12 Important Questions About Hinduism

Hinduism

Hindu Symbols

by Jayaram V

Hinduism is the oldest and continuous religion of the world. It is also one of the largest. More than a billion people in the world practice it. It is undoubtedly a complex faith. If you are not born into it or do not practice it or did not study it in depth, you may not know it well. Even those who practice it may have difficulty in understanding it because it does not have a rigid set of universal procedures and practices.

The problem does not affect the faith of many Hindus. Although they are limited in their knowledge, they faithfully adhere to the prevailing traditions and practices of their parents and forefathers by observation and assimilation. Generation after generation, Hindus have been doing it on their own, without being told or coerced by anyone, which is why despite the absence of missionary activity or methods of active propagation Hinduism is still a very popular vibrant religion

In this presentation, we will try to answer a few common questions which people who are unfamiliar with Hinduism tend to ask. If you are a devout Hindu, you may probably know the answers already. However, the answers cover a wide range of topics and concepts in a short space. Therefore, it is worth reading them. Further, if you never read the epics or the Puranas or do not know basic facts such as who Hanuman is or how he saved Lakshmana or who fought the Mahabharata war, you may be benefited by reading the answers.


1. What is Hinduism?

Hinduism is a collection of numerous faiths, beliefs and practices, which originated in the Indian subcontinent. The word Hindu is derived from the geographical name Sindhu. It is not an organized religion. Just as small streams and rivulets join to become a great river, Hinduism emerged through the amalgamation of numerous streams of sacred knowledge.  Although it does not have a universally acceptable definition (even by law), all religious and spiritual movements, folk practices, philosophies and sectarian traditions, which are not a part of Buddhism, Jainism or Sikhism, but originated in the subcontinent are currently included in Hinduism. They impart a lot of diversity to Hinduism. At the same time, beneath that diversity one can discern unity because they also have many similarities and common approaches, which give Hinduism its distinct identity as a major world religion.

Hinduism Sects

2. Who is the founder of Hinduism?

Hinduism has no founder or prophet. According to the Vedas, it originated from God himself at the beginning of creation and propagated by Brahma and the various Manus who originated from him as the progenitors of human races (manavas) upon earth. The Vedas proclaim that God himself practices the eternal Dharma as the creator, preserver and destroyer of the worlds to set an example for gods, humans and others to practice it in their respective spheres. The set of functions which he performs as the Creator and which we are supposed to follow upon earth are collectively known as Dharma (obligatory duties). The knowledge of Hinduism is partly derived from God and his numerous manifestations and partly from the insight and awareness of numerous gurus, saints, philosophers and religious teachers. The tradition continues even today. Hinduism is essentially a man-made religion with its roots in heaven and its branches in human wisdom.

God

3. How old is Hinduism?

Since Hinduism as a religion emerged out of numerous sources, it is difficult to determine its exact origins. If we consider its oldest sects namely Shaivism Vedism (Brahmanism), Vaishnavism and Shaktism, we may trace it back to 2500 B.C.E. or earlier. According to some, going by the geographical and astronomical information found in the epics and the Vedas, Hinduism may be at least 6000 to 7000 years old. By definition if we include the faith of the Indus Valley civilization also as a part of Hinduism, (since it originated in the subcontinent), its antiquity can be traced back to either pre Harappan (7000 BCE) or early Harappan (3500 BCE) period. Whatever may be the truth, it is certain that the origins of Hinduism are rooted in the prehistoric cultures of people who lived in different parts of India as warriors, tribesmen, noblemen, pastoral people, mountain dwellers, priests, farmers, traders, ascetics, medicine men and so on, and who practiced different faiths and belief systems.

Historical Hinduism

4. Who is the God of Hinduism?

The highest God of Hinduism goes by many names and forms. In the Vedas he is extolled as Brahman, the Supreme Being or Self, who is infinite, eternal, invisible, formless, transcendental, indestructible, indivisible, universal, first, highest, and so on. He is both known and unknown, manifested and unmanifested, with and without qualities. Īsvara, meaning, the lord, is another popular name, which is an ancient and cryptic reference to his association with the Sun as the boon giving Lord (Īshana) from the East (Īs), where his immortal heaven is believed to exist. Īsvara is his manifested (vyakta) aspect, the Supreme Being, who possesses names and forms. Brahman is both one and many. Although he is the highest God, as in Islam you will not find any images of him but only his verbal and visual symbols. Also, he is not ritually worshipped, but only meditated upon by worshippers who seek liberation. Brahman is ungraspable and indescribable. By attaining him one overcomes death and rebirth to become immortal.

Brahman

5. Is it true that Hindus worship millions of gods and goddesses?

There is a popular saying that Hindus worship 330 million gods and goddesses. While no one has really counted how many of them people worshipped over these millenniums, the number must be a few hundred or a thousand at least. Hindus consider all the deities in the pantheon as the manifestations of the supreme Brahman only. The most popular deities are Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Ganesha, Hanuman, Rama, Krishna, Durga, Lakshmi, Lalitha, Saraswathi, Kali, Agni, Surya, Chandra, Indra, etc. They have distinct qualities which go with their assigned functions, and with which we can distinguish them from each. At the same time, they all represent Brahman only in their purest aspect. Therefore, the right approach is that devotees should worship the highest God only in any form they may choose according to their nature, so that they will attain him only.

Gods and Goddesses

6. What are the main scriptures of Hinduism?

Hindu scriptures can broadly be classified into the Vedas, Puranas (divine legends), Itihasas (history), Shastras (religious texts), Sutras (codified statements), Darshanas (philosophies), Bhashyas (commentaries), Gitas, Granthas, Agamas and Tantras (mystical works). They broadly fall into Sruti (the heard ones) and smriti (memorial works). Only the Vedas qualify as the Sruti. They are large texts consisting of both hymns and prose, which are used in ritual and spiritual practices to propitiate gods. Of them the Upanishads are the most significant for their mystical and spiritual wisdom. The Bhagavadgita, which forms a part of the epic Mahabharata is also hugely popular. So also many tantras. These texts are principally composed in Sanskrit. In addition, there are  many scriptures in vernacular languages such as the Ramacharit Manas, Gita Govindam, Thirukkural, the works of Shankara, Alvars, Nayanars and many medieval saints and spiritual masters. The lay followers of Hinduism may not be familiar with most of the scriptures and may not have read them, but know their essence as they may have received it through spiritual teachers, local priests, books and magazines or television and radio programs.

Hindu scriptures

7. Why do Hindus cremate their dead?

Yajna is a traditional Hindu, sacrificial ritual, in which devotees offer sacrificial food to gods. Agni, the fire god acts as the intermediary. He accepts the food from the worshippers and distributes it among the gods. The sacrificial ritual is central to Hindu way of life. The sacrificial model is followed by Hindus in every aspect of life. Idealistically, for Hindus the Vedic sacrifice exemplifies the ideal conduct which everyone is obliged to follow. According to it, people must live their lives as a sacrifice in the service of God and others. They must serve gods, humans, pious people, animals, ancestors, etc., through selfless actions and daily sacrifices. By serving them selflessly and virtuously, a person escapes from suffering and the cycle of births and deaths. The Vedas suggest that death is the last sacrifice (antyeshti) in the life of a person. In that sacrifice, one has to give up the body, the last possession, as an offering to Kala, the god of Death. Since all material offerings are made to Agni, who also acts as the purifier, the body is also offered to him only during the cremation. After the ceremony, his or her family members collect the ashes and offer them to one or more Pancha-bhutas (the five elements) namely, earth, water, fire, air and space.

Cremation

8. Do Hindus believe in sin and suffering?

Yes, Hindus do believe in sin and the suffering. They arise from our actions which are in turn caused by our inherent nature. However, Hindus do not believe that God acts as the judge in the human drama. We are responsible for our actions. Therefore, whatever happens to us, it is caused by us only. God remains a witness to all the drama. He intervenes only if we earn his love through surrender and devotion. In the Hindu worldview, the world is a trap for the souls and filed with many impurities. The mind and body are also impure.  The impurities are responsible for our delusion, egoism and ignorance, Because of them. we engage in desire-ridden actions, which in turn lead to sin and suffering. However, one can overcome this problem by taking refuge in God or Self. They are eternally pure. Through right knowledge, right living, truthfulness, austerities, self-effort, good karma, sacrificial actions, selfless service and divine grace one can overcome the impurities of the mind and body to achieve oneness with God and reach the immortal heaven.

Sin and Suffering

9. Do they believe in heaven and hell?

Hindus believe that we are not alone in the universe. There are worlds above and below, inhabited by other beings. The upper worlds are inhabited by gods and celestials, and the lower ones by dark and demonic beings. Upon death, human ascend or descend to these worlds according to their deeds. The Vedic texts envisage a four-tier universe. At the top is the highest plane (deep space) consisting of the immortal world of Brahman (sun), the heaven of Indra (space above clouds) and the ancestral world (the moon). In the middle is the mid region which is inhabited by various groups of celestials. Below that is the earth where mortals live. Below that is the subterranean world (patala). This basic model was subsequently extended, taking the total to 14. Besides them, many gods such as Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma have their own spheres in the upper echelons. The Puranas indicate that gods and celestials can freely travel to earth or any world below them, but cannot ascend to higher worlds without permission. Upon death, mortal beings can ascend to ancestral heaven or the immortal world or to the subterranean worlds according to their deeds, from where they will return after exhausting their sinful karma.

Heaven

10. What are the main festivals of Hindus?

Hindus believe that every moment, hour, day, weekday, fortnight, month, quarter and year in the life of the planet earth has some significance and yield positive or negative influence upon the beings who live upon it. Planets (grahas) and constellations (nakshatras) also exert their influence. We are thus connected to the web of God’s creation through innumerable forces, energies and influences. Some moments and days are auspicious due to the convergence of these forces and some are inauspicious. Thus, Hindus have numerous opportunities and auspicious days to celebrate life and express their devotion to God. We also celebrate important events such as the birth or death anniversary of a saint or a godman. We also celebrate many important festivals and auspicious days. Some of them recur every week, month, year or once in several years. For example, Ekadasi comes every fortnight. Shivaratri recurs every month. Festivals such as Ganesh Chaturthi, Durga Puja, Diwali, Holi and Maha-Shivaratri come once in a year, and Kumbhmela comes once in 12 years.

Festivals

11. What are their methods of worship?

The methods of worship in Hinduism range from a simple offer of prayer (prarthana) and domestic worship (puja) to more complex  rituals such as sacrifices (yajnas and homas), austerities (dikshas and tapas) and penances (vratas). The Bhagavadgita assures that whatever you offer to God with love and devotion, be it a leaf or flower or food, he wholeheartedly accepts it and reciprocates your love. The intention behind the worship is equally important. Devotees may worship God or gods to seek boons and fulfill their desires. They may worship, seeking the welfare of others or the world. They may also do it for liberation or purely out of love for God. The last ones are considered the most excellent of all methods of worship. Srimad Bhagavatam lists nine methods of devotional worship namely sravana (hearing), kirtana (singing), smarana (remembering), padasevana (serving at the feet), archana (ritual worship), vandana (salutation), dasya (service), sakhya (friendliness), and atma-nivedana (surrender). The most popular form of worship is the domestic worships (puja) in which the deity is worshipped with devotion, treating him or her  like a divine guest.

Hindu Worship

12. What is Hindu caste system?

Hindu caste system is unique. It also has a long history and great significance in the social and economic structure of Hindu community. The system recognizes four classes of beings, who according to the Vedas were created by God out of himself for the order and regularity of the world. They are priests, warriors, merchants and farmers, and workers. The four classes were assigned specific duties for the promotion and protection of God’s eternal dhamra (duties) upon earth. The caste system existed in India since the Vedic times and continues in its diluted form even today. One of the drawbacks of the system is that it is determined by birth. Thereby, it limits the freedom and choice of people to choose their own career or express their talents and skills. It also promotes social and economic inequality and caste prejudices. In the past, it harmed the Hindu community by creating divisions and disunity which were fully exploited by rival faiths and foreign invaders. On the positive side, it ensured order and regularity in society and led to the preservation of Hinduism, despite huge challenges from other religions.

Hindu Caste System

Bhagavadgita Translation and Commentary by Jayaram V Avaialbe in USA/UK/DE/FR/ES/IT/NL/PL/SC/JP/CA/AU

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