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Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
The term "Hinduism" derives from a Persian word that refers to the Sindhu (or Indus) river in
northwest India; "Hindu" was first used in the 14th century by Arabs, Persians, and Afghans to
describe the peoples of the region. By the end of the 19th century, "Hinduism" was adopted by
the British colonial administration in India to describe the various religious beliefs and practices
of the majority of India's population.
It is, however, extremely difficult to say when Hinduism began. The tradition itself maintains
that it is a timeless religion that has always existed. Historians generally hold that the origins of
what we call Hinduism can be traced to the ancient Indus Valley civilization. This would mean
that the religion is over 4,000 years old, although it is a dynamic religious tradition that has
continued to develop and evolve.
One way to understand the origins of Hinduism is to divide
it into several overlapping historical periods. The first is really a pre-Hindu period, the Indus
Valley Civilization, which dates to around 2000 B.C.E., and was located, as the name implies, in
the region of the great Indus (or "Sindhu") river, in northwest India. Although relatively little
remains of this civilization, fairly extensive archaeological evidence indicates that its religion
was centered on various fertility goddesses and the purifying qualities of water. Sometime
between 2000 and 1500 B.C.E., a new religion began to emerge in India, the religion of the
Some scholars hold that this religion was brought to
India by nomadic, horse-riding warriors, a group known as the Aryans, from the steppes of
central Asia. This has, in recent years, become a matter of some dispute in India. Regardless of
where they came from, the Aryans practiced a sacrifice-based religion that was centered around
the purifying and transformative qualities of fire, and that was oriented toward influencing a vast
array of powerful gods, called devas.
Many of these gods were personifications of natural
elements—wind, fire, water—while others were warrior-like figures. The Vedas, a vast corpus of
mythological and ritual texts, describe this divine pantheon, as well as prescribe, sometimes in
great detail, the rituals to be performed to keep these gods "happy," and thus insure that they
benignly interact with the human realm.
1. the Rigveda: hymns
(for the chief priest to
2. the Yajurveda: formulas
(for the priest to recite)
3. the Samaveda: formulas
(for the priest to chant)
4. the Atharvaveda:
collection of stories,
spells, and charms
The religious realm of the Vedas is centered on the proper performance of ritual sacrifice, which,
essentially, involves the offering something of value—an animal or food—in order to receive the
favor of the gods; there are Vedic rituals intended to gain wealth, sons, protection, and abundant
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
The ritual priests of the Vedas were a group known as the
Brahmins. They were entrusted with the sacred texts and with the performance of the rituals.
Sometime after 1000 B.C.E., some of these priests began to ask whether there might not be more
than this ritual world of exchange in which the "payoff" of religious action was largely material
Some began to reject the rituals and
their material trappings. They renounced the material and social world, and focused instead on
asceticism and meditation. Gradually a new body of philosophically-oriented texts, the
Upanishads—sometimes referred to as Vedanta, the end (or completion) of the Vedas—began to
Unlike the Vedic world of ritual exchange between humans and gods, the Upanishads present a
philosophically speculative worldview. They put forward the idea that the material world is not,
in fact, "real," but only an illusion that is created by ignorance. What is real is an abstract divine
principle, Brahman. The Upanishads focused on how to free oneself from the bonds of material
attachments, and thereby attain a state of oneness with Brahman.
List of "principal" Upanishads
(there are over 100 others)
7. Svetasvatara
8. Katha
9. Mundaka
10. Mandukya
5. Kena
6. Isa
11. Prasna
What is sometimes called "classical" (or "Epic") Hinduism emerges sometime after the
Upanishads. In this period, which begins around 500 B.C.E., the major gods and goddesses of
Hinduism—Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna, Parvati, Lakshmi—develop their "personalities" through a
vast corpus of myths. Innumerable new gods and goddesses emerge, as do a multitude of ritual—
many based on the earlier Vedas—and forms of veneration. Devotional traditions also emerge, in
which the strictly ordered world of sacrifice is supplanted by loving devotion to individual gods
and goddesses.
Early periods of Hinduism
Indus Valley Civilization
Vedic Civilization
Rigvedic period
Epic period after
2500-1500 BCE
1500-500 BCE
1500-1000 BCE
1000-500 BCE
500 BCE
Hinduism is a perpetually evolving collection of an astounding array of philosophical and ritual
and devotional traditions. There is no founder, and although historians may attempt to assign an
historical "beginning," really there is no moment of origin. Indeed, Hindus often refer to their
religion as "sanatana dharma"—the timeless, eternal truth.
Study Questions:
Why is hard to pinpoint the start and founders of Hinduism?
2. What are some possible explanations of its origin?
3. Who were the devas?
4. What are the Vedas, and what is their purpose?
5. What is the relationship of the Upanishads to the Vedas?
The earliest manifestation of what we now call Hinduism seems to be the product of the melding
of two religious and cultural influences: the Indus Valley Civilization that was located in what is
today northwest India and eastern Pakistan and that dates to between 2500 and 1500 B.C.E.; and
the Aryan culture and religion that arose between 1500 and 500 B.C.E. Although there has been
considerable scholarly (and political) debate about the relative influence of these two cultures, it
seems clear enough that Hinduism emerged out of a complex combination of elements of each of
these religious cultures.
Relatively little is in fact known about the details of the
religious world of the Indus Valley civilization. Based on archaeological remains, however, it
seems that this was a religious world that was particularly focused on ritual bathing and animal
sacrifice, elements that may be the source of later Hinduism's attention to the purifying qualities
of water and the centrality of sacrifice. Furthermore, a great many female figurines have been
discovered in the ruins of the cities that date to this period. These seem to have been goddesses,
and may have been particularly associated with fertility rituals.
Scholars have speculated that these figures are origins of the many goddesses who populate the
vast Hindu pantheon. Male figures have also been found on stone seals. Some of these seals
depict a seated figure surrounded by a variety of animals, including bulls. These images lead
some scholars to label these "proto-Shiva" figures, since the great god Shiva is generally
associated with animals (he is sometimes called "Pashupati," the Lord of the animals) and more
particularly linked with the bull, which later becomes his special "vehicle."
In recent years, there has been a tremendous amount of
debate about the influence of the Aryans. Part of the debate has been about who these people
really were. Over one hundred years ago European scholars speculated that the Aryans were
invaders who came from northeastern Europe, and were a warlike, highly mobile people engaged
in herding and breeding animals who brought with them a new, "foreign" religion that
supplanted the indigenous Indus Valley Civilization. Many scholars, both in India and in the
West, have seen in this explanation—the "
Aryan Invasion
Thesis"—a western, colonialist agenda at work, one that wants to see all that is good in India as
having its ultimate source in Europe. These scholars have argued that the Aryans were not in fact
outsiders, and that they did not invade and supplant the Indus Valley Civilization, but instead
blended with it. The generally held scholarly position is somewhere in the middle: that there was
a migration of Aryan people and a diffusion of Aryan culture into South Asia, but not a single
invasion (if there was an "invasion" at all).
1. the Rigveda: hymns (for the chief priest to recite)
2. the Yajurveda: formulas (for the priest to recite)
3. the Samaveda: formulas (for the priest to chant)
4. the Atharvaveda: collection of stories, spells, and charms
Regardless of who the Aryans were or where they came from, it is clear that their religious world
focused on ritual sacrifice, particularly sacrifice involving fire. They also worshipped a variety of
gods, many of them linked to natural forces. These religious rituals and myths were eventually
formulated as the Vedas, a genre of orally-transmitted texts that would come to form the
foundation of Hinduism.
In the 6th (or 5th) century B.C.E., two important veins of religion emerged in India that had a
tremendous influence on the formation of Hinduism: Jainism and Buddhism. Although these did
not necessarily begin as "new" religions, they formulated new ideas that significantly challenged
the religious status quo. In particular, both Buddhism and Jainism challenged the religious
efficacy of sacrifice, rejecting it as too materialistic. They instead advocated detachment from
the physical world—renunciation—as the ultimate religious path. Classical Hinduism absorbs
the ideals of renunciation and asceticism, not supplanting but supplementing the Vedic practices
and ideals of sacrifice.
Hinduism has also been influenced by two distinctly foreign religions: Islam, which arrived in
India sometime around the 8th century C.E. and dominated substantial parts of India with the rise
of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century; and Christianity, which arrived in India with the
Portuguese in the 15th century—although there had been small Christian communities in South
India even before the Portuguese—and held considerable sway with the rise of the British Raj in
the 18th century.
One way in which Islam was particularly influential as Hinduism developed was through the Sufi
orders of wandering ascetics, particularly their devotional singing and poetry. Hindus adopted
many of their images and methods, and the Hindu veneration of saints—humans who, through
their piety and purity ascend to a semi-divine state—was particularly influenced by the Sufis.
Christian missionary practices in India, and the fundamentally Christian orientation of the British
Raj, had and continue to have a profound and complex influence on Hinduism. In the late 19th
century, many Hindu intellectuals, responding to attacks on the so-called idolatry of Hinduism,
emphasized the rational, intellectual, meditative schools of Vedanta, leading some Hindu
intellectuals to denounce popular devotion as not genuine Hinduism.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Hinduism has been its ability to absorb and adopt an array
of cultural and religious influences, in the process transforming seemingly non-Hindu ideas and
practices into distinctly Hindu ones.
Study Questions:
1. What cultures are believed to have merged to create Hinduism?
2. What is significant about the archaeological findings of figurines?
3. Why is the role of the Aryans contested?
4. How has Hinduism been shaped by other religions?
Hinduism has neither a specific moment of origin nor a specific founder. Rather, the tradition
understands itself to be timeless, having always existed. Indeed, its collection of sacred texts is
known, as a whole, as Sanatana Dharma, "The Eternal Teaching." At the beginning of each new
cosmic age, or yuga, the core of these teachings is (re)revealed to human beings by the gods.
Some texts posit that the first human to receive the sacred texts is Manu, and so in some sense he
is understood to be the founder of the tradition, although it is important to note that he is not the
author of the texts, only their recipient.
The great epic the
Mahabharata says that Manu, as the first human, is thus the progenitor of all future Hindus.
Many of the numerous sub-sects and sub-schools that conglomerate to form the religion we
know as Hinduism do, however, have individual founders. The Advaita Vedanta school of
philosophy, for instance, which for many modern Hindus articulates the core philosophical
principles of Hinduism, is often said to have been founded by
Shankara Acharya in the late 8th century C.E. Shankara is credited with authoring some of the
most important commentaries on key sacred texts, particularly the Upanishads commentaries that
later became the basis for many of the devotional (bhakti) and meditational (yoga) principles and
practices of later Hinduism. The core of his teachings is that there is no essential difference
between the divine principle of the cosmos (Brahman) and the material and human realm.
Shankara argued that what we think of as "the world" is merely an illusion, and that through
knowledge (jnana) we are able to cut through this illusion and realize union with Brahman
(called moksha).
Six branches of
Hindu philosophy
Likewise, Ramanuja (1017-1137), another great theological commentator, is often seen as a
"founder" in that he articulated a complex theological and devotional system known as
Vishishtadvaita Vedanta (qualified non-dualism), which, like Shankara's Advaita Vedanta, had a
tremendous influence on later Hindu thought and practice. Ramanuja argued, in contrast to
Shankara, that there is an essential difference between the world and the divine, although
individuals contain a fragment or portion of the divine. For the followers of Ramanuja,
knowledge is not as essential as devotion (bhakti).
Founder: Shankara Acharya
School: Advaita Vedanta
Belief: the material realm and
the divine cosmos are essentially
the same
Founder: Ramanuja
School: Vishishtadvaita Vedanta
Belief: the material world and
the divine are different
Again, Hinduism is not a single institution, but a vast, complex collection of schools, subschools,
sects, subsects, etc., that together make up what is known as "Hinduism." As such, there can be
no single founder, but rather a diverse group of men and women who have contributed, over the
course of two millennia, essential philosophical and ritual and devotional principles that,
together, can be understood to make up the whole of the religion.
Study Questions:
1. Who was Manu?
2. What was Shankara Acharya's contribution to Hinduism?
3. Who was Ramanuja, and how did his teachings conflict with those before him?
4. Why is it incorrect to classify Hinduism as a single institution?
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
The textual tradition of Hinduism encompasses an
almost incomprehensible collection of oral and written scriptures that include myths, rituals,
philosophical speculation, devotional poems and songs, local histories, and so on. There are two
basic categories of religious texts within this vast collection, Shruti (revealed) and Smrti
(remembered). Shruti generally refers to the Vedas, the Brahmanas, and the Upanishads; some
Hindus also classify the Bhagavad Gita as shruti. Smrti typically refers to everything else.
Shruti (revealed)
Smrti (remembered)
*the Vedas
*vast collection of myths,
*the Brahmanas
epic texts, and traditions
*the Upanishads (=Vedanta)
[*the Bhagavadgita]
The Vedas form the foundation of Hinduism, the bedrock upon which the entire tradition is built.
Indeed, although Hindus of different schools and different sects typically align themselves with
different texts, virtually all Hindus recognize the legitimizing authority of the Vedas. There are
four primary Vedas—the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda—that together
comprise over 1,000 hymns of praise addressed to the gods, as well elaborate instructions on
how to conduct sacrifices to these divine beings, and a huge corpus of myths. Each Veda, in turn,
has four divisions. The primary division is called the Samhita, which is the vedic text itself. The
other three divisions—the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads—are commentaries and
elaborations on the primary vedic text.
1. the Rigveda: hymns (for the chief priest to recite)
2. the Yajurveda: formulas (for the priest to recite)
3. the Samaveda: formulas (for the priest to chant)
4. the Atharvaveda: collection of stories, spells, and charms
Although technically included in the Vedas, the Upanishads are in fact rather un-vedic scriptures.
The principal Upanishads, of which there are traditionally thirteen, were probably composed
between 800 and 100 B.C.E. The Upanishads are typically understood by the Hindu tradition as
an extension of the Vedas; they are also known, collectively, as Vedanta, the "completion" of the
Vedas. However, the Upanishads significantly reject many of the Vedic ideas and practices. The
Upanishads largely reject the multiple deities of the Vedas, arguing that all one gets from such
ritual is more material. The sages who composed the Upanishads sought something more—
ultimate, eternal salvation. Thus they posit a single, eternal, impersonal divine force that
animates and permeates the entire cosmos—Brahman.
List of "principal" Upanishads
(there are over 100 others)
1. Aitareya
7. Svetasvatara
8. Katha
9. Mundaka
10. Mandukya
11. Prasna
The word "Upanishad"derives from a Sanskrit term that means "to sit near." Specifically, it
refers to a student sitting near a teacher and learning directly through questions and answers. The
bulk of the Upanishads record such discourses, and the single most pressing question posed by
the students to the teachers is: "What is the nature of Brahman?" This is a deceptively simple
question. On a basic level, the answer is equally simple: "Everything is Brahman." But behind
this simple answer is tremendous theological complexity.
The Upanishads hold that since everything is Brahman, the individual is also Brahman. What
separates the individual from the absolute Brahman, and thus from salvation, or moksha
(release), is ignorance of this fundamental reality. Individuals think that the things that make
them who they are, such as one's relationships, or appearance, or even thoughts, are real. The
Upanishad holds that these are merely elaborate illusions. We hold on to these illusions, and it is
this holding that keeps us from realizing the ultimate truth, Brahman. Thus the Upanishads
advocate an ascetic path. If one wishes to realize the ultimate, then one must detach oneself from
all of these unreal things. One must go off and meditate on the reality of Brahman, which begins
with meditation on the self, the atman, which is in essence the same as Brahman.
The category of scripture known as smrti is vast,
encompassing the classic epic texts—the Mahabharata and the Ramayana—as well as a group of
texts known as Puranas, and all manner of local myths and legends. The Mahabharata, the "Great
story of India," is a huge text of over 75,000 verses, or nearly two million words, composed over
a long period, probably between the 5th century B.C.E. and the 4th century C.E. It is a difficult
text to classify, since it contains mythology, philosophy, theology, historical events (it is often
classified in Hinduism as "ithihasa," or history), ritual, and social commentary. Early on, the text
states: "What is found here, may be found elsewhere. What is not found here, will not be found
The central story of the Mahabharata is the dynastic conflict between two sets of paternal
cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, each of whom claim the rightful rule of Bharata (India).
Their conflict culminates in an epic battle that is eventually won by the Pandavas. Over the
course of the narrative, issues of kinship and kingship, familial loyalty and duty, and ultimately
good and evil are complexly debated.
The most well-known part of the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad Gita, the "Song of the Blessed
One," which becomes one of the most important theological treatises in all of Hinduism. The
central message of the Bhagavad Gita is a complex reconciliation of the seemingly contradictory
worldview of the Vedas—emphasizing ritual action and duty—and the Upanishads—
emphasizing renunciation of worldly involvement and meditation. The text consists of a
conversation between one of the Pandavas, Arjuna, and the god Krishna. Krishna resolves the
conflict by proposing a new path: that of selfless devotion (bhakti) to the divine (here Krishna).
As long as one is selflessly devoted, it does not ultimately matter what sorts of actions one
engages in, since they are all, ultimately, part of the divine.
The Ramayana, like the Mahabharata, is a huge text. At
its core is the story of the god Rama and his wife Sita, their exile, Sita's abduction by an evil
demon (Ravana), Rama's rescue of Sita, and the eventual restoration of their kingdom.
Interwoven into the narrative is a mixture of myths and history and theology as well as a
particular focus on the proper actions of a dharmic (moral, righteous) ruler.
The Puranas (the word means "Ancient") are a diverse collection of texts that, like the epics,
contain mythology, theology, history, and geography. Many of the Puranas focus on a single god
or even a single temple, narrating key myths and philosophical/theological principles.
The categories of Shruti and Smrti are essential for understanding the vast array of Hindu
scriptures, but it is important to note that not all Hindu scriptures easily fit into these categories.
There are also thousands of "lesser," local scriptures—many of them only known in oral form
and known only in vernacular languages—that are central to the lives of many, many Hindus.
Study Questions:
1. How are Hindu texts categorized? What are some examples of each, and why has more
2. What is the purpose of the Vedas, and how are they divided?
3. Why might it be problematic to name the Upanishads as Vedic texts? What is their main
4. Describe the role of the Bhagavad Gita within Hindu scripture.
Historical Perspectives
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
One of the most hotly debated topics in contemporary Hinduism, both in the context of
scholarship (western and Indian) and contemporary Indian social and political life, is the socalledAryan Invasion Theory.
The Aryan Invasion Theory posits that what has come to be known as Hinduism has its ancient
roots not in India, but in Europe.In order to understand this theory and its implications, it is first
necessary to understand something of the impact colonialism has had on both western and Indian
conceptions of Hinduism.
The European world first became aware of and interested in Hinduism in the context of
colonialism.Western knowledge of Hinduism came in part from Christian missionaries and in
part through colonial administrators who expended a tremendous amount of effort gathering
information about the people it ruled in order to more effectively control them.Both sources, for
perhaps obvious reasons, were profoundly biased.Hinduism was largely portrayed as a bizarre
and baffling jumble of gods and rituals; it was portrayed by many as an inferior religion,
irrational and superstitious.
That said, western
scholars were fascinated by Hinduism, and by the middle of the 19th century academics in a
wide range of universities in England and Europe (and eventually America) were working on
mastering Sanskrit (the sacred language of Hindu scriptures) and on translating and interpreting
the mythology and theology of the tradition.Many of these scholars, reflecting a larger academic
concern in the context of religion, were particularly concerned with the question of
origins.Where did this tradition come from?
As a result, there was intense interest in what were understood to be the earliest Hindu texts,the
Vedas.As early as the second half of the 19th century, scholars posited that the religious ideas of
the Vedas were actually not Indian in origin, but European.Light-skinned Europeans invaded
northern India, pushing the dark-skinned indigenous peoples to the south.These light-skinned
warriors brought with them a new religion, based on ritual sacrifice.
Recently a number of scholars, both within India and in the West,
have challenged the Aryan Invasion Theory, charging that it is based on the flimsiest of historical
and archaeological evidence and, more importantly, that it is the product of a
colonialist/imperialist western ideology.The theory, its opponents charge, denies the Indian
origins of India's own culture, and gives credit to the West for India's most important sacred
scriptures and practices.
The debate over the merits of the Aryan Invasion Theory is embedded in a much larger
controversy over whether the West, with its colonial legacy, should even attempt to represent
Hinduism.Western scholars, many Indian (and western) critics argue, are so conditioned by
colonial misrepresentations of Hinduism—sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously—
that they cannot ever be anything but biased.These critiques argue that Hindus alone can
properly describe and analyze the tradition.
The issues here will not go away anytime soon.One positive effect of these discussions and
debates, however, is that it has forced many scholars in the West to be much more careful in their
assumptions and representations of Hinduism, and to ask whether basic western (Christian)
understandings of what religion is and what religion does really fits the Hindu context.Should
European and American understandings of religion be taken as the norm?Should explanatory
theories that are distinctly western—Freudian theories, say—be used to understand Hinduism?Or
should scholars look to Hindu theories and Hindu explanations to understand the tradition?
Over the past two decades some (but certainly not all) historians and anthropologists in the West
have addressed these questions and tried to be much more sensitive about perpetuating old
stereotypes.Many have turned away from sweeping generalizations and looked instead at religion
at the local, village level.Many western scholars have explicitly entered into dialogues with their
Indian contemporaries.Although it may not be the case that scholarly depictions of Hinduism in
the West are always more accurate than they have been in the past, they have at least become
significantly more self-aware.
Study Questions:
1. Describe the relationship between colonialism and the Aryan Invasion Theory.
Why is Hinduism so fascinating to western scholars?
Why could Hinduism's role as a “religion” be contested?
Early Developments
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
Western scholars have typically divided up the history of Hinduism into periods that roughly
match the periods used to understand history in the West: ancient, medieval, modern, etc. There
are many problems with this, not the least of which is that Hinduism has not developed in a
linear manner. Later developments overlap, rather than replace, what came before; there are,
therefore, no neat or clear historical breaks.
1. the Rigveda: hymns (for the chief priest to recite)
2. the Yajurveda: formulas (for the priest to recite)
3. the Samaveda: formulas (for the priest to chant)
4. the Atharvaveda: collection of stories, spells, and charms
The earliest stratum of what can properly be called "Hinduism," of which the Vedas are the core,
developed from about 1500 B.C.E. until about 500 B.C.E. Something new emerged at this point,
a new religious worldview based not on the power of ritual sacrifice, but on the ideal of
asceticism; it is important to note, however, that the Vedic tradition was not replaced, but rather,
eventually, came to be understood as underlying (and thus supporting) these later developments.
Buddhism and Jainism emerged out of this new religious climate, initially as internal reforms,
but eventually as separate religions.
Buddhism in particular posed a challenge to Hinduism, not
only in terms of its opposing religious ideals, but also because Buddhism opened new avenues
for religious participation to people who, under the earlier system, were largely excluded.
Because the Buddha and his followers rejected the ideas of caste distinctions that were central to
the Vedic worldview, it attracted supporters from the merchant classes, particularly in the rapidly
emerging cities in northern India along the Silk Route. Kings and lesser local rulers, especially,
began to give their support to Buddhism, since their lower caste status—in relation to the
Brahmins—did not imply a lesser religious status. The result of this, from about the 3rd century
B.C.E. until about the 10th century C.E., was the relative ascendency of Buddhism at the
expense of Hinduism.
This began to change, however, with the rise of sectarianism
within Hinduism. The rise of Vaishnava Hinduism is particularly crucial here. Although Vishnu
had long been a central god in Hinduism, by the latter part of the first millennium C.E., Vishnu's
character had become particularly associated with kingly virtue. Various forms of Vishnu,
particularly Rama, were depicted as the ideal ruler, the restorer and upholder of dharma. Kings
began to shift their allegiance away from Buddhism to Vaishnava Hinduism (as well as Shaiva
Hinduism), which had gradual but quite dramatic effects: by about 1200 C.E., Buddhism had all
but died out in its homeland.
By the beginning of the second millennium C.E., the Hindu pantheon had begun to dramatically
expand, and thousands and thousands of local versions of the gods began to emerge. Multiple
forms of Vishnu emerged, as did various "incarnations" of Shiva, as well as numerous forms of
Devi, the goddess. Scholars often refer to this as the rise of "sectarian" Hinduism. One important
aspect of this rising sectarian devotion was the construction of great temples to various gods and
goddesses throughout India. Many of these temples were sponsored by kings and had particular
royal associations.
Study Questions:
1. Why is it problematic to speak about Hinduism's development through history?
2. Why did Buddhism detract from Hinduism?
3. How did Vishnu contribute to a resurgence of followers within the Hindu tradition?
4. How did social status contribute to the rise of Hindu deities?
Schisms and Sects
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
1. Shaiva
2. Vaishnava
3. Shakta
4. Smarta
Hinduism encompasses a number of major sects, as well as countless subsects with local or
regional variations. On one level, it is possible to view these sects as distinct religious traditions,
often with very specific theologies and ritual traditions; on another level, however, they can
understand themselves to be different means to reach a common end. Likewise, although there is
a wide variety of theological and ritual variance within Hinduism, it would not really be accurate
to call any single movement, after the major breaks with Buddhism and Jainism, a schism.
It is typically held that Hinduism has four major sects: Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shakta, and Smarta.
Although this is in a sense technically accurate, it is also only one of many potential ways of
classifying the varieties within Hinduism. In practice, these divisions often overlap, and
individual Hindus do not necessarily define themselves in such terms.
List of "principal" Upanishads
(there are over 100 others)
7. Svetasvatara
8. Katha
9. Mundaka
10. Mandukya
11. Prasna
For instance, the term smarta, which comes from the Sanskrit "smrti," or "remembered,"
generally refers to those Hindus who understand the ultimate form of the divine to be abstract
and all encompassing, Brahman. This theological position is most saliently associated with the
Upanishads, a genre of literature that posits that the cosmos is permeated by Brahman (indeed, it
is Brahman).
The philosopher/saint Shankara (or Adi
Shankara, or Shankaracarya), who lived in the 8th century C.E., is often seen as the founder of
the Smarta tradition. Shankara is said to have travelled throughout India spreading his
theological message, and is credited with founding four monasteries (maths) where monks could
live and cultivate his teachings.
Smartas see any particular manifestation of the divine—that is, any single god—as encompassed
by this larger divine power. Since everything, and all gods, are a part of Brahman, smartas
typically hold that one is free to choose any god or goddess to worship—or, as is often the case,
many different gods and goddesses—since in worshipping any individual god, one is really
worshipping Brahman. For smartas, then, the divine is both saguna, "with form"—the individual
and particular gods—and nirguna, "without form"—the all-encompassing Brahman. Some
Hindus who might technically be classified as smartas favor the nirguna understanding of
Brahman associated with the Vedanta, and reject any worship directed to any particular form of
the divine.
Shaivas and Vaishnavas, in contrast, tend to be more
overtly sectarian. The Shaiva tradition (also called Shaivism), is perhaps the oldest sectarian
form of Hinduism, emerging out of the Vedas at or around the beginning of the Common Era;
the fully developed Shaiva tradition formed significantly later, however, probably between the
8th and 11th centuries. Although it is impossible to date the origin of any of these traditions, the
Vaishnava tradition probably emerged slightly later. It too was fully developed in the last few
centuries of the first millennium of the Common Era.
Shaivas, as the name implies, worship the god Shiva, who they believe is the creator, maintainer,
and destroyer of the cosmos. There are complex theological and philosophical schools associated
with the Shaiva tradition, as well as a great variety of devotional practices.
Some Shaivas worship the god in the form of the great
ascetic; Shiva in this guise is depicted as a semi-naked yogin who rejects the trappings of the
material world in order to seek a higher plane of knowledge. He is typically covered in ash and
sometimes is quite wild in appearance, with long unkempt hair and blazing eyes, although his
devotees see through his outward appearance and know him as the supreme god. Others worship
him as Pashupati, the lord of all creators who shelters and nurtures all who follow him. Still
others worship one of his fierce forms, such as Bhairava. As Bhairava, Shiva is a fierce, demonic
god with long fangs and a frightening cudgel. His devotees, however, see through this and
venerate him as a powerful protector.
As with their Shaiva counterparts, Vaishnavas have
developed an incredibly complex philosophical and theological tradition, with dozens of
subschools and sects. Vaishnavas worship one or several of the many forms of Vishnu. Vishnu is
typically understood to be the preserver of dharma, order. When disorder threatens to overwhelm
the world, Vishnu incarnates himself in an earthly form, called an avatara, literally a "crossing
down" from the heavens to the earth. There are ten classical avataras, although in local traditions
there are many more than that. The most prominent of these are Krishna and Rama.
Matsya, the fish-avatar who saved Manu
Kurma, the tortoise-avatar
Varaha, the boar-avatar
Narasimha, the half man-half lion avatar
Vamana, the dwarf-avatar, who defeated the demon-king Bali
Parashurama, sage with the axe who killed the thousand-armed king Kartavirya Arjuna
Rama, the king of Ayodhya and the hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana
Krishna, the king of Dwarka, a central character in the Bhagavata Purana and the
Mahabharata and reciter of Bhagavad Gita
9. The Buddha (Gautama Buddha) meaning "the enlightened one"
10. Kalki ("Eternity", or "time", or "The Destroyer of foulness"), who is expected to appear
at the end of Kali Yuga.
Each of these, in turns, has numerous sub traditions. Some followers of Krishna, for instance,
worship him as a playful and mischievous young boy; the devotee loves and takes care of the
god in much the same way that a parent loves and takes care of a child. In other contexts,
Krishna is a handsome young man, and the devotee approaches him more as a lover does a
beloved. And in still other groups within the Vaishnava tradition, Krishna is the wise counselor
and guide.
Although it is not certain when Shaktism historically
emerged, it may be linked to the Indus Valley civilization, which placed particular emphasis on
female figures. Shaktas are, most basically, followers of the various forms of the great goddess
(Maha Devi). The name Shakta comes from a form of the goddesses' divine power, shakti. As
with the male gods, the goddess can take many forms—fierce and wrathful, motherly, wifely.
Shaktas understand the goddess, Devi, to be the supreme manifestation of divine power and
energy. This is mythologically expressed in a number of different accounts of the cosmic origin
of the goddess as Durga.
In the Devi Mahatmya, an important
Shakta scripture, Durga was created by the three great gods—Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—to
defeat a demon named Mahishasura whom the gods could not individually defeat. They
combined their energy and collectively created Durga to slay the demon. She is thus taken by her
followers to be more powerful than—and uncontrollable by—any god, because she is the
combined power of all gods.
Both men and women worship the goddess, who takes many, many forms. She is worshipped as
the fierce Durga or as Kali, who are tremendously powerful but who also often demand blood
sacrifice to appease them (to cool their energy). As such they often have a particular, although by
no means exclusive, appeal to the lower castes.
Study Questions:
1. Who benefits from the classification of Hinduism into four major sects? Why?
2. What are the four major sects, and what do the individuals within each believe?
3. Who are the three major gods of Hinduism? What is the role of each? The major goddess?
Each of these, in turns, has numerous sub traditions. Some followers of Krishna, for instance,
worship him as a playful and mischievous young boy; the devotee loves and takes care of the
god in much the same way that a parent loves and takes care of a child. In other contexts,
Krishna is a handsome young man, and the devotee approaches him more as a lover does a
beloved. And in still other groups within the Vaishnava tradition, Krishna is the wise counselor
and guide.
Although it is not certain when Shaktism historically
emerged, it may be linked to the Indus Valley civilization, which placed particular emphasis on
female figures. Shaktas are, most basically, followers of the various forms of the great goddess
(Maha Devi). The name Shakta comes from a form of the goddesses' divine power, shakti. As
with the male gods, the goddess can take many forms—fierce and wrathful, motherly, wifely.
Shaktas understand the goddess, Devi, to be the supreme manifestation of divine power and
energy. This is mythologically expressed in a number of different accounts of the cosmic origin
of the goddess as Durga.
In the Devi Mahatmya, an important
Shakta scripture, Durga was created by the three great gods—Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—to
defeat a demon named Mahishasura whom the gods could not individually defeat. They
combined their energy and collectively created Durga to slay the demon. She is thus taken by her
followers to be more powerful than—and uncontrollable by—any god, because she is the
combined power of all gods.
Both men and women worship the goddess, who takes many, many forms. She is worshipped as
the fierce Durga or as Kali, who are tremendously powerful but who also often demand blood
sacrifice to appease them (to cool their energy). As such they often have a particular, although by
no means exclusive, appeal to the lower castes.
Study Questions:
1. Who benefits from the classification of Hinduism into four major sects? Why?
2. What are the four major sects, and what do the individuals within each believe?
3. Who are the three major gods of Hinduism? What is the role of each? The major goddess?
Exploration and Conquest
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
Hindus have not,
generally, engaged in colonial conquest or empire building, although large states within South
Asia, such as the kingdoms of the Guptas and Cholas are commonly referred to as empires. That
said, however, there have been instances where Hindu kings have conquered other kingdoms
outside of India, most notably in Sri Lanka and Indonesia in the 10th - 11th centuries. Rather,
Hinduism has been on the other side of conquest and empire: first the Islamic Moghul empire,
then the Catholic Portuguese, then the Protestant Dutch, and finally the British Raj have all
invaded and colonized India.
Each of these
invaders posed threats and challenges to Hinduism, although one of the striking features of the
tradition is its ability to absorb foreign influences.
That said, Hindus did venture outside of India, and Hindu kingdoms were established in Sri
Lanka and southeast Asia. Hinduism was probably initially transported outside of India by
seafaring merchants and traders, perhaps as early as the 3rd century B.C.E. One of the earliest
Hindu kingdoms outside of India was established in Vietnam by the Champa Dynasty in the 2nd
to 3rd century C.E. Likewise, the Srivijayan kingdom was established in Sumatra, Indonesia, as
early as the 3rd century C.E. By the 8th century it was a massive, powerful kingdom.
kingdoms were also established on the islands of Java
and Bali. The most substantial Hindu temple complex in southeast Asia, Prambanan, was built
by the Sailendra dynasty on central Java in the 9th century. The population of Bali is to this day
predominantly Hindu, practicing a unique form of Hinduism that blends indigenous Balinese
beliefs and practices, Islam, and classical Hinduism.
Hinduism also flourished in Cambodia during the Khmer period from the 9th to the 15th
centuries. The classical Hindu language of Sanskrit was the official language of the Khmer court.
Angkor Wat, the largest Hindu temple in the
world was constructed by the Hindu king Suryavarman II in the 12th century C.E. The main
temple is dedicated to Vishnu, although there are thousands of images of other Hindu gods and
dozens of smaller temples. Angkor Wat was not only a religious structure, however, but was also
the seat of the Khmer government.
Beginning in the 5th century C.E., Hindu kings from
southern and eastern India—the modern states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Orissa—sent
various groups to Sri Lanka. Some of these forays led to prolonged struggle for territorial
control. The Chola rulers of Tamil Nadu, in particular, essentially invaded Sri Lanka and
attempted to establish a Hindu kingdom there; by the 11th century, they effectively controlled
the island. They also pushed into southeast Asia, and at times gained control of portions of
Indonesia (where, briefly, they established a Hindu kingdom) and Cambodia. The Cholas built
magnificent temples that became centers of Hinduism in these areas; there are still substantial
numbers of Hindus in both Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
Study Questions:
1. Describe the influence invasion had upon Hinduism's development.
2. How did Hinduism spread?
3. Why was the construction of temples important for Hinduism's expansion?
Missions and Expansion
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
Hinduism was not originally a unified religious tradition. Rather, it consisted of a wide range of
practices and beliefs that were only loosely linked. There was from the beginning wide regional
variation. Local traditions existed almost independently, linked by some basic principles—
karma, say, or samsara—or a basic understanding of the power of the divine.
But the Indian subcontinent is a huge and diverse
landmass, and the people who inhabit India differ sometimes quite radically depending on where
they live. There are hundreds of languages, and thousands of local cults and local traditions that
may be unknown outside of a particular region or even a particular village.
Early western scholars posited a geographical and ideological divide in Hinduism, one that was
characterized as a split between the north and the south. The north, these orientalist scholars
argued, was characterized by the religious ideas of the Vedas, which were brought from outside
of India by ancient Europeans, the Aryans. These outsiders invaded northern India and pushed
the indigenous peoples to the south. The northerners spoke variations of Sanskrit. The
southerners, this theory held, were known as Dravidians, and spoke variations of Tamil. The
southerners were said to be darker than their light-skinned Aryan neighbors, and were also less
educated, less pure, and their religious traditions less evolved.
1. the Rigveda: hymns (for the chief priest to recite)
2. the Yajurveda: formulas (for the priest to recite)
3. the Samaveda: formulas (for the priest to chant)
4. the Atharvaveda: collection of stories, spells, and charms
This is a typically slanted and perniciously biased colonialist history. In fact, pre-Vedic religious
traditions mixed with Vedic ideas and practices from the beginning, and what emerged as
"classical" Hinduism is a complex intermingling of a whole range of local and pan-Indian
traditions. Some aspects of Hinduism are truly pan-Indian: the Vedas, for instance, are the basic
underlying foundation for virtually all forms of Hinduism; the great epics, the Mahabharata and
Ramayana, are mostly pan-Indian, although even they—particularly the Ramayana—have
regional variations. The great gods and goddesses—Shiva, Vishnu, Devi—are worshipped
everywhere, but regional variations are the norm rather than the exception.
Hinduism has historically been a non-missionizing religious tradition. This is specifically linked
to the fundamental theological worldview that all schools of Hinduism share. Human beings are
reborn into the world according to their past deeds in prior lifetimes. This is the basic law of
karma. Thus being a Hindu is not a matter of choice or cultural circumstance; it is a reflection of
the workings of the cosmos. Thus many (although not all) Hindus have held that one cannot
convert to Hinduism. You are either born a Hindu, or you are not. As a result, to be Hindu has
traditionally meant to be a Hindu in India.
Hinduism has, however, spread to other parts of
the world. It has spread as a result of Hindu kings conquering non-Hindu lands; it has spread as a
result of colonization and then globalization; and in the modern period it has spread as a result of
westerners adopting, and converting to, Hindu practices and beliefs. Hindu kings began to make
forays into Sri Lanka and parts of southeast Asia as early as the 7th century C.E. Hinduism was a
major cultural force in much of Southeast Asia, as evidenced, for example, by Angkor Wat or
contemporary Balinese Hinduism. The Srivijaya kingdom, established on the island of Sumatra
in what is now Indonesia, was a huge Hindu kingdom. In this context, Hinduism took on a
distinctly local character, both in terms of the forms of the gods and goddesses and their
associated ritual practices. This kind of political expansion outside of India is the exception
rather than the rule, however.
Hinduism has become a far more international religion in the modern world, first as a result of
colonialism and second as a result of globalization. There are Hindu communities in the West
Indies, for instance, because British traders captured and enslaved Hindus, taking them off to
work in the tea and coffee plantations in their West Indian colonies. After the collapse of the
British Raj, many of these former slaves stayed, cultivating a distinctly local form of Hinduism.
The collapse of the British Empire also meant that
Hindus, as citizens of the former colonies, could travel outside of India to other former colonies,
most notably Great Britain and Canada, where large communities of so-called "Diasporic
Hindus" continue to practice traditional forms of Hinduism that have, nonetheless, taken on local
characteristics. There are impressive Hindu temples serving substantial Hindu communities
throughout England, in Canada, and in the United States.
A question that remains is, given the incredible internal variations and diversity, how has
Hinduism come to be understood as a single religious tradition? In some ways, it is not and never
will be. That said, however, there are certain pan-Indian (and, in the contemporary world,
international) practices and traditions and beliefs that have, over the centuries, spread throughout
the Hindu world and that unite the many variations of the tradition.
Study Questions:
1. Can Hinduism be thought of as a single religious tradition? Why or why not?
2. What are some ways in which Hinduism's believers can be appropriately classified?
3. Why isn't missionizing (for conversion) a part of Hindu daily life?
Modern Age
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
One way to understand modern Hinduism is to begin with what is typically called the "Hindu
Renaissance," or "Reformation," which formally begins with the founding of the Brahmo Samaj
in Calcutta in 1828. Tensions had been brewing for many decades among Calcutta's highly
educated Hindus; they felt that their religious beliefs and practices were disrespected and in some
cases prohibited by the British. But these Hindus also felt that many Hindus in India had moved
far away from what they regarded as the core of Hinduism. So, as much as the Brahmo Samaj
and the larger "Hindu Renaissance" that it started is, first of all, a reaction to colonialism and
Christian missionary efforts, it was also very much an internal reform.
The Brahmo Samaj was founded by Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833).
Roy's basic principles have come to be an extremely important element in modern Hinduism.
Among the important positions adopted by the organization was that Hinduism should not be
based on superstitious belief in gods and goddesses, but instead on the rationality of the
Upanishads. They held that much of what Hindus do as Hindus—venerate the gods, perform
rituals, observe caste distinctions—was simply not Hinduism. They argued that the Upanishads
contained the true essence of Hindusim.
Other important figures in the
Hindu Renaissance include
Debendranath Tagore, who furthered Ram Mohan Roy's cause, putting special emphasis on the
Upanishads and the importance of Hindu education. Tagore's eldest son, Dwijendranath, set up
an important Hindu school at the family estate, Santineketan; his youngest son, Rabindranath,
became India's (and Asia's) first Nobel Laureate in 1913 when he was awarded the
Nobel Prize in Literature. Keshub Candra Sen (1838-84) was
particularly important in this movement, criticizing the ways Brahmins denigrated other Hindus
and, at the same time, attacking Christian missionary activities in India.
The movement splintered somewhat with Swami Dayandra Sarasvati (1824-83) who, in contrast
to the Brahmo Samaj's emphasis on the Upanishads, argued the Vedas are the essence of
Swami Vivekenanda (1863-1902) is also very important here.
Unlike the other Hindu reformers, Vivekenanda did not dedicate most of his efforts to combating
the British and Christian presence in India; rather, he became a kind of Hindu missionary to the
West. He went to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 and impressed many
with his eloquent presentation of Hinduism. His presence in the West led to the founding of
Vedanta Societies throughout America and Europe. He also founded the influential Ramakrishna
Mission in Calcutta.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) is without question the most prominent, and arguably the most
influential, of the figures associated with modern Hinduism. Gandhi points to one of the central
tensions of modernity and Hinduism: on the one hand, Gandhi was a traditionalist, holding up
the Bhagavad Gita as the pinnacle of Hinduism, singing the praises of a return to a unified,
whole, pre-colonial India; on the other hand, though, Gandhi was radically progressive,
advocating the destruction of caste, the tolerance for other religions, and the elevation of women.
Indeed, Gandhi was assassinated by an orthodox Hindu who felt that he was undermining the
In late 1992, an event took place in the sacred city of
Ayodhya that would, for at least the next decade, have a profound effect on Hinduism in India.
An angry mob of Hindus destroyed the Babri Masjid, a major Islamic mosque that the Hindus
claim had been built on the very site where the Hindu god Rama was born. The actual
destruction of the mosque was the culmination of years of dispute about the site, an argument
that was largely fueled by a growing conservative, militant voice in Hinduism. Although it is not
exactly correct to call this "Fundamentalism," this movement does have some aspects that make
such a label appropriate.
These Hindus argue that India is a not only the home of Hinduism, but its exclusive domain, and
they argue that other religious groups—Christians, and most of all Muslims—do not belong in
India, which is a sacred, Hindu country. Furthermore, they assert that Hinduism is not simply a
religion, not simply something does some of the time. Hinduism is an all-encompassing
worldview, and thus should inform every aspect of Indian social and political life.
It would be wrong to think that Hinduism in the modern age can be easily or uniformly
characterized. Certainly there are substantial challenges and, as a result, new developments. At
the same time, however, practices and beliefs that have existed for thousands of years are
Study Questions:
1. What is the Brahmo Samaj? How was it developed?
2. Who was Swami Vivekenanda?
3. Why was Gandhi controversial?
Sacred Narratives
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
There is no single story of a founder in Hinduism, since there is no founder. There is no single
story or even collection of stories that lays out the divine realm. There is no single story of
creation, since the world is recreated countless times. Indeed, in the vast corpus of Hindu myths
there is not only tremendous variety and variation, but there are often what appear to be
conflicting stories about the creation of the cosmos, about the deeds of the gods and goddesses,
and about the ways humans should interact with these divine beings.
Purusha Shukta: opening verses
(Hymn 10.90 of the Rig Veda)
Verse One
The Purusha (the Supreme Being)
has a thousand heads, a thousand
eyes and a thousand feet. He has
enveloped this world from all sides
and has (even) transcended it by ten
angulas or inches.
Verse Two
All this is verily the Purusha. All
that which existed in the past or will
come into being in the future (is
also the Purusha). Also, he is the
Lord of immortality. That which
grows profusely by food (is also the
Verse Three
So much is His greatness. However,
the Purusha is greater than this. All
the beings form only a quarter (part
of) Him. The three-quarter part of
His, which is eternal, is established
in the spiritual domain.
In the Rig Veda, one of the earliest Vedic texts, there are actually several creation stories. One of
the best known is contained in the Purusha Shukta, and is sometimes referred to as the "Hymn of
Cosmic Man." The myth describes the origin of the cosmos as the result of a primal sacrifice, the
sacrifice by the gods of the first person, a giant named Purusha. The gods sacrifice this primal
being, and out of the pieces of his body the divisions of the human world, and indeed the world
itself, are formed. The Brahmins come from his mouth; the Kshatriyas from his arms; the
Vaishyas from his thighs; and the Shudras from his feet.
This is often understood to be the first articulation of the caste system, although it is important to
note that the myth itself does not present a divisive hierarchical ordering, but one which makes
the different parts of society fundamentally interdependent (like the various parts of the human
The Purusha Shukta also reflects the Vedic emphasis on sacrifice as a creative act. After
describing the formation of the human realm from Purusha's body, the hymn goes to describe the
formation of the physical world: the moon comes from his mind, the sun from his eyes, wind
from his breath, the earth from his feet, and so on. It ends, "Thus they [the gods] fashioned the
Each of the major divisions or sects—Shaivism,
Vaishnavism, Shaktism, etc.—within Hinduism has its own set of sacred narratives that,
although distinct to a particular sect, also contains overlapping elements. The Shaivas, for
instance, hold Shiva as the highest form of the divine, and thus emphasize Shiva in their myths
and sacred narratives. Many of these myths depict Shiva as a renouncer of the world who
abandons the trappings of the world and goes off to the Himalayas to meditate. In some of these
myths, a beautiful mountain girl, Parvati, falls in love with the wild-haired ascetic, much to the
chagrin of her parents.
In one of the best-known such stories, the myth of Daksa, the power and sometimes
unpredictability of Shiva is demonstrated (as well as his reputation as "the destroyer").
Parvati (who is here called Sati) is married to Shiva,
although her parents are very much against the marriage. Her father Daksha holds a great
sacrifice, and as a slight to Shiva, he does not invite him. Shiva is not bothered by the insult, but
Sati is. She goes to her father, and in her extreme anger she commits suicide (in some versions
her anger simply causes her to catch fire). Shiva, enraged, destroys the sacrifice and kills
Daksha, thus creating cosmic disorder, adharma. The gods then praise Shiva, who relents and
restores the sacrifice and brings Daksha back to life (Sati's body is scattered, and she is reborn as
Narratives concerning Vishnu tend to reflect, in contrast, his
status as the cosmic maintainer of dharma. Some of the best-known of these narratives are the
myths having to do with Vishnu's avataras, the forms he takes to come down to the human realm
and restore cosmic and social order. The many, many myths and stories having to do with
Krishna are among the most popular and oft-repeated sacred narratives in the Hindu world.
Particularly important are the devotional stories and songs in the bhakti tradition that narrate the
relationship between Krishna and his human consort, Radha, in the sacred forest of Vrindavana.
The great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are often seen as Vaishnava texts,
although they contain many myths and rituals oriented to Shiva and the goddesses as well. For
many Hindus, the stories and myths in these texts represent the most sacred of all narratives,
because they describe the activities of the gods in the human realm. On one level, these are
simply great stories. They are told and retold, enacted, sung, and, in the modern realm, filmed.
They are also great myths, however, sacred narratives that unveil profound truths, present moral
and ethical guidance, and articulate the formation and order of the cosmos.
Three principal sects of Hinduism
Name of
Where sect
is most
Sri Lanka
(or his
Vaishnavas India
Bhagavad Gita
For many Hindus, the most sacred narratives are those having a much more local scope. Some of
these narratives are contained within the Puranas, a huge collection of diverse religious texts.
Many of the Puranas contain stories and myths that are linked to particular places, such as
mountains or temples, as well as narratives that have pan-Indian resonance. The Puranas also
contain variations of myths found elsewhere. Virtually all of the pan-Indian gods and goddesses
appear in the Puranas.
Division of Purana texts (various divisions and numbers of texts are
The Mahapuranas (most important puranas)
1. Brahma Puranas: Brahma Purana, Brahmānda Purana,
Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Mārkandeya Purana, Bhavishya
2. Vishnu Puranas: Vishnu Purana, Bhagavata Purana, Nāradeya
Purana, Garuda Purana, Padma Purana, Varaha Purana,Vāmana
Purana,Kūrma Purana, Matsya Purana, Kalki Purana
3. Shiva Puranas: Shiva Purana, Linga Purana, Skanda Purana,
Agni Purana, Vāyu Purana
The Upapuranas: secondary texts (no official list, but include the
Sanat-kumara, Narasimha, Brihan-naradiya, Siva-rahasya, Durvasa,
Kapila, Vamana, Bhargava, Varuna, Kalika, Samba, Nandi, Surya,
Parasara, Vasishtha, Devi-Bhagavata, Ganesha, Mudgala, and Hamsa
The Sthala Puranas: deal with traditions about temples and shrines
The Kula Puranas: deal with the origins of various castes
Jain and Buddhist Puranas
The Puranic version of the birth of the very popular god Ganesha is one of the most well known
of all myths in Hinduism, one version of which is recounted in the Shiva Purana. Shiva's wife,
Parvati, was alone while Shiva was away meditating. Parvati intended to take a bath, but was
afraid of intruders, so she created Ganesh out of the turmeric, which was used something like
soap, she was going to use to bathe. She instructed the boy to stand guard outside of her door.
Shiva returned and encountered the strange boy, and demanded that he step aside so that he
could enter his home. Ganesh, not knowing his father, refused, and Shiva, enraged, lopped off
his son's head.
Parvati was furious and distraught, and she
demanded that her husband restore their son to life. Shiva, after searching in vain for the head,
was forced to replace it with that of an elephant. This is an etiological myth, namely a sacred
narrative that explains the origins of a god or sacred place; it is also a myth that considers Shiva's
sometimes unpredictable nature, as well as his power to restore.
Study Questions:
1. How do Hindu scriptures present a creation story?
2. What is the role of violence within many sacred narratives?
3. What are the Puranas, and what do they offer?
Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
One of the most commonly retold Hindu myths is
that which describes the creation of the world involving the so-called "Hindu Trinity"—Brahma,
Vishnu, and Shiva. There are many variations of this basic myth. Here is one of the most
In the beginning the entire universe was pervaded by Brahman, the abstract divine force. There
was no earth, no heaven, nothing. At a particular time—when the time was "right"—a vast ocean
washed over the cosmos, and a huge serpent emerged from the waters. Vishnu appeared,
sleeping on the serpent. As Vishnu slept, floating on the waters, the sound "om" began to vibrate
throughout the universe. Vishnu awoke, and out of his navel grew a lotus. When the lotus
opened, Brahma was sitting there. Vishnu said to him that it was time to create the world.
Brahma then set about creating the world. He broke the
lotus into three pieces, and with the first made the heavens, with the second the skies, and with
the third the earth. He then populated the earth with all living beings.
Shiva often does not appear in this myth, although in some versions he appears later when the
world has been engulfed in chaos. He begins to dance, and in the process creates tremendous
religious heat that engulfs the world in flames, destroying it but at the same time purifying it
(much like what the sacrificial fire does).
The cosmos is
then once again void, until the waters reappear, and the whole cycle begins again. Just as human
beings are born and reborn over and over again, so too is the cosmos. This is samsara.
Accordingly, Brahma is often understood to be the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the
destroyer. This, however, is only part of the story.
Hindu idea of the gods is complex. Though in one sense there is only one god, Brahman, this god
is not really a single, manifest entity but the divine principle that animates the entire cosmos.
Each of the individual gods, in this sense, is thus a manifestation of Brahman.
Vishnu, for instance, takes many, many forms. Sometimes he is just Vishnu, often depicted as a
royal god who resides in the heavens with his consort, Lakshmi, and maintains the order, or
dharma of the cosmos. But Vishnu also manifests himself in the human realm when dharma has
broken down; he sends himself down to earth in the form of an avatara. Krishna is an avatara of
Vishnu, as is Rama. But these forms of the gods are not understood to be "lesser" versions of
Vishnu. They are each fully and completely Vishnu, as are all of the other manifestations of
Vishnu or, for that matter, Shiva or Brahma (although he typically does not have multiple forms).
This is related to the concept of Brahman. Brahman is the overarching, all-encompassing divine
principle that contains all beings—all of the gods, all humans, all demons, and even all animals.
Thus each individual god is at once a particular god with particular characteristics and
"personality" traits, and at the same time a complete manifestation of Brahman.
Thus Hinduism is polytheistic in the sense that there are many, many different gods—classically
there are said to be 330 million! Hindus often worship a particular form of the god or goddess,
what is called an "ishtadevata" in Sanskrit, a chosen or personal god. Some of these forms are
pan-Indian, such as Krishna or Shiva or Ganesh, while others are local, often only known at the
village level.
There are thousands of goddesses in the Hindu pantheon:
Lakshmi, Parvati, Saraswati, Kali, Durga, and so on. These goddesses can be quite distinct.
Lakshmi, the embodiment of grace and good fortune, is a "cool" goddess, Vishnu's consort, who
is motherly and utterly benign. Kali, in contrast, is often a ghastly figure with flaming eyes and a
lolling tongue and earrings made of severed heads. Despite their very different personas,
however, they are often understood to be different manifestations of Devi, the great goddess who
is one.
Humans are often only able to see the outward form of
the gods and goddesses, because our vision is limited and because we are enmeshed in the
illusion that the world we see is the "real" world. This is the effect of maya, illusion.
It is maya that makes us think, for instance, that we are individual selves, or atmans. Certainly on
one level we exist–we have bodies, we have feelings, thoughts, personalities. But ultimately all
of these things are only just illusions. Ultimately, we are all part of Brahman (according to
Advaita and Vishishtadvaita and other monist schools, but not Dvaita Vedanta and other dualist
schools). Indeed, there is nothing that is "us" that is not Brahman. However, we are ignorant and
deluded (by maya), and thus we think we think we are individuals.
The individual forms of the gods and goddesses are often
understood to be simply the forms that we perceive, while the reality behind or beyond these
forms is Brahman. Kali appears to be hideous and fierce, because our human vision is
conditioned by maya; in reality, she is a benign, protecting, nurturing mother. And, on an even
more ultimate level, she can be understood to be no different than Brahman. Again, when one
worships an individual god or goddess, one is both worshipping that particular deity and, at the
same time, interacting with the ultimate reality that is Brahman.
Study Questions:
Describe the most popular Hindu creation story.
How many Hindu gods exist?
What is the role of maya in interpreting the self?
Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
Karma marga
Jnana marga
Bhakti marga
Path of action
(especially ritual action)
Path of knowledge
(meditation and analysis)
Path of devotion
(especially towards Krishna)
Hinduism articulates several different, overlapping paths, or margas for humans to follow.
Although these paths may seem to be inconsistent, and even contradictory, fully developed
Hinduism holds that they are in fact three different, and sometimes overlapping, means to fulfill
the same religious goal.
In the earliest layer of Hinduism, the purpose of life is quite straightforward: humans are to
perform the proper sacrifices to the gods. The Vedas emphasize that the life of the householder is
the most exemplary model for humans. One should do one's societal duty (which later becomes
worked out as the caste system), bear children (especially sons), and, essentially, live a proper
life. This is known as the karma marga, the path of action, particularly ritual action.
Emphasize one's duty
as householder
Emphasize asceticism
(disregard material world)
The Upanishads significantly challenge this worldview. The sages responsible for these texts
reject the Veda emphasis on the life of the householder and the primacy of sacrifice to the gods.
They argue, instead, that there is a higher reality beyond the human realm, Brahman. Human
beings can ultimately become one with this higher reality, but only if they change how they see
and behave in the world. Specifically, the Upanishads hold that people must renounce the
trappings of the world and embark on a life of asceticism.
In this way, they can train themselves to disregard the things of the material world, which only
lead to grasping and attachments, and thus the creation of karma. If one meditates on the true
nature of the self (the atman), one can realize that everything that one thinks of as the self, as "I,"
is in fact no different than Brahman. One can thus learn to be in the world in such a way that one
is not attached, and thereby not creating karma (although still acting). When one dies, one is free
of karma, and thus not reborn; instead, this person is release from samsara. This is moksha,
which literally means "release," but which really refers to ultimate salvation, union with
To attain this state of karma-less being, one must, through meditation and intense philosophical
analysis, develop the proper knowledge of the true nature of the self. This path, as most clearly
laid out in the Upanishads, is known as the jnana marga, the path of knowledge.
The third path is the bhakti marga, the path of devotion.
This is perhaps first described in the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most important sacred texts in all
of Hinduism. In the Bhagavad Gita, the god Krishna explains to the warrior Arjuna that the
highest and most effective form of religious activity is absolute devotion (in the Bhagavad Gita,
it is specifically absolute devotion to Krishna). The logic of the Bhagavad Gita's advocacy of the
bhakti marga is complex, but essentially Krishna says that since he, Krishna, is the highest
manifestation of Brahman, all beings, including all of the other gods, are contained within him.
Thus there can be no action that is not, in the end, part of Krishna: ultimately all sacrifice is to
Krishna, all worship, all good and bad actions on earth. So the highest form of action is selfless,
loving devotion to Krishna, which is bhakti.
The message of the Bhagavad Gita is considerably more complex than this. Krishna actually
builds a very convincing case against the Upanishadic notion of renouncing the world to attain
the highest religious goal, moksha. Krishna tells Arjuna that he must, in fact, continue to follow
the path of action, to do his duty, dharma, as defined by his caste. Arjuna is a kshatriyan, and so
he must fight. However, and this is one of the reasons the Bhagavad Gita became so important in
Hinduism, Krishna says that Arjuna can both fulfill his duty (the point of the karma marga) and
at the same time be free of karma (the point of the jnana marga). He must do his duty but
renounce the fruits–the karmic effects–of his actions. How can he do this? By devoting all of his
attention, all of his thoughts, on Krishna (and this is the bhakti marga).
Ashrama (station in life)
Forest dweller
Learn duties of his caste
Raise a family
Study sacred texts
An important part of Krishna's message to Arjuna is the concept of Ashrama (or Ashram).
Krishna tells Arjuna that he must act according to his caste (varna) and his particular station in
life (ashrama); this is related to the concept of varna-ashrama-dharma. One is born into a
particular caste as a result of past karma, and one's caste determines what sort of life one will
live, what sort of work one will do. As one progresses through life, one is also governed by the
concept of ashrama. There are four ashramas: student, householder, forest dweller, and
renouncer. At each stage, there are certain duties that one must attend to, certain obligations: a
student should focus on learning the appropriate duties of his caste; a householder should raise a
family; a forest dweller should focus on study of the sacred texts; and a renouncer should leave
the trappings of the world behind to meditate.
What this system does is put everything in its proper place. It is a model of the overarching
Hindu concept of dharma, of order. It provides a structure so that at each stage of one's life, one
has certain duties and obligations, defined by that stage and one's caste. The Bhagavad Gita adds
the concept of bhakti to this, thereby introducing the idea that no matter what one's caste is, from
the highest Brahmin to the lowest Shudra, and no matter what one's age, if one performs the
appropriate duties with the appropriate devotion, one is engaged in the highest religious acts.
Study Questions:
1. How has the Hindu purpose of life changed throughout history?
2. How do the three paths differ from one another? What are their similarities?
3. What is bhakti, and why is it important?
Suffering and the Problem of Evil
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
The key to understanding the existence of suffering and evil in Hinduism is the central concept
of karma. Karma is at once the simplest of concepts and the most complex. The word itself
simply means "action," and originally referred to the sacrificial action that was at the center of
the Vedic world. Karma gradually took on the meaning of both action and the effect of action.
Karma is understood within Hinduism—and Buddhism and Jainism as well—as the fundamental
and universal law of cause and effect. When a person does something, it has an effect: good
actions have good effects, bad actions have bad effects. Thoughts have effects as well. An
individual person carries around these accumulated effects, this karma. Over the course of a
single lifetime, an individual performs countless actions, has countless thoughts; all of these bits
of karma—good and bad—are something like spiritual baggage, or deposits in a spiritual bank
account. When a person dies, all of his or her karma is, in a sense, added up. A "positive
balance" leads to a more positive rebirth; a "negative balance" leads to a more negative rebirth.
Two concepts are essential here: the first is that of the
atman, the permanent self; the second is that of samsara, the cycle of rebirth or reincarnation.
Hinduism holds that just as the world is created, maintained, destroyed, and recreated endlessly,
so too people are born, live, die, and are reborn endlessly. Although samsara is often called
"reincarnation" in the West, it is important to note that it is not the "person" who is reborn, but
the permanent self, the atman (which includes elements of personality).
The quality of each rebirth depends on the accumulated karma of prior rebirths; this karma
"sticks" to the atman, and determines what sort of form it will take in each rebirth.
Thus if a human being does particularly good deeds while
alive, he or she might be reborn as a "better" human being: a particularly good shudra might be
reborn as a Brahmin, for example. But if one does particularly "bad" deeds, called papam in
Sanskrit, he or she might be reborn into a lower life form—a member of a lower caste, say, or
even as an animal or insect. One might also be reborn outside of the earthly realm, as a demon or
even, according to some schools, as a god or goddess. According to this worldview, there is no
such thing as evil. There are "bad" people, who are bad because they have done or continue to do
bad things; bad events happen as a result of karma as well.
There is another way of understanding things that might appear evil that focuses not on humans
but on the gods. Sometimes things happen that do not seem to be the result of any karmic
activity: earthquakes, say, or tsunamis, or droughts. One way to understand such events, which
of course can be quite catastrophic, is that they are the result of the play of the gods, or lila.
Although the gods' lila can be a profoundly positive source, such as the "play" of Krishna with
which he combats demons, it can also be negative in the human realm. Ultimately, such divine
play is mysterious. Humans cannot possibly understand why the gods do what they do, why they
allow bad things to happen to good people. It is simply lila, mysterious.
Satya Yuga (or Krita Yuga)
Treta Yuga
Dvapara Yuga
Kali Yuga
A way to think about the issue of evil in Hinduism is found in the image of the cosmic ages.
Hinduism breaks each cosmic age—that period between the creation of the universe and its
destruction—into huge expanses of time called yugas. In the beginning, when the world has just
been created, there is peace and tranquility in the world, perfect dharma, or order. Because
human beings possess free will, and because we grasp on to the things of the world out of
ignorance of the ultimate reality behind this world—Brahman—the world gradually devolves.
Sometimes this is depicted using the image of a cow: when the world is new and dharma is
perfect, the cow stands on four legs. As a result of human greed and negative karmic acts,
however, the cow eventually loses one leg, then two, then eventually three, leaving it with only a
single leg to stand on. The cow, here a symbol for order (dharma), is profoundly unstable,
tottering. This is the age we are currently in, the Kali Yuga. Eventually things will become so
bad, so adharmic, or disorderly, that the world will go up in flames, and then, eventually, be
engulfed in water. Eventually Vishnu will reappear on the waters, and the world will begin again.
What appears to be evil, then, is in this view an inevitable result of the Kali Yuga.
Study Questions:
1. Why is it better to be freed from karma than to continually accumulate good karma?
2. How is rebirth determined? What are some of the outcomes of rebirth in correlation to
3. What is lila? How can it be explained?
4. How do the yugas demonstrate the cyclical nature of Hinduism?
Afterlife and Salvation
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
In the earliest strata of Hinduism, the Vedas, there is very little discussion of the afterlife, and
really only a vague notion of salvation. Some texts, such as the Rig Veda, suggest that different
people go to different places after they die, but there is little detail regarding the matter. This was
simply not the focus of the religion. Rather, the concern was the proper performance of rituals
that would keep the gods satisfied, and thus keep the cosmos in order.
List of "principal" Upanishads
(there are over 100 others)
7. Svetasvatara
8. Katha
9. Mundaka
10. Mandukya
11. Prasna
Some in the Vedic world eventually rejected this sacrificial emphasis and set out to find a new
path, a path that would lead to eternal salvation. This path is among the focus of the Upanishads.
In these texts, there is much discussion of what happens after death. In a famous passage from
the Katha Upanishad, a sage named Nachiketas wins a boon from the god of death, Yama, and
asks the god what happens to humans after they die. Yama at first refuses to answer, and then,
after Nachiketas persists, tells the sage that if he wishes to know the answer to this question, he
must study the nature of the self, and in the process he will be able to leave both joy and sorrow
This is a typically cryptic message from the Upanishads, but it points to a basic understanding of
salvation articulated there: human beings continue to be reborn because they continue to generate
karma, and they continue to generate karma because they are ignorant. They are ignorant of the
true nature of the self. According to the Upanishads, the individual self, or atman, is no different
than the ultimate reality of Brahman.
However, human beings are
deluded, and think they are different. They think "I am," and thus they grasp on to the things of
the material world. "I want . . . that is mine," and so on. But there is nothing that is not
encompassed by the ultimate, by Brahman. According to the Upanishads, if one knows the true
nature of the self—that it does not, in any ultimate sense, exist—then one will stop grasping. If
one stops grasping, then one stops generating karma. And when there is no karma, there is no
rebirth. One is released.
This release, called moksha, is ultimate salvation. The individual is absorbed in the ultimate,
Brahman, in the same manner that a stream or a river (a metaphor for the individual atman) is
absorbed into the ocean (Brahman). When one attains this state, rebirth stops. One is released,
forever. The individual is one with Brahman.
This path, the jnana marga or path of knowledge, is not the only means to attain ultimate
salvation. Indeed, Hinduism very much holds that there are many paths to reach the same
Karma marga
Jnana marga
Bhakti marga
Path of action
(especially ritual action)
Path of knowledge
(meditation and analysis)
Path of devotion
(especially towards Krishna)
The Bhagavad Gita introduces the path of devotion, or bhakti marga. One can attain salvation, in
the context of this path, through selfless loving devotion to a chosen god. In the Bhagavad Gita
this god is Krishna, although because all of the gods in Hinduism are ultimately encompassed by
the overarching divine powerhouse Brahman, bhakti directed at any god can lead to salvation.
Bhakti is often discussed in distinctly human terms, using
human love as the model. A parent's love for a child, for instance, is the model for the devotee's
love of the god; a parent's love is utterly selfless, absolute. Likewise, the love of a devotee for a
god is also described in amorous terms.
Some of the best-known and most beloved stories in Hinduism involve the love "affair" between
Krishna and Radha (a particularly beautiful example is the Gita Govinda, by the poet Jayadeva).
Krishna in these stories is a lovely young man who plays a bewitching flute. Radha is a beautiful
young woman. She is, however, a human being.
She abandons her worldly duty to be with Krishna. The point of these stories is that although
worldly duties are importance for the maintenance of society, love of the divine (here
specifically Krishna) transcends the worldly dharma. Through such absolute love, one attains
salvation through the grace of the god.
Study Questions:
What are a few of the varying Hindu beliefs about afterlife?
What is moksha?
How does one attain salvation?
Rituals and Worships
Sacred Time
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
Time is cyclical in the Hindu view. The cosmos is
created, maintained for a certain period, then destroyed, only to be recreated. This cycle has no
beginning and no end. Each world cycle (sometimes called a Great Cycle) is the equivalent of a
single day in the life of the god Brahma, who is often understood to be the "creator" of the
universe. Each Brahma-day lasts 4,320,000,000 years. Each Brahma-day is divided into four
yugas: the Satya Yuga is said to last about 1.7 million years; the Treta Yuga about 1.3 million
years; the Dvapara Yuga about 860 thousand years; and the Kali Yuga, about 430 million years.
The world as we know it is currently in the last of the four yugas, the Kali Yuga, the most
chaotic and degenerated period, when dharma—order—has broken down almost completely.
Yugas (epochs)
Satya Yuga (or Krita Yuga)
Treta Yuga
Dvapara Yuga
Kali Yuga
In this sense, since all time is measured relative to the divine, all time is thus sacred. Until fairly
recently, there were dozens of different calendars in use in the Hindu world, each of which
reflected certain regional and sectarian variations. In contemporary India, there are two main
calendars used alongside the Gregorian calendar of the West: the Vikram Samvant and the Saka.
The Saka was developed by a 1st-century Indian
king, Shalivahana, in the year 78 C.E., while the Vikram is thought to have begun at about the
same time with the coronation of the king Vikramaditya. Both of these are lunisolar calendars,
thus measuring the year according to twelve lunar months. All major religious festivals and
auspicious times and days for performing particular rituals are determined by these calendars.
Hinduism has traditionally held that there are certain times and days that are better to hold or to
begin important events, such as marriage, particular religious rituals, even business ventures. The
times and days for all major religious events are determined by careful consultation of the
calendars by priests. On a more mundane level, many Hindus will consult a priest or other
religious figure to determine the proper day for a marriage, or a journey, or any number of other
For each person, there are more and less
auspicious times, based on the day and time of their birth, the movements of the planets and
stars, and a number of other factors. Many Hindus have their own astrological charts made—
sometimes by parents shortly after the birth of a child—that they will consult and have
interpreted by priests throughout their lives.
Another sense of sacred time in the Hindu world is the time of the distant past, a kind of mythical
time when certain gods were active in the human realm. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana
record these times, as do the many Puranas, which often narrate divine acts in the human world.
As much as these mythic times are understood to be in the past, there is an important sense in
which this past continues to be relevant. These stories are retold over and over again, and often
presented in dramatic form (including on television), thus making them in a sense contemporary.
Such a sense of sacred time is not always beneficent, however. For instance, in the contemporary
political realm some Hindus, particularly those on the right side of the political spectrum, have
called for a return to or restoration of this ancient, mythic idealized sacred past, a past when godkings such as Rama ruled India according to the laws of dharma.
Such conceptions of the past, and such calls for a return to
a more sacred Hindu time, have all too often had disastrous effects, leading to some extremists to
demand that all non-Hindus leave India. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw one such movement
with the rise of the BJP political party, which called precisely for a return to the sacred past, and
the eventual destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodha in 1992 and subsequent riots that left
thousands of Hindus and Muslims dead.
Another sense of sacred time is seen in the many stories
about the Krishna and his human "consort" Radha. Radha and Krishna's relationship takes place
in the forest of Vrindavana (Vrindavan or Brindavana or Brindavan). Although Vrindavana is a
physical place—it is in the Mathura district of the modern state of Uttar Pradesh—it is usually
conceived as a mythical paradise, a kind of utopia (literally a "no place") that exists "out of
time," in a kind of eternal divine present.
Pilgrims visit Vrindavana, seeking the places where
Krishna and Radha lived and engaged in their divine play and divine love, as described in any
number of devotional texts, such as the beloved Gitagovinda, written by the poet Jayadeva in the
12th century. Although the gods are not physically present (although they can be, in the form of
murtis, images), being in this sacred land in a sense transports the worshippers out of human
time, into divine time. In an important sense, any Hindu temple, or any sacred place, presents
this same sense of temporal transcendence, of sacred, eternal time.
Study Questions:
1. How does the Hindu understanding of time differ from the western construction of time?
2. Why are many Hindus interested in the concept of auspicious days?
3. How has sacred time become politicized within Hinduism?
Sacred Space
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
Hindu gods and goddesses are understood to be active forces in the world. Through a variety of
rituals, they are made present to their devotees. Usually, although not exclusively, they are made
present in temples. Temples are sacred because they are where the gods and goddesses live, and
where humans have access to them. Temples are also where many, although by no means all,
Hindu rituals are performed.
Hindu temples are broadly called mandira, or mandir, a
Sanskrit word that means, essentially, "house." A temple in the Hindu view is thus
fundamentally the earthly abode of a god or goddess; it is sacred space because the deity is
present there.
There are thousands of Hindu temples in India and elsewhere, temples associated with the major
"high" gods and goddesses, but also local deities. Each temple is different, its style and structure
dictated by the region in which it is located, when it was constructed, and the deity to whom it is
Hindu temples have been built for some 2,000
years. That said, there are some general commonalities.
At the center of the temple complex is the main structure that houses the main image, or murti—
the physical image of the deity, which, unlike in many other religions, is not merely a symbolic
representation. The murti is the deity; it is considered to be the living god, and is treated as such.
It is often bathed, fed, and directly addressed by the god's devotees. This main image is typically
located within the garbha griha (literally "womb chamber"), what in English might be called the
"sanctum sanctorum." This inner sanctum is typically crowned with a tower, or shikhara. In
some te
others they are far more basic.
mples, these towers are tall, magnificent structures, while in
Around the central shrine area are often many other smaller shrines, often with images of gods
and goddesses associated with the main deity of the temple, as well as meeting and worship
halls, classrooms, administrative offices, etc. Usually the temple complex is surrounded by a
wall, which is entered through a main gate. Often this gate is part of what can be a very elaborate
tower or spire, called a gopuram or gopura, a sometimes very elaborate structure that is covered
with sculptural images of gods,
goddesses, and other
divine figures. In southern India, in particular, major temples often feature elaborately decorated
towering gopurams that soar over both the temple itself and the city in which it is located.
A single deity, or multiple deities in many temples, is understood to be fully present in the
temple. Devotees come to the temple and make ritual offerings to the deity, and take darshan,
literally the "sight" of the deity.
Hinduism, however, also
holds that the gods and goddesses are simultaneously present in many, potentially infinite,
different places. Thus Shiva can be fully and completely present in a temple (or many temples)
in northern India and fully and completely present in a temple (or many temples) in southern
India and in any other part of the world.
There are many other sorts of sacred space in India, many
of them significant pilgrimage destinations. These include rivers, which are understood to be
goddesses. Of particular importance in this regard are special "crossings," or tirthas, places
where the gods and goddesses "cross" into the human world.
Video: Early Morning on the River Ganga
There are, classically, seven particularly sacred places in India:
1. Benares, or
Kashi, the eternal
city of Shiva.
2. Allahabad, where
the Ganges,
and mythical
Sarasvati rivers
3. Mathura, the
birthplace of
4. Hardwar, where
the Ganges enters
the plains of India.
5. Ayodhya, the
earthly birthplace of
the god Rama.
6. Dvaraka,
Krishna's capital.
7. Kanchipuram, the
site of several
ancient temples in
southern India.
This list of sacred places is by no means exhaustive. There are thousands of minor and dozens of
major tirthas throughout the Indian subcontinent. Indeed, in an important sense the entirety of
India is understood to be a sacred space.
Mountains are also often regarded as sacred places; like the
tirthas, they are the special, natural abode of the gods and goddesses. For instance, Mount
Kailash, in the Tibetan Himalayas, is understood by many Hindus (and Buddhists as well) to be
the special abode of Shiva and his consort, Parvati. Likewise, Mata Vaishno Devi Temple, in the
Indian Himalayas (in the modern state of Jammu Kashmir), is the sacred abode and, according to
some myths, the birthplace of the goddess Vaishno Devi.
Tens of thousands of pilgrims make the arduous
trek to the temple each year, a pilgrimage that ends at the natural cave where the goddess' murti
resides. Pilgrims crowd into the cramped cave to take darshan of the goddess and to make
offerings to her.
The sheer number and variety of sacred spaces and places in the Hindu world is staggering. In an
important sense, the whole of the Indian subcontinent is sacred space, the abode of the gods and
goddesses. This, in part, explains why Hinduism has tended not to spread outside of India.
Study Questions:
1. What are mandir, and why are they sacred?
2. How does the Hindu concept of darshan differ from other religious traditions’ use of
Describe the major components of a Hindu temple.
How has the conception of sacred space limited the spread of Hinduism?
Rites and Ceremonies
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
The most fundamental of all rituals in Hinduism is sacrifice. Sacrifice was the primary religious
activity of the Vedic period, and although the concept of sacrifice has undergone dramatic
transformation as Hinduism has developed over the past few thousand years, it remains the
bedrock of the tradition, and Vedic sacrifices continue to be performed throughout the Hindu
Vedic sacrifice is a highly structured affair. Strict rules govern the purifying preparations for the
Brahmin priests, construction of the altar, the preparation of the offering—in the contemporary
world, various vegetable and grain offerings, particularly ghee (clarified butter)—and the
performance of the ritual itself. All of this is to satisfy the gods and thereby maintain order, or
The ascetic challenge to the Vedas, as embodied in the Upanishads, on one level rejected ritual
action as not conducive to ultimate salvation. On another level, however, the Upanishadic
renouncers took the basic ideology of the sacrifice and internalized it, taking the transformative
heat of the fire sacrifice and turning it into the purifying heat of asceticism. And although the
Upanishads openly rejected ritual, even the act of becoming a renouncer is itself a significant
When one becomes a renouncer, one
essentially performs one's own funeral: the sacred thread is cut, one's normal clothes are
exchanged for the ascetic's minimal garb, the hair is shaved, and all of these objects, representing
the trappings of worldly life, are burned. This is a symbolic cremation. The ascetic, through this
ritual, is now understood to be dead to the world, and when he or she physically dies, no
cremation is performed.
Many Hindu rites and ceremonies take place in a temple
setting and are directed toward a god or goddess, but by no means do all such rituals take place
in the temple; indeed, many Hindu rituals are distinctly domestic affairs, taking place in
individual homes. And certainly not all rites and ceremonies are directed toward the gods and
goddesses. Virtually every aspect of Hindu life, in fact, is marked by ritual actions.
Death is a critical moment in the life of a Hindu, not only
because it marks the end of life, but also because it marks the transition to the next life. The
shraddha, funeral rites, therefore, are among the most important rituals in Hinduism. Such rituals
are called samskaras, rites of passage. It is utterly important that the rituals associated with
death—not only the cremation itself but also the preparation of the corpse and the purification of
the surviving family—be performed properly, because if they are not, the deceased may become
"stuck" between this life and the next, and remain in the world as a preta, a ghost, to haunt the
surviving relatives.
One of the most important rituals associated with death is the pinda pradana, a ritual that is
performed at several precise points after death and that involves the offering of small rice balls
(pinda), which are thought to feed the deceased prior to his or her rebirth. Additionally, often the
family will journey to a tirtha, a "crossing" of a sacred river, at set points after the death and
"sink" a portion of the deceased cremated remains, further insuring a safe passage to the next
Sixteen major samkaras
the act of conception
the expectant mother consumes barley, grain, and
ritual in the fourth month of a woman’s first
*the expectant mother is anointed with oil, her
hair is parted, and bystanders chant the words
“om” and “vyahritis”
birth ritual performed for a male newborn
*the baby receives mixture of ghee, honey, and
naming ceremony
*on the twelfth day after birth, the father repeats
the new name three times
child leaves the home for the first time
*usually occurs four months after birth
ritual for giving child solid foods for the first time
Choodakaranam: ceremony of cutting the child’s hair for the first
ritual for piercing the ears (boys and girls)
beginning of learning
*a child who is between three to five years old
receives these words written on its tongue: "Hari
sri ganapataye namah avignamastu"
eight-year-old boys begin wearing the sacred
thread (Yajnopaveetam)
studying the Vedas and Upanishads
ritual marking a sixteen-year-old boy's first shave
and Ritusuddhi:
ritual associated with a girl’s first menstruation
the end of formal education
ritual of first sexual intercourse, performed
shortly after the wedding
funeral rites
The actual number of samskaras varies considerably, but by any count there are dozens. These
include death, as well as birth, naming, the taking of the sacred thread (for the top three castes),
marriage, etc.
The taking of the sacred thread, or upanayana
ritual, is a particularly important samskara, because it marks the point at which a person becomes
a full and responsible participant in Hindu life, a dvija or "twice born." Only the top three
castes—Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya—perform this samskara. (In this sense, the caste
system thus confines the lowest caste, the Shudras—as well as the outcastes—to a kind of nonHindu status.) In significant ways, the upanayana ceremony is similar to the bar or bat mitzvah
rites in Judaism, or first communion, in Catholicism. Typically the young Hindu—almost always
only a male—goes through a series of symbolically charged ritual acts in order to become a
brahmacari (brahmacaryan), the first of the Hindu ashramas: his hair is shaved (symbolizing his
purity); he is given a staff (symbolizing his ascetic journey for knowledge); various mantras are
chanted; and his sacred thread is put on.
Ashrama (station in life)
Forest dweller
Learn duties of his caste
Raise a family
Study sacred texts
The Hindu marriage is also a significant samskara. Marriage is a highly elaborate affair that
involves all manner of religiously significant rituals and ceremonies. Marriages are typically
arranged according to caste, and the proper match is determined on the basis of astrological
charts and with the help of a pundit, a particularly learned Brahmin.
Marriage often begins with a ceremony focused on the god
Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, weeks before the actual ceremony. The marriage ceremony
itself is long and involves dozens of steps, nearly all of which are religious significant. One
religiously important aspect is the kanya dana, during which the bride's father pours out sacred
water, and the groom recites Vedic hymns (particularly to the god Kama, the god of love) and
promises to help his bride attain three of the four sacred ends of life: dharma (duty), artha
(purpose), and kama (love). Moksha (salvation) is the fourth sacred goal, but is not attained
through marriage.
In the modern western world, the separation between the sacred and the secular, between aspects
of life that are and are not religious, is taken for granted; in Hinduism there is no such separation.
Life is fundamentally religious, and religion is fundamentally about life—all aspects of life, from
the most mundane to the most sublime.
Study Questions:
1. Why is sacrifice one of the most fundamental Hindu rituals?
2. Why is death ritualized?
3. What are the samskaras? Give a few examples, and explain why they are ritualized.
4. How do Hindu ceremonies eliminate the dualism of sacred and secular?
Worship and Devotion in Daily Life
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
Perhaps the most common religious act in Hinduism is puja, which is often translated simply as
"worship." It literally means "honor." This is important, because the practice of and beliefs
behind puja involve not just a formal veneration of the gods and goddesses, but also the entering
into a particular sort of relationship. Puja involves the reception, honoring, and in a sense the
entertaining of the deity; in puja, a personal relationship, often a very affectionate relationship, is
Pujas are performed at a variety of different levels—from
the simple pujas performed in the home to elaborate and more formal temple pujas.
Fundamentally, puja involves bhakti, in that one must approach and treat the god with selfless
love; indeed, this is the way in which bhakti is most typically put into practice. Significantly, this
love is thought to flow both ways: the devotee loves the god, and the god also loves the devotee.
A typical temple puja might involve the following steps:
An image, or murti, is first clothed in rather common garments.
Then music is played, mantras are recited, and the plain clothes are removed. In a sense,
the deity is not yet present in the image; the image is simply an empty receptacle. The
image is prepared to be bathed, first by being rubbed down with various liquids. It is then
bathed with water that has been specially sanctified by having mantras chanted.
Now that it is bathed, and thus purified, the image is adorned, and re-dressed with
particularly fine clothes, given a sacred thread, perfumed, and bejeweled and decked with
The priest or priests then invoke the god, reciting sacred verses and mantras, essentially
inviting him or her to inhabit the image.
The god, having now inhabited the image, is offered food.
All of this is typically performed behind a screen, and thus out of sight of the people
gathered in the temple for the ritual. The screen is then finally removed, and the act of
darshan (or darshana) takes place. Darshan is a particularly significant part of the puja
ritual; it is the moment when the god literally sees the human, and also when the human
sees the god. There is, however, much more at play here than simple vision, because this
involves not simply the physical act of seeing, as in sight, but seeing in the sense of being
in the presence of and having a relationship with another being. (Similarly, in English,
one says "I saw John," meaning "I saw him, I talked with him, I spent time with him . . .,"
or "I see what you mean," in the sense of "I understand you.") The moment when the
screen is removed in the puja ritual is thus a moment of intense devotion (bhakti), and in
some temples devotees do not look directly at the deity because such an initial vision is
thought to be too powerful, but instead at a mirror reflecting the god or goddess.
As one of the final acts in the puja ritual, the priest will take a lamp, called the arati lamp,
to the devotees gathered in the temple, who cup their hands over the flame and then touch
their eyes and faces, symbolically bringing the light and warmth of the god into
Finally, the priests will distribute Prasad, a word that literally means "grace." When the
gods are invited into the human realm, they are, among other things, fed. The leftover
food is the prasad, and it is understood to be a gift from the gods. This partaking of
prasad is symbolically highly significant, in that in this context we humans eat the same
food of the gods, and thus are, in a sense, equal to them. Typically, however, leftover
food in the Hindu context is highly polluting; thus as much as the partaking of the prasad
places us on the same level of the gods, it also demonstrates that we are hierarchically
lower than they are–we eat their leftovers. The significance of prasad is thus very
complex. It is at once a symbol of the grace and compassion of the god, a symbol of the
merging of the human and the deity, and a marker that humans are always inferior to the
Many Hindus perform less formal puja rituals on a daily basis. A family might have a
shrine to their special god or gods (or goddesses) in a part of their home. Some families
have one such deity, called an ishtadevata (literally "chosen god"), or many. There are
pujas that are typically performed in the morning, on special occasions, and before
particular journeys or endeavors.
An illustrative example of these more domestic
pujas is the puja performed to the god Ganesh. He is the elephant-headed son of Shiva
who is known in many contexts as the "remover of obstacles." As such, he is invoked in a
variety of contexts: in the marriage rituals (he removes domestic problems); by school
children and college students before taking exams (he removes hard questions); and by
taxi drivers, bus drivers, and people purchasing new vehicles (he removes obstacles that
might lead to accidents).
There are, literally, thousands of what might be
called domestic rituals in Hinduism, rituals that are directed to specific gods and intended
to positively influence specific activities. Many Hindus, for instance, begin each day with
a purifying ritual bath in a sacred river such as the Ganges, or the chanting of a set of
sacred hymns, or the recitation of some sacred text. Some of these take place in a public
sphere, such as a temple, and involve the participation of priests, while many others are
quite private rituals performed at home. All pujas, from the most formal temple ritual to
the most informal domestic ritual, are motivated by and permeated with one essential
element: bhakti, loving devotion, a sentiment that flows from the worshipper to the deity,
and from the deity to the worshipper.
Study Questions:
1. How does the ritual of puja help form a personal relationship with a deity?
2. How does prasad unite humans with the gods? How does it create a hierarchy of
3. Who can participate in puja? Who can perform it?
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
One of the most common symbols in Hinduism is the Sanskrit
letter om (or aum). This is the understood not only as the first letter (or sound) of the sacred
alphabet, but the first sound in the cosmos that led to creation. It is thus the first principle of the
universe. There are many philosophical discussions of om; some hold that it is actually
composed of three separate sounds. The first embodies the three worlds—the earth, atmosphere,
and heavens; the second embodies the three great gods—Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva; and the
third, three of the Vedas—the Rig, Yajur, and Sama. Om typically begins Hindu mantras, sacred
verbal formulas, and prayers, and it is often the first (and last) letter of sacred texts. Om is also
used in various yogic meditational practices.
The swastika is another common symbol. Although the
Nazis appropriated this symbol in the 1920s, the swastika is an ancient Hindu symbol that
denotes well-being and auspiciousness. Temples are adorned with swastikas, and it is used in a
wide range of context: weddings, festivals, all manner of rituals, and to decorate everything from
trucks to cakes.
Lotuses are ubiquitous symbols in Hinduism. Hindu gods and goddesses are typically depicted
with lotuses: they sit on lotuses, they hold lotuses, sometimes they emerge from lotuses. Gods
and goddesses are also described using lotus imagery: Krishna, for instance, is ca
lled the "lotus-eyed one," and goddesses are frequently
compared to lotuses. Lotuses are particularly associated with purity: although they begin in the
mud, they grow up through the water and emerge on the surface. When they open, the flower is
utterly cleansed.
The lingam is a symbolic representation of the god Shiva, although it is also more than a symbol
in that like other images of the gods, it is seen as an actual embodiment of the god. In other
words, it is not a symbol of the god; it is the god. It is one of the most prevalent images in all of
Hinduism, and can be found in almost all Shiva temples.
may have its origins in the Vedas, where sacrificial posts, or stambha (or skambha), sometimes
symbolized the gods, or it may have been borrowed from the Buddhists, who erected reliquaries,
or stupas, to enshrine the relics of the Buddha. At any rate, the lingam is a quite complex sort of
Some have seen the lingam as a phallic symbol, although this is a matter of significant dispute.
There are myths that certainly resonate with this phallic imagery, but this does not mean that
most Hindus who venerate Shiva in this form in any way associate the lingam with the phallus.
Rather, the lingam is treated as an aniconic manifestation of the god. Lingams are typically
human created images, but there are also important naturally occurring lingams. In cave temples
in the Himalayas—Shiva's special abode—stalagmites are sometimes regarded as lingams. At
Amaranath, in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, there is a cave that is mythically
associated with Shiva and Parvati in which an ice stalagmite forms each spring and summer and
which is worshipped by pilgrims as a particularly auspicious lingam.
There are also all manner of symbolically significant physical
acts. Mudras are symbolic bodily gestures that denote particular religious sentiments or intents.
For instance, the abhaya mudra, the gesture of "no fear" made by opening the palm outward, is
often displayed by gods and goddesses to symbolize their protective abilities. Mudras are very
important in classical Indian dance, in which each of the gestures of the dancer has specific
symbolic resonance.
Many Hindus wear a symbolic mark, or tilak (in Sanskrit, literally "mark"), across their forehead.
Although Sadhus (renouncers) and priests wear tilaks at all times, many people wear them only
after a visit to the temple or on an important day, such as during a religious ritual or on a festival
Shaiva tilaks are typically three lines—sometimes chalk
or sacred ash—representing the trishula, the trident that Shiva and his ascetic followers carry.
Vaishnava Hindus, likewise, wear a variety of tilaks that symbolize their chosen deity, Vishnu.
One of the most commonly performed symbolic gestures is the anjali mudra. When Hindus meet
one another, they typically display the anjali mudra, placing the palms together and raising the
arms and bowing, usually saying "Namaste" as they do so. This is a gesture of respect and
greeting, and is done not only when two people meet, but when a worshipper approaches a god.
Study Questions:
1. What is om?
2. Why is the lotus used frequently in Hinduism?
3. Should the lingam be considered a Hindu symbol? Why or why not?
4. Why are hand positions considered symbolic gestures? What are some examples of mudras?
Ethics and Community
Community Organization
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
The Hindu world is a world of multiple and complex layers of social and communal categories
and classification. There is the caste system, which lays out the four social and religious
categories—Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra—into which people are placed according to
their birth; there is the ashrama system, which articulates four different stages that a Hindu
(male) is to pass through during the course of his life; there are sectarian affiliations, defined by
the god or goddess one follows, and the rituals one performs in service to this deity.
Four major sects of
It is important to recognize from the outset, however, that the internal divisions in these
"systems" are not nearly so neat as they are often represented in the West. For example, there are
thousands of different subcastes, which often have very subtle shadings and distinctions. One
may identify oneself as a follower of Shiva, a Shaiva, but also worship forms of Vishnu and the
The caste system is one of the most contested issues in
Hinduism and one of the most consistently misunderstood and misrepresented aspects of
Hinduism. The origins of the caste system are disputed. Many have suggested that it is rooted in
the Purusha Shukta hymn of the Rig Veda, the so-called "Sacrifice of the Primal Man," a text
that describes creation in terms of a sacrifice of the first being. Four classes, or varnas, are
described in this text. Out of this system seems to have developed the concept of jati, or birth,
which is a more accurate description of caste: Hindus (and all humans) are born into particular
socio-religious categories, castes (jatis), according to their accumulated karma. Over the
centuries, the jatis have subdivided and multiplied, producing a complex network of thousands
and thousands of different castes.
(priestly caste)
(traditionally warrior caste)
(traditionally caste of merchants and farmers)
(manual laborers)
One of the most persistent, and some would say pernicious, aspects of the caste system are the
strict rules regarding purity and pollution. The higher the caste, the more pure its members; and,
conversely, the lower the caste, the more impure its members. Thus members of the lower
castes—including the so-called untouchables, or outcastes—generally do not come into physical
contact with members of the upper castes. Indeed, Hindus who belong to lower castes are often
prevented from entering high caste temples—although this sort of discrimination is illegal in
India and is much less common than it has been in the past—or participating in high caste rituals
because their very presence is considered impure and polluting. Because the theological and
philosophical principles underlying the caste system hold that one's caste is a matter of birth
(jati), which is determined by one's actions in prior lives (karma), one is bound to that caste.
Changing castes is thus impossible.
Some scholars, both inside and outside of India, have seen the development of the caste system
not primarily as a religious but as a social mechanism, one used to control the population. More
positively, castes have been seen as the products of self-organizing by communities. Castemembers can cooperate to pursue their self-interest. Although caste is still very much alive in
contemporary India, not all Indians subscribe to this form of social organization.
Indeed, beginning at least as early as the 19th century,
some Indians have argued that the caste system is not even part of Hinduism, citing the
Upanishads and the Vedantic worldview as proof. In the 1950s (and earlier), following Mahatma
Gandhi's famous rebellion against the socially repressive aspects of the caste system, there were
attempts to abolish the caste system altogether, attempts that continue to this day. (It is important
to note here that Gandhi was a caste Hindu and the preeminent Hindu leader of his day, and he
was sharply criticized by Ambedkar and others who saw him as a defender of caste.) At any rate,
caste at once remains a powerful means of social and religious organization in Hinduism, even as
it is a matter of much dispute and tension.
When the ideal of renunciation arose in Hinduism with the
Upanishads and their rejection of Vedic sacrifice, some within the Hindu world perceived a
potential social crisis. The Upanishads advocate abandonment of social life in favor of a life
outside of society, spent in mediation. This idea of the proper religious path threatened to undo
the very structure of life in Hinduism. A kind of compromise was articulated in the early years of
the common era: the Ashrama system. A Hindu (typically, although not exclusively, a male) in
this system was to pass through four stages: student (Brahmacarin or Brahmacari), householder
(Grihastha), forest dweller (Vanaprastha), and renouncer (Sannyasin or Sannyasi). This was, in
part, a way of removing the social disruption of renunciation; one could renounce, but only at the
proper time.
Ashrama (station in life)
Forest dweller
Learn duties of his caste
Raise a family
Study sacred texts
Hindu communities are organized in part by caste (as well as class, which is more of an
economic than a religious categorization) and in part by sectarian affiliation. There are
Vaishnava Hindus (followers of Vishnu), Shaiva Hindus (followers of Shiva), Shakta Hindus
(followers of the goddesses), Smarta Hindus (non-theistic or pantheistic followers of Vedanta).
But these are only the major sectarian divisions. In reality, there are thousands of what might be
called sub-sects, whose members follower particular, often highly localized forms of the various
gods and goddesses. Furthermore, although a Hindu might identify him or herself as a member
of a particular sect—as a Vaishnava, say—that does not prevent him or her from worshipping
other gods and goddesses who are not strictly associated with that sect.
Study Questions:
1. Why is it difficult to classify and categorize the Hindu world?
2. How did the caste system develop? How are individuals placed within it?
3. Is the caste system a divine creation? Why or why not?
4. How does the Ashrama system differ from the caste system?
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
Brahmins are the highest ranking of the four social
classes articulated in the Vedic Purusha Shukta, which describes the creation of the world
through the sacrifice of the primal being, Purusha. The Brahmins are created out of the being's
mouth. They were designated as the exclusive priests in the Hindu world, assigned the duty of
learning and preserving the sacred texts—orally passing them on from one generation to the
next—and performing the sacred rituals.
1. the Rigveda: hymns (for the chief priest to recite)
2. the Yajurveda: formulas (for the priest to recite)
3. the Samaveda: formulas (for the priest to chant)
4. the Atharvaveda: collection of stories, spells, and charms
In the Vedas, sacrifice is the central religious action; it was thought to maintain and sustain the
universe. The Brahmins had the exclusive knowledge of the Vedas and thus were the sole
sacrificial priests;
they chanted the sacred hymns and performed
the many sacred acts that made up the Vedic sacrifices.
There are, in fact, dozens of different sorts of religious leaders, some of whom might be
compared to priests or clergy in the western religious context: these include gurus, yogins,
swamis, pandits, acharyas, sadhus, rishis, and many others.
The term guru is a Sanskrit word that is typically translated simply as "teacher." A guru is a
particularly learned person, typically although not exclusively a Brahmin, who passes his (or, in
some cases her) knowledge to his or her students.
The role of
the guru is extremely important in numerous contexts in Hinduism. The guru not only teaches,
but also guides; thus a guru not only knows the sacred texts and the rituals, but also knows the
abilities, capabilities, and needs of his or her students.
Gurus are often revered and worshipped by their students, regarded as actual embodiments of the
knowledge they impart. Indeed, gurus in India are sometimes treated as gods; they are seen as a
living incarnation of a god on earth. Such famous gurus as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi or Satya Sai
—to name two gurus well known in the West—as
well as numerous lesser known gurus are understood by their followers to be living gods, and are
treated as such. Their followers come to them for darshan, a highly significant mutual "seeing"
of the divine, in which the god also sees the worshipper, and they perform puja rituals to them.
Religious leadership and authority in India derive from a
number of important factors. Certainly there is the issue of birth; most religious leaders in
Hinduism are Brahmins. Gurus, who are usually Brahmins, attain their status through their
knowledge of sacred texts and rituals, which they pass on to their students. Religious authority
can also come from the actions one performs in one's life. Mahatma Gandhi, for instance, was
certainly a learned man, but his religious leadership came not from his knowledge of the sacred
texts, but from his actions. It was his moral example that led people to follow him.
Some figures who are regarded by their followers as living
gods attain that status through particularly auspicious, even miraculous acts. Chaitanya, the 15thcentury Krishna devotee, has been elevated to the status of sainthood through his intense
devotion to Krishna. He has for centuries been held up as the model of bhakti, loving devotion to
the god.
Likewise, Ramakrishna, the 19th-century Bengali
saint, is regarded by his followers as a saint because of his intense devotion and exemplary
meditation, as well as the actual content of his spiritual message.
Such figures, and countless others, become holy in part through the devotion of their followers.
They become divine because they are regarded as divine. There are temples throughout India
dedicated to such figures, some of them quite famous and known throughout India and abroad,
others only known in a particular town or village. Mata Amritanandamay Devi (b. 1953), known
to her followers as "Amma," mother, and famous outside of India as the "hugging saint"—she is
the subject of the 2005 documentary film Darshan: The Embrace—is a contemporary example
of a person who becomes a religious leader, a saint in the eyes of her millions of devotees,
through a combination of her acts on earth and the love and devotion shown by her followers.
She offers daily darshan to her followers and hugs each one in a warm embrace. Some reports
say she has hugged over 25 million people in the course of the last thirty-five years. Furthermore,
she has sponsored a number of prominent social causes, thus further elevating her divine status in
the eyes of her followers.
Study Questions:
1. Who are the Brahmins?
2. How do gurus differ from Brahmins?
3. How could a Hindu become a saint?
Principles of Moral Thought and Action
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
The term "Hinduism" encompasses an incredibly diverse array of beliefs and practices, to the
point that Hindus in one part of India might hold particular beliefs and engage in particular
practices that would be virtually unrecognizable in another part of India. That said, there are two
underlying principles in the Hindu world that are and have been shared by virtually all Hindus:
dharma and karma. These principles fundamentally inform Hindu conceptions of moral thought
and action.
Dharma is one of the most complex and all-encompassing terms in all of Hinduism: it can mean
religion, law, duty, order, proper conduct, morality, righteousness, justice, norm. As such,
dharma fundamentally underlies conceptions of morality and ethics in Hinduism. Dharma puts
things in their proper place, creates and maintains order and balance. In the vast compendium of
literature known as the Dharmashastras, dharma is examined from virtually every imaginable
angle, from the proper performance of sacrifice, kingly duties, cultural norms, sexual relations,
and everyday social rules such as manners.
(priestly caste)
(traditionally warrior caste)
(traditionally caste of merchants and farmers)
(manual laborers)
To act dharmically is, in essence, to act appropriately; what is appropriate is determined by the
context in which the action is to be performed and who is performing it. Different people have
different dharmas; one's caste, one's position in life (ashrama), one's gender, all determine what
is dharmic in a particular instance. The ethical and moral guidelines for a Kshatriya are different
than those for a Brahmin, which are in turn different from those for a Shudra. This is sometimes
called "svadharma," or one's own, personal dharma. The specifics of these guidelines are
discussed in great detail in the Dharmashastras and their commentaries.
Ashrama (station in life)
Forest dweller
Learn duties of his caste
Raise a family
Study sacred texts
Thus in Hinduism specific ethical and moral guidelines vary; the general ethical and moral
principle does not, however. That amounts to a simple moral and ethical imperative: act properly
Karma is intimately associated with dharma in this regard. Karma is understood in Hinduism as a
universal law of cause and effect. Positive actions produce positive effects; negative actions
produce negative effects. To act dharmically is to act in a karmically positive manner, therefore.
When one acts dharmically, one necessarily produces positive karma. This karma is cumulative:
one accrues karma, positive and negative, not only throughout the course of one's life, but
throughout the course of one's multiple rebirths. It is karma that determines one's rebirths.
There is a tension that surfaces at times in these discussions, a tension between one's ethical and
moral duty to the well-being of society and others, and one's personal religious progress toward
salvation, moksha. Karma, negative and positive, keeps us in the world, leading to birth after
birth after birth (this is samsara). To attain ultimate salvation, moksha, is to attain release from
this cycle. One accomplishes this by eliminating all karma, negative or positive.
An extremely important ethical element that pertains to
both karma and dharma is the principle of ahimsa, non-violence. This is a very old idea in
Hinduism, emerging in its ethical sense in texts as ancient as the Mahabharata,where nonviolence is said to generate positive karma. The idea behind ahimsa is that all beings are
karmically interconnected; any action that harms another being, whether it be a Brahmin priest or
a worm, is thus said to affect every other being. To kill an animal, then, is to karmically affect
not only oneself (and the dead animal, of course), but collectively all other beings.
The principle of ahimsa can be taken to extremes, leading to a severe sort of asceticism that is
essentially absolute non-action, since almost any action can, in some way, lead to harm—one
might accidently step on an ant, say, or accidently breathe in a tiny fly. There are thus long and
sometimes very complex philosophical discussions of ahimsa, including discussions of the
importance of intentionality or volition in harming another being. Many schools hold that one
only generates karma when one acts willfully, when one is aware of one's actions and
consciously chooses them.
Jainism split, in part, over this
matter, and adopted a radical mode of being that held that any harm to any being, including
certain plants, intentional or not, was ethically wrong. (Not all Jains hold to this radical view,
Mahatma Gandhi was an advocate of ahimsa, applying it to all aspects of his life, most famously
in the political realm. Ahimsa was his fundamental moral and ethical principle, and his teachings
on the matter continue to be extremely popular in Hinduism (and outside of the Hindu world as
well), regarded as an ideal—if not always an actual—ethical and moral guiding principle.
Study Questions:
1. What are the minimal conditions for being a Hindu?
2. How is dharma static? How does it change with contextualization?
3. Describe the relationship between dharma and karma.
4. What is ahimsa? Why is it widely practiced?
Vision for Society
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
On the most basic level, the vision for society articulated within Hinduism is that it should be
dharmic, ordered. The most dominant way this order is created is through the caste system.
Although in practice the caste system is often a means of oppression, it is in principle a vision of
the perfectly ordered, perfectly symbiotic social body.
(priestly caste)
(traditionally warrior caste)
(traditionally caste of merchants and farmers)
(manual laborers)
At the top of the hierarchy of castes are the Brahmins. They are, traditionally, the ritual priests of
the Hindu world. They perform the sacrifices that keep the gods satisfied, which, in turn,
maintains dharma in the human realm. The next highest caste is that of the Kshatriyas, the socalled warrior caste whose dharma it is to maintain social order; this social order is necessary for
the Brahmins to properly perform the rituals. Next come the Vaishyas, traditionally the
merchants and cultivators; they contribute to dharma by providing the material needs of society.
Finally, the Shudras, the lowest of the four major castes, the manual laborers who, in doing the
"dirty work" of society create the conditions for purity necessary to perform the rituals.
The first articulation of this vision of society is often thought
to be contained in the Purusha Shukta of the Rig Veda, where society is created through the
sacrifice of the cosmic man, Purusha. There society is envisioned as a body, literally, in which all
of the parts are necessary for the functioning of the whole. In this very early vision, the social
distinctions are not negatively hierarchical, since each part of the body is equally necessary for
the whole to function properly. Society functions because each member is, at any one time, doing
precisely what is prescribed for him or her at birth.
Although this vision of society holds that all castes are equally necessary, they are certainly not,
in practice, socially equal. The Brahmins are obviously at the top. However, social order,
dharma, is absolutely dependent on the presence of a strong king, and much of the
Dharmashastra literature that deals with issues of social order is about kingship. The ideal king is
said to rule dharmically, which means with the perfect balance of fairness, compassion, and
force. The god Rama—himself an avatara of Vishnu, the great "maintainer" or dharma—is
depicted as the model king in the great Hindu epic, The Ramayana. In the Dharmashastra
literature, the king is at the top of the Hindu social world, and all those below him are integrally
connected so that the entire society functions properly.
Ashrama (station in life)
Forest dweller
Learn duties of his caste
Raise a family
Study sacred texts
The ashrama system developed as a further (and related) means of ordering society, by
articulating a vision in which each person passes through a series of stages (ashramas) during
their life. At any one time, a person fulfills his or her duty by doing what is appropriate at that
time in life. One of the goals of the ashrama system is to resolve this tension between ethical and
moral duty and ultimate salvation; it allows one to both act ethically in the world and attend to
one's own salvation. The ashrama system, essentially, makes an ethical and moral space for
attention to one's personal salvation. What the ashrama system does is create a balance between
these two potentially opposing needs. One must first attend to one's ethical and moral duties,
passing through the student (brachmacarya) and householder (grihastha) stages. Then, and only
then, one can embark on a course of religious study—the forest dweller (vanaprastha) stage—
and, eventually, ascetic renunciation of the world (the sannyasa stage).
The nature of what, exactly, constitutes a dharmic society has been a matter of some tension in
India, particularly after India gained independence in 1947. The Hindu world has historically
been quite able to coexist with other religions: Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, and
others. Although very ancient Hindu texts such as the Mahabharata describe a Hindu vision of
India in which the entire subcontinent is understood as the sacred space of Hinduism, Hindus
have mostly tolerated and even cooperated with people of other religions. In modern India,
Mahatma Gandhi was a staunch advocate of Indian home rule, and his Satyagraha campaign led
the way to ousting the British from India, yet he was not in any sense a Hindu exclusivist.
Indeed, Gandhi fundamentally believed in the possibility,
and even the necessity, of peaceful coexistence between India's many religions. India's first
Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and other early leaders of independent India promoted a
secular India that made room for all religions, not just Hinduism. Certainly this model of society
was built on the foundation of dharma, but it was a broad, inclusivist understanding of what is
Not all Hindus have held such a view. Gandhi himself was
assassinated by an extremist Hindu who radically rejected Gandhi's view. There have been loud
and insistent voices advocating an exclusively Hindu India as the only model of a truly dharmic
society. Beginning in the 1980s, these voices became particularly forceful with the emergence of
powerful political groups—the Bharatiya Janata Party and Vishva Hindu Parishad are two of the
most prominent—advocating the purification of India. For them, this would mean essentially
removing all foreign elements from what they see as the sacred Hindu homeland. Their
understanding of a dharmic society, then, is a purely Hindu one, and the presence of other
religions pollutes this vision.
This rather extreme exclusivist view has led to serious tensions and at times horrific violence
between Hindus and Muslims in particular. Although this is by no means a majority view within
Hinduism, this form of Hindu exclusivism is a powerful social and political force in India, often
drowning out the more moderate and more tolerant mainstream voices.
Study Questions:
1. How does the caste system help create social order?
2. What does the Rig Veda contribute to the Hindu vision for society?
3. How is religious pluralism viewed within India?
Gender and Sexuality
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
In Hindu social and ethical texts, women often seem to be hierarchically inferior to men. One of
the most widely known of the Dharmashastras, the Manu Smirti, or Laws of Manu, depicts
women as being entirely subservient to men: a girl is governed by her father, a married woman
by her husband, a widow by her sons.
In other texts,
women are prohibited from hearing the Vedas, from engaging in certain crucial rituals, from
holding positions of religious leadership, and so on. Some texts also hold that even women of the
higher castes cannot be considered twice-born (dvijas), and must be reborn as men to make
serious religious progress. Women are also depicted in some texts as being impure because they
Women in classical Hindu texts are thus often perceived to be inferior beings, sometimes
relegated to the level of Shudras, regardless of their actual caste affiliation. This, however, only
gives part of the picture. For as much as it is true that women are often denigrated, there are also
images of women, in the form of various goddesses, that are decidedly more positive. There is a
whole range of mainstream goddesses who are the models of dharmic women.
Lakshmi, for instance, the consort of Vishnu, is the
embodiment of female virtue; she is the model wife, the bringer of prosperity, the embodiment of
compassion. Parvati, the consort of Shiva, is, likewise, the model wife and devotee; she is also
often depicted as the model mother.
There are also more ambiguous and more powerful images of
women in the Hindu tradition. In contrast to the consort goddesses, Durga and Kali are
tremendously fierce and cannot be controlled by any male god. Here is an image of women that
is in stark contrast to the docile, subservient wife, and even in contrast to the consort goddesses
such as Parvati or Lakshmi. Durga is born out of the combined tapas, or ascetic heat, of the three
great gods—Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—in order to slay the evil buffalo demon Mahishasura.
In slaying the demon, she restores order; however, because she is created out of the combined
power of the gods, she is also understood to be potentially more powerful than they are.
It would be wrong to think that the social realm perfectly mirrors the divine realm. It does not.
However, the various personas and characters of the goddesses seem to at least acknowledge the
complex roles that women may adopt in the world.
Four Arthas
Kama (sexual love)
Wealth or power
Physical love is a necessary part of life; kama, sexual love, is one of the four "purposes" (or
arthas)—along with wealth or power, righteousness, and salvation—in Hinduism. However, this
physical love must fall within the confines of dharma. Indeed, sexual activity is typically viewed
as dharmic only when it falls within the confines of marriage.
Ashrama (station in life)
Forest dweller
Learn duties of his caste
Raise a family
Study sacred texts
For instance the first stage in the Ashrama system is the Brahmacarin, the celibate student stage.
It is only when one becomes married that one should engage in sexuality. Significantly, when
one enters the Sannyasin stage, the renouncer stage, one also renounces sexual activity, because
it is sexual desire, among other things, that leads to attachments, and attachments produce karma.
There are, however, notable exceptions to this dharmic view of sexuality.
In the many stories and myths associated with the god
Krishna and his human (or semi-divine) lover, Radha, the norms of sexual behavior are
abandoned. Krishna sexually cavorts with the married Radha, who is unable to resist Krishna.
Here, sexuality is a metaphor for devotion, for bhakti; Radha is so utterly devoted to Krishna
(and he to her) that she becomes free of the norms of sexual behavior. Here love of and devotion
to Krishna transcend human rules.
The god Shiva is the great ascetic of Hinduism, and is often seen as the model for human
ascetics. Shiva renounces sexual behavior in this guise. Significantly, it is precisely his control of
his sexuality that is the source of his tremendous power and energy. Through the control of his
sexual desires, he generates ascetic heat, tapas, which is his purifying—and sometimes
A more extreme vision of sexuality is to be found in the Tantric tradition. Tantra pushes the
norms of society even further than the bhakti traditions, holding that all rules and laws are
human, and not divine, and although such rules may create an orderly society, they also bind us
to the human realm. Tantra advocates abandoning all such rules, and often uses sexual images—
if not actual sexual activities—as a means of transcending attachments.
Tantra is a highly complex and frequently misunderstood path within Hinduism (and Buddhism),
but it essentially holds that we are bound by our lust and desire (not just sexual lust and desire,
We attach to the things of this world, objects and rules and social structures, and these things
become spiritual impediments. Tantra lays out a more immediate (and more spiritually
dangerous) path that conquers these desires by engaging in them. Rather than simply controlling
sexual desires—through rules or through ascetic practices—or avoiding sexual desires, followers
of the tantric path attempt to defeat them. A well-known aphorism of the Tantric path is: "By the
poison of the snake the snakebite is cured." In other words, attachments—sexual and
otherwise—are overcome and defeated by engaging in the things that lead to these attachments.
In the end, Hindu views of gender and sexuality are neither simple nor static. Indeed, as in other
aspects of Hinduism, tensions and complexity and seeming contradictions are perhaps more the
norm than the exception.
Study Questions:
1. What is the role of women within Hinduism?
2. How do goddesses contribute to the roles women adopt within the world?
3. When is celibacy practiced?
4. What can be learned from the Tantric tradition?