Hinduism (commonly called Sanatana Dharma, roughly translated as ‘Perennial Faith’) is an umbrella term for native Indian religions. It is characterized by a diverse array of belief systems, practices and scriptures. It has its origin in the ancient Indo-Aryan Vedic culture, giving it claim to be among the oldest major world religions, predating the other “Dharma faiths”, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. It is the third largest religion with approximately 940 million followers worldwide, 96% of whom live in the Indian subcontinent. In the US alone, 3 million people follow some form of Hinduism. After including Yoga followers, Hinduism has around 1.05 billion followers worldwide.
Perhaps the Hindu spirit of unity in diversity is best captured in a line from the ancient Rig Veda:
English: “Truth is One, though the Sages know it as Many.”
– The Rig Veda (Book I, Hymn CLXIV, Verse 46)
Essentially, any kind of spiritual practice followed with faith, love and persistence will lead to the same ultimate state of self-realization. Thus, Hindu thought distinguishes itself by strongly encouraging tolerance for different beliefs since temporal systems cannot claim sole understanding of the one transcendental Truth.
To the Hindu, this idea has been an active force in defining the ‘Eternal Dharma.’ It has been for Hinduism what the infinite Divine Self of Advaita is to existence, remaining forever unchanged and self-luminous, central and pervasive, in spite of all the chaos and flux around it. In general, Hindu views are broad and range from monism, dualism, qualified non-dualism, pantheism, panentheism (alternatively called monistic theism by some scholars), strict monotheism, and polytheism.
Hindu monists, i.e., Smartas, see one unity, with the personal Gods, different aspects of only One Supreme Being, like a single beam of light separated into colours by a prism, and are valid to worship. Some of the Hindu aspects of God include Devi, Vishnu, Ganesh, and Shiva. One of the most prominent Hindu monists is the saint Ramakrishna, whose preferred form of God is Devi and who reiterated traditional Hindu beliefs that aver devotees can invoke God in whatever form a devotee prefers (termed Ishta Devata, i.e., the preferred form of God) and ask for God’s grace in order to attain Moksha, the end of the cycle of rebirth and death.
Although Hinduism is very diverse, one of the possible things that unites all hindus is the quest for enlightenment and to free oneself from the cycle of rebirth. Another major concept is the concept of Ahimsa, which means “non-violence”. Through this concept, strict movements of vegetarianism and tolerance grew. Hindus believe that everything in the world is part of the universal spirit, and therefore everything needs to be respected, preserved and protected.
The word Hindū is derived from Indo-Aryan/Sanskrit root Sindhu. The Proto-Iranian sound change *s > h occurred between 850 and 600 BCE, according to Asko Parpola.
The use of the English term “Hinduism” to describe a collection of practices and beliefs is a fairly recent construction: it was first used by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in 1816–17. The term “Hinduism” was coined in around 1830 by those Indians who opposed British colonialism, and who wanted to distinguish themselves from other religious groups. Before the British began to categorise communities strictly by religion, Indians generally did not define themselves exclusively through their religious beliefs; instead identities were largely segmented on the basis of locality, language, varṇa, jāti, occupation, and sect.
The word “Hindu” is much older, and it is believed that it was used as the name for the Indus River in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent.[note 11] According to Gavin Flood, “The actual term Hindu first occurs as a Persian geographical term for the people who lived beyond the river Indus (Sanskrit: Sindhu)”, more specifically in the 6th-century BCE inscription of Darius I (550–486 BCE). The term Hindu in these ancient records is a geographical term and did not refer to a religion. Among the earliest known records of ‘Hindu’ with connotations of religion may be in the 7th-century CE Chinese text Record of the Western Regions by Xuanzang, and 14th-century Persian text Futuhu’s-salatin by ‘Abd al-Malik Isami.[note 3]
Thapar states that the word Hindu is found as heptahindu in Avesta – equivalent to Rigvedic sapta sindhu, while hndstn (pronounced Hindustan) is found in a Sasanian inscription from the 3rd century CE, both of which refer to parts of northwestern South Asia. The Arabic term al-Hind referred to the people who live across the River Indus. This Arabic term was itself taken from the pre-Islamic Persian term Hindū, which refers to all Indians. By the 13th century, Hindustan emerged as a popular alternative name of India, meaning the “land of Hindus”.[note 12]
The term Hindu was later used occasionally in some Sanskrit texts such as the later Rajataranginis of Kashmir (Hinduka, c. 1450) and some 16th- to 18th-century Bengali Gaudiya Vaishnava texts including Chaitanya Charitamrita and Chaitanya Bhagavata. These texts used it to distinguish Hindus from Muslims who are called Yavanas (foreigners) or Mlecchas (barbarians), with the 16th-century Chaitanya Charitamrita text and the 17th-century Bhakta Mala text using the phrase “Hindu dharma“. It was only towards the end of the 18th century that European merchants and colonists began to refer to the followers of Indian religions collectively as Hindus.[note 13]
The term Hinduism, then spelled Hindooism, was introduced into the English language in the 18th century to denote the religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions native to India.
Hinduism includes a diversity of ideas on spirituality and traditions, but has no ecclesiastical order, no unquestionable religious authorities, no governing body, no prophet(s) nor any binding holy book; Hindus can choose to be polytheistic, pantheistic, panentheistic, pandeistic, henotheistic, monotheistic, monistic, agnostic, atheistic or humanist. According to Doniger, “ideas about all the major issues of faith and lifestyle – vegetarianism, nonviolence, belief in rebirth, even caste – are subjects of debate, not dogma.”
Because of the wide range of traditions and ideas covered by the term Hinduism, arriving at a comprehensive definition is difficult. The religion “defies our desire to define and categorize it”. Hinduism has been variously defined as a religion, a religious tradition, a set of religious beliefs, and “a way of life”.[note 1] From a Western lexical standpoint, Hinduism like other faiths is appropriately referred to as a religion. In India, the term dharma is preferred, which is broader than the Western term religion.
The study of India and its cultures and religions, and the definition of “Hinduism”, has been shaped by the interests of colonialism and by Western notions of religion. Since the 1990s, those influences and its outcomes have been the topic of debate among scholars of Hinduism,[note 14] and have also been taken over by critics of the Western view on India.
Hindus subscribe to a diversity of ideas on spirituality and traditions, but have no ecclesiastical order, no unquestionable religious authorities, no governing body, no prophet(s) nor any binding holy book; Hindus can choose to be polytheistic, pantheistic, monotheistic, monistic, agnostic, atheistic or humanist.
Hinduism as it is commonly known can be subdivided into a number of major currents. Of the historical division into six darsanas (philosophies), two schools, Vedanta and Yoga, are currently the most prominent. Classified by primary deity or deities, four major Hinduism modern currents are Vaishnavism (Vishnu), Shaivism (Shiva), Shaktism (Shakti) and Smartism (five deities treated as same). These deity-centered denominations feature a synthesis of various philosophies such as Samkhya, Yoga and Vedanta, as well as shared spiritual concepts such as moksha, dharma, karma, samsara, ethical precepts such as ahimsa, texts (Upanishads, Puranas, Mahabharata, Agamas), ritual grammar and rites of passage.
McDaniel (2007) distinguishes six generic types of Hinduism, in an attempt to accommodate a variety of views on a rather complex subject:
- Folk Hinduism, based on local traditions and cults of local deities and extending back to prehistoric times, or at least prior to written Vedas.
- Shrauta or “Vedic” Hinduism as practised by traditionalist brahmins (Shrautins).
- Vedantic Hinduism, including Advaita Vedanta (Smartism), based on the philosophical approach of the Upanishads.
- Yogic Hinduism, especially the sect based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
- “Dharmic” Hinduism or “daily morality”, based on Karma and upon societal norms such as Vivāha (Hindu marriage customs).
- Bhakti or devotionalist practices