Beliefs and practices
A Hindu ( pronunciation (help·info), Devanagari: हिन्दू) is an adherent of Hinduism, a set of religious, philosophical and cultural systems that originated in the Indian subcontinent. The vast body of Hindu scriptures, divided into Śruti ("revealed") and Smriti ("remembered"), lay the foundation of Hindu beliefs which primarily include dhárma, kárma, ahimsa and saṃsāra. Vedānta and yoga are one of the several core schools of Hindu philosophy, broadly known as the Sanatan Dharm (Hindi: सनातन धर्म).
Hinduism is regarded as the oldest of world's major religions and Hindu mythology and philosophy has had a profound impact in many parts of the world, especially southern and South East Asia. With more than a billion adherents, Hinduism is the world's third largest religion. Vast majority of Hindus, approximately 1 billion, live in India. Other countries with large Hindu populations can be found in various parts of the world.
The word Hindu first appeared in the Old Persian language which most likely was derived from the Sanskrit word Sindhu, the historic local appellation for the Indus River in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent. In Persian literature the word Hindu-E-Falak is found. The usage of the word Hindu was further popularized by the Arabic term al-Hind referring to the land of the people who live across river Indus. By 13th century, Hindustān emerged as a popular alternative name of India, meaning the "land of Hindus". 'Hindus' came to be used for people regardless of their religious affiliation and mainly as a geographical term. It was only towards the end of the 18th century, the European merchants and colonists referred collectively to the followers of Dharmic religions in Hindustan — which geographically referred to most parts of the northern Indian subcontinent — as Hindus. Eventually, it came to define a precisely religious identity that includes any person of Indian origin who did not practice Abrahamic religions or religions such as Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism or Buddhism and came to be known as a Hindu, thereby encompassing a wide range of religious beliefs and practices. The word 'Hindu' is neither Sanskrit, nor Dravidian and did not originate in India, which was known as Bharata. It was not used in Indian writings until 17th century. The term Hindu was originally a secular word meant to describe all inhabitants of India and it got its religious and communal overtones during British Raj .
One of the accepted views is that ism was added to Hindu around 1830 to denote the culture and religion of the high-caste Brahmans in contrast to other religions. The term Hinduism was soon appropriated by the Hindus in India themselves as they tried to establish a national, social and cultural identity opposed to European colonialism in India.
The roots of the diverse set of religious beliefs, traditions and philosophy of Hindus were laid during the Vedic age which originated in India between 2000 and 1500 BC. The ancient Vedic religion is considered by most scholars as the predecessor of the modern religion of Hindus and it has had a profound impact on India's history, culture and philosophy. The Vedas is oldest sacred book of Hinduism and lays the foundation of several schools of Hindu thought. The Upanishads refers to those scriptures which form the core teachings of the Vedānta philosophy. Adi Shankara's commentaries on the Upanishads led to the rise of Advaita Vedanta, the most influential sub-school of Vedanta.
Hinduism consists of several sects and denominations, of which Vaishnavism and Shaivism are by far the most popular. Other aspects include folk and conservative Vedic Hinduism. Since the 18th century, Hinduism has accommodated a host of new religious and reform movements, with Arya Samaj being one of the most notable Hindu revivalist organizations. Due to the wide diversity in the beliefs, practices and traditions encompassed by Hinduism, there is no universally accepted definition on who a Hindu is, or even agreement on whether term Hinduism represents a religious, cultural or socio-political entity. In 1995, Chief Justice P. B. Gajendragadkar was quoted in an Indian Supreme Court ruling:
- When we think of the Hindu religion, unlike other religions in the world, the Hindu religion does not claim any one prophet; it does not worship any one god; it does not subscribe to any one dogma; it does not believe in any one philosophic concept; it does not follow any one set of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not appear to satisfy the narrow traditional features of any religion or creed. It may broadly be described as a way of life and nothing more.
Thus some scholars argue that the Hinduism is not a religion per se but rather a reification of a diverse set of traditions and practices by scholars who constituted a unified system and arbitrarily labeled it Hinduism. The usage may also have been necessitated by the desire to distinguish between "Hindus" and followers of other religions during the periodic census undertaken by the colonial British government in India. Other scholars, while seeing Hinduism as a 19th-century construct, view Hinduism as a response to British colonialism by Indian nationalists who forged a unified tradition centered on oral and written Sanskrit texts adopted as scriptures.
In 1995, while considering the question "who are Hindus and what are the broad features of Hindu religion", the Supreme Court of India highlighted Bal Gangadhar Tilak's formulation of Hinduism's defining features:
- Acceptance of the Vedas with reverence; recognition of the fact that the means or ways to salvation are diverse; and the realization of the truth that the number of gods to be worshipped is large, that indeed is the distinguishing feature of Hindu religion.
Some thinkers have attempted to distinguish between the concept of Hinduism as a religion, and a Hindu as a member of a nationalist or socio-political class. Veer Savarkar in his influential pamphlet "Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?" considered geographical unity, common culture and common race to be the defining qualities of Hindus; thus a Hindu was a person who saw India "as his Fatherland as well as his Holy land, that is, the cradle land of his religion". This conceptualization of Hinduism, has led to establishment of Hindutva as the dominant force in Hindu nationalism over the last century.
Customs and traditions
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Ethnic and cultural fabric
Hinduism, its religious doctrines, traditions and observances are very typical and inextricably linked to the culture and demographics of India. Hinduism has one of the most ethnically diverse bodies of adherents in the world.It is hard to classify Hinduism as a religion because the framework, symbols, leaders and books of reference that make up a typical religion are not uniquely identified in the case of Hinduism. Hinduism is almost 4,000 years old. Most commonly it can be seen as a "way of life" which gives rise to many other civilized forms of religions.
Large tribes and communities indigenous to India are closely linked to the synthesis and formation of Hindu civilization. People of East Asian roots living in the states of north eastern India and Nepal were also a part of the earliest Hindu civilization. Immigration and settlement of people from Central Asia and people of Indo-Greek heritage have brought their own influence on Hindu society.
The roots of Hinduism in southern India, and amongst tribal and indigenous communities is just as ancient and fundamentally contributive to the foundations of the religious and philosophical system.
Ancient Hindu kingdoms arose and spread the religion and traditions across South East Asia, particularly Thailand, Nepal, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and what is now central Vietnam. A form of Hinduism particularly different from Indian roots and traditions is practiced in Bali, Indonesia, where Hindus form 90% of the population. Indian migrants have taken Hinduism and Hindu culture to South Africa, Fiji, Mauritius and other countries in and around the Indian Ocean, and in the nations of the West Indies and the Caribbean.
Hindu ceremonies, observances and pilgrimages
Hinduism is also very diverse in the religious ceremonies performed by its adherents for different periods and events in life, and for death. Principal Festivity of the Hindus also vary from region to region which include Diwali, Shivratri, Ram Navami, Janmashtmi, Ganapati, Durgapuja, Holi, Navaratri, etc.
Many Hindus make pilgrimages to the holy shrines (known as tirthas). Hindu holy shrines include Mount Kailash, Amarnath, Vaishno Devi, Rameshwaram, and Kedarnath. Prominent Hindu holy cities include Varanasi (Benaras), Tirupati, Haridwar, Nashik,Ujjain, Dwarka, Puri, Prayaga, Mathura, Mayapur and Ayodhya.
Goddess Durga's holy shrine in Vaishno Devi attracts thousands of devotees every year. Hundreds of millions of Hindus annually visit holy rivers such as the Ganges ("Ganga" in Sanskrit) and temples near them, wash and bathe themselves to purify their sins. The Kumbha Mela (the Great Fair) is a gathering of between 10 and 20 million Hindus upon the banks of the holy rivers at Allahabad (Prayag), Ujjain, Nashik, as periodically ordained in different parts of India by Hinduism's priestly leadership. The most famous is at the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna in Uttar Pradesh which is known as "Sangam".
Sixteen sanskars (rituals)
These are various rituals necessary within a life of Hindu. These samskaram are applied during different phases of life. These are:
- Garbhadhan Sanskar (Conception)
- Punsavan Sanskar (Protection)
- Simantanayan Sanskar (Bringing Happiness to mother)
- Jatakarm Sanskar (Child Birth)
- Namakaran Sanskar (Naming of Child)
- Nishkraman Sanskar (First outdoor visit)
- Annaprashan Sanskar (First food feeding)
- Chudkaram Sanskar (Haircutting)
- Karnavedh Sanskar (Ear piercing)
- Upnayan (Sacred thread wearing)
- Vedarambh Sanskar (Study starting)
- Samavartna Sanskar (Education completion)
- Vivah Sanskar (Marriage)
- Vanprasth Sanskar (Preparation for renouncing)
- Sanyas Sanskar (Renouncing)
- Antyesti Sanskar (Funeral)
Some Hindus, may perform initiation ceremonies like Upanayana or Janoy or 'Bratabandha'. These ceremonies have variants depending on the caste, the culture and the region.
In a ceremony administered by a priest, a coir string, known as Janoy, Poonool (lit. "flower thread,"Tamil), janivara (Kannada, Marathi), is hung from around a young boy's left shoulder to his right waist line for Brahmins and from right shoulders to left waistline by Kshatriyas. The ceremony varies from region to community, and includes reading from the Vedas and special Mantras and Slokas.
Religion for the common Hindu
By tradition, the distinction between "believer" and "unbeliever" (Nastika) was simply whether the person, in principle, accepted the authority of the Vedas. Such acceptance was in many cases a matter of common terminology and purely nominal, detached from the actual text of the Vedas. Consequently, wildly different belief systems coexist (including atheistic, polytheistic, monotheistic, among others) within the community of "believers" and, for the common Hindu, the connection to the Vedas is mostly through certain chants that are performed at various ceremonies.
The Puranas are a wide collection of religious treatises, biographies and stories on the historical, mythological and religious characters in Hindu folklore, classic literature and sacred scriptures. They are often the source of popular Hindu folk tales and religious lessons and thus play a much bigger role in the emotional/spiritual dimension of the common Hindu's life.
Yoga is an important connection for a Hindu to his religious and historical heritage. The art of spiritual and physical exercises are a distinguished native tradition pursued by millions of Hindus worldwide.
Indian Vedic astrology is important to the conduct of any of life's important events such as marriage, applying for a post or admission, buying a house or starting a new business. To millions of Hindus the kundali is an invaluable possession that charts the course of life for a man or a woman from the time of his birth, all ascertained by Vedic mathematics and astrology.
Perhaps the most popular Hindu scripture is the Mahabharata, depicting a civil war within a family that takes on dimensions of the struggle between dharma and adharma. Krishna's discourse to the warrior prince Arjuna, known as the Bhagavad Gita and contained in the Mahabharata, is the guide book on life for the common Hindu. For many Hindus the Bhagavad Gita is considered a source of divine guidance and inspiration. Devotional readers apply Krishna's teachings to the personal and worldly contexts of their life. It is often considered as the main source of religious teaching for Hindu practitioners.
Similarly, the Ramayana, depicting the life of the prince and king Rama, also plays a big role through its many different versions. To hundreds of millions of Hindus, Rama is more than just an incarnation of the Supreme, or simply a just king of Ayodhya. He is the still living, thriving soul and identity of real Hinduism. Rama is the image of Hinduism, the Perfect Man, its conscience and undying hope of deliverance.
The doctrines of moksha by the diligent discharge of personal, social and religious duty is the cornerstone of Hindu society. By following one's duty (Swa-Dharma) one gains merit and, when the process is completed, union with the Godhead and cessation of the cycle of birth and death. Dereliction of duty will result in all sorts of misfortunes, including birth into a lower level in the social hierarchy. This is a strong motivation to stick to the right path of human nature. Commonly this swa-dharma or varna is misunderstood as caste, the class identity in Hindu society. Varna is determined by a soul's karma, while Jat or caste is determined by birth and not necessarily in a person's nature. So it is important for a person to follow their true nature and seek to do their duty in life.
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