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Hinduism, known as Sanātana Dharma, and Vaidika-Dharma by most Hindus, is a worldwide religious tradition rooted in Indian culture and based on teachings of the Vedas. Hinduism is the third largest religion, with a following of approximately one billion people, encompassing many diverse beliefs and schools. The scholarly estimates of Hinduism’s origin vary from 3102 B.C.E. to 1300 B.C.E., although Hindu estimates are considerably longer, given that they see the religion as expressing timeless truths. Ninety-eight percent of Hinduism’s practitioners can be found on the Indian subcontinent, chiefly in Bharat (India).

Some Hindus dislike the name “Hinduism,” although many now use the term. It is an English term, probably first used in the 1829 Oxford English Dictionary and derived from the Persian language for the people who lived beyond the Indus River. It has been argued that Hinduism as described in many textbooks and as taught at universities results from the work of the theosophist, Annie Besant (1847 – 1933), who designed a syllabus for teaching the sanatana dharma at her Hindu Central College (founded 1898). She systematized the religion into the four classes, four stages of life, four aims, four ages. Some criticize this Western tendency to elevate an abstract, classical, ‘Great Tradition’ above the myriad ‘small’ (or local) traditions that inform the lives of most Hindus.

Some argue that there is no singular or unitary religion of India at all. They regard Hinduism as an umbrella term for a multitude of related beliefs and practices, known as margas. Hinduism has close family ties with Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism and is considered to be a cultural sphere in its own right. One definition of a Hindu is anyone who reveres the Vedas. Another says that a Hindu is someone who other Hindus recognize as Hindu, regardless of how different their belief or practice.*1+ There are Hindu minorities in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, South Africa, and a substantial diaspora presence in Europe and in North America. The relatively small Himalayan kingdom of Nepal is the only nation in the modern world with Hinduism as its state religion. Many Princely states in India had Hinduism as their state religion prior to the creation of the modern Indian state in 1947.

Many non-Hindus see a great amount of ancient wisdom in Hinduism’s foundational texts, the Vedas and Upanishads, which Hindus believe were “breathed out” by the gods and represent knowledge. Many people believe that God was revealing God’s-self through the ancient laws and ethical principles contained in Hindu scriptures, which speak of a cosmic struggle between order (dharma) and chaos (adharma). Hinduism has helped billions of people to make sense of life, and to live orderly lives centered on belief in the existence of universal moral principles for thousands of years. Julius Lipner has pointed out that for “well over 3,000 years” Hinduism, or the “plural reality named as such,” has “regularly produced men and women down the ages who have made outstanding contributions across the range of the civilized human endeavor.”*2+ The world would be much the poorer if Hinduism, however defined, was absent from human experience. Hinduism represents one of the great civilization streams that have helped to unify humanity and to engender respect for creation and recognition that the physical and material aspects of life are not the only or even the ultimate reality. Many non-Hindus have adopted elements of Hindu belief and practice while identifying with a different religion, or with no organized religion at all.

The Vedic Heritage

The overwhelming majority of Hindu sacred texts are composed in the Sanskrit language. Indeed, muchof the morphology and linguistic philosophy inherent in the learning of Sanskrit is sometimes claimed tobe inextricably linked to study of the Vedas and of relevant Hindu texts. The Vedas (literally Knowledge)are considered as shruti(revelation) by Hindus. They were breathed out by the gods and thus have nobeginning in time. While the overwhelming majority of Hindus may never read the Vedas, there prevailsin them a reverence for this abstract notion of eternal knowledge. The four Vedas (the Rig Veda, YajurVeda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda) were preserved by various shakhas or schools. Depending on theschool, various commentaries and instructions are associated with each Veda.

The oldest of these are the Brahmanas (priests). The Shrautasutras and Grhyasutras form a younger stratum dealing withdomestic ritual. This founding layer of Hinduism does establish the four classes (varnas:brahmins,ksatriya, Vaishya, sudra) as a social system that distributed tasks and responsibilities, and seems to privilege the highest varna, the priests, although this has never translated into economic privilege.Members of the second highest class, the warrior-class, are often wealthier, while the merchant Vaishya class may be even wealthier than the warrior-class. Even Sudras, the servants, could rise up the economic scale, and in practice, class was never as rigid as has been suggested. In a Rig Veda hymn (Ch.10, Verse 90), these classes emerge from the head, shoulders, thighs, and feet of the sacrificial primordial, cosmic Purusha (man) (Embree 1998: 18). The main Vedic deities include Varuna (sky), Mitra(sun), Indra (war), Agni (fire), and Yama (death).

The Vedas contain many different types of material. There are stories of the gods and demons, of therishis (neither quite gods nor human), and creation narratives. Creation may not be the best translation,because one characteristic of these narratives is that the cosmos emanates from, and is therefore an aspect of, the Unfathomable One that stands behind all. The gods, it is implied in the Rig Veda, do no treally know how the world began because they are on “this side,” but an unknown, unnamed One“breathed without wind through its independent power…. There was nothing other than it” (Embree1998: 21). The Vedas contain numerous sacrificial formulas, and pit adharma(chaos) against the need for cosmic order (dharma). Dharma is also a god and the term refers both to the sacrificial and other rituals of the Brahmins (properly, Brahman but rendered Brahmin to distinguish from Brahman as ultimate reality) and to that moral conduct that is appropriate to a person’s gender, class, and stage in life.Originally, Brahman appears to have denoted the prayers of the priests, but was eventually adopted to designate the priests themselves. Soma (an intoxicating wine and also a god) and agni (fire, also a god)are essential to the sacrificial system. Medical knowledge is also contained in the Vedas, which continues to inform the practice of what is sometimes referred to as “alternative medicine” in India,that is, alternative to Western medicine. It is also known as Ayurvedic medicine, said to be the oldest system in the world. According to Hindu thought, it was revealed by Brahma to the sage, Atreya. Danceand music were similarly revealed.

The idea of appeasing the gods is not absent from the Vedas, but the real purpose of the sacrifices is to maintain cosmic balance. In the Brahmanas (priests’ manuals) that were written to accompany the Vedas, Vac (speech, which is feminine) is also said to have created the Vedas. The Brahmins alsomaintain rigorous purity rules that separate them socially from other classes but especially from the Sudras and from those who are considered to be outside the class system.

The Vedantic Literature: the philosophical strand

The Aranyakas and the Upanishads (which are known as Vedantic, or the end of the Vedas) wereoriginally esoteric, mystical teachings related in secrecy. The Upanishads (usually dated about form 900or 800 B.C.E.) set Hindu philosophy apart with its embrace of a single transcendent and yet immanent force that is native to each person’s soul, seen by some as an identification of micro- and macrocosm as One. It can be said that while early Hinduism was most reliant on the four Vedas, classical Hinduism was molded around the Upanishads, which represent the “end of the Vedas.”

This literature was also“revealed.” Sometimes, the Upanishads seem to scoff at those who place their faith in sacrifices performed by someone else: “Regarding sacrifice and merit as most important, the deluded ones do not know of any other higher spiritual good” (Munkara Upanishad, Embree: 31). Instead of a physical sacrifice, an inner, spiritual sacrifice is enjoined; “sacrifice in knowledge is better than sacrifice with material objects” (Gita, 4:33, Miller 1986: 53). The object of religious observance is no longer primarily the maintenance of cosmic order but liberation (moksha) from the endless cycle (samsara) of existences,of multiple births, deaths, and rebirths. In the Upanishads, sat (truth or essence) or Brahman, is the Allin-All,Tat Tvam Asi(Thou Art That) or the Universal Soul from which the many emanates: “Being thought to itself: ‘May I be many, may I procreate’” (Chandogya Upanishad, Embree: 37). Although the words rshti is here translated as “procreate,” a better rendering is “the projection of that which already is.”

Brahman is ultimate bliss (ananda). Only Brahman is non-contingent. The many gods, Vedic and postVedic,are usually said to be various manifestations of the attributes or qualities of the single and ultimately transcendent reality. For some, that reality is non-personal, without attributes (nirguna), but at a lower level manifests its attributes in the form of a personal god (Isvara) which take over some of the function of Brahman in relation to the universe and to the Atman (soul, or spark) within sentient beings. As a spark of Brahman, the Atman is also eternal and uncreated. Ananda (joy, or bliss) results when people realize their oneness with Brahman, which is the condition of samadhi (absorption) and its fruit is moksa (or moksha), liberation from rebirth. Meanwhile, karma (action) good or bad determines status, punishment, and rewards in future existences. While Brahmanism, or the priestly strand, did not leave non-Brahmin’s very much to do religiously, except to behave ethically, Vedanta opened up the possibility of philosophical speculation (sankhya) and of yogic practice for almost anyone,except shudra’s (the lowest varna or caste), who were forbidden from reading the sacred texts. Yoga aims to achieve samadhi.

Two great thinkers, Shankara (788 – 820 C.E.) and Ramanuja (1017 – 1137 C.E.)contributed significantly to the development of Vendanta. Shankara taught that plurality is an illusion (maya) and that moksa results from realization (cit, awareness) of absolute identification of atman with Brahman. Brahman is beyond space and time. When the knowledge that “everything is indeed the absolute” (sarvan khalu ilam brahman) is achieved by deep meditation and mental discipline (yoga), the Atman is freed of ignorance (avidya) and is forever liberated from samsara. Shankara taught that worship of an Isvara (or personal savior) represented a low level of religious practice. Ramanuja disagreed. For him, Brahman is both the self without and the self within,the essence of the universe and a personal deity. Plurality is real, not an illusion; the many really exist but only exist fully when aware of their absolute dependence on Brahman. The realized self participates in God’s being, yet is not to be confused with the totality of God. For Ramanuja, it is God’s dominant characteristic of love that enables people to gain true knowledge of God. God remains the only self illuminated being; one can only enter a true relationship with God with the aid of divine grace (prasada).Individuality (ahamkara), for Shankara, must perish; for Ramanuja, it continues but in communion with all other selves. Vedanta’s primary concern is in right knowledge (jnana), although right action is always-important.