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An Abridged Introduction to Hinduism

Sreedhar Chintalapaty


Hinduism is a way of life, a Dharma. Contrary to popular perception, it is not a religion: It does not have any one founder, and it does not have a Bible or a Koran to which controversies can be referred for resolution. Consequently, it does not require its adherents to accept any one idea. It is thus cultural, not creedal, with a history contemporaneous with the peoples with which it is associated.Since Hindu scriptures include not just books relating to spirituality but also secular pursuits like science, medicine and engineering, it defies classification as a religion. Further, it cannot be claimed to be " essentially a school of metaphysics " as D.S.Sarma [The Religion of the Hindus, Edited by Kenneth Morgan] does. Nor can it be described as " other worldly" , as will become evident later. Infact one can almost identify Hinduism with a civilization that is flourishing even now.

The Aryan Invasion Theory having been completely discredited, it cannot be assumed that Hinduism was the pagan faith of invaders belonging to a race called Aryans. Rather it was the common metafaith, (if you will) of people of various races, including Harappans. The sanskrit word aryan is a word of honorable address, not the racial reference invented by european scholars and put to perverse use by the nazis. Unless otherwise specified, aryan will be used in this document as a word of honorable address.

Many believe that multiplicity of deities makes Hinduism polytheistic. Such a belief is nothing short of mistaking the wood for the tree. The bewildering diversity of Hindu belief - theistic, atheistic and agnostic - rests on a solid unity. Ekam sat.h, Vipraah bahudhaa vadanti, says the R^igveda: The Truth (God, Brahman.h, etc) is one, scholars call it by various names. What the multipicity of deities does indicate is Hinduism's spiritual hospitality as evidenced by two characteristically Hindu doctrines: The Doctrine of Spiritual Competence (Adhikaara) and The Doctrine of The Chosen Deity (Ishhta Devata). The doctrine of spiritual competence requires that the spiritual practices prescribed to a person should correspond to his (or her) spiritual competence. It is counter-productive to teach abstract philosophical concepts to a person whose heart hungers for faith in a higher power and vice versa. The doctrine of the chosen deity gives a person the freedom to choose (or invent) a form of Brahman.h that satisfies his spiritual cravings and to make it the object of his worship. Notice that both doctrines are consistent with Hinduism's assertion that the unchanging reality is present in everything, even the transient.

Evidence that Hinduism must have existed even circa 10000 B.C. is available: The importance attached to the river Saraswati and the numerous references to it in the R^igveda (interestingly, Ganga appears only twice) indicates that the R^igveda was being composed well before 6500 B.C. The first vernal equinox recorded in the R^igveda is that of the star Ashwini, which is now known to have occurred around 10000 B.C. Subhash Kak, a Computer Engineer and a reputed Indologist, 'decoded' the R^igveda and found many advanced astronomical concepts therein. The technological sophistication required to even anticipate such concepts is unlikely to have been acquired by a nomadic people, as the Invasionists would like us to believe. In his book Gods, Sages and Kings, David Frawley provides compelling evidence to substantiate this claim.


There are five elements which contribute to the essential unity of Hinduism: common ideals, common scriptures, common deities, common beliefs, and common practices.


All the sects and offshoots of Hinduism share the same moral ideals:

  • Ahimsa (non-violence)
  • Satya (truthfulness)
  • Brahmacharya (often translated wrongly as sexual continence,it actually means the state of incessant search for the (ultimate) Truth (Brahman). Note that it is not called God, merely the Truth, whatever it is)
  • Maitri (Friendship)
  • Dharma (a rather crude translation would be " fulfilling one's duty ")
  • KaruNa (Compassion)
  • Viirya (Fortitude)
  • dama (Self Restraint - mental as well as physical)
  • Shaucha (Purity - mental as well as physical)
The BR^ihadaaraNyaka Upanishhat [V.2] expresses these moral ideas in three words:
  • Daamyata: Exercise self-control,
  • Datta: Be generous and giving,
  • Dayadhvam.h: Be compassionate.

The higher phase of self-control is detachment. Not only do we have to overcome what is evil in life, we must also become independent of what is good. For instance, our love of home and friends is good in itself, but unless we expand it to include everything in the universe, it will be a shackle, what if it is golden. Detachment does not imply disinterest in the changing world: it merely shifts a person's frame of reference to the Reality that endures forever, making his perception more objective, making him better equipped for life.

Truth as a cardinal virtue in Hinduism is far more than mere truthfulness; it means eternal reality. Hinduism says that the pursuit of Truth, wherever it may lead or whatever sacrifices it may involve, is indispensable to the progress of man. Hence no Hindu scripture has ever opposed scientific progress or metaphysical and ethical speculations.

Truth and Non-violence are always associated with each other in the Hindu scriptures, and are considered to be the highest virtues. Mahaatma Gaandhi describes Hinduism as a quest for Truth through Non-violence. This ideal is responsible for the pacific character of Hindu civilization. Notice that, in order to pursue non-violence, one must refrain from inflicting or tolerating violence on oneself. Therefore, non-violence is not passive resistance as many think: it is not the helplessness of the weak, but the calm strength of the mighty. When Jesus Christ says " the meek shall inherit the earth ", the Hindu cannot agree more.


The most important common scriptures are the Vedas, the Upanishhats, the Brahma Suutras, the Epics (Itihaasas : RaamaayaNa and Mahaabhaarata). The Vedas are called Shr^iti, literally that which is heard. Allowing for poetic license, it can be interpreted as that which is discovered. Smr^iti, on the other hand, is what is remembered, effectively that which was told. Shr^iti is unalterable because it is a record of observations and experiences. Smr^iti, on the other hand, is entirely 'artificial', and hence warrants modification with changing times and increasing finesse of knowledge. Since theory should fit observation, and not vice versa, smr^iti is of secondary authority. If smr^iti contradicts shr^iti, it is shr^iti that prevails. All matters relating to the Hindu Legal Code fall under the category of smr^itis. Any Hindu Law is thus designed for change. Those that believe the Vedas to be the supreme authority for Hinduism are called aastikas, and those that donot are naastikas. (Popular misnotion is that aastikas are believers (in God) and naastikas are atheists).

Smr^itis are meant to be elaborations of vedic revelations. They include the Epics, the codes of law, the sacred romances (PuraaNas), philosophical treatises (Darshanas), and the sectarian scriptures (aagamas). The Bhagavadgita is said to be the essence of the upanishhats for the layman, and is revered by all sects. The epics RaamaayaNa and Mahaabhaarata and the Bhaagavata PuraaNa are, as it were, part of the mother's milk which every Hindu child draws (atleast that used to be the case!) in his infancy. Countless generations have been molded by the ideals set for them in these epics.

Directly ot otherwise, the upanishhats constitute the philosophical framework for Hinduism. Every religious movement that arose within Hinduism has had to show itself to be in accordance with the Upanishhats.

Thus it is that with the Vedas, the Upanishhats, the RaamaayaNa, the Mahaabhaarata, the Bhagavadgita and other sacred writings deriving their authority from the Vedas, the scriptures of Hinduism are a strong force making for unity within all diversity of beliefs and practices.

Pointers to more information on the scriptures may be found in Giri's Page on Hinduism.


The common deities are derived form the common scriptures. The idea that every deity whom men worship is the embodiment of a limited ideal, and that the deity is a symbol of some aspects of the Absolute is one of the most fundamental characteristics of Hinduism. It is this idea that makes Hinduism the most tolerant of religions and averse to proselytization through religious propaganda.

The three important functions of the Supreme - Creation, Protection and Destruction - came to be established in popular imagination as the Hindu Trinity - Brahma (NOT Brahman.h of the Upanishhats), Vishhnu and Shiva. The power associated with these gods came to be personified as their respective consorts. So Creator Brahma's consort is Saraswati (the goddess of Speech and Learning), Protector Vishhnu's consort is Lakshhmi (the goddess of wealth and prosperity), and Shiva's consort is Shakti (the goddess of power). Since Vishhnu is the protector, he is the one who can take on an avataara, taking human form whenever the world order is disturbed by a colossal form of evil. The other two of the trinity donot have avataaras.

The gods were then provided with their own heavens, attendants, vehicles and even progeny.The more intelligent among the people understood this symbolism, but to the the masses, the symbols formed an end in themselves. The symbolism is common to all Hindus, but the exclusive emphasis on a particular god or goddess in this scheme at a later time gave rise to various sects like Vaishhnava (worshipers of Vishhnu), Shaiva (worshipers of Shiva) and Shaakteya (worshipers of Shakti). Those that donot belong to these three sects nor go by their sectarian scriptures (aagamaa), but go by the ancient traditions (smr^itis) and worship all gods without any exclusive preference came to be known as Smaartas.

However, all sects teach that the particular name and form of their deities are limitations which we in our weakness impose on the all-pervading Brahman.h. Even the highest theism is regarded only as a sort of glorified anthropomorphism. The worship of a personal god is taught to be only a halfway house in a man's journey to the Ultimate Reality. However, the idea of a personal god is the most important prop for the mind to contemplate upon it. Hinduism acheives unity in diversity by cherishing the many ways in which men have represented and worshipped the various aspects of the Supreme.


The common beliefs underlying all schools of thought in Hinduism are beliefs concerning

  • the evolution of the physical world
  • the law of karma and rebirth
  • the four-fold goal of human life

The Prashnopanishhat expounds the Hindu concept of the evolution of the physical world. Expressed concisely, Energy (PraaNa) and Matter (Rayi) are at the two ends of the cosmic scale. The Energy is dormant in pure Matter and vice versa. The transformation of Energy into matter occurs in stages: Energy to Reason to Consciousness to Life to Matter. The transformation of Matter into Energy traces this path backwards. The Universe itself is a result of the interaction of Energy and Matter [I.5]. Infact Prashnopanishhat goes so far as to declare that the difference between Energy and Matter is only perceptional, not real. In other words, Energy and Matter are fundamentally the same [Prashnopanishhat, Swami Nikhilananda]. (See the Satsanga.h for a discussion on this topic)

The doctrine of Karma emphasizes that God is not a judge who sits in a remote heaven meting out punishments and rewards, but an indwelling being (the Self) whose will works in us through the moral law here and now. While Karma Yoga is the highest form of application of this law, according to which one must perform his duties with a sense of detachment. Cessation of action is what many have understood this to be. In reality however, it is trying to attain perfection in whatever we do by concentrating on what is to be done rather than the anticipated results.

The four-fold goal of human life is the purushhaarthas - Dharma (Righteousness), Artha (Worldly Prosperity), Kaama (Enjoyment) and mokshha (Liberation). In the pursuit of the first three one can be helped by others, but in the pursuit of mokshha, one is essentially alone. That is why the wedding vow reads: Dharme cha, Arthe cha, Kaame cha, Naaticharaami: " I shall abide by you in dharma, artha and kaama."

The unifying concept underlying these basic beliefs is the law of spiritual progress underlying the creation. But, ofcourse, we see only the intermediate stages of this process. As the Bhagavadgiita says, " Unmanifest is the origin of beings, manifest in their mid-most stage, and unmanifest again their end." We donot know how the HiraNya Garbha divided itself into subject and object and started the process of creation, and how the sundered spirit will be finally restored to its original wholeness in the Absolute. The beginning and the end of the cosmic process are beyond time, which bridges two eternities.

Thus the law of spiritual progression is given as an unerring standard for us. It decrees the following values as of utmost importance:

  • Spiritual Values: truth, beauty, love, and righteousness.
  • Intellectual Values: clarity, cogency, subtlety, and skill.
  • Biological Values: health, strength, and vitality.
  • Material Values: riches, possessions, and pleasures.

This, then, is the key to understanding Hinduism. For example, consider the Hindu view of History. Although it does not attach any importance to chronology, the sages had a correct view of historical progress and decline. Persons and wars were seen to be of less importance when compared with roles (played by the persons) and the lessons (of the war). The greatness of a civilization was judged not by the empires they possessed, nor by the wealth they accumulated, nor by their technological progress, but by the righteousness and justice they cultivated.

The organization of the society was conceived as a corollary of the law of spiritual progress, whereby people were to be ranked not by wealth, numerical strength, or power, but by their spiritual progress and culture. The earliest reference to the VarNaashrama Dharma, the caste system, is to be found in the R^igveda, wherein they are represented as parts of the body of the Creator. This is a poetic image indicating the organic nature of the society of the time. Caste was not to be determined by heridity: Virtue alone was the yardstick. (VajraSuuchika Upanishhad is entirely devoted to discussing the Caste System; It will soon be included among the Upanishhadic Philosophy pages) That this system degenerated to the oppressive stratification which plagued India for a long time is a vehement testimony to the failings of human nature. The dream of the sages was to organize the society into a cooperative hierarchy much like the Hindu joint family, where elders had greater freedom and responsibility, and the younger ones had greater shelter and protection. But, over the time, this idealistic agenda gave way to unforeseen circumstances under which individual genius had no scope, heridity assumed undeserved importance, and initiative was killed. What was made for order and progress made for order at the expense of progress. Even in its degenerated form, this theocratic ideal saved the Hindu society from disruption during the centuries when a strong central government was either non-existent ot was frequently changing hands. Whatever purpose it may have served in the past, its present form is perceived by all Indians as abhorrent to human dignity. Independent India can now claim to be on the verge of achieving independence from this malady. I would like to add a personal note here: To be orthodox is to be faithful to the spirit, not merely the letter. The R^ishhis have emphasized the need for smr^iti to be constantly revised to account for changing times and new, unforeseen circumstances. Thus, nothing is more orthodox (and more desirable) than writing a smr^iti for this time and this age.

Intimately related to the concept of varNa is that of Aashrama, the stages of life. Brahmacharya (being a student), Gaarhastya (being a Householder), Vaanaprastha (being a recluse), and, finally, Sannyaasa (being a religious mendicant) are ideally the four stages of a man's life. These stages indicate the path of progress for the ideally ordered life of the individual.