The origins of Hinduism are shrouded in the far distant past. Unlike various other spiritual traditions, there was no single “founding father” of Hinduism, no individual like Moses or Mohammed or Jesus who set out the principles of the religion.

The religion is actually named after a geographical region, the Indus Valley in central Asia (now part of Pakistan). An ancient agricultural people lived in the Valley, worshiping in particular the forces of nature, and thus honoring the great “mother goddess” of creation itself. Then around 1700 BCE, a group of Aryans invaded the Valley, having split off from their fellow tribes-people (Aryan tribes had by that time spread all over Europe and parts of Asia, conquering and settling in what we now call Italy, Greece, Spain, England, and Persia).

Those who settled in the Indus Valley, like their Aryan counterparts elsewhere, were largely patriarchal, giving reverence to a “sky father,” (in Greece they called him Zeus, in Italy Jupiter). The Hindus, those who settled in the Indus, called the force or spirit that is beyond all others Brahman. These settlers in the Valley of the Indus merged with whatever people were already living there, and as their beliefs merged, what we now think of as Hinduism came into being.

Sacred writings of Hinduism

The sacred spiritual stories of the Aryans were transmitted orally, through memorization and recital, until the Aryans in the Indus Valley developed a written language called Sanskrit, still the sacred language of Hindu writings and rituals. The oldest of these writings (actually perhaps the oldest writings in the world) are called the Vedas, and the most familiar of these is the Rig Veda, which dates from around 5000 BCE. In the Vedas we find reference to many “gods” and “goddesses,” but there is always a sense that these are simply various manifestations of the one great force or power known as Brahman.

Teachings from the Upanishads concerning the Universal Self:

“In the beginning this universe was Self alone…one only.”

“…All that is is Brahman. Let a man meditate on the visible world as beginning,
ending, and breathing in it….”

“…A father teaches his son…
…’Place this salt in water, and then wait on me in the morning.’
The son did as he was commanded.
The father said to him: ‘Bring me the salt, which you placed in the water last
The son having looked for it, found it not, for, of course, it was melted.
The father said, ‘Taste the water. How is it?’
The son replied, ‘It is salt.’
Then the father said, ‘Here also, in this body, forsooth, you do not perceive the
True, my son, but there indeed it is. That which is subtle essence, in it all that
exists has its self. It is the True. It is the Self, and thou art it.”
Hindus use many forms and faces, symbols and myths to picture the many sides of this essential Oneness.

Manifestations of Brahman as gods and goddesses:

Manifesting as creator, there is Brahma; images of him show his four faces looking out in all directions, encompassing the four corners of the universe. Sarasvati, goddess of knowledge, is his daughter.

Manifesting as preserver and protector of mankind and of the sacred law, there is Vishnu, whose task is to maintain the balance between good and evil powers in the universe. Vishnu’s wife is Lakshmi, bringer of good fortune. (One of the ways Vishnu manifested was as Krisha, the power of love or the way of the heart).

Manifesting as the transitory nature of reality, with awareness of the balance of life and death, dancing the ever changing nature of things but always purifying by conquering ignorance and illusion, there is

Shiva, the Lord of the Dance. Shiva dances in a halo of fire, representing the cycle of birth and death. As he dances, he crushes underfoot the demon of ignorance. In one hand is his drum, with which rhythm is maintained in all the changes; in the other hand is a fire of destruction, purification, renewal. His hands take the shape of blessing. Snakes are around his arms and neck, symbolizing Shiva’s power
over evil forces, and the snake reminding us that even evil can shed its skin and take new form. In many images, Shiva is shown as an androgonous figure, but in the myths, he does have a female counterpart, his “wife,” who is Parvati.

But the energy that most encompasses the totality of the “great goddess” is perhaps Kali Durga, also called Mahadiva, although there are many others (countless artifacts of female goddesses dating from before the time the Aryans came into the Indus Valley have been found in the Valley by archeologists). A common image of Kali shows her wearing a neckace of human skulls, wielding a sword in one hand and the decapitated head of a giant demon dripping blood in the other. She stands on a corpse in the cremation ground. She reminds Hindus that fear of death can be overcome and that the meaning of life goes beyond any individual and resides ultimately in one’s identification with Brahman.

Agni and Indra were associated with the sun, with light, and illumination.

Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, is the over-comer of obstacles.

There are many other “gods” and “goddesses,” all understood to be manifestations of the “way things are,” manifestations of the creative and molding powers of the world, many ways of seeing Brahman, or the ultimate power of creation.

A Daily Prayer:
“Oh Gods! All your names and forms are to be revered, saluted, and
adored; all of you who have sprung from heaven, and earth, listen here
to my invocation.” from the Rig Veda.

Philosophical concepts in Hinduism

There is an inmost core or being, a universal spirit in every person, that is at one with Brahman; this is called the Atman.

Dharma stands for the ultimate moral balance of all things, in the world and in each individual. But the individual has the obligation to maintain this sacred balance. One’s dharma is played out in religious, social, and familial areas.

The concept of karma teaches that “we reap what we sow,” that if a person does something wrong, it catches up with him, either in this life or in the next, while something done well will find its reward.

For Hindus believe in reincarnation, the idea that a person is reborn into many lives, either in a better or worse state (depending on the person’s previous karma), but they also believe that the soul never dies.

Samsara is the state of being caught by karma in the illusion of linear time and in the existence of only this material reality. This reality, the world as we normally see it, the Hindus call Maya, but it is seen as just one fleeting bit of the vast universe of Brahman. Maya also represents the endless cycle of life, a time in which one can work out one’s destiny.

Eventually one may reach a state of purification and perfection by living a life of religious devotion and moral integrity, so that one escapes the wheel of karma and samsara and enjoys a state of moksha, or freedom, peace, bliss.

Perhaps because of awareness of karma, or the law of consequences, and because they see Brahman in everything, Hindus do not believe in killing, even animals (reference the “sacred cow,” or “brahma bull” protected in India).

Ascetics are people dedicated to a life of spiritual austerity and self-discipline, in order to come to realize fully (through enlightenment or “self realization”) that a person is not separate from the universal soul, from Brahman, that his body or mind is not an isolated identity. Ascetics live lives of intense devotion and meditation. Some of them have inspired people away from dependence on priests or rituals, encouraging direct knowledge of Brahman, or absolute truth.

Sacred sites include various temples, many of them very ancient, and also the five important rivers in India, particularly the Ganges, where people go to bathe in the healing and sacred waters, and to set free the bodies of the deceased.

The pilgrimage to these sites is an important part of Hindu tradition.

Symbols of Hinduism

These include the symbol OM, a visual and oral representation of Brahman. This sound and symbol is actually made up of the three letters: A, for beginning, U, for progress, and M, for dissolution. Thus Om represents the Brahman, the power of creation, development and destruction.

The geometrical pattern Sri Yantra is common symbol used as a visual focal point for meditation. It consists of nine triangles which intersect to form forty-three triangles in all, with three concentric circles surrounding the triangles, and all framed by a square. Thus is represented that the many aspects of Brahman merge into one.

An ancient symbol of auspiciousness or good fortune and protection is the swastika. It represents Vishnu, and also the eternal wheel of life which rotates upon an unchanging center, Brahman. Of course, its use and meaning predates the swastika of Nazi Germany, which is drawn in reverse of the ancient Hindu symbol.

The lotus, born in water and unfolding into a beautiful flower, symbolizes the birth of the universe in all its glory. It is also a symbol of the sun, rising out of Vishnu. The lotus is said to be the seat of Brahma, and, indeed, many deities are shown sitting atop the sacred lotus flower.

The cow has been held sacred by Hindus for ages. Actual cows are said to be the offspring of the celestial cow created by Lord Krishna to nourish the human race. The bull is one of the most ancient symbols in the goddess-worshiping earth-centered religions; the bull represents the male aspect of fertility.

From The Code of Manu:
“Wound not others, do no one injury by thought, or deed, utter no word to
pain thy fellow creatures. He who habitually salutes and constantly pays
reverence to the aged obtains an increase of four things: length of life,
knowledge, fame, and strength…Depend not on another, but lean instead
on thyself. True happiness is born of self-reliance…By falsehood a
sacrifice becomes vain; by self-complacency the reward for austerities is
lost; by boasting the goodness of an offering is brought to naught…”
—from the Ordinances of Manu

Duties of a Hindu include daily worship, reciting scripture, honoring of parents and elders, helping the poor and the guest, respecting and caring for animals. Almost all Hindus keep a shrine in their homes, regardless of their economic station. The shrine is attended to religiously. On a shelf may be placed a photograph of a chosen god. The frgrance of fresh flowers or fruit may mix with incense and perfume. A bell, rung for prayer, stands nearby. An oil lamp, lit during worship, may sit beside the scriptures from which prayers are read. Other symbols of gurus or gods may also appear.

From the Bahavad-Gita:

“…Pleasure and pain, gain and loss, victory and defeat, are all one and the
same…Poise your mind in tranquility…Aspirants may find enlightenment by
two different paths. For the contemplative is the path of knowledge; for the
active is the path of selfless action. Freedom from activity is never achieved by
abstaining from action. Nobody can become perfect by merely ceasing to act.
Action rightly renounced brings freedom: Action rightly performed brings
freedom: both are better than merely shunning of action…The wise see
knowledge and action as one: They see truly. Take either path and tread it to
the end: The end is the same…The mind is restless, no doubt, and hard to
subdue. But it can be brought under control by constant practice, and by the
exercise of dispassion. Certainly, if a man has no control over his ego, he will
find this yoga difficult to master. but a self-controlled man can master it, if he
struggles hard, and uses the right means.”

Hindu holidays and festivals:

Hinduism is a religion full of life, color, and emotion, for the world, says the Hindu, is God’s joyous creation, his delight, his play. So it should be enjoyed, even while the goal is the awareness that this life is but one sliver of the vastness of realty. For the Hindu, there are gay holy days, temple ceremonies, and marriage feasts. There are drums and cymbals, candles and fires. There are processions of gaily decked elephants. There are fires and festivals.

Hindus follow a lunar year, causing festivals and holidays to appear at different dates each year.

Magha is the celebration of the winter solstice.

Phalguna: celebrated sometime around February or March, is dedicated to Saraswati, goddess of poetry and wisdom.

Chaitra: Holi, is the spring festival, usuallycelebrated in March or April.

Vaisakha: Rama’s birthday celebration takes place in April or May.

Ashadha: Ratha Yatra, celebration of Krishna, takes place in June or July.

Bhadrapada: Raksha Bankhan, holiday celebrating siblings, and Janamashtami, celebration of Krishna’s birth, usually takes place in August or September.

Durga Puja, honoring the divine mother goddess under all her names: Shakti, Durga, Kali, Parvati and many more is usually held in autumn.

Karttika: new year festival, and Divali, festival of lights, take place in October or November.
From the teachings of Ramakrishna:

“…You see many stars at night in the sky but find them not when the
sun rises; can you say that there are no stars in the heaven of day?
So, O man! because you behold not God in the days of your
ignorance, say not that there is no God. As one and the same
material, water, is called by different names by different peoples, one
calling it water, another calling it eau, a third aqua, and another
pani, so the one Sat-chit-ananda, the everlasting-intelligent-bliss, is
invoked by some as God, by some as Allah, by some as Jehovah, by
some as Hari, and by others as Brahman. As one can ascend to the
top of a house by means of a ladder or a bamboo or a staircase or a
rope, so diverse are the ways and means to approach God, and
every religion in the world shows one of these ways. Different creeds
are but different paths to reach the Amighty…The sunlight is one
and the same wherever it falls, but only bright surfaces like water,
mirrors and polished metals can reflect it fully. So is the divine light.
It falls equally and impartially on all hearts, but only the pure and
clean hearts of the good and holy can fully reflect it…”

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