Your Neighbors, the Hindus
After Christianity and Islam, Hinduism is the world’s third-largest religion, with more than 1.25 billion followers, or about 15 percent of the world population. It is the major religion in India, with 95 percent of its adherents living in that country. Hinduism is not a single religion but a compilation of many traditions and philosophies. Its origin goes back to about 1500 B.C., when the first Indo-Europeans, the Aryan people from the steppes of Russia and Central Asia, migrated to the Indian subcontinent, bringing with them their religion of Vedism. The Vedas were a collection of hymns sung to their gods, now the oldest and most sacred of Hindu scriptures.
The language of the Aryans (“noble one”) was Sanskrit (“well formed”), a branch of the Indo-European languages that became the official language of the Hindu tradition.
The most important sacred texts of Hinduism are the Vedas, of which there are four major collections: (1) The Rigveda consists of 1,028 poetic hymns (ca. 10,600 verses); each hymn addresses a divine being. (2) The Yajurveda contains prose mantras for worship rituals. (3) The Samaveda is a liturgical text with melodies and chants. (4) The Atharvaveda is a collection of spells, prayers, charms, and hymns.
Other important texts are: (1) The Brahmanas—lengthy commentaries on the Vedas, composed in Sanskrit between 900–700 B.C.; (2) The Aranyakas and Upanishads—philosophical texts about the nature of existence and the universe, dating from ca. 900–500 B.C.; and (3) The Bhagavad Gita—the most popular and best-known Hindu text, dating from about the third century B.C. This poem contains the dialogue between the warrior Arjuna, who does not want to fight against some of his relatives, and Lord Krishna. The latter exhorts Arjuna to do what is right, which is dharma (the moral law or sacred duty).
With more than 300 million gods and goddesses, Hinduism is clearly a polytheistic religion, yet it also claims to be monotheistic because all these devas (gods) are just manifestations of the chief god Brahman, the principle of life that comprises all that exists. Hence, Hinduism is also pantheistic—god exists in everything; reality is identical with divinity. The three major gods are Brahman, the creator god; Vishnu, the god of preservation and protector of what is good; and Siva, the god of meditation and the destroyer of evil.
Important among the lesser gods are Kali, goddess of time and power, and Krishna, the god of compassion, tenderness, and love. The latter is well-known in the West through the Hare Krishna movement, founded in 1966 in New York. They proclaim the practice of loving God in which those involved dedicate their thoughts and actions toward pleasing Krishna, their supreme Lord.
Two important features of Hinduism are the doctrine of reincarnation or transmigration and the principle of karma. Reincarnation (samsara) refers to the belief that the non-physical essence of a living being, the soul (atman), begins a new life in a different physical form or body after death. This means that the soul sequentially incarnates in different bodies at different levels of existence, depending on the deeds in the previous existence. This is the principle of justice (karma), the principle of action and its consequences. It ensures that the effects of one’s actions come back to the actor.
Karma binds the soul to the cycle of eternal existence and determines the level of its future existence. Bad karma results in rebirth to a lower life-form; good karma, to a better station in life. This is the reason that well-to-do Hindus are not greatly concerned with poverty and social inequity because trying to intervene is seen as interference with the cosmic process.
Salvation in Hinduism is to gain freedom (moksa) from the cycle of reincarnation, which is the realm of suffering and sorrow, and to achieve nirvana, the end of suffering when atman (the soul) and Brahman (the ultimate reality) become one. Traditionally, there are three paths to achieve this goal: the way of action, the way of wisdom, and the way of devotion. The way of action (karma-marga) refers to the generation of positive karma through meritorious religious activities, such as ritual bathing, prayers, burning incense, and participation in festivals and pilgrimages. The way of wisdom (jnanan-marga) is based on the Upanishad texts (800–400 B.C.), written in Sanskrit, which explain the Vedas in predominantly mystical terms. It refers to the use of meditative concentration and contemplative training (Yoga) to gain intellectual insight into one’s identity with Brahman, the principle of life. The third way, the way of devotion (bhakti-marga), describes a state of mind in which the individual surrenders himself or herself unquestioningly to God. It is the union of the human soul with a supreme god through specific religious activities, such as prayer, meditation, and worship.
The Caste System
The Hindu caste system goes back to a Vedic hymn that explains the creation of four orders (varnas) of human beings in connection with the creation of the universe. The text describes a cosmic man who is sacrificed by the gods and from his body parts are created four orders of human beings: from his mouth were created the priests (Brahmins), from his arms the rulers/warriors (Rajya/Kshatriya), from his thighs the merchants, farmers, and artisans (Vaishya), and from his feet the common people (Shudra), who were to serve the other three orders.
The first three orders make up about 20 percent of the people; the Shudras, more than 50 percent, and the rest are the outcasts or untouchables. They call themselves Dalits (the oppressed ones). Each caste (varna) has many subcastes, called jatis. These are local social groups; people are either born into them or have the same traditional professions like weavers, goldsmiths, warriors, etc. Marriages usually take place within the jatis.
Some of the Brahmins are professional priests performing Vedic ritual sacrifices for their patrons, receiving substantial gifts in return, while others withdraw from society to pursue higher forms of knowledge through ascetic practices. The second order, the rulers or warriors (Kshatriya) have the job of protecting the country against foreign enemies and defending the social order. In times past, these rulers became hereditary rajas or kings of independent kingdoms (janapadas), of which hundreds survived until the 20th century.
The third caste (Vaishya) are the landowners, traders, and moneylenders. And the fourth caste (Shudras) are the laborers, maids, cooks, and blacksmiths, etc. The untouchables (Dalits), who are outside of the caste system, were believed to be so impure that caste Hindus considered their presence to be polluting. The “impure status” was related to their historic hereditary occupations that caste Hindus considered to be “polluting” or debased, such as working with leather, disposing of dead animals, and sanitation work. In 1949, Mahatma Ghandi succeeded in outlawing “untouchability,” but psychologically it is still embraced in many villages.
Challenges to Modern Hinduism
Modern Hinduism has faced two great challenges: Islam and Westernization. Islam came to India late in the eighth century, and by the 15th century, Muslim sultans ruled most of India. The tensions between the two religions came to a head in 1947 when the British partitioned its colony into West and East Pakistan (the latter in 1971 became Bangladesh) for the Muslims and the rest of India for the Hindus. This partition resulted in the first war between India and Pakistan with one to two million dead and 10 to 12 million refugees of Hindus moving from Pakistan to India and Muslims moving from India to Pakistan. Three more wars followed in 1965, 1971, and 1999. Today, 195 million Muslims still live in India, and 20 million Hindus reside in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Westernization in India began with the British East India Company in the 18th century, followed by the British government making India the jewel in the crown of the British Empire in the 19th century. The British encouraged English literacy that exposed many Hindus to Western values. Industrialization and urbanization disrupted Indian societies and their traditional practices and beliefs. The Western principle of equality of all persons was contrary to the caste system; it was rejected by Hindu fundamentalists.
Hinduism has a tradition of tolerance for all religions; however, when the Hindu Nationalist Party gained power early in the 20th century, persecution of Muslims and Christians began to occur and is increasing today. Anti-conversion laws in Madhya Pradesh, the second largest Indian state, at the beginning of 2021 have led to the arrest of many Christians and Muslims.
Larry A. Nichols, George A. Mather, and Alvin J. Schmidt, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Cults, Sects, and World Religions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2006).
Michael H. Fisher, A History of India (Chantilly, Va.: The Teaching Company, 2016).
Mark W. Muesse, Great World Religions: Hinduism (Chantilly, Va.: The Teaching Company, 2003).