An Overview of Hinduism

A Little History

All the dates that I will give are according to western scholars and not what many Hindus themselves believe. Roots of Hinduism go back to at least 2500 BC to the Indus valley civilization which lasted to about 1900 BC. The writing of the era is not yet deciphered so much of what has been said is speculative but there are figurines of mother goddess and a Shiva (a God of Hindu trinity) like figure in Yogic posture (meditation pose) attest to the fact that the beginnings of Hinduism are here. The people of Indus valley had cities with as many as 40,000 people with planned streets, a sewer system and bathing tanks. A large number of seals with writing on them have been found.

Around 1750 BC, it is believed that Indo-Europeans who call themselves, Aryas come upon the scene. They are Sanskrit speaking, nomadic, war-faring people. They ride horses and have chariots. Up until this time there is no evidence of horses on the subcontinent. Their Chief God is Zeus-like Indra, the God of the thunder-bolt, They have holy books called “Vedas.” These are probably world’s most ancient books. There are four Vedas; chief amongst them is the Rigveda which consists of 1028 Suktas or songs. Individual verses of the Suktas or called Mantras. These earliest parts of the Vedas are called Samhitas or collections. The Aryas worship powers of nature like fire, waters, thunder, sun, moon and so on but there are many hymns in the Vedas which indicate that all the gods that they worship are really manifestation of the same basic reality which is called , “Brahman.” A famous line says, “There is only one truth but the Wise call it by many names.” Main mode of worship is sacrifice. Both animal and vegetable offerings are made to the fire which through its flames takes the offerings to the gods above. Mantras from the Rigveda are used to invoke Gods. The verses from the Vedas are used to this day for the main rites of birth, marriage and death etc.

Around 900 BC, books called Brahmanas are composed which try to explain the significance of rituals. A little later Aranyakas (the forest books) and lastly the Upanishads (the philosophical parts of the Vedas) are composed. The roots of more elaborate philosophical and theological systems developed later are in the Upanishads. Vedic literature consists of Sanmhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads. 

Buddha comes around 500 BC. Buddha Dharma is partly a rebellion against the ritualistic religion of the Vedas. Actually so are the Upanishads but they emphasize the internal sacrifice of your ego, pride, greed, lust and so on rather than animals and grains.

The two epics Ramayana (the story of Rama) and Mahabharata (story of the great battle) are composed around 200 BC but tell of the events of about 1000 years earlier. Probably the most popular Hindu religious and philosophical work is Bhagavadgita. It is a short work of 700 verses which actually forms a chapter of the Mahabharata. Manusmriti, the Hindu Law Book was also written around first century BC. Books called Puranas (ancient lore and mythology) are written in the Gupta period which lasted from about 300 AD to 600 AD.

The religion of the Vedas goes through many transformations and syntheses to produce modern Hinduism. Probably the most formative years are 500 BC to 500 AD. 

One God or Many Gods

As I already eluded to Hindus believe in only one God. Many gods of Hinduism refer to the manifestation of the same basic reality called “Brahman” in the Vedas but more commonly called, “Bhagavan” or “Ishwara” in modern Hinduism. 

God is one but we speak of him in three roles Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the sustainer and Shiva, the destroyer. This is the Hindu Trinity. The three are of course one. For the reasons too intricate to go into here, Brahma is rarely worshipped. Most commonly worshipped Gods are Vishnu (as himself or in his incarnations Rama and Krishna), Shiva and the Goddess Durga. The Goddess who is known by many names is generally considered the wife of Shiva. Other prominent Goddesses are Lakshmi (the Goddesss of wealth, wife of Vishnu) and Saraswati (the Goddess of learning and all fine arts). My name happens to be Lakshmi-Narayan, i.e. Narayan who is the husband of Lakshmi i.e. Vishnu. 

Vishnu is the one who descends to earth from time to time, (generally in human form but not always) to set things right when they have gone wrong terribly. 

Some Central Concepts

Let us start with a discussion of our perception of reality. My reality is my image of the world by the mirror of my sense organs. The image that my organs create is my individual sansara, distinct but similar to your sansara. This similarity makes communication possible.

This sansara continues so long as my decision to experience it continues i.e. so long as I am attached to and desire things of this world, I continue in this world. The momentum of my desires propels me into my next life. This is the psychological basis for the principle of rebirth or reincarnation, a central concept in the Hindu world-view. The story is told of a Rishi (a holy man) who had relinquished all desires but then took pity on a fawn whose mother had died and took it in his Ashram. He became so attached to it that soon after when he died he was born as a deer. As he was quite spiritually advanced, he remembered his previous birth and was able to minimize the damage.

The exact instrument of it is the doctrine of Karma which essentially means that you will reap what you sow. Literal meaning of Karma is action not fate as sometimes thought of. Of course your karma determines your fate. Your actions of your past lives dictate what your present life is and your deeds in this life dictate what your next life would be.


Dharma in one sense of the word means ethical and moral principles by which you should live your life so that you satisfy and fulfill your needs and desires without infringing on the rights of others.

Artha or wealth is needed to satisfy our wants and desires. Desires are called Kama. This brings together the three aims of life Dharma, Artha and Kama. One should earn money (Artha) by righteous means (Dharma) to satisfy his desires (Kama).

Yet there is a fourth aim. Man thirsts for meaning in this life. Moksha (release), nirvana, salvation, self-realization, God; call it what you may; is the fourth and, some will say, the most important aim of life. 

According to Hindu view, so long as your thirst, your hankering for the things of this world continues your sansara continues and salvation can’t be had. You can even go to heaven and hell but you will be back as soon as your thirst continues. In Hinduism both heaven and hell are transitory where you may go between births or think of them as alternate worlds where you may be born and will die. Yes, even gods in Indra’s heaven die or fall as they say.

There is a charming story in one of the Puranas (Books that deal with the ancient lore and mythology) of Indra, the king of heaven who became too arrogant and had to be humbled. I think I will tell the story briefly as it will bring out many of the central ideas. 

Once there was a terrible demon named Vritra who had encircled all the waters of the three worlds and all the creatures were dying of hunger and thirst. Indra who is also the god of clouds and thunder struck the demon’s head by a thunderbolt and freed the waters. Now Indra’s glory increased and he started having visions of grandeur and he started building a palace unmatched in heaven and earth. Vishwakarma was Indra’s architect. Now every time Indra came to inspect construct he will add to and/or alter the plans. Vishwakarma, distraught by Indra’s plans sought Brahma’s help. Brahma assured him that it will all be taken care of. Next day, a young Brahmin boy showed up at Indra’s court. Indra greeted him and asked the purpose of his visit. Boy told him that he had heard of his palace under construction and came to see it. Boy told him that he had seen many Indras and Vishwakarmas before him and wanted to see how this palace compared with theirs. Indra was dumbfounded as to how this young boy could have seen many Indras. The boy explained to him how each eon has an Indra and he has seen millions of eons pass by and seen more Indras than there are particles of sand on a beach. Now the boy saw a train of ants crawling on the floor and he laughed. Indra wanted to know why he laughed. The boy says, “Don’t ask. You will not like the answer.” Indra insists. Boy says that each one of these ants was an Indra in its time. Needless to say Indra’s pride was cured and Vishwakarma got his well-deserved rest.

We come back to the fourth aim of life, the Moksha

The thing to realize is that regardless how much wealth you amass, how much success you have in this world, you can never be really satisfied until you know who you are. Each one of us is a Jiva, an individual soul and God is “Brahman” the universal soul. So long as the Jiva is bound to Sansara by attachments and clings to his little ego, he considers himself to be separate from Brahman. In reality he is not. Just as the light of a light bulb is not really different from the light of the sun, Jiva is not different from Brahman. Just as the space enclosed in a box is not really different from the space outside, Jiva is not different from Brahman. Just as when a clay pot is broken, the space within the pot and outside the box becomes one. When the bonds of Sansara are broken, and the little ego is extinguished, Jiva becomes Brahman. Many a Muslim sufi saints cried out, “Analhaq’ meaning, “I am God.” when this realization came to them and were put to death by Muslim rulers for their acts of blasphemy. Zen Buddhists talk of the little mind and the big mind. It is the same story but with a different terminology. This is what the famous sentence from the Hindu Scripture, “That thou art.” You are what you are seeking. Once you realize this, you are everywhere in the sun and moon and stars, this world and other world. Theoretical knowledge is not enough. You have to know that it is so in your very bones. This is what the mystical experience, the Krishna consciousness or the Christ- consciousness or the oceanic consciousness that William James described is all about.

There are many paths to God-realization, just as a summit can be reached in many ways. All religions strive to get to the top. To say that there is only path is to Hindus wrongheaded. This attitude can only hinder an aspirant’s progress. In Gita (7.22 & 9.23), a Hindu holy book, Krishna says, “No matter which God a man worships, he worships only me. All prayers come unto me.” For a Hindu, this establishes the equal status of all religions.

Let us say a little about some of the Paths to Self-realization

The Way of Knowledge: Constant meditation on the question, “Who am I?” eventually makes one realize what one is seeking. What you are looking for is your own true nature. Let me tell of a story to illustrate the point. Once there was a lion cub lost in the forest and found by a goat herder who brought him up with his goats. The cub grew up to bleat like a goat and eat grass. One day a lion passed by and saw this strange phenomenon. The goats ran away leaving behind cub. The lion asked the cub what he was doing with a bunch of goats. The cub answered, “What do you mean? I am a goat.” The lion took him to river and let him see that the cub was no goat but a lion and gave him a piece of meat to eat. The cub gagged on it but once he got a taste of it, he gave his first lion roar. We are all lions behaving like goats, not knowing our true nature.

The Way of Devotion: Worship the lord with all your heart and eventually you will reach him.

The Way of Action: Perform all your actions in a detached way i.e. in a disinterested manner, not seeking the fruit of your action but not falling into sloth either. Leave the fruits of your actions to the lord.

The Way of Meditation: Our mind is like an ocean with our thoughts and emotions like waves and ripples. If we can stop these ripples, the ocean becomes calm and you can behold the joy of eternity.

The Iconography of the Nataraja Statue

Shiva is also Nataraja, the lord of dancers. Here Shiva incorporates all three functions of the Gods of Trinity and can be considered as the personification of the absolute, a term used by the great German Indologist Heinrich Zimmer. This image represents the cosmic dance of the lord. In his upper right hand is a drum. While beating this drum, Shiva dances and brings the creation into being. In the upper left hand he carries a flame, the symbol of destruction. Creation and destruction are the two sides of the same coin. It can’t be otherwise. Any one who is born must die. The raised lower right hand says, “Don’t be afraid.” The other left hand points toward the raised left foot wherein lies the salvation of the devotee. Under the right foot is the demon representing ignorance or forgetfulness. The image is enclosed in a ring of flames representing the vital processes of the universe. Shiva, also called Mahakala, the Great Time is perpetually dancing this dance of creation and destruction. His face is mask-like representing the enigma of universe.  


More by :  Laxmi N. Gupta

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