“”A millennium before Europeans were willing to divest themselves of the Biblical idea that the world was a few thousand years old, the Mayans were thinking of millions and the Hindus billions.
|Thank my various Gods!|
Hinduism (not to be confused with Hindutva) is one of the world's most prolific, oldest religions, and the largest religion on the sub-subcontinent, followed by Islam. Some Hindus refer to the religion as Sanātana Dharma, "the eternal way," as a means of regarding it as beyond human history. It is regarded as the world's oldest extant religion.
What can make Hinduism difficult to conceptualize is the fact that it isn't clearly monotheistic or polytheistic; it is a vast ocean of diverse sects and schools that hold mutually exclusive beliefs like monotheism, polytheism, and even atheism. It is split into sects and schools. The three major sects are Shaivism, Shaktism and Vaishnavism, each focusing on a single god: Shiva, Shakti, and Vishnu, respectively.
There is a massive pantheon of Hindu gods and reams of text to mythologize them, but Hindus also believe in a single Supreme Reality, or the One, called Brahman. They consider Brahman to essentially be the universe, and they worship a variety of gods as different aspects of Brahman. Hindus use polytheism as a means of honoring the diverse manifestations of their one true God. They also honour idols and perform rituals because they believe that a physical representation of the god in question helps them focus on their worship.
Of course, this is all just a generalization, and it certainly doesn't apply to all of the very diverse schools of Hinduism. If all of this seems very confusing to you, you're not alone. Hinduism is very poorly understood in the West.
“” The Hindu religion is nothing but a horde of ideals and constraints. It is mere collection of the Vedas, smritis, yagnas, social etiquette, political conduct and subjects such as rules of purification etc. The religion is found in the compilation of its ideals and constraints. The real religion which spells out the spiritual ideals and that which is useful to all human and world communities is not found among the Hindus and even if there were a few such ideals, they do not play an important role in the lives of the Hindus. The religion of the Hindus is only a religion of ideals and constraints.
|—B. R. Ambedkar|
Hinduism as a concept came into existence in the 19th century. Hinduism, like many Eastern spiritual schools of thought, does not fit into the Western concept of religion. 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", which it wasn’t; 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. Since Hinduism is so loosely defined and diverse that it makes it virtually impossible to critique or scrutinise it.
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. It is now used as an umbrella term denoting the plurality of spiritual phenomena based on Vedic traditions.
Some forms of religious expression are central to Hinduism, while others are not as central but still remain within the category. There are many Hindus who revere the sacred literary works including the Vedas, Bhavagad-Gita and Upanishads. Yet, there are Hindus unfamiliar with those works. The majority of Hindus subscribe to a belief in God responsible for the creation, substenance 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.
However, Hinduism has been losing its diversity over the centuries. Indian philosophy was much diverse in its time, before the modern institutionalism of Hinduism under Hindutva. And while Hinduism has been losing its diversity over the centuries, because of its more diverse origins, Christianity and Islam have been steadily increasing in diversity (because they had relatively narrow origins).
Although there are many schools of thought within Hinduism, there are a number of prominent concepts common to most of them.
Brahman is the name given to the Hindu concept of supreme existence or absolute reality. This is one of the aspects of Hinduism that those familiar with Western religions might find it difficult to understand. Brahman, like the Abrahamic God, is all-knowing and omnipotent. Unlike god, Brahman doesn't give a shit about you as an individual. Instead, Brahman is an all-pervasive universal consciousness that is eternal and unchanging.
Atman refers to a person's individuality, or perhaps their soul. There are, generally speaking, two views on the concept of atman, and these views also help distinguish Hinduism from Western religions. Some Hindus believe that the atman is simply a part of Brahman, and that the atman itself is an illusion. Other Hindus consider the atman as being joined to the separate and superior Brahman. Either way, Hinduism is distinct from the more individualistic Western religions.
Samsara and Karma
Samsara is the word Hindus use to refer to what they perceive as an eternal cycle of life and death. Samsara is also tied to the concept of karma; Hindus believe that all humans accrue karma based on whether they do good things or bad things. One's karma influences when, where, and how they reincarnate.
There is also a form of afterlife in this system, with three paths. The primary two of them are for good souls that have not achieved moksha and for souls that committed evil acts. Those who have achieved moksha ascend to be one with Brahman. Good souls are brought by their good karma into a so-called "ancestral world" where they stay until their good karma burns away and they reincarnate. Evil souls fall into a subterranean hell where they suffer until their bad karma burns away and they are reincarnated as an insect or some kind of low life form.
The primary goal of Hinduism is to escape from the endless cycle of reincarnation. This liberation is called moksha, and it is only achieved by self-realization. For non-dualists, moksha is the realization that one's atman is simply a part of Brahman. For dualists, moksha is the result of achieving a loving union with Brahman, which is often considered to be manifested as one of the Hindu gods. Either way, moksha means detaching oneself from the material world and becoming one with Brahman.
Sanskrit is one of the oldest known languages in the world, and it is the oldest known Indo-European language. Hindus consider Sanskrit to be the language of the gods, and all of their holy texts are written in this language. Certain phrases or sounds in Sanskrit are called mantras, and many Hindus believe that chanting these mantras can have psychic or spiritual effects. The greatest of all these mantras is the syllable om or aum, which is thought to embody the essence of the universe.
Concept(s) of God(s)
“”Hindu polytheism isn't really polytheism but monotheism in disguise.
|—Richard Dawkins.[note 1]|
For many Hindus, 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.
Significant deities in Hinduism
One of the things that makes Hinduism stand out amongst polytheistic religions is that the role of "leader of the gods" is shared by three different gods, each of whom represents a different stage in the cycle of reincarnation: Brahma governs birth and creation, Vishnu life and preservation, and Shiva death and renewal.
Brahma, not to be confused with Brahman, is the Hindu Creator God. Despite this, Brahma is no longer very important to modern Hinduism. He never featured in very many Hindu myths due to his elevated status and abstract nature. His primary importance came from his daughter/wife Sarasvati, who created the four holy books of Hinduism, the Vedas.
No sect focuses on the worship of Brahma, and few temples are dedicated to him. He does, however, often appear alongside other members of the Big Three.
Vishnu is perhaps the most important of the Hindu Big Three, and Brahma is often considered to have been born out of a lotus flower in Vishnu's belly button. If that seems weird to you, then look at some Greek mythology. Vishnu had three wives: Lakshmi (goddess of good fortune), Sarawati (goddess of wisdom) and Ganga (the personification of the River Ganges).
Hindus see Vishnu as the preserver of the universal order. To this end, Vishnu is essentially an amalgamation of many ancient Indian heroes. In Hindu myths, whenever the world is approaching doom, Vishnu takes a mortal disguise called an avatar and sets things right. Some of these avatars were not overtly benevolent; Parashurama and Krishna caused a lot of innocent people to die, and Buddha is believed to have swayed the weak-willed away from Hinduism and into Buddhism. In this way, Vishnu is very similar to Jesus. It is prophesied that Vishnu's tenth avatar Kalki will arrive to end this cycle of ages. One Vedic scholar wrote a book in 1960 hypothesizing that Prophet Muhammad was actually the Kalki Avatar.
Shiva is a morally complex god, as he can serve as a protector but also leads the forces of evil. Shiva is the husband of Parvati and the father of Ganesha. His primary role is that of the destroyer. Hindus believe that the universe has a cycle and that Shiva destroys the universe at the end of the cycle. This allows for a new creation and for the cycle to begin again.
Ganesha is not one of the Big Three, and yet he is one of the most iconic and widely-worshiped gods in the Hindu pantheon. He is worshiped before significant undertakings, and he's the patron of bankers, authors, and intellectuals. Hindus honor him with a ten-day festival in fall called Ganesh Chaturthi.
Unlike the other gods, Ganesha notably has an elephant head. Naturally, Hindus have a myth to explain why. Parvati, the wife of Shiva, decided she wanted a son, and she went behind her husband's back to create Ganesha by molding dirt (one would think that the goddess of motherhood would be more inclined to the conventional method of babymaking, but to be fair her husband is the god of death, which could potentially metaphysically restrict his capacity for creating life). Shiva came back and was outraged to find a strange boy in his wife's house, and he beheaded Ganesha. After realizing that he had essentially murdered his own son, Shiva brought Ganesha back to life by replacing his lost head with that of some poor elephant he killed (though to be fair the life of a god probably takes priority quite easily).
Shiva's wife, Parvati, is the goddess of womanhood. Since that's a broad area of influence, Parvati takes on different forms whenever needed. Probably her most famous form is Kali, the goddess of sexuality, violence, and motherly love. The name Kali appropriately comes from the Sanskrit phrase "she who is death." Parvati can also take the form of Durga, the goddess of war and protection who rides on a freakin' tiger. Many stories say that Kali was created when Durga got way too pissed off during battle with a demon named Raktabija. Other well-known forms Parvati takes include Kamakshi, a love goddess, and Annapurna, the goddess of abundance.
“If the cow is worshipped because it is so useful, does it not follow that she should be cared for well to maximise her usefulness? If the cow is to be put to the best use possible, you have to stop worshipping it. When you worship the cow, you lower the standing of mankind.
God is the highest, then comes man, and below man is the animal kingdom. The cow is an animal which has not even as much intelligence as the most stupid human. To consider the cow divine, and thus superior to man, is an insult to man. The cow eats at one end and expels urine and dung at the other end. When it is tired it lies down in its own filth. Then it uses its tail (which we call beautiful) to spread this filth all over its body. How can a creature which does not understand cleanliness be considered divine?
If we call the cow divine and its worship our duty, it follows that man is meant for the cow and not the other way around. A utilitarian approach is needed here: take good care of the cow because it is useful. This means that in times of war, when it may become a handicap, there is no reason not to kill it.
Cows are held in high esteem in India. 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 by Hindus in the Southern and North Eastern regions (A byproduct of large Christian populations in these 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. Oops.
“”Caste is not just a division of labour, it is a division of labourers.
Indian Casteism is among the world's oldest forms of surviving social stratification. It was inspired by the scripture Manusmṛti, the most authoritative source on Hindu law; written more than 2000 years ago, although Hinduism has been around for much longer.
Based on the Hindu teachings of karma (meaning fate based on your previous life) and dharma (meaning duty and order) it later evolved to include followers of other prominent religions in India including Islam and Christianity. So 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.
However, historians, say that until the 18th Century, the formal distinctions of caste were not of much importance to Indians. It only became a rigidly codified system under British colonial rule, as one of the many ways of dividing the Indian population to prevent a unified rebellion from breaking out.
The caste system has been used by the upper castes (especially the Brahmins) to justify the injustices faced by the “lowers,” such as the practice of untouchability segregated and prohibited the “untouchables” from using common village wells, pathways and temples etc. and a variety of forms of modern slavery, including bonded labour, forced domestic service, begging, forced prostitution, etc.
“”...Within the discourse on Sati, women are represented in two mutually exclusive ways: as heroines able to withstand the raging blaze of the funeral pyre or else as pathetic victims coerced against their will into the flames.
Sati is an obsolete tradition in which a widow would climb on to her husband's funeral pyre and immolate herself.
The word Sati may have been derived from the name of Shiva’s wife, Sati, who also jumped into a sacrificial fire.
There have been various instances of the practice of Sati in Hindu scriptures. It is also mentioned by Diodorus Siculus, a Greek author of the 1st century BCE, in his account of the Punjab in the 4th century BCE in his book, Bibliotheca historica. However, Sati has always been described as voluntary and never widely practiced (except for some royal castes who considered it as an ideal for womanly devotion). Still, a wife who did not wish to die with her husband was sometimes forced to do so by her relatives.
Sati started out in its destructive form 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. 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, preferring “Death over Dishonor”.
Under British India, the number of incidents of sati in Bengal doubled leading the British Governor-General of India to enact Bengal Sati Regulation, making the practice of burning of widows to be punishable by courts. These were followed up with other legislation countering violence against Hindu women, including: Hindu Widows' Remarriage Act (allowing remarriage of widows disallowed by upper castes), Female Infanticide Prevention Act (prevention of female infanticide; many murder their infants because they didn’t get a boy), and Age of Consent Act (increasing age of consent from 10 to 12; underage marriages were common).
Incidents of sati in India had another resurgence in the late 20th century, leading the Indian government to promulgate the Sati (Prevention) Act, criminalising the aiding or glorifying of sati, again.
- This is because because most Hindus believe that all of the gods are manifestations/embodiments of the one true god. Another criteria for polytheism is that separate gods are all of equal status and are worshipped simultaneously. However, Hindus rarely worship all of the gods and goddesses simultaneously, if some at all. However, Hinduism being monotheistic is debatable. Instead, it is preferred to refer to most Hindus as adherents of Monism.
- Sagan's Cosmos, p. 213-214
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- Lata Mani, ‘The Debates on Sati in Colonial India’. Oxford University Press. Ch 5. Pg 162
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