Hinduism : An Overview


If looked at in the historical perspective, all the religions have an interesting beginning and development. Also looking at all the religions in the historical context makes it easier to understand and tolerate. Sri Aurobindo wrote that all religions have two aspects. One is the Truth or the core essence of the religion. The second is the unimportant part that is only relevant to the time the scriptures were written. Thus the Gita is a sermon on the battlefield. The battlefield is not important. Similarly the Koran was revealed over many years during tumultuous years with tribal infighting in Mecca and Medina. That context of the Koran, with its violence and death is not important and significant only for the contemporary period. Similarly one religion does not hold an answer to all the questions. One religion does not hold a monopoly on Truth. In the end one will only extract what one is capable of from any scripture. If we get bogged down in the social constraints or customs of the time when the scriptures were written, they are bound to appear ordinary today. 

Hinduism is a belief and not a scripted practice. Belief in the basic tenets of Hindu Dharma is all that is needed. The rest is up to the individual. Despite the noisy celebration with loud conches and raucous bells, the essence of practice of Hinduism is a quiet introspection and contemplative meditation. A Hindu's quest is to purify his 'self' called jiva-atman. It is possible for every Hindu to do this by following the path of Dharma. No Hindu can be denied this right. 

Action is inevitable in life. There are distinctively two kinds of actions - good and bad. A Hindu is encouraged to show moral judgment in all his actions. This is especially so because of the karma doctrine. There is accountability for all actions. The goal is to accumulate good karma through many births. Because Hindus believe atman is indestructible, it is believed that the same atman is transferred from one birth to another. But the karma is never forgotten and carried by the jiva-atman like a shroud around a naked soul, form birth to birth. 

This is a strong incentive for Hindus to lead a life of virtue. Life is a learning process, an opportunity to gather knowledge. Like a student in school, some students taking longer to comprehend and finish school than others, but always finishing school, Hinduism gives everyone ample time to succeed in releasing oneself from the cycles of rebirth. It gives them many lifetimes to do so. Everyone goes about doing this at his or her own speed. The scriptures give us suggestions as to how this process can be hastened but does not compel us to do it one way or another.

Some Definitions

Dharma translates to righteousness and is a code of conduct that is expected of everyone though in Hinduism it is without compulsion. Laws of Manu (Manuva Shastra or Manusmriti) form the basis of Hindu conduct. 

Karma is a retributive justice that is carried with the atman into the afterlife It is the imprint of one's deeds in this life. A human being is born already with a heavy baggage that is the memory of the karma from previous births. In the current life he is in full control of his deeds and hence is capable of accumulating good karma throughout this life. This is like a balance sheet. Good karma cancels out the bad karma. When enough good karma is accumulated over many lifetimes, the jiva-atmanis released from this eternal cycle of samsara and attains moksha. 

Samsara is the repeated cycles of births and deaths. A human is destined to be born many times until his soul is purified. He is given a chance to accumulate good karma so that the endless cycle of rebirths can be broken. It is believed that as more and more good karma is accumulated it can be seen in one's life as he becomes more and more illuminated and austere. Thus we say that the learned guru, for example has an aura around him. The avatars or the prophets perhaps are the ultimate examples of humans who have accumulated enough good karma to be on the verge of release from the repetitive cycle of samsara. This in Hinduism is called Moksha or Realization of Truth. 

Punarjanma and Punarmrutyu are repeated births and deaths. The aim of a Hindu is to seek release from this endless cycle. 

Moksha is attained when the jiva-atman is released from the cycle of samsara. This is not different from the terms Nirvana of Buddhism or Mukti of Jainism. It is also referred to as Realization of Truth, and identifying with the Eternal Self or Brahman. 

Brahman is the Universal Self or World Soul or Parama-atman. IT is the Supreme God of the Upanishads, who is characterless, shapeless, without limitations and without any attributes (nirguna, nirakara, nirupadhika and nirvishesha). In the Upanishads Brahman is described as an amorphous, omnipresent, omnipotent all-pervading power. However, for practical purposes and for the sake of worship,nirguna Brahman was given shape and characteristics. This is the Saguna Brahman. 

Jiva-atman is the self (soul) within every human. It is the ego and is molded after Brahman. Different Vedanta philosophies differ as to how closely aligned jiva-atmanis with parama-atman

Antaratman is a deeper soul that is hidden deep within. However, layers of ignorance cover antaratman. The purpose of Hindu is to uncover the shades and let antaratman shine in all its glory. Only by gathering knowledge the covering around antaratman can be removed.  

Goodness is present in every human soul. This is the basis of treating other humans with respect. Divinity rests in every soul of every human. The practice of greeting another human being with the palms brought together in front of the heart signifies the fact that we recognize the divinity in their souls. It is the sign prayer to God.

Scriptures of Hinduism

To understand a religion and its philosophy it is important to know the scriptures that gave it form and strength. Scriptures of Hinduism come from the Sanatana Dharma and mostly were written more than two thousand years ago. The more modern literature (written in the medieval period) is mainly commentaries on the ancient literature. 

Written in Sanskrit language, the Hindu literature is considered to be authoritative by the Hindus. They can broadly be classified as six orthodox and four secular categories.  

The orthodox section contains: 

Shruti - 
That which is heard. This is the direct edict of the gods as heard by the Vedic seers. The Vedas fall under this category. Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva. Each Veda is again divided into four parts. Samhitas are the hymns praising God. Brahmanas are details of Vedic rituals and rites. Aranyakas or forest books are a prelude to Upanishads, a guidebook for the forest dweller (during the Vanaprastha ashrama). Upanishads are the philosophical aspect of the Vedas. There are more than one hundred Upanishads attached to different Vedas, but about 13 of them are important because later teachers have commented them upon. 

Smriti - 
That which is remembered. These are the law texts, moral stories and the epics written and remembered. These include Sutras and Shastras (e.g. Brahma Sutra and Dharma Shastra). Vedangas (Limbs of Vedas) and Upa-Vedas are also included here. Jyotisha falls under Vedanga whereas Sthapathya veda (vastu shilpa) and Ayurveda are classified under Upa-vedas. 

Puranas/Upapuranas - 
There are eighteen Puranas of Vyasa and fourteen upa-Puranas. There are mainly three groups of Puranas, i.e. Brahma, Vaishnava and Shaiva Puranas. 

Ithihasas - 
Mahabharata and Ramayana.  

Agamas - 
Texts of rituals and rites of worship. They include Mantra, Tantra and Yantra. Agama texts also fall under three sections; Vaishnava, Shaiva and Shakta. These are treatises that explain the physical worship of God in a temple setting. 

Darshanas - 
The six philosophical doctrines of salvation: Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sankhya, Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta. Vedanta means culmination of Vedas. It is the study of three philosophical texts namely Brahma Sutra, Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads, collectively called Prasthana Traya.

The secular section has four categories:

Subhashitas - Wise sayings: Pachatantra and Hitopadesha belong to this category.  

Kavyas - 
Scholarly poetry and prose: Kalidasa's Raghuvamsha andKumarasambhava are examples of poetry and Banabhatta's works are the greatest examples of prose literature.  

Natakas - 
Scholarly dramas: Examples are Kalidasa's Shakunthala and Vishakadatta's Mudrarakshasa.  

Alankara - 
Composition of elegance and ornamental language includes such works as Mammata's Kavyaprakasha and Jagannatha's Rasagangadhara

The heterodox literatures are those that did not view Vedas as authoritative. These are Buddhist, Jaina and Charvaka systems.

Who is a Hindu?

In simple terms, 'He who accepts the Scriptures (Shruti and Smriti) as the basis of his religion, and follows its rule of conduct (or Dharma), and he who believes in one Supreme God (Brahman), in the Law of retributive justice (or Karma), and in reincarnation (punarjanma), is a Hindu.'

History of Hinduism

Sanatana Dharma was brought to Northwest India first around 1500 B.C. From its inception reform of the Dharma took place continuously. There was a mixture of cultures in the Indus Valley civilization, which existed for at least a thousand years before the arrival of Aryans. The Aryans brought with them the oral tradition of Vedas. Rig Veda was introduced first. Until 600 B.C. the various Vedas were accumulated. The form of worship was mainly sacrificial. Nature Gods like Indra, Varuna, Surya were recognized. Man considers himself capable of joining the ranks of gods by performing sacrificial rituals. It was the age of the assimilation of great Vedas and it ended with the revelation of Aranyakas and Upanishads. This is referred to as the Vedic Period. Brahman of the Upanishads replaced Prajapati, the Creator God of Rig Veda. 

Following this period the rigidity of caste systems developed. Power and corruption led to dissenting thought process by the likes of Buddha and Mahavira. This was the period when skepticism, materialism (Charvaka), Shaivism and Vaishnavism developed. There were several other philosophers, who put forth their own unique philosophies, during the next 800 or so years. This was the most fertile period in the history of India. Called the Epic Period , when epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana were written, other significant works like Dharmashastra-the moral, social and ethical doctrine that forms the foundation of Hinduism even today, were also written. This was also the golden period of other religions like Buddhism and Jainism.  

The third period in the history is called the Sutra Period . Short aphorisms called sutras were written during this period, in the early centuries of the Christian era. Most significant of them were the Brahma Sutra of Badarayana, which were commentaries on the Vedas and Upanishads. The six philosophical systems called Darshanas were also written during this period.  

The fourth period is called Scholastic Period . Commentaries were written on the Sutras. Based on the Vedas and the Sutras, new systems and thought process developed. Shankara's Advaita, Ramanuja's Vishistadvaita and Madhva's Dvaita philosophies took permanent place in Hinduism. However, after the sixteenth century, because of occupation by foreign rulers, Hinduism went into decay and no significant thought process occurred until late in 19th century when Sri Aurobindo and Vivekananda helped in the renaissance of the religion.  

Now let us see what happened to the sacrificial Sanatana Dharma first introduced by the Aryans. The Nirguna Brahman of the philosophical Upanishad was now given character and form. Saguna Brahman was given many shapes and attributes. The Trinity of Gods ' Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva ' gained prominence. Orthodox Hinduism developed. A great impetus to revive Hinduism in the face of challenge from Buddhism occurred during Gupta dynasty around 300 A.D. Vikramaditya's glorious rule saw a great increase in art and cultrure. Secular literature like Kalidasa's work and other natakas and subhashitas were written.  

Buddhism slowly took a backbench but Hinduism was in danger into splintering into various factions like Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktaism. Then around 800 A.D. came a saint Shankaracharya who brought together these various factions under the big umbrella of Hinduism. He reformed the form of worship and forwarded his Advaita philosophy. Advaita drew its strength from Sankya philosophy and resembled Buddhism somewhat. Later came Ramanuja and Madhva with different ideas, but not completely dissociating from the core philosophy laid down in the Upanishads.

Philosophy of Hinduism

Only by studying the philosophy as written in the Upanishads this question can be answered. To explain them in more detail, there are seven fundamental characteristics of Indian philosophy.  

First and foremost the philosophy concentrates on spirituality.  

The second aspect of Indian philosophy is that it is socio-spiritual. It is not merely an exercise to seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge. This is to be lived and experienced. The philosophy is to be used to change one's life and seek the Truth. This experience is to be seen as in Darshan and not merely known.  

The third aspect is knowing oneself by introspection , is more important than knowing the physical world. Though science, astrology progressed at breakneck speed in India, it is the atma-vidya that is believed to lead a Hindu to realize the Truth. This in turn is a highly personal endeavor.  

The fourth fact is that the philosophy is monistic. Despite the appearance of conflicting images of various gods and forms of worship, basic thought is that there is only one ultimate reality.  

Fifth and perhaps one of the most important characteristics of the philosophy is intuition. Reasoning may be important to demonstrate the Truth but will not always discover it. It is a process of knowing or sensing without rationalization.  

Sixth important fact is the acceptance of authority. Here comes the guru concept. The Vedic seers are accepted as the ones who had known the ultimate Truth and realized it. Buddha and Mahavira are also accepted as ones who had intuitive experience and thus realized the Truth.  

The seventh characteristic is the ability to synthesize the different aspects of philosophical thought process. It is the thought that God is one but man calls Him by many names that helped to bring all the disparate philosophies under one tent.

Purpose and Practice

The only purpose of man's life on earth is to identify himself with the eternal Self-called Brahman and unite with it through knowledge (jnana), service (karma) and/or devotion (bhakti).  

The well-educated upper echelon of the society can take the path of jnana yoga to realize the Truth by studying scriptures.  

However, Upanishads give us other means of doing this if one is not familiar with the scriptures or is unable to comprehend them. For ordinary folks it is possible to seek the Truth by intense devotion to a personal God. This is called bhakti yoga. Any object or manifestation can be chosen to show one's devotion. This has led to hundreds of perceived manifestations of Brahman, as envisaged by the devotees. But the underlying theme is that all these are manifestations of a single God. It is basically monistic. On the surface it may appear to be polytheistic with many gods and objects worshipped in various forms. But they are all manifestations of Brahman, the one and only Supreme Being. At one time, the religion was close to becoming polytheistic with belief in many gods, but Sharkaracharya reformed this.  

For still others there is the karma Yoga, exalted in the Bhagavad-Gita. Service of humanity without the expectation of fruits or rewards is another method of gaining knowledge. If every human has an antaratman that resembles Brahman, then service of human is akin to service of God. This is the premise of Karma Yoga.

Customs and Classes

Most of the codes of conduct are laid down in Manu Smriti texts. The four castes developed as a result of people's profession rather than by birth. Upanishads repeatedly give examples of this but however in practicality the society was divided into Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vashya and Shudra classes. The higher classes controlled the lower classes but this became more pronounced after the Muslim take over of India. The earlier Muslim rulers craftily divided the Hindu society by taxing only certain classes and giving certain privileges to Brahmins. This resulted in resentment among the other classes.  

Though samsara is a burden on the jiva-atman, that constantly seeks release from it, life is not to be wasted in inactivity. There are responsibilities one must meet, including an assurance of continuation of one's progeny. A Hindu's lifetime is divided into four stations (ashramas). Earlier Brahmachari, a student living with his guru, subsisting on hand outs from neighbors and studying the Vedas.  

Next he enters grahasthashrama, when he marries and raises his family. During this period he is urged to earn an honest living and follow righteousness. Dharma, artha and kama are to be practiced. Kama is an essential part of grahastha, not merely to continue one's progeny. Active participation in sex and mutual gratification is stressed.  

When the children are well settled and the grandchildren are old enough to enter Brahmachari ashrama, it is time to enter Vanaprastha ashrama. Man renounces worldly pleasures and resides in the forest with or without his wife. He begins to undertake the study of the scriptures.  

The final stage is Sanyasa ashrama, when the man renounces everything including his family and wanders around immersing himself in the study of scriptures.  

The samhitas are for the Brahmachari. The Brahmanas are for the Grahastha to follow Vedic rituals. Aranyakas help in introducing the Vanaprastha ashrami to start dwelling into the philososphy of the Vedas. Upanishads are for the Sanyasi to study in depth the scriptures.  

Starting from before his birth a Hindu goes through many stages when different samskaras or rituals to purify the soul. Of the more than forty such samskaras, sixteen called (Shodasha samskara) are still popular today. It starts at the time of conception with the samskara of Garabadana. Others include Seemantonayana, Jatakarma, Namakarana, Annaprashana, Upanayana, and Vivaha to name a few. It ends in the end of life in the Antyeshti samskara.  

During his lifetime a Hindu is encouraged to practice eight moral rules to enhance his atma-vidya. These include compassion, forgiveness, cleanliness, absence of jealousy, altruism, absence of greed, auspiciousness and absence of mental strain. These eight characteristics called ashtaguna will help build character in a Hindu and propel him towards his goal of achieving moksha.


Hinduism is the longest surviving religion in the world. That is not to say that it has not changed over the millennia. Sanatana Dharma has changed significantly from the Vedic period to now. In fact it has continually changed over many centuries and has been modified as new challenges appeared. Starting with Buddha and Mahavira, the establishment of rigid caste system was questioned. For about three to five hundred years even the Upanishads were questioned. Charavaka system of complete materialism with atheism went a step further than Buddha's atheistic but spiritual teachings.  

Around 600 B.C. after about one thousand years after its uninterrupted practice, Buddha, Mahavira and Goshala challenged the hierarchy. Over the next 800 years Buddhism made steady progress, aided by the great Maurya king Ashoka and ensuing kingdoms. Kanishka helped export Buddhism to China and Japan.  

The Darshana literature with Nyaya, Yoga and Sankhya and Vedanta were popular. Royal patronage came again later when Guptas two to three hundred years after Christ, uplifted the religion. Hinduism itself slowly transformed from the sacrificial ritual to bhakti ritual.  

A glorious period of religion and art followed. Starting about the 7th century A. D. permanent temples were built in stone to house Hindu gods. By now the gods had changed from the nature gods to the three Trinity of Gods, namely Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Nirguna Brahman of the Upanishads was only mentioned in the philosophical discussions. For practical matters, Saguna Brahman was visible everywhere.  

While Guptas effectively revived Hinduism it was another Saint half a millennium later that permanently brought all the factions of Hinduism under one umbrella. There was a danger of schism, as the followers of Vishnu and Shiva and other gods failed to see that their philosophy originated from the same source called the Vedas. Shankaracharya in the 8th century helped in the synthesis and refined the ritualistic Hinduism. He also advanced strict monism (advaita) based on the Sankhya philosophy as well as the Upanishads. He saw a dual nature in the phenomenal world.Maya or illusion was how he explained the daily chores and happenings on earth. But he was pointing to another higher level where human intellect needed to go to attain moksha.  

Later Vedantis disputed this and put forward their own theories, again based on the interpretations of the Upanishads and Brahma sutra. Notably, Madhvacharya advocated dvaita philosophy, saying that the jiva-atman and parama- atman are two separate entities and can never be joined. Moreover, the phenomenal world is real and not maya, (as Shankara had proposed) and Vishnu is the Supreme God. 

It is truly a wonder how Hinduism that appears to be a combination of many religions tied together, has stayed as one religion. From the Vedic sacrificial religion to the current day bhakti cult, they appear to be at two ends of the scale. However, the sanctity of Vedas and a willingness to be reformed as well as an extraordinary tolerance of other religions has made Hinduism remarkable. No wonder it is called Sanatana Dharma, a religion without a beginning or ending.

Where does the future take us?

One cannot forget what was taught so well in the Bhagavad-Gita. It teaches us that paths to Truth are many. Thus it does not discount other philosophies that may show a different path. It is better to follow the faith one is born to than to change or convert to another. Thus the tolerance of Hindus for other religions is unique. It is the only religion that is inclusive, respectful of other religious thoughts and philosophy. Hinduism is the only religion that can be adopted universally. 

Hinduism demonstrated its willingness to accept others early when it adopted Buddha as one of Vishnu's avatars. It is conceivable that if Vishnu is to have more than ten avatars, both Jesus and Muhammad could be accepted willingly as avatars. After all, Buddha who did not believe in the sanctity of the Vedas was included as one of the avatars, replacing Balram (in order to keep the total at ten). Hinduism has shown remarkable resiliency and adaptability. Is it possible to add newer prophets to the list of avatars? 


More by :  Dr. Neria H. Hebbar

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