It is not easy to define Hinduism, for it is more than a religion in the Western sense, as our Ancient History Guide sees it. Also known to practitioners as Sanatana Dharma, which means everlasting or eternal religion/truth/rule, Hinduism can best be defined as a way of life based on the teachings of ancient sages and scriptures like the Vedas and the Upanishads. The word dharma connotes “that which supports the universe” and effectively means any path of spiritual discipline which leads to God. Hindu Dharma, as one scholar analogizes, can be compared to a fruit tree, with its roots representing the Vedas and the Upanishads, the thick trunk symbolizing the spiritual experiences of numerous sages and saints, its branches representing various theological traditions, and the fruit itself, in different shapes and sizes, symbolizing various sects and subsects. However, the concept of Hinduism defies a definite definition because of its uniqueness.
Hinduism does not have any one founder, and any one core doctrine to which controversies can be referred to for resolution. There is also no point in time when it could be said to have begun. It does not require its adherents to accept any one idea, and thus is cultural, not creedal, with a history contemporaneous with the peoples with which it is associated. It is also marked by an attitude which seems to accommodate religious and cultural perspectives other than one’s own, and so is characterized by a rich variety of ideas and practices resulting in what appears as a multiplicity of religions under one term ‘Hinduism’. Hinduism is perhaps the only religious tradition that is so diverse in its theoretical premises and practical expressions that it is like a compilation of religions. According to philosopher Jeaneane Fowler, Hinduism can never be neatly slotted into any particular belief system — monism, theism, monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, panentheism — for all these systems are reflected in its many facets. According to historians, the origin of Hinduism dates back to 5000 or more years. The word “Hindu” is derived from the name of river Indus, which flows through northern India. In ancient times the river was called the ‘Sindhu’, but the Persians who migrated to India called the river ‘Hindu’, the land ‘Hindustan’ and its inhabitants ‘Hindus’. Thus the religion followed by the Hindus came to be known as ‘Hinduism’.
It is generally believed that the basic tenets of Hinduism was brought to India by the Aryans who settled along the banks of the Indus river about 2000 BC. According to one scholar, the evolution of Hinduism may be divided into three periods: the ancient (6500 BCE-1000 AD), the medieval (1000-1800 AD), and the modern (1800 AD to present). Hinduism is commonly thought to be the oldest religion in the history of human civilization. Hinduism lacks any unified system of beliefs and ideas. It is a phenomenon and represents a broad spectrum of beliefs and practices which on one hand are akin to paganism, pantheism and the like, and on the other very profound, abstract, metaphysical speculations.
Since religion and culture are nearly interchangeable terms in Hinduism, emotive expressions like ‘bhakti’ (devotion) or ‘dharma’ (what is right) and ‘yoga’ (discipline) are used to depict essential aspects of the religion. Hinduism believes in idol worship, casteism, reincarnation, ‘karma’, ‘dharma’ and ‘moksha’. Some moral ideals in Hinduism include non-violence, truthfulness, friendship, compassion, fortitude, self-control, purity and generosity. Two types of sacred writings constitute the Hindu scriptures: heard (sruti) and memorized (smriti). Sruti literature refers to the habit of ancient Hindu saints who led a solitary life in the woods, where they developed a consciousness that enabled them to ‘hear’ or cognize the truths of the universe. Sruti literature are of two parts: the Vedas and Upanishads.
There are four Vedas:
The Rig Veda -“Royal Knowledge”
The Sama Veda – “Knowledge of Chants”
The Yajur Veda – “Knowledge of Sacrificial Rituals”
The Atharva Veda – “Knowledge of Incarnations”
There are 108 extant Upanishads, of which 10 are most important:
Isa, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taitiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka.
Smriti Literature refers to ‘memorized’ or ‘remembered’ poetry and epics. They are more popular with Hindus, because they are easy to understand, explains universal truths through symbolism and mythology, and contain some of the most beautiful and exciting stories in the history of religion world literature. The three most important of Smriti literature are:
The Bhagavad Gita – The most well known of the Hindu scriptures, called the “Song of the Adorable One”, written about the 2nd century BC and forms the sixth part of Mahabharata. It contains some of the most brilliant theological lessons about the nature of God and of life ever written.
The Mahabharata – The world’s longest epic poem written about 9th century BC, and deals with the power struggle between the Pandava and the Kaurava families, with an intertwining of numerous episodes that make up life.
The Ramayana – The most popular of Hindu epics, composed by Valmiki around 4th or 2nd centuries BC with later additions up to about 300 CE. It depicts the story of the royal couple of Ayodha – Ram and Sita and a host of other characters and their exploits.