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Portal: Hinduism

Hinduism (Sanskrit: Sanātana Dharma सनातन धर्म "eternal law"[1] ) is a religion that originated on the Indian subcontinent. With its foundations in the Vedic civilization, it has no known founder,[2][3] being itself a conglomerate of diverse beliefs and traditions. It is considered the world's "oldest extant religion,"[4] and has approximately a billion adherents, of whom about 890 million live in India,[5] placing it as the world's third largest religion after Christianity and Islam. Other countries with large Hindu populations include Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

Hinduism provides a vast body of scriptures. Divided as revealed and remembered, and developed over millenia, these scriptures expound an equally vast range of theology, philosophy, and myth, providing spiritual insights along with guidance on the practice of dharma (religious living). Among such texts, Hindus revere the Vedas along with the Upanishads as being among the foremost in authority, importance, and antiquity. Other important scriptures include the Tantras and sectarian Agamas, Purāṇas and the epics: the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa. A deeply profound conversation excerpted from the Mahābhārata, called the Bhagavad Gītā is widely studied for summarizing the spiritual teachings of the Vedas.[6]


The Persian term Hindu comes from the Sanskrit Sindhu, i.e. the Indus River.[7] In the Rig Veda—the foundation of Hinduism—the Indo-Aryans mention their land as Sapta Sindhu (the land of the seven rivers of the northwestern Indian subcontinent, one of them being the Indus). This corresponds to Hapta-Hendu in the Avesta (Vendidad: Fargard 1.18)—the sacred scripture of Zoroastrianism of Iran. The term was used for people who lived in the Indian subcontinent around the Sindhu.[8]




Core concepts

Modern Hinduism originates from the ancient Vedic tradition and other indigenous beliefs, incorporated over time. Prominent themes in Hinduism include Dharma (ethics and duties), Samsāra (rebirth), Karma (right action), and Moksha (liberation from the cycle of samsara). Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism share traits with Hinduism, because these religions originated in India and focus on self-improvement with the ultimate aim of attaining a personal, spiritual experience. They along with Hinduism are collectively known as Dharmic religions.


Concept of God

Hinduism is sometimes considered to be a polytheistic religion, but such a view tends to oversimplify a diverse system of thought with beliefs spanning monotheism, polytheism,[9] panentheism, monism and even atheism. For instance, the Advaita Vedanta school holds that there is only one causal entity (Brahman), which manifests itself to humans in multiple forms[10] while many scholars consider Samkhya to have atheistic leanings.


According to the monistic/panentheistic theologies of Hinduism, Brahman (the greater Self or God) is in the highest sense One and nondifferentiated from the world and its beings (hence 'nondualist'). In connoting Brahman's absolutely unparalleled nature, it is also called Parambrahman, where the Sanskrit prefix param- denotes "ultimate". It is also called Paramatma (Supreme Spirit). Beyond time and space, both immanent and transcendant,[11][12] Brahman is often described succinctly as sacchidananda, meaning 'Truth-Consciousness-Bliss'. It not only possesses these qualities but is also their very essence. The Advaita scriptures declare that ultimately Brahman (the impersonal Self/God) is beyond mere intellectual description and can be understood only through direct spiritual experience, where the 'knower' and the 'known' are subsumed into the act of 'knowing'. The goal is to "wake up" and realize that one's atman, or soul, is really identical to Brahman, the uber-soul.[13][14]

However, while monotheistic (typically Dvaita Vedanta) and related devotional (bhakti) schools understand Brahman as essentially one and unlimited in the same way as Advaitists, they ascribe a strong sense of real personality to Brahman, and revere it more as God than as Self (hence dualist). In these conceptions, Brahman is associated with Vishnu, Shiva or Shakti, which depends on the sect. Brahman is seen as fundamentally separate from its reliant souls (humanity). Thus in achieving liberation, the individual experiences God as personality and retains individual identity.


 Temple carving representing Brahma or God as Creator (not to be confused with Brahman).
Temple carving representing Brahma or God as Creator (not to be confused with Brahman).

When God is thought of as the supreme all-powerful personal being (rather than as the infinite principle) he is called Ishvara ("The Lord";[15]), Bhagavan ("The Auspicious One";[15] Bhagavān), or Parameshwara ("The Supreme Lord"[15]). Ishvara thus refers to the personal aspect of God in general; it is not specific to a particular deity. Ishvara transcends gender, yet can be looked upon as both father and mother, and even as friend, child, or sweetheart.[10]

Among the six systems of Hindu philosophy, Samkhya and Mimamsa do not believe in the concept of Ishvara. The four monotheistic schools: Yoga, Vaisheshika, Vedanta and Nyaya believe in the existence of an Ishvara. In the school of Vedanta, the sub-school Advaita Vedanta holds that Ishvara is the image of Brahman interpreted by finite human minds .[16] Thus Ishvara, in the minds of humans, bears characteristics not at all representative of the Cosmic Spirit.[16][10] In Vishishtadvaita, Ishvara is Parabrahman and is infinite and perfect. When He is considered as a triad along with the universe and sentient beings, the result is Brahman, which signifies the completeness of existence.[17] However, the Dvaita school does not distinguish between Ishvara and Brahman. It also does not hold that Ishvar is incorporeal,[16] and instead holds that He is infinite yet a personal being.

Devas and devis

The Hindu scriptures also speak about many celestial entities, called Devas ("The shining ones",[15] also called devatās). The word Devas may variously be translated into English as gods,[15] demigods,[18] deities,[15] celestial spirits[19] or angels.[20] The feminine of deva is devī.

The most ancient Vedic devas included Indra, Agni, Soma, Varuna, Mitra, Savitri, Rudra, Prajapati, Vishnu, Aryaman and the Ashvins; important devīs were Sarasvatī, Ūṣā and Prithvī. Later scriptures, the Purānas, recount traditional stories about each individual deity, and laud the Trimurti, which are the three aspects of God, Brahmā, Vishnu and Shiva. Vishnu and Shiva are not regarded as ordinary devas but as Mahādevas ("Great Gods") because of their central positions in worship and mythology.[21]

The devas are an integral part of Hindu culture. They are depicted in paintings, statues, murals, and scriptural stories that can be found in temples, homes, businesses, and other places. The scriptures recommend that for the satisfaction of a particular material desire a person worship a particular deity.[22] In their personal religious practices, Hindus worship primarily one or another of these deities, known as their iṣṭa devatā, or chosen ideal.[23][24] The particular form of God worshipped as one's chosen ideal is a matter of individual preference,[25] influenced by regional and family traditions.[26]


Many denominations of Hinduism, such as Vaishnavism, Shaktism and Smartism, teach that from time to time God descends to Earth in corporeal form to help humans along in their struggle toward enlightenment in the form of bhakti or liberation from rebirth known as moksha. Such an incarnation of God is called an avatāra. The most famous avatars are of Vishnu. Vishnu's two most popular avatars are Rama, whose life is depicted in the Ramayana, and Krishna, whose life is depicted in the Mahabharata and the Srimad Bhagavatam.


While mainstream Hindu philosophy talks about the existence of God, being heavily influenced by the Vedanta school, the dominant philosophical school of Hinduism, there were earlier atheistic schools such as Samkhya, which did not acknowledge the existence of an omnipotent God, Ishvara.



Most Hindu thinkers agree that the spirit or soul, the true "self" of every person, called the ātman, is eternal;[27] as is Brahman, which may be seen as either the greater Self or as God, depending on the outlook. According to the Advaita (non-dualist) schools of philosophy, the individual self and greater Self are not fundamentally distinct. They argue that the core spirit, or "Self", of every individual person is identical with the greater Spirit. Referring to 'brahman' unequivocally as God may reveal problems of semantics, where certain traditions understand God to be a motivating agency with personality and others that it is without personality and form, beyond any sort of definition and thus non-equivalent to the 'God' as understood by dualist schools of Hinduism or Abrahamic understandings of God.[27] According to the Upanishads, whoever gains insight into the depths of his own nature and becomes fully aware of the ātman as the innermost core of his own Self will realize his identity with Brahman and will thereby reach Moksha.[27][28] According to the Dvaita (dualist) school, (often associated with Vaishnavism), the ātman is not identical with Brahman, which is seen as being God with personality (though not limited); instead, the ātman is dependent on God. Moksha depends on the cultivation of love for God and on God's grace.[28]


Karma, samsara and moksha

Karma translates literally as action, work or deed[29] and is often described as the "moral law of cause and effect".[30] According to the Upanishads, an individual or "actor", known as the jiva-atma, develops samskaras (impressions) from actions, whether physical or mental. The "linga sharira", a body more subtle than the physical one, but less subtle than the soul, retains impressions, carrying them over into the next life, establishing a unique trajectory for the individual.[31] Thus, this concept of a universal, neutral and never-failing karma intrinsically relates to the concept of reincarnation as well as one's personality, characteristics and family. Karma also threads together the notions of free will and destiny.

This cycle of action, reaction, birth, death, and rebirth is a continuum called samsara. The notion of reincarnation and karma is a strong premise in much of Hindu thought. The Bhagavad Gita states that:

As a person puts on new clothes, discarding old and torn clothes, similarly an embodied soul enters new material bodies, leaving the old bodies.(B.G. 2:22)[32]

Samsara provides ephemeral pleasures, which lead people to desire rebirth in order to enjoy the pleasures of a perishable body; however only escaping the world of samsara through "liberation" or moksha is believed to ensure lasting happiness or peace.[33][34] It is thought that after several reincarnations, an atman eventually seeks unity with the cosmic spirit (brahman or paramatman).

The ultimate goal of life, referred to as moksha, nirvana or samadhi, is described as the realization of one's union with God; realization of one's eternal relationship with God; realization of the unity of all existence; perfect unselfishness and knowledge of the Self; liberation from ignorance; attainment of perfect mental peace; or detachment from worldly desires. Such a realization liberates one from samsara and ends the cycle of rebirth.[35][36] The exact conceptualization of moksha differs among the various Hindu schools of thought. For example, advaita vedanta holds that after attaining moksha an atman no longer identifies itself with an individual, but rather as part of the infinite ocean of Brahman. The followers of dualistic schools such as dvaita on the other hand, expect to spend eternity in a loka, or heaven, in the company of their chosen form of Ishvara. Thus, it is said, the followers of dvaita wish to "taste sugar," while the followers of Advaita wish to "become sugar."[37]


The Goals of Life

Classical Hindu thought accepts two main life-long dharmas: Grihastha Dharma and Sannyasin Dharma.

The Grihastha Dharma recognize four goals as noble; these are known as the puruṣhārthas, and they are:

  1. kāma: Sensual pleasure and enjoyment
  2. artha: Worldly prosperity and success
  3. dharma: Following the laws and rule that an individual lives under
  4. mokṣha: Liberation from the cycle of samsara[38][39]

Among these, dharma and moksha play a special role:[39] dharma must dominate an individual's pursuit of kama and artha, with all the while seeing moksha, at the horizon.

The Sannyasin Dharma recognizes, but renounces Kama, Artha and Dharma, focusing entirely on Moksha. As described below, the Grihasthi eventually enters this dharma as an eventual stage of life. However, some enter this stage immediately from whichever stage they may be in.


Yoga: multiple paths to the goal

However a Hindu defines the goal of life, there are several methods (yogas) that sages have taught over the centuries for reaching that goal. The chief texts dedicated to Yoga include the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and, as their philosophical and historical basis, the Upanishads. Paths one can follow to achieve the spiritual goal of life (moksha, samadhi, or nirvana) include:

An individual may prefer one yoga over others according to their inclination and understanding. For instance some followers of the Dvaita school hold that Bhakti ("devotion") is the only practical path to achieve spiritual perfection for the majority of people, based on their belief that the earth is currently in the age of Kali yuga (one of four stages, or epochs, that are part of the Yuga cycle).[40] Practice of one yoga does not exclude the others. In fact, many schools believe that the different yogas naturally blend into and aid other yogas. For example, the practice of jnana yoga, is thought to inevitably lead to pure love (the goal of bhakti yoga), and vice versa.[41] Someone practicing deep meditation (such as in raja yoga) must embody the core principles of karma yoga, jnana yoga and bhakti yoga, whether directly or indirectly.[10][42]

Bhakti Yoga

The bhakti traditions emphasize cultivation of love and devotion for God as the path to perfection. Followers of bhakti typically worship God as a divine personal being or avatar, such as Rama or Krishna. Followers of the bhakti path strive to purify their minds and activities through the chanting of God's names (japa), prayer, devotional hymns (bhajan) and treating all living creatures with compassion. Bhakti followers seek to enjoy a loving relationship with God, rather than seek to merge their consciousness with Brahman as the followers of jnana yoga and raja yoga do.

Karma Yoga

The followers of karma yoga seek to achieve freedom by acting without attachment to the results of their actions. According to Hinduism, action is inevitable, and has one great disadvantage—any act done with attachment to its fruits generates karmic or psychological bondage.[43] Followers of karma yoga follow the injunction in the Bhagavad Gita:

Without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty; for by working without attachment, one attains the Supreme.[44]

Many followers of karma yoga offer the results of every action to God, thus combining karma yoga with bhakti yoga. However, it is possible for even an atheist to follow karma yoga by simply remaining mentally detached from the fruits of their actions. Benefits of karma yoga include purification of the heart, freedom from bondage to the ego, humility, and the growing understanding that Brahman is in all people.[43]

Raja Yoga

Swami Vivekananda, shown here practicing meditation, was a Hindu guru (teacher) recognized for his inspiring lectures on spiritual topics such as yoga.
Swami Vivekananda, shown here practicing meditation, was a Hindu guru (teacher) recognized for his inspiring lectures on spiritual topics such as yoga.

The followers of Raja yoga seek direct experience of spiritual truth through meditation and yoga practices. Raja yoga is based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,[45] which has eight 'limbs' that describe the stages a yogi must pass through to reach the goal of samadhi.[46] The eight limbs begin with right action (yamas and niyamas) and perfect control of the body (asana), and continue with control of the body's life force (pranayama). From there, the yogi practices techniques of meditation that take him through the progressive stages of interiorization (pratyahara), concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana).[46] The final goal of the raja yogi—and the eighth limb of Patanjali's Sutras—is samadhi, or oneness with Brahman.[47]

Jnana Yoga

Jnana Yoga is the path of wisdom, or true knowledge, and appeals to people with an intellectual nature.[48] The jnana yogi typically practices the "four means to salvation":

  1. Viveka: discrimination between what is real (the immortal Atman, or true self), and unreal (the changing universe)
  2. Vairāgya, dispassion for the pleasures of this world.
  3. Shad-Sampat, the six virtues, which bring about mental control and discipline.
  4. Mumukshutva, intense desire for liberation.[49]

These practices lead to the unfoldment of wisdom (intuitive perception), rather than mere intellectual knowledge.[50] Through discrimination and introspection, the jnana yogi eventually realizes the highest truth, that "I am Brahman, the pure, all-pervading Consciousness."[49]


Heaven and hell

The concepts of "Heaven" and "Hell" do not translate directly into Hinduism and reaching heaven is not necessarily considered the ultimate goal. This is because both heavenly and hellish existences are believed to be temporary.[51] The belief in eternal spiritual realms such as Vaikuntha (the abode of Vishnu) most closely match the concept of an eternal Kingdom of God but generally it is 'divinity', which includes God as well as the ātman (soul) that is considered eternal. Therefore the ultimate goal is to experience divinity itself.[52]


Schools of Hindu philosophy

Hatha Yoga was traditionally part of a practice that included meditation, pranayama, and right action—unlike the popular modern approach that emphasizes the physical aspect.
Hatha Yoga was traditionally part of a practice that included meditation, pranayama, and right action—unlike the popular modern approach that emphasizes the physical aspect.

The six Āstika or orthodox schools (those which accept the authority of the Vedas) of Hindu philosophy are Nyāya, Vaisheṣhika, Sāṃkhya, Yoga, Pūrva Mīmāṃsā (also simply called Mīmāṃsā), and Uttara Mīmāṃsā (also called Vedānta).[53] The Heterodox Nāstika schools, those which do not rely on the authority of the Vedas, are Buddhism, Jainism and Lokāyata. Although these philosophies are mainly studied formally by scholars, their influences can be found in many religious books and beliefs held by average Hindus.





The earliest evidence for elements of Hinduism dates back as far as the late neolithic, to the early Harappan period (ca. 5500–3300 BCE).[54] In recognition of these ancient elements, it is claimed that Hinduism is the oldest surviving religion.[55]

The beliefs and practices of the pre-classical era (ca. 1500-500 BCE) are called the "Vedic religion". The oldest surviving text of Hinduism is the Rigveda and is dated to between 1700–1100 BCE, based on linguistic and philological evidence.[56]


The Vedic period

Sacred Mount Kailash in Tibet is regarded as the spiritual abode of Shiva.
Sacred Mount Kailash in Tibet is regarded as the spiritual abode of Shiva.

Modern Hinduism grew out of the Vedas. The earliest of these, the Rigveda, centers on worship of deities such as Indra, Varuna and Agni, and on the Soma ritual. The early Indo-Aryans performed fire-sacrifices, called yajña and chanted Vedic mantras. However, they built no temples or icons. Animals were sacrificed in larger yajñas as claimed by Buddhist and Jain texts. The oldest Vedic traditions exhibit strong similarities to Zoroastrianism, as well as to other Indo-European religions.[57]


Epic and Puranic periods

The epic poems Ramayana and Mahabharata were written roughly from 400 BCE to 200 CE, although they were probably transmitted orally for hundreds of years prior to this period.[58] The Ramayana and Mahabharata contain secular and mythological stories of the rulers and wars of ancient India as well as on the avatars Rama and Krishna respectively. They are interspersed with treatises on various Hindu philosophical concepts and themes, including the nature of the atma, karma, dharma, moksha, and the organisation of society and government. The later Puranas recount tales about devas and devis, their interactions with humans and their battles against demons.


The age of Mahajanapadas

During the Iron Age in India, several schools of thought arose and developed in Hindu philosophy such as Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Purva Mimamsa and Vedanta. Three key revolutions in Indian thought underpinned the nascence of a new epoch in Hindu thought: these were the spiritual upheaval initiated by the Upanishads, and the arrival of Mahavira (founder of Jainism) and the Buddha (founder of Buddhism). Charvaka, the leader of an atheistic materialist school, also came to the fore in North India in the sixth century BCE.[59] Both the Upanishads and Buddha taught that to achieve moksha or nirvana, one did not have to accept the authority of the Vedas or the caste system; the Buddha went a step further and claimed that even the existence of a Self/soul or God was unnecessary.[60] In this intellectual ferment, many Hindus either became followers of Buddhism while others were influenced by both Buddhism and Jainism's particular emphases on compassion for all life and vegetarianism.[61]


Islam and Bhakti

Beginning around 1173 CE, successive waves of armies from Muslim countries invaded and to varying degrees, gained control over North India.[59] During this period Buddhism declined rapidly, and many Hindus converted to Islam. Some Muslim rulers destroyed Hindu temples and otherwise persecuted non-Muslims, while others, such as Akbar, were more tolerant.

Hinduism underwent one of the most profound changes in its history, due in large part to the influence of the prominent teachers Ramanuja, Madhva, and Chaitanya.[59] Followers of the Bhakti movement moved away from the abstract concept of Brahman, which was consolidated by the philosopher Adi Shankara a few centuries before, to a focus on the more accessible avataras, especially Krishna and Rama.[59] A new attitude toward God—emotional, passionate love—replaced the old approaches of sacrificial rite and meditation on the formless Brahman.[62]


The 19th to 20th Centuries

This period saw largely unprecedented interaction between Hinduism and European thought (in the form of Abrahamic religions and Western Philosophy). These intercultural conversations catalyzed developments in Indology, formations of new schools of Hindu thought, the spread of Hinduism across the world, and changes in many areas of Hindu society. At the same time, many traditional systems of Hinduism witnessed revivals or new developments that flourished independently of the globalization trend.

Indology as an academic discipline studying Indian culture from a European perspective was established in the 19th century, led by Max Müller and John Woodroffe. They brought much of the Vedic, Puranic and Tantric literature, philosophy, religion, and practice back to European and American universities. At the same time, societies such as the Brahmo Samaj and the Theosophical Society attempted to reconcile and fuse Abrahamic and Dharmic philosophies, endeavouring to institute societal reform.

Soon a proliferation of diverse movements emerged, sometimes based on and teachings of individuals among them Shri Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharshi. Prominent Hindu philosophers, including Sri Aurobindo and Swami Prabhupada (founder of ISKCON) translated, commented upon and presented Hinduism's foundational texts for contemporary audiences, attracting followers and attention in India and abroad. Others such as Swami Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda, B.K.S. Iyengar and Swami Rama have been instrumental in raising the profiles of yoga and Vedanta in the West. In the subcontinent, Hinduism is still practised by the majority of India and Nepal's inhabitants although the number in the areas of modern Pakistan and Bangladesh reduced due to the Partition of India.

See also: British Raj, Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, ISKCON, and Ramakrishna Math


The Naradiyamahapuranam describes the mechanics of the cosmos. Depicted here are Vishnu the Maintainer with his consort Lakshmi resting on Shesha Nag. The sage Narada and Brahma the Creator are also pictured.
The Naradiyamahapuranam describes the mechanics of the cosmos. Depicted here are Vishnu the Maintainer with his consort Lakshmi resting on Shesha Nag. The sage Narada and Brahma the Creator are also pictured.

Hinduism is based on "the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times."[63] The scriptures were transmitted orally, in verse form to aid memorization, for many centuries before they were written down.[64][65] Over many centuries, the teachings were refined by other sages, and the canon expanded.

The majority of the sacred texts are composed in the Sanskrit language. Sanskrit continues to be used today in religious and literary settings. The scripture are collectively referred to as Shāstras and are classified into two classes: Shruti and Smriti.


Shruti (Vedic literature)

The Rig Veda is one of the world's oldest religious texts. Shown here is a Rig Veda manuscript in Devanagari, early nineteenth century.
The Rig Veda is one of the world's oldest religious texts. Shown here is a Rig Veda manuscript in Devanagari, early nineteenth century.

Shruti (Śruti: that which has been heard) refers to the Vedas (वेद, Knowledge) which form the earliest record of the Hindu scriptures. While they have not been dated with much certainty, even the most conservative estimates date their origin to 1200 BCE or earlier.[66][67][68]

Hindus revere the Vedas as eternal truths, revealed to ancient sages (Ṛṣis) through meditation.[69] Many of these sages were women, called Ṛṣikās.[70] Most Hindus do not associate the creation of the Vedas with a God or person—the Vedas are thought of as the laws of the spiritual world, which would still exist even if they were not revealed to the sages.[71][72][73]

There are four Vedas (called Rik-, Sāma- Yajus- and Atharva-). The Rigveda is the first and the most important Veda.[74] Each Veda is divided into four parts: the primary one, the Veda proper, being the Saṃhitā, which contains sacred mantras in verse. The other three parts form a three-tier ensemble of commentaries, usually in prose, and are historically believed to be slightly later in age than the Saṃhitā. These are: the Brāhmaṇas, Āraṇyakas, and the Upanishads. The first two parts are called the Karmakāṇḍa (the ritualistic portions), while the last two form the Jñānakāṇḍa (the knowledge portions).[75][76][77]

The Upanishads are as focused on spiritual insight and philosophy as the early Vedas are on more ritual and myth. These texts constitute a major portion of the Jnāna Kānda,[65] and contain the bulk of the Vedas' philosophical and mystical teachings. The teachings of the Upanishads emphasize Brahman and reincarnation.[78][79] While the Vedas are not themselves commonly read by most lay Hindus, they are yet revered as the eternal knowledge whose sacred sounds help bringing spiritual and material benefits. Theologically, they take precedence over the Smriti.[80]

See also: Shrauta



Hindu texts other than the Shrutis are collectively called the Smritis (memory).[81]

The most notable of the smritis are the Itihāsas (epics), such as the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa, considered sacred by almost all Hindus. Bhagavad Gītā is an integral part of the epic Mahabharata and one of the most popular sacred texts of Hinduism. It contains philosophical sermons told by Kṛiṣhṇa, an incarnation of Viṣhṇu, to the Pāṇḍava prince Arjuna on the eve of a great war. The Bhagavad Gītā is described as the essence of the Vedas.[82]

Also widely known are the eighteen Purāṇas ("ancient histories"), which illustrate Vedic ideas through vivid narratives dealing with deities, and their interactions with humans. Prominent Purāṇas include the Srīmad Bhāgavatam. Other key texts are the Devī Mahātmya (an ode to the Divine Mother), the Yoga Sūtras (a key yoga text by the sage Patañjali), the Tantras as well as the Mahanirvāṇa Tantra, Tirumantiram and Shiva Sūtras. Also of importance are scriptures of a more sectarian nature, classed as the Hindu Āgamas, which dedicate to rituals and worship associated with Viṣhnu, Shiva and Devī. A more controversial text, the Manusmṛiti or "Code of Manu", is a prescriptive lawbook which epitomizes the societal codes of the Brahminical caste system.

Most Hindu scriptures, especially the epics and Puranic stories, are not typically interpreted literally and a greater importance is attached to the ethics and the metaphorical meanings derived from them.[83] Hindu exegesis often leans toward figurative interpretations of scriptures rather than literal ones.


Many scriptures, many paths

In contrast to the scriptural canons in some other religions, the Hindu scriptural canon is not closed even today. Hindus believe that because the spiritual truths of the Vedas are eternal but continue to be expressed in new ways.[84] Although the Shruti are the most venerated texts in Hinduism, some Hindus even venerate the scriptures of other religions, since they believe that the Divinity reveals itself in innumerable ways. One much-quoted verse from the Rigveda that emphasizes the diversity of paths to the one goal is:

ekam sad viprā bahudhā vadanty
Truth is one, the wise call it in many different ways
Rig Veda 1.164.46

This openness has meant that there is little theological quarrel between Hindu denominations[85] although these denominations may view God in a different form or sense.[86]



Hindu practices generally involve seeking awareness of the Divine Brahman and sometimes also seeking blessings from Devas. Therefore, Hinduism has developed numerous practices meant to help one think of divinity even in the midst of everyday life. According to Swami Vivekananda:

"The ideal of man is to see God in everything. But if you cannot see Him in everything, see Him in one thing, in that thing you like best, and then see Him in another. So on you go. . . . Take your time and you will achieve your end."[87]


Puja (worship or veneration)

Hindus may engage in some type of formal worship (Sanskrit: pūjā, worship or veneration[15]) either at home or at a temple. At home, Hindus often create a shrine with icons dedicated to the individual's chosen form(s) of God. Veneration may involve offering food, water, or flowers and may be expressed through the burning of incense, lighting of candles or oil-lamps, ringing a bell, waving a fan, or sounding a conch-shell. Other practices of Puja include meditation, the chanting of mantras, and the recitation of scriptures.

Icons of devas and devis are an integral part of most Hindu temples. Shown here are icons of Ganesha and Lakshmi, heavily laden with garlands, taken during a Hindu prayer ceremony.
Icons of devas and devis are an integral part of most Hindu temples. Shown here are icons of Ganesha and Lakshmi, heavily laden with garlands, taken during a Hindu prayer ceremony.

Devotional singing is an important part of bhakti. Devotional singing occurs in temples, in ashrams, on the banks of holy rivers, at home and elsewhere. Hymns are in Sanskrit or in modern Indian languages such as Hindi, Marathi, Bengali or Tamil. Musical instruments accompanying devotional singing include the manjeera, tanpura, harmonium, and tabla. Another form of community worship is Satsang (fellowship), the practice of gathering for study or discussion of scriptures and religious topics as well as chanting mantras. People gather under the guidance of a sage, a priest, or a singer.[88]

Vedic rites of icon-less fire-oblation (yajna), with traditional Vedic chanting, are now only occasional practices although they are highly revered in theory. In a Hindu wedding ceremony, however, the presence of sacred fire as the divine witness, the yajña and chanting of Vedic mantras is still the norm.[89][90]

Worship of God through icons

A murti of the dancing posture of Shiva, known as Nataraja.
A murti of the dancing posture of Shiva, known as Nataraja.

Hindus may worship God through icons (murti), such as statues or paintings symbolic of God's power and glory. The icon serves as a tangible link between the worshipper and God.[91] Another view is that the image is a manifestation of God, since God is immanent. The Padma Purana states that the mūrti is not to be thought of as mere stone or wood but as a manifest form of the Divinity.[92] A few Hindu sects, such as the Arya Samaj, do not believe in worshiping God through icons.



Hindu temples are a place of worship for Hindus. They are usually dedicated to a primary deity along with associated subordinate deities. However, some temples are dedicated to multiple deities. Most major temples are constructed as per the āgama shāstras and many are sites of pilgrimage. An important element of temple architecture and many Hindu households in general is Vaastu Shastra, the science of aesthetic and auspicious design.

Visiting temples is not obligatory for Hindus.[93] Many Hindus go to temples only during religious festivals, though others do so more regularly. Temples are not used for weddings, funerals, or as social hubs. Many Hindus view the four Shankaracharyas (the abbots of the monasteries of Joshimath, Puri, Shringeri and Dwarka — four of the holiest pilgrimage centers — sometimes to which a fifth at Kanchi is also added) as the Patriarchs of Hinduism.


Hindu iconography


Hinduism has a developed system of symbolism and iconography to represent the sacred in art, architecture, literature and worship. These symbols gain their meaning from the scriptures, mythology, or cultural traditions. The symbols Om (which represents the Parabrahman), Swastika (which symbolizes auspiciousness) have grown to represent Hinduism itself, while other markings like tilaka identify a follower of the faith. Hinduism associates many symbols, which include the lotus, chakra and veena, with particular devas. These associations distinguish the physical representations of the deities in sculptural or printed form and are based upon allegorical references in Hindu mythology. While most representations of deities are largely anthropomorphic there are exceptions. For instance the deity Shiva is worshipped in the form of a pillar-like stone called a lingam.


The guru-disciple tradition

In many Hindu sects, spiritual aspirants are encouraged to adopt a personal spiritual teacher, called a guru. In traditional schools of thought, during brahmacharya (see Ashramas) a Guru taught a disciple all things necessary to lead a dharmic life. The student is expected to follow the instructions of the guru and to sincerely strive to have a spiritual life. The guru's recompense paid by the student is known as gurudakshina; in many traditions,[citation needed] this may not be monetary.


Japa and mantra

Mantras are prayers or chants that through their meaning, sound, and chanting style help a person focus the mind on holy thoughts or to express devotion to God. Mantras are meant to give courage in exigent times and invoke one's inner spiritual strength.

After the pranava or "fundamental" mantra of "Aum", one of the most revered mantras in Hinduism is the Gayatri Mantra. Hindus are initiated into this most sacred mantra at the time of their Upanayanam (thread ceremony). Many Hindus, in a tradition that has continued unbroken from ancient times, perform morning ablutions at the bank of a sacred river while chanting the Gayatri or Mahamrityunjaya mantras.

Japa (ritualistic chanting) has been extolled as the greatest duty for the Kali Yuga (what Hindus believe to be the current age), in the epic Mahabharata. Following this direction, many Vaishnava traditions adopt Japa as their primary spiritual practice. The Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition chanting the Hare Krishna mantra is one such example.



The largest religious gathering on Earth. Around 70 million Hindus from around the world participated in Kumbh Mela at one of the Hindu Holy city Prayag (India).
The largest religious gathering on Earth. Around 70 million Hindus from around the world participated in Kumbh Mela at one of the Hindu Holy city Prayag (India).

Pilgrimage is not mandatory in Hinduism. Nevertheless, many Hindus undertake one or more pilgrimages during their lifetimes. There are many Hindu holy places in India. One of the most famous is the ancient city of Varanasi. Other holy places in India include Kedarnath and Badrinath in the Himalayas, the Jagannath temple at Puri, Rishikesh and Haridwar in the foothills of the Himalayas, Prayag (today Allahabad), Rameshwaram in the South and Gaya in the east. The largest single gathering of pilgrims is during the annual Kumbh Mela fair held in one of four different cities on a rotating basis.[citation needed]


Hindu festivals

Hinduism has many festivals throughout the year. Their dates are usually prescribed by the Hindu calendar and typically celebrate events from Hindu mythology, often coinciding with seasonal changes and occasions of importance in an agrarian society. There are festivals which are primarily celebrated by specific sects or in certain regions of the Indian subcontinent.

Some widely observed Hindu festivals are,





The temple of Pashupatinath in Nepal is regarded as one of the most sacred places in Shaivism.
The temple of Pashupatinath in Nepal is regarded as one of the most sacred places in Shaivism.

Many Hindus do not claim to belong to any particular denomination at all.[94] However, academics categorize contemporary Hinduism into four major denominations: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism and Smartism. The denominations differ primarily in the God worshipped as the Supreme One and in the traditions that accompany worship of that God.

Vaishnavas worship Viṣhṇu; Shaivites worship Shiva; Shaktas worship Shakti (power) personified through a female divinity or Mother Goddess, Devi; while Smartists believe in the essential sameness of all deities and that they are all Brahman.

There are also many movements that are not easily placed in any of the above categories, such as Swami Dayananda Saraswati's Ārya Samāj, which condemns image worship and veneration of multiple deities. It focuses on the Vedas and the Vedic fire sacrifices (yajña). In Tantra, the Goddess is considered the power of Shiva, and thus represents a combination of the Shaiva and shakta denominations.

As in every religion, some view their own denomination as superior to others. However, many Hindus consider other denominations to be legitimate alternatives to their own. Heresy is therefore generally not an issue for Hindus.[95]


Ashramas: Stages of Grihastha Life

Traditionally, the life of a male Hindu was divided into four Āshramas ("phases" or "stages"; unrelated meanings of āshrama include "monastery" or "refuge").

The first part of one's life, Brahmacharya, the stage as a student, is spent in celibate, controlled, sober and pure contemplation under the guidance of a Guru, building up the mind for the realization of truth.

Grihastha is the householder's stage, in which one marries and satisfies kāma and artha within one's married and professional life respectively (see the pursuits of life). Among the moral obligations of a Hindu householder are the duties to support one's parents, children, guests, priests (Brahmins), and monks (sanyāsis).

Vānaprastha, the retirement stage, is gradual detachment from the material world. This may involve giving over duties to one's children, spending more time in contemplation of the Divine, and making holy pilgrimages.

Finally, in Sannyāsa, the stage of asceticism, one renounces all worldly attachments, often envisioned as seclusion, to find the Divine through detachment from worldly life and peacefully shed the body for the next life (or for liberation).[96]



In their quest to attain the spiritual goal of life, some Hindus choose the path of monasticism (sanyāsa). Monastics commit themselves to a life of simplicity, celibacy, detachment from worldly pursuits, and the contemplation of God.[97] A Hindu monk is called a sanyāsī, sādhu, or swāmi.[98] A female renunciate is called a sanyāsini. Renunciates are accorded high respect in Hindu society because their outward renunciation of selfishness and worldliness serves as an inspiration to householders who strive for mental renunciation. Some monastics live in monasteries, while others wander from place to place, trusting in God alone to provide for their needs.[99] It is considered a highly meritorious act for a householder to provide sādhus, or any brahmana, with food or other necessaries. Sādhus strive to treat all with respect and compassion, whether a person may be poor or rich, good or wicked, and also to be indifferent to praise, blame, pleasure, and pain.[97]


Varnas and the caste system

Hindu society has traditionally been categorized into four classes, called Varnas (Sanskrit: "color, form, appearance");[15] the system itself being called Varṇa Vyavasthā. It is argued that in ancient times, the Varṇas were merely labels based upon occupation (as opposed to the hereditary caste system currently practiced in India) —

Hindus and scholars often debate whether the caste system is an integral part of Hinduism sanctioned by the scriptures, or simply an outdated social custom.[100][101] Although the scriptures contain passages that can be interpreted to sanction the Varna system, they also contain indications that the caste system is not an essential part of the religion, and both sides in the debate can find scriptural support for their views. The most ancient scriptures, the Vedas, place little emphasis on the caste system, mentioning it rarely and in a cursory manner. A verse from the Rig Veda indicates that a person's caste was not necessarily determined by that of his family:

"I am a bard, my father is a physician, my mother's job is to grind the corn." (Rig Veda 9.112.3)[102]

In the Vedic Era, there was no prohibition against the Shudras (which later on became the low-castes) listening to the Vedas or participating in any religious rite, as was the case in the later times.[103]

Many social reformers, including Mahatma Gandhi and B. R. Ambedkar, criticized caste discrimination.[104] The religious teacher Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) taught that

"Lovers of God do not belong to any caste . . . . A brahmin without this love is no longer a brahmin. And a pariah with the love of God is no longer a pariah. Through bhakti (devotion to God) an untouchable becomes pure and elevated."[105]

Discrimination based on caste, including untouchability against the so-called low castes, is criminalized by the Indian Constitution.


Ahimsa and vegetarianism

Hindus advocate the practice of ahiṃsā (non-violence) and respect for all life because the God is believed to permeate all (including plants and non-human animals).[106] There is no sharp distinction between humans and other forms of life. The term ahiṃsā first appears in the Upanishads, and is the first of the five Yamas (eternal vows/restraints) in Raja Yoga.

In accordance with ahiṃsā, many Hindus embrace vegetarianism to respect higher forms of life. While vegetarianism is not a requirement of Hinduism, it is recommended for a satvic (purifying) lifestyle. Estimates of the number of lacto vegetarians in India (includes inhabitants of all religions) vary between 20% and 42%.[107] The food habits usually vary with the community and region, with some castes having fewer vegetarians and coastal populations relying on seafood.[108][109] Some Hindus avoid even onion and garlic, which are regarded as rajasic foods. Some avoid meat on specific holy days.

Observant Hindus who do eat meat almost always abstain from beef. The largely pastoral Vedic people and subsequent generations relied heavily on the cow for proteinacious milk and dairy products, tilling of fields and as a provider of fuel and fertilizer. Thus, it was identified as a caretaker and a maternal figure. While most contemporary Hindus do not worship the cow, it holds an honored place in Hindu society as a symbol of unselfish giving among all animals. Cow-slaughter is legally banned in almost all states of India.[110]



Since the Hindu scriptures are essentially silent on the issue of religious conversion, the question of whether Hindus should evangelize is open to interpretation.[111] Those who see Hinduism primarily as a philosophy, a set of beliefs, or a way of life generally believe that one can convert to Hinduism by incorporating Hindu beliefs into one's life and by considering oneself a Hindu.[111] However, some view Hinduism as more of an ethnicity than a religion and believe being born a Hindu makes one a Hindu for life. These people tend to believe that there is an assumption that one is Hindu when they come from India.[112] The Supreme Court of India has taken the former view, holding that the question of whether a person is a Hindu should be determined by the person's belief system, not by their ethnic or racial heritage.[113]

There is no formal process for conversion to Hinduism, although in many traditions a ritual called dīkshā ("initiation") marks the beginning of spiritual life. Most Hindu sects do not actively recruit converts because they believe that the goals of spiritual life can be attained through any religion, as long as the religion is practiced sincerely.[114] Nevertheless, Hindu "missionary" groups operate in various countries to provide spiritual guidance to persons of any religion. Examples include the Vedanta Society, Parisada Hindu Dharma, International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Arya Samaj and the Self-Realization Fellowship.

See also: Religious conversion



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  5. Major Religions of the World Ranked by Number of Adherents, Adherents.com (2005 figure)
  6. See Gītā Dhyānam
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  8. See Indo-European sound laws for a discussion of the transition from "Sindhu" to "Hindu"
  9. "Polytheism", Encyclopedia Britannica, 2007
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 See generally, Swami Bhaskarananda, The Essentials of Hinduism (Viveka Press 1994) ISBN 1-884852-02-5
  11. Swami Bhaskarananda, Ritualistic Worship and Its Utility
  12. Brahman: Supreme God in Hinduism
  13. See generally, Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda ISBN 81-85301-75-1
  14. The presence of God within the heart of every living being is mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita at 9.29, 15.15 and 18.61, which says that God is the source of inner direction and that it is through God's power alone that we have consciousness.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 15.5 15.6 15.7 Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 See generally, Sinha, H.P. (1993), Bhāratīya Darshan kī rūprekhā (Features of Indian Philosophy). Motilal Banarasidas Publ. ISBN 81-208-2144-0.
  17. White Yajurveda 32.3
  18. Vedic cosmology
  19. Blessingsconucopia.com
  20. Devas once translated as angels
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  27. 27.0 27.1 27.2 Monier Williams, Religious Thought and Life in India 27 (New Delhi 1974)
  28. 28.0 28.1 Karl Werner, A Popular Dictionary of Hinduism at 37 (Curzon Press 1994) ISBN 0-7007-0279-2; See also the Vedic statement "ayam ātmā brahma" (This Atman is Brahman).
  29. Vaman S. Apte, Sanskrit-English Dictionary, (Nag Publishers, 1997)
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  37. Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Translation by Swami Nikhilananda (8th Ed. 1992) ISBN 0-911206-01-9
  38. 39.0 39.1 Swami Bhaskarananda, Essentials of Hinduism 7
  39. B-Gita 11.54 "My dear Arjuna, only by undivided devotional service can I be understood as I am, standing before you, and can thus be seen directly. Only in this way can you enter into the mysteries of My understanding."
  40. B-Gita 5.5 "One who knows that the position reached by means of analytical study can also be attained by devotional service, and who therefore sees analytical study and devotional service to be on the same level, sees things as they are."
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  43. Bhagavad Gita 3:19
  44. Patanjali's Yoga Aphorisms II.29, English translation & commentary (side-by-side with original Sanskrit) in Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda Vol. I, 29 ISBN 81-85301-75-1
  45. 46.0 46.1
  46. Kriyananda, Swami, Art and Science of Raja Yoga. Crystal Clarity Publishers, 2002. ISBN 978-8120818767
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  51. "Schools of Philosophy"
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  55. The Ṛgvedic deity Dyaus, regarded as the father of the other deities, is linguistically cognate with Zeus—the king of the gods in Greek mythology, Iovis (gen. of Jupiter) —the king of the gods in Roman mythology, and Ziu in Germanic mythology[2]. Other Vedic deities also have cognates with those found in other Indo-European speaking peoples' mythologies; see Proto-Indo-European religion.
  56. Robin Rinehart, Contemporary Hinduism 28 (2004) ISBN 1-57607-905-8
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  95. 97.0 97.1
  96. R.S. McGregor, The Oxford Hindi-English Dictionary (5th ed. 1999) ISBN 0-19-563846-8
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  99. Caste System View of Scholars
  100. Later scriptures, however, such as the Bhagavad Gītā (4.13) state that the four varṇa divisions are created by God, and the Manusmṛiti categorizes the different castes.Manu Smriti Laws of Manu 1.87-1.91 However, at the same time, the Gītā says that one's varṇa is to be understood from one's personal qualities and one's work, not one's birth. This view is supported by records of sages who became Brahmins. For example, the sage Vishvāmitra was a king of the Kṣhatriya caste, and only later became recognized as a great Brahmin sage, indicating that his caste was not determined by birth. Similarly, Vālmiki, once a low-caste robber, became a sage. Veda Vyāsa, another sage, was the son of a fisherwoman (Sabhlok, Prem. "Glimpses of Vedic Metaphysics". Page 21).
  101. White Yajurveda 26.2
  102. Elenanor Zelliot, "Caste in Contemporary India," in Contemporary Hinduism, Robert Rinehart, Ed. (2004) ISBN 1-57607-905-8
  103. M, Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Translation by Swami Nikhilananda 155 (Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 8th Printing 1992)
  104. Monier-Williams, Religious Thought and Life in India (New Delhi, 1974 edition)
  105. Surveys studying food habits of Indians include: "Diary and poultry sector growth in India", "Indian consumer patterns" and "Agri reform in India". Results indicate that even Indians who eat meat do so infrequently with less than 30% consuming non-vegetarian foods regularly, although the reasons may be economical.
  106. Deep Vegetarianism (1999) by: Michael Allen Fox.
  107. Yadav, Y., Kumar, S. "The food habits of a nation", The Hindu, August 14, 2006. Retrieved on 2006-11-17.
  108. Krishnakumar, R.. "Beef without borders", Frontline, Narasimhan Ram, August 30-September 12, 2003. Retrieved on 2006-10-07.
  109. 111.0 111.1 Does Hinduism Accept Newcomers?. Retrieved on 2006-11-14.
  110. Bharatiya Janata Party History The eternal religion's defining moment in time
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  112. See Swami Bhaskarananda, Essentials of Hinduism pp. 189-92 (Viveka Press 1994) ISBN 1-884852-02-5



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