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Hinduism (not to be confused with Hindutva) is one of the world's most prolific religions, and one of the two primary religions of the Indian subcontinent, along with Islam. It is also known as Sanātana Dharma by Hindus. Hinduism consists of many diverse traditions; it has no single founder. It is regarded as the world's oldest extant religion.[1] It is split into sects and schools. The three major sects are Shaivism, Shaktism and Vaishnavism. These three major sects focus on a single god: Shiva, Shakti, and Vishnu, respectively. Usually, the Adevanta Tradition, which focuses on anecdotes and reverence towards all major deities, is discussed in relation to Hinduism as a religion.[2]

Defining Hinduism[edit]

Hinduism, like many Eastern spiritual schools of thought, does not fit into the Western concept of religion. Hinduism is not characterized by rigid beliefs in the same way that Christianity and Islam are. In fact, Hinduism does "not have a unified belief encoded in the declaration of faith or a creed".[3] It is an umbrella term denoting the plurality of spiritual phenomena based on Vedic traditions. There are many Hindus who revere the sacred literary works including the Vedas, Bhavagad-Gita and Upanishads. Yet, there are many Hindus unfamiliar with those works. The majority of Hindus subscribe to a belief in God responsible for the creation, substenance and destruction of the universe and manifested in various gods and goddesses. However, there are atheistic heterodox Hindu schools of thought as well; like the fatalist ĀjīvikaWikipedia's W.svg who rejected Karma as a fallacy and postulated a metaphysics of atoms, as well as the allegedly hedonistic CārvākaWikipedia's W.svg. Like the lost writings of the Greek philosophers DiogenesWikipedia's W.svg or LeucippusWikipedia's W.svg, these atheist philosophies are remembered mostly by the records of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist critics.

Some academics suggest that Hinduism can be seen as a category with "fuzzy edges", rather than as a well-defined and rigid entity. Some forms of religious expression are central to Hinduism, while others are not as central but still remain within the category.[4]. Vedism of Hinduism is believed to have been derived from the Proto-Indo-European religions.[citation needed] Some notable ideas associated with Hinduism include moksha and dharma. Moksha is attainment of peace derived from eternal knowledge and relief from samsara, the cycle of rebirth. Dharma translates as "duties", and is associated with fulfilling all of your live's duty. In this way it doesn't specifically define dharma, but it is associated with peaceful living.

Invention of the word "Hinduism"[edit]

Hinduism as a concept came into existence in the 19th century. According to Pankaj Mishra, a contributor to the New York Review of Books, "the British invented the holdall category in the early nineteenth century, and made India seem the home of a 'world religion' as organised and theologically coherent as Christianity and Islam". However, as mentioned in the first paragraph, Eastern religions were not categorized according to rigid definitions the way Western/Mid-east religions are. The word "Hindu" was derived from the Sanskrit word "Sindhu", and was first used by the Persians to refer to people living beyond the Indus River, regardless of spiritual beliefs.[5]

Concept(s) of God(s)[edit]

There are atheistic and theistic schools of thought within Hinduism. The Rig Veda (10.129.7), the oldest sacred literary work, takes an agnostic view of creation by saying:

Who really knows?
Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation?
The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Most Hindus believe in a soul, known by the Sanskrit word Atman. According to the non-dualistic school of Advaita Vedanta, the atman is ultimately indistinct from brahman, the universal soul or God. In contrast, the dualistic Dvaita and Bhakti schools state that atman is distinct from brahman. Brahman is a Supreme Being possessing a personality, worshiped in the forms of Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva, or Shakti. The Supreme Being is worshiped as the Trimurti, consisting of the Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver) and Shiva (destroyer). These forms of the Supreme Being represent the phases of the universe: Creation, Preservation and Destruction.

A prominent aspect of Hindu Theism is the prevalence of devas and avatars. The devas are the manifestations of the Supreme Being, usually personifying a certain ideal for the worshiper. For example, Saraswathi is a devi (goddess) representing the ideal of wisdom. Avatars are the incarnations of the Supreme Beings on Earth. According to Hindus, there are ten avatars of Vishnu, including Krishna and Rama.

Karma, Samsara, Brahman and Naraka[edit]

Karma can be described as the moral law of cause and effect. They are based on the deeds and actions one has performed in his/her lifetime. The quality of one's karma can determine one's path of samsara, the transmigration of the soul. If one's karma is good, one will obtain a good livelihood in the next life. The ultimate objective of a Hindu's life is moksha, or liberation from samsara. Moksha involves realizing one's unity with brahman and detaching one's self from the material world.[6] When a person dies, their previous actions are judged by Chitragupta. If the person has lived a life of purity, then they leave the cycle of samsara. However, if they've shown impurity, then they are sent to one of around 28 different forms of Hell, known as 'narakas', in which they endure varying forms of agonising pain for a ridiculously long period of time, before being resurrected. This happens every time they die, which is why liberation from samsara is so important, as well as the necessity of being one with brahman.

Caste Systems, Holy Cows and other misconceptions[edit]

The caste rules currently practiced today were proposed during British colonial rule, and some of them were inspired by the scripture Manusmṛti which was written 2000 years ago,[7] although Hinduism has been around for much longer. The caste rules not only apply to Hindus but they are observed by Christians as well. In fact, Dalit Christians are forced to worship in different churches from non-Dalit Christians, and Dalit Christian clergymen face discrimination from their upper-caste counterparts.[8] Therefore, the caste system, although promoted by the Brahmins for many centuries, is prominently a socioeconomic system.

Cows are not worshipped by Hindus. However, they are held in high esteem. The reason has to do with the cow's agricultural uses. Hindus relied heavily on it for dairy products and for tilling the fields, and on cow dung as a source of fuel and fertilizer. Thus, the cow’s status as a 'caretaker' led to identifying it as an almost maternal figure. In fact, one goddess is usually shown as a cow: Bhoomi (भूमि). She represents the Earth. Somewhat ironically, Terence Mckenna, Occam's Razor notwithstanding, claimed that religious reverence for the cow is a result of early humankind's association of psilocybin mushroom with it, this association having developed as a result of the discovery of said mushrooms in the animal's excrement.[9]


Sati is an obsolete tradition in which a widow would climb on to her husband's funeral pyre and immolate herself. Sometimes a widow could be forced onto the pyre by relatives and sometimes a woman would self-immolate before the death of husband if the city was conquered by the enemy.[10] Instances of sati increased during the Muslim invasions that ushered in the Mughal and Slave Dynasty period as widows were considered a bad omen and sati also assured that widows would not convert to Islam to remarry Muslims.[11]


  1. Jeaneane D. Fowler (1997), Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices, Sussex Academic Press
  3. Flood 2001
  4. Koller, J. M. (1984), "JSTOR: Philosophy East and West, Vol. 34, No. 2 (April, 1984 ), pp. 234-236", Philosophy East and West ( 34 (2): 234–236,
  5. Pankaj Mishra. "The invention of the Hindu".
  6. See Theistic Explanations of Karma, pg. 146 of Causation and Divine Intervention by BR Reichenbach, citing Uddyotakara, Nyaayavaarttika, IV, 1, 21.
  7. The Logic of Affirmative Action: Caste, Class and Quotas in India
  8. Struggle for Justice to Dalit Christians by Brojendra Nath Banerjee. New Age International, p. 42. ISBN 8122410820.
  9. McKenna, Terence (1992). Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge. Bantam Books. pp. 100-116.
  10. Forsaken Females: The Global Brutalization of Women by Andrea Parrot & Nina Cummings p. 163
  11. The Danger of Gender: Caste, Class and Gender in Contemporary Indian Women's Writing, (2003), Clara Nubile, p. 9