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Hinduism is the predominant religion of India. Hinduism includes Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Śrauta among numerous other traditions. Among other practices and philosophies, Hinduism includes a wide spectrum of laws and prescriptions of "daily morality" based on karma, dharma, and societal norms. Hinduism is a conglomeration of distinct intellectual or philosophical points of view, rather than a rigid common set of beliefs.

Hinduism is formed of diverse traditions and has no single founder. Among its direct roots is the historical Vedic religion of Iron Age India and, as such, Hinduism is often called the " oldest living religion" or the "oldest living major religion" in the world.

One orthodox classification of Hindu texts is to divide into Śruti ("revealed") and Smriti ("remembered") texts. These texts discuss theology, philosophy, mythology, rituals and temple building among other topics. Major scriptures include the Vedas, Upanishads, Purāṇas, Mahābhārata, Rāmāyaṇa, Bhagavad Gītā and Āgamas.

Hinduism, with about one billion followers (950 million estimated in India), is the world's third largest religion, after Christianity and Islam.


Valmiki, a contemporary of Rama, composes the Ramayana.

The word Hindu is derived (through Persian) from the Sanskrit word Sindhu, the historic local appellation for the Indus River in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent, which is first mentioned in the Rig Veda.

The word Hindu was borrowed by European languages from the Arabic term al-Hind, referring to the land of the people who live across the River Indus, itself from the Persian term Hindū, which refers to all Indians. By the 13th century, Hindustān emerged as a popular alternative name of India, meaning the "land of Hindus".

The term Hinduism also occurs sporadically in Sanskrit texts such as the later Rajataranginis of Kashmir (Hinduka, c. 1450), some 16th-18th century Bengali Gaudiya Vaishnava texts, including Chaitanya Charitamrita and Chaitanya Bhagavata, usually to contrast Hindus with Yavanas or Mlecchas. 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. The term Hinduism was introduced into the English language in the 19th century to denote the religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions native to India.


Sacred Mount Kailash in Tibet is regarded as the spiritual abode of Lord Shiva.
The so-called Shiva Pashupati seal
Navy shoulderboard for Hindu military chaplain, South African military

The earliest evidence for prehistoric religion in India date back to the late Neolithic in the early Harappan period (5500–2600 BCE). The beliefs and practices of the pre-classical era (1500–500 BCE) are called the " historical Vedic religion". The Vedic religion shows influence from Proto-Indo-European religion. The oldest Veda is the Rigveda, dated to 1700–1100 BCE. The Vedas centre on worship of deities such as Indra, Varuna and Agni, and on the Soma ritual. Fire-sacrifices, called yajña are performed by chanting Vedic mantras chanted but no temples or idols are known.

The 9th and 8th centuries BCE witnessed the composition of the earliest Upanishads. Upanishads form the theoretical basis of classical Hinduism and are known as Vedanta (conclusion of the Veda). The older Upanishads launched attacks of increasing intensity on the rituals. The diverse monistic speculations of the Upanishads were synthesized into a theistic framework by the sacred Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita.

The major Sanskrit epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, were compiled over a protracted period during the late centuries BCE and the early centuries CE. They contain mythological stories about the rulers and wars of ancient India, and are interspersed with religious and philosophical treatises. The later Puranas recount tales about devas and devis, their interactions with humans and their battles against rakshasa.

Increasing urbanization of India in 7th and 6th centuries BCE led to the rise of new ascetic or shramana movements which challenged the orthodoxy of rituals. Mahavira (c. 549–477 BCE), proponent of Jainism, and Buddha (c. 563-483), founder of Buddhism were the most prominent icons of this movement. Shramana gave rise to the concept of the cycle of birth and death, the concept of samsara, and the concept of liberation. Radhakrishnan, Oldenberg and Neumann believed that the Buddhist canon had been influenced by Upanishads.

In early centuries CE several schools of Hindu philosophy were formally codified, including Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Purva-Mimamsa and Vedanta. The period between 5th and 9th century CE was a brilliant era in the development of Indian philosophy as Hindu and Buddhist philosophies flourished side by side. Of these various schools of thought the non-dualistic Advaita Vedanta emerged as the most influential and most dominant school of philosophy. Charvaka, the atheistic materialist school, came to the fore in North India before the eighth century CE.

Sanskritic culture went into decline after the end of the Gupta period. The early medieval Puranas helped establish a religious mainstream among the pre-literate tribal societies undergoing acculturation. The tenets of Brahmanic Hinduism and of the Dharmashastras underwent a radical transformation at the hands of the Purana composers, resulting in the rise of a mainstream "Hinduism" that overshadowed all earlier traditions. In eighth century royal circles, the Buddha started to be replaced by Hindu gods in pujas. This also was the same period of time the Buddha was made into an avatar of Vishnu.

Though Islam came to India in the early 7th century with the advent of Arab traders and the conquest of Sindh, it started to become a major religion during the later Muslim conquest in the Indian subcontinent. During this period Buddhism declined rapidly and many Hindus were forcibly converted to Islam. Numerous Muslim rulers or their army generals such as Aurangzeb and Malik Kafur destroyed Hindu temples and persecuted non-Muslims; however some, such as Akbar, were more tolerant. The 17th century Hindu Maratha Empire of India is credited for ending the Islamic Mughal rule in India. and furthermore the Marathas are considered as champions of Hinduism. Hinduism underwent profound changes, in large part due to the influence of the prominent teachers Ramanuja, Madhva, and Chaitanya. Followers of the Bhakti movement moved away from the abstract concept of Brahman, which the philosopher Adi Shankara consolidated a few centuries before, with emotional, passionate devotion towards the more accessible Avatars, especially Krishna and Rama.

Indology as an academic discipline of studying Indian culture from a European perspective was established in the 19th century, led by scholars such as Max Müller and John Woodroffe. They brought Vedic, Puranic and Tantric literature and philosophy to Europe and the United States. At the same time, societies such as the Brahmo Samaj and the Theosophical Society attempted to reconcile and fuse Abrahamic and Dharmic philosophies, endeavouring to institute societal reform. This period saw the emergence of movements which, while highly innovative, were rooted in indigenous tradition. They were based on the personalities and teachings of individuals, as with Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharshi. Prominent Hindu philosophers, including Aurobindo and Prabhupada (founder of ISKCON), translated, reformulated and presented Hinduism's foundational texts for contemporary audiences in new iterations, attracting followers and attention in India and abroad. Others such as Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda, Sri Chinmoy, B.K.S. Iyengar and Swami Rama have also been instrumental in raising the profiles of Yoga and Vedanta in the West.


The Swaminarayan Akshardham Temple in Delhi, according the Guinness World Records is the World’s Largest Comprehensive Hindu Temple

Hinduism as it is commonly known can be subdivided into a number of major currents. Of the historical division into six darsanas, only two schools, Vedanta and Yoga, survive. The main divisions of Hinduism today are Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Smartism and Shaktism. Hinduism also recognizes numerous divine beings subordinate to the Supreme Being or regards them as lower manifestations of it. Other notable characteristics include a belief in reincarnation and karma, as well as in personal duty, or dharma.

McDaniel (2007) distinguishes six generic "types" of Hinduism, in an attempt to accommodate a variety of views on a rather complex subject:

  • Folk Hinduism, as based on local traditions and cults of local deities at a communal level and spanning back to prehistoric times or at least prior to written Vedas.
  • Śrauta or "Vedic" Hinduism as practiced by traditionalist brahmins ( Śrautins).
  • Vedantic Hinduism, for example Advaita Vedanta ( Smartism), as based on the philosophical approach of the Upanishads.
  • Yogic Hinduism, especially that 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


The Triveni Sangam, or the intersection of Yamuna River, Ganges River and mythical Saraswati river.

Hinduism does not have a "unified system of belief encoded in declaration of faith or a creed", but is rather an umbrella term comprising the plurality of religious phenomena originating and based on the Vedic traditions.

The characteristic of comprehensive tolerance to differences in belief, and Hinduism's openness, makes it difficult to define as a religion according to traditional Western conceptions. To its adherents, Hinduism is the traditional way of life, and because of the wide range of traditions and ideas incorporated within or covered by it, arriving at a comprehensive definition of the term is problematic. While sometimes referred to as a religion, Hinduism is more often defined as a religious tradition. It is therefore described as both the oldest of the world's religions, and the most diverse. Most Hindu traditions revere a body of religious or sacred literature, the Vedas, although there are exceptions. Some Hindu religious traditions regard particular rituals as essential for salvation, but a variety of views on this co-exist. Some Hindu philosophies postulate a theistic ontology of creation, of sustenance, and of destruction of the universe, yet some Hindus are atheists. Hinduism is sometimes characterized by the belief in reincarnation ( samsara), determined by the law of karma, and the idea that salvation is freedom from this cycle of repeated birth and death. However, other religions of the region, such as Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, also believe in karma, outside the scope of Hinduism. Hinduism is therefore viewed as the most complex of all of the living, historical world religions. Despite its complexity, Hinduism is not only one of the numerically largest faiths, but is also the oldest living major tradition on earth, with roots reaching back into prehistory.

Mangal Mahadev, 108 feet statue of Lord Shiva at Ganga Talao, Mauritius

A definition of Hinduism, given by the first Vice President of India, who was also a prominent theologian, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, states that Hinduism is not "just a faith", but in itself is related to the union of reason and intuition. Radhakrishnan explicitly states that Hinduism cannot be defined, but is only to be experienced. Similarly some academics suggest that Hinduism can be seen as a category with "fuzzy edges", rather than as a well-defined and rigid entity. Some forms of religious expression are central to Hinduism, while others are not as central but still remain within the category. Based on this, Ferro-Luzzi has developed a 'Prototype Theory approach' to the definition of Hinduism.

Problems with the single definition of what is actually meant by the term 'Hinduism' are often attributed to the fact that Hinduism does not have a single or common historical founder. Hinduism, or as some say 'Hinduisms,' does not have a single system of salvation and has different goals according to each sect or denomination. The forms of Vedic religion are seen not as an alternative to Hinduism, but as its earliest form, and there is little justification for the divisions found in much western scholarly writing between Vedism, Brahmanism, and Hinduism. According to Supreme court of India "unlike other religions in the World, the Hindu religion does not claim any one Prophet, it does not worship any one God, it does not believe in any one philosophic concept, it does not follow any one act of religious rites or performances, in fact, it does not satisfy the traditional features of a religion or creed. It is a way of life and nothing more".

A definition of Hinduism is further complicated by the frequent use of the term " faith" as a synonym for "religion". Some academics and many practitioners refer to Hinduism using a native definition, as Sanātana Dharma, a Sanskrit phrase meaning "the eternal law", or the "eternal way".


Temple carving at Hoysaleswara temple representing the Trimurti: Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu.

Hinduism refers to a religious mainstream which evolved organically and spread over a large territory marked by significant ethnic and cultural diversity. This mainstream evolved both by innovation from within, and by assimilation of external traditions or cults into the Hindu fold. The result is an enormous variety of religious traditions, ranging from innumerable small, unsophisticated cults to major religious movements with millions of adherents spread over the entire subcontinent. The identification of Hinduism as an independent religion separate from Buddhism or Jainism consequently hinges on the affirmation of its adherents that it is such.

Hinduism grants absolute and complete freedom of belief and worship. Hinduism conceives the whole world as a single family that deifies the one truth, and therefore it accepts all forms of beliefs and dismisses labels of distinct religions which would imply a division of identity. Hence, Hinduism is devoid of the concepts of apostasy, heresy and blasphemy.

Prominent themes in Hindu beliefs include (but are not restricted to), Dharma (ethics/duties), Samsāra (the continuing cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth), Karma (action and subsequent reaction), Moksha (liberation from samsara), and the various Yogas (paths or practices).

Concept of God

Krishna displays his Vishvarupa (Universal Form) to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.

Hinduism is a diverse system of thought with beliefs spanning monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, pantheism, monism, and atheism among others; and its concept of God is complex and depends upon each individual and the tradition and philosophy followed. It is sometimes referred to as henotheistic (i.e., involving devotion to a single god while accepting the existence of others), but any such term is an overgeneralization.

The Rig Veda, the oldest scripture and the mainstay of Hindu philosophy does not take a restrictive view on the fundamental question of God and the creation of universe. It rather lets the individual seek and discover answers in the quest of life. Nasadiya Sukta (Creation Hymn) of the Rig Veda thus says:

Who really knows?
Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation?
The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Most Hindus believe that the spirit or soul — the true "self" of every person, called the ātman — is eternal. According to the monistic/pantheistic theologies of Hinduism (such as Advaita Vedanta school), this Atman is ultimately indistinct from Brahman, the supreme spirit. Hence, these schools are called non-dualist. The goal of life, according to the Advaita school, is to realize that one's ātman is identical to Brahman, the supreme soul. The Upanishads state that whoever becomes fully aware of the ātman as the innermost core of one's own self realizes an identity with Brahman and thereby reaches moksha (liberation or freedom).

The schools of Vedanta and Nyaya states that karma itself proves the existence of God. Nyaya being the school of logic, makes the "logical" inference that the universe is an effect and it ought to have a creator.

Dualistic schools (see Dvaita and Bhakti) understand Brahman as a Supreme Being who possesses personality, and they worship him or her thus, as Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva, or Shakti, depending upon the sect. The ātman is dependent on God, while moksha depends on love towards God and on God's grace. When God is viewed as the supreme personal being (rather than as the infinite principle), God is called Ishvara ("The Lord"), Bhagavan ("The Auspicious One") or Parameshwara ("The Supreme Lord"). However interpretations of Ishvara vary, ranging from non-belief in Ishvara by followers of Mimamsakas, to identifying Brahman and Ishvara as one, as in Advaita. In the majority of traditions of Vaishnavism he is Vishnu, God, and the text of Vaishnava scriptures identify this Being as Krishna, sometimes referred to as svayam bhagavan. However, under Shaktism, Devi or Adi parashakti is considered as the Supreme Being and in Shaivism Shiva is considered Supreme.

The multitude of devas are viewed as avatars of the Brahman. In discussing the Trimurti, Sir William Jones states that Hindus "worship the Supreme Being under three forms — Vishnu, Siva, Brahma...The fundamental idea of the Hindu religion, that of metamorphoses, or transformations, is exemplified in the Avatars."

In Bhagavad Gita, for example, God is the sole repository of Gunas (attributes) also, as

His hands and feet are everywhere, He looks everywhere and all around, His eyes, ears and face point to all directions, and all the three worlds are surrounded by these.

Atheistic doctrines dominate Hindu schools like Samkhya and Mimamsa. The Sāṁkhyapravacana Sūtra of Samkhya argues that the existence of God ( Ishvara) cannot be proved and hence cannot be admitted to exist. Samkhya argue that an unchanging God cannot be the source of an ever changing world. It says God was a necessary metaphysical assumption demanded by circumstances. Proponents of the school of Mimamsa, which is based on rituals and orthopraxy states that the evidence allegedly proving the existence of God was insufficient. They argue that there is no need to postulate a maker for the world, just as there is no need for an author to compose the Vedas or a God to validate the rituals. Mimamsa considers the Gods named in the Vedas have no existence apart from the mantras that speak their names. To that regard, the power of the mantras is what is seen as the power of Gods.

Devas and avatars

Detail of the Phra Prang, the central tower of the Wat Arun ("Temple of Dawn") in Bangkok, Thailand - showing Indra on his three-headed elephant Erawan ( Airavata)
Krishna, the eighth incarnation ( Avatar) of Vishnu or svayam bhagavan, worshiped across a number of traditions

The Hindu scriptures refer to celestial entities called Devas (or devī in feminine form; devatā used synonymously for Deva in Hindi), "the shining ones", which may be translated into English as "gods" or "heavenly beings". The devas are an integral part of Hindu culture and are depicted in art, architecture and through icons, and mythological stories about them are related in the scriptures, particularly in Indian epic poetry and the Puranas. They are, however, often distinguished from Ishvara, a supreme personal god, with many Hindus worshiping Ishvara in one of its particular manifestations (ostensibly separate deities) as their iṣṭa devatā, or chosen ideal. The choice is a matter of individual preference, and of regional and family traditions.

Hindu epics and the Puranas relate several episodes of the descent of God to Earth in corporeal form to restore dharma to society and to guide humans to moksha. Such an incarnation is called an Avatar. The most prominent avatars are of Vishnu and include Rama (the protagonist in Ramayana) and Krishna (a central figure in the epic Mahabharata).

Karma and samsara

Karma translates literally as action, work, or deed, and can be described as the "moral law of cause and effect". According to the Upanishads an individual, known as the jiva-atma, develops sanskaras (impressions) from actions, whether physical or mental. The linga sharira, a body more subtle than the physical one but less subtle than the soul, retains impressions, carrying them over into the next life, establishing a unique trajectory for the individual. Thus, the concept of a universal, neutral, and never-failing karma intrinsically relates to reincarnation as well as to one's personality, characteristics, and family. Karma binds together the notions of free will and destiny.

This cycle of action, reaction, birth, death and rebirth is a continuum called samsara. The notion of reincarnation and karma is a strong premise in Hindu thought. The Bhagavad Gita states:

As a person puts on new clothes and discards old and torn clothes,
similarly an embodied soul enters new material bodies, leaving the old bodies. (B.G. 2:22)

Samsara provides ephemeral pleasures, which lead people to desire rebirth so as to enjoy the pleasures of a perishable body. However, escaping the world of samsara through moksha is believed to ensure lasting happiness and peace. It is thought that after several reincarnations, an atman eventually seeks unity with the cosmic spirit (Brahman/Paramatman).

The ultimate goal of life, referred to as moksha, nirvana or samadhi, is understood in several different ways: as the realization of one's union with God; as the realization of one's eternal relationship with God; realization of the unity of all existence; perfect unselfishness and knowledge of the Self; as the attainment of perfect mental peace; and as detachment from worldly desires. Such realization liberates one from samsara and ends the cycle of rebirth. Due to belief in the indestructibility of the soul, death is deemed insignificant with respect to the cosmic self. Thence, a person who has no desire or ambition left and no responsibilities remaining in life or one affected by a terminal disease may embrace death by Prayopavesa.

The exact conceptualization of moksha differs among the various Hindu schools of thought. For example, Advaita Vedanta holds that after attaining moksha an atman no longer identifies itself with an individual but as identical with Brahman in all respects. The followers of Dvaita (dualistic) schools identify themselves as part of Brahman, and after attaining moksha expect to spend eternity in a loka (heaven), in the company of their chosen form of Ishvara. Thus, it is said that the followers of dvaita wish to "taste sugar", while the followers of Advaita wish to "become sugar".

Objectives of human life

From Ramayana

Classical Hindu thought accepts the following objectives of human life, that which is sought as human purpose, aim, or end, is known as the puruṣārthas:

Dharma (righteousness, ethikos)

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad views dharma as the universal principle of law, order, harmony, all in all truth, that sprang first from Brahman. It acts as the regulatory moral principle of the Universe. It is sat (truth), a major tenet of Hinduism. This hearkens back to the conception of the Rig Veda that "Ekam Sat," (Truth Is One), of the idea that Brahman is " Sacchidananda" (Truth-Consciousness-Bliss). Dharma is not just law, or harmony, it is pure Reality. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad's own words:

Verily, that which is Dharma is truth, Therefore they say of a man who speaks truth, "He speaks the Dharma,"
or of a man who speaks the Dharma, "He speaks the Truth.", Verily, both these things are the same.
—(Brh. Upanishad, 1.4.14) (2)

In the Mahabharata, Krishna defines dharma as upholding both this-worldly and other-worldly affairs. (Mbh 12.110.11). The word Sanātana means 'eternal', 'perennial', or 'forever'; thus, 'Sanātana Dharma' signifies that it is the dharma that has neither beginning nor end.

Artha (livelihood, wealth)

Artha is objective & virtuous pursuit of wealth for livelihood, obligations and economic prosperity. It is inclusive of political life, diplomacy and material well-being. The doctrine of Artha is called Arthashastra, amongst the most famous of which is Kautilya Arthashastra.

Kāma (sensual pleasure)

Kāma (Sanskrit, Pali; Devanagari: काम) means desire, wish, passion, longing, pleasure of the senses, the aesthetic enjoyment of life, affection, or love.

Mokṣa (liberation, freedom from samsara)

Moksha (Sanskrit: मोक्ष mokṣa) or mukti (Sanskrit: मुक्ति), literally "release" (both from a root muc "to let loose, let go"), is the last goal of life. It is liberation from samsara and the concomitant suffering involved in being subject to the cycle of repeated death and reincarnation.


A statue of Shiva in yogic meditation.

In whatever way a Hindu defines the goal of life, there are several methods (yogas) that sages have taught for reaching that goal. Texts dedicated to Yoga include the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and, as their philosophical and historical basis, the Upanishads. Paths that one can follow to achieve the spiritual goal of life (moksha, samadhi or nirvana) include:

  • Bhakti Yoga (the path of love and devotion)
  • Karma Yoga (the path of right action)
  • Rāja Yoga (the path of meditation)
  • Jñāna Yoga (the path of wisdom)

An individual may prefer one or some yogas over others, according to his or her inclination and understanding. Some devotional schools teach that bhakti is the only practical path to achieve spiritual perfection for most people, based on their belief that the world is currently in the Kali Yuga (one of four epochs which are part of the Yuga cycle). Practice of one yoga does not exclude others. Many schools believe that the different yogas naturally blend into and aid other yogas. For example, the practice of jnana yoga, is thought to inevitably lead to pure love (the goal of bhakti yoga), and vice versa. Someone practicing deep meditation (such as in raja yoga) must embody the core principles of karma yoga, jnana yoga and bhakti yoga, whether directly or indirectly.


The sacred Tulsi plant in front of the house.

Hindu practices generally involve seeking awareness of God and sometimes also seeking blessings from Devas. Therefore, Hinduism has developed numerous practices meant to help one think of divinity in the midst of everyday life. Hindus can engage in pūjā (worship or veneration), either at home or at a temple. At home, Hindus often create a shrine with icons dedicated to their chosen form(s) of God. Temples are usually dedicated to a primary deity along with associated subordinate deities though some commemorate multiple deities. Visiting temples is not obligatory, and many visit temples only during religious festivals. Hindus perform their worship through icons ( murtis). The icon serves as a tangible link between the worshiper and God. The image is often considered a manifestation of God, since God is immanent. The Padma Purana states that the mūrti is not to be thought of as mere stone or wood but as a manifest form of the Divinity. A few Hindu sects, such as the Ārya Samāj, do not believe in worshiping God through icons.

Hinduism has a developed system of symbolism and iconography to represent the sacred in art, architecture, literature and worship. These symbols gain their meaning from the scriptures, mythology, or cultural traditions. The syllable Om (which represents the Parabrahman) and the Swastika sign (which symbolizes auspiciousness) have grown to represent Hinduism itself, while other markings such as tilaka identify a follower of the faith. Hinduism associates many symbols, which include the lotus, chakra and veena, with particular deities.

Mantras are invocations, praise and prayers that through their meaning, sound, and chanting style help a devotee focus the mind on holy thoughts or express devotion to God/the deities. Many devotees perform morning ablutions at the bank of a sacred river while chanting the Gayatri Mantra or Mahamrityunjaya mantras. The epic Mahabharata extols Japa (ritualistic chanting) as the greatest duty in the Kali Yuga (what Hindus believe to be the current age). Many adopt Japa as their primary spiritual practice. Yoga is a Hindu discipline which trains the consciousness for tranquility, health and spiritual insight. This is done through a system of postures and exercises to practise control of the body and mind.


Offerings to Agni during Vivah-homa in a Hindu wedding

The vast majority of Hindus engage in religious rituals on a daily basis. Most Hindus observe religious rituals at home. but observation of rituals greatly vary among regions, villages, and individuals. Devout Hindus perform daily chores such as worshiping at dawn after bathing (usually at a family shrine, and typically includes lighting a lamp and offering foodstuffs before the images of deities), recitation from religious scripts, singing devotional hymns, meditation, chanting mantras, reciting scriptures etc. A notable feature in religious ritual is the division between purity and pollution. Religious acts presuppose some degree of impurity or defilement for the practitioner, which must be overcome or neutralised before or during ritual procedures. Purification, usually with water, is thus a typical feature of most religious action. Other characteristics include a belief in the efficacy of sacrifice and concept of merit, gained through the performance of charity or good works, that will accumulate over time and reduce sufferings in the next world. Vedic rites of fire-oblation ( yajna) are now only occasional practices, although they are highly revered in theory. In Hindu wedding and burial ceremonies, however, the yajña and chanting of Vedic mantras are still the norm. The rituals, upacharas, change with time. For instance, in the past few hundred years some rituals, such as sacred dance and music offerings in the standard Sodasa Upacharas set prescribed by the Agama Shastra, were replaced by the offerings of rice and sweets.

Occasions like birth, marriage, and death involve what are often elaborate sets of religious customs. In Hinduism, life-cycle rituals include Annaprashan (a baby's first intake of solid food), Upanayanam ("sacred thread ceremony" undergone by upper-caste children at their initiation into formal education) and Śrāddha (ritual of treating people to a meal in return for prayers to 'God' to give peace to the soul of the deceased). For most people in India, the betrothal of the young couple and the exact date and time of the wedding are matters decided by the parents in consultation with astrologers. On death, cremation is considered obligatory for all except sanyasis, hijra, and children under five. Cremation is typically performed by wrapping the corpse in cloth and burning it on a pyre.


Pilgrimage to Kedarnath

Following pilgrimage sites are most famous amongst Hindu devotees:

Char Dham (Famous Four Pilgrimage sites): The four holy sites Puri, Rameswaram, Dwarka, and Badrinath (or alternatively the Himalayan towns of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri) compose the Char Dham (four abodes) pilgrimage circuit.

Kumbh Mela: The Kumbh Mela (the "pitcher festival") is one of the holiest of Hindu pilgrimages that is held every 12 years; the location is rotated among Allahabad, Haridwar, Nashik, and Ujjain.

Old Holy cities as per Puranic Texts: Varanasi formerly known as Kashi, Allahabad formerly known as Prayag, Haridwar- Rishikesh, Mathura- Vrindavan, and Ayodhya.

Major Temple cities: Puri, which hosts a major Vaishnava Jagannath temple and Rath Yatra celebration; Katra, home to the Vaishno Devi temple; Three comparatively recent temples of fame and huge pilgrimage are Shirdi, home to Sai Baba of Shirdi, Tirumala - Tirupati, home to the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple; and Sabarimala,where Swami Ayyappan is worshipped.

Shakti Peethas: Another important set of pilgrimages are the Shakti Peethas, where the Mother Goddess is worshipped, the two principal ones being Kalighat and Kamakhya.

While there are different yet similar pilgrimage routes in different parts of India, all are respected equally well, according to the universality of Hinduism.

Pilgrimage is not mandatory in Hinduism, though many adherents undertake them.


The festival of lights- Diwali, is celebrated by Hindus all over the world.

Hindu festivals (Sanskrit: Utsava; literally: "to lift higher") are considered as symbolic rituals that beautifully weave individual and social life to dharma. Hinduism has many festivals throughout the year. The Hindu calendar usually prescribe their dates.

The festivals typically celebrate events from Hindu mythology, often coinciding with seasonal changes. There are festivals which are primarily celebrated by specific sects or in certain regions of the Indian subcontinent.

Some widely observed Hindu festivals include:

  • Maha Shivaratri
  • Pongal
  • Holi
  • Vasant Panchami
  • Thaipusam
  • Ram Navami
  • Krishna Janmastami
  • Ganesh Chaturthi
  • Shigmo
  • Dussera
  • Durga Puja
  • Diwali
  • Gudi Padwa
  • Ugadi
  • Bihu
  • Bonalu
  • Rath Yatra
  • Guru Purnima
  • Raksha Bandhan
  • Onam
  • Gowri Habba
  • Chhath
  • Vishu


Hinduism is based on "the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times". The scriptures were transmitted orally in verse form to aid memorization, for many centuries before they were written down. Over many centuries, sages refined the teachings and expanded the canon. In post-Vedic and current Hindu belief, most Hindu scriptures are not typically interpreted literally. More importance is attached to the ethics and metaphorical meanings derived from them. Most sacred texts are in Sanskrit. The texts are classified into two classes: Shruti and Smriti.


The Rig Veda is one of the oldest religious texts. This Rig Veda manuscript is in Devanagari

Shruti (lit: that which is heard) primarily refers to the Vedas, which form the earliest record of the Hindu scriptures. While many Hindus revere the Vedas as eternal truths revealed to ancient sages ( Ṛṣis), some devotees do not associate the creation of the Vedas with a god or person. They are thought of as the laws of the spiritual world, which would still exist even if they were not revealed to the sages. Hindus believe that because the spiritual truths of the Vedas are eternal, they continue to be expressed in new ways.

There are four Vedas (called Ṛg-, Sāma-, Yajus- and Atharva-). The Rigveda is the first and most important Veda. Each Veda is divided into four parts: the primary one, the Veda proper, being the Saṃhitā, which contains sacred mantras. The other three parts form a three-tier ensemble of commentaries, usually in prose and are believed to be slightly later in age than the Saṃhitā. These are: the Brāhmaṇas, Āraṇyakas, and the Upanishads. The first two parts were subsequently called the Karmakāṇḍa (ritualistic portion), while the last two form the Jñānakāṇḍa (knowledge portion). While the Vedas focus on rituals, the Upanishads focus on spiritual insight and philosophical teachings, and discuss Brahman and reincarnation.

A well known shloka from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is:

ॐ असतो मा सद्गमय । तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय ।।
मृत्योर्मामृतं गमय । ॐ शान्ति शान्ति शान्ति ।।
– बृहदारण्यक उपनिषद् 1.3.28.


om asato mā sadgamaya | tamaso mā jyotirgamaya ||
mṛtyor mā amṛtaṁ gamaya | om śānti śānti śānti ||
– bṛhadāraṇyaka upaniṣada 1.3.28


Lead Us From the Unreal To the Real |
Lead Us From Darkness To Light ||
Lead Us From Death To Immortality |
Om Let There Be Peace Peace Peace.||
– Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.3.28.


Bhagavad Gita, a 19th-century manuscript

Hindu texts other than the Shrutis are collectively called the Smritis (memory). The most notable of the smritis are the epics, which consist of the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa. The Bhagavad Gītā is an integral part of the Mahabharata and one of the most popular sacred texts of Hinduism. It contains philosophical teachings from Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, told to the prince Arjuna on the eve of a great war. The Bhagavad Gītā, spoken by Krishna, is described as the essence of the Vedas. However Gita, sometimes called Gitopanishad, is more often placed in the Shruti, category, being Upanishadic in content. Purāṇas, which illustrate Hindu ideas through vivid narratives come under smritis. Other texts include Devī Mahātmya, the Tantras, the Yoga Sutras, Tirumantiram, Shiva Sutras and the Hindu Āgamas. A more controversial text, the Manusmriti, is a prescriptive lawbook which lays the societal codes of social stratification which later evolved into the Indian caste system.

A well known verse from Bhagavad Gita describing a concept in Karma Yoga is explained as follows

To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits;

let not the fruits of action be thy motive;

neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction. (2.47)

Order of precedence of authority

The order of precedence regarding authority of Vedic Scriptures is as follows,

  • Śruti, literally "hearing, listening", are the sacred texts comprising the central canon of Hinduism and is one of the three main sources of dharma and therefore is also influential within Hindu Law.
  • Smṛti, literally "that which is remembered (or recollected)", refers to a specific body of Hindu religious scripture, and is a codified component of Hindu customary law. Post Vedic scriptures such as Ramayana, Mahabharata and traditions of the rules on dharma such as Manu Smriti and Yaagnyavalkya Smriti. Smrti also denotes tradition in the sense that it portrays the traditions of the rules on dharma, especially those of lawful virtuous persons.)
  • Purāṇa, literally "of ancient times", are post-vedic scriptures notably consisting of narratives of the history of the universe from creation to destruction, genealogies of kings, heroes, sages, and demigods, and descriptions of Hindu cosmology, philosophy, and geography.
  • Śiṣṭāchāra, literally "that which is followed by good (in recent times)".
  • Atmatuṣṭi, literally "that which satisfies oneself (or self validation)", according to which one has to decide whether or not to do with bona fide. Initially this was not considered in the order of precedence but Manu and Yājñavalkya considered it as last one.

That means, if anyone of them contradicts the preceding one then it disqualified as an authority. There is a well known Indian saying that Smṛti follows Śruti. So it was considered that in order to establish any theistic philosophical theory (Astika Siddhanta) one ought not contradict Śruti (Vedas).

Adi Sankara has chosen three standards and named as Prasthānatrayī, literally, three points of departure (three standards). Later these were referred to as the three canonical texts of reference of Hindu philosophy by other Vedanta schools.

They are:

  1. The Upanishads, known as Upadesha prasthāna (injunctive texts), (part of Śruti)
  2. The Bhagavad Gita, known as Sādhana prasthāna (practical text), (part of Smṛti)
  3. The Brahma Sutras, known as Nyāya prasthāna or Yukti prasthana (part of darśana of Uttarā Mīmāṃsā)

The Upanishads consist of twelve or thirteen major texts, with many minor texts. The Bhagavad Gītā is part of the Mahabhārata.The Brahma Sūtras (also known as the Vedānta Sūtras), systematise the doctrines taught in the Upanishads and the Gītā.


Hinduism - Percentage by country

Hinduism is a major religion in India and, according to a 2001 census, Hinduism was followed by around 80.5% of the country's population of 1.21 billion (2012 estimate) (960 million adherents). Other significant populations are found in Nepal (23 million), Bangladesh (15 million) and the Indonesian island of Bali (3.3 million).

Countries with the greatest proportion of Hindus from Hinduism by country (as of 2008):

  1.  Nepal 86.5%
  2.  India 80.5%
  3.  Mauritius 54%
  4.  Guyana 28%
  5.  Fiji 27.9%
  6.  Bhutan 25%
  7.  Trinidad and Tobago 22.5%
  8.  Suriname 20%
  9.  Sri Lanka 15%
  10.  Bangladesh 9.6%
  11.  Qatar 7.2%
  12.   Réunion 6.7%
  13.  Malaysia 6.3%
  14.  Bahrain 6.25%
  15.  Kuwait 6%
  16.  United Arab Emirates 5%
  17.  Singapore 4%
  18.  Oman 3%
  19.  Belize 2.3%
  20.  Seychelles 2.1%

Demographically, Hinduism is the world's third largest religion, after Christianity and Islam.



Padmanabhaswamy Temple, the richest temple in India and the world

Hinduism has no central doctrinal authority and many practising Hindus do not claim to belong to any particular denomination. However, academics categorize contemporary Hinduism into four major denominations: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism and Smartism. The denominations differ primarily in the god worshipped as the Supreme One and in the traditions that accompany worship of that god.

Vaishnavas worship Vishnu as the supreme God; Shaivites worship Shiva as the supreme; Shaktas worship Shakti (power) personified through a female divinity or Mother Goddess, Devi; while Smartas believe in the essential oneness of five ( panchadeva) or six ( Shanmata, as Tamil Hindus add Skanda) deities as personifications of the Supreme.

The Western conception of what Hinduism is has been defined by the Smarta view; many Hindus, who may not understand or follow Advaita philosophy, in contemporary Hinduism, invariably follow the Shanmata belief worshiping many forms of God. One commentator, noting the influence of the Smarta tradition, remarked that although many Hindus may not strictly identify themselves as Smartas but, by adhering to Advaita Vedanta as a foundation for non-sectarianism, are indirect followers.

The Mother Temple of Besakih in Bali, Indonesia.

Other denominations like Ganapatya (the cult of Ganesha) and Saura ( Sun worship) are not so widespread.

There are movements that are not easily placed in any of the above categories, such as Swami Dayananda Saraswati's Arya Samaj, which rejects image worship and veneration of multiple deities. It focuses on the Vedas and the Vedic fire sacrifices ( yajña).

The Tantric traditions have various sects, as Banerji observes:

Tantras are ... also divided as āstika or Vedic and nāstika or non-Vedic. In accordance with the predominance of the deity the āstika works are again divided as Śākta (Shakta), Śaiva (Shaiva), Saura, Gāṇapatya and Vaiṣṇava (Vaishnava).


Hindu society has been categorized into four classes, called varnas.They are,

  • the Brahmins: Vedic teachers and priests;
  • the Kshatriyas: warriors, nobles, and kings;
  • the Vaishyas: farmers, merchants, and businessmen; and
  • the Shudras: servants and labourers.
Goddess Adi Shakthi at the Parashakthi Temple in Pontiac, USA

The Bhagavad Gītā links the varna to an individual's duty (svadharma), inborn nature (svabhāva), and natural tendencies ( guṇa). Gita's conception of varna allowed Aurobindo to derive his doctrine that "functions of a man ought to be determined by his natural turn, gift and capacities." The Manusmṛiti categorizes the different castes.

Some mobility and flexibility within the varnas challenge allegations of social discrimination in the caste system, as has been pointed out by several sociologists, although some other scholars disagree. Hindus and scholars debate whether the so-called caste system is an integral part of Hinduism sanctioned by the scriptures or an outdated social custom. The religious teacher Sri Ramakrishna (1836–1886) taught that

Lovers of God do not belong to any caste . . . . A brahmin without this love is no longer a brahmin. And a pariah with the love of God is no longer a pariah. Through bhakti (devotion to God) an untouchable becomes pure and elevated.


A Balmiki Ashram

Traditionally the life of a Hindu is divided into four Āshramas (phases or stages; unrelated meanings include monastery). The first part of one's life, Brahmacharya, the stage as a student, is spent in celibate, controlled, sober and pure contemplation under the guidance of a Guru, building up the mind for spiritual knowledge. Grihastha is the householder's stage, in which one marries and satisfies kāma and artha in one's married and professional life respectively (see the goals of life). The moral obligations of a Hindu householder include supporting one's parents, children, guests and holy figures. Vānaprastha, the retirement stage, is gradual detachment from the material world. This may involve giving over duties to one's children, spending more time in religious practices and embarking on holy pilgrimages. Finally, in Sannyāsa, the stage of asceticism, one renounces all worldly attachments to secludedly find the Divine through detachment from worldly life and peacefully shed the body for Moksha.


A sadhu in Madurai, India.

Some Hindus choose to live a monastic life (Sannyāsa) in pursuit of liberation or another form of spiritual perfection. Monastics commit themselves to a life of simplicity, celibacy, detachment from worldly pursuits, and the contemplation of God. A Hindu monk is called a sanyāsī, sādhu, or swāmi. A female renunciate is called a sanyāsini. Renunciates receive high respect in Hindu society because their outward renunciation of selfishness and worldliness serves as an inspiration to householders who strive for mental renunciation. Some monastics live in monasteries, while others wander from place to place, trusting in God alone to provide for their needs. It is considered a highly meritorious act for a householder to provide sādhus with food or other necessaries. Sādhus strive to treat all with respect and compassion, whether a person may be poor or rich, good or wicked, and to be indifferent to praise, blame, pleasure, and pain.

Ahimsa, vegetarianism and other food customs

Hindus advocate the practice of ahiṃsā (non-violence) and respect for all life because divinity is believed to permeate all beings, including plants and non-human animals. The term ahiṃsā appears in the Upanishads, the epic Mahabharata and Ahiṃsā is the first of the five Yamas (vows of self-restraint) in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. and the first principle for all member of Varnashrama Dharma (brahmin, kshatriya, vaishya and shudra) in Law of Manu (book 10, sutra 63 : Ahimsa, satya, asteya, shaucam and indrayanigraha, almost similar to main principles of jainism).

A goshala or cow shelter at Guntur

In accordance with ahiṃsā, many Hindus embrace vegetarianism to respect higher forms of life. Estimates of the number of lacto vegetarians in India (includes adherents of all religions) vary between 20% and 42%. The food habits vary with the community and region, for example some castes having fewer vegetarians and coastal populations relying on seafood. Some avoid meat only on specific holy days. Observant Hindus who do eat meat almost always abstain from beef. The cow in Hindu society is traditionally identified as a caretaker and a maternal figure, and Hindu society honours the cow as a symbol of unselfish giving. Cow-slaughter is legally banned in almost all states of India.

There are many Hindu groups that have continued to abide by a strict vegetarian diet in modern times. One example is the movement known as ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), whose followers “not only abstain from meat, fish, and fowl, but also avoid certain vegetables that are thought to have negative properties, such as onion and garlic.” A second example is the Swaminarayan Movement. The followers of this Hindu group also staunchly adhere to a diet that is devoid of meat, eggs, and seafood.

Rajasthani thali.

Vegetarianism is propagated by the Yajur Veda and it is recommended for a satvic (purifying) lifestyle. Thus, another reason that dietary purity is so eminent within Hinduism is because “the idea that food reflects the general qualities of nature: purity, energy, inertia” It follows, then, that a healthy diet should be one that promotes purity within an individual.

Based on this reasoning, Hindus should avoid or minimize the intake of foods that do not promote purity. These foods include onion and garlic, which are regarded as rajasic (a state which is characterized by “tension and overbearing demeanor”) foods, and meat, which is regarded as tamasic (a state which is characterized by “anger, greed, and jealousy”).

Some Hindus from certain sects - generally Shakta, certain Shudra and Kshatriya castes and certain Eastern Indian and East Asian regions; practise animal sacrifice (bali), although most Hindus, including the majority of Vaishnava and Shaivite Hindus abhor it.


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