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Introduction to Hinduism


Statistically, there are over 700 million Hindus, mainly in Bharat (India), and Nepal. Hinduism is referred to as Sanatana Dharma, the eternal faith. Hinduism is not strictly a religion. It is based on the practice of Dharma, the code of life. A detailed explanation of Hindu texts are found in Veda page and the links pointed to from there. Since Hinduism has no founder, anyone who practices Dharma can call himself a Hindu. He can question the authority of any scripture, or even the existence of the Divine. The following article is based on my limited understanding.

While religion means to bind, Dharma means to hold. What man holds on to is his inner law, which leads from ignorance to Truth. Though reading of the scriptures (shastras) would not directly lead you to self-realization, the teachings of the seers provide a basis and a path for spirituality. Despite being the oldest religion, the truth realized by the seers prove that the Truth and path provided by Hinduism is beyond time.

Hindu Scriptures are broadly classified into Shruti (meaning 'heard'), Smriti (meaning 'remembered') and nyaya (meaning 'logic') based on its origin not on the mode of transmission. Therefore, shruti means something which were heard (directly from the Gods) by the sages while smriti refers to what was written down and remembered. shruti is considered more authoritative than smriti because the former is believed to have been obtained directly from God by the spiritual experiences of vedic seers and has no interpretations. Vedas constitute the shruti while the rest including Itihaasa-s (epics), PuraaNa-s (moral stories), and Agamas (emanated scriptures) are known as smriti while Vedanta-sutras (vedanta aphorisms) are classified as Nyaya. smriti and Nyaya always agrees with shruti.

The oldest and foremost among them are the Vedas. The vedas are called shruti and stems from the inner spiritual experience of the ancient seers. Hindus believe that Vedas are timeless and eternal. There are four vedas, namely Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva veda. Each veda consists of sections namely Samhita (containing the hymns) and Brahmana ( significance of the hymns), Aranyakas (interpretations), and Vedanta (upanishhads, which are metaphysical dialogs). A good write-up on vedas is the Veda intro.

The vedangas and upavedas are texts which augment the Vedas. There are six vedangas namely Siksa, Jyotisha, Kalpa, Nirukti, Candas, and Vyakarana. Jyotisha (astrology) is the most famous among them. Kalpa explains the rituals and explain a path based on the other five. There are five upavedas namely Artha, Dhanur, Sthapatya, Gandharva, and Ayur-veda. Ayurveda which deals with health, medicine is probably the most popular of the upavedas.

Agamas are rules for the ritual, rites and the worship of Gods. There are five of them based for the worship of Ganesha, Shakti, Surya, Shiva, and Vishnu.

One can argue that the vedas show three clear paths. Karma-kanda is the path using the vedangas, Upasana-kanda is the path using Aagamas while Jnana-kanda involves the path of Upanishads to realize the Brahman.

Upanishads are called Vedanta, because they expound on the spiritual essence of Vedas and they are found at the end of the vedas. However, one should note that Upanishads are texts, while Vedanta is a philosophy. While there are numerous upanishhads (1180 to be exact), 108 of them are considered genuine (given by the list in Muktika upanishhad). Eleven of them namely Isha, kena, kaTha, prashna, muNDaka, mANDUkya, taittirIya, aitareya, chAndogya, shvetAshvatara, bR^ihad-AraNyaka, are considered the most significant or "major" upanishhads since they have been commented upon by the major acharyas (teachers) of various traditions. Upanishhads means 'to sit down near' because they were explained to the students sitting near the feet of their teacher. Sri Aurobindo's introduction to Upanishhads can be found in Upanishhad intro. There is also a detailed introduction at Upanishhads introduction. There are some upanishhads on the net, and the ones I have found on the net (translated in English) are mundaka, katha, kena, Isha. The transliterations of various upanishads including the above ones in ITRANS format are available at UPANISHADS. A number of minor upanishads including the translation can be found at Minor Upanishads.

Vedanta, the basis of Hinduism, asserts that Brahman, the 'impersonal' God and the universal soul, is the Absolute Truth. Brahman has multiple roles to play: the creator, the maintainer, and the destroyer all in one. (This can be viewed as the origin of the trinity Gods namely Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, respectively). Vedanta states that the individual human soul(jiva-atman) originates and merges with the Brahman. There are three different philosophies on this concept. Advaita (non-duality) implies that there is an identity of Brahman and Jivaatman while Dvaita (duality) differs from Advaita and maintains an ultimate diversity between Brahman and Jiva-atman. Visistadvaita (qualified non-duality) maintains a crucial differentiation as well as a fundamental identity. The advaita, viSishTAdvaita, dvaita, philosophies were expounded by Sri Adi SHANKARA, Sri Ramanuja and Sri Madhva, respectively. Other systems which aren't quite popular as the above ones are dvaitadvaita (dual-non-dual doctrine), suddhadvaita (pure non-dualism), and acinntyaa bhedabheda (oneness and difference) were expounded by Nimbarka, Vallabha and Vidyabhusana. All the above philosophers have written commentaries on the prasthana-traya (triple canon) of the vedanta, which are the upanishads, brahma sutra and bhagvad gita.

A small write-up on the practice of vedanta in daily life can be found HERE. An excellent treatise on the practice of Advaita Vedanta can be found here.

There are six systems of Indian philosophy (ShhaDarshana). They are Jaimini's Purva Mimansa, Patanjali's yoga, Gautama's Nyaya, Kanada's Vaisheshika, Vyasa's Uttar Mimansa, and Kapila's Sankhya. All the six systems are written in aphorisms (sutras). Though each sutra is just a few lines, huge commentaries have been written on each of them.

Besides all the philosophy which expound on the cosmic attributes of the Divine, there are epics (Itihaasa-s) and stories (Puranas) written which bring into light the human attributes of the Divine.

Itihaasa-s comprises of the two epics: Ramayana and Mahabharata, which are the stories of two incarnations of Lord Vishnu, Rama and Krishna, respectively. These are by far the well read and most popular among the Hindus. Ramayana was first written by Valmiki while Mahabharata was written by Sage Vyasa. The Bhagvad-gita is the epitome of hindu philosophy and is found in the Mahabharata. Due to its content, Bhagvad-gita is sometimes considered to be a Gito-Upanishhad. Vyasa also wrote the eighteen puraaNa-s and eighteen sub-puranas. All puranas emphasize on morals and is usually a story about a hindu deity fighting for upholding these morals. There are also Kaavyas which are based on stories derived from the Itihaasa-s/puraaNas. Among them, Raghuvamsa, Meghaduta and Shakuntala are very famous.

There are also Prakarana Granthas which are considered to be primers or an introduction for spiritual studies. Among them are Atma Bodha, and my favorite, Bhaja Govindam [also known as Moha Mudhgara]. Besides the scriptures, there are stotra-s and bhajans (devotional songs and hymns) Among the numerous stotras, Sahasranamams (1008 names of each diety) are very famous.

Many hindu scriptures including Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagvad-Gita, yoga sutras of patanjali, and a multitude of bhajans and slokas in both sanskrit text and english transliteration can be found in Hindu scriptures and slokas and the ITRANS song book at Songs and Bhajans. Tantric texts and shiva sutras can be found in Tantras.

There are a number of verses available in both transliterated and devangari script (postscript format). Kindly refer to Extensive Document list. In addition, BHAJA GOVINDAM, ASTAVAKRA GITA and LALITA are available on this site. Besides this, one may find detailed explanations for OM and Gayatri Mantra in the Meditation-Mantras section of the home page.

More Hinduism Links

A good collection of links (with many links pointing back to this site) on Hinduism and other Indian religions is by Indiatime

The UseNet newsgroup soc.religion.hindu, also on the gopher. The archive for this newsgroup. FTP site for Sanskrit documents, Indology home page, Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies, Ousia Indologist -- Indological links, Veda, Hindu, Mahabharata, Brahman, Resource List.

There is a good introduction to Hinduism with FAQ's at introduction. An excellent Intro provides not only a preview of Hinduism, but what Hinduism preaches as to a life one should lead. One of my other home pages contains Thoughts on Hinduism and Biographies of various saints.

Gods in Hinduism

Is Hinduism monotheistic or polytheistic ? This is among the nine frequently asked questions (FAQs) on Hinduism and has been answered in Nine FAQs on Hinduism. Further information can be found in Gods and Goddesses.

There are numerous temples in India. The rich cultural heritage and the art of symbolism in Hinduism is presented in this article

As seen in the hinduism section, the trinity gods are Lord Brahma (not to be confused with Brahman), Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma is not worshipped and there are very few temples in his honor due to 'mythological' reasons. Vishnu (and the incarnations of Him, Rama and Krishna), Shiva (and his various forms), their wives, are the most popular with numerous temples and followers. The wives of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva are Saraswati, Laxmi, and Parvati, respectively. Collectively, they are sometimes referred to as Divine mother (or Shakti). Two of Parvati's fierce but very powerful forms are Durga and Kali. Gods and Goddesses is a site that provides more details of all these gods and goddesses. THIS is a speech by Satya Sai Baba {paraphrased} on the Divine mother. The 'sons' of Shiva, Ganesha and Kartikeya (or Muruga) are also widely worshipped.

Read about the significance and legends of GANESHA. One can view the cosmic dance of Shiva, and also a movie on Him at Shiva1 and View some good pictures of Ganesha, Nataraja, Krishna1, and a good collection of various pictures in Pictures, More Pictures, Excellent collection of Images. Finally, don't forget to view some excellent pictures of the Divine Mother Meenakshi and NATARAJA, to whose feet this page is dedicated.

One worships all the above dieties. This is referred to as Puja. It is conducted to an idol made of gold, silver, bronze or even clay. Those who can not even afford these worship the Gods in paintings/pictures. Unfortunately, many people don't understand the significance of the puja, whether conducted daily at home or at a temple. It is true that stones are worshipped, and the elephant-God, Lord Ganesha, and the monkey-God, Hanuman are worshipped. But what is the significance ? Since God is omnipresent, then He should be present in stones, animals i.e everywhere. Isn't it beautiful that a person sees divinity in every aspect of creation whether it is animate or inanimate ? Worshippers would commit a grave error by seeing an essential distinction between the idol and the Supreme Lord, for they are one and the same.

Before the puja, one bathes to signify the outer purification. Mantras and stotras are recited for inner purification. Even a very simple puja employs flowers. What is the inner significance ? Flowers smell. This is called vaasaana. Vaasaana is also an another name for the imprints in the jiva, which constitute the flavor/smell of our personality, habits etc. Flowers are picked up with the right hand and then, the fingers are pointed downward so that the flowers fall at the feet of the idol. The five fingers signify the five senses. The senses which are normally directed outward for pleasure and now pointed downward showing that they are surrendered at His/Her Feet. Usually, the flower is placed after uttering 'namaH.' While namaH means salutation, it is also a corrupt form of 'na mama' i.e not mine. Thus, when offering flowers, one says, 'I am offering to you my senses, attributes, character but none of them are really mine. Everything is yours.' Thus, even a simple puja has a great spiritual meaning which escapes a casual observer.

Learning Sanskrit

There comes a stage in one's life when one is no longer interested in the translation of Sanskrit texts and wants to read the original texts and interpret it him/herself. Sanskrit is one of the oldest languages and the vibrations emanted by reciting Sanskrit are said to be unique. Sanskrit is probably the most accurate language phonetically (one pronounces words exactly as it is written), and the grammar is very old, extremely extensive and well written.

There are some good BOOKS and Courses from which you can learn Sanskrit. Additional information on Sanskrit texts on the web and the mailing list can be found in Sanskrit Document list.

Free gita lessons and guidance

The American Gita Society provides translations of the verses of Gita and also lessons based on the philosophy of Gita. The complete set of translation is available at Gita Translation.

You can learn more about gita {based on Swami Chinmayananda's teaching} from Gita Guidance. The translation of gita by Srila Prabhupada is Gita1. Another site which contains Gita in inline sanskrit and ascii format is Gita2.

Hinduism Journal

A Hinduism journal Hinduism Today is available for free. Look under the Links page for a review of their site. Also please read the excellent book Dancing with Siva published by them. The book is a clear exposition on Hinduism. The Dutch version of the same journal is available at Dutch HT.

Books on Hinduism

There are thousands of books written on the various philosophies, which all form a part of Hinduism. Among them, the following are the among the best BOOKS written (in my humble opinion and limited experience) on Hinduism and Vedanta philosophy. (This is in addition to the books in the 'yoga book section.' Also read the comment on spiritual practice and reading books in the same section). Please note that these are from the books that I have read. Many hindu scriptures including Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagvad-Gita, yoga sutras of patanjali, and a multitude of bhajans and slokas in both sanskrit text and english transliteration can be found in Document list. The ITRANS song book is at Song book and the following site has some nice Bhajans. Tantric texts can be found in Tantras. Kindly refer to the extensive which lists all the slokas/bhajans which are available on the web, and those which are being transliterated.