Hinduism is known as the third largest and the oldest living religion in the world. It is also known as Sanātana Dharma, which means “the eternal law”. Despite having firm roots in the ancient Vedic religion, there is no specific founder of Hinduism. Rather, it is based on a system of morals, generally accepted behaviours and the concept of karma (which dictates that, for every action, there is a directly-responsive reaction or consequence). The foundation beliefs are based on many texts, some of which are believed to have been revealed (called Sruti) and others that have been remembered (Smriti). These texts deal with mythology, theology and philosophy and provide guidance on a religious way of life (known as “dharma”).
Of India’s 1.1 billion residents, over 900 million of these subscribe to the Hindu faith, making it the majority religion in the subcontinent by far. The word “Hindu” has its roots in the Persian word for the Indus River, which is a major geographical feature of the country. As British rule extended its reaches over the country, the term Hindu became used to describe Indian religion and customs as a whole, although Islam, Buddhism etc... were usually excluded from such a definition.Because there is no one source of the original Hindu religion, there have, over time, developed many subsidiary streams, all under the common umbrella of this faith. The main streams are Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Smartism and Shaktism. In
1. Folk Hinduism – defined by local traditions of a particular tribe or society and the gods they have worshipped since ancient times.
2. Yogic Hinduism – worship based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
3. Dharmic Hinduism – based on karma and daily morality.
4. Vedic Hinduism – a traditional form that is only really practiced by Brahmins.
5. Vedantic Hinduism – using the philosophies of the Upanishads as a foundation.
6. Bhakti – demonstrating the characteristic of devotionalism.
All of the above streams share only one common trait; that of undeniable acceptance of others, irrespective of language, religion, nationality, colour or race. The other elements of the religion, although strictly adhered to, are difficult to define or support. It is more correctly defined as a religious tradition than as a fully-fledged religion. There are various beliefs that form the concrete bases of what Hindus believe:
1. The concept of God – some Hindu streams follow atheism (the concept of no God at all), while others subscribe to monotheism (one God), polytheism (multiple gods), panentheism (God has penetrated every aspect of life and the universe and is in everything), pantheism (God and the Universe are equal in power and might) and monism (implying a unity between body, mind and energy).
2. Devas and avatars – an avatar refers to a reincarnation while Devas are celestial beings referred to in the Hindu scriptures. These Devas are often drawn or painted in Indian art and there exist many stories about them in mythology and fantastical tales.
3. Karma – this is a law of cause and effect, stating that any good deed will be rewarded and any bad deed will be punished Because such deeds are motivated by thoughts, they extend to opinions, thoughts and motivations, as well as the actually action.
4. Samsara – this refers to the cycle of birth, death, rebirth, death, rebirth, etc...It holds that people leave the physical body they are in and are reborn in another form (not necessarily human) based on their karma.
Yoga refers to several forms of meditation, manifested through certain physical positioning with the goal of achieving ultimate nirvana or self-actualisation. There are various types of Yogas, including Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, Rāja Yoga and Jñāna Yoga.
As with most other Indian religions, Hinduism is characterised by a number of rituals, festivals and celebrations. Some rituals only take place at births, deaths, marriages, etc...while others are performed on a daily basis (e.g. bathing and then offering food, prayers and hymns to a holy shrine inside the family home).
Although Hindus do not have to undertake religious pilgrimages, many choose to do so. Holy cities, according to Hindus, include Haridwar, Vrindavan and Allahabad, amongst others. There is also a variety of Hindu festivals, including Ram Navami, Krishna Janmastami, Ganesh Chaturthi and Diwali, which provide spectacular sights and fascinating insights into Indian culture and daily life.