Introduction
Hinduism is both a religion and a way of life. The rules for good, or dharmic, living provided by the ancestors of present-day Indians are the basis for the Hindu religion. The religion is also known as Sanatana Dharma or Vaidika-Dharma in Sanskrit.
Sanatana means “everlasting” and dharma can be roughly translated as “divine law.”(Sanskrit is an Indo-European language that is the classical literary language of India, as well as the language of Hinduism and the Vedas, the holy books of Hinduism.) Vaidika-Dharma means “the divine law of the Vedas.” Hinduism, called the everlasting religion, began and flourishes in India.
Unlike the other major religions in the world, Hinduism does not have a founder, a single teacher, or prophets in its history. It developed from the religious observances of people who lived near the Indus River in modern-day Pakistan. The religion, however, has been, and continues to be, influenced by the traditions and practices of people in other parts of India and beyond.
Superficially, Hinduism appears to be polytheistic (a religion having many gods). That, however, is not entirely true. The religion recognizes one God but also acknowledges its countless manifestations around us and in us, eternally. Because Hinduism believes it is impossible for humans to visualize the Infinite, its many forms help us visualize it. This aspect of Hinduism is often confused with polytheism. Hinduism gives form and shape to the endless cycle of birth, death, and existence through the Hindu trinity.
Karma is central to the Hindu faith. Hindus believe that the soul passes through a cycle of successive lives, and one’s subsequent incarnation depends on one’s actions and deeds in the previous life. In short, we reap what we sow. The three most important paths are the path of knowledge (jnana), the path of work and religious deeds (karma), and the path of devotion (bhakti).
Hinduism is a religion rich in literature. The Vedas (“knowledge” in Sanskrit) represent the earliest collection of Hinduism’s sacred writings. This body of literature primarily consists of four collections of hymns, detached poetical portions, and ceremonial formulas. The collection is made up of four parts called the Rig-Veda, the Sama-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, and the Atharva-Veda. They are also known as the Samhitas, or “collection.” The Vedic view of God perhaps best illustrates the essence of the Hindu belief in a supreme being.
The Vedas tell us this about God: “Om Poornamadah Poornamidam Poornaad Poornamudachyate; Poornasya Poornamaadaaya Poornamevaavashisyate,” or: “What is Whole-This is Whole-What has come out of the Whole is also Whole; when the Whole is taken out of the Whole, the Whole still remains Whole.” The real meaning of this verse is that the infinite cannot be measured in human terms; God is infinite, and the infinite can only be represented in immeasurable ways and manifests himself in infinite ways. Hindus believe that God is everywhere, around us and within us.

Origins and History
Hinduism, as a religion, is at least 3,500 years old; the fundamentals of the faith, however, are purportedly much older. The classical theory of the origins of Hinduism traces the religion’s roots to the Indus valley civilization between 4000 and 2200 B.C.E.
The development of Hinduism was influenced by countless invasions over thousands of years. The great influence happened when nomadic IndoEuropean tribes invaded northern India around 1500 from the plains of Russia and Central Asia.
They brought with them their religion of Vedism.
These beliefs combined with the more advanced, indigenous native Indian beliefs, often called the Indus Valley culture. The classical theory, however, is being rejected by increasing numbers of archaeologists and religious historians. The Indo-European invasion account of ancient Indian history has been challenged in recent years by new conclusions founded on more recent discoveries in archaeology and cultural and literary analysis.
One of the most ancient aspects of Hinduism, which is as much social as religious, is the caste system.
In order to understand Hindu religious beliefs, it is important to comprehend the caste system.
According to the religion’s teachings, there are four basic social classes. Each caste has its own rules and obligations for dharmic living. The elite caste is the Brahman, or priest caste. Below them are the Kshatriyas, or warriors and rulers. Vaisyas, the merchants and farmers, belong to the third caste. Finally, the fourth caste is the Shudras, or laborers. Beyond these four are the Panchamas, or untouchables (literally, Fifth Division), who constitute 15–20 percent of Indian society. The untouchables are the outcasts of Hindu society: sweepers, washers of clothes, leather workers, and those who kill animals for a living.
Although originally called untouchables or pariahs, they were given the name Harijans by the Indian political and religious leader Mahatma Gandhi, who worked for many years to improve their lives. Though the term “untouchable” was outlawed in India by the 1949 constitution, the Harijans remain a very real part of Indian culture.
Many have sought to escape the stigma of their birth by converting to Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam.
Hinduism is a henotheistic religion, a religion that identifies with a single deity but also recognizes other gods and goddesses as facets, forms, and manifestations of that supreme God. The Hindu’s three-in-one God is referred to as Brahman.
Hindus also venerate the “wives” of Shiva, such as Kali, or one of Vishnu’s 10 incarnations. Most urban Hindus follow one of two primary divisions within Hinduism: Vaishnavism, which normally regards Vishnu as the main deity, or Shivaism, which regards Shiva as the primary deity.
The Hindus believe in reincarnation, the transmigration of souls, or samsara, a journey on the “circle of life.” In this journey, every person experiences a series of physical births, deaths, and rebirths. Better karma produces higher rewards. A person with good karma can be reborn into a higher caste, or even achieve divinity. Bad karma can relegate one to a lower caste or birth into the animal world in one’s next life. Nirvana, the release of the soul from the seemingly infinite cycle of rebirths, is thought to be the goal of life.
Hinduism teaches that all living things have God in their hearts. All living things are Brahman, or God. Enlightenment is only possible by tuning in to the Brahman within. Only then, according to the Hindu faith, can one reach Nirvana. The release from the wheel of life that allows entrance to Nirvana is known as Moksha (Sanskrit for “liberation,” and implying the concept of salvation).
Hinduism recognizes three possible paths (yogas or spiritual practices) to Moksha. The first is through the way of works or Karma Yoga (selfless service). This is an accepted way of salvation and emphasizes the notion that liberation may be gained by fulfilling one’s familial and social duties, thereby overcoming the weight of bad karma one has accumulated.
The second path to Moksha is through knowledge, or Jnana Yoga. According to this view, we are bound to the cycle of rebirths because of our ignorant insistence that we are individual selves and not one with Brahman. This gives rise to bad actions and, ultimately, bad karma. Salvation, therefore, is achieved through attaining a state of consciousness in which we appreciate our identity with Brahman.
This is only accomplished through profound meditation, often as a part of the discipline of yoga.
The third path to Moksha is the way of devotion, Bhakti Yoga. This is the way that is mostly accepted and followed by laypeople in India. It is a way of salvation by surrendering oneself to one of the various personal gods and goddesses of the Hindu faith. Such devotion is expressed through acts of worship, temple rituals, and pilgrimages.
Devout Hindus organize their lives around certain activities or Purusharthas, also called the “four aims of Hinduism” or “the doctrine of the fourfold end of life.” The first and the most important is dharma, or righteousness, in religious life. The second is artha, or success in economic life. The third is kama, the gratification of the senses-sexual pleasure and intellectual enjoyment. The three come under Pravritti (social action).
The fourth aim and primary goal of Nivritti (inward contemplation) is Moksha. This is considered the supreme goal of humanity. Meditation is often practiced, with yoga being the most universal method chosen. Other activities of this path include daily devotions, public rituals, and puja (pooja), a ceremonial dinner for a god.
According to Sri Shankaracharaya (788–820 C.E.), one of the greatest philosophers of India, “The Vedic dharma is verily twofold, characterized by Pravritti (social action) and Nivritti (inward contemplation), designed to promote order in the world; this twofold dharma has in view the true social welfare and spiritual emancipation of all beings.”
Holidays and Religious Observances
Throughout the year numerous festivals are celebrated in India, a country renowned for its exciting and colorful observances. Among the most popular Hindu religious festivals are Diwali, Dussehra (Durga Puja), Holi, Janamashtami, Maha Shivrati, Makar Sankranti, and Ram Naumi. Diwali, also Divali or Deepavali (in Sanskrit, “row of lights”), is the Hindu Festival of Lights. The festivities can begin on the 13th day of the waning half (Krishna Paksha) of the lunar month Asvina to the second day of the waxing half (Shukla Paksha) of Karttika (October or November in the Gregorian calendar). Like Dussehra (which precedes it in the lunar calendar), it commemorates the triumph of good over evil. The exact event or deity, and the date of the observance, celebrated by Diwali depends on one’s location. In northern India, Diwali falls on the last day of the Vikram (lunar) calendar, during the waning (dark phase) of the moon, so businesses start their fiscal year and open new accounts books. The following day, called Annakut, begins a new year. In southern India, where the Shalivahana (solar) calendar is used, Diwali begins in the seventh month (Karttika). The Shalivahana calendar begins in the year 78 C.E. when King Shalivahana was crowned after defeating the Sakas, an invading Central Asian tribe.
Diwali is the most important and the most famous of all Hindu festivals, an occasion of tremendous excitement, hectic activities, and a grand time for rejoicing. Though the Festival of Lights is meant to be celebrated for one day, local customs, traditions, and religious aspirations of the people have transformed it into a four- or five-day festival, beginning with Dhanteras-the “day of wealth,” when shoppers return home and light the first Diwali lamps-and ending with Bhaiya dooj, Brothers’ Day.
The stories connected with Diwali, and why it evolved into such a widely celebrated festival, are different in various regions and states of India.
According to the most familiar account, the first Diwali was celebrated to commemorate the triumphant return of King Rama of Ayodhya, (the seventh manifestation of Vishnu, the Protector), Sita (his wife), and his brother Lakshmana to the capital city Ayodhya, after 14 years of exile. During the exile, Lord Rama had vanquished the demon Ravana, the king of Sri Lanka. As night had already fallen before the arrival of the royal trio, the people, delighted to have their king back in their midst, lit clay lamps along the way to dispel the darkness and light up their path, hence one of its alternative names, the Festival of Lights.
Dussehra, also called Durga Puja or Vijay Dashmi, is another popular Hindu festival, observed with great fervor by Hindus throughout the world and second only to Diwali, the Festival of Lights, which it precedes. Dussehra, a 10-day festival celebrated from the first through the tenth day of the month of Asvina (September/ October in the Gregorian calendar), marks the event of the killing of the evil demon Ravana by Lord Rama, one of the most revered deities in Hinduism and the main character of the epic Ramayana (a Sanskrit classic traditionally attributed to Valmiki).
Holi, the Festival of Colors, also called Phagu and Phagwah, is another much anticipated Hindu observance and, like Dussehra and Diwali, it celebrates the triumph of good over evil. Falling on the full-moon day of the Hindu month of Falgun (or Phalgun), Holi is observed with great passion throughout India and marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring as well as the flaming end of the demoness Holika; it is a celebration of happiness and hope.
Traditionally a two-day festival, Dhulendi, the second day of Holi, is the actual day that gives Holi one of its names-the Festival of Colors.
On Dhulendi the old and the young alike gather in the streets to smear each other with colored powder or throw colored powder and water on each other.
The Hindu festival of Janmashtami (sometimes Krishna Janmashtami) celebrates the birth of Lord Krishna, arguably the most venerated god in Hinduism.
Janamashtami, also known as Krishna Ashtami, Sri Jayanthi, or Gokula Ashtami, is celebrated in the Hindu month of Sravana.
Hindus believe Krishna to be an avatar (incarnation) of Lord Vishnu, the creator of the universe and the second deity, as the Preserver, of the Hindu trinity; the first deity is Lord Brahma, the creator, and the third is Lord Shiva, the destroyer. Hindus believe that it was Krishna who delivered the deeply philosophical message of the Bhagavad Gita (“The Divine Song”), one of the world’s religious classics.
The Maha Shivrati Festival honors Lord Shiva, the Destroyer of the universe and the third deity of the Hindu trinity. Maha Shivratri, also called Shiv Chaturdashi, falls on the 13th or 14th day in the dark half of the month of Falgun (February–March in the Western calendar). The name Maha Shivratri means “the great night of Shiva,” and the celebrations of this festival take place mostly at night. A fast is observed during the day and a vigil is kept throughout the night. The Shiva lingam (the phallic symbol of Shiva, which depicts the creative force) is worshipped all through the night by bathing it with curd, milk, rosewater, and honey, and by ceremonially chanting Om Namah Shivaya (“glory be to Shiva”).
The Festival of Makar Sankranti, also called Pongal or Paush, Sankranti traditionally corresponds with the start of the sun’s northward journey, when it appears to move from the astrological sign of Sagittarius to Makar, Capricorn, changing its direction from one zodiacal constellation to the next. Sankranti means “to move from one place to another.” Every time the sun transits from one zodiac constellation to the next, is a sankranti.
There are 12 signs of the zodiac, so there are also 12 sankrantis in a year. Each sankranti is named on the basis of where the sun is in relation to the zodiacal signs, and each one has its own significance. However, two of the sankranti are extremely important: Mesh (Aries) Sankranti and Makar (Capricorn) Sankranti. Mesh Sankranti is important because the solar year begins when the sun moves into the sign of Aries, the Ram, at the vernal equinox, one of the two times in a year when the day and night are equal in length. Makar Sankranti is the Hindu celebration of the Winter Solstice, the time when the days start to become longer and the nights shorter. This festival has been observed since the Aryans came to the Indian subcontinent, and it is still considered a favorable day by Hindus because it marks the end of winter. Makar Sankranti is possibly the only Hindu festival celebrated on the same day every year because, unlike other Hindu festivals, its celebration is scheduled according to the solar calendar.
Ninth day of Shukla Paksh (the bright fortnight) in Chaitra, the first month of the Hindu lunar calendar According to legends and myths connected with Hinduism, Vishnu (who is the second deity of the sacred Hindu trinity-with Brahma and Shiva- and the preserver of the universe) made his appearance on Earth at various times, in diverse forms and manifestations (avatars), to restore righteousness, noble virtues, and peace to the world. The legends further narrate that during the second age of the Earth (calculated at around 3000 B.C.E.), Ravana, the demon king of Lanka (modern Sri Lanka), had been creating havoc on Earth. Because of a boon that Brahma had given him, Ravana could not be killed by any god or goddess. So Vishnu assumed a human form in order to redeem humanity and was born into this world as the son of King Dasharatha and his first queen, Kaushalya, who ruled over the kingdom of Ayodhya. Lord Rama, the epitome of all noble virtues and lofty ideals, is regarded as the seventh incarnation of Vishnu. As was preordained, Rama annihilated Ravana. His birth is commemorated annually with great joy on the ninth day following the new moon in the shukla paksh (the bright fortnight) of the Indian lunar month of Chaitra (in April on the Gregorian calendar).