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Hinduism (not to be confused with Hindutva) is one of the world's most prolific religions, and one of the two primary religions of the Indian subcontinent, along with Islam. It is also known as Sanātana Dharma by Hindus. Hinduism consists of many diverse traditions; it has no single founder. It is regarded as the world's oldest documented extant religion. It is split into sects and schools. The three major sects are Shaivism, Shaktism and Vaishnavism. These three major sects focus on a single god: Shiva, Shakti, and Vishnu, respectively. Usually, the Adevanta Tradition, which focuses on anecdotes and reverence towards all major deities, is discussed in relation to Hinduism as a religion.
Hinduism, like many Eastern spiritual schools of thought, does not fit into the Western concept of religion. Hinduism is not characterized by rigid beliefs in the same way that Christianity and Islam are, although it does have its own peculiar share of them. In fact, Hinduism does "not have a unified belief encoded in the declaration of faith or a creed", except for a firm belief in the caste system. It is an umbrella term denoting the plurality of spiritual and ritualistic phenomena based on Brahmanical Vedic traditions. Which is very convenient, since Hinduism is so loosely defined and diverse that it makes it virtually impossible to critique or scrutinize it. There are no coherent beliefs shared by all Hindus. Some Hindus revere the sacred literary works including the Vedas, Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads. Yet, there are many Hindus unfamiliar with those works. The majority of Hindus subscribe to a belief in God responsible for the creation, sustenance and destruction of the universe and manifested in various gods and goddesses. However, there are atheistic heterodox Hindu schools of thought as well; like the fatalist Ājīvika who rejected Karma as a fallacy and postulated a metaphysics of atoms, as well as the allegedly hedonistic Cārvāka. Like the lost writings of the Greek philosophers Diogenes or Leucippus, these atheist philosophies are remembered mostly by the records of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist critics. Such atheists who base their atheism on Vedic scriptures usually call themselves "Hindu atheists" and while they do not believe in the existence of a deity, they usually do have irrational beliefs in pseudoscientific conceptions such as Ayurveda and astrology.
Some academics suggest that Hinduism can be seen as a category with "fuzzy edges", rather than as a well-defined and rigid entity. Some forms of religious expression are central to Hinduism, while others are not as central but still remain within the category. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar was one of the first scholars to question the irrationalities of Hinduism. His book entitled Riddles in Hinduism tackled in detail questions relating to the origins and definition of Hinduism. The premise of the argument presented in this book was that Hinduism was actually another name for Brahmanism - the Vedic religion of the Brahmins (priestly castes). This is why caste was an integral feature of Hinduism, but not necessarily exclusive to it. However, Riddles in Hinduism remained an unpublished manuscript till 1987, more than 30 years after Ambedkar's death. When it was finally published following a court case, it faced severe opposition from many Hindu groups as well as conservative political parties. In the opening chapter of the book entitled The difficulty of knowing why one is a Hindu, Ambedkar writes:
“”What is interesting to know is why is a Parsi a Parsi and why is a Christian a Christian, why is a Muslim a Muslim and why is a Hindu a Hindu? With regard to the Parsi, the Christian and the Muslim, it is smooth sailing…Now ask the same question to a Hindu and there is no doubt that he will be completely bewildered and would not know what to say.
If he says that he is a Hindu because he worships the same god as the Hindu community does, his answer cannot be true. All Hindus do not worship one god. Some Hindus are monotheists, some are polytheists and some are pantheists. Even those Hindus who are monotheists are not worshippers of the same gods. … If he says that “I am a Hindu because I hold to the beliefs of the Hindus,” his answer cannot be right for here one is confronted with the fact that Hinduism has no definite creed. The beliefs of persons who are by all admitted to be Hindus often differ more widely from each other than do those of Christians and Mohammedans. … If he says that he is a Hindu because he observes the same customs as other Hindus do, his answer cannot be true. For all Hindus do not observe the same customs.Again if he said that he is a Hindu because he believes in the caste system, his answer cannot be accepted as satisfactory. It is quite true that no Hindu is interested in what his neighbour believes, but he is very much interested in knowing whether he can eat with him or take water from his hands. In other words it means that the caste system is an essential feature of Hinduism and a man who does not belong to a recognised Hindu caste cannot be a Hindu. While all this is true it must not be forgotten that observance of caste is not enough. Many Musalmans and many Christians observe caste, if not in the matter of inter-dining certainly in the matter of inter-marriage. But they cannot be called Hindus on that account. Both elements must be present. He must be a Hindu and he must also observe caste. This brings us back to the old question: who is a Hindu? It leaves us where we are.
|—Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Riddles in Hinduism|
Vedism of Hinduism is believed to have been derived from the Proto-Indo-European religions. Some notable ideas associated with Hinduism include moksha and dharma. Moksha is attainment of peace derived from eternal knowledge and relief from samsara, the cycle of rebirth. Dharma translates as "duties", and is associated with fulfilling all of your life's duty. In this way it doesn't specifically define dharma, but it is associated with peaceful living.
Invention of the word "Hinduism"
Hinduism as a concept came into existence in the 19th century. According to Pankaj Mishra, a contributor to the New York Review of Books, "the British invented the holdall category in the early nineteenth century, and made India seem the home of a 'world religion' as organised and theologically coherent as Christianity and Islam". However, as mentioned in the first paragraph, Eastern religions were not categorized according to rigid definitions the way Western/Mid-east religions are. The word "Hindu" was derived from the Sanskrit word "Sindhu", and was first used by the Persians to refer to people living beyond the Indus River, regardless of spiritual beliefs.
Concept(s) of God(s)
- Who really knows?
- Who will here proclaim it?
- Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation?
- The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
- Who then knows whence it has arisen?
- Who really knows?
Most Hindus believe in a soul, known by the Sanskrit word Atman. According to the non-dualistic school of Advaita Vedanta, the atman is ultimately indistinct from brahman, the universal soul or God. In contrast, the dualistic Dvaita and Bhakti schools state that atman is distinct from brahman. Brahman is a Supreme Being possessing a personality, worshiped in the forms of Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva, or Shakti. The Supreme Being is worshiped as the Trimurti, consisting of the Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver) and Shiva (destroyer). These forms of the Supreme Being represent the phases of the universe: Creation, Preservation and Destruction.
A prominent aspect of Hindu Theism is the prevalence of devas and avatars. The devas are the manifestations of the Supreme Being, usually personifying a certain ideal for the worshiper. For example, Saraswathi is a devi (goddess) representing the ideal of wisdom. Avatars are the incarnations of the Supreme Beings on Earth. According to Hindus, there are ten avatars of Vishnu, including Krishna and Rama.
Karma, Samsara, Brahman and Naraka
Karma can be described as the moral law of cause and effect. They are based on the deeds and actions one has performed in his/her lifetime. The quality of one's karma can determine one's path of samsara, the transmigration of the soul. If one's karma is good, one will obtain a good livelihood in the next life. The ultimate objective of a Hindu's life is moksha, or liberation from samsara. Moksha involves realizing one's unity with brahman and detaching one's self from the material world. When a person dies, their previous actions are judged by Chitragupta. If the person has lived a life of purity, then they leave the cycle of samsara. However, if they've shown impurity, then they are sent to one of around 28 different forms of Hell, known as 'narakas', in which they endure varying forms of agonising pain for a ridiculously long period of time, before being resurrected. This happens every time they die, which is why liberation from samsara is so important, as well as the necessity of being one with brahman.
Caste Systems, Holy Cows and other misconceptions
The caste rules currently practiced today were proposed by the Manusmṛti 2000 years ago, although Hinduism has been around for much longer. The caste rules not only apply to Hindus but they are observed by Christians as well. In fact, Dalit Christians are forced to worship in different churches from non-Dalit Christians, and Dalit Christian clergymen face discrimination from their upper-caste counterparts. Therefore, the caste system, although promoted by the Brahmins for many centuries, is prominently a socioeconomic system.
Cows are not worshipped by Hindus. However, they are held in high esteem. The reason has to do with the cow's agricultural uses. Hindus relied heavily on it for dairy products and for tilling the fields, and on cow dung as a source of fuel and fertilizer. Thus, the cow’s status as a 'caretaker' led to identifying it as an almost maternal figure. In fact, one goddess is usually shown as a cow: Bhoomi (भूमि). She represents the Earth. Somewhat ironically, Terence Mckenna, Occam's Razor notwithstanding, claimed that religious reverence for the cow is a result of early humankind's association of psilocybin mushroom with it, this association having developed as a result of the discovery of said mushrooms in the animal's excrement.
Consumption of beef is constitutionally legal but is regarded by most Hindus to be a social evil in India, especially in the Northern and Western regions, while it is tolerated and even consumed by Hindus in the Southern and North Eastern regions. Slaughter of cattle such as cows, bulls and bullocks is illegal in 9 of the 29 states. In 2015, a man who was suspected of beef possession was beaten to death by a mob of villagers in the state of Uttar Pradesh. This event is later referred to as the Dadri lynching. This has provoked an outcry over religious intolerance and the central government's lack of response to the murder. It was proven by a police investigation that the meat possessed by the victim was, in fact, that of mutton and not beef.
Sati is an obsolete tradition in which a widow would climb on to her husband's funeral pyre and immolate herself. Sometimes a widow could be forced onto the pyre by relatives and sometimes a woman would self-immolate before the death of husband if the city was conquered by the enemy. However, it has been theorized that the tradition of Sati was honoured because it was seen as a "proof of the perfect unity of body and soul" between husband and wife rather than as murder. This idea that a woman's devotion should follow her husband beyond his grave followed the general theme of inequality deeply rooted in the the Hindu society. Instances of sati increased during the Muslim invasions that ushered in the Mughal and Slave Dynasty period as widows were considered a bad omen and sati also assured that widows would not convert to Islam to remarry Muslims.
B. R. Ambedkar on Hinduism
Dr. B. R. Ambedkar - the founding father of modern India - renounced Hinduism in 1956 because he concluded it was a repressive and inhumane system. He felt Hinduism was "a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity" and that it was "incompatible with democracy". In his work What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables, Dr. Ambedkar writes:
“”To put the matter in general terms, Hinduism and social union are incompatible. By its very genius Hinduism believes in social separation which is another name for social disunity and even creates social separation. If Hindus wish to be one, they will have to discard Hinduism. They cannot be one without violating Hinduism. Hinduism is the greatest obstacle to Hindu Unity. Hinduism cannot create that longing to belong which is the basis of all social unity. On the contrary Hinduism creates an eagerness to separate.
|—Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, What Congress & Gandhi Have done to the Untouchables|
Dr. Ambedkar was one of the pioneering scholars of Indian history and Hinduism from a rationalist perspective. In 1916, Ambedkar presented one of the first papers on the topic of Caste at Columbia University, USA . This paper entitled Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development investigated the origins as well as functioning of caste and proposed that Hinduism was a pedantic system but, unlike any other religion, its laws were codified in the system of authority, namely the Brahmin (priestly) caste and the inherent hierarchy. Ambedkar also noted in his now famous (undelivered) speech entitled Annihilation of Caste that that the Hindu society existed merely as a collective of caste-based groups. Every Hindu's consciousness is limited to members of his own caste. Thus, selfishness is a distinct feature of the Hindu religion that prevents Hindus from trusting or helping one another without discrimination.
“”Why do you remain in a religion which does not treat you as human beings? Why do you remain in a religion which prohibits you from entering temples? Why do you remain in a religion which prohibits you from securing drinking water from the public well? Why do you remain in a religion which comes in your way for getting a job? Why do you remain in a religion which insults you at every step? A religion in which man's human behaviour with man is prohibited, is not religion, but a display of force. A religion which does not recognise a man as man, is not a religion but a disease. A religion in which the touch of animals is permitted, but the touch of human beings is prohibited, is not a religion but a mockery. A religion which precludes some classes from education, forbids them to accumulate wealth and to bear arms, is not a religion but a mockery of human beings. A religion that compels the ignorant to be ignorant, and the poor to be poor, is not a religion but a punishment.
|—Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, What Path to Salvation?|
- Joshua Project listings of primary religions
- Jeaneane D. Fowler (1997), Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices, Sussex Academic Press
- Flood 2001
- Koller, J. M. (1984), "JSTOR: Philosophy East and West, Vol. 34, No. 2 (April, 1984 ), pp. 234-236", Philosophy East and West (www.jstor.org) 34 (2): 234–236,
- Natrajan, Balmurli (2011), "The Culturalization of Caste in India: Identity and Inequality in a Multicultural Age", Routledge Contemporary South Asia Series, 2011, ISBN 1136647570, 9781136647574, pp. 168
- Fuller, C. J. (1976), "Kerala Christians and the Caste System", Man, New Series, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Mar., 1976), pp. 53-70, DOI: 10.2307/2800388
- Pankaj Mishra. "The invention of the Hindu".
- See Theistic Explanations of Karma, pg. 146 of Causation and Divine Intervention by BR Reichenbach, citing Uddyotakara, Nyaayavaarttika, IV, 1, 21.
- Struggle for Justice to Dalit Christians by Brojendra Nath Banerjee. New Age International, p. 42. ISBN 8122410820.
- McKenna, Terence (1992). Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge. Bantam Books. pp. 100-116.
- Raj, S. (December 29, 2015). Goat Meat, Not Beef, Found in Home of Indian Killed Over Cow-Slaughter Rumors. The New York Times. Retrieved October 29, 2017.
- Forsaken Females: The Global Brutalization of Women by Andrea Parrot & Nina Cummings p. 163
- The Danger of Gender: Caste, Class and Gender in Contemporary Indian Women's Writing, (2003), Clara Nubile, p. 9