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Understanding Hinduism

Understanding Hinduism

 I am not going to start my article by defining the term Hinduism or by characterising who is an Hindu. That would make very lousy reading. So I am going to explain Hinduism in a way I am trying to understand world religions. I think there are three important aspects in understanding any religion.


  • Origin and Evolution.
  • Scriptures and Scholars ( Saints and Preachers ).
  • Practice.

I think explaining the first two aspects of Hinduism is straight forward.But to convince a new learner about the third takes some effort. You may find this article to be rather too long. For all those lazy readers, I suggest you skip the first two parts and read the third.


Origin and Evalution.


Origin of Hinduism is not as specific as other religions like Christianity and Islam because they were founded by individuals whereas Hinduism was not. World religions can be separated into two types, those which evolved and those which were founded.


                    Religions that were founded:

                    1. Jainism - Mahavira

                    2. Buddhism - Buddha

                    3. Confusianism - Confusius

                    4. Zoroastrianism - Zoroaster

                    5. Christianity - Jesus Christ

                    6. Islam - Prophet Mohammed

                    7. Sikhism - Guru Nanak


                    Religions that evolved:

  1.  Hinduism
  2. Jewism and its branches.
  3. Taoism.

However we must understand that the first set of religions are not strictly based on the teachings of their founders. They have undergone various changes and incorporated the views of other scholars over the years. Similarly the second set of religions have also been guided by many scholars as they evolved. We must also not forget the various forms of nature worship, ancestral worship, and those religions closely related to cultures. Examples being Egyptian, Greek, Chinese etc.


Hinduism :


Hinduism as such arouse only in response to Buddhism. Let me explain this later. Hinduism did exist during the Indus valley civilization. But it was more of nature worship. ( I must state that, archaeologists did find a statue of Shiva in the Harappa ruins). Now we are talking about Hinduism between circa 3500 B.C 2500 B.C . Then came the Aryans from Central Asia.


Aryans and Hinduism : ( circa 2500 B.C. to 100 A.D.)


Most of present day Hinduism owes a lot to the Aryans. They wrote the various scriptures that have formed the basic tenets of Hinduism. We will discuss these scriptures in detail later. At this point in time, Hinduism was actually Brahmanism. Brahmins were mostly required to render slogams during animal sacrifices. Since they were educated and close to the ruling elite , they were able to influence the society greatly and also Hinduism. When Buddhism began to spread there was a need to institutionalise the Hindu society. This led to the establishment of Hinduism as such, through various scriptures that were written about this time and through official patronage.


Dravidians and Hinduism :


Role of Dravidians in the evalution of Hinduism is slightly obscure. This may be because they were driven south by the Aryans and also their culture was assimilated by the Aryans. As they say losers dont write history, there is not much evidence of Dravidian contribution to Hinduism at this point in time. We should not confuse the role played by Sankara, Ramanuja, various alwars and nayanmars here.


Hinduism and Buddhism :


One of the greatest battles among religions happened between Hinduism and Buddhism. Yet compared to the Crusades or the madness which goes in the name of religion now, the battle between Hinduism and Buddhism was largely peaceful and intellectual. It all began with Asoka. After Asoka embraced Buddhism, it began to grow rapidly both in India and abroad. We should note that Bindusara, Asokas father was actually a Jain.


Then started this big tussle between Buddhism and Hinduism with each gaining upper hand as official patronage changed. Finally two factors clinched the battle in favor of Hinduism. One political and the other intellectual. Politically Buddhist rulers became weak and slowly disappeared from the scene. The Guptas whose dynasty flourished in the middle of the fist millennium adopted aggressive Hinduism. (There capital was Ayodhya.) Second reason for the decline of Buddhism was the intellectual renaissance under Adi Sankara.


I have deliberately avoided from going into the details of rulers of both Hindu and Buddhist patronage, because it would become the whos who of Indian History which certainly is not what we are discussing here.


Hinduism and other religions :


Hinduism has come in contact with all the religions of the world at various points in time. It has greatly influenced them and has also assimilated their views into itself. Buddhism and Jainism rose from Hinduism. Buddhism later went onto become one of the major religions of the world. But its spread in India was limited because of Hinduisms innate nature of tolerance and ability to assimilate other views into itself.


Islam entered India through the Muslim invaders and the long reign of Muslim rulers in India did affect Hinduism. The near total absence of Temples worth mentioning in North India can be attributed to this fact.(circa 1000 B.C 1700 B.C.) Then came Christianity with the British. ( Christianity did reach India long before but was limited to few places.) The role played by the Christian Missionaries in India continues to be debated. Sikhism is a kind of motley mixture of Hinduism and Islam.


The ongoing debate in this country on Hindutva and the apparent intolerance that has crept into Hindu society in recent years requires special understanding. I do intend to pen a separate article on Hindutva shortly.



Scriptures and Saints :


Basic tenets of any religion are found in the scriptures and the views expressed by the scholars and saints of the religion. As said before Hinduism does not have any founder and hence no single text on which the religion is based. The Hindu scriptures can be broadly classified into four major categories.


The Vedas

The Upanishads and the Puranas

The Epics

The Works of Hindu Scholars.




These scriptures not only form the tenets of Hinduism but also describe the Hindu or Indian way of life Hindutva as it is called. Hence lot of fiction, superstitions, philosophy, theology all find their place in these scriptures. Hence reader discretion is important in understanding these scriptures.

The Vedas :

The four vedas ( Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharvana ) form the most sacred of all Hindu texts. They describe the Hindu way of life. Each one of them specialises in some fields but are largely independent and complete individually. They were written by the Aryans between circa 2000 B.C. and 500 B.C. The exact timing of the vedas is as obscure as that of Indian History at this point in time. They were transmitted orally for many centuries mainly by the Brahmans before they were made into written texts. Of the four, Atharvana veda was not favored much because it involves details of destructive nature also.

The Upanishads and the Puranas :

Unlike the vedas the Upanishads are strictly religious and were written a little later than the vedas. We should take the Puranas with a pinch of salt !, since they have lot of fiction in them. This was mainly done for propaganda or may be because those who wrote, thought them to be true. There are various Puranas ( ex: Bhagavada puranam ) and Shukthams that describe the god, the rituals, how Hindus should lead their lives, the dos and the donts.

We should not confuse the Puranas with the Aryan and Brahmanical texts of this period. For example the Manu smriti which describes the rules defining the castes, certainly has nothing to do with religion. I think the whole stupidity of caste system in Hindu society arose only from this confusion.

The Epics :

The two epics The Ramayana and The Mahabharatha find important place in Hinduism. Afterall they have given us the two most popular Hindu deities Rama and Krishna. But they are only fiction or may be a mixture of both fiction and history. They involve lot of exaggerations. The saying that Lord Ganesha wrote the Mahabharatha with one of is thanthams is hardly believable. Even those parts that describe Rama and Krishna as gods may only be add-ons to the original texts, as we will see shortly.

Nevertheless these epics do guide a Hindu to conduct his life. To see the god himself as a human, negotiating the twists and turns of earthly life and yet lead a life based on dharma does influence a follower greatly. These epics portray the god as the good who takes on the evil demon. Ramayana was written around 1500 B.C by Valmiki in Sanskrit. ( Kambar wrote it in Tamil and Thulasidasar in Hindi .) Of the seven parts in Ramayana, only the first and the seventh depict him as god and hence could have been added later.

Mahabharatha was written by Vyasar in sanskrit around the same time or little later than Ramayana. ( Villiputhurar wrote it in Tamil.) We must note that Bhagavad Gita was not part of Mahabharatha initially. It was written only around 100 B.C. I have spent a lot of space for the two epics because they themselves have filled a lot of space in Hinduism. Lot of scriptures, tales, puranas, myths and even deities ( ex: Hanuman) have come from the epics. These were written over several centuries and have influenced Hinduism greatly.

Works of Scholars and saints:

There have been numerous scholars and saints who have shaped Hinduism over the years. They either wrote the various Hindu scriptures or helped us understand them. Some of them wrote the vedas,upanishads etc ,some made a huge impact on Hinduism like Sankara , Ramanuja and there are also some who contributed to its understanding like Ramakrishna, Vivekananda etc.


Scholars and Saints :



Earliest of all scholars were the Rishis who wrote the vedas, the Upanishads and the like. They have made a phenomenal impact on Hinduism. The Gothras we have today are only their names. Some of them are familiar to us like Vayasar, Vishwamithrar, Valmiki, Agathiar but most of them have remained anonymous.


Then came people like Alwars and Nayanmars of the south. They introduced a kind of Bhakti movement through their songs. They wrote them in the second half of the first millennium. We should also remember the role played by devote scholars like Appar, Sundarar, Manickavasagar et al., Literary figures like Kambar, Kalidhasar, Avyaiyar, Thulasidhasar, pious individuals like Annamayya, Karaikal ammayyar, Bhaktha Meera, Ramadhasar and so on.


Adi sankara :


The role played by Adi Sankara in Shaping ( or saving ) Hinduism is unmatched in Indian History. He single handedly clinched the battle against Buddhism. He was born in Kaladi in Kerala in the 8th century. He conquered the whole of India by his Intellect. He established the Sankara madams at Shringeri, Dhwaraka, Badrinath, Puri and Kanchipuram.


These five madams advocated the Advaita doctrine of Hinduism. It mostly involves worshipping Shiva and Importantly Shakti. These madams have continued since then uninterrupted for 1200 years. The present Jagatguru of Kanchi math, Sri Jeyandra Saraswathi is the 69th guru.


Ramanuja :


Ramunuja who lived in the 12th century in Kanchipuram and Sriperumpadur advocated Vaishnavism. i.e worship of Vishnu. He was responsible for reforming Hinduism to a great extent. He cleared Hinduism of lot of superstitions. His famous revelation of the sacred scriptures to the so called low caste Hindus from the gopuram of Srirangam was quite a revolution.


Madhvacharya and Raghavendra :


Madhvacharya who lived in present day Karnataka advocated worship of Krishna. Madhvas believe him to be the reincarnation of Bhima of Mahabharatha and Hanuman of Ramayana !! You dont need me to tell you that, it certainly is a fanciful fiction. Close on the heels of Madhavacharya came Raghavendra. Raghavendra is widely celebrated these days. But this really surprises me because I find his contributions to Hinduism to be nominal.


Preachers of recent years :


What we have today influences us more than History. In recent years  we have Sai baba of Shiridi, Sai baba of Puttabarthi, Ramana Maharishi of Thiruvannamalai and scores of sanyasis in the north. How authentic are these people and whether these people will withstand the test of times remains to be seen. We also had people like Ramakrishna, Saradha devi, Vivekanandha, Aravindhar and the mother of Pondichery, Kirubanantha variyar who in their own way influenced our understanding of Hinduism.


If you think that this part of the article is lopsided towards south India then you are right, because I know only few of them in the north!! This may be because I have not read enough or because there havent been great scholars in recent centuries up north. Second could be true if we remember that North India has remained under Non-Hindu rulers for over thousand years.



Practicing Hinduism:


First thing which comes to our mind about Hinduism is Why so many gods and who is real ?. There is nothing abnormal about Hindus worshipping so many gods. It happens in all great civilizations of the past. Ancient Greeks had so many gods and so did the Egyptians and the Chinese.


At the outset Hinduism does believe in Monotheism and theres no doubt about that. The scores of deities we have today are only because Hinduism is a religion which evolved and also because its followers have differed in race, region, language and what not! Most important of all Hinduism has been extremely tolerant and liberal in its views. It allows its follower to worship god in whatever form he likes, only that he follows the Dharma and does his Karma!


I think the following analogy would make things easier. Let us assume that a kinder garden teacher asks her students to draw a flower. You can be rest assured that no two pupils would draw alike. This is what has happened in Hinduism. It has allowed people in different regions, times and of varying intellectual ability to define god in their own terms and hence the long queue of deities. On the other hand if the teacher draws a flower on the board and asks the students to imitate, then we can expect them to draw like that flower to some extent. This is what has happened with other religions of the world. Founders of those religions being the teacher in our analogy.


Basic principles:


There could be many interpretations of Hinduism. There are so many sects and classes of thoughts in Hinduism. However their central theme is the same. Let us find out what Bhagavat Gita says about Hinduism.


According to Gita there are two paths to reach the god. (This is important. The central theme of Hinduism is to lead a life of dharma (righteousness) and on the basis of our karma (deeds) to reach the god.) The two paths are Karma yoga and Sankhya yoga. Karma yoga prescribes that we perform all our worldly deeds always in the name of the god. i.e. Always remembering him in our deeds and not worrying about the fruits of our deeds. Sankhya yoga prescribes that we understand that all the things in the world (or even the universe) is a maya created by god and to see him in every thing around us. We should refrain from receiving the fruits arising from the complementary pairs.( good and evil, birth and death ,night and day etc.,)


Karma yoga is for the layman and Sankhya yoga is for the sanyasis. I dont know how much you understood from this short discourse. To put this in more easy terms we should lead a life of Dharma. We know what is dharma, dont we? To do good to others, never to hurt any creature, pay tributes to elders and our ancestors (Pitrukal), to perform the daily karmas (ex. Sandhi or whatever) and to always remain devoted to god. By doing all this we humans (Jivatma) are trying to mingle with god.( Paramatma).


This last statement deserves some comment. Not all religions subscribe to this. When Sufisim ( a kind of Bhakti movement in Islam based on songs and hymns where humans interact with god) was gaining ground, Islam severely objected to this as Blasphemy.




We talked about Karma yoga and the Sankhya yoga. Buddha advocated a middle path between the two.( The eight fold path right thought, right deed and the like).This forms the most important theme of Buddhism. Also most Buddhist principles are found in Raja yoga, a Hindu scripture written much later than the Vedas.


Hinduism also believes in Life after death and that we reach god on the basis of the karma accrued in all those births and rebirths. I am not very convinced on this point and hence have not elaborated on this. I think we have spent too much in theology. So I suggest that we go around and find out how people actually practice Hinduism leaving aside all this theology stuff.


Practical Hinduism :


Any religion needs a god. Hinduism has lots of them. The generally accepted view is that the Shakti is the highest god. From her came the trio of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Gods of Creation, Protection and Destruction. To them were given the powers of Shakti as Saraswathi (education), Lakshmi (Wealth) and Parvathi (Power). There are also the Eigth forms of Shakti called the Ashtamatha. ( Kanchi kamatchi, Kasi visalatchi etc ).Hindus also worship a large number of smaller deities ( Ganesh, Subramaniar, Iyyappan, Hanumar).


Apart from them are the deities of protection like Mariamman, Iyyanar who are typically called the village gods. Hindus also worship nature and the planets. A typical Hindu worships these gods, visits temples quite often, offers pujas and sacrifices, reads the holy scriptures, remembers god during various festivals (both seasonal and mythical), performs rituals (also superstitions) according to traditions (during child birth, marriage, funeral) and so on.


How the principles of mathematics (vastu, astrology) and astronomy (religious calender, thitis, Nakshatrums etc) mingle with the daily life of an average hindu is quite a wonder. Hey wait a minute! We have been discussing so many things about Hinduism without specifying who god is? Here we go!


Understanding God:


Well ! dont take the title literally! No one has fully understood god. If I had done so, I would have become a Saint! and you might have become my disciple! Neither being the case , let me put my views on who God could be. We can assume god to be a Heavenly body ( say the center of the whole universe) who is omnipotent and can control our lives. This could be true afterall, we are part of the universe and every thing in this universe seems to be perfect (planets, stars, their orbits, flora and fauna). Its possible that the heavenly bodies may influence and control our lives.


We can also portray god as a Symbol. The power which is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient , the thought of whom gives us humility and motivates us to be honest and kind towards fellow creatures. Mere thought of god as all knowing yet patiently waiting for us to recover from our bad ways, all powerful yet kind enough to forgive our sins on repentance, gives us the moral discipline to lead a life according to Dharma.


This really is the essence of Hinduism! It allows even a fellow like me to define God and get away with it! So whatever be your views on god, Hinduism and its practice, what is important is that we understand and appreciate all religions and to live our short lives (not even 36500 days) peacefully and purposefully.


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