Overview on Hinduism, Traditions, Perceptions and Practices

Chandra Shekhar Tripathi

Hinduism provides an answer for many questions regarding day to day life. The name Hinduism is of recent origin, coined by the Greeks and Arabians to refer to a religion of the people living around and to the East of the river Indus. Prior to that, the native religion of the Indian Continent was called Sanatan Dharma (Eternal Religion), which means no beginning and no end, yet always new and meant for all.

1.0 Important Facts about Hinduism:

  • Hinduism is the most ancient of the world’s living religions.
  • It is a tolerant, flexible and peace-loving religion and does not claim a founder.
  • Religious traditions of Indian origin were driven by early revelations of the Supreme God to saints & sages.
  • It is the sum and substance of diverse life activities, practices, history and growth of the people.
  • Hinduism is broad and liberal. It is beginningless, eternal and does not have a common doctrine to preach.
  • It is all-inclusive and does not seek any conversion. That is why it is referred to ‘as a way of life’.
  • Key Hindu scriptures are the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita and they do not mention the word “Hindu”. They are for all living beings.
  • Divine beings exist everywhere and worship, rituals, festivals and sacraments create a communion with God and Love for everyone.
  • God lives in the hearts of human beings as soul or spirit which is part of the Supreme. The goal is to unite the two.

2.0 Basics of Hinduism and Hindu Contributions to a World for Peace

  • Yoga and Meditation
  • Nonviolence (Ahimsa) and peace. Vegetarianism is a true example of nonviolence. It encompasses a respect for and consideration for all life, and peaceful harmonious living.
  • Astrology and horoscopes
  • Gurus and swamis (monks, mentors and spiritual leaders who can inspire and instruct others in relation to Self-realization). Human minds always want a living example to emulate.
  • World’s first University (~ 700 BC) at Takshashila, India.
  • Hinduism can be compared to a fruit tree, with its roots representing the Vedas and the Upanishads, the trunk symbolizing the spiritual experiences of numerous sages & saints, its branches representing various traditions/beliefs/rituals & festivals. The flower is peace and the fruit is self realization (Unity in Divinity).

3.0 Principles

Key Hindu concepts are (1) A Single Supreme Divinity that is present in all of us. The “Creator” can manifest in different forms, (2) Reincarnation: the immortal soul repeatedly goes through a cycle of being born into a body, death, and rebirth, until the Soul attains final libration (Moksha), and (3) Karmic Theory: The Law of Action, a force that determines the quality of each life depending upon cause and effect. Three kinds of Karmas are; Sanchit – the accumulation of past good and bad actions e.g. Mortgage, credit (+/- ledger). Prãrabdha (fate) – the portion of Sanchit karmas which are fructifying the present life and the experiences e.g. lottery, ancestor property, death and unforeseen incidents and Kriyamãn – the new actions we perform which shape our future experiences of pain and joy e.g. saving & chequing. At present we control only actions and execution of actions not the results. Sometimes decision-making generates a fear for change. Dharma provides sustenance for change.

All Hindu faith is based on the teachings of the Vedas which were revealed to humanity by God.

4.0 Hindu Scriptures

All ancient scriptures are written in Sanskrit and support Hindu principles and have four major divisions.

Srutis – Those that were received from divine revelation documented in Vedas (What is Heard)

Smritis – Those that were written from memories, based on revelations in the Srutis (What is Remembered) e.g. books of laws etc.

Ithisas and Purans and Epics – Historical texts.

Darshanas – Philosophical writings

The Vedas are the eternal truths revealed by God to the great ancient Rishis of India. Vedas state and relate to material, social and physical sciences, military science, medicine, duties of people, divine nature, and cosmic laws of necessity, soul, and the presence of a Supreme God. The word Rishi (spiritual scientists) means a seer from dris, to see. He is the Mantra-Drashta, a seer of Mantra or thought. Therefore, the Vedas are what is heard (Sruti). The Vedas are the oldest books in the library of man. The truth contained in all religions are derived from the Vedas. The Vedas are the fountain-head of all religions and universal truth. They are the handbook of guidance for all of humanity and for all ages. Vedas represent all wisdom as can be seen in a statement ‘Let noble thoughts come to us from all sides.’ R.V. 1-89-1. Vedic hymns describe nature, properties and the action of all material and non-material things. The division of the Vedas into four parts corresponds to the four stages of human life.

The Rig Veda (R.V.) -“Royal Knowledge”“Rik” meaning worship. The focal point is Self (Divine principle of body). The oldest of all four Vedas mainly contains metaphysics, philosophy and prayers.
The Sama Veda – “Knowledge of Chants”Saman” which means “Music” the hymns relating to meditation, prayer and stuti (praise) to the Supreme (Brahma)
The Yajur Veda – “Knowledge of Sacrificial Rituals”
The Atharva Veda – “Knowledge of Incarnations”, Science, Politics and worship of Agni, the holy fire.

Some of the important metaphysical concepts and philosophy and prayers are repeated in all Vedas like the Gayatri mantra. The mother hymn is repeated seven times in the Vedas.

The Upanishads are the concluding portions of the Vedas or the end of the Vedas, known as Vedanta. They form the very foundation of Hinduism. There are many Upanishads to each Veda, 21, 109, 1000 and 50 respectively to the Rig-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, the Sama-Veda and the Atharva-Veda. However, in total 108 Upanishads are known and well described.

The laws for regulating Hindu society from time to time are codified in the Smritis. The Smritis have laid down definite rules and laws to guide individuals and communities in their daily conduct and to regulate their manners and customs e.g. Manu Smriti. Truth remains the same, but the traditions are flexible and change with time, conditions and place.

Itihasas is the history for the benefit of common people. The two well-known Itihasas (histories) are the epics (Mahakavyas), Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Ramayana was written by the sage Valmiki, and the Mahabharata by Vyasa. Great Philosophy of Shri Bhagavat Geeta is a part of Mahabharat, which is most widely used in the east and west.

Darsanas are schools of philosophy based on the Vedas and appeal to the intellect whereas; Itihasas and Purana are for the masses and to appeal to the heart. The six Darshana’s are The Nyaya founded by Gautama Rishi, The Vaiseshika by Kanada Rishi, The Sankhya by Kapila Muni, and The Yoga by Patanjali Maharshi, The Purva Mimamsa by Jaimini and The Uttara Mimamsa or Vedanta by Badarayana or Vyasa.

5.0 Values, Beliefs, Traditions, and Rituals

The purpose of life in Hinduism is to attain self-realization or Bliss. Bliss is infinite and can only be achieved by realizing oneness of the Self (moksha). This knowledge is absolute and direct and it is an intuitive experience. There is no duality in reality (same truth is realized by many). All modifications and multiplicity is an illusion, which is MAYA (Matrix movie). Maya, which is cosmic illusion of the material world and bewilders us through mind, world is the creation of mind. Even time and space are mental creations and unreal. Timeless and spaceless Brahman is the only reality. The whole universe is the body of GOD (virat swaroop). God is within or without everything. Evil is not in the world, it is in the mind. Self-realization is beholding the One-in-all and all-in-One by spiritualizing every moment, actions, thoughts and feelings by the self divine power (atman). Hinduism through its heroes and history relays real value of life. As confirmed by George Bernard Shaw, “The Indian way of life provides the vision of a natural, real way of life. We veil ourselves with unnatural masks. On the face of India are the tender expressions which carry the mark of the Creator’s hand”. According to Mark Twain, “ In religion, India is the only millionaire…The one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, would not give that glimpse for all the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.”

Divine expressions are the values of service, love, righteousness, sacrifice, humility, duty, devotion and tolerance that help perfect the individual for supreme joy (Bliss). Dharma is living, it is life, not speaking or showing. It is the religion of the heart; therefore the heart must be purified by actions, beliefs, traditions and rituals, yoga and meditation.

Although God is one and is all pervading, God appears before devotees to accept their devotion through an image (infinite becomes finite by love). Hindus worships God in the form of idols or symbols (saguna) or formless (nirguna). This is done to facilitate contemplation of the Infinite with our finite capabilities. Hindu Trinity – Brahma (creates), Vishnu (sustains), and Shiva (consumer). God is Generator, Operator and Destroyer. However, Brahman (the God-Head) is beyond any description. Brahman is Ultimate Reality.

Hinduism is liberal; it does not limit one’s life, but offers many lives (Reincarnation). However, humans feel responsible for every action, through the Law of Karma. Hinduism promotes a civilization founded on spiritual principles, and one is encouraged to remain silent, never aggravated into war or enmity. Presently Hinduism comprises about 14% of the world’s population residing over 150 countries.

5.1 Symbols:

Om and Swastika are widely accepted symbols. It is believed that everything has come out of Primordial Vibration, which is represented by Om. The English equivalent of those are “a”, “u”, and “m”, and represent the Trinity. The letter ‘a’ represents ‘beginning’ (adimatv); ‘u’ represents ‘progress (utkarsa); ‘m’ represents ‘limit or dissolution’ (miti). Hence the word Om represents that power responsible for creation, development and dissolution of this universe, i.e., God Himself. Om represents that Power which (1) is omniscient; (2) rules over the entire universe; (3) protects one from the evils of life; (4) fulfills the cherished desires; and, (5) destroys ignorance and gives enlightenment. It encompasses all potentialities and possibilities; it is everything that was, is, or can yet be. This term occurs in various ancient and modern civilizations. It exists in Hinduism, Christianity (Amen) and Islam (Amin).

The Swastika symbolizes the eternal nature of Brahman, for it points in all directions, thus representing the omnipresence of the Absolute. In Sanskrit language Su means good and asti means to exist, May God prevail. Ka or tika is mark for the good luck. Hitler misappropriated this mystical symbol. Cyclic return of four celestial periods Sat (Golden), Treta (Silver), Dwapar (Copper) and Kali (Iron – when divine guidance is steadily withdrawn) yuga.

Idol-worship is not peculiar to Hinduism. Christians make reference to God on the Cross by having an image of the Cross in their mind. Roman Catholics have icons or statues in prayer and place them in Churches. Muslims keep the image of the Kaba stone when they kneel and do prayers. We all use photographs to make connections.

In line with principles and key concepts, Hinduism upholds the eternal values and ideals of Satya (Truth), Dayã (Compassion), Ahimsã (Non-violence), and Dan (Charity). Remaining faithful to these values and other scriptural injunctions, the Hindu tries to maintain a balance in life among the four endeavors of Dharma, Artha, Kãma, and Moksha.

5.2 The Four Purushartha for Hindus are the Kama, Artha, Dharma, and Moksha. All humans seek kama (pleasure, physical or emotional) and artha (power, fame, respect, and wealth), systmatic framework of dharma, or moral harmony in all to achieve the main goal of life – to attain absolute happiness is moksha.

5.3 The Four Stages of Life: Hindu life is seen as four phases called the “Ashramas-stage of life”. They are Brahmacharya (Learning), Grihasthya (Earning), Vanaprastha (Returning), and Sanyasa (U-Turning). The first quarter of one’s life, Brahmacharya is a student life spent in building up body and mind for the responsibilities of life and learning (profession, passions, social, spiritual (grounding)) to walk the path of Brahman (God). Grihastya is the householder’s stage, in which one marries and satisfies kama and artha within a married life and professional career. Vedic hymns recommend the institution of self-choice in marriage. Vedas advise monogamy in any ideal society and a dowry system is not mentioned. Hinduism also specifies that children do not belong to you they only come through you, therefore, perform your duties without gain. The relationship between parents and children is based on the divine concept of love with its latent energy. Vanaprastha is a gradual detachment from the material world (retirement), doing more charity work and spending time in contemplation of the truth, making holy pilgrimages, and selflessly spreading divine knowledge in society. Finally in Sanyasa, the individual renounces himself/herself from materialism and goes into seclusion to find God through Yoga or meditation.

5.4 Cast System: The basis of Vedic social grouping or Varna is the pursuit of divine professions with Dharma and selflessness. In society, they are co-workers for prosperity and can marry amongst themselves provided both are of similar thoughts and wisdom to get healthy and intelligent children for the benefit of society. All four Varna, relate to divine professions based on merit, capacity, and aptitude and not by birth and no mention of which is superior or inferior. Efficient human society is based on the strength of its educational/ knowledge-pursuit system (Brahmin- living with and spreading knowledge and for their selfless service they were entitled to honour and respect), it’s military and defense system (Kshatriya, possess the power and willingness to protect others), its economical and business system (Vaishya, posses wealth), and a strong, happy, productive workforce (Shudras). This categorization is slowly vanishing in modern times. Hindus accord high status to women in an ideal society. She is the first preceptor (guru) for her child.

5.5 Festivals: Hindu festivals have a deep spiritual import; they have religious, hygienic, and social elements in them. Festivals bring people together, teach lessons for life and give rest and peace. Everyone forgets and forgives the wrong done by others. There is an air of freedom, festivity, and friendship everywhere. The festival brings about unity and instills charity and Love in the hearts of people. Two important festivals are Deepawali (the festival of light) and Holi (the festival of colours) which occur in the fall and spring, respectively.

5.6 Sacraments to mark the passage called samskāras to tune and purify individuals at various stages of life to set directions towards Self realization. There are 16 samskāras, but 10 samskāras are common.

Jatakarma – is the first samskara and it is performed immediately after birth. Parents welcome a newborn child, pray for his or her long life, intelligence and well-being, and feed it with honey and butter. Namakarana – the naming ceremony is performed on the eleventh or twelfth day with the recitation of Mantras. Annaprasana – occurs in the sixth month of life when the child is given solid food for the first time. Mantras are recited and oblations are offered to the various deities. Chudakarma- is the shaving of the head, and it is performed in the first or third year. Karnavedha or ear-boring ceremony is performed in the fifth or the seventh year. The body of the child is protected and harmonized by these ceremonies. Any hereditary defect that arises from a defect of semen and ovum is removed and the child starts their own thinking. Vidyarambha Alphabet is taught to the child. Upanayana ceremony marks the beginning of the next stage of life—the stage of youth. Word Upanayana means bringing near. It is his second or spiritual birth. Education and Brahmacharya start from this stage. Samavartana or graduation brings the end of the student stage. The student completed the studies and is ready to marry and enter into the Grihastha Ashrama, the life of a householder. Vivaha is marriage or entry into the second Ashrama, the life of the householder takes up their duties and pays spiritual debts by sacrifice, study, and by bringing up children for the service of humanity. The last samskara, Cremation (burning of the dead body) is a funeral rite performed by family members to attain moksha or human rebirth.

5.7. Yoga and Meditation: Spiritual techniques used by rishi to get united with God. The goal of life is self-realization through perfection. Meditation is the key to unfolding the divinity or atman hidden in all names and forms. The spiritual path is thorny and requires strong determination, dedication, and devotion. The path will take you to infinite bliss. The roads are different but the destination is the same. According to Vedic philosophy, Truth is One, though the sage knows it as Many. Hinduism describes four paths to achieving ultimate Truth; The man of action (Karma Yoga), the man of devotion (Bhakti Yoga), the mystic man or philosopher (Raja Yoga), and the man of reason (Gyana Yoga). The practice of Yoga is to enrich life, keep fit, and cure many diseases. In Hinduism philosophy, the body is considered a boat to cross the ocean of this world, happily. A brief tabulation of ashtanga yoga (8 yogic practices) is provided below:

Samadhi – Superconscious state and eternal peace

Dhyan – Perception of Self and the prana is merged with the soul

Dharna – Concentration (mind is under control)

Pratyahara – Calmness (senses are under your control – no uncontrolled intake)

Pranayam – Control of breath, restraints of vital energies, and control of subtle and astral bodies

Asana – Posture to strengthen the body

Niyam – Inner purification by purity, contentment, austerity, study, and worship of God

Yam – Outer control (gatekeeper of Dharma) by truthfulness, non-killing, non-stealing celibacy (energy conservation and control), non-greediness/possessiveness.

5.8. Rituals: In this materialistic world living with tension, disappointment, distrust and other alignments, rituals tune us into controlling our minds and provide an opportunity to think about the internal self. Furthermore, rituals help us to understand the goal of life and support righteousness. Hindus fulfill three religious activities – Nitya (daily ritual – Panch dev pooja) and Panch Yajna (devotional offerings), Namitya (rituals performed on special occasions, such as birthdays, marriage etc, and Kamya (rituals performed according to personal desires). Rituals teach us tapa (austerity) for righteousness and to live on higher food and develop a good balance of body elements (earth, water, fire, sky, air) as well as body, mind, and soul. One of the goals of rituals and festivals is to pass on the traditions to the next generation in a form that can be easily understood during that time.

Hinduism provides spiritual food and yoga enriches the lives of all sorts of people. Hinduism is practical and is suited to this present age of materialism. The eternal Hindu philosophy is a way of life. Its social and spiritual message remains always as fresh as blooming flowers and it provides directions to attain Bliss (permanent peace), and it allows for others to live in peace.