Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest religions in existence (Srinivasan 66). It ranks as
living in India (Wangu 6). In order to understand the followers of the religion, you must first
India (Berry 3). All traditions within India are somehow associated with Hinduism. “The
diversity which marks Hinduism begins with the notion of deity” (Boraks 14). “There is a strange
kind of unity in the vast multiplicity of the Hindu pantheon” (14). “One never really is certain
whether the Hindu religion is polytheistic or dualistic or even monotheistic: there are indications
that are all of these and none of these” (14)!
The Hindus define sacredness as Brahman (Boraks 14). To Hindus, Brahman is external,
is changeless, has no equal, and is infinite (14). Brahman expresses itself through creation,
with creation, but Brahma creates and then abandons his creation to lesser gods (14).
Hinduism was not founded by one individual, and it was not always the complex religion it
(Srinivasan 66). “It developed gradually, as a merging of beliefs and practices of two main groups
- the people of the Indus Valley in India and the Aryans of Persia” (Wangu 14).
they have sacred subject matter (Boraks 15).
“There are two main categories of Hindu Scripture – shruti, ‘that which is heard’ and
smriti, ‘tradition’ or ‘that which is to be remembered’” (Wangu 9). The Vedas and the
Upanishads are shruti texts (9). “These sacred writings are considered to be inspired by God and
to have been revealed to human kind by ancient sages called rishis” (9).
Each of the shruti texts provides a foundation for Hinduism. “The four Vedas are the
oldest of the texts and are primary scriptures of Hinduism” (9). No one knows when these
hymns were composed, although at the latest they should be dated between 1200 and 900 BC
(Berry 18). “One of the four Vedas contains hymns, chants and praises to gods” (Wangu 9).
information on magic and charms that can be used as blessings or curses, and the fourth gives
musical notes to be chanted while performing rituals” (9).
The latest of the shruti texts are the Upanishads (Wangu 9). The Upanishads were written
around 700 – 500 BC (9). Most of the Upanishads are written in the form of dialogue, possibly
another life, samsara – reincarnation, and moksha – release from the cycles of samsara (9). In the
texts of the Upanishads one finds more of the philosophical outlook of Hinduism, especially
books are the principal doctrines of the Hindu faith (Wangu 10). All of the works that come after
the Vedas and Upanishads are smriti texts (10).
The smriti texts include epics, Puranas, Sutras, Shastras, and devotional Bhakti songs
Mahabharata and the Ramayana (10). These two epics have undergone numerous changes
throughout the centuries (10).
Mahabharata tribe” (Boraks 17). Containing over ninety thousand stanzas, it is probably the
“It includes the Bhagavad Gita, an important sacred text in Hinduism which tells an important
story about the god Krishna” (10).
“The other great epic, the Ramayana, tells the tale of Rama, the seventh incarnation of the
god Vishnu” (Wangu 10). “The earliest part of the text dates from around 350 BC, but the work
as a whole was not compiled until much later” (10). “This long epic poem traces the incarnation
of Rama from infancy to adulthood, recounting his exploits, his teachings, and his miraculous
deeds” (Boraks 17). These pieces of sacred literature are just some of the many sacred works
that has built Hinduism into the religion it is today.
Hinduism alone is a complicated religion, but it becomes even more complex because of
its social duties and beliefs. “Hinduism is divided into three different sects: Shaivism,
Vaishnavism, and Shaktism” (Wangu 11). “These sects are bound together by the belief that
have to the material world” (11).
Some rituals and beliefs hold all the sects together (Wangu 11). These are puja, daily
samsara, belief in reincarnation; and moksha, final release from material existence (11).
Each day Hindus worship their gods. “To do this, they perform puja in a sacred corner in
a worship room of the home” (Wangu 11). “The puja ritual keeps Hindus aware of their gods and
mindful of their duties as individuals” (11). The most sacred setting for puja is the temple (11).
the center of the Hindus lives (Berry 40). Most importantly, the temple is a place of passage from
this world to the next (40).
financial whereabouts. The four main castes were Brahmins, priests; Kshatriyas, knights and
The Hindu caste system was supported by Dharma (Wangu 12). Dharma insisted that a certain
caste had certain duties in society (12). If a person did not carry out these duties they were
considered sinners (12). The Hindus believe that if a person performs their duty unquestionably,
believed to be responsible for upsetting the balance of life in the universe. The caste system was
or acts in a person’s previous or present life which will determine the quality of the next
preparation for the final years (67). Since these stages are common, Hindu priests also marry and
raise a family (67).
There are four major rites of passage: prenatal; childhood; marriage; and death (111). On
these occasions, family members join together to bless the individual and to protect him from any
“Three rites are performed before the birth of a child: the rite of conception; the wish for a
male child; and the protection of the fetus” (Wangu 111). The rite of conceptions is performed
mother and child (111). In the third or fourth month of pregnancy, a rite is performed to obtain a
male child (111). Between the fourth and eighth month of pregnancy a rite is performed to ward
off evil spirits (111).
Several rituals are performed between a child’s birth and adolescence. The first ritual is a
simple ritual that is performed immediately after birth (Wangu 111). “The most important is the
the baby’s birth” (111). “On this occasion, the baby is given a formal name” (111). The third
is celebrated sometime during the sixth month (111).
The main ritual of adolescence is the initiation called upanayana, “threat ceremony”
(Wangu 111). Only a male child of the upper three castes can undergo this ceremony (111). At
is to initiate a child into his Hindu social caste (112). “Before the ritual of upanayana , the boy
eats his last meal with his mother” (112). “From that moment, he is expected to eat with the adult
male members of his family” (112). During the ceremony he is given the Sacred Thread, upavita
(Wangu 112-113). “It is a symbol of all individual existences, inseparable and linked to one single
source of the universe” (Wangu 113). The child then stays to study with his teacher for several
years and at the completion of his studies another ritual takes place (113). The central theme of
this ritual is the ceremonial bath (113). After the bath, he is ready to marry and become a
“Marriage is one of the most important rituals in the life of a Hindu” (Wangu 113). The
married man’s role is pivotal in Hindu society (113). The first step is to find a suitable wife (113).
place some time before the day of the marriage (113). The rites are performed in front of a fire
with the bride, the groom, and the friends and family of the couple (113). The couple takes
several steps around the fire, which is the most important part of the ceremony (Wangu 114).
After the ritual, the couple goes to the husband’s home and on the fourth day, several rites are
performed to ensure fertility (114).
local cremation ground (Wangu 114). The body is cremated in the belief that its ancestors after
is believed that the deceased person is born again after being cremated (Wangu 115). “The
funeral ritual, sraddha, is performed in order to help the deceased reach the homes of the ancestor
safely” (115). “The prenatal, childhood, marriage, and death rituals are also performed for
women belonging to the twice- born castes” (115). “During these times, Vedic formulas are not
recited, since women are not allowed to read or hear the Vedas” (115).
Hinduism is made up of several practices and rites. Hindus have the ability to choose their
path because of the diversity of Hinduism. Hinduism has many faces (Boraks 14). It is like “an
umbrella which shelters beneath its cover a whole panoply of religions ideas and expressions”
(14). Hinduism may have originated in India, but its practices have spread throughout the world
and it has had a profound influence on many other world religions.
Boraks, Lucius. Religions of the East. Kansas City, MO: Sheed & Ward, 1988.
Wangu, Madhu Bazaz. Hinduism: World Religions. New York: Facts on File Incorporated, 1991.