I usually tried to read a little bit about the culture, religion, history, etc., of all the countries I visit. Particularly, Hinduism has always called my attention. So I bought the “Hinduism for Dummies” book that I highly recommend. It´s a simple and nice way to get to know the religion before traveling to India.
So here is a summary of the most relevant stories from “Hinduism for Dummies” book:
A broad set of key beliefs
“Survey after survey reveals that more than 95 percent of Hindus believe in the existence of God. A broad set of beliefs stem from that most basic of beliefs, and they include the following:
- Belief in the Supreme Soul: This being is identified as Brahman, universal spirit. Brahman is the One who reveals himself in the minds of the sages and seers as the Supreme Consciousness. Hindus understand Brahman to be the only thing real in the universe. All else is therefore unreal, false or illusory, and untrue. Brahman sounds like an abstract entity but is entirely real in every sense — the one and only Reality.
- Belief that Truth is the goal of life: The goal of life, according to Hindus, is to reach back to Brahman, the one Reality, by realizing our true nature. That goal is defined as moksha: liberation from repeated cycles of births and deaths. The goal is to realize unity, or oneness, with Brahman. For that reason, the Hindu prays, “Asato ma sat gamaya,” which means “Lead me from the unreal to the real.”
- Belief in the authority of the Vedas: The Vedas are Hindu sacred books of knowledge, written in Sanskrit, the ancient and liturgical language of India. There are four Vedas: Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Atharva Veda, and Sama Veda. Hindus believe that all four were revealed to Hindu sages. The Vedas contain hymns of praise to various gods, procedures for sacrificial rites and rituals, recommendations of cures for all ills, and musical chants appropriate at rituals. The Vedas are considered so sacred that the very definition of a Hindu is often stated as one who accepts/ believes in the authority of the Vedas.
- Belief in the idea that time is circular and not linear: According to this concept of time, there are no beginnings and no endings; time is simply a continuum. Hindus define periods of time as cyclical in nature, with each cycle containing four subperiods known as yugas: Krita, Treta, Dwapara, and Kali. Added together, the four yugas total about 4.32 million years. At the end of each cycle, gradually declining time spans and human values lead to dissolution. Then another period starts, and the cycle repeats all over again. This view of time has helped in developing the ancient Hindu perspective on life — a perspective that allows for a tolerant view of events and people.
- Belief in karma and karmic consequences: Karma is action that relates to service, specifically service to society. Hindus believe that what we are today is the result of our actions in the past. It stands to reason that what we will be in the future depends on what we do now, this moment, and onward for the rest of this life.
- Belief in the concept of dharma: The root word for dharma is dhr, which means “to hold” or “to sustain,” specifically within the context of maintaining harmony and balance in nature. Dharma or right conduct is so central to Hindu life that it encompasses everyone, irrespective of age, station in life, or caste. Each being has its own dharma consistent with its nature. A tiger’s dharma, for example, is to kill and eat its prey. Yielding milk to sustain the life of the young is a cow’s dharma. The dharma of humans is to serve.
- Belief in tolerance as the core value: Ancient universities and religious centers in India attracted students and visitors from many parts of the settled world. They invited debate and inquiry into religious ideas. With this same spirit, modern Hindus accept all religions to be true and self- contained. A Hindu hymn asserts this view by comparing the various paths to God with hundreds of rivers and streams all mingling finally with the ocean.
These fundamental beliefs have paved the way for Hindus to develop a philosophical outlook on life. This outlook is based firmly on the belief in an intimate connection between the individual soul, called atman (or Jivatman), and the Supreme Soul, called Paramatman. Broadly speaking, these fundamentals comprise a code of behavior that continues to form the contemporary Hindu view of life”
Hindu Gods and Goddesses
“Early Hindus had a clear focus on the One Supreme Soul, identified as Brahman, referred to in the Chandogya Upanishad as the “One without a second.” Brahman is the sole, self-existing, Supreme Universal Soul. It manifests itself without limit, creating, destroying, and re-creating forever and ever. In other words, Brahman is the universe and all the forces in it.
Unlike the conceptualization of God in monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Brahman does not interact in human lives. The Brahman is simply there, forever, the pure spirit of the universe, and the goal of Hinduism is to reach back to that Brahman.
The root word for Brahman in Sanskrit is brih, meaning “to grow” or “to burst forth”. This fact is the basis for the saying that Brahman is expansive. (“All indeed is this Brahman,” says the Mandukya Upanishad, a sacred Hindu scripture.) The word brih is gender-neutral, meaning it is not a masculine or feminine word. That is why I refer to Brahman as “It” instead of “He” or “She.”
Out of this entity issues every visible and conceivable object, from the lowest level of a cell, to all that we see in nature, to demigods and spirits and a variety of gods. At the apex of all these aspects of Brahman are three principal gods and their consorts. These gods are defined as Trimurti and sometimes referred to as the Hindu Trinity:
- Brahma, whose main function is to create
- Vishnu, who sustains the created universe. Vishnu is the only one who has reincarnated
- Shiva, who is in charge of dissolution prior to the next time cycle of creation in an endless cycle
In simplistic terms, these three are sometimes referred to as Creator, Sustainer, and Destroyer respectively. Each of these major gods has a female consort also playing a major role:
- Saraswati, consort of Brahma, is the goddess of learning.
- Lakshmi, consort of Vishnu, is the goddess of wealth and well-being.
- Devi, Shiva’sconsort, represents the creative power known as Shakti.
Below these primary gods are a variety of forms of gods including the avatars of Vishnu. Many temples exist and continue to be built for Shiva, his sons (Ganapati and Murugan), the previous goddesses named, and the various forms of Vishnu. The concept and presence of Brahma is enshrined in the heart of every sanctified Hindu temple.
The Trimurtis share in the tasks of creating, caring for, and completing the life-cycle of a timespan of four yugas. A yuga is an era. There are four yugas:
- Krita Yuga, which lasts 432,000 × 4 years
- Treta Yuga, which lasts 432,000 × 3 years
- Dwapara Yuga, which lasts 432,000 × 2 years
- Kali Yuga, which lasts 432,000 years
A complete cycle from one creation to another therefore lasts about 4.32 million years. Hindus believe that our present age is Kali Yuga.”
Taken from: Hinduism for dummies, by Dr. Amrutur V. Srinivasan
The Story of Shiva and the Goddess Ganga
Ganga, the River Goddess is the only living goddess in the Hindu pantheon. There are numerous stories regarding the birth and origin of this goddess.
King Sagar magically acquired sixty thousand sons. Once, King Sagar organized Ashwamedh Yagna, a ritual of worship for the benefit of the kingdom. Jealous Indra planned a mischief and stole one horse from the place.
King Sagar sent all his sons all over the earth to look for the horse. They found the horse in the nether-world standing next to Kapila Muni, a meditating sage. The youths, were disrespectful and caused his penance to be disturbed. The sage reduced them to ashes with his withering look. The souls of these young men wandered as ghosts as their final rites had not been done. On repeated repentance and requests by the descendants of King Sagar, Kapila Muni finally relent that King Sagar’s sons would attain mukti (liberation), if their wicked remains are cleansed by the water of the goddess Ganga. Generations of King Sagar did penance to appease Brahma but without success and finally after much praying, pleading and tapasya by Bhagirath – seventh generation of King Sagar, Ganga reluctantly consents to descend to earth. With this, Ganga found herself insulted and decided to sweep the whole earth with her powerful fall. Troubled, Bhagiratha prayed to Shiva to control the Ganga’s descent. Lord Shiva steps in the way and trapped Ganga in his hair. Shiva made the river fall gently through his long hair onto the Himalayas. As Ganga moved to the nether-worlds, she liberated the unfortunate souls of King Sagar’s Sons. Since then Ganga is sanctifying the mankind with her divine waters. Read more at http://www.iloveindia.com/
This is why most of the images of Lord Shiva depict the River Ganga flowing from his matted hair.
The 10 Avatars of Vishnu:
The word “Avatar” comes from a Sanskrit word that means “descent” and it refers to when a deity manifests in an earthly embodiment. Of the many Gods of Hinduism, only Vishnu manifests in this way.
Most of the time, good and evil forces are evenly matched in the world. But at times, the balance is destroyed and evil demons get the upper hand. Often in response to a request by the other gods, Vishnu then incarnates in a human form to set the balance again, and to restore cosmic order. 10 Vishnu incarnations are generally recognized as the most important Vishnu avatars, even though opinions differ.
The “dashavatara” (ten avatars) is meant to re-establish dharma or righteousness and destroy tyranny and injustice on earth:
1. Matsya (the fish)
2. Koorma (the tortoise)
3. Varaha (the boar)
4. Narasimha (the human-lion)
5. Vamana (the dwarf)
6. Parasurama (the angry man, Rama with an axe)
7. Lord Rama (the perfect man, king of Ayodha)
8. Lord Krishna (the divine statesman)
9. Balarama (elder brother of Krishna)
10. Kalki (the mighty warrior)
The last Avatar is yet to appear, and in many versions of the mythology, the ninth incarnation is mentioned as Lord Buddha. But this is a much later addition done at a time when the concept of Dashavatara was already fully developed.
How Ganapati (Ganesha) lost and gained his head
The boy, Ganapati, was in fact created out of earth and clay to keep his mom company and protect her while Shiva went on his meditative wanderings.
“Ganapati’s mother, Parvati, asked Ganapati to guard the entrance to her apartments and admit no one while she took a bath. When Shiva, Ganapati’s father, tried to enter, Ganapati stopped him. No amount of persuasion or threats helped, and a furious Shiva cut off Ganapati’s head. A grief-stricken Parvati demanded that Shiva find a way to restore the boy’s life. Shiva instructed his staff to find anyone, human or animal, sleeping with its head pointed in the southern direction, and to bring that creature to him. As it happened, the first creature to be found sleeping with its head toward the south was an elephant, whose head was duly severed and brought to Shiva. Shiva positioned the new head onto the body of Ganapati and behold, the boy came alive as the handsome elephant-headed god.”
“Ganapati is worshipped as the lord of obstacles. He is invoked by most Hindus before starting any auspicious undertaking; they pray for a smooth and flawless performance of the task at hand.”
Taken from: Hinduism for dummies, by Dr. Amrutur V. Srinivasan
Rama, the ideal King
“Retiring King Dasaratha of Ayodha chooses his son Rama as his heir. His wife Kaikeyi asks that he appoint another son Bharata, instead. Kaikeyi pleads that he owes her two favors, and she feels misfortune will come upon her if he doesn’t crown Bharata king and banish Rama to the forest for fourteen years. The king reluctantly agrees, so Rama goes with his beautiful wife, Sita, and his brother Laksmana, leaving their riches to live a simple life.” (Taken from https://www.maxwell.syr.edu).
“In the forest the three meet the demoness Surpanakha who falls in love with Rama. Rama refuses her advances and Laksmana wounds her. She flees to her brother Ravana, ruler of the island kingdom of Lanka. After hearing Surpanakha’s report of the beauty of Sita, Ravana decides that he must have Sita and changes himself into in wandering holy man to find her in the forest. When Rama and Laksmana are distracted, Ravana carries Sita off to Lanka.” (Taken from https://www.maxwell.syr.edu).
“Sita mourns in Ravana’s garden in Lanka, while Rama and Laksmana enlist the services of Hanuman, the monkey king, to help them find her. Hanuman, able to make himself larger or smaller, starts his search for Sita by taking a giant step to the Island of Lanka. Carrying Rama’s ring he finds Sita and identifies himself as Rama’s messenger. Sita is delighted, but Hanuman is caught and Ravana sets Hanuman’s tail on fire. Hanuman escapes and sets fire to Lanka.” (Taken from https://www.maxwell.syr.edu).
“Rama, Laksmana, Hanuman, and his monkey army lay siege on Lanka. The monkeys make a bridge to Lanka, and after a long battle with spears, bows and arrows, Rama kills Ravana. Sita, however, is not received by Rama unreservedly; he questions her chastity after having lived in the house of another man. When he asks her to undergo the test by fire; she agrees. Proving her chastity by remaining unscathed by the fire, she rejoins Rama. Later, Rama abandons her to maintain the sanctity of public opinion and she goes to live in the ashram of sage Valmiki and bears twin sons Lava and Kusa, who as young men became reunited with their father, the god-king Rama.” (Taken from https://www.maxwell.syr.edu).
Nowadays, there is a chain of limestone shoals which connected India and Sri Lanka, known as Adam´s Bridge or Rama´s Bridge. Geological evidence suggests that this bridge is a former land connection between India and Sri Lanka. Hindu tradition has long held the belief that this strip of land was a bridge built by their beloved deity Rama as described in the Hindu epic the Ramayana. See more at: http://www.ancient-origins.net/.
“Hindu society of the distant past was organized on the basis of societal functions that included:
- Providing for the society’s intellectual and spiritual interests
- Protecting the land against domestic and foreign enemies
- Conducting trade and commerce
- Tilling the land and performing manual labor
Creating a systematic way to provide for all these needs and functions — at both the individual and community level — makes logical sense. The fact that this system went awry with the stigma of caste and hereditary ownership is an unfortunate matter of history that Hinduism is stuck with.
Following are the four major castes as they are understood and practiced. Note the word “major” carefully. Many, many minor castes and subcastes exist:
- Brahmin: Spiritual and intellectual services
- Kshatriya: Defense-related services
- Vaishya: Trade and commerce-related services
- Shudra: Manual labor services
A lower caste, known as untouchables, also exists and includes people who undertake to do society’s dirty work such as cleaning latrines, tanning leather, and so on. The existence of this lowest caste — the poverty, ill treatment, and prejudice against it — infuriated Mahatma Gandhi (the political and social leader who led the Indian independence movement and is considered the father of the nation) to the extent that he named the very lowest level Harijans, or “God’s people.”
The Bhagavad Gita is not the only scriptural reference to the caste system. The Rig Veda also refers to the four castes (brahmin, kshatriya, vaishya, and shudra) when describing the infinite embodied spirit — the Supreme Self, called Purusha. The Rig Veda states that the brahmin was his face (head; thought center), the kshatriya was his arms (power of protection), the vaishya was his thighs (power of acquisition and distribution), and the shudra issued from his feet (power of support and movement).
The Rig Veda’s description associating different parts of Purusha to the different groups is open to interpretation. A positive interpretation would be to accept that no part of a body is inferior to any other part: Each has a clear and distinct function. Successful functioning of the body demands that all parts perform their assigned functions efficiently and harmoniously. A negative interpretation is that the placement of shudra at the feet and brahmin at the head somehow dictates hierarchy, with the brahmin caste being the highest and shudra being the lowest.
In general, the sharp divisions among castes no longer exist in practice in India and the rest of the Hindu world. Except that sometimes they do still exist, especially in respecting family traditions!
Is the caste system still alive? The proper answer is a resounding yes — and no! Today, the system exists from one extreme (where the idea and practice are condemned with obvious disgust) to the other (strict observation, within reason — that is, not violating state and federal laws) and a whole lot in between. Hindus of all castes now sit together side by side in classrooms, buses, restaurants, and workplaces, and they can live in the same neighborhoods thanks largely to modern education and the laws of the land.”
Taken from: Hinduism for dummies, by Dr. Amrutur V. Srinivasan
I hope you liked these stories as much as I do. Even though it is only a short summary all the interesting story you find while reading about Hinduism.
Read more about my trip to India here.