Hinduism Essay, Research Paper
Hinduism is one of the world?s oldest religions in existence (Srinivasan 66). It ranks as
the third largest religion. Today there are about fifty million Hindus worldwide, majority of them
living in India (Wangu 6). In order to understand the followers of the religion, you must first
realize that Hinduism is more of a way of life than a religion (Srinivasan 66). Hinduism holds
together diversity and not only for its own spiritual tradition, but for the entire subcontinent of
India (Berry 3). All traditions within India are somehow associated with Hinduism. ?The
diversity which marks Hinduism begins with the notion of deity? (Boraks 14). ?There is a strange
kind of unity in the vast multiplicity of the Hindu pantheon? (14). ?One never really is certain
whether the Hindu religion is polytheistic or dualistic or even monotheistic: there are indications
that are all of these and none of these? (14)!
The Hindus define sacredness as Brahman (Boraks 14). To Hindus, Brahman is external,
is changeless, has no equal, and is infinite (14). Brahman expresses itself through creation,
brought itself existence by Brahma, the creator (14). Brahma is the ?sacred one? and is credited
with creation, but Brahma creates and then abandons his creation to lesser gods (14).
Hinduism was not founded by one individual, and it was not always the complex religion it
is today (Wangu 14). ?Indians call it Sanatana Dharma – the faith with no beginning and no end?
(Srinivasan 66). ?It developed gradually, as a merging of beliefs and practices of two main groups
- the people of the Indus Valley in India and the Aryans of Persia? (Wangu 14).
Like other religions, the Hindu religion has its own sacred literature. Hindu literature is
not considered sacred because it has a Sacred Author, like in some western religions, but because
they have sacred subject matter (Boraks 15).
?There are two main categories of Hindu Scripture – shruti, ?that which is heard? and
smriti, ?tradition? or ?that which is to be remembered?? (Wangu 9). The Vedas and the
Upanishads are shruti texts (9). ?These sacred writings are considered to be inspired by God and
to have been revealed to human kind by ancient sages called rishis? (9).
Each of the shruti texts provides a foundation for Hinduism. ?The four Vedas are the
oldest of the texts and are primary scriptures of Hinduism? (9). No one knows when these
hymns were composed, although at the latest they should be dated between 1200 and 900 BC
(Berry 18). ?One of the four Vedas contains hymns, chants and praises to gods? (Wangu 9).
?Another Vedas serves as a guidebook for rituals and priestly behavior? (9). ?A third offers
information on magic and charms that can be used as blessings or curses, and the fourth gives
musical notes to be chanted while performing rituals? (9).
The latest of the shruti texts are the Upanishads (Wangu 9). The Upanishads were written
around 700 – 500 BC (9). Most of the Upanishads are written in the form of dialogue, possibly
between a teacher and a student (9). The most important concepts explained in the Upanishads
are the concepts of karma – the belief that ones beliefs will later have an affect in this life or
another life, samsara – reincarnation, and moksha – release from the cycles of samsara (9). In the
texts of the Upanishads one finds more of the philosophical outlook of Hinduism, especially
concerning the ,meaning of life and the value of suffering (Boraks 17). These two groups of
books are the principal doctrines of the Hindu faith (Wangu 10). All of the works that come after
the Vedas and Upanishads are smriti texts (10).
The smriti texts include epics, Puranas, Sutras, Shastras, and devotional Bhakti songs
(Wangu 10). Two great smriti epics that have had a significant influence on Hinduism are the
Mahabharata and the Ramayana (10). These two epics have undergone numerous changes
throughout the centuries (10).
?The Mahabharata is the story of the earliest inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent , the
Mahabharata tribe? (Boraks 17). Containing over ninety thousand stanzas, it is probably the
longest epic poem in history (Wangu 10). ?It tells the story of two families engaged in war? (10).
?It includes the Bhagavad Gita, an important sacred text in Hinduism which tells an important
story about the god Krishna? (10).
?The other great epic, the Ramayana, tells the tale of Rama, the seventh incarnation of the
god Vishnu? (Wangu 10). ?The earliest part of the text dates from around 350 BC, but the work
as a whole was not compiled until much later? (10). ?This long epic poem traces the incarnation
of Rama from infancy to adulthood, recounting his exploits, his teachings, and his miraculous
deeds? (Boraks 17). These pieces of sacred literature are just some of the many sacred works
that has built Hinduism into the religion it is today.
Hinduism alone is a complicated religion, but it becomes even more complex because of
its social duties and beliefs. ?Hinduism is divided into three different sects: Shaivism,
Vaishnavism, and Shaktism? (Wangu 11). ?These sects are bound together by the belief that
different or individual paths may lead to moksha, which is release from the attachment people
have to the material world? (11).
Some rituals and beliefs hold all the sects together (Wangu 11). These are puja, daily
worship; Dharma, religious duties pertaining to family and society; samskara, rites of passage;
samsara, belief in reincarnation; and moksha, final release from material existence (11).
Each day Hindus worship their gods. ?To do this, they perform puja in a sacred corner in
a worship room of the home? (Wangu 11). ?The puja ritual keeps Hindus aware of their gods and
mindful of their duties as individuals? (11). The most sacred setting for puja is the temple (11).
?The temple is the house of god and a link between human existence and the divine? (11). It is
the center of the Hindus lives (Berry 40). Most importantly, the temple is a place of passage from
this world to the next (40).
Hindu society was divided into four major castes based on a persons occupation and
financial whereabouts. The four main castes were Brahmins, priests; Kshatriyas, knights and
nobles; Vaishyas, skilled workers, artisans, and merchants; and Sudras, laborers (Wangu 125).
The Hindu caste system was supported by Dharma (Wangu 12). Dharma insisted that a certain
caste had certain duties in society (12). If a person did not carry out these duties they were
considered sinners (12). The Hindus believe that if a person performs their duty unquestionably,
a balance could be made in the world and humans could exist in peace (12). Sinners were
believed to be responsible for upsetting the balance of life in the universe. The caste system was
important because it divided a person?s karma (Wangu 125). ?Karma is the good and bad deeds
or acts in a person?s previous or present life which will determine the quality of the next
incarnation? (125). Karma is thought of as a person?s fate or destiny.
Rituals performed and celebrated from the time of conception to the moment of death are
called samskara (Wangu 111). Hindus practice samskara traditional rites of passage to mark the
transitions a person makes as he/she gets older (Srinivasan 67). The life of an individual is divided
into four stages: childhood; student life; householder, married; and denial of material things in
preparation for the final years (67). Since these stages are common, Hindu priests also marry and
raise a family (67).
There are four major rites of passage: prenatal; childhood; marriage; and death (111). On
these occasions, family members join together to bless the individual and to protect him from any
harm (111). They are performed at home and are a time of spiritual meditation (111).
?Three rites are performed before the birth of a child: the rite of conception; the wish for a
male child; and the protection of the fetus? (Wangu 111). The rite of conceptions is performed
long before there is any news of a pregnancy (111). This ensures the safety and well-being of the
mother and child (111). In the third or fourth month of pregnancy, a rite is performed to obtain a
male child (111). Between the fourth and eighth month of pregnancy a rite is performed to ward
off evil spirits (111).
Several rituals are performed between a child?s birth and adolescence. The first ritual is a
simple ritual that is performed immediately after birth (Wangu 111). ?The most important is the
second ritual, known as the morning ceremony, which is held on the tenth of the twelfth day after
the baby?s birth? (111). ?On this occasion, the baby is given a formal name? (111). The third
ritual is celebrated when a baby is given solid food to eat for the first time (111). This occasion
is celebrated sometime during the sixth month (111).
The main ritual of adolescence is the initiation called upanayana, ?threat ceremony?
(Wangu 111). Only a male child of the upper three castes can undergo this ceremony (111). At
the upanayana ceremony, the child is ?born again? (Wangu 112). The purpose of this ceremony
is to initiate a child into his Hindu social caste (112). ?Before the ritual of upanayana , the boy
eats his last meal with his mother? (112). ?From that moment, he is expected to eat with the adult
male members of his family? (112). During the ceremony he is given the Sacred Thread, upavita
(Wangu 112-113). ?It is a symbol of all individual existences, inseparable and linked to one single
source of the universe? (Wangu 113). The child then stays to study with his teacher for several
years and at the completion of his studies another ritual takes place (113). The central theme of
this ritual is the ceremonial bath (113). After the bath, he is ready to marry and become a
?Marriage is one of the most important rituals in the life of a Hindu? (Wangu 113). The
married man?s role is pivotal in Hindu society (113). The first step is to find a suitable wife (113).
Then, according to the astrological calendar, a wedding date is chosen (113). The betroth takes
place some time before the day of the marriage (113). The rites are performed in front of a fire
with the bride, the groom, and the friends and family of the couple (113). The couple takes
several steps around the fire, which is the most important part of the ceremony (Wangu 114).
After the ritual, the couple goes to the husband?s home and on the fourth day, several rites are
performed to ensure fertility (114).
When someone dies, the family and friends are informed and the body is carried to the
local cremation ground (Wangu 114). The body is cremated in the belief that its ancestors after
the funerary rites are performed (Wangu 114-115). Cremation is regarded as the last sacrifice. It
is believed that the deceased person is born again after being cremated (Wangu 115). ?The
funeral ritual, sraddha, is performed in order to help the deceased reach the homes of the ancestor
safely? (115). ?The prenatal, childhood, marriage, and death rituals are also performed for
women belonging to the twice- born castes? (115). ?During these times, Vedic formulas are not
recited, since women are not allowed to read or hear the Vedas? (115).
Hinduism is made up of several practices and rites. Hindus have the ability to choose their
path because of the diversity of Hinduism. Hinduism has many faces (Boraks 14). It is like ?an
umbrella which shelters beneath its cover a whole panoply of religions ideas and expressions?
(14). Hinduism may have originated in India, but its practices have spread throughout the world
and it has had a profound influence on many other world religions.
Berry, Thomas. Religions of India. New York: Bruce Publishing Company, 1971.
Boraks, Lucius. Religions of the East. Kansas City, MO: Sheed & Ward, 1988.
Srinivasan, Radhika. Cultures of the World – India. New York: Marshall Cavendish Corporation,
Wangu, Madhu Bazaz. Hinduism: World Religions. New York: Facts on File Incorporated, 1991.