Hinduism is the oldest of the major world religions. It began so long ago that no one really knows how old it really is, but it goes back at least 5000 years. The Hindus think it has always existed.
The name ‘Hindu’ comes from an old name for people who lived in a part of northern India. The word ‘Hindu’ comes from the River Indus and in the beginning it described where people lived, not their religion. The Persians were the first people to use the name. There were people living near the River Indus about five thousand years ago. They built large cities and one of them was called Mohenjo-daro. Some archaeologists have dug the city up and discovered many things about the Indus people and their civilization. Today, over 800 million people living in India are Hindus, and there are the same number living in other parts of the world.
Hinduism was not begun by any one person but it developed gradually over more than a thousand years. This means that today it has many different ‘branches’ and its followers have a very wide range of beliefs and ways of worshipping. Hinduism is a way of life as much as a religion, and different Hindus may believe different things without being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
The Hindu religion has many holy books. Some of these are called Shastras. They advise on how people should live their lives. The most important Shastras are the Vedas. They are the oldest holy books in the world, Veda means knowledge. Hindus believe that Vedas came from God and had everything that is true about the world.
The Vedas contain hymns for priests to sing, prayers and instruct people how to live and worship. At the end of each Veda are sections dealing with the real meaning of the universe. The sections are called Upanishads. They are questions and answers.
The Vedas are not easy for most people to understand, so Hindu teachers wrote Smritis to help to explain them. The important ones were written about 2500 years ago. The Smritis are still difficult to understand so there are lots of books in simpler language that help Hindus to understand their religion through stories. The stories are about Gods and Goddesses, kings, heroes, and other famous people. They also give good examples on how to live a good life. The way in which characters behave in the stories can teach other people what to do.
Here is a quick story:
What Hindus Believe
Each Hindu does not have to believe exactly the same things as every other Hindu. Each Hindu knows that others will have some different beliefs. It will depend on their background, their education or what they have worked out for themselves. But there are some beliefs that nearly all Hindus believe.
1) There is one God. This is Brahman or the Spirit of the Whole World. Brahman is in everything, everywhere and always. But we cannot see, hear or touch Brahman.
2) The part of Brahman, which is everything, is the soul. This is called Atman. The soul cannot be destroyed. It is the most important part of everything.
3) When the body dies, the soul moves to live in another body. This change is called reincarnation. It happens many times. But we do not remember our other lives.
4) Everything we do makes something else happen. And everything that happened in our soul’s previous lives makes things happen in the next life. This link between actions is called the law of Karma. You can earn good or bad Karma for everything you do. If you lived a good life, the soul will be born in a person who is more important or happier. If your life has not been so good, the soul will be born in a more unlucky person. It may even be in an animal, tree or plant. But the soul always has the chance to improve. Then it will be born into a better life next time round.
Caste And Dharma
Hindus believe that people are divided into sets called varnas or classes. People will belong to the same Varna all their life. There are four varnas and each varna contains hundreds of smaller groups called jati or castes. People are divided according to their traditional jobs: once, a Hindu could only do a certain job if he belonged to a certain caste.
There used to be a very good reason for the caste system. Hindus believe that everyone has a special duty, which is called dharma. This means holy law. The dharma partly depends on the caste the Hindu belongs to. For example, if you were born into the shopkeeper caste, it was your duty to be a shopkeeper, whether you wanted to be one or not.
The varna you are born into depends on what has happened in your previous lives. Here are the varnas in order of importance:
There is a fifth group of people who do no belong to any class and they are sometimes called the Untouchables. They have the really unpleasant jobs like road cleaning, toilet cleaning and getting rid of dead animals. Only in the past fifty years have they been allowed to enter a high-caste temple or a house belonging to a Hindu of the three highest classes. They had to have their own well, could only travel by train if it had a compartment for them, and they are some of the poorest people in Hindu society. Strict Hindus only mix and eat with their own caste, and they do not marry outside their caste. Even though it is illegal to discriminate against anyone from another caste, many Hindus still prefer to keep to their own caste.
The Goal of Hindus
Each Hindu has to have a goal, which is for the soul to be free from samsara or being reborn. They have to work out the best way to reach this goal. They have to make sure that each rebirth takes the soul to a better life. A bad life is a demotion, a good life a promotion. Each promotion means that the next person the soul lives in will be able to understand more about the world and Brahman. It usually means that the soul is born into a person who belongs to a higher caste.
If you try really hard to obey your dharma, your soul may go one step further, but the position a person starts at depends on the karma the soul has brought from the previous body.
When the soul reaches the top and does not need to be born again, it understands that the things we can see in the world do not last. Material things such as money, a house, sports, all finish when the body dies. What really counts is getting out of this world. When a person knows this, their soul can become part of Brahman. It can escape the physical world and the physical body: this is called Moksha.
One God In Many Forms
Most people find it impossible to imagine Brahman because it is like thinking of something which is in everything and everywhere but which you cannot see, not even in your mind. However, most Hindus think of Brahman as the sun or the moon because that is easier. Brahman can take on the form of anything in the world. He may take the shape of a God or Goddess. Each God or Goddess has its own personality and appearance. In the form of Brahma, God created the world (Brahma is a form of Brahman). As Vishnu, God keeps the world going and as Shiva, He destroys the world.
Hindus usually have a special feeling about one form of Brahman. They will keep an image of their chosen God or Goddess in their home. It helps them to concentrate when they worship. Many Hindus choose either Shiva or Vishnu as the God they worship most.
There are also symbols that represent Brahman. One may be a lotus flower and a shining light. The most popular symbol for Brahman is the written and spoken sound Aum.
Vishnu has visited the earth in different forms. One was Krishna.
The Journey of Life
Birth and Childhood
Hindu holy books say that a life is like a journey. You take sixteen important steps that are called samskaras. Each samskara moves you onto another stage on the journey and this begins before a child is conceived. When a child is born, the priest is informed and he prepares an exact horoscope, because many Hindus believe that the stars and planets influence a person’s life.
Hindus believe that it is their duty to get married so that their children can carry on the family’s religious traditions. The parents sometimes think that the children will choose the wrong person to marry, which is why they have arranged marriages. If you make a good choice, you will stay together, a bad choice can cause lots of unhappiness for many people.
The parents try to choose someone from the same upbringing, education and varna. Love may come later. Hindu parents are not always so strict today, especially in Britain.
Old Age and Death
Hindus usually spend their lives as householders, bringing up their families, working and living as part of the community. Some Hindu men take less part in everyday life so they can concentrate more on Brahman, they may become religious teachers.
This is the fourteenth step and takes place when the children have left home and got married. He can retire and live quietly, spending his time reading holy books and praying. He may live with one of his sons or he may go and live in the forest, either alone or with his wife.
Some Hindus take the fifteenth step. This means that they have to give up everything and become a sadu, which means holy man. They wander around the countryside with only a cloth around his waist, a food bowl and a water pot. Sometimes he will become a sadu when he is young. When a Hindu dies their body is washed, dressed in new clothes and flowers are put around it. All the family bring flowers and touch the feet of the dead person to show respect.
Cremation is the sixteenth samskara. In India the body is burnt on a funeral pyre, which should be lit by the persons eldest son. The fire helps the soul to free itself from the body. The ashes are scattered in a holy river and many cremations take place by the River Ganges because Hindus believe that if they die near the river then they will escape rebirth.
The Hindu Way of Life
Hinduism is a way of living so that you feel that you are doing your duty. A Hindu who does his best to lead a good life will be paying back what he owes to God, to his family and to wise Hindus who have lived before him.
When a Hindu goes to make an offering, he puts his hands together and bows. He says, “Namaste”, which means, “I bow to your respect”. They also do this when they greet people and they can touch the feet of a person who is older or wiser than they are.
They also believe that they should not harm any living things, which means that many of them are vegetarians. In Hinduism cows are very sacred and they should never be killed. This means that nobody mistreats a cow and they are allowed to wander in the streets with nobody chasing them away.
A very important place in a Hindu home is the kitchen and the mother is very strict about what happens there. If a lower caste person has washed the dishes then the mother must wash them again to make them pure.
A lot of Hindu women wear saris. This is a length of cloth over five metres long which is wrapper around the waist and the end is put over her shoulder. They are usually brightly coloured and made of silk or cotton.