An Introduction to Hinduism
Dr. Meredith Sprunger
This Document contains an overview
of the history and basic beliefs of Hinduism, information about the Vedas,
the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu, including
the origins of Jainism and Buddhism.
Hinduism: The Religion of Divine Immanence and
An Hereditarily Graded
Hinduism, dating from around 1500 B. C., is the oldest living religion
having a membership (1982) of 477,991,300 confined largely to India. It
is the most complex, diverse, and tolerant of the world's religions. One
can find within Hinduism almost any form of religion--from simple animism
to elaborate philosophical systems--which has ever been conceived or practiced
by mankind. Hinduism has met the challenge of other religions, primarily,
by absorbing them and their practices and beliefs into the mainstream of
Hindu religious expression.
The Aryans (noble ones) invaded the Indus valley from Persia in the
second millennium B.C. They were basically wandering nomads who spoke an
Indo-European language which became the basis for Sanskrit. This early
Aryan society developed into three basic socio-economic classes. The priests
or Brahmins became the ruling class. The tribal chieftains and their warriors
or Kshatriyas were next in line, with the commoners and merchants or Vaishyas
rounding out the Aryan society. A fourth group, the conquered pre-Aryan
people or Shudras, were at the bottom of society. Eventually these divisions
developed into a religiously supported caste system.
The Vedas are the sacred scriptures of Hinduism. The four basic Vedic
books are the Rig-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, the Sama-Veda, and the Atharva-Veda.
Each of the Vedic books is divided into four parts. Each contains a section
of hymns to the gods (Mantras), a section of ritual materials (Brahmanas),
a section of guidance for hermits (Aranyakas), and a fourth section of
philosophical treatises (Upanishads). The Mantra and Brahmana sections
are the oldest materials with the Aranyakas and Upanishads added later.
This Vedic literature evolved during the classical period of Hinduism.
The fourteen principal Upanishads form the basis of Hindu philosophy.
They assume there is one reality, the impersonal god-being called Brahman.
All things and beings are an expression of Brahman. Everything in the world
and experience which is not Brahman is illusion (maya). All phenomenal
existence (pleasure, worldly success, wealth) is illusion arising from
ignorance of the true nature of reality. Those who continue in this ignorance
are bound to life by the law of karma which keeps them endlessly in the
cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. When man discovers the Path of
Desire is not fulfilling he is ready to start on the Path of Renunciation.
Here he recognizes his duty to others, family and community, and dedicates
himself to a life of service. This is rewarding but he still yearns for
infinite being, infinite awareness, and infinite joy.
To achieve these ultimates of experience we must realize the basic purpose
of life is to pass beyond imperfection. That which is beyond the limitations
and imperfections of life can be found within. Underlying our physical
existence and personality is an infinite reservoir of reality. This infinite
center of every life, this hidden authentic self or Atman is no less than
Brahman, the Godhead. By detachment from the finite, illusory self and
commitment to Atman-Brahman, we achieve infinite being, infinite awareness,
and infinite joy.
This philosophy of the Upanishads is a reaction to the sacrificial,
priestly form of worship in Hinduism. It emphasizes meditation as a means
of worship and teaches that ignorance is man's basic plight. Historically,
the priestly sections of the Vedas have directed the religion of the masses
in India while the Upanishads have attracted a relatively small number
of Indian intellectuals. Contemporary Western people who are attracted
to Eastern thought tend to identify Hinduism with the philosophy of the
Classical Hinduism also produced the ethical Code of Manu which teaches
that the caste system is divinely ordained. The first three castes (Brahmins,
Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas) are "twice born" people while the Shudras
are "once born" manual laborers. The only upward mobility through
this caste system is by means of repeated incarnations. Although the caste
system is outlawed in contemporary India, its social influence is still
The Code of Manu also teaches the various stages through which a man
is expected to pass in a successful life: student, householder, hermit,
and wandering beggar. These stages are only for twice born men. Women should
stay in the home under the protection and control of the chief male in
the household. The code requires the cultivation of pleasantness, patience,
control of mind, non-stealing, purity, control of senses., intelligence,
knowledge, truthfulness, and non irritability. The killing of cows is listed
among the greatest of sins.
The composition of the great epic poem, the Bhagavad-Gita, sometime
between the second century B.C. and the third century A.D. marks the end
of the period of classical Hinduism. The Bhagavad-Gita is found within
the text of a much longer poem and is probably the most highly esteemed
scripture of Hinduism. In the poem Arjuna, a Hindu knight, for the first
time in the recorded history of Hinduism, raises the question of the propriety
of killing people. He is answered by his charioteer, Krishna, who turns
out to be an incarnation of the god Vishnu. Arjuna is told he must be loyal
to his duty as a warrior and kill. The Gita also teaches a variety of means
of personal salvation. One may achieve release from life (Nirvana) through
asceticism, through meditation, through devotion to and worship of the
gods, or through obedience to the rules of his caste,
After the close of the classical period subtle changes gradually appear
in Hinduism. Out of the millions of major and minor gods, worship tended
to center around the Trimurti: Brahma, the creator; Shiva, the destroyer;
and Vishnu, the preserver. Among this trinity, Brahma receives the least
attention. Shiva is the most popular probably because he is the god of
sex and reproduction and appeals to the deprivation experienced by the
masses. His various goddess consorts such as Kali are equally revered.
According to mythology, Vishnu has appeared on earth in nine forms and
will come a tenth time to bring the world to an end. Among his appearances
are Krishna; Gautama, the Buddha; Matsya, the fish who saved Manu from
the great flood; and Christ.
The majority of the people of India seek salvation through devotion
to the gods while many of the wealthy and educated seek salvation through
the way of knowledge. This intellectual Hinduism centers around six systems
of philosophy: Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa, Vedanta, Vaiseshika, and Nyana.
All claim to be based on the Vedas and revolve about common themes. The
only basic difference among them is their view of ultimate reality. The
Vedanta system is monistic and asserts that the only essence in the universe
is Brahman; all else is illusion. The Samkhya, Yoga, Vaiseshika, and Nyana
systems are dualistic and assert that the universe is composed of two forces,
matter and spirit. The Mimamsa system is basically atheistic and teaches
that salvation comes through the correct observance of Vedic rituals.
Jainism and Buddhism began as reform movements in Hinduism and it has
absorbed much of their thinking. During the Middle Ages Hinduism and Islam
competed for followers in India. The two religions are in many ways opposites
and there has been much bloodshed in their struggles. Sikhism arose in
an attempt to bring reconciliation between the two. Tradition credits the
disciple Thomas for bringing Christianity to India. During the three centuries
of British rule Christianity had considerable influence on the growing
edge of Hinduism.
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought three main reform movements
in Hinduism. Ram Mohan Roy, called the Father of Modern India, was a monotheist
who tended to agree with Christian missionaries in their attempt to suppress
the suttee, child marriage, polytheism, and idolatry in Hinduism. The greatest
reformer was Sri Ramakrishna, a follower of non dualistic Vedanta, who
believed there was one single reality, God, behind all religions and that
truth is essentially one. His disciple, Dutt, later known as Vivekananda,
became the first Hindu missionary to the modern world. He described Vedanta
Hinduism as the mother of all other religions. The best known Indian reformer
is Mohandas K. Gandi who was influenced by the teachings of Jesus and the
Jain doctrine of non injury (ahimsa) espoused civil disobedience and nonviolence
which were largely responsible for bringing India freedom from British
rule. Gandi, in turn, became a major influence in the political thinking
of Martin Luther King, Jr. and many of the leaders of the "peace movement"
in Western Civilization.
Index to the Full Series
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