Thursday, February 19, 2015

Religion Survey: Hinduism

Last week I discussed presenting a brief review of world religions, in order to foster respect for the diversity that religious pluralism in the U.S. brings.  This is the third article in the series. For an overview of Islam, please see yesterday's post. For an overview of Christianity, please see Tuesday’s post. For an overview of Judaism, please see Monday’s post.

It is not possible to convey the depth of a religious belief system in 500 words or less. These posts are intended to be a high-level introduction to the origin, founder (if any), holy book(s), principles, and major holy days or celebrations of each of these faiths. I will also attempt to provide references for deeper study.

Religion: Hinduism
Hinduism is an ethnic religion, followed by many peoples in and from India.

Hinduism does not have a singular founder. It is one of the oldest existing religions, dating back to the 3rd millennium BCE.

Holy Book(s):
  • The Vedas are a collection of hymns and stories, probably oral at first, that were written down and developed over a span of time, between 2000 and 400 BCE.
    • Rig-Veda is a collection of over 1000 hymns to the gods
    • Yajur-Veda, "knowledge of rites"
    • Sama-Veda, "knowledge of chants"
    • Atharva-Veda, "knowledge given by the sage, Atharva"
  • Upanishads
    • Each of the Vedas has four sections: hymns, ritual materials, materials for hermits, and the Upanishads
    • These are philosophical materials
  • Bhagavad Gita is an epic poem, that is part of the longer Mahabharata
    • The events told are dated back to ~850-650 BCE
    • The Bhagavad Gita is believed to have been written between the 2nd and 3rd century BCE
    • The Mahabharata is believed to have begun composition as early as the 9th or 8th century BCE

Hinduism is an expansive religion with many acceptable theologies, from atheism (not believing in gods) to monotheism (belief in one God) to polytheism (belief in many gods). There can even be room for a trinitarian (god in three persons) perspective in Hinduism.

The Upanishads assume that there is one true reality in the universe, Brahman. Everything else is just expressions of the Brahman. Individual existence is Maya, an illusion that separates one from Brahman.

Post-classical Hinduism, following the Bhagavad Gita, focuses on gods and goddesses. The three major gods are Brahma, the creator; Shiva, the destroyer, and Vishnu, the preserver, often seen as manifestations of Brahman. Their consorts, Sarasvati, Kali, and Lakshmi, may be seen as manifestations of Devi, the great goddess.

Vishnu, the preserver, is said to have incarnated on earth in order to help people. The Bhagavad Gita tells that one of his incarnations was Krishna, a human child who grew to be a man. (Written ~100-200 years BCE.)

Major Holy Days / Celebrations:
There are many different feasts, festivals, and traditions dedicated to the various gods, goddesses, holy places, and seasons of Hinduism. Here are just a few:
  • Holi, celebrated late February / early March
  • Divali, the Festival of Lights and welcoming the new year, in November
  • Dasehra, 9 days of celebration in October

Major groupings / divisions of the religion:

There are three major groupings of Hinduism. Some sites include a fourth:
  1. Saivism
  2. Shaktism
  3. Vaishnavism
  4. Smartism or Smartha
In addition to these major groupings, there are many smaller branches. A Patheos article shares a more detailed breakdown from Reddit. The Patheos/Reddit article includes mention of Jainism, which most of the World Religions texts I've encountered consider a breakoff religion from Hinduism, not too different from the way Christianity became different from Judaism.

Both the Reddit breakdown and this article on Hindu sects also discuss Sikhs. Multiple books and sites indicate that Sikhism began as an attempt to reconcile Islam and Hinduism.

Tomorrow, I'll survey the third major religion to "break away from" Hinduism: Buddhism.

Note: Some features of the three "breakaway" religions were incorporated back into the parent Hinduism, at least in India.

In this, Hinduism is more similar to Judaism. Hindu origins are as an ethnic and regional religion, something that one is either born into, or not born into. Also like Judaism, most Hindu traditions do not proselytize or seek out converts.

WikiHow's article states:
"Most Hindus will tell you that you cannot officially convert to Hinduism. They might tell you that Hinduism is something people are born into and that it is not a religion that an outsider may enter into. But fear not, there are some Hindu sects which are open to Westerners."
Whether a Westerner *should* convert to Hinduism, is a subject of significant debate and discussion, particularly within global feminist discourse.

To learn more (Hindu-centered):
These are some resources that Google pulled up. Feel free to add your own in the comments.
In addition to online resources:
  • Contact or visit your local Hindu temple
For a Christian-centered perspective:
I am an American, and most of my readers are based in the United States. I have seen many concerns from Christians that learning even the rudiments of other religions might threaten their faith… and that is one of the reasons I’m even attempting this series.

For those who are not ready to look at things from a Hindu-centered perspective, these two books are Christian-centered overviews:
From the Religious Studies perspective:
This was the textbook in my undergraduate Religious Studies coursework: