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HINDUISM: A PRIMER

This symbol is the Sanskrit word Om. Om is said to


embody the origination, reverberation, and dissolution
of all sound—and the silence which follows. Om is first
mentioned in the Upanishads.

ORIGINS
Hinduism is a Western label. This ancient way
of life calls itself Sanatana Dharma (the eternal law).
• Hinduism claims no founder, no seminal of the one divine Ultimate Reality or Su-
event, no creed. This agelessness gives it a tre- preme Being, the source of all souls.
“love
mendous range ofexpression — from sensual • Hindus believe in Samsara —an endless your
to philosophical to ascetic. It also accounts for
cycle of creation, preservation, and dissolu- neighbor
its breadth of toleration for variety of under-
tion. This cycle of birth, death, and rebirth as
standing and practice expressed in the axiom: yourself”
causes each soul to transmigrate from one
Paths are many; truth is one. earthly existence to another and to progress
• While Hinduism is now practiced worldwide toward maturity. Ultimately, every soul ma-
tures, escapes Samsara, and achieves
by more than 800 million adherents, it remains
Moksha —merger with Ultimate Reality.
linked to the geography and culture of the In-
dian subcontinent whose mountains, cities, Thus, Hinduism may be termed monistic: it
understands the Ultimate Creator to be ex-
and especially its rivers are considered sacred.
pressed through all living creatures and in-
ert objects; the difference between the Cre-
BELIEFS ator and these created things is only in level
of maturity. Hindus, therefore, hold deep re-
• While Hinduism has tremendous variety, spect for all living creatures. Many demon-
there are some commonalities of belief. strate this respect by following a vegetarian
• In general, Hindus believe in one Ultimate diet, and by practicing ahimsa (nonvio-
Reality—both ever-present and beyond time lence).
and space—simultaneously Creator (Brah- • Hindus believe Dharma (divine law) de-
ma), Sustainer (Vishnu), and Destroyer mands eight yaman (restraints) and eight
(Shiva). For most Hindus, the hundreds of niyaman (observances). Following Dharma
deities with their various names and quali- brings us into harmony with Ultimate Real-
ties are understood to be icons— pointers ity. Humans are said to strive after a series
to the many aspects, powers, and functions of four successive goals: joy and pleasure
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(the most childlike); economic and social Råmåyana (the exploits of Råmå) and the
fulfillment; morality (attention to duty, giv- Mahåbhårata (the great story of the Bhårata
ing back to society); and liberation (union family). The Mahåbhårata is a semi-historical
with God). Sometimes an entire lifetime national epic of more than 100,000 verses
may be focussed on only one goal. (more than ten times as long as the Christian
Bible). Its best known portion is the Bhagavad
• Traditionally, Hinduism speaks of four
Gîtå (Song of God). Both epics are dramatized
stages of life: student, householder, detach-
annually in India, and several productions are
ment (retirement), and (for particularly old available on videotape.
souls) complete renunciation of one’s iden-
tity to finish this life as an ascetic. • The classical writings on yoga are the Yoga
Sutras (threads), a work by Patanjali (an In-
• Hindus believe in Karma —the moral and dian sage who lived in the second or third
physical law of cause and effect (thus, of century BCE). This collection of 196 sayings
complete personal responsibility). Accord- in four books is a succinct explanation of
ing to the doctrine of karma, nothing is ac- the nature of yoga, its goal, and its methods,
cidental in a completely moral universe. We which provides the foundation for the yo-
all get what we have earned, are responsible gic way of life. Patanjali’s text is augmented
for our own condition, and create our own by many commentaries.
future. Every decision is made freely, and the • In addition to the ancient classic literature,
lot we receive may be played many ways. some congregations give particular priority to
• Hindus see worship as a means for direct, the writings of their own current or founding
personal communion with God. Under the guru (spiritual leader).
umbrella of Hinduism, all spiritual paths are
an acceptable means to the divine.
PRACTICE
WRITINGS • Many Hindus are devotees of a particular de-
ity. The four main sub-traditions of Hinduism
• Hinduism believes that its scriptures have are Shaivites (devotees of Shiva ), Vaishnavites
no author and no beginning—which makes (devotees of Vishnu ), Shaktas (devotees of
them free from human error. Rishis (learned Shakti —the Divine Mother), and Smartas
sages) who collected this literature are con- (who pay reverence to several deities but em-
sidered mere vehicles of the Divine. After cen- phasize the identity of the individual with the
turies of oral transmission in Sanskrit, the lit- Supreme Self—Brahman). Others may align
erature of Hinduism eventually was put in themselves with, for instance, Ganesh, or
written form. Lakshmi, or Krishna. Still others are known
• While reverence for sacred texts is usual, no by the name of the particular guru (teacher
specific ones are required for all Hindus ev- and spiritual leader) they follow.
erywhere.
• Temple worship is considered an effective
• Earliest in this vast library are four collec- channel for close communication with God
tions of Vedas (bodies of knowledge). The via one or more of the deities or one’s guru.
best known is the Rig Veda, which includes In the U.S., only a few Hindu temples are
some 1028 metrical hymns, prayers, poems, buildings bult expressly for this purpose.
riddles, and legends. The exterior and interior of the temple (also
• Other collections build upon the Vedic called mandir, ashram, gurukul, or arya
legacy. The Upanishads contain philosophi- samaj ) may be austere or highly ornate.
cal poetry and prose, often in dialogue or dra- Shoes must be removed. Furnishings are
matic form. The Purånas (religious lore)— simple—mats and may have an altar facing
of which there are eighteen major examples— east which displays the symbols for om (the
contain folk literature meant to be chanted to Absolute) and Agni (Holy Fire). There may
music. Two popular epics deal with the con- be representations of one or more deities.
tinual interplay of good and evil: the Participants remove shoes before entering;
they sit on the carpeted floor or walk from • Yoga may be translated as path. This path
one station to the next. There may be one takes many expressions and accomodates all
or more altars or shrines with statues or pic- personalities. Bhakti Yoga (the path of de-
tures of deities, or of the congregation’s own votion) uses songs, prayers, chants, rituals,
guru. and other forms of adoration of and surren-
der to the divine. Jnana Yoga (the path of
• Congregations also have a priest who, like knowledge) uses all the necessary means of
the guru, is trained to interpret scripture and discrimination to gain knowledge of the di-
provide spiritual counsel. Priests lead pujas vine, including—but not limited to—study,
(worship), and traditionally wear white or saf- direct inquiry, and contemplation. Karma
fron robes at all times; many leave their hair Yoga (the path of action) is the performance
uncut. No special clothing is required of other of every human activity without looking for
Hindus, although many may choose to wear any reward—simply as an offering to the Su-
traditional garb at the temple. preme and, therefore, for the benefit of life
• Pujas may be brief, or may last an hour or as a whole. Hatha Yoga (the path of purifi-
more and make use of all senses: verses of cation) uses exercises such as postures and
scripture are chanted, bells are rung, incense rhythmic breathing exercise. This prepares
and flowers are smelled, sacred food is tasted. the individual for Raja Yoga. Raja Yoga (the
The image is accorded the same hospitality de- kingly path) was pioneered by Sri Patanjali.
served by an honored guest; it is seen, touched, It seeks liberation and perfection both of the
and even bathed, dressed, and fed. Many ac-
tivities may be occurring simultaneously in
various corners of the temple. Temple pujas Patanjali’s Eight Steps of Yoga
are held daily at specific times or as requested. Yaman (restraints)
In India, there may be a specific day for a par- Avoidance of
ticular ritual, but American Hindus often come violence, arrogance & anger;
together on weekends. Other temple events dishonesty & injustice;
include philosophical lectures, weddings, cer- theft, lust, greed, & desire;
emonial dance classes, festive meals, and the sexual inappropriateness &
evil company
feeding of the poor.
Niyaman (observances)
• Pujas may also be held at home. This sanc- Pursuit of
tifies the home and keeps the family aware of contentment;
God. A home might have a small shrine fea- purity of body, mind, &
turing an image or picture of the family’s guru speech;
austerity;
or chosen deity. Darßan —to see and be seen study of sacred writings;
by these holy images or people—is considered Love of
auspicious, and has a prominent place in Hin- humanity,
duism. Festivals, pilgrimages, and meditation tolerance;
are also considered modes of worship. charity;
devotion to the divine
• The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit
root yuk, meaning to yoke. In practical terms Asanas (yoga postures)
for the yoga aspirant, it means to join to- Pranayama (breathing techniques)
gether the individual with the universal. Clas- Pratyahara (withdrawal of the
sically, yoga is an ancient, systematic and senses)
well-defined means of attaining unity with
Dharana (concentration)
the divine which was developed in India and
has been perpetuated there for thousands dhyana (meditation)
of years. Swami Vivekananda was instru- Samadhi (the super-conscious state
mental in bringing yoga to the attention of of union with the Divine reached
the West. Yoga can be practiced anywhere only by complete surrender)
and at any time.
body and the mind by control of all forms of • Popular deity festivals include:
thought and consciousness, emotions, and Janmashtami —or, Sri Krishna Jayanti —
sensations. Patanjali’s eight-step system of ( Krishna’s birthday) ; Ganesh Chaturthi
Raja Yoga. The first five steps prepare the (birthday of the elephant-headed God of
mind for concentration, and the final three Success); Navaratri (ten-day Durga festi-
steps develop concentration itself. val); Diwali (Festival of Lights marks
• Nåmasté —the ritual greeting said while bow- Vishnu’s triumph over evil and honors
ing with palms together—demonstrates the be- Lakshmi —or, in some regions, Kali ); Holi
lief that all people are of the same substance (honors Krishna or Kama ).
as the Creator.

SOCIAL ACTION
ORGANIZATION • Action on behalf of others flows naturally
out of two Hindu practices in particular:
• Some Hindu temples in America are au- Karma yoga —service devoid of self-inter-
tonomous. For example, the Hindu Temple est; and, Bhakti yoga, which may be under-
Society of North America in Flushing, NY, is stood as compassionate action. Hindu flood
run by a board of trustees and a network of relief efforts, social welfare programs, and
committees. On the other hand, its neigh- ecological projects are well documented.
bor, the Bochasanwasi Swaminarayan The Ramakrishna Movement has established
Sanstha, USA (BSS) is part of a network of many relief programs. American Hindus are
72 centers and 13 temples in North America, involved in feeding the poor and homeless,
and over 3,000 centers worldwide. and work on community health issues.
• In the United States, some congregations
elect a board of directors who select its spiri-
tual leaders. Funds for temple maintenance
and other congregational needs are raised BIBLIOGRAPHY
through donations and fund-raising events.
• Eck, Diana L. Darsan: Seeing the Divine
Image in India, Second Revised and En-
larged Edition. Chambersburg, PA: Anima
HOLIDAYS Books, 1985.
• The over 2000-year-old Hindu calendar is • Pandit, Bansi. Hindu Dharma. Glen Ellyn,
lunar, adjusted to the solar seasons. The Illinois: B & V Enterprises, 1996.
new- and full-moon days and eleventh day
• Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli and Charles A.
of each month are believed to be auspicious.
Moore, eds. A Sourcebook in Indian Philoso-
• There are at least as many Hindu holidays phy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
as there are deities—at least one for every Press, 1957.
day of the year! They are observed by puja,
feasts, fasts, dance, chant, and readings or • Subramuniyaswami, Satguru Sivaya. Danc-
dramatizations of sacred texts. Among other ing With Siva: Hinduism’s Contemporary
events, Hindu congregations observe the Catechism, Fourth Edition. Concord, CA:
birthday of their chosen deity or guru. Himalayan Academy, 1993.