What is Hinduism?

Hinduism Today

Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world today with about 800 million adherents.  The only two larger religions are Christianity (2 billion adherents) and Islam (1.3 billion adherents).  Hinduism is predominant in India with 82% of the population being Hindu.  There are also large numbers of Hindus in various other countries with the following percentages: Bangladesh (11%), Bhutan (25%), Fiji (41%), Mauritius (50%), Nepal (89%), Sri Lanka (15%), Surinam (27%), and Trinidad (25%).1 Hinduism's influence exceeds well beyond 13% of the world's population due to its influence on various other religions such as Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, the New Age movement, and various other religious influences in the West.  Interestingly, there are over one million Hindus in North America.

The Origins of Hinduism

Hinduism does not have an individual founder.  Its origins can be traced to around 1500 B.C. in what is now known as India.  It originally was a polytheistic and ritualistic religion with various rituals performed by the head of particular families or tribes.  As time passed, the rituals became increasingly more complex and there became the need for a priestly class to perform these rituals.  During this time, the Vedas were written to instruct priests how to perform these rituals.

As a result of this ritualistic emphasis, the priests became the means by which the Hindus could appease the gods.  Therefore, the priests became extremely powerful.  Around 600 B.C., the people revolted from the control of the priests.  The form of Hinduism that emerged focused on internal meditation as opposed to external rituals.

Around 800 to 300 B.C. the Upinashads were written.  The Upanishads are basically the Hindu equivalent of the New Testament.  The Upanishads expound on the idea that behind the many gods stands one reality known as Brahman.  Brahman is an impersonal force that is the basis of all reality.  The highest form of Brahman is nirguna which is “without attributes or qualities.”

After the Upanishads were written, the Hindu conception of God continued to develop in the form of God actually being personal.  Nirguna Brahman essentially became saguna Brahman, or Brahman “with attributes.”  This personified form of Brahman is also known as Ishvara.

Ishvara became known to humanity through the Trimurti (“three manifestations”) of Brahman known as Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Creator), and Siva (the Destroyer).  Each of these deities has at least one devi, or divine spouse.

Ishvara became personified through ten incarnations of Vishnu known as avatars.  These avatars include forms of animals (fish, tortoise, and boar) or persons (i.e. Rama, Krishna, Buddha).  Epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which includes the Bhagavad-Gita, tell about the stories of these avatars.  In addition to the Trimurti and ten main avatars of Vishnu, there are approximately 330 million other gods in Hinduism.

Hinduism can also be divided according to those who view the physical universe to be real or illusory.  The nondualists (advaita) see Brahman alone as being real and the world is illusory.  While the qualified nondualists (vishishtadvaita) affirm the reality of the universe and Brahman since the universe is an extension of the being of Brahman.  However, the dualists (dvaita) see Brahman and the universe as being two distinct realities.   

Types of Hindus

There is not just one type of Hindu today.  Some Hindus, particularly in the West, are younger professionals who are not necessarily devoted to a particular aspect of the Hindu religion. Some of these individuals hold to certain aspects of Hinduism as a cultural heritage, but are not necessarily regularly practicing their Hindu faith.

Others may be described as intellectual Hindus.  These individuals often take seriously the textual history of Hinduism and are well versed in various texts of Hinduism such as the Vedas or Upanishads.  Oftentimes these individuals are knowledgeable in Hindu philosophical schools in their practice of Hinduism.

Another group of Hindus could be described as folk Hindus.  These individuals practice the rituals, traditions, and customs or Hinduism.  They frequently offer sacrifices to the gods and observe various festivals.  Sometimes these folk Hindus practice astrology, sacrifices to the gods, magic and ancestor worship, and idol worship among other practices.

Due to the diversity of Hindus, it is extremely important that you do not assume that a Hindu actually believes or practices exactly what you read in a textbook or have seen other Hindus practice.  Each Hindu is unique in his or her own right.  Even the three categories listed above of professional, intellectual, and folk Hindus, are not exhaustive, nor completely descriptive of Hindu people.  Rather, they are generalizations to help you understand the diversity of Hindu practitioners.

The Hindu Scriptures  

The Earliest Hindu Scriptures are the Vedas which were written around 1500 B.C.  Veda means knowledge.  There are four Vedas: the Rig Veda, the Sama Veda, the Yajur Veda, and the Atharva Veda.  Each Veda is then divided into four parts: Mantras (the basic verses or hymns sung during the rituals), Brahmanas (explanations of the verses), Aran-yakas (reflections on the meaning of the verses), and the Upanishads (mystical interpretations of the verses).2  This is also known as shruti, or “that which is heard.”  Shruti literature is the Hindu equivalent to revealed Scripture.3

In addition to primary writings, there are secondary writings known as smriti, or “remembered.”  Among the smriti writings include the Ramayana (“Rama’s way”) and Mahabharata (“the great story”) epics.  Within the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad Gita, which is the most popular of all Hindu Scriptures with the main character Krishna.  While the smriti scriptures are not as authoritative as the shruti scriptures, through their popularity they have exerted a much stronger influence on the culture of India.

Other smriti Scriptures include the Vedangas (codes of law, such as the Laws of Manu), the Puranas (the genealogies and legends of the gods), the Darshanas (philosophical writings), Sutras (rules of ritual and social conduct), and the Tantras (writings on attaining occultic power).4

  • 1. Much of the material for this article came from Dean Halverson's excellent and concise summary. See: Halverson, Dean C. "Hinduism" in The Compact Guide to World Religions. 87-102. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1996. I highly recommend purchasing a copy of his book.
  • 2. Ibid., 91.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Organ, 180, in Ibid., 91.