Hinduism has to be one of the most difficult religions for a Westerner to understand. Many scholars and teachers don’t always interpret Hinduism the same but the one thing they do agree on is outsiders can’t grasp the complexity of the language and culture. I am certainly one of those outsiders.
There are over 1.1 million people living in India and 81% are Hindu while only 12% are Muslim. Outside of India, there are many Hindus living in many countries with over 3 million living in the United States. In 1968, the US changed its immigration laws to allow many Indian professionals to immigrate to the United States and US large corporations have expanded into India. President Obama has called India one of the “…defining partnerships of the 21st century, one which will be vital to U.S. strategic interests in Asia-Pacific and across the globe” (State).
Hinduism was formed before anyone kept records – it goes that far back in history. The word Hindu comes from a Persian word used to describe those who live opposite them on the other side of the Indus River. Modern day Hindus prefer sanatana dharma – meaning “the eternal way of conduct”- to describe their religion. Followers feel Hindu is divine in origin and it prescribes conduct that covers every aspect of daily life. Some followers believe their sacred law can only be practiced in India and that if they were to practice outside of India they would be considered impure and not able to live as Hindus. Others believe Hindu can be followed regardless of where you live and about 1% live in the United States. Although there is diversity among Hindu followers, most Hindu’s share a set of beliefs and acknowledge a traditional path to follow the path to reincarnation.
Hindu’s focus on samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth — also known as reincarnation. A person is born, throughout their lifetime they collect positive and negative karma based on good or bad deeds. How an individual is reborn depends on how much karma earned based on how they have lived their life. If good karma then the next life will be better, but if the soul is found to be “wanting” then the next life will be more difficult than the present life. A person can be reborn as a plant, animal or human.
The ultimate goal of Hinduism is called moksha, meaning salvation from samsara. To achieve moksha, an individual must abandon all earthly desires and become” one with the universal soul” (Discovery). To be saved from this ongoing cycle of reincarnation means that a person will no longer have to endure the repeated pain and suffering of earthly existence. They also would focus on attaining purity by avoiding pollution and regularly worshiping at home and in the temple.
Hindu’s believe in the Vedas – ancient scriptures believed to be have been directly heard and called śhruti while other scriptures are what are remembered and called smṛti. The Vedas are the oldest part of the shruti and have four collections; the Rig-Veda (best known), the Yajur-Veda are prayers used as devotions, the Sama-Veda are hymns and chants of the Rig-Veda that are used by the priests and the Artharva-Veda which deals with the emotions people experience every day. The Vedas are considered the root of religion (Clarke 124-128).
Hinduism has different duties for its people based on what stage of life they are in: student (someone between ages eight and twelve) who studies the Vedas, when they marry around age 25 and he observes caste duties expected in marriage, family, his work and supports the parents. When he has a son, the man then can turn over to the son and move onto the next stage where he thinks back on what he did and has learned. In this stage the person devotes his life to studying sacred writings and meditates on becoming one with God. The fourth stage is when the soul is released from the body using special psychology developed by Hindus. Women can observe the first three stages of life. Some women are more modern and have chosen not to be submissive to the men in their lives. Some have trained to become gurus (teachers of religious duties) or others chose to not marry or have a family and chose to become a sannyasin – someone who sacrifices all worldly possessions and pursues “spiritual liberation”(Bowker 30-35) .
In this day and age Hindus have four major goals in living: karma, artha, dharma and moksha. If a person choses karma, then they are choosing a life of physical or emotional pleasure. Individuals who chose artha want widespread fame, wealth and having an elevated social standing. All Hindus are expected to choose dharma which is living a righteous life and live according to their caste. Moksha is achieved through yoga and seeks samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth– also known as reincarnation (Matthews 75-86).
Hindus can worship at the temple or at home by creating a shrine dedicated to the Gods that they chose (there are many). Gong to temple is not required and many Hindus visit only during religious festivals. Some Hindus have icons which represent their chosen gods and are considered manifestations and tangible links to their gods while others do not believe in icons. Hindus celebrate rituals also in their homes and occasions such as marriage; births and death involve very elaborate rituals.
Bowker, John. World Religions: The great faiths explored and explained. New York : DK Publishing.
Clarke, P.B., ed. The World’s Religions Understanding the Living Faiths. Pleasanteville: Reader’s Digest
Books. 1993. Print
Discovery Channel. How does the ultimate goal of the Hindu religion relate to reincarnation?
Curiosity.com. Web. 23 April 2013.
Matthews, Warren. World Religions. Belmont : Wadsworth. 2010. Print.
US Dept. of State. US Relations with India Fact Sheet. 12 Dec 2012. Web. 22 Apr 2013.