What is Hinduism? Origin, History, Beliefs & Gods

      Long time back a large triangular plate of Indian Continent drifted from Madagascar, sailed across Indian Ocean and collided with south Asian Continent at Tibet Plateau with a bang so large that Himalayas came into existence. From Himalayas came Mount Kailas and from Mount Kailas came Lake Mansarover—a lake considered as personification of purity—which is the source for some major rivers of Indian Subcontinent. Rivers Sindhu, Sutlej, Brahmaputra and Ghaghara (a very important tributary of River Ganga) all have their common origin from this sacred single source. Not far from there, Gomukh at Gangotri glaciers gives rise to Bhagirathi, which joins with Alaknanda at Devprayag to form the 'Ganga' (The Ganges).

Describing Hinduism is not as easy as some other religions of our times. Because most others are like canals with specific place of origin, with well-defined banks, with predefined path, with a single guide book (Sole Scripture) while Hinduism is like a free river. It is called a conglomeration of many religious, philosophical and cultural ideas and practices originated and largely practiced on Indian Subcontinent over a long period of history; contributed by a large number of great human souls. Its doctrinal content has been debated and tested over millenniums.

      Rivers have great contributions for sustaining human life in many ways. They acquire greatness by merging with other rivers and letting their tributaries merge with them. Soon after joining, the identity of the merging and the merged obtains unity with no trace of separateness. Constant flow ensures purification of all pollutants that is discharged by its ignorant natives. Turbulent currents and its eco system works as filtrates to separate the dirt which gets sidelined on the banks so that purified water continues to flow down the path. The river keeps sustaining all villages and towns on its banks by providing them everything it can and unwillingly keep accepting all their liquid effluent, garbage and what not. Barring exceptional cases, a river continues to serve humanity till the time it gets merged into the ocean or it dries up on the way.

      Depending upon the spread and purity of its source, its gradient and speed, its width and depth, its span and its length, the river is also used for generating electricity; navigation, fishery, tourism, feeding canals, industrial uses and such other uses that its native are capable of harnessing. Any major obstacle brought in its way is dealt with full power and when it comes across something bigger and unmovable, the river changes its course and keeps moving on its way. Calamities, both natural and unnatural, flood it at times, compels it to take catastrophic proportions causing great agony and destructions. But depending on its capacity; it tries hard to flow out the extra burdens and resorts to normal flow as soon as possible.

      A religion also takes its course to serve the humanity similar to a river. Most certainly; it originates in purest possible form. It obtains its greatness by accepting ideologies from different streams. It is also considered as crucial and useful by its beneficiaries in as many ways it serves them. It is also bound to accept waste and garbage from its users on the way. Its own capability of purifying itself remains as crucial for its purity down the time lines of history. If it is unable to purify itself regularly it will soon render itself unusable for its people and will get discarded similar to a river, which after losing its capacity to purify itself, ultimately turns into a sewage drain. Its own gradient and flow determine how much it can be harnessed for generating unseen power of its philosophical content. It is also destined to face roadblocks and its own bypassing capacity is as essential to keep it going on and on. Its greatness is also judged by the fact of how much population has been served by it, for how long and in how many measures. Religion also, at times, forced to handle calamities with devastating impacts. And finally, similar to vanishing of many rivers, religions also have perished on the way and became extinct. Some religions are comparable to river Sindhu, Brahmaputra and Ganga due to their size, miles covered and proportion of humanity served. Some other religions of the world are like great river Sarasvati, which was once a great river but got extinct long back.

      But no other river touches the life of its people and commands respect from them as river Ganga. Considered as a life giver, it is associated with them from birth to death in innumerable ways. People worship it like their Goddess. It is considered most auspicious, pure, saviour, salvation provider and what not. People come to it for many reasons to get benefits from it in their everyday life: Some other gets drawn to visit its bank just to admire its beauty and grace. This mystic river demands adulation from its natives at every step of their life. She is a symbol of long standing culture and civilization and is called "Ganga Maiyya", the mother Ganga. Yes, there are several other rivers in this world which are longer or broader but none serves its natives and none gets adoration as much as "Ganga".

"Hinduism" to the Indian Subcontinent is one such religion out of mauy, as the "Ganga " is the river to the people of India out of many other rivers.

      Ganga is known to create Indo Gangetic Plains where it now flows by bringing sediments and filling the place. So also, Hinduism is known to serve all the human inhabitants of this great land called India right from the time that civilization took roots.

      Describing Hinduism is not as easy as some other religions of our times. Because most others are like canals with specific place of origin, with well-defined banks, with predefined path, with a single guide book (Sole Scripture) while Hinduism is like a free river. It is called a conglomeration of many religious, philosophical and cultural ideas and practices originated and largely practiced on Indian Subcontinent over a long period of history; contributed by a large number of great human souls. Its doctrinal content has been debated and tested over millenniums.

      In the absence of religion as understood today, ancient India was binding residents together based on culture, traditions, forms of worship and beliefs and inclusive acceptance of variations in all these. Hindus did not develop a strong sense about them or considered their system as a separate religion for a long time until there were other religions and there was a necessity to stand against them and until it was forced to compare or compete with others. Actually before arrival of foreign origin aggressors and invaders, Indians never felt the need of defining religion. It was never 'we' versus 'they' because there were no 'they'. Local identities of people were initially based on locality and languages and later on castes and sects in a way that there was never a need to bring in religion as a defining or distinguishing factor. So, the very classification of Hinduism as a religion is a recent phenomenon.

      For the sake of simple segregation, at this primary stage itself, we shall call that overarching social structure of ancient traditions and customs as "Sanatan Dharma" as any other segregation fails to capture the complete grandeur of the great religion called Hinduism.

      And religion being much more a narrow term in its meaning, my reader is well advised to understand and appreciate the real meaning of "Dharma" as a word out of our great language, Sanskrit. Also, we should take note that the word "Hinduism" will refer to "Indian Dharma" which is much wider than "Hindu Religion". Suffice to note that Hindu Religion will get referred as "way of worship" alone where there are temples, gods, mythological stories, idols, pujas, etc. All these are part of Hinduism but only a small part and exclude the bulk which will be discussed soon.

      Let us also understand that unlike most other religions, Hinduism doesn't have a single founder or institution to enforce any single set of traditions. This situation works in its favour as much as against but this is a reality. There is no Pope or Prophet here. It is a rainbow kind of situation where there are many colours of its own and where mixing of colours bring in new shades depending on the angle of the person looking at that. After all, there are no tight boundaries that someone will not be a Hindu if he crosses that over or someone will become Hindu if he does certain things. This is probably the only case where all major ideas like existence of God or its absence, belief in God or lack of it, God being with a form or without, one God versus many Gods, ways to reach Him, violence or non-violence, vegetarianism versus meat eating etc. have been in debate for as long as it exists and where living without a finality is well accepted. The result of this ongoing debate has greatly helped these traditions in getting refined or reinvigorated to respond to the changes happening all around in the societies that it has been serving.

      As a result, there are various versions of Hinduism and each of these continue to flourish, albeit, with varying levels of influence. In this series, one can easily identify Vedic Hinduism, Brahmanical Hinduism, Upanishadic Hinduism, Pauranic Hinduism, Sanatani Hinduism, Yogic Hinduism, Tantrik Hinduism, Bhakti laced Hinduism, Modern Hinduism and Universal Hinduism, etc. And this process continues even at present with many new versions expected to emerge over periods. That is why it is rightly called a plethora collection of attitudes and personal experiences; methods of worships and methods of reaching spiritual experiences; and finally an essence which is better defined by individual behaviours than imposed beliefs.

      Hinduism appreciates variations among individual beings conditioned by their social, intellectual and spiritual needs and one of the best features which is worth valuable is that it allows every person to righteously choose a path that suits him/her best. Normal Hindu may not appreciate this aspect as they take this freedom as guaranteed. It is only in Hinduism that you may be worshiping one or more Gods and you still qualify to be a good Hindu provided your values are not causing harm to any person, being or thing; if you don't worship a God, you are still a good Hindu; and even if you don't believe in the very existence of God, you are still a good Hindu. Other than having faith in a set of universally inclusive righteous path of following Dharma, there is nothing else which can make you bigger or smaller Hindu.

      This diversity also brings its own issues relating to classifications of scriptures of importance to Hinduism. It is blessed with a large corpus of some great literary creations. Even after bulk of scriptures lost to history, the material available today is larger than ever written for any stream of knowledge. With longest line of critical compositions over the centuries and millenniums, it is hard to expect all Hindu followers to clearly reply as to what are their main scriptures and what is the right sequence of their importance; it is clearly a case of problem of plenty. We don’t know which one is superior because there are so many of them and all of them so unique and so great.

      Unlike other religion of this world, Hinduism has its own complex bagful of beliefs, traditions, and advanced systems of ethics, meaningful rituals, philosophies and theology. One of the most important and basic beliefs is that there is only one absolute called "Brahman" and people are free to look at it in any of its diverse manifestations. Other basic beliefs that are commonly accepted by most Hindus, without much opposition, include acceptance of Vedas as supreme scriptures and key doctrines of Karma, Dharma, Reincarnation, Varna Vyavastha (Class based segregation), Ashrams (Stages of life), Moksha, and Ahimsa. Each of these shall be discussed in some details in due course.

      Appreciative acceptance for accommodating the view's of others, even when they are in opposition, is yet another
distinguishing characteristic of Hinduism. It is absolutely unique feature and not found in any other faith. The logic behind such acceptance and appreciation is probably inherent in the very way in which human culture evolved and flourished in the Indian subcontinent. The whole system is based on complete inclusiveness; there is no provision of keeping any view outside. Many other contemporary religions are based on very strict basis of exclusion but Hinduism is probably the only exception in the world which is truly inclusive. Actually; any one who has the audacity of considering most opposing faith as intolerant, cannot be a true Hindu.

      Indian subcontinent has been the pious land where Hinduism has grown from time immemorial. In due course, some people stepped out of this culture as Buddhists, Jains, Sufis (which is a mix of Hinduism with Islamic influence), and Sikhs, etc. and some came in. Some of the people who stepped out initially, returned back later. Hinduism allowed them to go at will and welcomed them back without any fear or favour. There are numerous examples of people experiencing with alternate beliefs at will while remaining part of main Hinduism stream. The recorded history of rise and fall of the number of followers of Buddhism and Jainism clearly points to this fact. Side by side, Indian subcontinent always created space for many other religious traditions to seek refuge here from oppressions in their own homelands. Many such groups from out of India landed in here, got accepted, soon became integral part of India, made their place in the cultural space and exchanged their traditions with already existing traditions. These include Zoroastrians, Bahais, Christians, Jews and many smaller groups. Later on, many Islamic aggressors came from central Asia, Afghanistan and got settled here in increasing numbers. The last example of this acceptance comes from Tibetans who came here from oppressions of Chinese rule in 1959. The Hinduism of today has absorbed many traditions and practices from most of them as well. Undoubtedly; any system which comes out of churning of so many fluids, over thousands of years, will hardly ever get solidified into a tight mould.

      This background also comes handy to understand how today's Indians can handle multiple thoughts in their mind at the same time—the art of multi tasking resulting in dominance of Indian mind in IT revolution. Probably it is out of this DNA in our genes
where we were always exposed to different sides of the argument and contrary arguments at the same point of time. Similarly; an average Indian is exposed to many languages at the same time. Young children learn multiple languages at schools in normal course without making much of it. Compare that with most countries where kids are exposed only to a single language and where the rulers with oppression force languages on people.

      In Hinduism, multiple narratives covering different points of view coexist peacefully without anyone getting antagonized in any way. It promotes holding different views in the mind at the same time. Most other religions strongly reject everything out of their perceived line of religious doctrine but Hinduism has been very open and inclusive all along. Our scriptures are full of Purva Paksha (counter arguments or views from opponents) while debating subjects which is basically to accept different points of view on equal merits at all times. This is also the reason that there are many elements within Hinduism which a Muslim recognizes as Islamic, a Buddhist recognizes as Buddhist and a Christian recognizes as purely Christian thoughts.

      Probably, this background also justifies as to why it is only in languages of Hinduism that the same word has many times more than one competing meaning attached to it or alternatively one single object has many words. I came across in Indonesian language that their word for 'Sun' is 'Matahari' where 'hari' actually means day and 'mata' means eye. Imagine that they don't have a separate word for something like Sun. Contrary to that, any Indian language will have words running in double digits for each of these three i.e. Sun, Day and Eye. This tendency is most true for Sanskrit which has largest influence on all languages, specially, in north of India.

      Hinduism allows one to look at the ultimate Supreme as a God without face, name, form; the Nirakar or to look at the same Supreme as a God with particular form and name; the Sakar. Within Sakar, there is no advocacy of worshipping any deity in particular. Different people over different periods have worshiped thousands of gods with the belief that each and every God represents different aspects of the same Absolute Brahman. A follower is completely at his own liberty to choose his own Isht Devta without any demeaning to the others. The most fundamental deities are trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh but one comes across thousands of other deities along with their several Rupas.

      As a basic concept of Hinduism, soul continues its journey from one life to another accumulating good and bad karmas created by it. Pains and pleasures are understood as the way of settling bad and good karmas. Ultimately when all karmic effects are exhausted by going through pains and pleasures endured by the body; over various lives, soul will achieve salvation and merge with the Absolute. This concept of reincarnation is yet another defining and distinguishing feature of Hinduism when compared to other popular religions of our times. With the onslaught of globalization where people are able to know about far off places, work with people from diverse backgrounds, scientific advancements are increasingly reducing the unknown, the concept of reincarnation is getting increasingly accepted as the logical approach for humanity.

      "Brahman", the ultimate Supreme God, in Hinduism is considered as unchanging, infinite, immanent, reality which is divine cause of all matter, energy, time, space, being and everything beyond in this Universe. It is said to be eternal, without gender, omnipresent, omniscient and ultimately indescribable in human language. In short, it is Soul to the universe as we understand Soul to a human body.

      Hinduism since the beginning has been a very receptive system in contrast to sharply exclusive systems of Christianity and Islam. In fact, putting Hinduism in comparison of these religions is not fit and proper comparison. Surely, a great deal of historical understanding has to be applied over the evolution process of Hinduism to understand that it is not a watertight religion in comparison of Christianity and Islam. That is why it is better called a "way of life" than a religion.

      Because of its own strong merits, openness, flexibility, adaptability; etc., Hinduism has survived many aggressions from Greek, Persians, Pathans, Mongolians, French, Dutch and English people without any major impact on its core values. On the contrary; Hinduism has constantly borrowed from such influences and has enriched itself constantly. Hinduism, always context sensitive, responds to what is happening, at roughly the same moment, not only on the political, social and economic front but also within other religions in India or among people from other cultures entering India.

      Now, let us look at the key components of this big jigsaw puzzle called 'Hinduism'. The sequencing of the topics taken for
understanding has been attempted in terms of what comes first. But all the topics of interest, unfortunately; can't be graded cleanly as there is an unavoidable overlap; there are many periods in history where more than one development was taking place simultaneously. Similarly, there are sub-topics which have accrued over a longer time span and hence, can't justify the sequential priority. Another important effort made out here is to peep at defining historical developments happening and contributing to the evolution of Hinduism which is expected to help in appreciating the developments within and having far-reaching consequences. It is neither possible nor plausible to look at Hinduism or any other religion without looking at historical developments in the society served by the said religion.

      They say that every development is a product of its time. Hinduism is no exception to that rule as there are a number of turns and twists that it has witnessed at each turn of its journey. With the glimpse of historical perspective of a particular period, readers should find it simple and logical to appreciate what happened and why. However, focus is undoubtedly on evolution of Hinduism as a religious thought-process. But in order to avoid getting trapped with the history, historical developments are brought in only at particular intervals and only when there is impact on relevant context. The idea is not to explain history unless and until there is a direct impact of historical development on the evolution of Hinduism.

      Effort is also made to highlight only such points which are not commonly understood and hence, many points generally known to most Hindu practitioners have been kept out of the discussion. Similarly, the length of discussions on most points is just to provide an overall view of our great "way of life". Each of the topics already has many books available all across. It is neither the subject matter nor possible to deal any topic with complete detail. Idea is to expose the reader with basics of the topics and to arouse their interest in pursuing topics of their choice in further greater details.

      The aim of this effort is to bring in glimpses of fabulous journey of Hinduism to the attention of its believers of twenty first century in the language which is contemporary and easier to connect with and to provide them exposure of basic aspects of this great heritage. Having sailed through the end of this book, if the reader is inspired to feel proud about Hinduism and the readers are prompted to pass on outlines of this great landscape to their next generation, the objective of this effort will get completely rewarded. So this book is meant for people who wish to know about Hinduism in general but don't know where to begin and neither have time and attention to cover everything in detail. But be ready, you would come across issues forcing you to rethink about what you already knew; some concepts that you may not have known so far; some concepts you wish you have known earlier; and surely; some concepts that you would love to pursue further in detail.

      Before going any further, let us look at the time-lines of major developments beginning from ancient times to date. An accurate time-line certainly helps to provide cross connections of developments over longer periods. Good understanding of sequential developments also provides insight of the evolutionary process which helps in better comprehension of the subject matter. Unfortunately, historians from India and abroad have not been able to agree on many dates on most events and variations are sometimes very large. It is sad but true that historians are not known for impartial narrations. People have their own understanding and their own conclusions and their own galleries to play for. At times, they have altogether different level of understanding of the same development. This is particularly the case with historians from Western world of pre-independence era. Some of them are to be squarely blamed for not being fair to great traditions of Hinduism. They did not understood Hinduism in full detail and also had ulterior motive of proving that their own culture is richer and stronger than Indian culture. The saying that history is always written by rulers, applied to them clearly.

      With reference to exact dates, maps and chaps, our past is as unclear as our future. One has to live with many unknown facts without certainty. This gets further accentuated when we deal with situations where there are no clear evidences and most conclusions are to be inferred based on words than objects. Most of the uncertainties on dates relates to ancient matters of composition of Vedas, Upanishads and some events mentioned in epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana. Beginning 3rd to 4th century CE, however, we certainly have more accurate account of recorded history. But even in the absence of exact information, it is better to work with approximation rather than not having any perspective of time lines. For the limited purpose on hand, even approximations will serve as good indicators for my readers.

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