Hinduism is possibly the world’s oldest religion, evolving over the last 4000 years.
Hinduism has its origins in the Indian subcontinent, although the Hindu way of life is more often referred to by Hindus as the Sanatana Dharma (eternal life). Hinduism has no single founding figure or point of historical origin and Hindus perceive the Sanatana Dharma to be eternal. It has developed in very diverse schools of thought, religious practice and focuses of devotion. The religion is not church-based and has no hierarchical structure. The religious practitioner is called a priest.
Hinduism is founded on sacred, written scripture called Vedas – one of the main holy books is the Bhagrad Gita . Hinduism has a wide variety of beliefs- including Reincarnation and Karma.
The Hindu Dharma allows individuals to worship different gods and goddesses ( devas and devis ): for whilst there is only one supreme God, Brahmm , that is inexplicable, indescribable and formless, there are different paths to reach him. The different gods are divine manifestations or incarnations of the same one God.
Alongside the diversities of belief, philosophical orientation and practice which the Hindu tradition as a whole contains, it also shares a number of basic concepts.
- Atman , the eternal principle that animates all life and brings consciousness.
- Moksha , the liberation that is the ultimate goal of all beings
- Dharma , which can mean either “religion”, “law”, “duty” or “righteousness”, depending on the context
- Karma , which is that all actions have consequences that shape one’s destiny
- Maya , which is life in ignorance of the Sanatana Dharma (the eternal truth)
- The Four Aims and Pathways
Hinduism sees human life in terms of four purusharthas or aims. These are:
- Dharma , which is concerned with religious life
- Artha , which is concerned with economic development
- Kama , which is an appropriate gratification of the senses
- Moksha , which is liberation from the cycle of birth and death
Hinduism also traditionally teaches that the spiritual life has four main pathways :
- Karma Yoga , which is the way of action
- Jnana Yoga , which is the way of knowledge
- Raja Yoga , which is the way of self-control
- Bhakti Yoga , which is the way of devotion
The Four Ashramas and Varnas
Hindu life is structured by what is known as Varnashrama Dharma , which is concerned with an understanding of one’s personal and social roles within the totality of life. The four Ashramas are seen in ideal terms as the four stages through which a maturing human life should pass. Whilst in contemporary life it is not often lived precisely in these terms, its broad outlines remain a powerful influence upon the Hindu perception of life. The ashramas are those of the:
- Brahmacharin , or celibate student
- Grihastha/ Grihini , or householder
- Vanaprastha , or stage of retirement from society (traditionally into the forest)
- Sannyasin , or renunciant who breaks all social ties
There are two broad groupings of scriptures. The first group of sacred writings is known as the shruti (that which is heard) and the second is the smriti (that which is remembered). Some Hindus believe that the shruti and the smriti are on the same level, whilst the majority view is that the shruti are the more authoritative.
The shruti include the Four Vedas , which are said, originally, to have been transmitted orally for many years before they were written down.
The Four Vedas are the:
- Rig Veda , containing mantras for use in worship;
- Sama Veda , containing sung mantras;
- Yajur Veda , also containing mantras, and instructions concerning worship; and
- Atharva Veda , containing mantras to be used in various other ways.
Each of the Vedas has four parts:
- The Samhitas , concerned with recitation;
- The Brahmanas , concerned with ritual and sacrifice;
- The Aranyakas , concerned with the role of Vedic rituals in the cosmos; and
- The Upanishads , concerned with the knowledge necessary for self-realisation.
The smriti present Hindu teaching in widely accessible ways and have six parts:
- Grihya Sutra
- Dharma Shastra
- Prasthana Vakya
The Itihasas , or stories, contain the two famous epics of The Ramayana and The Mahabharata .
- The Ramayana tells the story of how King Rama fought against Ravana and the forces of evil. Rama and his wife Sita are, for many Hindus, models of right living.
- The Mahabharata incorporates the Bhagavad Gita , or Song of the Blessed Lord, which is the record of a discourse between Krishna and Prince Arjuna and has become a centrally important scripture for many contemporary Hindus because of its teachings about dharma.
There are also, in addition, a range of other texts, including the Dharma Shastras , or law books and the Prasthana-Vakyas , a range of literature, which include, for example, the esoteric Tantras .
It is believed that the atmosphere around the dying person must be peaceful.
The last thoughts or words of a dying person must be of God: The Gita (scripture) is recited to strengthen the person’s mind and provide comfort. Family, friends and priest continually offer religious chanting before and after death. There is no custom or restriction on prolongation of life.
It is preferable, in the Hindu faith, to die at home, as close to mother earth as possible (usually on the ground). It is customary for the body not to be left alone until it is cremated. Cremation is commonly performed on the day of death.
There are 3 main services conducted by a priest during the day, in the morning, lunch time and evening. It is not mandatory to attend these services and individuals pray at home or do both. Worshipers must be barefoot during religious worship or any kind of religious celebration and must sit at a lower elevation than where the image of the deity has been placed.
Followers bow to the deities and offer fruits and flowers to the gods. It is also customary for them to put money in the donation boxes.
In all temples, Prasad (food) is on offer at all times, whether dried or fresh fruit, sweets or offerings brought by worshipers. Most temples organise a collective prayer meeting once a month where the donated food is shared. The purpose of this meeting is to unite the families/ community and sing praise of God.
Followers of the Hindu faith are usually vegetarian. Eating beef is forbidden for Hindus as the cow is regarded as a sacred animal.
However, Hindus do eat meat, but at special festivals involving fasting, they will refrain from eating meat, eggs or fish for religious reasons. For this purpose, vegetarian food should not be served on the same platter as food containing meat, eggs or fish.
According to dietary law, the right hand is for eating, and the left hand is for toileting and hygiene.
Hindus may also fast on special holy days.
Hindus celebrate 4 major festivals during the year. These are:
- Ramnavami (Birth of Lord Rama);
- Janmastami (Birth of Lord Krishna);
- Navarati (Nine Night’s devotion to Shakti, the Goddess of Strength); and
- Diwali (New Year).
There are several other festivals whose dates are set according to the lunar calendar and so, do not fall on the same day each year.