Hinduism is a complex and old religion that shaped the India we know today. Wherever you go, you will find traces of its beliefs and symbolism: in the many temples and sculptures that adorn the cities; in the daily practices of the Hindus; in the amazing festivals that are sprinkled all across the year.
In this article, we have tried to explain the most important concept of Hinduism to help you have a guide in your exploration. You will find information about its history, practices, deities, festivals and temples. You will have an amazing experience exploring its legacy firsthand during your next trip to India.
- Hinduism is one of the oldest religions in the world, and its complexity is astonishing
- Hinduism can be considered more like a “way of life”, and leading a righteous existence is one of the most important goals one can pursue
- There is one Supreme Being, whose qualities are embodied in the hundreds of minor deities.
History of Hinduism
It is widely accepted that Hinduism started about 2000 years before Christ, in what is now Pakistan. Hindus believe that their faith has always existed: in fact, there is no one founder, but it is instead a fusion of various beliefs.
Everything started when the culture of the Indo-Aryan people, who came from elsewhere, blended with the indigenous one – even if it is not clear who influenced who the most.
The Vedic Period, during which the Vedas were composed, lasted from 1500 BCE to 500 BCE. We also distinguish the Epic, the Puranic and the Classic Period, during which the worshipping of the deities became increasingly important – especially for Vishnu, Shiva, and Devi.
The Medieval Period lasted from 500 to 1500 CE. When Muslim Arabs invaded India during the 7th Century, Hindus were not allowed to worship their deities, and sadly some temples were destroyed.
Fundamental beliefs of Hinduism
Hinduism is as fascinating as complex. It embraces different ideas, and it would be more appropriate to refer to it as a “way of life”. Hindus believe that every religion is true, as it is just another way to try to reach the truth.
Hinduism is considered a henotheistic religion, which means that Hindus worship a single deity, Braham, but still recognizes the existence of other minor gods.
Two fundamental beliefs of Hinduism are samsara (the cycle of life, death, and reincarnation) and karma (the law of cause and effect. Samsara can be ended when someone reaches “moksha” (“salvation”) and becomes part of the absolute soul.
Another pivotal concept is dharma, which indicates that all the actions are in harmony with the principle makes life possible. It means that every Hindu has to live an honest, moral life - leading a righteous life is the most important goal of one’s life.
All the ancient scriptures of Hinduism are written in Sanskrit. We can divide the scriptures into two groups: Shruti and Smriti. Shruti refers to the Vedas, the earliest Hindu scriptures, and the Upanishads – texts about philosophy and meditation.
The Smritis includes the Hindu epics and the Puranas, which use vivid narratives to illustrate the common themes of Hinduism. The main epics consist of Ramayana and Mahabharata.
When we talk about Hindu mythology, we refer to Hindu Itihasa, a series of tales that includes the Vedic literature, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and, the Puranas.
The same facts can appear in many different texts and are often represented in different ways. However, they always have a symbolic meaning that is open to a wide range of interpretations.
Hindu mythology celebrates the fact that everything happens at the same time and that all possibilities may exist without excluding each other. The tales are ambiguous, elusive and can be considered “living organisms that change constantly”.
Some of the most recurring topics are:
- The nature of existence
- The human condition
- Good vs evil
- Miracles, magic and divine intervention
The stories revolve around how the cosmos was created, how humans were born, the battle between gods and demons, how to resolve disagreements, the meaning of existence, etc.
One of the collections is related to the avatars of Vishnu – with the most famous stories being the one narrating a great flood, similar to the one found in the bible and many other traditions.
Gods and deities in Hinduism
With one Supreme Being that all the Hindus worship, there are also thousands of other deities. It can be said that the deities personify different aspects of the one true God so that believers can worship their deities according to their family, regional traditions and practices.
Brahman, the Supreme Being
In Hinduism, there is one Supreme Being called Brahman – even if, due to the cultural and linguistic diversity of India, this Supreme Being has been seen and called in many different ways.
When He is formless, most Hindu will call him Brahman. When He does have a form, He will be indicated by the word Paramatma, in which are included the three forms of the almighty: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.
To Hindus, God lives inside each person’s soul, awaiting to be discovered. So, the ultimate goal is to know God in this intimate way.
Hinduism is often called a “polytheistic religion,” but this is incorrect. It is more appropriate to refer to Hinduism as being both monotheistic and henotheistic: the latter means that Hindus worship one God but don’t deny the existence of other Gods.
Everyone is encouraged to approach God in their favorite way, following many different paths. God demands no allegiance, doesn’t punish anyone for not believing and provides wisdom, comfort, compassion and freedom.
Shiva, part of the Trimurti along with Brahma and Vishnu, is also known as “The Destroyer”. He is one of the supreme beings that create, protects and transform the universe.
He can be depicted as both being benevolent and malevolent. When he is depicted as benevolent, he is a Yogi who conducts an ascetic life on Mount Kailash. When he is malevolent, he is viewed while slaying demons.
He is considered to be the patron of yoga, meditation, and arts; and its iconography always includes the serpent that surrounds his neck, the crescent moon, the river Ganga that flows out of his hair, the third eye on his forehead, the trident.
In the triage, he is the “Preserver”, who always protects the world every time there is a danger or a threat. His most known avatars are Rama, the protagonist of the epic Ramayana, and Krishna, present in the Mahabharata.
He is usually depicted with a pale or dark blue skin and with four arms. He has a lotus flower in the lower left hand; a mace in his lower right hand; a conch in his upper left hand and a discus in his upper right hand.
A common depiction sees Vishnu, along with his wife Lakshmi, reclining on the coils of the serpent Shesha while he “dreams the universe into reality”.
Ganesh (or Ganesha) is one of the most famous Hindu deities. He is worshipped in India, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Thailand, Bangladesh and Nepal; and also many Buddhists are his devotees.
His most distinguishing feature is the elephant’s head, and he is revered as the remover of obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences and the deva (another term to indicate a supernatural being) of wisdom.
Other major deities
Some of the most important Hindu deities are:
- Devi: the goddess that fights to restore dharma
- Krishna: the god of compassion, tenderness, and love
- Lakshmi: the goddess of wealth and purity
- Saraswati: the goddess of learning
Daily practices of Hindu
An important part of every Hindu is the puja, the worship, that usually takes place inside a temple (a “mandir”). Hindus can also practice puja at home, and many worshippers have a special shrine dedicated to the gods and the goddesses that they adore.
One of the crucial parts of the puja is the giving of offerings. Besides praying, Hindus worship their gods or goddesses by giving them gifts – mostly flowers or oils. Pilgrimage is another important part of Hindu life.
As for many other religions, purification plays a vital role in Hinduism. Water is thus fundamental, as it washes the body of the worshippers and helps them to get rid of impurity and, in a symbolical way, to wash away the sins.
Most important Hindu festivals
There are many different Hindu traditions that on any day of the year, there are observing a holiday. This is mostly due to the high number of deities, and to the fact that everything, both animate and inanimate things are considered sacred.
Many of these holidays are based on the cycle of nature, marking the change of the season, celebrating the harvest, and so on. Many others are instead dedicated to deities and gods. However, there are two holidays that is extremely important: Holi and Diwali.
Holi celebrates the beginning of spring, and its religious importance has its roots in Hindu mythology. Nowadays it is a fun festival, with devotees that throw colored powders and scented water to each other to celebrate the colorful spring.
During this holiday, Hindus will enjoy life and disregard their social norms. Everyone is equal, and the celebration of the colors is meant to break barriers and celebrate unity and brotherhood.
Also known as “The Festival of Lights”, Diwali is usually observed for 5 days during autumn. It marks the end of the harvest season: farmers give thanks for the past year and pray for a good harvest during the following year. The most important god of this holiday is Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity.
The name “Festival of Lights” derives from the many candles, lamps and firecrackers lit to signify the victory of light over darkness, good over evil. The light also symbolizes the awareness of a person’s inner light.
The science behind Hindu architecture is explained in some Hindu texts that talk about the formation of sculptures, temples, icons, etc.
The most important representation of Hindu architecture is of course the temples (“mandir” in Hindi). Every temple has an inner sanctum that hosts the primary image of a deity. Around this room, there are several others.
Outside, the structure is crowned by a tower. The building with the shrine often offers a congregation hall, a place where one can stroll, and sometimes an antechamber.
Of the thousands of Hindu temples to be found all over India, there are some that we believe you truly cannot miss.
This temple, located near the Alaknanda River, contains the holy shrine of Vishnu, which is part of the four holiest sites of Hinduism, called Char Dam.
The ancient adobe can be visited from April and November – the rest of the time, the weather is too harsh to undertake the pilgrimage.
Located in Konard, the Sun Temple is a marvelous architecture dedicated to the Lord Sun. The structure has the shape of a chariot, with twelve wheels and dragged by seven horses.
The temple is mentioned in many scriptures, and, as Rabindranath Tagore said: “Here the language of stone surpasses the language of man”.
The temple was built during the 11th century and is dedicated to Shiva. It is the biggest temple in India and is made entirely of granite stone. When observed at noon it does not cast any shadow on the ground.
This temple represents one of the oldest pilgrimage sites of all India. Somnath means “Guardian of the Moon God”. The legend says that Som built the temple to honor Shiva, who cured him when he was sick. It is believed that Krishna left his earthly body.
Kashi Vishwanath Temple
It is one of the holiest temples of the country. It can be found in the ancient city of Varanasi and is dedicated to Shiva. Millions of worshippers visit the temple every year to look at the jyotirlingas, one of the 12 devotional representations of Shiva.
It is believed that seeing the jyotirlingas can cleanse the soul of the worshipper and can lead to wisdom.
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