (5) purva-mimamsa, and (6) vedanta.

Nyaya deals with logic. Vaisheska concerns the nature of the world. Sankhya examines the origin and evolution of the universe. Yoga is a set of mental and physical exercises designed to free the soul from reliance on the body so that the soul can unite with Brahman. Purva-mimamsa categorizes Vedic texts and rituals. Vedanta interprets especially the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Brahma Sutra.

Caste is India's strict system of social classes. The caste system may have existed in some form before Aryan invaders from central Asia attacked India about 1500 B.C. The Aryans or their descendants gradually gained control of most of India. They used the caste system at first to limit contact between themselves and the native Indian people. Later, the caste system became more elaborate and one of the teachings of Hinduism. The Hindu castes are grouped into four main categories, called varnas. In order of rank, these hereditary groups are (1) Brahmans, the priests and scholars; (2) Kshatriyas, the rulers and warriors; (3) Vaisyas, the merchants and professionals; and (4) Sudras, the laborers and servants. The caste system includes thousands of castes, each of which has its own rules of behavior.

For centuries, one large group, the untouchables, has existed outside the four varnas and has ranked below the lowest Sudra caste. The untouchables traditionally have had such occupations as tanning, which Hindu law forbids for a member of any caste in the four varnas. The Indian constitution of 1950 outlawed untouchability and gave the group full citizenship. But discrimination against untouchables has not been eliminated.

Through the years, the caste system has weakened somewhat, but continues to be a strong influence in Indian life. Some social distinctions have been abandoned, especially in the cities. Many educated Hindus of different castes intermix and work with one another. Formerly, they would have dined with and would have married only members of their own caste.

Reincarnation and karma. Hinduism teaches that the soul never dies. When the body dies, the soul is reborn. This continuous process of rebirth is called reincarnation. The soul may be reborn in an animal or in a human being, but Hindu doctrine is not clear on this point.

The law of karma states that every action influences how the soul will be born in the next reincarnation. If a person lives a good life, the soul will be born into a higher state, perhaps into the body of a brahman. If a person leads an evil life, the soul will be born into a lower state, perhaps into the body of a worm. A person's reincarnation continues until he or she achieves spiritual perfection. The soul then enters a new level of existence, called moksha, from which it never returns.


Hindu worship


Worship in temples. Hinduism considers temples as buildings dedicated to divinities. Its followers worship as individuals, not as congregations. Most Hindu temples have many shrines, each of which is devoted to a divinity. Each temple also has one principal shrine devoted to a single important god or goddess.

The shrines portray the divinities in sculptured images. Hindus treat these images as living human beings. Every day, for example, priests wash and dress the images and bring them food. Hindus do not consider this custom idol worship. They believe the divinities are actually present in the images.

Hindu temples hold annual festivals commemorating events in the lives of the divinities. Huge crowds gather for these festivals. They come to worship, to pray for assistance, and to enjoy the pageantry of the event. Millions of Hindus visit temples along the Ganges River, the most sacred river in India.

Worship in the home. Many observances of Hinduism take place in the home. Most homes have a shrine devoted to a divinity chosen by the family. In most homes, the husband or wife conducts the daily family worship. A number of important ceremonies are performed at home, including the one in which boys officially become members of the Hindu community. Other religious ceremonies include marriage ceremonies and rituals that are connected with pregnancy and childbirth.

Worship of saints. Hindus worship both living and dead men as saints. Some saints may be yogis (men who practice yoga), and others may be gurus (spiritual teachers). Hinduism has many local and regional saints, rather than official saints for all its followers. A Hindu village, tribe, or religious order may elevate its own heroes or protectors to sainthood. Many Hindu monks and nuns have joined together in religious orders under the leadership of a saint.

Contributor: Charles S. J. White, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religion, The American University.

Additional resources

Flood, Gavin. An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge, 1996.
Klostermaier, Klaus K. A Survey of Hinduism. 2nd ed. State Univ. of N. Y. Pr., 1994.
Powell, Barbara. Windows into the Infinite: A Guide to the Hindu Scriptures. Asian Humanities, 1996.
Sharma, Arvind. Hinduism for Our Times. Oxford, 1996.
Sullivan, Bruce M. Historical Dictionary of Hinduism. Scarecrow, 1997.
Viswanathan, Ed. Am I a Hindu? The Hinduism Primer. Halo Bks., 1992.