A (very, very, very) Brief Introduction to Hinduism in India
Essentials & Advice | Asia-Pacific | By Karen MacRae
Let’s start with the obvious caveat: Hinduism is so vast that it’s virtually impossible to explain in a few paragraphs.
Indeed, the conflicting messages infused in much of the doctrine (the good and bad aspects of the same god, for example) can be very confusing to an outsider. Its emphasis on acceptance and tolerance, however, provide strong indicators as to why Hinduism has endured through the ages. Despite the complicated nature of the religion, some universal beliefs do exist in Hinduism.
One such belief is that each individual’s ultimate goal is to break out of the birth-death-rebirth cycle and reach a higher state of consciousness, or Moksha. Some ways that this can be attained are through acts of meditation, devotion, yoga and basically being good.
In order to approach the higher state, one must try to have good Karma, which is basically one’s lot in life. Many things beyond one’s power are explained by good or bad Karma. For example, if the airline loses your luggage, then you have bad Karma; if you find 10 rupees on the ground, then you have good Karma. (Most people on Indian highways seem to have very good Karma; nothing else could explain how seemingly imminent traffic accidents are averted miraculously at the very last moment.)
Good Karma is created by observing one’s Dharma, which is like a rulebook that everything in the universe must follow. Everyone has an innate sense of his or her Dharma, and so observance of these rules is essential to a better future life.
The Hindu doctrine is primarily spread through storytelling and in the temples built to honour the religion’s myriad gods. As the Hindu religion is rumoured to have over 330 million gods, only the most important will be mentioned here.
Supreme Brahma is the Om, and is seen in all things; as he is formless, he is not worshipped. Under the Supreme Brahma is the Hindu Trinity:
Brahma is seldom worshipped, but both Vishnu and Shiva are popular. These two gods have their own sects, the Vashnavites and the Shaivites, which make up the two largest religious sects in India. Each of the gods has incarnations, or “faces,” which can be very different from their original form.
Some of Vishnu’s incarnations are Krishna, the god of love, and Rama, hero of the Hindu epic, The Ramayana. The popular incarnations of Shiva are: Nataraga, the lord of dance; Durga and Kali, two fearsome female incarnations to whom blood sacrifices are made; and the fearsome Bhairab, destroyer of ignorance and evil who is also the god of locomotion (hence his eyes on the front fenders of Tata trucks).
Shiva is also often represented as a lingam, a cylindrical object that is thought to represent a phallus. The flat shape below the lingam is called a yoni, and this represents the female sex organs. It is very common to see worshippers of Shiva laying flowers and pouring milk over the lingam.
The son of Shiva, the elephant-headed and pot-bellied Ganesh, is one of the most popular gods in Hinduism, as he is the remover of obstacles and deliverer of good luck. However, he ended up with an elephant’s head through a little bad luck of his own: when Shiva returned from a long trip, he mistook Ganesh for an impostor in his house and promptly lopped-off Ganesh’s head. When he realized what he had done, he couldn’t find Ganesh’s head to put it back on, so he replaced the head with that of the first living thing he encountered, an elephant.
Each God also has an animal “transport” for getting around. Vishnu’s transport is the man-bird Garuda; Shiva rides on the bull Nandi; and Ganesh uses a shrew or rat. Often the presence of these animals outside a temple identifies what kind of temple it is; for example, a temple to Shiva will have a bull outside.
Another virtually universal aspect of Hinduism is the division of society by class, or caste. Although the caste system has been abolished officially, in reality the structure not only still exists, but also permeates every facet of life in the country.
One’s caste is inherited at birth, and it dictates what one is and what one does; castes are indicated by names, so it is virtually impossible to move outside caste limitations. Brahmins are at the top of the heap, filling the religious and warrior roles of society. The other three Varnas, or colours, are the Kshatriya, or warrior class (known in Rajasthan as the Rajputs), the Vaishyas, the trading class, and the Sudras, the farming class.
Outside of the Varna hierarchy are the Dalits, or untouchables. Street cleaners, smiths and other menial workers occupy this class. The divisions between the castes are exemplified in such things as the consumption of food and water; a Brahmin would never accept food or water handled by a lower caste, as it would be considered polluted. Positions in the caste hierarchy are considered to be the result of good or bad Karma in a former life. However, no matter how good or bad one is, one’s caste position stays with you your whole life.
As mentioned above, Hinduism is far too broad a topic for a single blog post. Fortunately, a number of books have been written that will help you learn more about this complex and beautiful faith.
From the back cover: “This book provides a much-needed thematic and historical introduction to Hinduism, the religion of the majority of people in India. Dr. Flood traces the development of Hindu traditions from ancient origins and the major deities to the modern world.”
From the back cover: A fascinating look at India’s remarkable impact on Western culture, this eye-opening popular history shows how the ancient philosophy of Vedanta and the mind-body methods of Yoga have profoundly affected the worldview of millions of Americans and radically altered the religious landscape.