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Hindu

This article discusses the Hindu people as adherents of Hinduism. For other meanings of the word,
For more information on the people of India, visit the Demographics of India.

A Hindu (archaic Hindoo) is an adherent of philosophies and scriptures of Hinduism, also known as Sanatan (सनातन) Dharma or Vedic Dharma. It is the predominant religious, philosophical and cultural system of Bharat (India), Nepal and the island of Bali

While almost all Indians were known as Hindus to the outside world till the 20th century, many Hindus themselves prefer the term Sanatani.

A popular name for India is Hindustan, or Land of the Hindus. While almost all Indians were known as Hindus to the outside world till the 20th century, this usage has become increasingly controversial in view of the religious diversity of the Indian subcontinent.

More than one billion people across the world practise Hinduism - 950 million of them live in the Indian subcontinent, the birthplace of Hinduism. The Himalayan kingdom of Nepal is the world's only Hindu nation. Although majority of the Indian population practices Hinduism, India is a secular republic.

Large Hindu communities, mostly expatriates from India, live in South East Asia, the North America, the West Indies, Western Europe, the Middle East, East Africa and South Africa. The Hindus of Bali, and in other parts of Indonesia are indigenous Indonesian Hindus.

Contents

Origins of the word Hindu

See Also: Etymology of India

The origin of the word Hindu is still disagreed upon by historians and linguists. It is generally accepted as having originally been a Persian word for someone who lives around or beyond the river Indus, which is called Sindhu in Sanskrit, and meant any inhabitant of the Indian subcontinent, before the Partition of India.

The term Hindu (Indu or Intu in China) is still used in some languages to denote a person from the Republic of India. The Greek term "India" was originally pronounced Hindia, in classical Greek, there was no character for "H". In Persian and Arabic, the term "Hind" denotes the Indian subcontinent.

Until about 19th century, the term Hindu implied a culture and ethnicity and not religion alone. When the British government started periodic census and established a legal system, need arose to define Hinduism as a clearly-defined religion, along the lines of Christianity or Islam. Some scholars like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, defined it as a religion based on the Vedas, using the analogy of Bible and Qur'an being the basis of Christianity and Islam respectively.

That even an atheist may be called a Hindu is an example of the fact that Hinduism is far beyond a simple religious system, but actually an extremely diverse and complicated river of evolving philosophies and ancient traditions.

Who is a Hindu?

See Also: History of Hinduism

Prior to successful invasion of Indian subcontinent by Babar from Uzbekistan and later by European colonialists, there was no distinct definition of religion in India. Reform movements like the Samanas were not far from the Jain and Buddhist orders, and such groups provided the wheels of philosophical evolution and cultural change. While strict social ordering existed in the Brahmanical system, it was never necessary for anyone to worship a particular form of God, perform a particular set of rituals, speak a particular language, or regard one book as the most sacred. Without doing any of these, a person was a common native, citizen of the land, a Hindu.

The colonial British government introduced the census as is today, and for legal purposes set worded definitions and distinctions between populations living interwoven for thousands of years. This practice, once established, was exploited for political power by various communities, with distinct religions getting special privileges and recognitions as opposed to members of a sect, reform movement or of the larger mass of people. These bookish definitions fail to alter, however, centuries-old practices and relationships between communities, which though not free of divisive conflicts, are certainly not victims of any schisms.

Many Hindus (mainly from North India and of the Indian state of Maharashtra) identify the Supreme Being as the Lord Vishnu and are known as Vaishnava; many others (mainly from South India) believe the Supreme Being is the Lord Shiva or Shankar and are known as Shaivaite; while many other (mainly from West Bengal) believe in the female Principal Shakti as the Supreme Energy or Force for life (birth and preservation) and destruction unified, and are called Shakti while in other branches of Vaishnavism and Shaivism, Shakti is God's Unified Energy (Power) personified. The fourth major group, the Smarta, call the Trinity and Shakti as the Supreme One Brahman, which manifests into personal forms of God, such as Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva. However, no barrier or distinction or rivalry of any nature exists between any of these. Each naturally respects all incarnations of the God, only choosing to see the Supreme in one particular form. Many follow a blend of all three beliefs and this is by far the most common form of religion for Hindus, with a mix of Shaivism, Shaktism and Vaishnavism as well as other reform movements. In most Hindu temples one will find Shiva lingam together with vaishnava aspects of worship.

Hinduism, especially its history and heritage, is vitally important and is strongly defining the characteristics of Indian nationalism, and the political identity and expression of India's Hindus.

Hallmarks of Hindu Society

Ethnic and Cultural Fabric

Hinduism has one of the most gentically and ethnically diverse body of adherents in the world. Hinduism, its religious doctrines, traditions and observances are very typical and inextricably linked to the culture and demographics of India.

The ancient religion finds its roots amongst peoples who migrated to the subcontinent from Central Asia in ancient times, and the peoples of the vast Indus Valley Civilization, the oldest known human civilization in the Indian subcontinent. Large tribes and communities of indigenous origins, are also closely linked to the earliest synthesis and formation of Hindu civilization. Peoples of Mongoloid roots living in the states of north eastern India and Nepal were also a part of the earliest Hindu civilization. Immigration and settlement of peoples from Central Asia and peoples of Indo-Greek heritage have brought their own influence on Hindu society. For example, the staunchest defenders of Hindu India against Muslim invaders were the Rajputs of modern Rajasthan, who were immigrants from Central Asia. The Mehr community of Rajasthan and Gujarat is also proud of its Central Asian roots, but more fiercely proud of its Hindu traditions and faith.

The scriptures and earliest practices are identified as of a particularly Indo-Aryan nature, but the roots of Hinduism in southern India, and amongst tribal and indigenous communities is just as ancient and fundamentally contributive to the foundations of the religious and philosophical system.

Today, almost all Hindus belong to the ethnic communities living in the 28 states and 7 union territories of India, and the provinces of Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Ancient Hindu kingdoms arose and spread the religion and traditions across South East Asia, particularly Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam. A form of Hinduism particularly different from Indian roots and traditions is practised in Bali, Indonesia, where Hindus form 90% of the population. Indian migrants have taken Hinduism and Hindu culture to South Africa, Fiji, Mauritius and other countries in and around the Indian Ocean, and in the nations of the West Indies and the Caribbean.

Many Europeans, Africans and Americans have adopted spiritual and religious exercises inspired by Hinduism in North America, Western Europe and Southern Africa. The ISKCON is a growing congregation of the devotees of Lord Krishna, mainly in the United States but spreading across the world, embracing people and working in countries completely unassociated with India.

Linguistics of Hinduism

See also: Sanskrit

Although the Vedas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana have been written in the ancient language of Sanskrit. Hinduism has several important religious and philosophical works written in other ancient languages like Tamil, Kannada, Pali, Prakrit, and modern languages like Hindi, Punjabi, Malayalam, Telegu, Gujarati, Marathi and Bengali.

The approximately 950 million Hindus who live in the Indian subcontinent are the people who speak the 18 official languages of India, Tamil in Sri Lanka, Gurkhali in Nepal, some 5-10 more unofficial languages and over 1,000 dialects.

Most of modern discourses, essays and analysis of Hindu religion and society, and re-telling of its greatest epics, are published in the English language. Millions of Hindus are known to be well-versed with that language.

Dietary Habits and Doctrines

Vegetarianism is extremely common amongst Hindus and is recommended for its sattvic qualities. Many Hindus eat meat although most abstain from Beef while others refrain from meat on holy days.

Vegetarianism has gained immense popular strength since the early beginning as is evident from Bhagavada Gita, arising from the principle of ahimsa, or absolute non-violence to all forms of life. This has also inspired a stricter, regimental adherence to vegetarianism in Jainism and Buddhism. Especially in the Indian state of Gujarat and many states in South India, many are puritanical in their adherence. Mahatma Gandhi was the most prominent proponent of veganism/vegetarianism since mid-15th century redefining Hinduism by Adi Shankaracharya.

Vegetarianism in Hinduism is encouraged due to the belief that animals have Atman or soul and thus should not be killed. Also killing leads to bad karmic consequences and the consumption of flesh is not sattvic; meaning one can not achieve full spirituality or a close connection with Brahman god.

Ceremonies, Observances and Pilgrimage

Hinduism is also very diverse in the religious ceremonies performed by its adherents for different periods and events in life, and for death.

Initiation

Normally, Young male members of the Brahmin and Kshatriya caste may perform a coming of age ceremony, however as the caste system has been disregarded and was not part of Hinduism, through birth as such, various members of other "castes" also perform this ceremony. The Upanayana commonly known as Janoy, or the Thread Ceremony. The Janoy is a six or eight cotton threads/strings (approximately ones' arm length) rolled together to resemble an umblical cord to symbolise the New birth/ new eyes {Upa = Higher/new; Nayan = Eyes/birth} as a student. Hence, from this day onward he belongs to the Guru, who takes the place of mother and father in nurturing and training young male.

The Upanayana is akin to Bar-Mitzva in Jewish culture. This ceremony was performed before the boy went up to the Guru's ashram (school). In a ceremony administered by a priest, a young boy usually shaves his hair off as a measure of austerity(or just some portions, as deemed appropriate) and a Janoy is hung from around his left shoulder to his right waist line for Brahmins and from right shoulders to left waistline by Kshatriyas. The ceremony varies from region to community, and includes reading from the Vedas and special mantras and shlokas. For Brahmin boy, he has to rememeber the Gayatri Mantra. The boy also swears to obey his Guru and also takes oaths to confirm that he will not take intoxicants, speak the Truth, serve the Guru,and to stay celibate through education.

Young females (prepubescent until married) while do not have similar ritual passage as young males, they follow annual Monsoon Austerity Ritual of Purification by not eating cooked food for one or two weeks, depending on age of child. This is known as "Goryo or Goriyo". During this period they cultivate from seeds of paddy, wheat and mung beans in a small pottary, to which they are asked by mother to guard and nurture.

Rites of initiation exist for the other castes, but differ from region to region.

Fasting

Fasting is when an individual eats very little or abstains from food altogether. However fasting is not confined to gender, many Hindus choose certain days to refrain from eating certain food stuffs, such as salt or sour foods. This is seen as a form of penance or tapasya or alternatively as furthering ones connection with Brahman, God or as a sacrifice.

Pilgrimage

Many Hindus make piligrimages to the holy shrines (known as Tirthas). Hindu holy shrines include Lord Shiva's lingam in Amarnath and Anantnag; the holy cities of Haridwar, Kashi, Allahabad, Mathura, Rameshwaram, Tirupathi and Ayodhya; the Vasihno Devi and the Mahabalipuram. Hundreds of millions of Hindus annually visit holy rivers such as the Ganges and temples near them, wash and bathe themselves to purify their sins, make sacrifices and win pivous credits.

The Kumbha Mela (the Great Fair) is a gathering of between 10 to 20 million Hindus upon the banks of the holy rivers, as periodically ordained in different parts of India by Hinduism's priestly leadership. The most famous is at the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna in Uttar Pradesh. It is regarded as the largest gathering of humanity on Earth.

Death

Upon the death of a Hindu person, his or her body is ceremonially bathed and wrapped in clean, mostly white khadi cloth. The families often dress their departed relative in their best clothes, but maintain an emphasize on less color.

At the ceremony of cremation all mourners must wear only white clothes. In modern times, dullcolored clothes, shirts and pants are deemed acceptable.

An attending priest conducts the ceremony, purifying the body and pyre by sprinklnig holy water and continuously singing or chanting religious hymns or songs. The body is to be set alight only by the male child of the deceased, or the closest male relative.

Hindus in India are cremated upon open grounds upon wooden pyres, though the use of cremation chambers is increasing in popularity owing to the scarcity of wood and lack of exposure. The ashes of the person's remains are gathered and placed in a pot, which may be ritually immersed in any of Hinduism's holy rivers by the family with an attending priest.

Religion for the common Hindu

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To all Hindus, the Vedas are the main source of religious guidance. The Vedas and the Upanishads live on in the Hindu ethos as the inspiration of the ancient traditions, social practices and religious institutions of Hindu peoples. They were the basis of most commonly accepted social and religious practices in Hindu, and indeed Indian society.

The Puranas are a wide collection of religious treatises, biographies and stories on the historical, mythological and religious characters in Hindu folklore, classic literature and sacred scriptures. There are often the source of popular Hindu folk tales and religious lessons.

Yoga is an important connection to a Hindu to his religious and historical heritage. The art of spiritual and physical exercises are a distinguished native tradition pursued by millions of Hindus worldwide.

Indian Vedic astrology is important to the conduct of any of life's important events such as marriage, applying for a post or admission, buying a house or starting a new business. To millions of Hindus, the kundali is an invaluable possession that charts the course of life for a man or a woman from the time of his birth, all ascertained by Vedic mathematics and astrology.

The most popular Hindu scriptures are the Mahabharata, the holy war between good and evil. Lord Krishna's discourse to the warrior prince Arjuna, the Bhagavad Gita is the guide book on life for the common Hindu. It is the source of divine guidance and inspiration, where the reader learns to interpret Krishna's teachings in the personal and worldly contexts of life. Most Hindus consider this book as the main source of religious teaching.

To hundreds of millions of Hindus, Lord Rama is more than just an incarnation of the Supreme, or simply a just king. He is the still living, thriving soul and identity of real Hinduism. Rama is the image of Hinduism, the Perfect Man, its conscience and undying hope of deliverance.

The doctrines of moksha by the discharge of personal, social and religious duty has developed into a strong characteristic of fatalism, or acceptance of vagaries in life as the will of God, and not seeking to apply oneself to change institutions. Many dalit Hindus have been criticized for not aggressively combating this evil against them, and the factors influencing the submissiveness of society to brahmin authority, epidemics, natural disasters and authoritarian government through the history of India has been attributed to fatalistic thinking.

See also

Hindu people

Hinduism

Other Dharmic religions

Literature

  • Elst, Koenraad: Who is a Hindu [1]
  • Goel, Sita Ram: How I became a Hindu [2]