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HINDUISM

Hinduism comprises many forms of religious faith and practice. One should therefore be aware that all the various facets of Hinduism presented here cannot be found in any single individual or group. Those who attend the brahmanic temples for Vishnu and Shiva would normally not practice the forms of worship found in the villages. The variety of forms of worship thus corresponds to social distinctions in Indian society.

But what holds this great variety of worship and faith together?
There are certain things which all Hindus agree on:

  • Benares is the holiest place in India, where heaven is actually reaching the world of the humans, and

  • the foundation of Hinduism is the vedas.

The vedic texts were brought to India by the Arians migrating into India during the second millenium BC. The vedas are composed in sanskrit, and they are recited in Hindu temples by Brahmin priests. The vedic era lasted from ca. 1200-900 BC. The most important element in that form of worship was the sacrifice and teh recitation of holy texts. The most important gods were associated with the forces of nature (see Hindu gods regarding Vedic deities). Te Arian people who brought the vedas to India were herders and warriors, and their deities were predominantly male.
From 900-400 BC the Brahmins gradually monopolized sacrifices to the gods. It is still this monopoly which separates high caste Hinduism from village religion in India. During this period Hinduism saw serious competition from the religions emerging at that time: Buddhism and Jainism.
From about 500 BC the old form of Brahmanism begins to blend with shakti worship. Te old Arian religion is now mixed with indigenous forms of religion. New scriptures were now added to Hinduism. The epics Mahabharata and Ramayana were composed, the lawbook of Manu expounding the rules for conduct of Hindus, and a series of puranas were written. Puranas are epic accounts of the exploits of the gods.
Tantric philosophy now gained influence in all spheres of Hinduism through the Shakti worhip. Many of the things now regarded as typical of Hinduism, such as yoga, yantras, mantras, Man as microcosm, et cet. now entered Hinduism.
Besides the form of Hinduism which is based on the Vedas and Brahmin priests, there are many forms of popular worship. They are outside the sphere of learend Hinduism which is based on the vedas.
After the Vedic time other cults emerged which centered on Hindu high gods, such as Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. These gods are not mentioned in the vedas, with the exception of Vishnu (see vedic gods), but the worship of these gods is nevertheless done with the recitation of the vedas.

Learned, ritualistic Hinduism

  • recitation of vedas

  • the Sanskrit language is the basis of religion

  • vedic sacrificial religion is combined, if not replaced, with the worship of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, gods who are worshipped everywhere in India

  • temple priests are Brahmin

  • no blood offerings are made in these temples

  • navagraha, the planetary gods, are worshipped in separate temples in front of the main temple

Popular Hinduism, the non-learned Hinduism

  • in the temple are worshipped deities, often female, only known locally

  • no recitation of vedas

  • the priests are often not brahmin, and are not versed in the Sanskrit tradition

  • blood offerings occur in village temples

  • navagraha, the nine planets are often worshipped in village temples in a separate shrine in front of the main temple

Outside the learned Hinduism, which is found in the temples for the high gods, are a number of cults which are very losely attached to learned Hinduism, or which may even be in direct opposition to it.

Regional cults
Learned Hinduism has approximately the same form all over India, and it has slowly absorbed a number of regional, popular cults. The three main gods, Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, each have a wife. Shivas wife is Parvati, Vishnus wife is Lakshmi, and Brahmas wife is Saraswati.
Many local goddesses with a variety of names, have in the course of history been identified as the wife of one of the three main gods. This is underlined during regional festivals, where the wedding of the local goddess to either Shiva or Vishnu is celebrated. Thus a variety of local cults have been tied losely to a pan-Indian form of Hinduism based on Sanskrit learning. 

Bhakti cults
Bhakti religion means worship through love. A person selects a particular god, usually male and sings love songs to him. This is a personal form of worship, where the worshipper addresses his chosen deity directly without the help of a Brahmin priest as an intermediary. Songs are composed in the local spoken language. There is no need for recitation of sanskrit texts in bhakti cults.
Bhakti cults have been known to exist for about 1500 years, but may be considerably older. They all carry the same message: all men are equal- in the eyes of God. Therefore bhakti cults have been opposed to caste differences, and they were often perceived as a threat to the learned class of Brahmin priests and their ritualistic form of worship. Te Sikh religion began as a Hindu bhakti religion, but it developed in such a way, that eventually all ties to Hinduism were severed, and Sikhism became a separete religion. But most bhakti cults have been unable to break away from Brahminism. Many Hindus practice both forms of religion, and wish that both forms should coexist. 
While bhakti cults create a divide between learned Hinduism, on the one hand, and popular and personal forms of worship on the other hand, bhakti cults can also be seen as a factor, which keeps many Hindus together, since the caste system tends to separate people, whereas bhakti cults unite them and give them a feeling of togetherness.

Family gods
In many parts of India a family may worship a deity known only by this particular family, or a group of families. Often such deities are connected with deceased family members. It happens that a family member dreams about the deceased, who declares, that he or she is now "one with the family deity", and that they must worship this deity once a year at a festival, where all family members are present. It often happens that the eldest family members, particularly the women, become "possessed" by the family deity, and they then function as medium of communication for the family deity. There may be a close link between the members of a family and its family deity. Some family members may have dreams in which the deity is addressing them and giving them important messages, which they then report to the other family members.

Pilgrimage the sacred geography of Hinduism
One factor which creates coherence between different Hindu social and ethnic groups, who may be separeted by geographical or social barriers, is the large system of holy places, which Hindus visit on pilgrimage. By far the most important place is Benares, the ancient city at the banks of the Ganges river. All Hindus agree, that Benares is the most holy place in India, where Heaven actually touches the earth. Thus, if you die in Benares, you will go to Heaven, because Benares already is Heaven. On the map are seen some of the most important places of pilgrimage in India.

Who is a hindu?
You can only be a Hindu if you are born from Hindu parents. Hinduism is not a religion which one can convert into. One does not have to be born in India in order to be a Hindu. Also children of Hindus living in other countries can be regarded as Hindus.

How many Hindus are there?
Almost all Hindus of this world live in India. Out of Indias nearly one billion people more then 80% are counted as Hindus. There are also Hindus in other countries. The state religion of Nepal is Hinduism, and there are large Hindu minorities in Bangla Desh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore. Hinduism was widespread in Southeast Asia between 800-1400 AD, but it was replaced by Buddhism and later Islam. Hinduism is still the dominant religion on the Indonesian island of Bali, where more than 2 million people still practice this faith.

What is Hindu worship?
Darshan, puja, prasadam, pradakshina 
The most important element of Hindu worship is the daily visit to the temple. Before going to the temple, one should bathe and wear clean clothes. Men often have naked upper bodies as a sign of humility towards the gods. A folded towel is worn over the shoulder as a sign, that the worshipper has taken the ritual bath. One may bathe in the temple, since many temples have tanks for this purpose. In this tank the divine statues are also bathed, so the water in these tanks is especially holy.
Inside the temple the worshipper will go as close to the sanctum sanctorum as possible, look inside it in order to see the deity, and be seen by him or her. This is called darshan, and it is an important element of the worship. Te temple priest will receive offerings brought by the worshippers, bring them inside the sanctum and place them in front of the idol. Then the priest will swing oil lamps, ring a bell, and worship the deity with flowers, sandel paste and other things.This is called puja. Often the priest will mention the name of the person making the particular sacrifice.Then the worshippers will receive some of the offerings they brought with them. This is prasadam, i.e. something which has been shared with the deity. Often prasadam is various forms of special food made in the temple, and which the worshippers will buy there. The worshipper then places money on a tray, on which is holy ash and red powder, kumkum, which is placed on the forehead. Then the worshipper will extend his right hand and receive holy water from the priest. The water must be drunk by the worshipper.The holy ash, is it is a temple where ash is given by the priests (this is not the case in all Hindu temples), is smeared on the forehead, and the red powder is placed as a dot between the eyebrows. This red dot, which is worn by many Hindus, is thus a sign, that the person wearing it has recently visited a temple and worshipped there. The red dot is often mistakenly called a "caste mark", but it reveals nothing about the caste of the person wearing it.
Then one cirumambulates the temple going left, so that the worshipper constantly turns his right side towards the deity, showing it proper respect. This is called pradakshina.

What are the goals of life according to Hinduism?
a.The most important goal for a Hindu is to escape the endless cycle of rebirths, samsara, which Hindus believe is the fate of all men. By worshipping the gods and living in the right way a human being may eventually achieve unification with the divine soul which pervades everything, and thus escape rebirth. This is called moksha.
b.To follow dharma, i.e. the sacred rules for correct living for Hindus. The rules differ according to caste. One must also adjust ones life according to the phase of ones life. If one sins against the rules of dharma, this is serious and will be punished. One will be reincarnated in a lower form, perhaps as an animal. But if one lives according to dharma, performs the correct forms of worship, and goes on pilgrimage to all the holy places in India, one will be reincarnated in a higher status. Through a series of reincarnations in progressively higher statuses one may eventually achieve moksha, libaration.

The stages of life and correct behaviour.

  • 1. Youth and education

When a boy born in one of the there caste groups, Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya, reaches the appropriate age, he will be introduced to learning through the upanayana ceremony. This means, he will be given a sacred string signifying that he is "reborn", or "twice born". He will now receive instruction in sanskrit and in the holy scriptures of Hinduism. During this period and until he is married he is a sanyasin, i.e. someone who is obliged to live a chaste life devoting all his time to studies and devotion.

  • 2. The married man: the head of family.

When a man is married he enters a different phase in his life. He is now a family head,a nd must live according to the rules appropriate for this new status. He may pursue kama, i.e. love and the pleasures of the senses. There is no contradiction in having such different sets of rules for the different stages of a mans life, for the married man must live in a way which suits his status. He must have children, and it is a holy duty for him to see that they are all properly married.

  • 3. The older man the time of asceticism

When a man has lived through all his obligations as a head of family, and when all his children are married, then he should retreat from worldly things. He should now turn towards the divine and work towards achieving moksha, either in this life of the next. He will again live the life of a sanyasin, and will move away from his family and live in the forest with other ascetics. In contemporary Indian there are still millions of men who follow these rules for the life of the older man. There are millions of "Godmen" who walk from one holy place to the other, living like beggars. Many of them have lived lives in great affluence, and they have chosen to leave all wordly things and turn towards God.

 

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