What is Hinduism?


How and when did Hinduism begin? While there is no shortage of historical scholars, sages, and teachers in Hinduism, there is no historical founder of the religion as a whole, no figure comparable to Jesus, the Buddha, Abraham, or Muhammad. As a consequence, there is no firm date of origin for Hinduism, either. The earliest known sacred texts of Hinduism, the Vedas, date back to at least 3000 BCE, but some date them back even further, to 8000-6000 BCE; and some Hindus themselves believe these texts to be of divine origin, and therefore timeless.

Related to this, it is worth mentioning here that there is no designated religious hierarchy that determines official Hindu doctrine or practice. Thus, there is no one who can speak for Hindus as a whole, and no single authority regarding what is “truly” Hindu or not. Nevertheless, below is a list of principles that, by practitioner consensus, characterize one as “Hindu.”

  • Belief in the divinity of the Vedas
  • Belief in one, all-pervasive Supreme Reality
  • Belief in the cyclical nature of time
  • Belief in karma
  • Belief in reincarnation
  • Belief in alternate realities with higher beings
  • Belief in enlightened masters or gurus
  • Belief in non-aggression and non-injury
  • Belief that all revealed religions are essentially correct
  • Belief that the living being is first and foremost a spiritual entity
  • Belief in an “organic social system.” (Steven Rosen, Essential Hinduism, )

Sacred Texts of Hinduism

There is no single, authoritative text in Hinduism that functions like the Bible for Christians, or the Qur’an for Muslims. Instead, there are several different collections of texts. The Vedas are the oldest Hindu sacred texts, and have the most wide-ranging authority. They are believed to have been written anywhere from 1800 to 1200 BCE. The Upanishads describe a more philosophical and theoretical approach to the practice of Hinduism and were written roughly between 800 and 400 BCE, around the same time that the Buddha lived and taught. The Mahabharata is the longest epic poem in the world, the most well-known portion of which is the Bhagavad-Gita, which is perhaps the best-known and widely cited book in all of Hinduism; the Ramayana is the other most important epic poem in Hinduism.

Gods in Hinduism

Hinduism encompasses a lush, expansive understanding of the divine accommodating a vast assortment of dynamic and multifaceted concepts. Hinduism sees the divine as not either one or many, but both; not male or female, but both; not formless or embodied, but both. Some of the most important deities in Hinduism are Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesha, Krishna, Sarasvati, Durga, and Kali.

As a result, there are dozens upon dozens of Hindu festivals honoring and celebrating these multitudinous divinities. Some are celebrated throughout India, and many more are primarily regional. They mark specific seasons, specific events in the lives of the different gods and goddesses, and specific concerns of life—wealth, health, fertility, etc. Two of the most well-known in the United States are Divali and Holi.

Divali, the festival of lights that falls somewhere in October or November, honors Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and good fortune, and lasts roughly four to five days. Families often visit the temple during this time and make offerings to Lakshmi there, but they also worship at home, perhaps even arranging a special place on their home altar for Lakshmi. Doors are left open to welcome her into the house, and the whole period of celebration is a time of great joy, in which Hindus fill their houses with light.

Holi is celebrated with great abandon and gusto all over India. It inaugurates the coming of spring and is celebrated primarily by throwing colored paste and water on anyone who happens to be out walking around. It, too, is celebrated over a period of days.

Hindu Worship

For Hindus, there is no weekly worship service, no set day or time in which a community is called to gather publicly. Although most Hindus do visit temples regularly, or at least occasionally, to pray and make offerings, a “good” Hindu need never worship in public. Instead, all worship can be performed to icons in the home shrine, which is why the home is a very important place of worship in India.

The best word that describes and summarizes Hindu worship is puja, which means respect, homage, or worship. Most—if not all—Hindus have small altars at home on which they place pictures and/or statues representing different deities, including those to whom the family is particularly devoted. Each morning, one member of the family, usually the father or the mother, will perform a short puja at the altar. This may include saying prayers, lighting a lamp, burning incense, making offerings of fruit and flowers, and ringing a bell. The goal in this worship is to please the gods through all five senses.

Much the same thing happens in temple worship, though the rituals are much more elaborate there, since deities are believed to inhabit the temple images at all times, rather than just when invited, as in a home puja. In temple worship, the priest performs the puja, then on behalf of the god he returns to the people some of what they first brought as offerings—food, flowers, etc. This is called prasad, which means grace, goodwill, or blessing. In this way, the offerings are then received back by the devotees as a blessing. So, for example, small morsels of food are eaten, flowers are worn in the hair, incense is wafted around one’s body, holy water sipped, and colored powders are mixed with water and used to make a tilak, a mark in the center of the forehead above the eyes.

For Further Reading:

  • The Mahabharata, translated by Chakravarthi Narasimhan
  • The Bhagavadgita, translated by Sir Edwin Arnold
  • The Principal Upanishads, by S. Radhakrishnan
  • The Rig Veda, translated by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty
  • The Myths and Gods of India, by Alain Danielou
  • Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India, by Diana Eck
  • A History of India, vol. 1, by Romila Thapar
  • A Short Introduction to Hinduism, by Klaus Klostermaier
  • Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God, by Jonah Blank