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The oldest continuously-practiced religion in the world, and the dominant religion of South Asia (chiefly India and Nepal), with it also being popular in certain parts of The Caribbean (such as many areas of Guyana or Trinidad) due to the presence of Indo-Caribbean people there, certain parts of Oceania (particularly Fiji), the island countries of East Africa (especially Mauritius, which is the only country outside of South Asia to have a Hindu majority), the Arabian Peninsula (particularly Qatar and Bahrain) due to its huge amount of South Asian diaspora, and parts of Southeast Asia (especially the Indonesian island of Bali), Hinduism's roots can be traced back to Iron Age India, and as such it is believed to be the oldest living religion in the world, only contending with Zoroastrianism for some.

Hinduism stands out in popular Western belief for being seemingly a polytheistic religion, having a high number of deities and manifestations, often with many arms.note  In reality, the topic is much more complicated, and gets blurred further due to Hinduism not being bound by a single doctrine, but rather encompassing a wide range of beliefs with their own evolution and influences each (there is no one leader of the religion, equivalent to the Pope or the Dalai Lama), to the point that it often more resembles a vast network of interconnected and semi-independent belief systems rather than a single religion unto itself. Generally speaking, however, in the same way Christianity has the concept of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being different forms of the same God, most Hindu schools share a similar belief: Vishnu, Lakshmi, Shiva, Brahma, Hanuman, etc. are all different manifestations of one entity, known variously as Brahman (not to be confused with Brahma, the creator god), Ishvara, or other names, which is not exactly a distinct father god as in Abrahamic monotheism, but rather more of an ultimate manifestation of the very universe itself and beyond. Although Hindu Mythology contains a vast pantheon of gods and beings, they are each recognized to be an aspect/manifestation of Brahman. As a consequence, debates about how or what to classify Hinduism as (polytheistic, monotheistic, pantheistic, something else entirely, or a mix of all) have occurred for centuries and still occurring even today.

In Hinduism, humans live within samsara, the cycle of Reincarnation, where their souls are reborn after death in various lifeforms depending on their karmic baggage. Human souls, called atman, are ultimately part of Brahman too, although their exact relationship varies between different schools. Whenever a soul finally achieves moksha, liberation from the cycle of reincarnation, it returns to Brahman and essentially Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence. Not every Hindu is necessarily forced to seek moksha, though, which nonetheless usually requires a lot of asceticism, meditation and study (often more than a single lifetime). For the average Hindu, it is perfectly legitimate to pursue a better rebirth or just live a virtuous, fruitful life.

Hinduism is a very loose and decentralized religion. In fact, there is a passage in the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna himself explicitly encourages religious tolerance, stressing that all gods are in fact part of one supreme Godhead. The Supreme God, in this case Vishnu, demonstrates this to the warrior Arjuna by allowing Arjuna to see, for a moment, Vishnu's Universal Form (Vishvarupa). For this reason, the very concept of "conversion" is difficult to fit into Hindu theology. There is no "initiation" or "creed" (like Baptism for Christianity or the Shahada for Islam) according to which one becomes a Hindu. Those that wish to convert to Hinduism can do so with no ceremony.

However, this cannot be said to be universally true. There is a significant minority that holds to the belief that one has to be born a Hindu. The issue for them is one of caste. The caste system (Varna) and Hinduism are very tightly linked, and caste is something one is born with and remains all one's life (the only way to change one's caste is to be reincarnated in one's next life). Therefore it is a very perplexing question: for a foreign convert with no family or history in India, what is to be their caste? For liberal or reformed branches of Hinduism, particularly in the West, it is a non-issue. For more conservative branches, particularly those in India, it makes conversion to Hinduism simply impossible.

Hinduism is the only major world religion that is henotheistic by nature, i.e, involving devotion to one god while accepting the existence of others. This is why most Hindu sects do not seek converts, as there is an accepted belief that the goals of spiritual life can be attained through any religion, as long as it is practiced sincerely. It is also one of the rare religions in the world that allows the practice of Atheism within itself, and therefore holds the oldest evidence of the concept itself.

It is also common practice for a community to hold faith in a "local" god, associated with a single temple or location. On occasion these may not even have temples or even idols or statues; it might merely be the concept of a higher being, usually a protector and usually named after the location, that is believed in by the local population, with no particular rituals or prayers. Prayer locations of these deities are usually sacred groves, and there are thousands of such locations and gods scattered across India. Activities like logging and hunting are heavily prohibited in and around these areas, enforced by a combination of tradition, religious beliefs and the law. Because of this, over the years, these groves have become a haven for both rare animals and plants, as species seek shelter in them due to habitat destruction. This enrichment of flora and fauna has only added to their legend; Wikipedia actually has a page on these.

As is evident from the description so far, the information provided here by no means summarizes the entirety of Hindu beliefs; as it is easily the most complex religion in the history of the world. Because of the wide range of traditions and ideas incorporated within it or covered by it, even feverently devout Hindus will have trouble coming up with a definition for the word "Hinduism" itself.

Major Hindu sacred texts include the Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, and Upanishads. The above are Older Than Feudalism, but the four Vedasnote  are Older Than Dirt, and the Puranas are only Older Than Print.

Hinduism is classified under the Dharmic religions, which also include Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. The other three are offshoots from Hinduism, in the same way that Christianity and Islam are offshoots from Judaism. Romani Mythology is technically an offshoot of Hindu beliefs, though centuries of interaction with Christianity and other belief systems have made it relatively unrecognisable.

The Schools of Thought and the Works

While Hinduism has been variously described as both a faith and as a way of life, and is incredibly diverse, there are a few general concepts that most (though not all) Hindus hold in common.

  • The written works. These include the following -
    • The Vedas - The Rig Veda, The Sama Veda, The Yajur Veda and the Atharva Veda. Each deals with specific rituals and the basic rules of life and society, split over four volumes.
      • The body of traditional medical knowledge (Ayur Veda) is sometimes called the Fifth Veda, but not always. A big difference between the top four (or Chatur-Veda) and all other texts are that they are described as Shruthi or "Dictated (by Divinity)". All other works (including the body of work that is Ayur Veda) is defined as Smrithi or "Recorded (by mortals)".
    • The Upanishads (lit. - Dispersal of Ignorance by Discourse), which are like commentaries on the Vedas, and which offer insights into theological and philosophical questions (most of which are highly technical, and thus require some serious study).
    • The Puranas (lit. Old Works), which are akin to the stories of Classical Mythology and Norse Mythology. Depending on one's persuasion, they are either allegorical works or records of true events.
    • The Itihaasa (lit. Histories), which - as the name suggests - is about historical events of note. Not strictly theological, but it is often used as a matter of discussion and debate in philosophical circles. This is the work that includes The Ramayana, The Mahabharata, and most of the old literary tradition of Ancient India. The concept of time as a cyclic phenomenon is also found in these works.
    • There's also books on prayers, incantations, and offerings, but those generally depend on where you are. A complete listing can be found on The Other Wiki.

  • Schools of Thought. These are basically philosophical schools. They're generally classified on the basis of whether they consider the Vedas as authoritative or not. The ones that do are called Aastik (Orthodox) and the ones that don't are called Naastik (Heterodox). This is basically the secret behind Hinduism's remarkable syncretism - there are no heresies, just different perspectives.

    • The Orthodox Schools are -
      • Saamkhya (Rationalism) - An atheistic school of thought. They believe that all things can be explained by impartial and dispassionate observation, inference, and from consulting reliable sources. They are "atheists" in the sense that they reject the existence of any eternal, unchanging Creator who made (and is separate from) the Universe. While rejecting the idea of a Creator, Saamkhya accepts the idea of other "higher beings," but regards them merely as another form of life: more powerful than you - but mortal, not divine, and, in the grand scheme of things, ultimately irrelevant. As such, they regard the Soul as nothing more than the manifestation of human consciousness. Highly influential, they've shaped much of the society and culture of the subcontinent with their focus on ethics and the issues of a normal person's day-to-day.
      • Yoga (Control) - The one most non-Hindus have heard of thanks to the art of Yoga. While it does have a focus on physical discipline and exertion, it is by no means exclusively so. They basically believe that one's body is their own temple, and God(s) a largely "personal" concept - therefore, by understanding the limitations of mortality, one can transcend it and achieve liberation from rebirth.
      • Nyaaya (Judgement) - Basically Saamkhya, but they believe in the existence of divine beings, and that a soul exists, separate from consciousness. In almost every other aspect, they are exactly the same. Buddhism is generally believed to have emerged from this school of thought but is sufficiently different to be considered aastik/heterodox.
      • Vaishishehka (Composition) - These ones believe that all creation can be explained by breaking it down to the most fundamental particle and starting their analysis from there. By fully understanding how those fundamental particles react with each other, they could understand creation itself, and transcend it. The soul is regarded as one such fundamental particle, made of pure energy.
      • Miimaamsaa (Reflection) - These ones are largely indifferent toward the concept of divinity. The way they see it, the existence (or lack thereof) of God(s) is none of their business, but what people do in the name of God(s) most certainly is. They focus more on social duty, justice, law and order, rather than theological considerations. Anti-ascetic and anti-mystical, these ones are the epitome of pragmatism.
      • Vedanta/Uttar Miimaamsaa (The End of the Vedas/Greater Reflection) - What most people who call themselves Hindus are, if they don't fit into the other categories. They deal with the reaction of the Soul with the Material World, the Spiritual Health of the Soul, and attaining liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Very difficult to precisely define, these ones are, by their very nature, The Generic Guy or that which can't be marked out. Almost all normal, everyday, practising Hindus fall into this category.

    • The Heterodox schools are -

    • In addition to all of this, most followers of the Sanaatan Dharma (the Sanskrit name for Hinduism, literal translation is "The Eternal Way") have a set path - these are the closest thing Hinduism has to sects (get your mind out of the gutter). This system came into being as Hinduism grew to be more focused on a single divinity, and dates from sometime around the 5th Century CE. The general idea is that all the divinities are Avatars (lit. "Manifestations of Will") of one very powerful God(-ess), who is in charge and part of everything and everybody. ''Which'' God(-ess) is what no one can agree on - and which is the reason that multiple paths exist. While not strictly opposed to each other, all sides have some friction between each other - which is largely inconsequential, since all paths worship the same Gods(-esses) anyway. The argument is of a highly technical and theological nature - which is of little or no interest to an ordinary person. The most popular paths are:-
      • Vaishnavism (Path of Vishnu) - These ones believe that Vishnu is the Supreme Godhead. The closest thing to a mainstream that Hinduism has got, it's the most widely followed path - largely since it's easily accessible and generally non-ascetic. Easily recognizable by the vertical ash-mark on the foreheads of its disciples. The Hare Krishnas in the West are an outgrowth of these guys.
      • Shaivism (Path of Shiva) - These ones believe that Shiva is the Supreme Godhead. Less mainstream, and focused more on monastic duty, ascetics and self-discipline. Generally the choice of path for soldiers, labourers, forest-dwellers and anyone else with a hard, demanding path in life. Yoga as it is known in the West is an outgrowth of Shaivism. Easily recognizable by the horizontal tilaka or ash-mark on the foreheads of its disciples. Whenever most people think of a Hindu hermit or ascetic, it's a pretty good bet it's these guys that they're thinking of.
      • Smartism (Path of Revelation) - Not so much a path as it is a loose collection of people who depend on scripture for guidance and inspiration. They spend their lives interpreting the Written Works listed above and generally serve as preachers, priests, and spiritual guides. Whenever someone speaks of a "spiritual guide", it's a pretty good bet that it's these guys they're talking about. Largely monastic, they are generally found in matths (the Hindu equivalent of a seminary, which also serves as a monastery).
      • Shaktism (Path of Power) - Probably the most misunderstood group within Hinduism. These people believe that the Goddess Shakti (whose name literally translates to "All-Powerful") is the Supreme Soul, and that reality is essentially feminine. As such, the pantheon in this path is mostly female - any major Hindu Goddess is going to be found in it. The tradition as a whole is heavily focused on acting rather than thinking too much about something - basically "Do Or Do Not - There Is No Try." The main reason they have something of a bad rep is because of small fringe groups who take the "act without thinking" bit to it's logical extreme and focus on magic, ritual, and superstition. Note that confusing mainline Shaktists with the loony-fringe madmen is a pretty surefire way to get an rant-inducing slight earful of rage.

Hindu Gods

Main article: Hindu Mythology

There are several traditions within Hinduism. The modern faith is quite different from the ancient one. The pantheon is from Vedism (or the 'historical Vedic religion'), which is very different from modern Hinduism. It's somewhat similar to Classical or Norse mythology, and it's briefly described below. For all intents and purposes, it is treated as a separate faith. The modern religion has several branches, four of which are the most dominant. These four sects each focus on a different interpretation of Ishvara (the Supreme Being). The two most common ones are described below.

According to two of the four major Hindu sects described above, the universe was born from Lord Brahma (The Creator), maintained by Lord Vishnu (The Preserver), and governed by Lord Shiva (The Destroyer), in the sense that after the age of man is over, the world will be destroyed to unite all individual souls with the Supreme Consciousness. The three together form the Great Trinity, more popularly known as the 'Trimurti' note  of Hinduism. So not even a question as straightforward as "Who's the Top God?" gets a simple answer in this religion.

The Trimurti or "Hindu Trinity" is probably of greater fascination to Westerners than to Hindus themselves. This is doubtless due to its superficial resemblance to the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity - with some even blithely assuming Christianity must have swiped the original idea from Hinduism. In fact, the concept of the "Trimurti" only really took off in Hinduism centuries after Christianity was established, and today remains an important concept to only a small minority of Hindus. The Vaishnavites and Shaivites, who together make up over 90% of all Hindus, regard either Vishnu or Shiva (respectively) as the Supreme Being - full stop - and do not pay much if any attention to the concept of a "trinity" at all.

Both Vishnu and Shiva are widely popular among Hindus as deities (each viewed as the Supreme Being in their respective sects), to the point that there has been some friction between the devotees of the two. Vishnu is arguably the better known, probably because of the vast amount of mythology surrounding Vishnu and his Avatars. Since the maintenance of the world is his responsibility, Vishnu will incarnate as an Avatar whenever evil rises, to bring balance to the world. Prince Rama, Lord Krishna, and Vamana are some of the popular incarnations of Vishnu. Rama's story has been chronicled in the Ramayana, and Krishna's in the Mahabharata, a part of which is the Bhagavad Gita.

There are also a number of younger gods or Devas, who occupy the heaven, known as Swarga. These gods are mostly confined to Vedism (the predecessor to modern Hinduism), which is significantly different from the modern faith.

Within Vedism, almost every entity in nature has a corresponding god or goddess - Agni (Fire), Vayu (Wind/Air), Varuna (Water & Sky), Surya (Sun), Chandra (Moon), Bhumi (Earth), etc. Indra is the King of the Gods, and Lord of Swargaloka, which is Heaven. Narakaloka is the opposite, and is Hell. Naraka's lord is Yamadharmaraja (literally means Yama the most just). He is not evil and takes no pleasure in punishing though - he just assigns them to Swarga (Heaven) or Naraka (Hell). Yama is the son of Surya(Sun).

The concept of the Devil, i.e; a central being that causes all evil, does not appear in Hinduism. Simply put, such a kind of character simply doesn't exist in the mythology. Instead, Hinduism states that good and evil exist inside all creatures, and, according to the path one chooses, their fate will be determined. This is where Karma comes into play - in accordance with your actions, in your next life, you will be born as a lesser or higher being. Though demonic creatures do exist in mythology, even they are never portrayed as Always Chaotic Evil - not even Ravana and Duryodhana, the Big Bad of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, ever comes off as pure evil.

See the main article for more details.

Countries Where Hinduism is Popular

  • India
  • Nepal
  • Mauritius
  • Fiji (though Christianity takes a plurality)
  • Guyana (same as above)
  • Suriname (same as above)
  • Trinidad and Tobago (same as above)
  • Sri Lanka (although Buddhism is the dominant religion there)
  • Bangladesh (Islam takes up a lion's share, but its Hindu population is much more than many of the above countries' respective Hindu populations combined)
  • The Indonesian island of Bali (where its 80% more percentage of Hindus is practically an attraction by itself)