Hinduism

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Introduction

Sanathana Dharma (popularly known as Hinduism) is a way of life based on unchanging laws embodied in the primary Scriptures, the Vedas. Hinduism is the oldest known religion, and several later religions have their roots in Hinduism. Many of the teachings in the Vedas are echoed and re-echoed in other religions. The Vedas are timeless. For thousands of years they were passed down to generations by oral tradition. The Rigveda is the oldest written work, and is known to date back to more than 5000 BC. Over one billion people all over the world are either Hindus or followers of Hinduism, most of them living in India.

What appeals to most people about Hinduism is that one is allowed to doubt and question. It is not surprising that most of the Scriptures are entirely conversations and discussion between Master and disciple; e.g. the Bhagavad-Gita is a dialogue between Lord Krishna and Arjuna. A teacher who undertakes to teach religion from mere book knowledge is like a man who undertakes to describe Rome or New York, having seen only a map of the city. A qualified teacher must have both religious knowledge and religious experience. These are the two eyes of religion. Hinduism has no organized priesthood. Only priests may officiate at religious ceremonies, which are conducted in Sanskrit, the oldest language with a near perfect grammar. Generally priests are male, but women also take up priesthood now.

One of the distinctive features of Hinduism is that it has no founder. It does not depend for its authority on the life-history of any man. Its authority is Eternal truth itself, to which every man's spiritual experience can bear witness. As the spiritual experience of almost all men is imperfect, Truth revealed itself in Bharat (India) through the minds of great Rishis (Sages). This revelation is embodied in the Srutis. The literal meaning of 'Sruti' is 'what is heard'. Great Rishis who had perfected themselves by long Tapas (Meditations) are said to have heard in their hearts eternal truths and to have left a record of them in our sacred books.

Sacred Text

These books are called Vedas (Rig Veda, Sama-Veda, Yajur-veda and Atharvana-veda). The Vedas claim to teach man the highest truths that he can know and lead him to his highest good. They are therefore, supremely authoritative. As truth is eternal, the Vedas that have been revealed to the Hindus are also considered by them to be eternal. Each Veda consists of three parts: (1) the Mantra or hymns, (2) the Brahmanas or explanatory treatises on Mantras and rituals and (3) the Upanishads or mystic treatises revealing the most profound spiritual truths and suggesting the ways of realizing them. Over 1000 Upanishads existed at the beginning and twelve are considered important now.

Smrithis are secondary scriptures based on the Primary scriptures (Srutis) consisting of reflections on the Srutis. Their object is to regulate personal and social life and to bring into existence institutions embodying the principles of the Sruti. Laws for regulating Hindu society from time to time are codified in the Smriti. Rishis who guide Hindu society from age to age make the necessary changes in the laws according to the needs of the time. Hinduism allows the introduction of new laws and production of new scriptures based on the Srutis (eternal truths). Manu, the foremost of the lawgivers, produced the Manu Dharma Shastras. Several other Shastras exist, besides. Otherwise Hinduism will be a dead religion. Smrithis are subordinate to the Srutis, they are like body and soul. The former grows and dies, the latter is eternal and beyond time. Other Smrithis include the Itihasas (Ramayana and Mahabaratha), the 18 major Puranas, the Agamas and the Darsanas

Scriptures deal only with ideal truths, not historical truths. The Veda is like a gold mine, and the later scriptures are like the gold coins of the various ages.

Beliefs

The ultimate ground of Hindu religious belief is not merely the arbitrary authority of a religious tradition or a piece of historical evidence or an individual utterance, but the facts of experience which could be ascertained by any man, who is prepared to go through the necessary discipline. Hinduism does not believe in conversions. In the course of history it has peacefully absorbed many communities, while allowing them to retain their customs and manners, and their rites and ceremonies.

India is a land of religious experiment and Hinduism is not a simple homogeneous religion. Hinduism is rather a name given to a league of religions. In its comprehensive and tolerant fold we find all types of religion from the highest to the lowest. For it does not force all minds into one groove. It frankly recognizes the various grades of culture that exist in a community. Hindus consider it a sin to say that any religion is false. The Avatar of the Gita says " Howsoever men approach me, even so do I accept them; whatever path they may choose leads to me".

An avatar is an incarnation of God. Whenever there is decline of virtues and evil becomes rampant, God incarnates as an Avatar (often in human form) for the protection of the righteous and the destruction of evil-doers and re-establish Dharma on a firm footing. An avatar can be either male or female. There have been several avatars through the ages, e.g. Rama and Krishna avatars.

Hinduism is a very tolerant, and the most comprehensive of religions. While it takes care to explain its position and absorb willing followers, it never denounces other religions as false or evil. "Cows have many colours, but the milk of all of them is white", (-Upanishad). The cardinal virtues of Hinduism are Purity, Self-control, Detachment, Truth and Non-violence. Hindus believe in only one supreme force, Brahman (God) and its many manifestations (Avatars, Deities, etc. known as Gods or demi-gods). Brahman is omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient. Brahman is the only eternal reality. The Hindus understood this thousands of years ago (belief in One Supreme force)

Goal in life: Human birth is a great opportunity to attain Moksha (union with God) and freedom from future births. The means of achieving this are described in the Scriptures.

Re-incarnation: Hindus believe that life does not end with death. What perishes is the body; the soul is immortal. It assumes a new body to experience the fruits of our good and bad action in the previous birth.

Law of Karma: Karma implies the entirety of cause and its effects. Every human action in thought, word or deed inevitably leads to results, good or bad, depending on the moral quality of the action. The law of Karma conserves the moral consequences of all actions, and conditions our future lives accordingly. We ourselves create our future destinies by our own choices each minute.

Practices

Worship: Hindus worship several manifestations of the one Supreme force Brahman (God). Worship is done in temples or at home at the family altar. Worship takes several forms (chanting mantras, singing hymns, silent meditation, performing rituals, reading from the scriptures etc. Morning, afternoon and evening worship are held in temples.

Duties: Nine main duties are eternal. They are, suppression of anger, truthfulness of speech, justice, forgiveness, begetting children upon one's wedded wives, purity of conduct, avoidance of quarrel, simplicity, and the maintenance of dependents

Festivals

Hindus celebrate several festivals with prayers to promote Dharma during the Hindu Calender Year. The main ones are Shiv Ratri, Ram Navami, Holi, Krishna Jayanthi, Nava Ratri and Deepavali. They also observe several holy days during which fasting is prescribed. Fasting is a rite and it is intended to lead to the virtue of self-control.

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