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Introduction to Hinduism Resource

RESOURCE: Introduction to Hinduism Resource

Roots of Hinduism

Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest religions. It has complex roots, and involves a vast array of practices and a host of deities. Its plethora of forms and beliefs reflects the tremendous diversity of India, where most of its one billion followers reside. Hinduism is more than a religion. It is a culture, a way of life, and a code of behavior. This is reflected in a term Indians use to describe the Hindu religion: Sanatana Dharma, which means eternal faith, or the eternal way things are (truth).

The word Hinduism derives from a Persian term denoting the inhabitants of the land beyond the Indus, a river in present-day Pakistan. By the early nineteenth century the term had entered popular English usage to describe the predominant religious traditions of South Asia, and it is now used by Hindus themselves. Hindu beliefs and practices are enormously diverse, varying over time and among individuals, communities, and regional areas.

Unlike Buddhism, Jainism, or Sikhism, Hinduism has no historical founder. Its authority rests instead upon a large body of sacred texts that provide Hindus with rules governing rituals, worship, pilgrimage, and daily activities, among many other things. Although the oldest of these texts may date back four thousand years, the earliest surviving Hindu images and temples were created some two thousand years later.

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What are the roots of Hinduism?

Hinduism developed over many centuries from a variety of sources: cultural practices, sacred texts, and philosophical movements, as well as local popular beliefs. The combination of these factors is what accounts for the varied and diverse nature of Hindu practices and beliefs. Hinduism developed from several sources:

Prehistoric and Neolithic culture, which left material evidence including abundant rock and cave paintings of bulls and cows, indicating an early interest in the sacred nature of these animals.

The Indus Valley civilization, located in what is now Pakistan and northwestern India, which flourished between approximately 2500 and 1700 B.C.E., and persisted with some regional presence as late as 800 B.C.E. The civilization reached its high point in the cities of Harrapa and Mohenjo-Daro. Although the physical remains of these large urban complexes have not produced a great deal of explicit religious imagery, archaeologists have recovered some intriguing items, including an abundance of seals depicting bulls, among these a few exceptional examples illustrating figures seated in yogic positions; terracotta female figures that suggest fertility; and small anthropomorphic sculptures made of stone and bronze. Material evidence found at these sites also includes prototypes of stone linga (phallic emblems of the Hindu god Shiva). Later textual sources assert that indigenous peoples of this area engaged in linga worship.

According to recent theories, Indus Valley peoples migrated to the Gangetic region of India and blended with indigenous cultures, after the decline of civilization in the Indus Valley. A separate group of Indo-European speaking people migrated to the subcontinent from West Asia. These peoples brought with them ritual life including fire sacrifices presided over by priests, and a set of hymns and poems collectively known as the Vedas.

The indigenous beliefs of the pre-Vedic peoples of the subcontinent of India encompassed a variety of local practices based on agrarian fertility cults and local nature spirits. Vedic writings refer to the worship of images, tutelary divinities, and the phallus.

Beliefs of Hinduism

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Common to virtually all Hindus are certain beliefs, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • a belief in many gods, which are seen as manifestations of a single unity. These deities are linked to universal and natural processes.
  • a preference for one deity while not excluding or disbelieving others
  • a belief in the universal law of cause and effect (karma) and reincarnation
  • a belief in the possibility of liberation and release (moksha) by which the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara) can be resolved

Enlarge this image. The Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu combined as Harihara, 600–700. Central India. Sandstone. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, Museum purchase, B70S1.Hinduism is bound to the hierarchical structure of the caste system, a categorization of members of society into defined social classes. An individual’s position in the caste system is thought to be a reflection of accumulated merit in past lives (karma).

Observance of the dharma, or behavior consistent with one’s caste and status, is discussed in many early philosophical texts. Not every religious practice can be undertaken by all members of society. Similarly, different activities are considered appropriate for different stages of life, with study and raising families necessary for early stages, and reflection and renunciation goals of later years. A religious life need not be spiritual to the exclusion of worldly pleasures or rewards, such as the pursuit of material success and (legitimate) pleasure, depending on one’s position in life. Hindus believe in the importance of the observation of appropriate behavior, including numerous rituals, and the ultimate goal of moksha, the release or liberation from the endless cycle of birth.

Moksha is the ultimate spiritual goal of Hinduism. How does one pursue moksha? The goal is to reach a point where you detach yourself from the feelings and perceptions that tie you to the world, leading to the realization of the ultimate unity of things—the soul (atman) connected with the universal (Brahman). To get to this point, one can pursue various paths: the way of knowledge, the way of appropriate actions or works, or the way of devotion to God.

Principal texts of Hinduism

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Enlarge this image. Babhruvahana fights the demon Anudhautya from a series illustrating the Mahabharata, 1830–1900. India; Maharashtra state. Opaque watercolors on paper. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, Gift of Walter and Nesta Spink in honor of Forrest McGill, 2010.464.

While there is no one text or creed that forms the basis of all Hindu beliefs, several texts are considered fundamental to all branches of Hinduism. These texts are generally divided into two main groups: eternal, revealed texts, and those based upon what humanity has learned and written down. The Vedas are an example of the former, while the two great epics, the Mahabharata andRamayana, belong to the latter category. For centuries, texts were transmitted orally, and the priestly caste, or brahmans, was entrusted with memorization and preservation of sacred texts.

The Vedas

The Vedas are India’s earliest surviving texts, dating from approximately 2000 to 1500 B.C.E. These texts are made up of hymns and ritual treatises that are instructional in nature, along with other sections that are more speculative and metaphysical. The Vedas are greatly revered by contemporary Hindus as forming the foundation for their deepest beliefs.

The early Vedas refer often to certain gods such as Indra, the thunder god, and Agni, who carries messages between humans and the gods through fire sacrifices. Some of these gods persist in later Hinduism, while others are diminished or transformed into other deities over time. The Vedas are considered a timeless revelation, and a source of unchanging knowledge that underlies much of present-day Hindu practices.

Mahabharata and Ramayana

These two great epics are the most widely known works in India. Every child becomes familiar with these stories from an early age. The Mahabharata is the world’s longest poem, with approximately 100,000 verses. It tells the story of the conflict between the Pandava brothers and their cousins the Kauravas, a rivalry that culminates in a great battle. On the eve of the battle, the Pandava warrior Arjuna is distressed by what will happen. The god Krishna consoles him in a famous passage known as the Bhagavad-Gita (meaning “the Song of the Lord”). This section of the Mahabharata has become a standard reference in addressing the duty of the individual, the importance of dharma, and humankind’s relationship to God and society.

A second epic, the Ramayana, contains some of India’s best-loved characters, including Rama and Sita, the ideal royal couple, and their helper, the monkey leader, Hanuman. Rama is an incarnation of the God Vishnu. The story tells of Rama and Sita’s withdrawal to the forest after being exiled from the kingdom of Ayodhya. Sita is abducted in the forest by Ravana, the evil king of Lanka. Rama eventually defeats Ravana, with the help of his brother and an army of monkeys and bears. The couple returns to Ayodhya and are crowned, and from that point the story has evolved to acquire different endings. Episodes of the Ramayana are frequently illustrated in Hindu art.

The Puranas

The Puranas are the primary source of stories about the Hindu deities. They were probably assembled between 300 to 1000 C.E., and their presence corresponds to the rise of Hinduism and the growing importance of certain deities. They describe the exploits of the gods as well as various devotional practices associated with them. Some of the Vedic gods—Indra, Agni, Surya—reappear in the Puranas, but figure less importantly in the stories than do Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, the various manifestations of the Goddess, and other celestial figures.


Around the same time as the recording of the Puranas, a number of texts concerning ritual practices surrounding various deities emerge. They are collectively known as Tantras or Agamas, and refer to religious observances, yoga, behavior, and the proper selection and design of temple sites. Some aspects of the Tantras concern the harnessing of physical energies as a means to achieve spiritual breakthrough. Tantric practices cross religious boundaries, and manifest themselves in aspects of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.

Religion pervades many aspects of Hindu life, and religious observance is not limited to one location, time of day, or use of a particular text. It assumes many forms: in the home, at the temple, on a pilgrimage, through yogic practices, dance or music, at the roadside, by the river, through the observation of one’s social duties and so on.


The general term used to describe Hindu worship is puja—the most common forms of worship taking place in the home at the family shrine and at the local temple. Practices vary depending on location, but generally speaking, the worshiper might approach the temple to give thanks, to ask for assistance, to give penance, or to contemplate the divine. Worship is tied to the individual or family group, rather than a service or congregational gathering. Pujaoccurs on a daily basis, or even several times throughout the day, as well as at specific times and days at local temples, and with abundant festivities on the occasions of great festivals.

In the temple, the devotees are assisted by the priest, who intercedes on their behalf by performing ritual acts, and blessing offerings. Worship often begins by circumambulating the temple. Inside the temple, the priest’s actions are accompanied by the ringing of bells, passing of a flame, and chanting. Traditionally, dance also formed an essential part of temple worship.


A key concept in the worship of Hindu deities is the act of making eye contact with the deity (darshan). The activity of making direct visual contact with the god or goddess is a two-sided event; the worshiper sees the divinity, and the divinity likewise sees the devotee. This ritualistic viewing occurs between devotee and God in intimate domestic spaces, as well as in tremendously crowded temple complexes where the individual may be part of a throng of hundreds or thousands of other worshipers. It is believed that by having darshan of the god’s image, one takes the energy that is given by the deity, and receives blessings.

This essential Hindu practice also demonstrates the profound importance of religious imagery to worship and ritual. While in most other religious traditions images are believed to represent or suggest divine or holy personages, or are altogether forbidden, in Hindu practice painted and sculpted images are believed to genuinely embody the divine. Appropriate ritual imbues images with authentic divine presence. Literal physical connection in the form of visual contact is essential to religious devotion, whether on a local and ongoing basis, or in the undertaking of great pilgrimages.

There are many Hindu deities, some with great and others with limited powers. Most Hindus focus their devotion primarily on one of these, whom they regard as supreme. The greatest deities have complex natures and are shown in art in a variety of forms and situations from narratives. They are sometimes attended by spouses or their particular animal mounts. They are often identified by physical characteristics and symbolic implements they hold or wear.

While there are many gods with myriad forms, those most popularly worshiped by Hindus in India are Vishnu, Shiva, the Goddess in her various aspects, and Shiva’s sons Ganesha and Karttikeya. According to some interpretations, all divinities are in fact a manifestation of a single godhead, divine force, or abstraction.

The Trimurti, or “triple form” explains basic beliefs about the roles of Hindu gods, but is largely a Western interpretation of the main deities that has an obvious basis in the idea of the Christian Trinity. The Hindu Trimurti consists of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer.

Principal Deities of Hinduism

Most Hindus are principally devoted to the god Vishnu, the god Shiva, or the Goddess. These categorical practices are sometimes described as, respectively, Vaishnavism (Vishnu), Shaivism (Shiva), and Shaktism (Shakti being another term for the female creative energy). The predominance of these three deities evolved over several centuries, crystallizing in the early part of the first millennium, when a renewed Hinduism centering on devotion made them increasingly popular. It is believed that each of these divinities incorporated elements of other or earlier deities that existed in the pre-Hindu context, and that express beliefs and practices existing at high and low levels of culture. Thus, mainstream Hindu deities relate to figures appearing in Vedic literature, as well as to worship practices involving nature spirits, fertility, local tutelary gods, shamanism, malevolent spirits, and ghosts.

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