The Vedas and Polytheism
Hinduism in India traces its source to the Vedas, ancient hymns composed and
recited in Punjab as early as 1500 B.C. Three main collections of the Vedas--the
Rig, Sama, and Yajur--consist of chants that were originally recited by priests
while offering plant and animal sacrifices in sacred fires. A fourth collection,
the Atharva Veda, contains a number of formulas for requirements as varied as
medical cures and love magic. The majority of modern Hindus revere these hymns
as sacred sounds passed down to humanity from the greatest antiquity and as the
source of Hindu tradition.
The vast majority of Vedic hymns are addressed to a pantheon of deities who are attracted, generated, and nourished by the offerings into the sacred flames and the precisely chanted mantras (mystical formulas of invocation) based on the hymns. Each of these deities may appear to be the supreme god in his or her own hymns, but some gods stand out as most significant. Indra, god of the firmament and lord of the weather, is the supreme deity of the Vedas. Indra also is a god of war who, accompanied by a host of storm gods, uses thunderbolts as weapons to slay the serpent demon Vritra (the name means storm cloud), thus releasing the rains for the earth. Agni, the god of fire, accepts the sacrificial offerings and transmits them to all the gods. Varuna passes judgment, lays down the law, and protects the cosmic order. Yama, the god of death, sends earthly dwellers signs of old age, sickness, and approaching mortality as exhortations to lead a moral life. Surya is the sun god, Chandra the moon god, Vayu the wind god, and Usha the dawn goddess.
Some of the later hymns of the Rig Veda contain speculations that form the basis for much of Indian religious and philosophical thought. From one perspective, the universe originates through the evolution of an impersonal force manifested as male and female principles. Other hymns describe a personal creator, Prajapati, the Lord of creatures, from whom came the heavens and the earth and all the other gods. One hymn describes the universe as emerging from the sacrifice of a cosmic man (purusha ) who was the source of all things but who was in turn offered into the fire by gods. Within the Vedic accounts of the origin of things, there is a tension between visions of the highest reality as an impersonal force, or as a creator god, or as a group of gods with different jobs to do in the universe. Much of Hinduism tends to accept all these visions simultaneously, claiming that they are all valid as different facets of a single truth, or ranks them as explanations with different levels of sophistication. It is possible, however, to follow only one of these explanations, such as believing in a single personal god while rejecting all others, and still claim to be following the Vedas. In sum, Hinduism does not exist as a single belief system with one textual explanation of the origin of the universe or the nature of God, and a wide range of philosophies and practices can trace their beginnings somewhere in the hymns of the Vedas.
By the sixth century B.C., the Vedic gods were in decline among the people, and few people care much for Indra, Agni, or Varuna in contemporary India. These gods might appear as background characters in myths and stories about more important deities, such as Shiva or Vishnu; in some Hindu temples, there also are small statues of Vedic deities. Sacrificial fire, which once accompanied major political activities, such as the crowning of kings or the conquest of territory, still forms the heart of household rituals for many Hindus, and some Brahman families pass down the skill of memorizing the hymns and make a living as professional reciters of the Vedas. One of the main legacies of Brahmanical sacrifice, seen even among traditions that later denied its usefulness, was a concentration on precise ritual actions and a belief in sacred sound as a powerful tool for manifesting the sacred in daily life.
Karma and Liberation
The Upanishads, originating as commentaries on the Vedas between about 800 and
200 B.C., contain speculations on the meaning of existence that have greatly
influenced Indian religious traditions. Most important is the concept of atman
(the human soul), which is an individual manifestation of brahman. Atman is of
the same nature as brahman , characterized either as an impersonal force or as
God, and has as its goal the recognition of identity with brahman . This fusion
is not possible, however, as long as the individual remains bound to the world
of the flesh and desires. In fact, the deathless atman that is so bound will not
join with brahman after the death of the body but will experience continuous
rebirth. This fundamental concept of the transmigration of atman , or
reincarnation after death, lies at the heart of the religions emerging from
Indian religious tradition sees karma as the source of the problem of transmigration. While associated with physical form, for example, in a human body, beings experience the universe through their senses and their minds and attach themselves to the people and things around them and constantly lose sight of their true existence as atman , which is of the same nature as brahman . As the time comes for the dropping of the body, the fruits of good and evil actions in the past remain with atman , clinging to it, causing a tendency to continue experience in other existences after death. Good deeds in this life may lead to a happy rebirth in a better life, and evil deeds may lead to a lower existence, but eventually the consequences of past deeds will be worked out, and the individual will seek more experiences in a physical world. In this manner, the bound or ignorant atman wanders from life to life, in heavens and hells and in many different bodies. The universe may expand and be destroyed numerous times, but the bound atman will not achieve release.
The true goal of atman is liberation, or release (moksha ), from the limited world of experience and realization of oneness with God or the cosmos. In order to achieve release, the individual must pursue a kind of discipline (yoga, a "tying," related to the English word yoke) that is appropriate to one's abilities and station in life. For most people, this goal means a course of action that keeps them rather closely tied to the world and its ways, including the enjoyment of love (kama ), the attainment of wealth and power (artha ), and the following of socially acceptable ethical principles. From this perspective, even manuals on sexual love, such as the Kama Sutra (Book of Love), or collections of ideas on politics and governance, such as the Arthashastra (Science of Material Gain), are part of a religious tradition that values action in the world as long as it is performed with understanding, a karma-yoga or selfless discipline of action in which every action is offered as a sacrifice to God. Some people, however, may be interested in breaking the cycle of rebirth in this life or soon thereafter. For them, a wide range of techniques has evolved over the thousands of years that gives Indian religion its great diversity. The discipline that involves physical positioning of the body (hatha-yoga), which is most commonly equated with yoga outside of India, sees the human body as a series of spiritual centers that can be awakened through meditation and exercise, leading eventually to a oneness with the universe. Tantrism is the belief in the Tantra (from the Sanskrit, context or continuum), a collection of texts that stress the usefulness of rituals, carried out with a strict discipline, as a means for attaining understanding and spiritual awakening. These rituals include chanting powerful mantras; meditating on complicated or auspicious diagrams (mandalas); and, for one school of advanced practitioners, deliberately violating social norms on food, drink, and sexual relations.
A central aspect of all religious discipline, regardless of its emphasis, is the importance of the guru, or teacher. Indian religion may accept the sacredness of specific texts and rituals but stresses interpretation by a living practitioner who has personal experience of liberation and can pass down successful techniques to devoted followers. In fact, since Vedic times, it has never been possible, and has rarely been desired, to unite all people in India under one concept of orthodoxy with a single authority that could be presented to everyone. Instead, there has been a tendency to accept religious innovation and diversity as the natural result of personal experience by successive generations of gurus, who have tailored their messages to particular times, places, and peoples, and then passed down their knowledge to lines of disciples and social groups. As a result, Indian religion is a mass of ancient and modern traditions, some always preserved and some constantly changing, and the individual is relatively free to stress in his or her life the beliefs and religious behaviors that seem most effective on the path to deliverance.
Hinduism is a religion with various gods and goddesses. According to Hinduism,
three Lords rule the world. Brahma: the creator; Vishnu: the preserver and
Shiva: the destroyer. Lord Vishnu did his job of preserving the world by
incarnating himself in different forms at times of crisis.
The three Lords that rule the world have consorts and they are goddesses. Consort of Brahma is Sarasvati; goddess of learning. Vishnu's consort is Lakshmi; goddess of wealth and prosperity. Shiva's consort is Parvati who is worshipped as Kali or Durga.
Along them there are a number of other gods and goddesses. To name a few of
them, there is Ganesh, who has an elephant's head and he is also a son of Shiva
and Parvati. Hanuman, who is an ape. Surya, Lord of sun. Ganga Ma, goddess of
river Ganges. Samundra, Lord of the sea. Indra, king of the gods ( but he isn't
an important god). Prithvi, goddess of earth. Shakti, goddess of power. The
Hindus call their goddesses 'Ma' meaning mother.
Some gods have more than one name. Shiva is also known as Shankar, Mahadev, Natraj, Mahesh and many other names. Ganesh is also called Ganpati. God Vishnu incarnated 9 times to do his job and in his every appearance he had a different form which are also worshipped as gods. Among his appearances, he appeared as Rama, Krishna, Narsimha, Parsuram and Buddha. Krishna also has different names, Gopal; Kishan; Shyam and other names. He also has other titles with meanings like 'Basuri Wala' which means the flute musician and 'Makhan Chor' which means the butter stealer. There are also gods who can change their forms, for example: Parvati can change into Kali or Durga.
Not all of these gods are worshiped by all Hindus. Some Hindus worship only
Vishnu. Others worship only Shiva. Others worship only the goddesses and call
these goddesses collectively as Shakti meaning power. Many of these goddess
worshipers worship Parvati in her images as Kali or Durga. People who worship
Shiva or Vishnu also worship characters and images connected with these gods.
Vishnu worshipers (Vaishnaites) also worship his appearances. Shiva's worshipers
(Shaivites) also worship images of bull called Nandi, who was Shiva's carrier
and a unique stone design connected to Shiva. There are also Hindus who worship
all the gods. There are some gods who are worshiped all over India like Rama and
Krishna and other gods who are worshiped more in one region than the other like
Ganesh who is worshiped mainly in west India. Hindus also worship gods according
to their personal needs. People who engage in wrestling, body building and other
physical sports worship Hanuman, who in Hindu legends was an ape with lot of
physical strength. Businessmen worship Lakshmi, goddess of wealth.
Though Hindus worship different idols, many Hindus believe in one God and perceive in these different gods and goddesses as different faces of the same one God. Others believe that idolatry is the wrong interpretation of Hinduism.
Hindus believe in reincarnation. The basic belief is that a person's fate is determined according to his deeds. These deeds in Hinduism are called 'Karma'. A soul who does good Karma in this life will be awarded with a better life in the next incarnation. Souls who do bad Karma will be punished for their sins, if not in this incarnation then in the next incarnation and will continue to be born in this world again and again. The good souls will be liberated from the circle of rebirth and get redemption which is called 'Moksha' meaning freedom. Hindus normally cremate their dead ones, so that the soul of the dead would go to heaven, except in a few cases of Hindu saints, who are believed to have attained 'Moksha'.
Other than the Veda there are holy books like Puranas, Ramayana, Mahabharta etc.
The different gods and goddesses in the Hindu mythology are derived from these
books. Ramayana and Mahabharta are the most popular Hindu books.
The main story of Ramayana is the story of Lord Rama. Rama was born in a royal family and was suppose to be the king, but because of his step- mother, he was forced to exile from his kingdom for fourteen years. During this period his consort Sita was kidnapped by a demon called Ravan, who was king of Lanka. Rama with the help of his brother, Lakshman, and an army of monkeys under the leadership of Hanuman, rescued Sita. Many Indians believe that the present day Sri Lanka was then the kingdom of Lanka.
Mahabharta is a family epic. In this epic the Pandva family and the Kaurav family who are cousins fight with each other for the control over a kingdom. Kaurav family, which consisted of 100 brothers rule an empire. The five Pandva brothers ask for a small kingdom which belongs to them. The Kauravs refuse to give the Pandvas the kingdom so there is a war between the Pandvas and the Kauravs in which it is believed that all the kingdoms of that period in India took part. In this war the Pandvas, with the help of Lord Krishna win the war. Before the commencement of the war, while the two armies are facing each other, one of the Pandva brothers Arjun gets depressed. Arjun is depressed because he has to fight against people whom he knows, loves and respects. At this point Krishna, (who was also a king of a kingdom, and participated in this war only as the chariot driver for Arjun) convinces Arjun to fight. Krishna lectures Arjun about life, human beings and their religious duties. He explains to Arjun that he belongs to a warrior caste and he has to fight for that's his destination in this incarnation. Those chapters in the Mahabharta which are Krishna's discourses on religious philosophy are called Bhagvad Gita. Because of it's importance the Bhagvad Gita is considered as a separate holy book. Another Hindu holy book that deals with religious duties is 'Law of Manu' or the 'Dharma Shastra'.
In the wars that occur in the holy books, as in Mahabharta, the different sides had different war weapons which had characters similar to modern day war weapons. In some stories the traveling vehicles were normally birds and animals. But these animals and birds had features similar to modern day aircrafts. There were even aircrafts with over velocity of light. The main war weapons were bows and arrows. But these arrows were more like modern missiles than simple arrows. These arrows were capable of carrying bombs with destructive power similar to modern day chemical, biological or even atom bombs. Other arrows could be targeted on specific human beings. There were even arrows capable of neutralizing other arrows, similar to modern day anti-missiles.
Hindus have many holy places. Badrinath, Puri, Dwarkha and Rameshwaram are four holiest places for the Hindus. Other holy places are Varanasi, Rishikesh, Nasik, Pushkar, Ujjain and other places. Some rivers are also holy to them. Among them are Godavri, Yamuna and above all Ganges which the Indians call Ganga. Another holy river is Sarasvati and it is invisible. Hindus also worship and respect some animals and birds like cobra, apes, peacocks and cow. Hindus also respect some trees and bush trees. The famous and the most respected bush tree is Tulsi.
Some of the Hindu customs, which exist or existed, do not have their bearing in
Hindu scriptures but became part of Hinduism in different ways and fashion. For
example, the Hindus see in cow a sacred animal. Religiously there is no reason
to see cow as sacred and it is believed that cows were made 'sacred' to prevent
their slaughter during periods of droughts and hunger. Cobra worship also is not
found in Hindu scripts. This custom became part of Hinduism when some Indian
tribes who use to worship cobra adopted Hinduism. Burning of the widow on the
dead husband's pyre also has no religious justification. This custom, outlawed
in 1829, was probably brought to India by the Scythians invaders of India. Among
the Scythians it was a custom to bury the dead king with his mistresses or
wives, servants and other things so that they could continue to serve him in the
next world. When these Scythians arrived in India, they adopted the Indian
system of funeral, which was cremating the dead. And so instead of burying their
kings and his servers they started cremating their dead with his surviving
lovers. The Scythians were warrior tribes and they were given a status of
warrior castes in Hindu religious hierarchy. The different castes who claimed
warrior status or higher also adopted this custom.
There are four castes in Hindu religion arranged in a hierarchy. The highest caste is Brahman, and they are the priest caste of Hinduism. After them are the Kshatria, who are the warrior castes. After them are the Vaishya caste , who are business people. And after them are the Sudra, who are the common peasants and workers. Below these four castes there are casteless, the untouchables. The four castes were not allowed to have any physical contact with the untouchables.
Each caste is divided into many sub-castes. The religious word for caste is Varna and for sub-caste Jat or Jati. But sometimes in English the term caste is used in both cases. Religiously, people are born in a caste and it cannot be changed. Each caste has some compulsory duties, which its members must do. Each caste has professional limits which decides what profession each caste can follow. Each caste members can have social relations only with its caste members. Religiously this includes marraige and even eating only with caste members. Please note that socially the caste system is different from the religious form of caste system.
How did Hinduism originated is a difficult question. The accepted theory is that Hinduism was evolved after the historical meeting between the Aryans and Dravidians. Some claim that Hinduism is mainly an Aryan culture whereas the others claim that it is mainly a Dravidian culture. Religiously the Vedas were given by Brahma.