Sacred and spiritual - Hinduism

One of the oldest living religions of the world, Hinduism unusually has no one founder. How this ancient religion developed is unclear. It seems to have been born from the synthesis of traditions of two disparate sources, that of the Indus Valley Civilisation of c.3000 BC of which we have only archaeological information, and that of the people called Aryans (Indo-European tribes from Central Asia) who are thought to have come to the sub-continent in about 1500 BC.

Early origins

It is assumed that the Aryans defeated the indigenous peoples of India and spread over the sub-continent, absorbing many religious elements that existed into their own original Vedic culture. The people of the Indus Valley venerated the Mother Goddess and a prototype of the god Shiva. They worshipped trees and the phallic symbol of Shiva called the linga. They had a highly developed system of baths, and ritual purification was perhaps a key element in their lives. All these elements are important features of Hinduism.

Chromolithograph of a Shivaite yogi and a woman under a banyan tree
Image: A Shivaite yogi accosts a woman under a banyan tree. Bhasmasura received the power that whatever his hand touched would turn to ash, he was tricked by Vishnu and touched his own head.
The sacred scriptures of Hinduism are the Vedas, the scriptures of the Aryans. Veda means Knowledge and the scriptures are described as sruti or 'heard' by the sages or revealed to them. There are four, the Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda. They are mostly collections of liturgies for priests during sacrificial rites. The earliest is the Rig Veda, a collection of sacred hymns dating from about 1500 BC.

Foundations

The foundation of Hinduism is laid on studying the relationship between mankind, the universe and God or the Universal Spirit. This philosophical structure is given by the Upanishads, mystical and speculative texts compiled by sages from about 1500 to 200 BC. The Upanishads are seen as the final segment of the Vedas and hence called Vedanta or End of the Vedas.

They led to six schools of philosophy being developed: the Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sankhya, Yoga, Purva-Mimamsa and Uttara-Mimamsa. They variously deal with logic, spirit-matter dualism, meditational techniques, Vedic philosophy and ritual and atomistic pluralism. The goal of the various schools is to show how ultimate union of the individual soul or Atman with the Universal Soul or Brahman could be achieved by following the path they devise.

Origins of the caste system

By the 4th century BC the great epics of Hinduism, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata had evolved. In this phase called the post-Vedic phase, Hinduism gradually stratified into hierarchies or castes and duty became a supreme goal of the religion. The priests and scholarly class were the Brahmins, the warrior class were the Kshatriyas, the merchants were the Vaishyas, the labourers and working class were the Sudras. Those who engaged in polluting tasks such as disposing of dead bodies were considered beyond the pale. Hinduism continued to evolve and the Tantric or esoteric strain developed where the union of male and female energies has cosmic powers.

Hinduism conceives a Supreme Being who could be worshipped as male (Ishwara) or female (Devi/Shakti). This Being is Creator, Preserver and Destroyer. This concept evolved into the three great gods of the Hindu Trinity, Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver/Protector and Shiva the Destroyer. Hindu ideas became personified by further gods until the pantheon of gods grew vast.

The bhakti movement which developed in the medieval period emphasised a personal relationship with God. Most Hindus began to worship either Shiva or Vishnu or one of his incarnations such as Krishna. The Bhagavad Gita or Song of the Lord became the most revered text. This is a Sanskrit poem inserted in the Mahabharata which emphasises love and surrender to God rather than pure knowledge as the spiritual path.

Hinduism today

Contemporary Hinduism has developed into a religion based on devotion, which is above all an intimate religion of the household rather than congregational, where a chosen deity is worshipped with offerings of flowers, incense and prayers.

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