Hinduism is the oldest world religion. With 1.2 billion followers, it is the third largest after Christianity and Islam. Most Hindus live in the Indian subcontinent, where their faith began. the Hindu symbol (above) is the word ‘Aum’ in Devanagari script, ostensibly the sound uttered at the dawn of our world.
Strictly speaking, Hinduism is not a single ‘religion’. It has no founder, doctrine, creed or holy book. Rather, ‘Hinduism’ is an umbrella term for spiritual traditions originating in South Asia. The faith includes hundreds of different sects, each with its own rituals and understanding of the world. What unites Hindus are common beliefs, these include:
- Reincarnation (samsara) – you are reborn in another body when you die. The human soul (atman) is immortal.
- Karma – actions have consequences in this life and the next.
- Dharma – good karma is best attained by following one’s moral duty. Henotheism – collective atman, and the gods themselves, are manifestations of the ultimate reality (brahman).
Buddhism and Jainism, which derrived from Hinduism, share belief in reincarnation and karma.
“The chief value of Hinduism lies in holding the actual belief that all life (not only human beings, but all sentient beings) is one … coming from the One universal source, call it Allah, God or Parameshwara.’
The Vedas are the oldest Hindu text. Written between 1200 – 800 BC, they introduce the earliest Hindu deities, especially Indra, god of rain, and hymns and chants in their honour. Hinduism grew out of the Vedic religion.
Although lacking a single scripture, several ancient texts, written in Sanskrit, continue to influence Hindu thought:
- The Upanishads – basis of Hindu philosophy.
- The Puranas – myths, legends and cosmology.
- The Ramayana – an epic poem about Rama and Sita
- The Mahabharata – an epic poem 3x the length of the Bible.
- The Bhavagad Gita – a discourse between the warrior Arjuna and Krishna on ethics, morality and dharma. Part of the Mahabharata.
The Trimurti are the three main gods of Hinduism. They are Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver and Shiva, the destroyer. As Brahma no longer intervenes in the world – his work being complete – only Vishnu and Shiva are actively worshipped; by Vaishnavis and Shaivites respectively.
Vishnu incarnates into human form to restore the world’s balance in times of need, most famously as Rama, Krishna, and the Buddha. At the end of our age, Shiva will destroy the world, allowing its rebirth, and continuing a cycle which goes on forever.
The Caste System divides people into an ordained hierarchy based on birth, determining their work and who they can marry – one’s caste depends on karma attained in past lives. Before the modern era, those outside the system were ‘untouchable’, though the term dalit is now preferred. While the caste system arguably dates to Vedic times, it took its current form in the British Raj.
Hinduism once dominated Southeast Asia, laying the foundations of Cambodian, Malay and Javanese civilisation. While most of Southeast Asia is now Muslim or Buddhist, it home to ruins of Hindu temples such as Angkor Wat. Hinduism still thrives on the island of Bali, Indonesia. In modern times, it spreads mainly through Indian migration. Hindus are a sizeable proportion of Bangladesh, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Fiji. Mauritius is the only Hindu-majority country outside of Asia.
The authors of the Puranas reckoned the world was 4.32 billion years old, an estimate closer to that of modern science than any other tradition.
Sources: Mainly Rachel Dwyer – What do Hindus Believe? (2008)