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Hinduism

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, a sacred syllablle and a quintessential symbol of Hinduism. Its meanings are many.
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OM, a sacred syllablle and a quintessential symbol of Hinduism. Its meanings are many.

Hinduism (सनातन धर्म; commonly called Sanātana Dharma, roughly translated as "Perennial Faith") is characterized by a diverse array of belief systems, practices and scriptures. It has its origin in the ancient Indo-Aryan Vedic culture and is called by Time Almanac "the oldest religion." It is the third largest religion with approximately 940 million followers worldwide, 96 percent of whom live in the Indian subcontinent. In the US alone, 3 million people follow some form of Hinduism.

Perhaps the Hindu spirit of unity in diversity is best captured in a line from the ancient Rig Veda:

Sanskrit: एकम् सत् विप्राः बहुधा वदन्ति
Transliteration: Ekam Sat Viprāha Bahudhā Vadanti
English: "Truth is One, though the Sages know it as Many."
The Rig Veda (Book I, Hymn CLXIV, Verse 46)

Essentially, any kind of spiritual practice followed with faith, love and persistence will lead to the same ultimate state of self-realization. Thus, Hindu thought distinguishes itself by strongly encouraging tolerance for different beliefs since temporal systems cannot claim sole understanding of the one transcendental Truth.

To the Hindu, this idea has been an active force in defining the 'Eternal Dharma.'[1] (http://www.ramakrishna.org/message14.htm) It has been for Hinduism what the infinite Divine Self of Advaita is to existence, remaining forever unchanged and self-luminous, central and pervasive, in spite of all the chaos and flux around it. In general, Hindu views are broad and range from monism, dualism, qualified non-dualism, pantheism, panentheism (alternatively called monistic theism by some scholars), strict monotheism, polytheism, and atheism.

Hindu monists, i.e., Smartas, who follow Advaita philsosophy, see one unity, with the personal Gods, different aspects of only One Supreme Being, like a single beam of light separated into colours by a prism, and are valid to worship. Some of the Hindu aspects of God include Devi, Vishnu, Ganesh, and Shiva. One of the most prominent Hindu monists is the saint Ramakrishna, whose preferred form of God is Devi and who reiterated traditional Hindu beliefs that aver devotees can invoke God in whatever form a devotee prefers (termed Ishta Devata, i.e., the preferred form of God) and ask for God's grace in order to attain Moksha, the end of the cycle of rebirth and death.

Although Hinduism is very diverse, one of the possible things that unites all hindus is the quest for enlightenment and to free oneself from the cycle of rebirth. Another major concept is the concept of Ahimsa, which means "non-violence." Through this concept, strict movements of vegetarianism and tolerance grew. Hindus believe that everything in the world is part of the universal spirit, and therefore everything needs to be respected, preserved and protected.

Contemporary Hinduism, specifically, Smartism, is most widely accepted to consist of a Holy Trinity. This is comprised of Brahma (the Creator of worlds), Vishnu (the Preserver of worlds) and Shiva (the Destroyer of worlds).

The most popular avatars in the Hindu religion are the avatars of Vishnu. The ten avatars of Vishnu are The Fish (Matsya), The Tortoise (Kurma), The Boar (Varaha), The Man-Lion (Narasimha), The Dwarf (Vamana), Rama with the Axe (Parashurama), Rama (Ramayana), the Prince of Ayodhya, Krishna (Mahabharata), Buddha, and Kalki.

In Hinduism views are broad and range from monism, dualism, pantheism, panentheism, alternatively called monistic theism by some scholars, and strict monotheism, but are not polytheistic as outsiders perceive the religion to be. Hinduism has often been confused to be polytheistic as many of Hinduism's adherents, i.e., Smartas, followers of Smartism, one denonmination of Hinduism, who follow Advaita philsophy, are monists, and view multiple manifestations of the one God or source of being. Hindu monists see one unity, with the personal Gods, different aspects of only One Supreme Being, like a single beam of light separated into colours by a prism, and are valid to worship. Some of the Hindu aspects of God include Devi, Vishnu, Ganesh, and Siva. It is this Smarta view that dominates the view of Hinduism in the West. Smartism is the only branch of Hinduism that adopts these ideas strictly. After all, Swami Vivekananda, a follower of Ramakrishna, along with many others, who brought Hindu beliefs to the West, were all Smarta in belief. Other denominations of Hinduism, as described later, don't hold this belief strictly and more closely adhere to a Western perception of what a monotheistic faith is. Additionally, like Jud毭Christian-Islamic religions which believe in angels, Hindus also believe in less powerful entities, such as devas.

Contemporary Hinduism is now divided into four major divisions, Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, and Smartism. Just as Jews, Christians, and Muslims all believe in one God but differ in their conceptions of Him, Hindus all believe in one God but differ in their conceptions. The two primary form of differences are between the two monotheistic religions of Vaishnavism which conceives God as Vishnu and Shaivism, which conceives God as Shiva. Other aspects of God are in fact aspects of Vishnu or Shiva; see Smartism for more information. Only a Smartist would have no problem worshiping Shiva or Vishnu together as he views the different aspects of God as leading to the same One God. It is the Smarta view that predominates the view of Hinduism in the West. By contrast, a Vaishnavite considers Vishnu as the one true God, worthy of worship and other forms as subordinate. See for example, an illustration of the Vaishnavite view of Vishnu as the one true God, at this link (http://www.dvaita.org/docs/srv_faq.html#othergods). Accordingly, many Vaishnavites, for example, believe that only Vishnu can grant the ultimate aim for mankind, moksha. See for example, this link (http://www.dvaita.org/docs/srv_faq.html#hell). , this link (http://sriranganatha.tripod.com/id63.html) and this link (http://www.gopala.org/index.php/2005/05/30/shiva_the_auspicious_one). Similarly, many Shaivites also hold similar beliefs, as illustrated at at this link (http://www.sroutasaivasiddhanta.org/2-1.htm) and at this link (http://www.sroutasaivasiddhanta.org/2-11.htm).

However, even Vaisnavites, like other Hindus, have tolerance for other beliefs because Lord Krishna, avatar of Vishnu, said so in the Gita. Few views illustrate this view of tolerance: Krishna said: "Whatever deity or form a devotee worships, I make his faith steady. However, their wishes are only granted by Me" (Gita: 7:21-22). Another quote in the Gita states: "O Arjuna, even those devotees who worship other lesser deities (e.g., Devas, for example) with faith, they also worship Me, but in an improper way because I am the Supreme Being. I alone am the enjoyer of all sacrificial services (Seva, Yajna) and Lord of the universe" (Gita: 9:23). Even a Vedic verse illustrates this theme of tolerance. The Vedas are revered in Hinduism, regardless of denomination. For example, a well-known Rig Vedic hymn stemming from Hinduism states that "Truth is One, though the sages know it variously." This is in contrast with some beliefs of other religious traditions, where one must believe in God being one aspect and to totally reject or disdain other beliefs.

Contents

Hinduism: a brief overview

10th-century mandir (temple) in , Madhya Pradesh
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10th-century mandir (temple) in Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh

Hinduism rests on the spiritual bedrock of the Vedas, hence Veda Dharma, and their mystic issue, the Upanishads, as well as the teachings of many great Hindu gurus through the ages. Many streams of thought flow from the six Vedic/Hindu schools, Bhakti sects and Tantra Agamic schools into the one ocean of Hinduism, the first of the Dharma religions. See Schools of Hinduism.

The great debate between followers among the major Hindu philosophical school, Vedanta, from followers of Shankaracharya's Advaita philosophy on one hand and the strict theistic schools such as Ramanuja and Madhva on the other, focused on the true nature of Brahman, on whether Brahman was essentially attributeless or with attributes, i.e., a personal Supreme Being.

Hindu Mandir (temple) in Atlanta, USA
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Hindu Mandir (temple) in Atlanta, USA

The Eternal Way

"The Eternal Way" (in Sanskrit सनातन धर्म, Sanātana Dharma), or the "Perennial Philosophy/Harmony/Faith", is the one name that has represented Hinduism for many thousands of years. According to Hindus, it speaks to the idea that certain spiritual principles hold eternally true, transcending man-made constructs, representing a pure science of consciousness. But this consciousness is not merely that of the body or mind and intellect, but of a supramental soul-state that exists within and beyond our existence, the unsullied Self of all. Religion to the Hindu is the native search for the divine within the Self, the search to find the One truth that in actuality never was lost. Truth sought with faith shall yield itself in blissful luminescence no matter the race or creed professed. Indeed, all existence, from vegetation and beasts to mankind, are subjects and objects of the eternal Dharma. This inherent faith, therefore, is also known as Arya/Noble Dharma, Veda/Knowledge Dharma, Yoga/Union Dharma, Hindu Dharma or, simply, the Dharma.

What can be said to be common to all Hindus is belief in Dharma, reincarnation, karma, and moksha (liberation) of every soul through a variety of moral, action-based, and meditative yogas. Still more fundamental principles include ahimsa (non-violence), the primacy of the Guru, the Divine Word of OM and the power of mantras, love of Truth in many manifestations as Gods and Goddesses, and an understanding that the essential spark of the Divine (Atman/Brahman) is in every human and living being, thus allowing for many spiritual paths leading to the One Unitary Truth.

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Bindis are worn by Hindu women on their forehead to symbolize the opening of their spiritual third eye(Nowadays women of other religions too).

An example of the pervasiveness of this paramount truth-seeking spirituality in daily life is the laltika (or bindi) (seen left), which is a religious symbol denoting marriage. It is sometimes also said to symbolize the need to cultivate supramental consciousness, which is achieved by opening the mystic "third eye."

Hindus across the board stress meditative insight, an intuition beyond the mind and body, a trait that is often associated with the ascetic god Shiva. Men, too, will bear on their foreheads the equivalent tika or tilak mark, usually on religious occasions, its shape often representing particular devotion to a certain main deity: a 'U' shape stands for Vishnu, a group of three horizontal lines for Shiva. It is not uncommon for some to meld both in an amalgam marker signifying Hari-Hara (Vishnu-Shiva indissoluble).

Yoga Dharma

Hinduism is practiced through a variety of Yogas (spiritual practices), primarily bhakti (loving devotion), Karma Yoga (selfless service), Raja Yoga (meditational Yoga) and Jnana Yoga (Yoga of discrimination, pronounced Nyāna). These are described in the two principal texts of Hindu Yoga: The Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras. The Upanishads are also important as a philosophical foundation for this rational spiritualism.

The four goals of life

Another major aspect of Hindu dharma that is common to practically all Hindus is that of purushartha, the "four goals of life". They are kama, artha, dharma and moksha. It is said that all humans seek kama (pleasure, physical or emotional) and artha (power, fame and wealth), but soon, with maturity, learn to govern these legitimate desires within a higher, pragmatic framework of dharma, or moral harmony in all. Of course, the only goal that is truly infinite, whose attainment results in absolute happiness, is moksha, or liberation, (a.k.a. Mukti, Samadhi, Nirvana, etc.) from Samsara (a.k.a. Reincarnation), the cycle of life, death, and existential duality.

The four stages of life

The human life is also seen as four Ashramas ("phases" or "stages"). They are Brahmacharya, Grihasthya, Vanaprastha and Sanyasa. The first quarter of one's life, brahmacharya (literally "grazing in Brahma") is spent in celibate, sober and pure contemplation of life's secrets under a Guru, building up body and mind for the responsibilities of life. Grihastya is the householder's stage, alternatively known as samsara, in which one marries and satisfies karma and artha within a married life and professional career. Vanaprastha is gradual detachment from the material world, ostensibly giving over duties to one's sons and daughters, spending more time in contemplation of the truth, and making holy pilgrimages. Finally, in sanyasa, the individual goes off into seclusion, often envisioned as the forest, to find God through Yogic meditation and peacefully shed the body for the next life.

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This young Indian brahmachari bears on his forehead the distinctive triple-line tilak (made out of ash, referred to as vibhuti) and on his chest a rudraksha (eye of Rudra) and mala (rosary), both symbols of Lord Shiva.

Views of God

Within Sanatana Dharma, or Hinduism (as it is commonly called), a variety of lesser gods are seen as aspects of the one impersonal divine ground, Brahman (not Brahma). Brahman is seen as the universal spirit. Brahman is the ultimate, both transcendent and immanent the absolute infinite existence, the sum total of all that ever is, was, or ever shall be. Brahman is not a God in the monotheistic sense, as it is not imbued with any limiting characteristics, not even those of being and non-being, and this is reflected in the fact that in Sanskrit, the word brahman is of neuter (as opposed to masculine or feminine) gender.

Vedanta is a branch of Hindu philosophy which gives this matter a greater focus. Yoga is the primary focus in many ways of a Hindu's religious activities, being somewhere between meditation, prayer and healthful exercise.

Some of Hinduism's adherents are monists, seeing in multiple manifestations of the one God or source of being, which is often confused by non-Hindus as being polytheism. It is seen as one unity, with the personal Gods differents aspects of only one Supreme Being, like a single beam of light separated into colours by a prism, and are valid to worship. Some of the Hindu aspects of God include Devi, Vishnu, Ganesh, and Siva. Hindus believe that God, in whatever form they prefer, (or as monists prefer to call, "Ishta Devata,", i.e., the preferred form of God) can grant worshippers grace to bring them closer to Moksha, end of the cycle of rebirth. The great Hindu saint, Ramakrishna, a monist, was a prominent advocate of this traditional Hindu view. He achieved the spiritual high of other religions besides Hinduism, such as Christianity and Islam, and came to the same conclusion proclaimed by the Vedas, "Truth is one, the wise call it by different names."

The Four Major Denominations of Hinduism

Contemporary Hinduism is traditionally divided into four major divisions, Saivism, Shaktism, Vaishnavism, and Smarthism.

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Thirumala:The richest temple and a very important vaishnavite temple

Hinduism is a very rich and complex religion. Each of its four denominations shares rituals, beliefs, traditions and personal Gods with one another, but each sect has a different philosophy on how to achieve life's ultimate goal (moksa, liberation) and on their views of the Gods. Each denomination fundamentally believes in different methods of self-realization and in different aspects of the One Supreme God. However, each denomination respects and accepts all others, and conflict of any kind is rare.

Vaishnavism, Saivism and Shaktism, respectively believe in a monotheistic ideal of Vishnu (often as Krishna), Siva, or Devi; this view does not exclude other personal Gods, as they are understood to be aspects of the chosen ideal (e.g., to many devotees of Krishna, Shiva is seen as having sprung from Krishna's creative force). Often, the monad Brahman is seen as the one source, with all other gods emanating therefrom. Thus, with all Hindus, there is a strong belief in all paths being true religions that lead to one God or source, whatever one chooses to call the ultimate truth. Again, these views, in fact, more strongly, reflect a Smarta viewpoint.

Origins, definition and society

Vedic religion

Modern Hinduism grew out of the religion described in the Vedas. The earliest of these, the Rigveda centers on worship of the gods Indra and Agni, and on the Soma ritual. The Ashvamedha was the most important sacrifice described in the Yajurveda, possibly performed for the last time by Samudragupta in the 4th century. The age and origins of the Vedas themselves are disputed, but it is clear that they were transmitted orally for several millennia. They show strong similarities to the language and religion of the Avesta, which are sometimes traced back to either the influence of the 3rd millennium BC Indus Valley Civilisation, or to a 2nd millennium BC Indo-Iranian migration (see Aryan invasion theory), or to a combination of these.

Caste system

See also: caste.

According to ancient Hindus, the four varnas (literally, 'colors') or castes had equal standing in the society and were based upon the duties to society and worked together towards the welfare of the society. According to this understanding, discrimination by caste is a perversion of dharma's true meaning.

But over a period of time the caste system has become rigid and discriminatory. In spite of centuries of numerous reform movements, notably within Vedanta, bhakti yoga and Hindu streams of Tantra, and reformers, with recent stalwarts like Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi, caste based discrimination is so deeply ensconced in the Indian consciousness that even Christian converts have been known to separate church meetings for different castes. A number of Muslim communities have retained caste practices as well.

Caste still plays a significant role in Hindu society; however, post Independence, caste is losing favour in India and caste-based discrimination has been illegitimised. [2] (http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/2001/10/19/stories/05192524.htm). Despite this various political parties sometimes exploit these divisions for electoral gain.

Legal definition in India

In a 1966 ruling, the Supreme Court of India defined the Hindu faith as follows for legal purposes:

  1. Acceptance of the Vedas with reverence as the highest authority in religious and philosophic matters and acceptance with reverence of Vedas by Hindu thinkers and philosophers as the sole foundation of Hindu philosophy.
  2. Spirit of tolerance and willingness to understand and appreciate the opponent's point of view based on the realization that truth is many-sided.
  3. Acceptance of great world rhythm — vast periods of creation, maintenance and dissolution follow each other in endless succession — by all six systems of Hindu philosophy.
  4. Acceptance by all systems of Hindu philosophy of the belief in rebirth and pre-existence.
  5. Recognition of the fact that the means or ways to salvation are many.
  6. Realization of the truth that numbers of Gods to be worshiped may be large, yet there are Hindus who do not believe in the worshiping of idols.
  • It is noteworthy that point #6, of the legal definition of Hinduism, again reflects a Smarta definition of Hinduism, or its influence, rather the viewpoints of other denominations of Hinduism, which are exclusive monotheistic faiths. So even the Supreme Court of India, also adopted a Smarta viewpoint.

Hindutva

Main article: Hindutva

In the 20th century, emerging Indian nationalism began to emphasize Hinduism, in opposition to the British Raj, but also in contrast to Islam, and after Independence in connection with the territorial disputes with Pakistan. Such nationalistic Hinduism is generally termed Hindutva ("Hinduness", paradoxically not a well-formed Sanskrit word, since "Hindu" is a Persian word), but the boundaries are fluid and the Indian Supreme Court ruled that "no precise meaning can be ascribed to the terms 'Hindu', 'Hindutva' and 'Hinduism'; and no meaning in the abstract can confine it to the narrow limits of religion alone, excluding the content of Indian culture and heritage." Hindutva ideology was enunciated first by Savarkar in his seminal work 'Hindutva'. Hindutva ideology rose to importance in Indian politics in the 1980s and is chiefly associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh movement. It has come to symbolize the rising bi-polarization of indian polity in the late 1990's and the first decade of the 21th century, evident in the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) in the same period.

Current geographic distribution

Largest gathering of Humanity on Earth. Around 70 million people participated in  at Haridwar
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Largest gathering of Humanity on Earth. Around 70 million people participated in Kumbh Mela at Haridwar

Of the total Hindu population of the world, about 94% (890 million) live in India. Other countries with a significant Hindu population include:

The Indonesian islands of Bali, Java, Sulawesi, Sumatra, and Borneo have significant native Hindu populations.

See: Hinduism by country

The  (Sun Temple) is conceived as a massive 24-wheel chariot of the Sun God .
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The Konark Surya Mandir (Sun Temple) is conceived as a massive 24-wheel chariot of the Sun God Surya.

Hindu philosophy: the six Vedic schools of thought

Main article: Hindu philosophy

The six Astika or orthodox (accepting the authority of the Vedas) schools of Hindu philosophy are Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Purva Mimamsa (also called just 'Mimamsa'), and Uttara Mimamsa (also called 'Vedanta'). The non-Vedic schools are called Nastika, or heterodox, and refer to Buddhism, Jainism and Lokayata. The schools that continue to affect Hinduism today are Purva Mimamsa, Yoga, and Vedanta. See Hindu philosophy for a discussion of the historical significance of Samkhya, Nyaya, and Vaisheshika.

Purva Mimamsa

The main objective of the Purva ("earlier") Mimamsa school was to establish the authority of the Vedas. Consequently this school's most valuable contribution to Hinduism was its formulation of the rules of Vedic interpretation. Its adherents believed that revelation must be proved by reasoning, that it should not be accepted blindly as dogma. This empirical and eminently sensible manner of religious application is key to the Sanatana/Hindu Dharma and was especially championed by rationalists like Adi Sankara and Swami Vivekananda. For greater depth, please see Purva Mimamsa.

Yoga

 (Hindu ascetic) are often seen meditating in  (lotus pose). Used with permission from www.kamat.com
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Sadhus (Hindu ascetic) are often seen meditating in padmasana (lotus pose). Used with permission from www.kamat.com
Patients performing
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Patients performing Yoga

The Yoga system is generally considered to have arisen from the Samkhya philosophy. The yoga referred to here, however, is specifically Raja Yoga (or meditational union). It is based on the sage Patanjali's extremely influential text entitled the Yoga Sutra, which is essentially a compilation and systematization of meditational Yoga philosophy that came before. Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita are also indispensable literature in the study of Yoga.

The most significant difference from Samkhya is that the Yoga school not only incorporates the concept of Ishvara (a personal God) into its metaphysical worldview but also that it holds Ishvara as the ideal upon which to meditate. This is because Ishvara is the only aspect of purusha (the infinite Divine Ground) that has not become entangled with prakrti (the temporal creative forces). It also utilizes the Brahman/Atman terminology and concepts that are found in depth in the Upanishads, adopting Vedantic monist concepts. Realization of the goal of Yoga is known as moksha or samadhi. It, like the Upanishads, seeks realization of the Atman as being nothing other than the infinite Brahman through ethical (mind), physical (body) and meditational (soul) practices of one-pointedness on the 'one supreme truth.' See Yoga for an in-depth look at its history.

Uttara Mimamsa: The Three Schools of Vedanta

The Uttara ("later") Mimamsa school is perhaps one of the cornerstone movements of Hinduism and certainly was responsible for a new wave of philosophical and meditative inquiry, renewal of faith, and cultural reform. Primarily associated with the Upanishads and their commentary by Badarayana, the Vedanta Sutras, Vedanta thought split into three groups, initiated by the thinking and writing of Adi Sankara. Most Hindu thought today in some way relates to changes affected by Vedantic thought, which focused on meditation, morality and centeredness on the one Self rather than on rituals and societal distinctions like caste. The great debate between followers among the major Hindu philosophical school, Vedanta, from followers of Advaita philosophy on one hand and the strict theistic schools such as those of Ramanuja and Madhva on the other, focused on the true nature of Brahman, on whether Brahman was essentially attributeless or with attributes, i.e., a personal Supreme Being. See Vedanta for greater depth.

Pure Monism: Advaita

Advaita literally means "not two"; thus this is what we refer to as a monistic (or non-dualistic) system, which emphasises oneness. Its consolidator was Sankara (788?-820?). Sankara expounded his theories largely based on previous teachings of the Upanishads and his own guru Govinda Bhagavadpada. By analysis of experiential consciousness, he exposed the relative nature of the world and established the non-dual reality of Brahman in which Atman (the individual soul) and Brahman (the ultimate reality) are identified absolutely. It is not merely philosophy, but a conscious system of applied ethics and meditation, all geared towards attaining peace and understanding of truth. Adi Sankara denounced caste and meaningless ritual as foolish, and in his own charismatic manner, exhorted the true devotee to meditate on God's love and apprehend truth.

To Advaitists (nondualists) Ultimate Truth is best expressed as Nirguna Brahman, or God without form, or God without personal attributes; indeed, some might go so far as to say it is not 'God' but something beyond. However, even that definition can be limiting. Nirguna Brahman can never be described as that as It transcends all definitions. All personal forms of God such as Vishnu or Shiva are different aspects of God in personal form or God with attributes, Saguna Brahman. God's energy is personified as Devi, the Divine Mother. For Vaishnvaites who follow Ramanuja's philosophy, Devi is Lakshmi, who is the Mother of all and who pleads with Vishnu for mankind who is entrenched in sin. For Shaivites, Devi is Parvati. For Shaktas, who worship Devi, Devi is the personal form of God to attain the impersonal Absolute, God, i.e., Shiva. For them, Shiva is personified as God without attributes. See Advaita for more.

Qualified Monism: Vishistadvaita

Ramanuja (1040 - 1137) was the foremost proponent of the concept of Sriman Narayana as the supreme Brahman. He taught that Ultimate reality had three aspects: Isvara (Vishnu), cit (soul) and acit (matter). Vishnu is the only independent reality, while souls and matter are dependent on God for their existence. Because of this qualification of Ultimate reality, Ramanuja's system is known as qualified non-dualism.

Dualism: Dvaita

Like Ramanuja, Madhva (1238 - 1317) identified God with Vishnu, but his view of reality was purely dualistic in that he understood a fundamental differentiation between the ultimate Godhead and the individual soul, and the system is therefore called Dvaita (dualistic) Vedanta.

Alternative cultures of worship

The Bhakti schools

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Bharata Natyam dancer's right hand is in the Bhramara Hasta (yoga, upward offering to the Divine), the 3 joined fingers symbolizing the sacred syllable AUM.The left hand's fingers are in Alapadma Hasta, the rotating lotus of spiritual light.The eyes are directed towards the Supreme Lord. The left leg is lifted, symbolizing the swift ascent of the consciousness in one step from the Earth to the Heaven.
The Bhakti (Devotional) school takes its name from the Hindu term that signifies a blissful, selfless and overwhelming love of God as the beloved Father, Mother, Child, or whatever relationship finds appeal in the devotee's heart. The philosophy of Bhakti seeks to tap into the universal divinity through personal form, which explains the proliferation of so many Gods and Goddesses in India, often reflecting the singular inclinations of small regions or groups of people. Seen as a form of Yoga, or union, it seeks to dissolve the ego in God, since consciousness of the body and limited mind as self is seen to be a divisive factor in spiritual realization.
  is the son of  and ; beloved by many Hindus, he is widely worshipped as , the remover of  obstacles.
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Shri Ganesh is the son of Shiva and Parvati; beloved by many Hindus, he is widely worshipped as Vignesh, the remover of obstacles.

Essentially, it is God who effects all change, who is the source of all works, who acts through the devotee as love and light. 'Sins' and evil-doings of the devotee are said to fall away of their own accord, the devotee shriven, limitedness even transcended, through the love of God. The Bhakti movements rejuvenated Hinduism through their intense expression of faith and their responsiveness to the emotional and philosophical needs of India. They can rightly be said to have affected the greatest wave of change in Hindu prayer and ritual since ancient times.

The most popular means of expressing love for God in the Hindu tradition has been through puja, or ritual devotion, frequently using the aid of a murti (statue) in conjunction with the singing or chanting of meditational prayer in the form of mantras. Devotional songs called bhajans (written primarily from the 14th-17th centuries), kirtan (praise), and arti (a filtered down form of Vedic fire ritual) are sometimes sung in conjunction with performance of puja. This rather organic system of devotion attempts to aid the individual in connecting with God through symbolic medium. It is said, however, that the bhakta, through a growing connection with God, is eventually able to eschew all external form and is immersed entirely in the bliss of undifferentiated Love in Truth. See bhakti movement for more depth.

Altogether, bhakti resulted in a mass of devotional literature, music and art that has enriched the world and given India renewed spiritual impetus, one eschewing unnecessary ritual and artificial social boundaries. See bhakti yoga for more.

Tantrism

According to the most famous Western Tantrik scholar, Sir John Woodroffe Sir John Woodroffe/temp (pseudonym Arthur Avalon): "The Indian Tantras, which are numerous, constitute the Scripture (Shastra) of the Kaliyuga, and as such are the voluminous source of present and practical orthodox 'Hinduism'. The Tantra Shastra is, in fact, and whatever be its historical origin, a development of the Vaidika Karmakanda, promulgated to meet the needs of that age. Shiva says: 'For the benefit of men of the Kali age, men bereft of energy and dependent for existence on the food they eat, the Kaula doctrine, O auspicious one! is given' (Chap. IX., verse 12). To the Tantra we must therefore look if we would understand aright both ritual, yoga, and sadhana of all kinds, as also the general principles of which these practices are but the objective expression." (Introduction to Sir John Woodroffe's translation of "Mahanirvana Tantra.")

The word "tantra" means "treatise" or "continuum", and is applied to a variety of mystical, occult, medical and scientific works as well as to those which we would now regard as "tantric". Most tantras were written in the late middle ages and sprang from Hindu cosmology and Yoga. See Tantra for more.

Important symbolism and themes in Hinduism

Ahimsa and the cow

A note of the element of ahimsa in Hinduism is vital to understanding the society that has arisen around some of its principles. While Jainism as it was practiced was certainly a major influence on Indian society with its exhortation of strict veganism and non-violence as ahimsa, the term first appeared in the Upanishads. Thus, an ingrained and externally motivated influence led to the development of a large section of Hindus who grew to embrace vegetarianism in a bid to respect higher forms of life, restricting their diet to plants and vegetables. About 30% of today's Hindu population, especially in orthodox communities in South India, in certain northerly states like Gujarat, and in many Brahmin enclaves around the subcontinent, is vegetarian. Thus, while vegetarianism is not dogma, it is recommended as a sattwic (purifying) lifestyle.

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Cow on Delhi street

Those Hindus who do eat meat predominantly abstain from beef, some even going so far as to avoid leather products. This is most likely because the largely pastoral Vedic people and subsequent generations of Hindus throughout the centuries relied so heavily on the cow for all sorts of dairy products, tilling of fields and fuel for fertilizer that its status as a willing 'caretaker' of humanity grew to identifying it as an almost maternal figure(so the term gaumata). Thus, while most Hindus do not worship the cow, and scriptural injunctions against eating beef arose long after the Vedas had been written, it still holds an honored place in Hindu society. It is said that Krishna is both Govinda (herder of cows) and Gopala (protector of cows), and Shiva's attendant is Nandi, the bull. With the stress on vegetarianism (which is usually followed even by meat-eating Hindus on religious days or special occasions) and the sacred nature of the cow, it is no wonder that most holy cities and areas in India have a ban on selling beef and there is a movement among Hindus to ban cow-slaughter not only in specific regions, but in all of India.

Hindu symbolism

Among the most revered symbols in Hinduism, two are quintessentially a part of its culture and representative of its general ethos:

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The quintessence of Hinduism

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The widely misunderstood Swastika, in an adorned form

Aum () is the standard sign of Hinduism, and is prefixed and sometimes suffixed to all Hindu mantras and prayers. It contains an enormous and diverse amount of symbolism; Hindus consider its sound and vibration to be the divine representation of existence, encompassing all of manifold nature into the One eternal truth. ; see Aum for more detail. The swastika () is an Arya, or noble symbol. It stands for satya, truth, and stability within the power of Brahma or, alternatively, of Surya, the sun. Its rotation in four directions has been used to represent many ideas, but primarily describes the four directions and their harmonious whole. It has been used in Hinduism since the early Vedic culture and is still widespread in the Indian subcontinent. Many Eastern cultures still hold it to be sacred, especially in India, in spite of the recent association with Nazism which perverted the original meaning of this universal symbol. See Swastika.

Forms of worship: murtis and mantras

 of Lord ,  of , whose story is told in the  adorn many Hindu homes and temples.
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Murtis of Lord Rama, avatar of Vishnu, whose story is told in the Ramayana adorn many Hindu homes and temples.

Contrary to popular belief, practiced Hinduism is neither polytheistic nor strictly monotheistic. The various gods and avatars that are worshipped by Hindus are understood as different forms of One truth, sometimes seen as beyond a mere God and as a formless Divine Ground (Brahman), akin but not limited to monism, or as one monotheistic principle like Vishnu or Shiva.

Whether believing in the One source as formless (nirguna brahman, without attributes) or as a personal God (saguna Brahman, with attributes), Hindus understand that the one truth may be seen as different to different people. Hinduism encourages devotees to describe and develop a personal relationship with their chosen deity (ishta devata) in the form of a God or Goddess.

While some censuses hold worshippers of one form or another of Vishnu (known as Vaishnavites) to be at 80% and those of Shiva (called Shaivaites) and Shakti at the remaining 20%, such figures are perhaps misleading. The vast majority of Hindus worship many gods as varicolored forms of the same prism of Truth. Among the most popular are Vishnu (as Krishna or Rama), Shiva, Devi (the Mother as many female deities, such as Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kali and Durga), Ganesha, Skanda and Hanuman. Also, the puranas list twenty-five avatara of Vishnu : Catursana, Narad, Varaha, Matsya, Yajna, Nara-Narayana, Kapila, Dattatreya, Hayasirsa, Hamsa, Prsnigarbha, Rsabha, Prithu, Narasimha , Kurma, Dhanvantari, Mohini, Vamana, Parasurama, Raghavendra, Vyasa, Balarama, Krishna, Buddha.

Worship of said deities is often done through the aid of pictures or icons (murti) which are said not to be God themselves but conduits for the devotee's consciousness, markers for the human soul that signify the ineffable and illimitable nature of the love and grandeur of God. They are symbols of the greater principle, representing and are never presumed to be the concept or entity itself. Thus, Hindu image worship is a form of iconolatry, in which the symbols are venerated as putative sigils of divinity, as opposed to idolatry, a charge often levied (erroneously) at Hindus. For more details on this form of worship, see murti.

Mantra

Main article: Mantra.

Reciting mantras is a fundamental practice in Hinduism. Much of mantra yoga, as it is called, is done through japa (repetition). Mantras are said, through their meaning, sound, and chanting style, to help meditational focus for the sadhaka (practitioner). They can also be used to aid in expression of love for the deity, another facet of Bhakti yoga akin to the understanding of the murti. They often give courage in exigent times and serve to help 'invoke' one's inner spiritual strength. Indeed, Mahatma Gandhi's dying words were a two-word mantra to the Lord Rama: "Hai Ram!"'.

The most revered mantra in Hinduism is the famed Gayatri Mantra (see Sanskrit for pronunciation):

Devanagari: ॐ भूर्भुवस्वः | तत् सवितूर्वरेण्यम् | भर्गो देवस्य धीमहि | धियो यो नः प्रचोदयात्
Transliteration: OM bhūr bhuva svaḥ | tat savitūr vareṇyam | bhargo devasya dhīmahi | dhiyo yo naḥ pra-codayāt
Translation: "May we attain that excellent glory of Savitar the God / so May he stimulate our prayers."

It is considered one of the most universal of all Hindu mantras, invoking the universal Brahman as the principle of knowledge and the illumination of the primordial Sun. Many Hindus to this day, in a tradition that has continued unbroken for at least 3,000 years, perform morning ablutions at the bank of a sacred river (especially the Ganga/Ganges). Known as a universal mantra, it is revered as being the most condensed form of Divine Knowledge (Veda). Its presiding principle, Ma (Mother) Gayatri, is also known as Veda Mata (Mother of the Vedas) and is strongly associated with the Goddess of Learning and Illumination, Saraswati.

The chief aim of the Vedic religion is to achieve moksha, or liberation, through constant dedication to satya (Truth) and eventual realization of the atman (Universal Soul), held to be achievable by all, whether through meditation or pure love. The great rishis (Hindu sages) have termed the samsaric (one who lives in samsara, i.e. the temporal or earthly plane) who succeeds in living an honest, loving and dharmic life a jivanmukta (living free soul). Hinduism's fundamental truth is best expressed in the Upanishadic dictum, Tat Twam Asi (Thou Art That), and the ultimate aspiration as follows:

OM Asato ma sad gamaya, tamaso ma jyotir gamaya, mrityor ma aamritaam gamaya
"OM Lead me from ignorance to truth, from darkness to light, from death to immortality."

Hindu sacred texts

Main article: Hindu scripture

The overwhelming majority of Hindu sacred texts are composed in the Sanskrit language. Indeed, much of the morphology and linguistic philosophy inherent in the learning of Sanskrit is sometimes claimed to be inextricably linked to study.

The texts are divided into two categories: Shruti- that which is heard (i.e. revelation) and Smriti- that which is remembered (i.e. tradition, not revelation).

Shruti

The Vedas are considered as shruti (inspired) by all Hindus. While the overwhelming majority of Hindus may never read the Vedas, the reverence for the more abstract notion of eternal knowledge (Veda means knowledge) is etched deep into the hearts of all those who follow Veda Dharma. The four Vedas (the Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva Vedas) were preserved by various shakhas or schools. Depending on the school, various commentaries and instructions are associated with each Veda. The oldest of these are the Brahmanas. The Shrautasutras and Grhyasutras form a younger stratum dealing with domestic ritual. The Aranyakas and the Upanishads were originally esoteric, mystical teachings related in secrecy.

While the Vedas and their early commentaries on one hand center on ritual and sacrifice, the late Vedantic (End of Vedas) texts emphasize mystic insight and express abhorrence for ritual practiced at the expense of spiritual insight, claiming to streamline the excessive litany of praise to Vedic gods and to capture the essence of the Rig Vedic dictum "Truth Is One." They set Hindu philosophy apart with its embrace of a single transcendent and yet immanent force that is native to each man's soul, an identification of micro- and macrocosm as One. It can be said that while early Hinduism is most reliant on the four Vedas, Classical Hinduism, from the Yoga and Vedanta to Tantra and Bhakti streams, was molded around the Upanishads.

Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita occupies a special position in the hearts of most Hindus as a keystone yoga upanishad whose eternal words perhaps are the most representative of all Hindu thought. The text documents a conversation between Arjuna, a warrior, and Lord Krishna immediately prior to the major battle described in the epic Mahabharata. While technically it is considered Smriti, it has singularly achieved nearly unquestioned status as Shruti, or revealed, and is thus the most definitive single Hindu text, read by millions of bhaktas (devotees) and yogis on a largely daily basis throughout the Sanatana Dharmic world. In a wider context, it is considered a timeless classic of world literature. See Bhagavad Gita to explore this text.

Smriti

The post- Vedic Hindu scriptures form the latter category, the most notable of which are the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, major epics considered scripture by most followers of Sanatana Dharma, their stories arguably familiar to the vast majority of Hindus living in the Indian subcontinent, if not abroad. Other texts considered important by today's Hindus include the Devi Mahatmya, an ode to Devi, the Divine Mother, and the Yoga Sutras, a key meditative yoga text of Shri Patanjali. There are also a number of revered Hindu Tantras and Sutras that command the respect of various Hindu sects of different persuasion, some including the Mahanirvana Tantra, Tirumantiram and Shiva Sutras. Other important scriptures are the sectarian Hindu Agamas which are texts dedicated to Vishnu, Shiva and Devi.

References

See also

Template:Hindu scriptures

Related articles, lists and concepts

Hindu terminology

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