Judaism
 

             Hinduism

 

               Vaishnavism

 
 

                 Shaivism

 
 

               Shaktism

   
 

                 Smartism

   
 

               Hare Krishna

   
 

                Arya Samaj

Hinduism is unique among the world religions in that it has no founder or date of origin. While most major religions derive from new ideas taught by a charismatic leader, Hinduism is simply the religion of majority of the people of India, which has gradually developed over four thousand years. The origins and authors of its sacred texts are largely unknown.

Although today's Hinduism differs significantly from earlier forms of Indian religion, Hinduism's roots date back as far as 2000 BC, making it one of the oldest surviving religions. Because of its great age, the early history of Hinduism is unclear. The most ancient writings have yet to be deciphered, so for the earliest periods scholars must rely on educated guesses based on archaeology and the study of contemporary texts.

History and Development

In the last few decades, the history of Hinduism has become a matter of political controversy. The history of any nation (or individual) is an important part of its self-identity, and this is especially true of India, which so recently gained independence after centuries of colonial rule. The controversy over India's history centres on the origin of the Aryan culture, as we shall see in more detail below.

The Indus River Valley Civilization: In 1921, some archaeologists uncovered evidence of an ancient civilization along the Indus River, which today runs through northwest India into Pakistan. The so-called Indus Valley civilization (also known as the "Harappan civilization" for one of its chief cities) is thought to have originated as early as 7000 BC and to have reached is height between 2300 to 2000 BC. It encompassed over 750,000 square miles and traded with Mesopotamia.

Some writings of this period have been discovered, but unfortunately in small amounts that they are yet to be deciphered. Knowledge of this great civilization's religion must therefore be based on physical evidence alone. Baths have been found that may indicate ritual bathing, a component of modern Hinduism. Some altar-like structures may be evidence of animal sacrifice, and terracotta figures may represent deities. An important seal features a horned figure surrounded by animals, which some conjecture is a prototype of Shiva, but it could be a bull akin to that found on Mesopotamian seals.

The Aryans: The Indus Valley culture began to decline around 1800 BC, due possibly to flooding or drought. Until recently, it was unquestionably held that it was at this time that the Aryans invaded or migrated into both India and Iran. According to this hypothesis, both the Sanskrit language and the Vedic religion, that is foundational to Hinduism, is attributable to the Aryans ("noble ones") and their descendents. The original inhabitants of the Indus Valley are thought to have been Dravidians with their own language and culture, which became subordinate to that of the invaders. This hypothesis is supported by similarities between Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Iran, and the Vedic religion of ancient India. In addition, no traces of horses or chariots have been found in the remains of the Indus Valley culture, although they were central to Aryan military and ritual life.

Beginning in the 1980s, this hypothesis was challenged by some as a myth propagated by colonial scholars who sought to reinforce the idea that anything valuable in India must have come from elsewhere. In its place, a hypothesis is offered in which there was no invasion and Aryan culture developed out of the Indus Valley civilization. This view is sometimes called the "cultural transformation hypothesis." There is evidence to support both sides.
Doctrine

Hinduism encompasses a great diversity of belief systems that can be initially confusing to westerners accustomed to creeds, confessions, and carefully-worded belief statements. Hinduism is a polytheistic religion, in that its followers believe in many gods, but strictly speaking, this is not accurate. Mainstream Hinduism believes in One God, but asserts that the One God can appear to humans in multiple names and forms. One can believe a wide variety of things about God, the universe and the path to liberation and still be considered a Hindu. This attitude towards religious belief has also made Hinduism one of the more open-minded religions when it comes to evaluating other faiths. Probably the most popular (and famous) Hindu saying about religion is, "Truth is one; sages call it by different names."

However, there are some beliefs common to nearly all forms of Hinduism that can be identified, and these basic beliefs are generally regarded as boundaries outside of which lies either heresy or non-Hindu religion. These fundamental Hindu beliefs include: the authority of the Vedas (the oldest Indian sacred texts) and the Brahmans (priests); the existence of an enduring soul that transmigrates from one body to another at death; and the law of karma that determines one's destiny both in this life and the next. The ultimate goal of all Hindus is release (moksha) from the cycle of rebirth (samsara). For those of a devotional bent, this means being in God's presence, while those of a philosophical persuasion look forward to uniting with God as a drop of rain merges with the sea.

Deities

The greatest Hindu deities are Brahma (the creator) Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer). The numerous other Hindu gods are mostly viewed as incarnations or epiphanies of the main deities, though some are survivors of the pre-Aryan era. The major sources of classical mythology are the Mahabharata (which includes the Bhagavadgita, one of the most important religious text of Hinduism), the Ramayana, and the Puranas. The characters in classical mythology, like Ram, Hanuman and Krishna, are avatars or incarnations of the primary deities, who are born on earth with the purpose defeating evil. They are born in human form with supernatural powers and have unique features and qualities that have lead to their emergence as gods in their own right and they are often worshipped independent of the primary deities. In some respects, the Hindu concept of avatara is similar to the belief found in Christianity that God came to the earth in the human form of Jesus. However, whereas most Christians believe that God has assumed a human body on only one occasion, Hinduism teaches that there have been multiple avatars throughout history, and that there will be more in the future.

In their personal religious practices, Hindus worship primarily one or another of these deities, known as their "ishta devatā," or chosen ideal. The concept of being a bhakt or devotee of a god is central to Hinduism. The particular form of God worshipped as one's chosen ideal is a matter of individual preference. Regional and family traditions can influence this choice. Hindus may also take guidance about this choice from their scriptures. Although Hindus may worship deities other than their chosen ideal from time to time as well, depending on the occasion and their personal inclinations, they are not required to worship—or even know about—every form of God. Hindus generally choose one concept of God (e.g., Krishna, Rama, Shiva, or Kali) and cultivate devotion to that chosen form, while at the same time respecting the chosen ideals of other people.

Note that a specific belief about God or gods is not considered one of the essentials, which is a major difference between Hinduism and strictly monotheistic religions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Sikhism. Most Hindus are devoted followers of one of the principal gods Shiva, Vishnu or Shakti, and often others besides, yet all these are regarded as manifestations of a single Reality.

The hierarchical social structure of the caste system was also important in Hinduism; it was supported by the principle of dharma, which means 'right way of living' or 'proper conduct,' suitable for ones status/ place in society. However, in the modern Indian democracy, the caste system has been abolished and any discrimination based on caste is punishable by law. In the 20th century, during the struggle for independence against colonialism, Hinduism blended with Indian nationalism to become a powerful political force in Indian politics.

Aspects of Social Functioning

- Caste System

Caste system, as already indicated, refers to the social divisions. The structure of an exclusive and hierarchical caste system developed into a rigid social structure. Hence a person's social and occupational status as well as the potentialities of religious and spiritual career could often be traced to the caste one belonged to. Such a custom is still somewhat rigid in the rural parts of India, but there are signs of rapid change and reformation thanks to the education and the changes natural for the passing time. In Britain, the differences are becoming increasingly blurred. The young Hindus in UK are increasingly looking to a Hindu partner who may or may not belong to the same caste as other social factors set in to evaluate common values.

-Personal Hygiene

Personal hygiene has many ritual practices observed by both men and women. Cleanliness, purity and health-care in food etc. have always been looked into on priority in the services like a pooja in the Hindu religion. The health-consciousness of Indians also owes to the Ayurveda, the ancient Indian science of medicine which has become the indigenous tradition.

-Tobacco and Alcohol

These are generally avoided.

-Diet

There are no rigid regulations. However, vegetarian food is preferred especially on festivals and sacred days when killing is not desirable. Hindus may eat meat and fish. They will not eat beef and rarely pork. The decision is of individual choice.

Hinduism Today

Hinduism has grown to become the world's third largest religion, after Christianity and Islam. Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world, with approximately 1 billion adherents (2005 figure), 13% of the world's population, of whom about 890 million live in India. Other countries with large Hindu populations include Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, with Nepal being the only country with Hinduism as its official religion. Over 400,000 people in the United Kingdom are followers of Hinduism. They are mostly concentrated in large cities such as London, Manchester, Bradford and Birmingham.  Since the counter-culture revolution of the 1960s, there have been an increasing number of Western devotees of various Hindu lineages and practices. These have come about not only through the Hare Krishnas, but also through the Universalist teachings of such Hindu figures as Sri Ramakrishna, and the yoga teachings of B.K.S. Iyengar.

The growing number of Indian immigrants relocating into the West, and the subsequent building of Hindu temples to meet the spiritual needs of these newly established Hindu communities has also resulted in Westerns having ready access to traditional teachings. Many Western converts were introduced to Hinduism after attending the Western temples and then embracing the tradition. There can also be no doubt that the fitness revolution's fascination with yoga in the 1990's, has helped spur on new interest in the teachings of Hinduism in the West

-Hindu Sects

Classifying the many groups within Hinduism is a challenge. In so doing, we may inadvertently promote the idea that Hinduism is a single monolithic religion. It is, more accurately, a family of religions, with each family member autonomous but sharing distinctive family features. Nonetheless, it is useful to establish a somewhat tentative framework for categorising the numerous groups and sub-groups. These groups are, Vaishnavas worship Vishnu (usually as Krishna or Rama), Shaivas worship Shiva (often in the form of the linga), Shaktism which is the worship Shakti (female energy) also known as Devi (especially Parvati, Durga, Kali), Smartism that worships five deities i.e. Vishnu, Shiva, Devi, Ganesh, and Surya. A sect of Vaishnvism that is popular in the UK is the Hare Krishnas.

In the UK many individuals and temples will not specifically align themselves to one (or more) of these traditions. They worship deities from all these traditions. They often describe themselves as "Sanatanist" to reflect their more inclusive nature. Underpinning them, there is often a leaning towards the monistic Smarta conclusions of Shankara. Shaivism and Shaktism are often closely related, especially within tantric traditions, which explore the male-female symbolism of Shiva-Shakti.

Vedanta, a school of philosophy within Hinduism, is also prominent in the UK. The word Vedanta is a compound of veda "knowledge" and anta "end, conclusion", translating to "the culmination of the Vedas". The literal meaning of the term "Vedānta" is "the end of knowledge" or "the ultimate knowledge" or "matter appended to the Veda". As the traditional Vedic ritualistic components of religion, continued to be practiced through the Brahmins as meditative and propitiatory rites to guide society to self-knowledge, knowledge-centered understandings began to emerge. These are mystical streams of Vedic religion that focused on meditation, self-discipline and spiritual connectivity rather than on rituals. The cryptic aphorisms of the Vedanta Sutras are open to a variety of interpretations, resulting in the formation of numerous Vedanta schools, each interpreting the texts in its own way and producing its own sub-commentaries claiming to be faithful to the original.

Consistent throughout Vedanta, however, is the exhortation that ritual be eschewed in favor of the individual's quest for truth through meditation governed by a loving morality, secure in the knowledge that infinite bliss awaits the seeker. Near all existing sects of Hinduism are directly or indirectly influenced by the thought systems developed by Vedantic thinkers. Hinduism to a great extent owes its survival to the formation of the coherent and logically advanced systems of Vedanta. Advaita Vedanta has influenced a number of modern scientists, philosophers and authors. Among prominent Western figures who have been influenced by and commented on Vedanta are Max Müller, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, Romain Rolland, Alan Watts, Eugene Wigner, Arnold Toynbee, and Will Durant. The UK Vedanta centre is located in Buckinghamshire.

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