Began when: The Hindu religion began 3,000 – 4,000 years ago, maybe more. The growth of Hinduism was an organic process, meaning it didn’t have one particular start date and founder. Rather it grew and changed over time, likely reflecting the merging of the different peoples, conqueror and conquered.
Founded by: Dravidians & Aryans
Holy book(s): Vedas, Upanishads, Mahabharata (of which the Bhagavad Gita is part), Ramayana
Range: Mainly throughout South Asia, but found worldwide
Defining qualities: Polytheistic union of deities, perhaps also of religious practices of the conquering Aryans and the conquered Dravidian “dasas” (slaves). Hinduism celebrates vegetarianism and the spark of the divine in humanity, but may also involve blood sacrifices to pacify demons who torment them, depending upon the deity concerned. It is difficult to characterise a religion that is so diverse in its practices. Overall, however, the Hindu religion is a works-based religion in which the individual is thought to gradually circle closer and closer to ultimate spiritual freedom over many lifetimes.
Hindu Stories & People
In the Hindu religion, one way devotees seek liberation (moksha) , merit, and cleansing from their sins involves a journey to a crossing place. The journey is a path of devotion amidst human flaws to a holy place—often a river seen as sacred—where they bathe in the waters.
At the crossing place, they are purified, and they draw closer to the divine. Here, they believe, they can truly approach God, the temple of their bodies made clean for a while.
The journey to the crossing place acknowledges the very human need for our Creator—for cleansing from our sins (pap). This sincere gesture is intended to please the god(s) and find favor in their sight.
Here, too, God has planted the seed: the desire to know Him and be known, to be cleansed from our sins.
Throughout the world, there has been expressed in humankind a desire to touch God and have Him walk among us. It's present in Hinduism as well.
Not only is it believed that humans may carry a divine spark at different times of life, but legends also tell of avatars-- god-men who came to walk among us.
You can know God and dwell with Him forever. You can be forgiven—forever clean and loved in the sight of God!
The Hindu religion is intrinsically hierarchical. It is built into the relationship between not only deities and mankind, but also husband-wife, parents-children, superior caste-inferior caste. While the graceful greeting of prayerful hands and “Namaste” or “Namaskar” implicitly acknowledges the divine spark in each human being, it is also worthwhile to note that, apart from a greeting between social equals or in which politeness dictates the necessity, the greeting may be one-sided or unequally returned.
In a sense, the inferior gives a cursory worship to the superior by giving the gesture, while the one of higher status will either respond with a briefer gesture or slight head nod or not at all. This hierarchy may also be explicitly defined via the form of “you” that’s used: the polite and formal form toward the superior, the less formal form commonly used for children and servants toward the inferior. This was a bit of a wake-up for me when I was living in India, as I was used to a more egalitarian form of address, regardless of class.
Patriarchy is obviously not unique to the Hindu religion. Rather, a curious facet of many religions would seem to be that while men are accorded dominance in leadership for a variety of reasons or rationales I won’t examine here, women as a whole tend to be the more devout carriers and transmitters of the faiths. This aspect notwithstanding, it is certainly a key facet of Hinduism and is but another face of the more general hierarchy it contains.
Women are considered to encapsulate the honour of the family in a way that men are not. It is because of their position as honour-holders that women of the family were sometimes killed or encouraged to jump down wells to drown themselves during the communal violence of India’s Partition, rather than risk being ravished by a man of another faith. It is also a reason rape is so difficult to prosecute, since a decent woman should value her honour above her life—thus, when an Indian woman is raped, even gang-raped, if she doesn’t bear obvious marks of abuse and struggle at the end of it, the judge may consider it to have been consensual. (See India Dishonored.)
The imbalance in domestic power is reinforced by traditional marriage practices in which young girls may be married to much older men. It also shows up as a caste/varna/jati/class issue, as women may sometimes marry up but not down. While that may initially seem to be an example of caste mobility, in a more practical sense, it serves to keep the woman in check, since she will inherently lack the rank of her husband and in-laws. And while some women use various means to subvert the domestic hierarchy, it doesn’t overturn the basic structure, but is rather more in spite of it.
Broad Spirituality & Reincarnation
Divine spirits and deities are seen to infuse most people, animals, and things. The cosmology of Hinduism posits more of a steady-state universe without real beginning or end. (A steady-state universe has since been discounted.) There are ages of time with many of the same stories repeated over and over in various forms, just as the spirits of individuals are reborn in various forms or castes based on their merit or sin in past lives.
So if you’re born a Dalit, considered so vile and unclean people would not even touch you, or if you’re a goat slaughtered on the walls of a fort, or if you’re an unwanted dog giving birth to your pups in a pothole of the road with rickshaws barely avoiding you, it’s because of something you did in a past life. If you’re a low-caste child living in a Mumbai slum who’s beaten by your alcoholic father if you don’t bring in enough from begging, you deserve it. It’s your karma.
There are devotional movements within Hindu religion that give hope to the lowly, in that those like the popular Bhakti movement poet-saint Mirabai followed taught that anyone could reach enlightenment, and so gave little to no weight to caste distinctions. So it’s fair to state the more pitiless aspects of caste hierarchy and karma aren’t universally internalized within the Hindu religion.
Believe me when I tell you there are far too many Hindu temples, shrines, and pilgrimage sites to even begin to provide a cursory introduction to them. If you visit India, you will never, ever, ever run out of temples to visit. Here are a handful of well-known sites: