Introduction

Hinduism – stands for the faith and the way of life most of the people who live in India.  Hinduism is such an ancient religion that it had many types of beliefs and religious practices. Around 1750 BC Aryan invaders from central Asia settled in North – West India and introduced their own religious ideas.  Slowly the Hindu came to accept the idea of the existence of an eternal supreme being. They called this being, Brahman. Hindus also worship different gods which individually represent one particular aspect of Brahman. The most popular one of the lesser gods are Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer)  Hinduism has no founder. It is a religion that has slowly developed over a period of time.

Hindu Beliefs

Hindu Gods

The Hindus have four gods Brahman, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Their main god is Brahman. He is the origin and the sustainer of all life, and the goal of all things. He is eternal and omnipotent and only he is real. They believe that Brahman is so great that he cannot be explained in human words because all humans are imperfect and Brahman is perfect.

Shiva

Shiva is usually depicted with six arms each one representing a different function to perform. He is known as the destroyer and restorer of life, symbol of the reproductive force of nature, philosopher and sage. He has a third eye which signifies wisdom or higher consciousness. He has a blue throat which is a result of him swallowing a full cup of mans sins. Worship of Shiva includes fertility rites and veneration of the symbols of male and female sex organs. Most Hindus imagine Shiva as being in deep meditation high in the Himalayas. Shiva is the ultimate god who holds in divine tension the preservation and destruction of the cosmos, both its birth and death. At times he is portrayed as the great ascetic. He is often depicted as the reconciler of dualities such as good and evil, eroticism and asceticism, his creative energy is depicted in the Lingam and Yoni. Shiva is frequently shown in loving union with his consort Parvati (another form of the great goddess) Shiva devotees are called Shaivites, and devotion usually takes the form of Yogic practice. Shiva is often pictured, in one of the best known religious images from India, as the lord of the cosmic dance. Shiva “LORD OF THE DANCE”. He is surrounded by flames (energy of the universe) and snakes (representing creative power). His upper right hand is holding a drum (to beat the rhythm of the time) while the upper left hand holds a flames (element of destruction). His second right hand is raised for blessing, while his second left hand points to the raised left foot (symbolizes release). The right foot treads on a dwarf that represents ignorance and spiritual blindness.

Life Before and After Death

A Hindu believes and hopes that eventually his soul will join with Brahman. They welcome death as a step towards gaining this everlasting union with him. They believe that their souls were never born and therefore never dies, but it moves on from one body to another. This movement form one body to another in the cycle of birth death and re-birth is called reincarnation. This belief that a person will be born again following the death is linked with the law of karma. They also believe that the type of existence a person will experience in the next life depends on the good and bad karma built up in the previous life. The white cows are considered holy because they believe that they are a symbol of “atman”, which means the soul in all living things.

The Caste System

A caste is a group of people with a particular place in society. Hindu people are born into their caste, wether high or low, they must accept their place without question. This means that a person can only be born a Hindu. To maintain purity Hindus can only marry within their caste, they can only eat with members of their caste, and the men follow occupation of their caste which are passed from father to son.  The difficulty that arise by the observing the caste system is that there are a large group of people who are classified as being outside of the caste system, some examples of this are untouchables and outcastes. These people are among the poorest and least educated people in India and they do all of the dirty work. Even though the government has passed laws against classifying people as untouchable, they still feel that customs die hard, therefore, there is still discrimination and hostility against them.

A Diagram of the Caste System

mouth = Brahmins Priests

arms = Kshatriya’s Warriors

thighs = Vaisya’s Skilled workers  and Traders

feet = Shudra’s Unskilled workers, servants

Rituals of Life in Hinduism

The name for the series of rituals for various phases in a Hindus life is sanskaras.  Conception: in the early days of marriage even before the children are conceived, the parents pray and meditate on the kind of child they wish to have. During pregnancy a number of rites are performed. The gods are asked to protect the unborn child, and to strengthen the mother spiritually, mentally and physically so that a healthy child is born.  Name-giving: on the eleventh or twelfth day after birth a name is chosen for the baby. The choice of name is very important, it must be on which is hoped will bring good fortune. A boys name may indicate heroism and a girls name may be one which indicates beauty. Parents would choose the baby’s name as a result of praying and making vows to their god in thanks to him that they had a child. The name is given in a very simple way. The father leans over the baby and says into its ear “Now your name is …”  The Thread Ceremony: This ceremony is a very important stage in the life of a Hindu boy, that is if he belongs to one of the three main castes. This ceremony is considered a birth by which a person is given a new king of life. The ceremony takes place any time between the boys seventh and twelfth birthdays. The ceremony involves putting the sacred thread across the boys body from his left shoulder to his right hip. Once he has received the thread he is allowed to recite passages from the Veda and perform the rituals described in it.  Marriage: It is very important for a man to be married since it enables him to have sons who will continue his family line. Many Hindu marriages are arranged, this means that the parents find a suitable partner for their child. The parents make sure that this person is from the same caste and they also make sure that the couples horoscopes are a good match.  Funeral: The last ceremony in the samskaras takes place when a person dies. A funeral ceremony is held, at which the body of the dead person is cremated. When a person dies their body is wrapped in a cloth and then taken away for cremation. No food or refreshments are served at the funeral because death and anything to do with food must be kept separate.

Worship

Daily Rituals

Those of the highest and priestly caste and others who wear the sacred thread , observe five obligations each day:

1. They must always worship Brahman either directly or through other  gods

2. They must give reverence to the saints and holy men by reciting the Veda. Usually this consists of a repetition of the Gayatri Mantra

3. They must show respect for their parents and elders

4. They must give shelter and alms to the poor or holy men

5. They are instructed to feed animals because Hindus believe all living things form one community

A Hindu performs some simple daily rituals at the beginning of each day which include:

1. As he rises from bed he places his right foot on the ground first in order to make a good start to the day

2. He says a prayer as his foot touches the ground which he believes was created by god 3. He carefully cleans his teeth and tongue and then has a bath using running water. This daily bath is very important since Hindu must not eat any food or say any prayers before      having a bath.

4. He may also put his forehead on the mark of the god he worships. For instance three horizontal lines indicates the god Shiva, and three vertical lines the god Vishnu. This is called a tilaka mark and it is usually made with red powder or paste.

Puja

Puja is the most common form of Hindu worship. This is worshiping a god, using mantras and making offerings. Usually Hindus prefer to worship one particular god. This god is chosen according to their personal wish, or because of a family tradition, or even because it is the main god of the area that they live in. Puja begins very early in the morning and continues intermittently throughout the day. The image is “Wakened up” with the lighting of the lamp, with the chanting of mantras and with the sounds of music. The image is washed and anointed with ghee clarified butter. It is touched with powders, hung with garlands, and offered flowers. Incense is burned and atrii is performed, especially anjali, which is done by putting then hands together and raising them up to the forehead or breast. Also a Hindu may kneel and place the forehead on the ground in front of the image. Both of these actions are acts of homage to the gods.

Yoga

Yoga is a form of meditation which is practiced by many Hindus. The word “yoga” means yoking disciplining and it is a means of achieving mastery over the mind by means of exercises. The idea is to cut oneself off from the world and concentrate on Brahman. Hindus teach that Karma decides what form a person will take in the next life. Karma, they say is an action done in a lifetime wether good or bad. A devout Hindu tries to avoid building up bad deeds so as to total as little bad karma as possible. On way to do this is to cut himself off from the from the world and concentrate on Brahman by practicing yoga. 

Hindu Holy Books

Veda

The Veda is the most ancient of all books. Veda means divine knowledge. The Veda was composed between 1200 BC and 500 BC. It is composed of three sections:  The Rig-Veda – is a collection of hymns dedicated to 33 gods especially to Indri and Agni. This section consists of 1000 hymns arranged in ten books each of these books has a number of verses.  Brahmans – this section describe the various Vedic religious rights and ceremonies and explains what they mean  Upanishads – this section contains discussions in prose and verse, of the most important topics in the Hindu faith (Brahman, re-incarnation and the law of karma, and the creation)

Laws of Manu

Laws of Manu was written about 250 BC. This book shows how important Hindu beliefs are in everyday life. They give detailed instructions about what Hindus may and may not do.

The Epics

The Epics were written after the Veda around 500 BC. The book contains two important poems called the Mahalarata and the Ramayoud. These poems are important to people of the Hindu faith because they are two of their favorite stories and they teach them about how to live.

Pilgrimage

A pilgrimage is a journey made by a follower to a holy city, shrine or temple. There are many important places of pilgrimage in Northern India, and often associated with the River Ganges. The main centers are Rishikesh and Hardwar where the Ganges descends from the Himalayas, Vrindavan and Mathura on the river Jumna which are associated with the god Krishna, the meeting of the River Ganges and Jumna at Allahabad and the most sacred of the Indian cities, Benares also called Vanenasi. Going on pilgrimage plays an important part in Hinduism. There are a number of reasons for Hindus making a pilgrimage. They may wish to have a closer experience of the god that they worship, or they may wish to wash away their sins by bathing in a holy river. They may intend to pray for favors already received. The parents of a family will go to a site of a miracle in order to pray for the birth of a child or for a child to be cured of a long time sickness. There is no fixed time to go on a pilgrimage for. Many Hindus make a pilgrimage at festival time. Kumbla Mela is a great bathing festival held once every twelve years during the month of Magh which is January-February. The most important center during the festival is Allahabad. When on pilgrimage Hindus usually take gifts with them to present to the god at that shrine in the place they are visiting. The gifts could be money, food, cloth or flowers. The pilgrims spend their time in worship both praying and bathing. They wear their best clothes and eat festive food. They go sightseeing, meet old friends and buy souvenirs.

Shivarati

This festival is dedicated to Shiva and is held in January-February and lasts thirty-six hours. The name of this festival means “night sacred to Shiva”, because worship goes on throughout the night. Compared to other festivals it is a solemn occasion marked by fasting. Some devotees of Shiva do not sleep, eat or drink for the thirty-six hours. During the night Shiva is worshiped with singing and dancing in shrines dedicated to the god. In the shrine is a small stone pillar representing the god Shiva around which people assemble and perform puja. Offerings are made by pouring milk, honey and melted butter over the linga. When the fast ends at about four o’clock much feasting follows with sweet potatoes and cucumbers among the many foods eaten. The people remember a story which helps to explain why they fast and keep watch throughout the night. The story tells of a hunter who was once chased by a tiger, he climbed a tree to escape, and he had to perch the whole night as the tiger crouched below. To make sure he did not fall asleep he plucked the leaves one by one and dropped them on the ground. There was an image of Shiva under the tree, as the leaves fell Shiva felt he was being worshiped and blessed the hunter.

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