Hinduism differs from Christianity and other monotheistic religions in that it does not have:
- a single founder,
- a specific theological system,
- a single concept of deity,
- a single holy text,
- a single system of morality,
- a central religious authority,
- the concept of a prophet.
Hinduism is generally regarded as the world’s oldest organized religion. It consists of “thousands of different religious groups that have evolved in India since 1500 BCE.” Because of the wide variety of Hindu traditions, freedom of belief and practice have traditionally been notable features of Hinduism.
Most forms of Hinduism are henotheistic religions. They recognize a single deity, and view other Gods and Goddesses as manifestations or aspects of that supreme God or Goddess. Henotheistic and polytheistic religions have traditionally been among the world’s most religiously tolerant faiths. As a result, India has traditionally been one of the most religiously tolerant in the world.
However in 1998, a Hindu nationalistic political party the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) controlled the government of India. The linkage of religion, the national government, and nationalism led to a degeneration of the separation of church and state in India and a decrease in the level of religious tolerance in that country. An escalation of anti-Christian violence was one manifestation of this linkage. With the subsequent change in government, the level of violence has diminished somewhat, but intolerance still exists in some areas of the country.
Hinduism has grown to become the world’s third largest religion, after Christianity and Islam. It claims about 950 million followers — about 14% of the world’s population. It is the dominant religion in India, where 95% of the world’s Hindus live. It is also very common in Nepal, and among the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Estimates of the number of Hindus in the U.S. vary greatly:
- According to the “Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches,” there were about 1.1 million Hindus in the U.S. during 1999.
- The “American Religious Identification Survey” is believed to under-estimate the numbers of Hindus because of communications problems with non-English speaking households. They estimated: 766,000 Hindus in 2001 and 1.2 million in 2008.
- During 2015, the Pew Research Center conducted their Religious Landscape Study and estimated 2.23 million Hindus live in the U.S.
Statistics Canada conducted their National Household Survey In 2011. They estimated that 157,015 Hindus live in Canada (1.51% of the total population). Unfortunately, they only update these numbers once each decade.
Introduction to Hinduism
Hinduism is the religion of the majority of people in India and Nepal. It also exists among significant populations outside of the sub continent and has over 900 million adherents worldwide.
In some ways Hinduism is the oldest living religion in the world, or at least elements within it stretch back many thousands of years. Yet Hinduism resists easy definition partly because of the vast array of practices and beliefs found within it. It is also closely associated conceptually and historically with the other Indian religions Jainism,Buddhism and Sikhism.
Unlike most other religions, Hinduism has no single founder, no single scripture, and no commonly agreed set of teachings. Throughout its extensive history, there have been many key figures teaching different philosophies and writing numerous holy books. For these reasons, writers often refer to Hinduism as ‘a way of life’ or ‘a family of religions’ rather than a single religion.
The term ‘Hindu’ was derived from the river or river complex of the northwest, the Sindhu. Sindhu is a Sanskrit word used by the inhabitants of the region, the Aryans in the second millennium BCE. Later migrants and invaders, the Persians in the sixth century BCE, the Greeks from the 4th century BCE, and the Muslims from the 8th century CE, used the name of this river in their own languages for the land and its people.
The term ‘Hindu’ itself probably does not go back before the 15th and 16th centuries when it was used by people to differentiate themselves from followers of other traditions, especially the Muslims (Yavannas), in Kashmir and Bengal. At that time the term may have simply indicated groups united by certain cultural practices such as cremation of the dead and styles of cuisine. The ‘ism’ was added to ‘Hindu’ only in the 19th century in the context of British colonialism and missionary activity.
The origins of the term ‘hindu’ are thus cultural, political and geographical. Now the term is widely accepted although any definition is subject to much debate. In some ways it is true to say that Hinduism is a religion of recent origin yet its roots and formation go back thousands of years.
Some claim that one is ‘born a Hindu’, but there are now many Hindus of non-Indian descent. Others claim that its core feature is belief in an impersonal Supreme, but important strands have long described and worshipped a personal God. Outsiders often criticise Hindus as being polytheistic, but many adherents claim to be monotheists.
Some Hindus define orthodoxy as compliance with the teachings of the Vedic texts (the four Vedas and their supplements). However, still others identify their tradition with ‘Sanatana Dharma’, the eternal order of conduct that transcends any specific body of sacred literature. Scholars sometimes draw attention to the caste system as a defining feature, but many Hindus view such practices as merely a social phenomenon or an aberration of their original teachings. Nor can we define Hinduism according to belief in concepts such as karma and samsara (reincarnation) because Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists (in a qualified form) accept this teaching too.
Although it is not easy to define Hinduism, we can say that it is rooted in India, most Hindus revere a body of texts as sacred scripture known as the Veda, and most Hindus draw on a common system of values known as dharma.
- Hinduism originated around the Indus Valley near the River Indus in modern day Pakistan.
- About 80% of the Indian population regard themselves as Hindu.
- Most Hindus believe in a Supreme God, whose qualities and forms are represented by the multitude of deities which emanate from him.
- Hindus believe that existence is a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, governed by Karma.
- Hindus believe that the soul passes through a cycle of successive lives and its next incarnation is always dependent on how the previous life was lived.
- The main Hindu texts are the Vedas and their supplements (books based on the Vedas). Veda is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘knowledge’. These scriptures do not mention the word ‘Hindu’ but many scriptures discuss dharma, which can be rendered as ‘code of conduct’, ‘law’, or ‘duty’
- Hindus celebrate many holy days, but the Festival of Lights,Diwali is the best known.
- The 2001 census recorded 559,000 Hindus in Britain, around 1% of the population
Hindu worship, or puja, involves images (murtis), prayers (mantras) and diagrams of the universe (yantras).
Central to Hindu worship is the image, or icon, which can be worshipped either at home or in the temple.
Individual rather than communal
Hindu worship is primarily an individual act rather than a communal one, as it involves making personal offerings to the deity.
Worshippers repeat the names of their favourite gods and goddesses, and repeat mantras. Water, fruit, flowers and incense are offered to god.
Worship at home
The majority of Hindu homes have a shrine where offerings are made and prayers are said.
A shrine can be anything: a room, a small altar or simply pictures or statues of the deity.
Family members often worship together. Rituals should strictly speaking be performed three times a day. Some Hindus, but not all, worship wearing the sacred thread (over the left shoulder and hanging to the right hip). This is cotton for the Brahmin (priest), hemp for the Kshatriya (ruler) and wool for the vaishya (merchants).
At a Hindu temple, different parts of the building have a different spiritual or symbolic meaning.
- The central shrine is the heart of the worshipper
- The tower represents the flight of the spirit to heaven
- A priest may read, or more usually recite, the Vedas to the assembled worshippers, but any “twice-born” Hindu can perform the reading of prayers and mantras
Hindu religious rites are classified into three categories:
- Nitya rituals are performed daily and consist in offerings made at the home shrine or performing puja to the family deities.
- Naimittika rituals are important but only occur at certain times during the year, such as celebrations of the festivals, thanksgiving and so on.
- Kamya are rituals which are “optional” but highly desirable. Pilgrimage is one such.
Worship and pilgrimage
Pilgrimage is an important aspect of Hinduism. It’s an undertaking to see and be seen by the deity.
Popular pilgrimage places are rivers, but temples, mountains, and other sacred sites in India are also destinations for pilgrimages, as sites where the gods may have appeared or become manifest in the world.
Once every 12 years, up to 10 million people share in ritual bathing at the Kumbh Mela festival at Allahabad where the waters of the Ganges and Jumna combine.
Hindus from all walks of life gather there for ritual bathing, believing that their sins will be washed away.
The bathing is followed by spiritual purification and a ceremony which secures the blessings of the deity.
The river Ganges is the holiest river for Hindus.
This city, also known as Benares, is situated on the banks of the Ganges and is one of the most important pilgrimage centres.
It is said to be the home of Lord Shiva where legend has it that his fiery light broke through the earth to reach the heavens.
A Hindu who dies at Varanasi and has their ashes scattered on the Ganges is said to have experienced the best death possible