HINDUISM: A PRIMER
"From Me all are born, in Me all return;
I am the One without another."
"I am smaller than the smallest, and larger than the largest.
I am all this diverse universe.
I am the Supreme Soul. I am the lord, full of radiance and glory.
I am Shiva (All Grace)."
"I am without hands and feet, yet of inconceivable power.
I see without eyes and I hear without ears.
I know it all and yet people do not know me.
I am pure wisdom."
(excerpted from the Kaivalya Upanishad)
ORIGINS OF HINDUISM:
Hinduism, the indigenous religion of India is widely accepted as the oldest organized religion in the world. Its roots can be traced back to at least the Harappan civilization of Northwest India (Approx. 3000 BCE). Symbols of deities' records from Mohanjo Daro and Harappa show clear references to the Hindu belief system and practices even in those days, as shown in the pictures below: They show
a Yogi in typical yoga pose, two Swastika tables and a bull. If the city of Dwarka that has been recovered from the Arabian sea off the coast of Gujarat state shows clear evidence of a thriving Hindu society, the age of Hinduism and a belief-system will extend farther into antiquity. A conservative estimate of the date of the city is 7,000 to 9,000 BC. Although the British popularized the concept of an "Aryan invasion" and the importation of the belief systems from Iran (and the West) that formed the basis of Hinduism and the Vedas, chronologically, it is unlikely that wholesale importation of ideas formed the foundation of the religion of the Harappans or perhaps even the pre-Harappan peoples. In my opinion, the most likely development was the addition, assimilation and some modifications of the indigenous religious practices of India and this made them that much richer, and codified the system further.
Much of the richness of the religious practices of Hinduism relates to the length of the existence of India as a civilization, and the innumerable invasions the country and its people endured during its long history. Worship of sun, wind, earth and fire probably has its roots in the Persian system such as Zoroastrianism. Certain religious practices such as "Soma" and animal sacrifices were also probably imported.
India had long been known as "Hindustan" (the land of the Hindus). Despite numerous Muslim invasions and centuries of conversion into Islam (often coerced), the Hindus continue to be the largest majority of the population of India. During the census of 2001, they were over 80%, which is close to a billion members. However, in terms of percentage, Nepal has higher numbers (86%). Some other countries with large numbers of Hindus are Mauritius (54%), Guyana (28%), Fiji (27%), Bhutan (25%). The migration of Hindus to other countries took the following routes: In antiquity, the spread of Hinduism was as a result of migration along trade routes and never through conquest. Indians who migrated to (mainly the East), took with them their religious practices. Some set up kingdoms; Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia are examples. Vestiges of such migration are still found in the form of the temples they built; the most spectacular are the Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Also, the pockets of adherents of Hinduism still practicing in these countries and celebrating the festivals that are directly adopted from the Hindu Epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are vivid reminders of the lasting legacy of these settlers.
The second flow of Indians into other countries has been through importation of laborers to man the British estates in countries such as Malaysia/Singapore, Fiji and the Islands that form the West Indies. These were largely working class people and most of them were strict adherents of Hinduism. In the countries that they migrated to, they have added richly to the mosaic of the indigenous societies. Besides the religious practices, these migrants brought with them their cuisine and it has had a lasting influence on the cuisine of all these countries.
The third way Indians have spread to other countries in large numbers, a relatively recent phenomenon, is in search of job opportunities. Many African countries saw Indian immigration in this manner. During the second half of the twentieth century, many thousands of highly trained and skilled Indian professionals such as doctors and engineers have helped fill the needs of many Western countries, especially the USA and the United Kingdom. In contrast to prior migrations, these migrants represented 'brain drain', to the detriment of India. However, unlike the laborers who represented India in the past, these recent migrants often help enhance the image of India in these new countries. Nevertheless, they too carry with them their religious practices and cuisine.
THE HINDU PHILOSOPHY:
Central to Hinduism is the belief in an all powerful, omnipotent, omnipresent "Supreme Soul" and also the belief that all living creatures carry a fragment of this soul. This belies the respect the Hindus accord all living creatures. Their fondness of many animals such as cows and peacocks and the tolerance of creatures such as rats, snakes and crows are at least in part due to this reverence for 'life'. This is a major distinction between the Hindu view of the world and its inhabitants and that of the Christians. The latter firmly believe in man's claim on all the creatures and natural resources of the world. The rest of the living creatures are considered to be subservient to humans and thus are to be exploited. To the Westerners, who are as a block Christians, the worship of cows, snakes and such other lowly creatures is strange and ridiculous. Hindus, on the other hand, made cows, rats, peacocks and snakes companions of the deities and thus elevated their status among the rest of the animal kingdom. Vegetarianism practiced by the majority of Hindus is also directly related to this respect for all life.
Hindus consider the soul as indestructible and the human manifestation in the form of a person is merely the bearer of this soul, and for a finite period. When the human life comes to an end, at the time of a person's death, the soul discards the physical body, much like one discards old clothes, and enters another body. The following verse from the Bhagawad Gita (the most important Scripture of the Hindus), dwells upon this aspect at some length:
"O Son of Kunti, the objects that are perceived by the senses are subject to birth and death. They give rise to pleasure and pain, to heat and cold; they are transient. Therefore, O Bharata, endure them heroically.
Death is certain for that which is born, and birth is certain for that which dies. For this unavoidable fact you should not grieve.
O Bharata, these bodies consisting of the elements were not visible before birth, and they will not be visible after their death. They manifest in the middle. Therefore, why should you grieve?
Just as an embodied soul attains childhood, youth and old age through the body, so it attains another body after death. Heroic men do not grieve at this.
Just as a person gives up his old clothes to put on new ones, so the embodied soul, having discarded the worn-out bodies, puts on new ones.
Weapons cannot cut the Self, fire cannot burn it, water cannot drown it, nor can wind dry it.
The Self is eternal, all-pervading, immutable, stable and ancient. Therefore, it cannot be cut, or burnt, or drowned or dried up.
This self is said to be non-manifest, unthinkable, and unchangeable. Therefore, knowing this to be so, you should not grieve.
There is no existence for the unreal and the Real never ceases to be. Thus, the knowers of Truth have ascertained the nature of what is real and what is unreal.
Never did I not exist, nor did you nor these kings. Nor shall we ever cease to exist in the future".
. Lord Krishna is advising the warrior Prince Arjuna about the fleeting nature of human life and the permanence of the soul, and thus he is explaining why one need not mourn the departed soul(s). When one analyses this idea further, one is struck by the reasoning behind this and why it comforts the relatives and friends of the departed person. Christians believe in souls, but their comfort at the time of death comes from the belief that upon death each meritorious person will ascend to "Heaven" and thus join Jesus (and presumably "God"). While the Christians believe that those people who had been sinners descend into the unbearably hot and uncomfortable place called "Hell", the Hindus fear the soul moving to a lowly life form (such as a worm or insect) as a result of bad deeds in this life. Good deeds (or 'good karma'), on the other hand can ensure a Hindu's rebirth in a higher state
This sin and punishment are pervasive in other religions as well; the only exception is Buddhism. In Buddhism, good deeds in this life are rewarded by a higher state of human life in the next and then, ultimately, freedom from rebirths, suffering and deaths. The Buddhists thus strive to (by good deeds) ultimately achieve "Nirvana" or liberation from bondage. Hindus also consider "Moksha" or "Nirvana" as a desirable and attainable goal. The Buddha rejected the need for belief in a Supreme Being and thus Buddhism can be considered Atheistic. The only contradiction in the Buddhist belief is, however, that the existence of "soul" is not recognized in this religion. Adherents of other religions have questioned the belief of the Buddhists' improving their lots from one life to the next, without a belief in the existence of soul. This remains an unanswered question in this religion. Strangely, the concept of 'Nirvana' in Hinduism is similar to the Christians' belief in that, this ultimate goal allows the soul to finally join the Supreme Soul and thus permanent rest.
"Ahimsa" or non-violence is another important tenet of Hinduism, just as it is in Buddhism and Jainism. Mahatma Gandhi, through his "Satyagraha" and peaceful civil disobedience, showed the effectiveness of the use of this powerful tool. The tools that he developed and fine-tuned would then form the basis of other independence movements (Mandela in South Africa, for example) or be used for overcoming social injustice such as segregation based on color and race and to win civil rights, through the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the U.S. The reverence for life and living creatures is the reason why most Hindus practice vegetarianism. As this can lead to inadequate consumption of protein, the Hindus' diet includes milk and milk products and legumes, in addition to the staples rice and wheat.
Hindus believe that the paths taken by all religions are equally valid, as all of them aspire to reach God as the ultimate goal. This is an important concept and one that allows the Hindus to respect all religions. In fact, throughout its history, they have left examples of this co-existence with believers of other religions. The exquisite classrooms, lecture and meditation halls and temples that decorate the 'caves' of Ajanta and Ellora in the state of Maharashtra have, side by side, relics from the religions of Hinduism, Buddhism and another indigenous religion of India, Jainism. It is clear from these relics that the adherents of these religions practiced their religions in harmony for many centuries.
All religions (with the notable exception of Buddhism) preach the existence of one supreme "God", although the many deities depicted for the sake of worshipping in Hinduism have created misconceptions among the non-Hindus. Hinduism is not polytheistic, however; this fact is underscored in the following excerpt from Atharva Veda:
"There are no eight, nine or ten Gods;
There are no five, six or seven Gods;
There are not even two, three or four Gods;
To him who knows, there is only one God.
All deities are but different names of the One;
He is the one, the only One.
He is the One who oversees what breathes and what does not breathe.
He is the One with all the power and the authority."
This statement is hard to reconcile with the many manifestations that the Hindus
Worship. A partial list of such manifestations include: A central "Trinity" of Brahma (the 'Creator'), Vishnu (the 'Preserver') and Shiva (the 'Destroyer');
in the next tier are their relatives and assorted figures such as Ganesh (the god with elephant head), Subramaniam, Kali or Durga, Lakshmi (goddess of wealth, and consort of Vishnu) and Saraswathi (goddess of knowledge).
Then come the incarnations or avatars of Vishnu; two of the most popular are Rama and Krishna". There are ten Avatars; the latest is the Buddha. While including the Buddha on this list appears unusual, it does reiterate the tolerance of Hinduism for all faiths.
The fourth tier belongs to the Devas, who occupy a strata subordinate to the rather colorful collection of "gods" mentioned above but distinctly higher than us mere mortals. Certain qualities all the deities possess include, appearing and disappearing at will, the ability to perform tasks that can only be described as miracles, and granting wishes for the believer and those who do good. With such a vast array of personalities, with different portfolios and qualities, it is difficult to believe the statement that "there is only one god" as mentioned in Atharva Veda.
The Vedas themselves have also questioned the concept of 'god'. In Rig Veda they clearly state that the concept of god was a human creation:
"Who knows for certain who shall hear and declare it,
Whence was it born, whence came creation?
The gods came later than this world's formation.
Who then knows the origins of this world?
None knows whence creation or whether,
He has or He has not made it.
He who surveys it from the lofty skies,
Only He knows or perhaps He knows not."
Thus, I'll argue that like the followers of all other religions, the Hindus also find the need for prescribing an all powerful, Omnipotent being but whose form is unknown and unknowable; thus ascribing them forms and functions helps simplify matters (in some level). In Christianity also there is a Trinity formed of "God", his son Jesus and the "Holy Ghost". Then there are divine characters such as Moses, Abraham, John the Baptist etc. Then follow innumerable "saints". Even the Buddhists (contrary to the Buddha's own exhortation) have found solace in deifying the Buddha himself, making him the object of worship. Islam shuns the worship of any image of the Divine; however, they also believe in holy men and saints. The newest of the Indian religions, Sikhism preaches the presence of an all powerful single deity but they also deify and worship the ten "Gurus".
THE HINDU SCRIPTURES:
Unlike most other religions, Hindus do not have one all important "Holy" Book. In fact, the codification of the Hindu religion took place over more than a Millennia, starting with the Vedas and flowering to its height in transcendental philosophical thoughts in the Upanishads and culminating in the major Epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Embedded within the Mahabharata is the most important Hindu Scripture called Bhagavad Gita. The Vedas and Upanishads were passed down from teacher to student verbally ("Sruti"), while the Ramayana and Mahabharata were written down ("Smriti"). All the above treatises were written in Sanskrit, the official language of ancient India and all were composed in verse. It is also remarkable that they are voluminous, especially the two Epics; the Mahabharata alone is many times the volume of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. As to the exact dates when they were written and by whom, one can only conjecture. However, most scholars agree that all of them were written between 1,500 BCE and 500 CE. For more detailed descriptions of the Epics and the stories behind them, the reader is directed to the appropriate areas of the Indian History section in this Website (www.indiancentury.com/hist3.htm). In the Indian Philosophy section (www.indiancentury.com/indian.htm) you will find at some length the Bhagavad-Gita Gita and many verses from the Vedas and the Upanishads. Therefore, I will include below just a few representative stanzas from the appropriate works, and present them in roughly the order in which they had been composed and under the appropriate headings:
May we listen with our ears to what is good;
May we see with our eyes what is good;
May we with firm limbs enjoy the term of life granted to us,
Singing your praises"
"Let the words of truth be spoken.
Let the deeds of wisdom be performed."
"If all speed could be divided into four equal parts,
The wise will replace three parts with silence."
" Lord! How do I comprehend you?
Let my ears be turned to hear you;
Let my eye be opened to behold you;
Let my mind be eager to know you;
Let my heart be absorbed in you.
What more shall I say?"
"God! The granter of welfare, the source of happiness, the beneficent,
The cause of joy, the auspicious and the source of bliss, salutations to you."
"I am he; you are she.
I am song; you are verse.
I am heaven; you are earth.
Let us dwell together here;
Let us generate children."
"By holy resolve does one obtain consecration.
By consecration does one gain grace.
By grace does one develop trust in God.
Trust in God leads one to the Truth."
"Let the son be devoted to his father;
Let him be of one mind with his mother;
Let the wife be sweet and gentle to her husband."
"May you rise and not fall.
May you be granted long life.
May you achieve success in your occupation.
May you ride the chariot of happiness.
May you grow in wisdom with years."
"May the Lord make a gift of peace to us and to all men.
May harmony be established by removing what is dreadful.
May harmony be established by removing what is sinful.
May peace and harmony reign everywhere."
"Bearer of all things, hoard of treasures rare,
Sustaining mother, Earth the golden-breasted.
Who bears the Sacred Universal Fire,
Whose spouse is Indra- may she grant us wealth!"
From the unreal lead me to the real!
From darkness lead me to light!
From darkness lead me to light!
From death lead me to immortality!"
"Whoever sees all beings in the soul,
And the souls in all beings,
Do not shrink away from this.
In whom all beings have become one with the knowing soul;
What delusion or sorrow is there for the one who sees unity?"
"One can live without the faculty of speech-witness the dumb;
One can live deprived of eyesight-witness the blind;
One can live without the faculty of hearing-witness the deaf;
One can live without the legs-witness the lame;
One can survive without the maturity of mind-witness the child;
But one cannot live without the breath of life. And without soul,
The consciousness of life leaves the body."
"Know that the soul is the rider, the body the chariot,
The intellect the charioteer, and the mind the reins.
The senses they say, are the horses, the desires are the pathways.
When the soul is attached to a body with the mind and the senses,
The soul is said to be the enjoyer."
"Eyes do not see Him.
Speech cannot describe Him.
Mind cannot comprehend Him.
Him we do not know;
Nor is any one able to teach us about Him.
He is different from all that is known to us.
This is what has been handed down to us about Him,
By our ancestors."
"It needs to be realized that the soul is neither born nor does it die;
When the body dies, the soul does not die.
It is ancient, unborn, eternal and permanent."
"Who it is not possible to describe by speech,
But who has made speech possible,
He we know is God; He alone is the one we worship. None else.
Who it is not possible to comprehend through the use of mind,
But who has endowed us with a mind, He we know is God.
He alone we worship, none else."
"O god! May my speech truly reflect my mind.
May I speak what is right.
May I speak the truth.
May my learning not depart me.
God. Let there be peace. Let there be peace. Let there be peace."
"The Supreme Soul moves and yet does not move.
It is near and yet (for the ignorant) it is very far.
It is within us and it is everywhere outside of us."
"It needs to be realized that the soul is neither born nor does it die;
When the body dies, the soul does not die.
It is ancient, unborn, eternal and permanent."
"The Kingdom of God is achievable by those who keep away from
Fraud, untruth, and unrighteous actions."
"He is the fire; He is the heat; and He is the light-giving Sun.
He is the rain. He is the wind and the earth.
He is everything visible and invisible; and He is eternal."
"The minds of those who do not attend to action waver in all directions. On the other hand, the mind of a karmayogin ("doer") remains focused."
"You have control over action but not over the results of your action. Your action should never be determined by what personal benefit you will receive. Arjuna, do not ever be inclined to inaction."
"A person whose senses are under control is a person steadfast in wisdom. Having brought his senses under control, the wise person would remain in union with me."
"A person who enjoys life's pleasures with his mind under his control and without aversion or attachment to pleasures, has attained the purity of the soul."
"There was never a time when you and I did not exist; nor will the other persons.
There will never be a time when anyone of us will cease to exist."
"There is no existence for the unreal, and the Real never ceases to be.
Thus, the knower of Truth has ascertained the nature of what is real and what is unreal."
"The soul is never born, nor does it ever die. No one can bring about the destruction of the soul.
Weapons do not cleave the soul, fire cannot burn it, and water does not wet it. The wind cannot parch it. You should know that the soul is eternal and blameless."
"Just as smoke envelopes fire, dust covers the mirror and the membrane covers the embryo, so does selfish desire cover up the wisdom of man."
"Actions do not bind that realized person who having removed all doubt by wisdom, dedicates all actions to God."
"The person who finds his happiness within, his joy within, and his light within, is divine and attains nirvana ("the state of union with God")."
"O Lord! Lead me away from what is evil and untrue, to what is good and true;
O Lord! Lead me away from the darkness of ignorance to the light of wisdom;
O Lord! Lead me away from death to immortality."
"I am the taste in water, O son of Kunti. I am the radiance of the moon and the sun. I am the (sacred) syllable "OM" in all the scriptures. I am the sound in space and vigor in men."
"This knowledge is supreme. It is the secret to the kingdom (of heaven). It is holy. It is directly experienced and is righteous. It is easy to practice and is eternal."
"Persons lacking in faith and devotion return to mortal living without attaining Me."
"I am the source, the sustainer and the protector of all beings, but my spirit is not active in many of them."
"The knowers of scriptures, who have removed themselves from sin and have thus purified themselves; who worship me asking for my kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, reach it and enjoy it."
"Of philosophies, I am metaphysics. And of discussion, I am the constructive reasoning'"
"Of the letter of the alphabet, I am the vowel A. And of compound words, I am the dual. I am the eternal time and I am the support of all, watching everything happening in every direction."
"Yet those who worship the imperishable, indescribable, unmanisfest, all pervading, inconceivable, changeless, immovable and eternal also come to Me and Me alone. Remember that those who want to reach Me must control their senses, be even-minded in all situations, love fellow human beings and remain engrossed in their service."
"I am beyond my perishable and imperishable expressions. That is why I am known in the Vedas as the Supreme Soul ("Purushottama").
"The person who performs actions dedicating them to God, giving up attachment to results, is not touched by sin just as a lotus leaf remains untouched by water."
THE CASTE SYSTEM:
Unlike most old (and some newer) cultures, Indian society never cultivated slavery. However, for most of their existence, the Hindus have practiced a form of class division called the 'caste system'. In this strange system, people born to parents of certain professions remain in those professions in perpetuity and they never move up or down in this class system. The highest of the castes were the priests and teachers. Only they were allowed to perform religious functions, usually chanting verses from the Vedas and Upanishads or the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, as well as the holiest scripture the Bhagavad Gita. Next in line are the kshatriyas, the princely and warrior caste. The third are the Vaishyas; these are the farmers and merchants. The fourth and the lowest strata are the ordinary workers like laborers, the Shudras. Outside of these four classes are some more, even lower professions collectively termed 'untouchables'. They perform the duties of the society that no others will perform, such as conducting funeral arrangements, attending to the latrines, cleaning the streets and so on. For many centuries the Hindus adhered to this strict division of labor and class distinction. At the time of the independence India banned this caste system, thus allowing people of all classes to ascend or descend based on merit rather than due to the mere accident of birth. In fact, to help the lower caste citizens to advance, the government of India actually instituted quota systems in admission to schools and colleges and for job assignments.
While official India shuns the age-old caste system, in marriages as well as in many other institutions, this system is still used. For example it is a rarity for a man of one caste to marry a woman belonging to another caste, in the conventional system of arranged marriages. In fact, even when people belonging to different castes fall in love and want to marry, this used to create great upheaval in the families and the local societies. I am pleased to note and report that, however, this rigid system has seen changes in the last few decades. I have personally seen couples of different castes, after having fallen in love, they are being married off by their parents, if only grudgingly. In many cases, however, one party belonging to the 'higher caste' may still shun this union. The job of priests is still done by the Brahmins (the priestly caste); most other caste-determined job structure has definitely crumbled. One now sees many 'untouchables' in high places in governments and universities; India even had an untouchable President (the highest position in the government of India). One could make the case for abolishing this outdated and oppressive system from Hinduism. Indeed large numbers of defections in the form of conversion into other religions have been directly related to this unfortunate system. A spectacular example of this came soon after India's independence when, Dr. Ambedkar, the father of the Indian Constitution converted along with several tens of thousands of fellow untouchables to Buddhism. Even now, large scale conversions, usually into Christianity, occur and most such converts come from the lower caste Hindus. It is thus clear to intellectuals and scholars in India that this longstanding system indigenous to Hinduism has outlived its dubious purpose.
THE PRACTICE OF HINDUISM:
An important feature of the practice of Hinduism is the freedom it accords to its adherents. For example, unlike in the other religions, there is no insistence on going to temples to worship or even praying at certain times of the day or week. There are no days when they are not allowed to eat certain foods, or the insistence on attending 'mass' on certain days or the requirement of fasting for a whole month for the Hindus. While other religions make these demands on their followers, with the admonition that if you did not do all those things, you are not only "bad Christian" or "bad Muslim", you are also told that you are likely to descend into the intolerable life in "Hell". Most Hindus do, however, have a system whereby, if so inclined, they can pray at home, in their own rooms, with or without the aid of their favorite scripture. Most Hindu homes make a corner of a room specially prepared, with pictures of their favorite deity (ies) specifically for the purpose of saying their prayers. Some do make a point of visiting the nearest temple, usually either early in the morning or in the evening. In the temples, it is common to attend a prayer ceremony conducted by a priest, and then receive a 'prasadam' or small quantity of a specially prepared food from the priest. Most of the devotees stand around the entrance of the inner 'sanctorum' of the temple where the chanting of the prayer is made by the priest. However, some, more deeply devoted visitors may be prostrate on the ground, with hands folded in the "Namaste" pose.
Classical Hindu traditions describe four stages or "ashramas" during a man's life: The first, called "Brahmacharya" ("student stage") stretches from infancy until his marriage or until about the age of 25. During this period, in old India, the students left their homes to live with his guru or teacher (the so-called "Gurukulam") to learn and prepare for a trade of his choice. The second stage is called "Grihasta" (House-holder stage); during this stage the person gets married, takes up a profession and thus provides for the family; this stage is considered to last until the age of 50. The third ashramam is called "Vanaprastha" (Hermit stage); during this stage the man has already brought up his family and possibly become a grandparent and now renounces all worldly pleasures, becomes celibate, and sets out on pilgrimage. The foremost among the pilgrimage centers is Kashi or Varanasi. The fourth and final stage is called 'Sanyasa' (he becomes a true wandering ascetic). Of course, modern Hindus rarely follow the above four stages, as living with a guru is almost unheard of and the third and fourth stages are adhered to even more rarely. However, there are many who live as a 'Yogi' Or "Sanyasi" throughout their adult life and not get married or rear children. They do not keep any material possessions and depend on alms to survive; these are the professional "Sadhus".
The adherents of Hinduism have, over the course of the many Millennia, devised many festivals in which they participate. The participants do not even think about these events as being reminders of who they were or even fully understand the connection these festivals have with the Hindu religion. The whole family, friends and relatives participate in these events, without fail, every year. Certain festivals actually bring together business associates; a good example is Divali or Deepavali (festival of lights), which is celebrated by Hindus all over India. Some other festivals are celebrated with fireworks or "Pooja" (worshipping). A notable celebration, mostly in North India, is called "holi"; during this, inhabitants of whole towns go berserk with the urge to pour colored liquids on others or throw colored powders around. Such celebrations appear silly and without a function, and in any case, are not related to the Hindu religious practices in any way. However, the underpinnings of such celebrations are still reminders for the participants of who they are. Another festival, called Onam is unique to the Southern state of Kerala, and has its origins in Hindu mythology; it is to welcome Mahabali, a dear former departed ruler of Kerala when the land was prosperous ("when milk and honey flowed"). It is celebrated just after the monsoon rains have brought a good harvest. Thus, the land is flush with new foliage and flowers, and all children make flower arrangements in the front of their homes; this festival is celebrated by all Keralites, regardless of their religion. Without exception, all festivals culminate in one or more days of feasting. For more detailed description of individual festivals, their dates and their eccentricities, the reader is directed to the article (currently in preparation) called "Festivals of India", in the Culture chapter of this website.
SOME IMPORTANT SYMBOLS OF HINDUISM:
More than any other religion, Hinduism has devised many a symbol. Indeed many of these have been borrowed intact, or in some cases with changes and incorporated into potent symbols of other religions. I will dwell upon briefly each of the symbols after listing them below: "Namaste", "OM", "Swastika", rosary, incense, bells, the burning camphor and of lamps, the gestures used in meditation and yoga, the application of colored powders or sandalwood paste or simply ash on the forehead, sometimes also on the upper arms or across the front of chest, Tulsi, Phallus symbol and Nandi.
This elegant greetings gesture involves the folding of both hands in front of a person, much like in the prayer gesture in Hindu, Buddhist and Christian religions. Most also bow the head slightly, adding even more to the respectful nature of this greeting gesture. The gesture literally means: "I bow to the divine in you". (Please refer to www.indiancentury.com/namaste.htm)
This symbol literally represents the Hindu religion and the Hindus give great importance to it. They believe that chanting this sound is an important part of any Hindu religious celebration. For more detailed description of this symbol, please refer to the excellent article on OM written by Dr. Nick Shroff in the Culture section of this website (www.indiancentury.com/om.htm).
The swastika does not have the importance of OM as a religious symbol in Hinduism, but it was common to decorate walls and the courtyards of the Hindu homes. Later, Hitler adopted it as a symbol of "Aryans", and thus it acquired a sinister reputation. Now, only Neo-Nazis use it as a symbol and that too only in private.
PEACOCK AND LOTUS:
Both peacocks and the lotus have great importance in both Hindu mythology and in current India. The peacock is the constant companion of Subramanian, a deity in Hinduism. Meanwhile, peacock feather adorns the head of Krishna, an Avatar of Vishnu. The lotus is important in Hinduism as well as in Buddhism; Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and Vishnu are usually shown carrying a lotus in their hands; the former actually stands inside an over-sized lotus flower. These two symbols find places as the National bird and National flower of Independent India.
From antiquity, sages in Hindu mythology have been depicted as using the rosary while meditating or chanting religious hymns. This is another religious symbol of Hinduism that has been copied by other religions; examples are Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.
INCENSE AND CAMPHOR:
From time immemorial, Indians (Hindus, as all Indians in those times belonged to only this religion) have burnt incense during auspicious events or while praying. Likewise, burning a small quantity of camphor has been used during religious events.
Three examples of oil-burning lamps used by Hindus
Lamps have been used as a religious symbol in India from antiquity. From lamps made of clay to brass, the preferred fuel is a vegetable oil or ghee ("clarified" butter). Often these lamps are hung above a display of Hindu gods; some lamps are designed to stay on the ground, wicks then lit and the pooja (worship) conducted with the lamp in the foreground. Divali (Deepavali), or festival of lamps celebrate this special occasion, using numerous lamps lit around the homes and offices. For a detailed treatise on this Hindu festival, please refer to the article written by Dr. Nick Shroff, in our Culture section (www.indiancentury.com/deep.htm)
'DOT' AND OTHER DISPLAYS ON FOREHEAD (AND ELSEWHERE):
Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai with bindi on the forehead and in the partition of her hair and a young girl displaying a 'dot'
The Indian women traditionally wore a 'dot' in the middle of their foreheads. While everyone calls this symbol 'dot', more often than not, these are not circular in shape and nowadays they occupy the space just above the root of the nose, rather than the middle of the forehead. And, they experiment with the shape of these 'dots', and also nowadays, ready-made removable patterns may be purchased and which can then be reapplied. The traditional explanation of the use of 'dots' is as a reminder of a mystical 'third eye'( 6th chakra (ajna) in the 7 chakra system and is considered the exit point for Kundalini energy). However, as the reader probably knows very well, these dots are used as beauty accessories rather than as any deeply religious symbol. It is also noteworthy that some modern non-Hindus, especially the Bangladeshi Muslims also wear the dots. When a red-colored powder is applied in the parting of hair in the middle, it does carry significance -it means she is married. Thus, this has the same significance as wearing a wedding ring.
The application of sandalwood paste or ash on the forehead, either horizontally in three straight lines (applied with three fingertips) or in the middle of the forehead vertically, with a curved line at the base connecting the lines is used only as a religious symbol. Many also wear such adornment on other parts of the body, especially horizontally across the outer aspects of the upper arms.
MEDITATION AND YOGA:
Gautama Buddha in Meditative Pose
A Practitioner demonstrating a Yoga Pose
These two exotic practices that originated from India are fast becoming universal, and at some level, even fashionable. The former, which was refined and explained in detail by the Rishi Patanjali, involves a series of low-impact exercises and stretching, in addition to the use of poses and gestures ("Mudras"). In an advanced form of Yoga, called Hatha Yoga, the practitioners can even control the "automatic" vital functions such as the heart rate and respiration. For a detailed description of yoga, please check the excellent article by Rev. Fr. Vempala in our Culture section( www.indiancentury.com/yoga.htm). From time immemorial, the yogis have practiced meditation. The best known example of meditation is the long, arduous and lonely meditation by the Buddha while he was seated under the banyan ("Bodhi") tree, and which culminated in his attaining enlightenment.
Ringing a hand-held bell is a common accompaniment of Hindu religious rituals. The chanting in Sanskrit, verses from the Vedas and Upanishads, extolling the grandeur of God, and burning incense and camphor go along with the bell-ringing. This is yet another religious symbol that Buddhism and Christianity borrowed from Hinduism; large bells are also used in churches and cathedrals and Buddhist temples.
In most traditional Hindu homes, in the front courtyard, the place of honor belongs to a small plant called Tulsi. It is closely related to the Italian and Thai basil. The leaves carry the same aroma as these plants' and the flowers look almost identical. Hindus also use the leaves of Tulsi during the prayer sessions; however, the leaves are not used in cooking in India.
Of all the religious symbols in Hinduism, the phallic symbol is the most exotic and difficult to comprehend and to explain. In Hindu temples that worship Shiva as the main deity, a structure is commonly erected in the middle of the Sanctum and roughly shaped like a phallus. This is supposed to represent Lord Shiva; prayers are offered to this symbol and it is commonly bathed in milk. Hindu women who fail to conceive pray to this potent symbol to help them conceive.
"Nandi" is a fine example of the special regard the Hindus have for cows. It is shown as a constant companion of Lord Krishna. It may also be true that, for a nation of vegetarians, cows (milk and milk products, find an important place in the cuisine of India, providing a good deal of the protein, vitamin D and fat. Thus statues of cows are seen in many Hindu temples; people worship this symbol and hope for good fortune.
HINDU TEMPLES IN INDIA:
It is difficult to do justice to this topic in the limited space assigned, essentially as a part of an article dealing with Hinduism, the religion. However, any discussion of Hinduism will be incomplete without some mention of the Hindu temples. Therefore, I will give a short description of a typical Hindu temple and then give a short list of important ones, with pictures. As most scholars know, throughout India's history invading forces, mainly Muslims, had made a habit of systematically destroying Hindu temples and other institutions and burning them, along with the scriptures and intellectual materials. Therefore, the surviving temples of today are either recent or are in the Deep South, where such armies rarely reached. For a decent list of Indian Hindu temples, the reader is directed to the following websites:
A typical Hindu temple is made of granite, with a wide square base and with walls that are tapering towards the top (please check www.indiancentury.com/temple.htm). The height varies greatly, from the street corner temple that is just one story high, to the majestic large ones that are many stories high. Such structures are architectural statements. On the outer walls are numerous meticulously sculpted statues of deities and scenes from Hindu mythology. On the inside is usually a large courtyard, within which, in the center or at the far end, is a sanctum containing the main deity's shrine. Some major temples may have other minor sanctums devoted to minor deities. There are sculptures of deities and mythological events on the inner walls as well. In some large temples, long corridors adorned by sculpted columns present spectacular views. Most large temples will have at least one rectangular tank containing water, where the devotees wash their feet and hands or bathe.
There are some important departures from the above standard architecture. Some temples have more rounded contours, especially at the top; some have actual domes situated at the top of the building. One famous example of this is the Jagannath temple in Puri in Orissa. Then there are temples that are actually sculpted from whole rocks or faces of rocky hills. The sun temples at Konark in Orissa and the numerous temples in Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh are good examples of sculpted temples.
Jagannath Temple in Puri
A temple in Khajuraho
Sculptures on the inner walls of a temple in Khajuraho
The latter is a spectacular example of temple architecture and even more spectacular sculptural masterpieces. Another distinction these temples in Khajuraho have is that many of the sculptures depict highly erotic scenes (www.indiancentury.com/kha.htm). There is one temple that stands out as a very special construction; this is the Kailashnath temple in the Ellora 'caves' complex in Maharashtra state. This temple, which is larger than the Parthenon in Athens but is sculpted from a single large rock! (www.indiancentury.com/ajanta.htm).
Kailashnath Rock-cut temple in Ellora caves, Maharashtra State
SOME OTHER IMPORTANT HINDU TEMPLES IN INDIA:
Here I will only present the most well-known or important from the pilgrims' view:
1) Kashi (Varanasi):
2) Madurai Meenakshi temples:
3) Tirupati Tirumala Balaji:
An image of temple at Mahabalipuram and rock-cut art in the compound
7) Guruvayoor: Thrissur, Kerala State
8) Thousand pillars temple: Andhra Pradesh
An editorial note from the Publisher of Indiancentury.com: Hinduism is many Millennia-old and, to do justice to all aspects of it will require many text books. This primer is a very condensed version, just to give the readers a general idea, a flavor of the religion. Some scholars may object to this brevity and complain about the lack of depth, as well. However, more detailed descriptions of various aspects of Hinduism will be found in other sections of this website. Readers are directed to the "Culture" and "Indian Philosophy" sections for this. Our hope is that, when this website is enriched by more articles by other authors, collectively such renditions will paint a more complete picture of Hinduism as it is practiced in India.