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Hinduism is the oldest and, after Christianity and Islam, the third largest religion in the world.

Hinduism refers to itself as "Sanatana Dharma" or The Eternal Religion. However in the last few hundred years, people who practice Sanatan Dharma have come to be called "Hindus".The term is originally of Persian origin and refers to people who live on the other side (from a Persian point of view) of the Sind, that is, the Indus river.

One of the main schools of thought in Hinduism subscribes to the existence of three main gods: Brahma?, Vishnu? and Shiva. The God Brahma represents the creator, Vishnu represents the maintainer and Shiva represents the destroyer. However, these are seen as aspects of the One God, Brahman?.

There are many different sects of Hinduism. The two main divisions today are the Shaivaites, who primarily worship Shiva, and the Vaishnavites, who primarily worship Vishnu or his one of his avatars.

Origins of Hinduism: The Indus Valley Civilisation

Archaeological excavations that have been taking place in India and Pakistan since 1922 have yielded evidence of early life in the Indus Valley, notably at the sites of Mohenjodaro? and Harappa. These indicate that by 6500 B.C. this urban civilisation was already quite advanced. However, it appears to have declined and finally disappeared towards the middle of the second millennium B.C., and some scholars are of the opinion that this may have been due to the invasion of the people who described themselves as the Arya (or Aryan). But the civilisation was already in decline, as can be seen from the shoddy workmanship found in the buildings of the uppermost, and therefore most recent, layers of excavations. Environmental pressures seem certain to have played a major part in this process.

Excavations in the area around Mohenjodaro have yielded clear evidence of planned communal living in cities dating from at least 6500 B.C. The pre-Vedic culture of the inhabitants of these cities is referred to as the Indus Valley civilisation.

Archaeological evidence reveals that these people knew how to use metals such as gold, silver, tin, lead and bronze. In addition, they made use of foodstuffs like wheat, barley, flour, fruit, meat and fish. There is evidence that they also cultivated cotton (the first known people to do so), which was woven and dyed. Well-planned streets and a sewage system suggests that they may have had some form of efficient municipal government.

Many works of art and examples of their writing have also been found, although the script has not been deciphered as yet. If and when that happens, knowledge of this culture will be broadened and deepened considerably.

The archaeological excavations have not yielded much evidence of communal temples. However, there is sufficient evidence that the civilisation was certainly not purely secular. Only one Indus civilisation graveyard has been found and excavated, and has yielded no elaborate royal burials, but the personal possessions buried with the bodies may indicate that these people believed in an afterlife in which they would need these things.

Water seems to have played an important part in their social, and possibly their religious, life, judging by the large number of public baths that were constructed. The modern Hindu custom of bathing at the beginning of the day and before the main meals may well have started here.

Many figurines of female deities have been discovered. These most probably signified creativity and the origin and continuity of life, and they may have been worshipped as symbolic embodiments of the female principle of creative Energy and Power. In modern Hinduism, the counterpart of these symbols is called Shakti. But they have no counterparts in the thousands of clay seals that have been discovered, nor in major sculpture, so these "mother Goddess" figurines may have been worshipped in the home rather than in any major state cult.

Figures of male deities with elaborate horns (or horned headgear) have also been uncovered, some of them with three faces. These are perhaps the original conceptual forms of the triad that is expressed by the Trimurti of Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva (Generator-Sustainer-Destroyer) in contemporary Hinduism, but they are strangely enough also very similar to sculptures, paintings and bas-reliefs of horned gods in Europe, stretching as far back as the palaeolithic painting of the "sorcerer" in the cave of [Les Trois Freres]? in France. The Indian figurines are shown as sitting in the cross-legged posture of yogis, suggesting that yoga or inner contemplation was one of their modes of discovering the secrets of life and creation. Figurines of lingam? and yoni?, symbolic representations of the male and female sexual organs that are still prevalent in the popular forms of worship of Shiva, have also been found.

After flourishing for many centuries, the Indus Valley civilisation collapsed. The great cities fell into disuse and ruin. What happened? Conventional wisdom has it that they were destroyed by invaders from the north, and that these invaders spoke one or a variety of Indo-European languages. The people of the Indus Valley civilisation, whose language was ancestral to the Dravidian language group, were pushed southwards to become the ancestors of the Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam -speaking Indians of today.

But this conventional wisdom has recently come under fire. One of the main opponents of the "invasion" theory is David Frawley. His argument can be found at http://www.spiritweb.org/Spirit/myth-of-invasion.html

The Vedas and later scriptures

The sacred scriptures of ancient India fall roughly into three classes. First, there are the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of the Vedic religion from which modern Hinduism is derived. Second, there are post-Vedic Hindu scriptures. Finally, there are the scriptures of the dissident movements such as Buddhism and Jainism. These were in large part reactions against the Vedas, but also took much from them, both in terms of actual teachings and in terms of a general outlook on life.

The Vedas

Scholars who have made a study of world scriptures maintain that the Vedas are the oldest extant religious texts. It should be kept in mind that the ideas expressed in the Vedas were traditionally handed down orally from father to son and from teacher to disciple. This means that these ideas had been in circulation for a long time before their codification and compilation, which are attributed to a man called Vyasa (literally, "the compiler"). On the basis of both internal and external evidence such as the above, scholars have suggested various dates for the origin of the Vedas, ranging from approximately 2500 B.C. to as far back as 5000 B.C.

In the traditional Hindu understanding, the Vedas are said to be nonpersonal and without beginning or end. This means that the truths embodied in the Vedas are eternal and that they are not creations of the human mind. It was precisely on this point that Buddhism and Jainism would part company with Hinduism.

There are four Vedic books (Rigveda, Samaveda, Atharvaveda and Yajurveda). Each is divided into four sections:

The Samhitas - hymns of the Vedic Gods The Brahmanas - directions to priests regarding rituals and sacrifices The Aranyakas - the beginnings of philosophical speculation The Upanishads? - the philosophical basis of modern Hinduism

While one wishes to respect the orthodox Hindu belief that the Vedas are timeless or eternal, there is a clear developmental history implied in their fourfold division. To the historian, it is clear that the Samhita sections of the Vedas were composed before any of the other parts. Moreover, it seems that the Vedas themselves are not all equally old, either. Buddhist texts consistently speak of the three Vedas (or three knowledges - tevijja), and it seems likely that the Yajurveda was compiled after the other three, although it is no doubt made up from much older oral sources.

Acceptance of the Vedas as the eternal, uncreated truth is the distinguishing mark of a true Hindu. This does not mean that they are widely read. Apart from the mythological content, especially in the Rigveda, the Vedas tend to be quite "dry" and abstract. New books were needed to fire up the religious imagination and inspire the people. And such books soon appeared.

Post-Vedic Hindu scriptures

The Vedas are sometimes called sruti (that which is heard). The new books that appeared afterwards were called smriti (that which is remembered). While the sruti literature was written in classical Sanskrit the smriti texts were also written in the languages of the ordinary people. Since it was accessible to all, the smrti literature established its popularity among every stratum of Indian society from the very beginning. Even today, the greater part of the Hindu world is more familiar with the smrti than with the sruti literature. Smrti literature includes Itihasas (epics), Puranas (mythological texts), Agamas (theological treatises) and Darshanas(philosophical texts). The Dharmashastras (law books) also form part of the smrti. From time to time great law-givers (eg Manu, Yajnawalkya and Parasara) emerged, who codified existing laws and eliminated obsolete ones to ensure that the Hindu way of life was consistent with both the Vedic spirit and the changing times.

The main Epics are the Mahabharata, which includes the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana?.

The Hindu philosophy reflected in the epics is the doctrine of the avatar (incarnation of God as a human being). The two main avatars of Vishnu that appear in the epics are Rama?, the hero of the Ramayana, and Krishna, the friend of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata. Unlike the superhuman devas of the Vedic Samhitas and the abstract Upanishadic concept of the all-pervading and formless Brahman?, the avatars in these epics are the human intermediaries between the Supreme Being and mere mortals.

This doctrine has had a great impact on Hindu religious life, for it means that God has manifested Himself in a form that could be appreciated even by the least sophisticated. Rama and Krishna have remained beloved and adored manifestations of the Divine for thousands of years among Hindus. The Upanishadic concept of the all-embracing Brahman is undoubtedly the pinnacle of Indian thought, but the concept of the avataras has certainly had more influence on the average Hindu.

Of course, Rama and Krishna are by no means the only divine avatars recognised by Hinduism. Unlike, say, Christianity, Hinduism believes that the divine has taken human (and other!) forms here on earth many times. Little is known of any appearance as an avatar by Brahma, but emanations of the other two aspects of the Trimurti, Shiva and Vishnu, appeared a number of times. Even the Buddha, founder of Buddhism, is regarded as an avatar of Vishnu.

There are also many divisions of Hindu philosophy. There are traditionally six ancient astika or orthodox (accepting the authority of the vedas) schools, or shaddarsana: nyaya, vaiseshika, samkhya, yoga, purva mimamsa (also called just 'mimamsa'), and uttara mimamsa (also called 'vedanta'). Note that the number six is traditional, and the division is somewhat artificial. The nastika or unorthodox schools are Jainism, Buddhism, and Carvaka? (ancient Indian atheist materialists).


The Nyaya school of philosophical speculation is based on a text called the Nyaya Sutra. It was written by Gautama (not to be confused with the founder of Buddhism), also known as Aksapada, round about the fourth or fifth century B.C. The most important contribution made by this school is its methodology. This is based on a system of logic that has subsequently been adopted by most of the other Indian schools (orthodox or not), much in the same way that western science, religion and philosophy can be said to be largely based on Aristotelian logic.

But Nyaya is not merely logic for its own sake. Its followers believed that obtaining valid knowledge was the only way to obtain release from suffering. They therefore took great pains to identify valid sources of knowledge and to distinguish these from mere false opinions. According to the Nyaya school, there are exactly four sources of knowledge (pramanas): perception, inference, comparison and testimony. Knowledge obtained through each of these can of course still be either valid or invalid, and the Nyaya scholars again went to great pains to identify, in each case, what it took to make knowledge valid, in the process coming up with a number of explanatory schemes. In this sense, Nyaya is probably the closest Indian equivalent to contemporary Western analytical philosophy. But we should never lose sight of the fact that the Nyaya sages performed their labours for a specifically religious purpose.


The Vaishesika system, which was founded by the sage Kanada, postulates an atomic pluralism. In terms of this school of thought, all objects in the physical universe are reducible to a certain number of atoms.

Although the Vaishesika system developed independently from the Nyaya, the two eventually merged because of their closely related metaphysical theories.

In its classical form, however, the Vaishesika school differed from the Nyaya in one crucial respect: where Nyaya accepted four sources of valid knowledge, the Vaishesika accepted only perception and inference. Vaishesika atomism also differs from the atomic theory of modern science: according to the Vaishesikas, the functioning of atoms was guided or directed by the will of the Supreme Being. This is therefore a theistic form of atomism.


Samkhya is widely regarded as the oldest of the orthodox philosophical systems in Hinduism. Its philosophy regards the universe as consisting of two eternal realities: purusha and prakrti. The purushas (souls) are many, conscious and devoid of all qualities. They are the silent spectators of prakrti (matter or nature), which is composed of three gunas (dispositions): satva, rajas and tamas (steadiness, activity and dullness). When the equilibrium of the gunas is disturbed, the world order evolves. This disturbance is due to the proximity of Purusha and prakrti. Liberation (kaivalya), then, consists of the realisation of the difference between the two.

This was a dualistic philosophy. But there are differences between the Samkhya and Western forms of dualism. In the West, the fundamental distinction is between mind and body. In Samkhya, however, it is between the self (purusha) and matter, and the latter incorporates what Westerners would normally refer to as "mind". This means that the Self as the Samkhya understands it is more transcendent than "mind", closer perhaps to what Westerners would refer to as "soul". This makes it an explicitly religious philosophy.

Patanjali Yoga

The Yoga system is largely based on the Samkhya philosophy, and the sage Patanjali is regarded as the founder of the Yoga system. The most significant difference is that the Yoga school not only incorporates the concept of Ishvara (a personal God) into its metaphysical worldview, which the Samkhya does not, but also upholds Ishvara as the ideal upon which to meditate. This is because Ishvara is the only purusha that has never become entangled with prakrti. The Yoga system lays down elaborate prescriptions for gradually gaining physical and mental control and mastery over the personal self, until one's consciousness has intensified sufficiently to allow awareness of one's real Self (as distinct from one's feelings, thoughts and actions).

Purva Mimamsa

The main objective of the Purva ("earlier") Mimamsa school was to establish the authority of the Vedas. Consequently this school's most valuable contribution to Hinduism was its formulation of the rules of Vedic interpretation. Its adherents believed that revelation must be proved by reasoning, that it should not be accepted blindly as dogma. In keeping with this belief, they laid great emphasis on dharma, which they understood as the performance of Vedic rituals. The Mimamsa accepted the logical and philosophical teachings of the other schools, but felt that these paid insufficient attention to right action. They believed that the other schools of thought, which pursued moksha(release) as their ultimate aim, were not completely free from desire and selfishness. According to the Mimamsa, the very striving for liberation stemmed from a selfish desire to be free. Only by acting in accordance with the prescriptions of the Vedas could one attain salvation (rather than liberation). At a later stage, however, the Mimamsa school changed its views in this regard and began to teach the doctrines of God and mukti (freedom). Its adherents then advocated the release or escape from the soul from its constraints through what was known as jnana karma (enlightened activity). While Mimamsa does not receive much scholarly attention these days, its influence can be felt in the life of the practising Hindu. All Hindu ritual, ceremony and religious law is influenced by it.


The Uttara ("later") Mimamsa school, more commonly known as the Vedanta, concentrates on the philosophical teachings of the Upanishads rather than on the ritualistic injunctions of the Brahmanas. But there are over a hundred Upanishads and they do not form a unified system. Their systematisation was undertaken by Badarayana, in a work called the Vedanta Sutra.

The cryptic way in which the aphorisms of the Vedanta texts are presented leaves the door wide open for a multitude of interpretations. This led to a proliferation of Vedanta schools. Each of these interprets the texts in its own way and has produced its own series of subcommentaries - all claiming to be faithful to the original.

Monism: Advaita Vedanta

This is probably the best-known of all Vedanta schools. Advaita literally means "not two", thus this is what we refer to as a monistic (or non-dualistic) system, which emphasises oneness. Its first great consolidator was Shankara? (A.D. 788-820). Continuing the line of thought of some of the Upanishadic teachers, and also that of his own teacher Gaudapada, Shankara expounded the doctrine of Advaita - a nondualistic reality. By analysing the three states of experience (waking, dreaming and deep sleep) he exposed the relative nature of the world and established the supreme truth of the Advaita: the nondual reality of Brahman in which atman (the individual soul) and brahman (the ultimate reality expressed in the trimurti)are identified absolutely. His theories were controversial from the start and some of his contemporaries accused him of teaching Buddhism while pretending to be a Hindu.

Subsequent Vedantins debated whether the reality of Brahman was saguna (with attributes) or nirguna(without attributes). Belief in the concept of Saguna Brahman gave rise to a proliferation of devotional attitudes and more widespread worship of Vishnu and Shiva.

Qualified Monism: Vishistadvaita Vedanta

Ramanuja (A.D. 1040-1137) was the foremost proponent of the concept of Saguna Brahman. He taught thatUltimate reality had three aspects: Ishvara (Vishnu), cit (soul) and acit (matter). Vishnu is the only independentreality, while souls and matter are dependent on God for their existence. Because of this qualification of Ultimate reality, Ramanuja's system is known as qualified non-dualism.

Dualism: Dvaita Vedanta

Like Ramanuja, Madhva (A.D. 1199-1278) identified god with Vishnu, but his view of reality was purely dualistic and is therefore called Dvaita (dualistic) Vedanta.

The bhakti (devotional) schools

Adoration and loving devotional worship of a personal god (bhakti) is part and parcel of most religious traditions. In Hinduism, too, it has been found since the earliest days, but only in the second millennium A.D. do we start to see organised movements advocating this type of religious behaviour. Among the first was theVira-Shaiva school, in the thirteenth century. Its founder, Basva, rejected the caste system, denied the supremacyof the Brahmins, condemned ritual sacrifice and insisted on bhakti and the worship of the one god, Shiva. His followers were called Vira-Shaivas, meaning "stalwart Shiva-worshippers".

The Shaiva-Siddhanta school is a form of Shaivism (Shiva worship) found in the south of India and was established around A.D. 1300. According to this school, Shiva is God, and his infinite love is revealed in the divine acts of the creation, preservation and destruction of the universe, and in the liberation of the soul.

In the period between 1400 and 1650, a great bhakti movement swept through Northern India. Theimplications of this movement were that people could cast aside the heavy burdens of ritual and caste and the subtle complexities of philosophy and simply express their overwhelming love for God.

This period was also characterised by a spate of devotional literature in the ethnic languages of the various Indian states or provinces.

In Southern India, there had been two parallel devotional movements just before this period, one centring on Vishnu and the other on Shiva. It was the Vishnu movement that mainly spread to the north, where it itself divided into two camps, the one worshipping Vishnu mainly in the form of his avatar Rama, the other in the form of Krishna.

The leader of the bhakti movement focussing on the Lord as Rama was Ramananda. Very little is known about him, but he is believed to have lived in the first half of the fifteenth century. He taught that Lord Rama was the supreme Lord, and that salvation could be attained only through love for and devotion to him, and through the repetition of his sacred name.

Ramananda's ashram in Benares became a powerful centre of religious influence, from which his ideas spread far and wide among all classes of Indians. One of the reasons for his great popularity was that he renounced Sanskrit and used the language of the people for the composition of his hymns. This paved the way for the modern tendency in northern India to write literary texts in local languages.

The bhakti of Krishna generally involves that he is either worshipped together with his consort Ruksmani or with his childhood sweetheart Radha, who is regarded as the embodiment of devotion. Two major systems of Krishna worship developed, each with its own philosophical system.

Vallabhacarya (1479-1531) called his system of thought Shuddhavaita (pure monism). According to him, it is by God's grace alone that one can obtain elease from bondage and attain Krishna's heaven. This heaven is far above the "heavens" of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, for Krishna is himself the eternal Brahman.

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1485-1533) named his system of philosophy AchintyaBheda?-Bheda (incomprehensible dualistic monism). It attempts to combine elementsof monism and dualism into a single system. Chaitanya's philosophy is one of the main elements in the belief system of the contemporary [International Society for Krishna Consciousness]?, better known as the "Hare Krishna movement".

Beyond the confines of such formal schools and movements, however, the development of bhakti as a major form of Hindu practice has left an indelible stamp on the faith. Philosophical speculation had always been a minority interest, in India as elsewhere, which really only left the general population with increasingly archaic rituals and increasingly onerous religious duties to perform. Bhakti practice, however, was instantly available to all. If it did not do away with the worst features of the caste system, then at least it gave people a temporary respite from it.

A summary of Hindu views on homosexuality should be started on the new page discussing Religion and homosexuality.

Further reading:


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