A History of Hinduism

Subject: Religion
Type: Expository Essay
Pages: 12
Word count: 3732
Topics: Hinduism, Karma, Theology, Tradition
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Introduction

Hinduism has several unique features, including the fact that it has no date of origin or founder. This religion is very old, and some scholars claim that it is around four thousand years old. However, the Hindus believe that it is timeless. In addition, the origin and authorship of its holy scriptures are primarily unknown.  Strictly speaking, Hinduism is a way of life and not a religion. It is a specific mental attitude. India has remained a Hindu state, and the Islamic and Colonial invasions that it had experienced failed to alter this reality. Hindus believe firmly in the idea of dharma; and dharma is the law of life and the destiny that determines the consequences or results of their actions. Dharma is clearly expressed in the Hindu scriptures and rituals; and the conduct and thinking of the Hindus are governed and guided to a major extent by it.

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Thesis Statement

Hinduism is a way of life rather than a religion

In this regard, Brian Smith states that Hinduism is a diverse collection of doctrines, cults and ways of life, and that it incorporates all forms of worship and belief. Hindus respect the divinity, regardless of its manifestation. Thus, Hinduism does not look down upon other religions, and this is a unique feature of this great religion. Moreover, religious truth is acknowledged to transcend verbal description and is therefore not couched in dogmatic terms. Smith further states that the Hindus believe that their description is determined by their relation to the Vedas. The latter constitute a huge collection of texts that had been composed and orally preserved in Sanskrit. These had been transmitted by the Rishis, and Hindus accept the absolute authority of the Vedas. For instance, the Manu Smriti had declared categorically that all traditions and philosophies that were not based upon the authority of the Vedas were of no religious merit to the Hindus. Moreover, the Vedas were regarded as the highest authority that could not be questioned.

Sanatana Dharma

Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) does not have a founder, and consequently no date of origin. This makes it unique, as the other major religions had been founded by some charismatic leader. In the year 1921, archaeologists discovered evidence of an ancient civilization in the Indus Valley. This region extended through northwest India and some areas of present-day Pakistan. The outsider finds it very difficult to describe Sanatana Dharma, as it is unique and bears no similarity to other religious traditions, especially the Abrahamic traditions. Hinduism is founded upon the Vedas. The followers of this way of life are fully cognizant of the cosmic order, which promotes several orders of reality and the notion of dharma. The latter had been mentioned in the Rig Veda, and the Hindus believed that leading a dharmic way of life would align them with the cosmic order, which would prove to be highly beneficial to life. On the other hand, they firmly believe that adharmic action or action contrary to dharma would be in marked dissonance with the cosmic order, which would produce harmful consequences.

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Thus, Vedic cosmology encompasses various orders of reality and the functioning of rta in great detail. Thus, the cosmic order is described as an intricate system that is comprised of four distinct and intertwined order of reality, namely, the phenomenal existence or adhibhuta, the divine order or adhidaiva, the human order or adhyatma, and the sacrificial order of adhiyajna. Dharma, in this context, refers to the ordinances and rituals that uphold the cosmic order. Rta, as the regulative principle of the natural order, controls the solar, lunar and stellar movements; the rhythms of the seasons; and diurnal and nocturnal cycles.

Furthermore, Rta constitutes the power that lies behind rainfall, flowing of rivers, and the emission of light by the sun. Moreover, Rta is harnessed by the deities to carry out the functions associated with the maintenance and administration of the cosmic order. In addition, Rta is the governing principle underlying the human and moral order, which administers and controls the moral conduct of humans. Lastly, Rta in the context of the sacrificial order, determines the systematic performance of sacrificial rituals, which is indispensable for the maintenance of the cosmos.

In addition, Hinduism addresses the correlation between the spiritual and the individual, which it contemplates in several different ways. As a result, Hinduism is intricate and demands dedicated study. This system does not have a single holy book and it does not endeavor to segregate humanity into believers and non-believers like the other religions. As such, Hinduism focuses upon the universe, in its entirety, and the function and status of the individual. Thus, the individual is regarded as a component of the cosmos, and this is ingrained into the psyche of the individual from childhood. Moreover, humanity is regarded by the Hindus as being associated with every aspect of the universe, including deities, animals, plants and other life forms, as well as the incomprehensible power that constitutes the source of everything animate or inanimate. Hindus believe that every action has a reaction or consequence, and this is termed the Theory of Karma. In combination with the perception that everything is interlinked in the universe, this leads to the conviction that Hindus are a part of the creation.

The Vedas

The Vedas, principal holy texts of the Sanatana Dharma, are: Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda. The Vedas have exerted a tremendous influence upon other religions, such as, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. It is traditionally acknowledged that the Vedas are at least coeval with the universe. Some scholars have claimed that the Rig Veda, the oldest, had been composed around 1,500 BCE, and codified around 600 BCE. The Vedas include incantations, hymns, and rituals, and constitute some of the most ancient religious works that are still in existence. In addition to their undoubted spiritual value, these works provide a unique description of day to day life in ancient India. Moreover, the Vedas are the most ancient extensive texts in an Indo-European language and have proved to be of immeasurable value in comparative linguistics study.

The poet sage Valmiki had written the Ramayana, which is 24,000 verses long. It is termed the Adi Kavya, or first or original poem. It was composed around the fifth century BCE and narrates about the exile and return of Sri Rama, the prince of Ayodhya. The sage Valmiki composed it in Sanskrit and taught it to the Lava and Kush, the twin sons of Sri Rama. It is a compendium of philosophy, ethics, duty and honorable conduct in every walk of life. The Vedic tradition is based upon the cardinal notions that the Vedas have not been composed by humans. It is believed by the Hindus that the Vedas have been heard or received by the rishis or divinely inspired sages, whose name is mentioned at the end of each hymn of the Vedas. Furthermore, the text of the Vedas had not been written until the 15th century CE. The transmission of these hymns has been oral, and the power of the word is regarded in this tradition as an aural and oral power. The chant is considered as a power that provides material prosperity and the acme of spiritual benefit. Consequently, the emphasis in the Vedic tradition has always been upon precise pronunciation and memorization.

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Every Veda is divided into the verse or Mantra part and the Brahmana or instructive part. Together, these are deemed revelation or Shruti. The Brahmanas provide elaborate, varied and hidden insight into the Mantra text and the associated ritual. A number of equations between ritual features, ritual performers, and cosmic, divine and terrestrial realities are provided copiously in the Brahmanas. Contemporary research work has recognized the crucial significance of the Brahmanas in developing Indian philosophy and thought.  The term Brahmana is derived from the word brahman. The latter refers to the power of Vedic Mantras. The word Brahman emerges from the root brih, which means to grow or expand, and denotes expansion of the power of the prayer during the progress of the ritual. At a higher level of understanding Brahman denotes the all-encompassing and transcendent reality.

Hinduism exhibits an animistic or pantheistic proclivity to deify many things. This has been visible from the earliest of times, and the Rig Veda contains several verses that accord divine honor to air, earth, wind, fire, heaven, sun, moon, stars, dawn, dusk, cows, departed ancestors, mountains, rivers, and trees, among several other entities. Thus, there are several deities, and they could be worshipped in isolation or in combination with others.

Griswold has contended that the objects worshipped were selected in a practical manner. Thus, the forces or objects of nature, selected for worship, were those that were of use, or which had remarkable appearance or effects. Prior to the conferment of major divinity of godhead, several practical tests had to be completed successfully. For instance, Agni, the deity of fire, has several uses. It eliminates darkness and discourages enemies. It constitutes the secret of vegetation and the growth of food. The heat that it produces relates to life and generation. Moreover, it is essential for cooking food. As such, it is central to Vedic rituals.

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The Ramayana and Mahabharata (Epics)

The Ramayana and Mahabharata are India’s national epics, and the longest poems in any language. The sage Krishna-Dwaipayan Vyasa or Veda Vyasa, had penned the Mahabharata in the fourth century BCE. It is firmly believed by the Hindus that this poem had been dictated by the deity Sri Ganesha to Veda Vyasa. This epic poem narrates the history of the Pandavas and Kauravas, the two branches of a family. This epic consists of 100,000 verses, and is the longest epic poem in the history of mankind. The timeless Sanatana Dharma sacred text, Bhagavad Gita, is central to the Sixth Book of the Mahabharata, the Bhishma Parva.

Hinduism incorporates a universal formulation that accepts all formulations of the truth. This religion declares that the ultimate reality is singular, and most importantly that it cannot be restricted to a specific form or name. This uniqueness is inclusive and not exclusive, and is the spiritual reality of Sat, Chit, Anand or truth, consciousness and bliss, respectively. This is the nature of the ultimate reality, which transcends all names and forms. Thus, the various deities of Hinduism, merely represent the different functions of this unique supreme deity, and are by no means separate gods, as has been projected by the detractors of this great religion.

It is wrongly believed by non-Hindus that the Hindus worship a plethora of deities. The reality is otherwise, and Hindus worship a single Supreme Being, albeit with different names. India is a land of diverse languages and cultures, and as a result people of different regions tend to comprehend the Supreme Deity in their own distinct manner. Over time, the following principal denominations came to the fore, namely, Saivism, Shaktism, Vaishnavism and Smartaism. The Saivites’ supreme deity is Siva, for the Shaktas it is the Goddess Shakti, for Vaishnavites it is Lord Vishnu, and the Smartas leave the choice of the Supreme Deity to the devotee as they regard every deity as the form of Parabrahman or Supreme Deity. This diversity has ensured that Hindus are extremely tolerant of other religions. As such, Hindus believe that the different religions are merely different paths to the one Supreme Lord.

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The majority of the Hindus regard their religion as a monotheistic religion with a single supreme entity that is devoid of attributes, and which is impersonal. The other deities are deemed to be facets of this one supreme being, which is regarded as the ultimate reality and all that exists. Hinduism has a Trinity, namely: Brahma, the creator of all reality; Vishnu the preserver of the entire creation; and Shiva the destroyer. Parabrahman is regarded as the ultimate reality or deity.

Avatars or Divine Incarnations of Lord Vishnu

The protecting powers of Lord Vishnu have manifested in an array of forms, termed the Avatars, wherein some of the divine attributes of this deity had been embodied in a human form, animal, or combination of both. These Avatars of Lord Vishnu had manifested in the world to either engender some great good or to destroy extreme iniquity. Albeit, the Bhagwat Purana describes 22 Avatars, it is the usual practice to recognize 10 Avatars. These Avatars constitute an earthly form of the eternal, unchangeable and immutable Lord Vishnu. These are: Matsya or fish, Kurma or tortoise, Varaha or boar, Narasimha or man-lion, Vaman or dwarf, Parasuram, Sri Rama, Balram, Sri Krishna, and Kalki. The first nine have already manifested and the last is awaited.

Adi Shankaracharya

The great Adi Shankaracharya was instrumental in restructuring and reordering the ancient Sannyasa (Ascetic) order. Moreover, he spared no effort in ensuring that the Sanatana Dharma did not lose its dynamism and all-encompassing character. As such, the Sannyasis promote and preserve the eternal code of life that emerges from the Vedas and which underlies and unifies all humanity, and ensure that it is conveyed to the people. Adi Shankaracharya is rightly regarded as the ideal Sannyasi. He was born in Kalady in the present-day state of Kerala, India, around 1,200 years ago, and lived for just 32 years. At the age of eight years he left home in search of a preceptor to achieve self-realization.

The redoubtable Adi Shankaracharya engaged in debates with the eminent scholars and religious leaders of that time. These individuals had been promoting their own interpretations of the scriptures. However, the boy sage Adi Shankaracharya defeated and convinced these people, and convinced them about the truth in his teachings. Thus, these great scholars and leaders accepted Adi Shankaracharya as their spiritual guide or Guru. They changed their way of living and this transformed their followers who belonged to all sections of society. He established four spiritual centers, ashrams or maths. These being the Sringeri Math in Sringeri in the South; Sarada Math in Dwarika West; Jyotir Math in Badrinath, North, and Govardhan Math in Puri, East. These Maths were entrusted with the task of propagating the Advaita philosophy and Vedic tradition. In addition, he reorganized the various Sannyasis into ten main groups and allocated them to one of the above four maths. These orders are: Saraswati, Bharati and Puri, allotted to Sringeri Math; Tirtha and Ashrama allotted to Sarada Math; Giri, Parvata and Sagara allotted to Jyotir Math; and Vanam and Aranyam allotted to Govardhan Math.

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Adi Shankaracharya lived in an age where there were innumerable religious sects that adhered to their individual and narrow philosophies and systems of worship. The circumstances were such that the people had become totally alienated from the underlying common basis of a single supreme power. With a view to extricating the masses from this dismal situation, Adi Shankaracharya propounded his hexa-sect system of worship, wherein the principal deities were – Vishnu, Siva, Shakti, Kartikeya, Ganesh and Surya. Furthermore, he stipulated the rituals and rites to be conducted in the temples.

Thus, Adi Shankaracharya was endowed with vast organizational and intellectual abilities. In addition, he was a very great poet with tremendous love for the Lord. This great acharya or preceptor, composed 72 devotional and meditative hymns, including the Soundarya Lahari, Sivananda Lahari, Nirvana Shalkam, and Maneesha Panchakam. One of his foremost works is the commentary on the Brahma Sutras or Vedanta Philosophy, whose logic is irrefutable. In addition, he wrote a scintillating commentary upon the Bhagavad Gita and the major Upanishads: Isa, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Aitareya, Taittiriya, Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka. Moreover, he wrote extensively on the rudiments of Advaita Vedanta philosophy, which defined and described the principle of the non-dual Brahman, including the Viveka Chudamani, Atma Bodha, Vakya Vritti, and Upadesa Sahasri.

Sri Rama Krishna and Swami Vivekananda

The Sanatana Dharma is an ancient religion that has withstood the persistent efforts of Islam and Christianity to destroy it. In fact, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa had made the following thought provoking declaration regarding the Sanatana Dharma: “The Eternal Religion, the religion of the rishis, has been in existence from time out of mind and will exist eternally. There exists in this Santana Dharma all forms of worship-worship of God with form and worship of the Impersonal Deity as well. It contains all paths-the path of knowledge, the path of devotion, and so on. Other forms of religion, the modern cults, will remain for few days and then disappear.”

Chicago hosted an extremely important event, namely, the World’s Parliament of Religions in the year 1893. This transpired two decades after the formation of the Theosophical Society. This occasion was graced by around 7,000 representatives of the different religions of the world. Swami Vivekananda, the great disciple of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, delivered a monumental speech at this 21-day long event. As such, he was the most important speaker at this event. His Brahmo Samaj background had made him quite familiar with Christianity and its writings, and this had made him an adept at interreligious discussions.

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Narendra Nath Datta met Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, a great seer, in the year 1891. Such was the impact of that interaction that he abandoned a prospective legal career and adopted the life of a sannyasin (ascetic), with the ascetic name Swami Vivekananda. At the Parliament of Religions, Swami Vivekananda’s speech was at once brilliant and captivating. In fact, his speech produced such an electrifying effect that a Christian leader commented that it would be futile to send missionaries to India to convert its people to Christianity, when it was home to outstanding individuals such as Swami Vivekananda. After the extraordinary impact of Swami Vivekananda upon the West, due to his Hindu teachings, several other seers visited the West with their discourses on Hinduism. Prominent among these, to name a few, were: Swami Yogananda in 1920, with his Kriya Yoga; Meher Baba in 1931; Kirpal Singh in 1955; Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1955, who had a profound influence upon the Beatles; Sri Chinmayanand in 1964; and Swami AC Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada in 1965, who formed the famous ISKON.

As such, the West has recognized and accepted Hindu ideals and practices over a period of time. This process has been helped to a considerable extent by the visit of several Hindu practitioners to the West. These include, PC Moozumdar and Swami Vivekananda at the Chicago World Parliament of Religions and Parmahamsa Yogananda. The process started in the 1920s and has continued unabated. Thus, a large number of Hindu teachers have been vising the West and spreading the teachings of this ancient and great religion. Another important influence upon Western thought has been the Theosophical Society, whose activities and publications have been quite influential in this regard. Thus, every major form of Hindu practice and belief has its Western form, which despite having been modified retains the character of Hinduism.

Conclusion

This work deals with issues relating to the history of Hinduism. The topic of this work is “Hinduism is a way of life rather than a religion”. The notion of dharma followed in this order is called Sanatana Dharma which indicates a way of life that correlates with the cosmic order. Hinduism does not have any founder or leader as in other religions. The Vedas are the holy texts of this religion. Moreover, the Ramayana and Mahabharata are the famous epics of India, which are the longest poems in any language of the world. Veda Vyasa was the author of the Mahabharata and it is believed by the Hindus that this poem had been narrated by Sri Ganesha, which was then written down by Veda Vyasa. Sri Krishna, believed to be the greatest avatar of Lord Maha Vishnu, expounded the Bhagvata Gita or Song Divine.

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Sage Valmiki wrote the Ramayana, which describes the story of Sri Rama, a prince of Ayodhya and an Avatar of lord Vishnu. Lord Vishnu manifests in ten Avatars or incarnations on earth, of which, nine avatars have already manifested, and the last, the Kalki Avatar has yet to be manifested. Sri Adi Shankaracharya, the spiritual guru or guide of the Hindu dharma, established many maths or spiritual centers, in order to guide or protect Hindu dharma. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and his follower Swami Vivekananda had a great impact on Hindu dharma through their preachings. Furthermore, Swami Vivekananda influenced the world, especially the West through his religious discourses. Hinduism believes that Sat, Chit and Anand or truth, consciousness and bliss are the goals of life, which can be realized by following the rituals described in the Vedas, as well as to obtain cosmic help and power. Thus, it can be surmised that Hinduism is more a way of life than a religion.

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