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What is Hinduism ?

Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 2:15 AM
Hinduism is the oldest religion in the world and is the faith of over four-fifths of the diverse peoples of the vast sub-continent of India, of the people of Nepal and Bali (Indonesia) and of millions of Indians who have migrated overseas. There are, besides, many ancient cultures, as in South-East Asia, which have been greatly influenced by the Hindu cultural ethos. 

ShivaThe history of the Hindus, as we know it today, goes back 5000 years, but Hindus believe that their religion is without beginning or end and is a continuous process even preceding the existence of our earth and the many other worlds beyond. Science today accepts that there may be other worlds in the vast Universe, each with its own laws. Hindus have held this view from time immemorial.

The word Hindu is of geographic origin and was derived from the name originally given to the people settled on the River Sindhu. It was corrupted by foreign visitors to the word 'Hindu', and the faith of the Hindus was given the name 'Hinduism' in the English language. Scholars however call this the Brahmanical faith, for, as we shall show later, to attain the Brahman or the Universal Soul is the ultimate aim of all Hindu thought.

Philosophic thinkers of recent times do not like to describe Hinduism as a mere religion as they feel that this narrows it down and does not bring out adequately its great qualities of catholicity of outlook and free thinking, as even an atheist is not precluded from being a Hindu and no hell nor doomsday envisioned for the agnostic. It is therefore called Sanatana Dharma or the Eternal Religion. Others call it a fellowship of religions from its liberal absorption of the faiths of others. The greatness of Hinduism is at once its complexity and its simplicity, and the fact that it permeates totally the life of every Hindu from the moment of his birth, be he a believer or non-believer, a scholar or an illiterate. It is for this reason that it is often said that Hinduism is not just a religion but a way of life.

GaneshaIt is important to realise, before we delve further, that Hinduism is a rare faith with few "do's" and "don'ts" postulated, but one which has many signposts showing the different spiritual paths available to different types of people. It accepts the reality that there are varying intellectual and spiritual levels in each one of us and all cannot therefore take the same path, although the goal may be the same. Hinduism therefore offers different approaches to persons of different aptitudes, depending on whether he be a philosopher or a poet, a mystic or a man of action, an intellectual or a simple man of faith. This is a unique feature of the religion as it permits the greatest of freedom of worship and insists that each person must be guided by his or her own individual spiritual experience. It does not accept dictatorship in religious guidance.

Another quality unique to Hinduism is its tremendous tolerance of other religious faiths and beliefs. In the Bhagavad-Gita, an important scripture of Hinduism, Lord Krishna, worshipped as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu himself, says, "Whosoever follows any faith and worships me under whatsoever denomination in whatsoever form with steadfastness, his faith shall I indeed reinforce". Most other religions say, "Your religion is wrong and to follow it is a sin. Get converted to my religion and Heaven will be yours". The Lord worshipped by the Hindus implies in effect, "Come to me as a Hindu, Christian, Muslim or Sikh. I shall make you a better Hindu, Christian, Muslim and Sikh". Conversion to Hinduism (minimal as it is) has therefore never been through force or wars, nor as a result of bigotry or by temptations offered to the economically weak, nor does bringing about conversions confer any special spiritual benefits.

Hinduism, again unique amongst religions, allows a Hindu to worship in a church, mosque or gurdwara as freely as he does in a temple. Very few religious faith have such a tolerant approach nor would their priests or religious heads permit it.

Lord God of HinduismHinduism has attracted thinkers from all over the world through the ages, and today there is a great thirst for knowledge of this faith which is practical enough to permit social change and scientific progress, yet highly philosophical and sublime, aiming at ethical perfection. However it is most unfortunate that today even educated Hindus are often unaware as to what the religion teaches or stands for, or what its fundamental beliefs are.

This ignorance can be traced to the breaking up of the joint family system in urban areas. In small towns and villages, where it still exists, all members of a family headed by a patriarch live under one roof, and the young are taught all aspects of their religion by grandparents, both in the form of stories and by precept. Today most young people growing in urban surroundings are not aware as to what Hinduism is, as few parents spare the time to teach them the fundamental beliefs of their faith. What is often picked up by the young are superstitions which have nothing to do with the religion, while their parents perform rites and rituals periodically without understanding their symbolism or even the meaning of the mantras or prayer chants that go with them. The freedom permitted by this faith, which does not even ask for a weekly visit to a temple, has been misused, leading to widespread ignorance of what it stands for.

Lord BramhaAn attempt is therefore being made in this book to briefly mention the main groups of scriptures of the Hindus and to explain the main tenets and beliefs of one of the most ancient people of this earth. To do so in one volume and a small one at that, and to condense scriptures of hundreds and thousands of pages into half-a-page or one page are onerous tasks, but are unavoidable if a total picture of the religion is to be given in the briefest form possible. If the continuous thread running through and binding seemingly contradictory beliefs of this faith can be clearly discerned, then my task would not have been in vain. To make it easier for the reader, the meanings of Indian words are given in the text itself. The Glossary contains some of the popular words used with simplified pronunciations. 
This study is neither a comprehensive one nor the final word on the subject. It is hoped that it will whet the appetite of the readers to go to-the originals and study for themselves the truths of one of the great religions of the world. Equally important, I hope it will serve as a short introduction to the foreign visitor before he or she finds more comprehensive studies on a subject which is as brilliant as the sunrises of our great land, whose scriptures are as poetic as its sunsets and whose faith is as tolerant as the gentle smile of this beautiful earth which has always cherished and welcomed the visitor, sending him back the wiser for his visit, even while partaking of the wisdom that he brings with him to our shores. 

Writer-Shakunthala Jagannathan

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