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Hinduism


Hinduism Though Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism generally means a plethora of gods and goddesses and colourful or horrific rituals, Hinduism is a profound philosophy dating back to at least 2500 BC and evolving over time through interpretations and reform movements.

The Vedas Hinduism draws its inspiration from the vedas, which are more a record than an interpretation of religious experience.

The Vedas contain praises of different deities, such as agni, Indra, Varuna, etc, who are deified forms of different aspects of nature. These gods are powerful entities, competent to bestow bounteous gifts on those who pray to them. The gods invoked in the Vedas may also be seen as different manifestations of the same truth. Thus one aspect of truth is represented as the Fire God, while another is described as the Rain God and so on.

The Vedas comprise of four parts, each of which developed in different periods of the Vedic Age. The first phase of the Vedic period is marked by the composition of the Sanghitas, four collections of hymns dedicated to one or the other aspect of the Supreme Truth. The second phase is characterised by the composition of the Brahmanas, texts which describe the rituals associated with sacrifice. Hinduism regards sacrifices as one of the most sacred tasks, the performance of which opens the gates of heaven. The third phase of the Vedic period is characterised by the composition of the Aranyakas, which describe different methods of spending one's life in the forest and of how to develop one's spiritual self. The fourth phase is characterised by the upanisads, which record the human urge to unravel the mysteries of the universe. Vedic literature, thus, moves from the craving for physical satisfaction of material needs to the eternal aspiration of the human mind.

While the authority of the Vedas is final, the expression and interpretation of the religious experience is by no means final. This interpretation constitutes smriti literature. The Vedas, representing Eternal Truths, do not change, but interpretations change as the social structure changes. However, neither Vedic nor Smrti literature contain the entire truth of Hinduism. The seers themselves prescribe that in order to arrive at the core content of Truth it is necessary to dive deep into the epics, the ramayana and the mahabharata, as well as the puranas which are interpretations and expositions of the fundamental truths preserved in Vedic literature.

The Bhagavadgita, the Gospel of Hinduism The bhagavadgita is the gospel of Hinduism. According to the Bhagavadgita, the religion it propounds is not restricted to a particular community or time, but is an eternal religion handed down to humanity through the ages. The Sanskrit word dharma, employed in the Bhagavadgita, does not refer to the faith professed by a particular community or section but rather to a religion capable of being practised by all human beings irrespective of faith or creed. Greater emphasis is laid in Hinduism on the code of conduct, than on faith in the divine. It is curious to note that one can become a Hindu without believing in the existence of God. It is sufficient to believe in the unquestionable authority of the Vedas and to follow the code of conduct prescribed by the scriptures.

One of the fundamental characteristics of Hinduism is represented by the philosophy of 'Selfless Action' or 'Work without Motive', which has been structured in a beautiful manner in the Bhagavadgita. This philosophy states that obligations to the community must be discharged by human beings, because without work the wheel of human life cannot go on. However, one must discharge one's own duties without caring for reward. When duties are discharged with one eye on the reward, the work becomes a source of bondage. On the other hand, if work is done without consideration of personal gain, it becomes a source of liberation. Human beings are then no longer confined within the boundaries of the self, but are lifted onto a higher plane where they experience a oneness with the universe.

This question naturally leads to the bigger issue of who is to be benefited by such action. If the performer discharges his obligations without any consideration of gain and does not want to be benefited personally by the fruits of such action, then who benefits from the actionFoodgrain It is here that the Bhagavadgita refers to God as the agency at whose feet the fruits of action are to be surrendered. The Bhagavadgita proclaims: 'Whatever you do, whatever you sacrifice, whatever you donate, whatever penance you practice all these are to be dedicated at the feet of the Supreme Lord'. Elsewhere the Bhagavadgita says that God resides in the heart of all beings, animate and inanimate. When these two projections are taken together, it means that the fruits of all actions are to be surrendered for the benefit of all beings, and not for the personal benefit of the performer.

Hinduism does not believe that the use of force is immoral in all circumstances. The Bhagavadgita, for example, lays stress on the duties of the warrior and the claims of the nation. There is a place for politics and heroism, but wisdom and love are more than politics and war.

Animals are also included as objects to be treated with compassion. All life is sacred, whether of animals or of human beings. Hindu custom allows meat-eating but prefers vegetarianism. On days dedicated to religious function, however, meat-eating is disallowed.

Priestly codes tend to confuse virtue with ceremonial purity. To kill a man is bad, but to touch his corpse is worse. The great scriptures, however, disregard technical morality and insist on the spirit of self-control and love of humanity. To be able to fulfil the obligations expected of human beings, self-control must be practised. Cardinal sins are those that destroy the self: lust, anger, and greed. The true Hindu makes war upon these vices with the weapons of the spirit, opposing chastity to lust, love to anger, and generosity to greed. The Vedas say, 'Cross the bridges hard to cross. Overcome anger by love, untruth by truth'. The Mahabharata says, 'The rules of dharma or virtuous conduct taught by the great seers, each of whom relied on his own illumination, are manifold. The highest among them all is self-control'. It is in order to develop self-control that austerities and asceticism are practised, but when self-control is attained, these rigorous practices are unnecessary. Insistence on discipline or self-control avoids the two extremes of self-indulgence and asceticism.

Hinduism also allows for repentance: 'If he repents after he commits the sin, the sin is destroyed. If he resolves that he will never commit the sin again, he will be purified'. Hinduism also does not differentiate between meditation and right action. The sannyasi is not one who abstains from work. Meditation and action both express the same spirit; there is no conflict between wisdom and work. 'It is the children of this world and not the men of learning who think of wisdom and work as different. The peace that is won by the knower is likewise won by the worker. He sees in truth who sees that wisdom and work are one'.

Varnashrama-dharma The Manusmrti, the oldest Indian law book, propounds the scheme of Varnasrama-dharma, which is still followed by Hindus, though in a much diminutive form. The Purusasukta of the Rg Veda contains the germ of this scheme, where all of society is regarded as the universal or social man. According to this trope, from the head of this collective social man the brahman was born, from his arms the ksatriya, from his trunk the vaishya, and from his leg the shudra. The Purusasukta laid the foundation of the Caste System, by classifying human beings into four psychophysical types: (a) the Brahman or the man of knowledge, of science, of literature, of thought and learning, (b) the Ksatriya, the man of action and valour, (c) the Vaixya, the man of desire, of business enterprise, and (d) the Sudra, the man of little intelligence, incapable of going beyond low limits and dealing with abstract ideas, the man who is fit only for manual labour.

The conception of the Brahman growing from the head of the collective social man and the Sudra growing from his legs has raised a storm of controversy, because, it has been contended that the Brahman was allotted a superior position in order to ensure continuance of his control over the social structure. Proponents of this classification, but it is considered by scholers as a misinterpretation. By describing the Sudra as constituting the legs of the universal social man, the seer had suggested that the Sudra got profound importance in the social order because without him the structure could not be raised. Unless there are persons competent to do manual labour and implement plans, the man of knowledge or science cannot translate his ideas into action. The same argument is made in the case of the Ksatriya and the Vaisya. The man of action and the man of desire and business enterprise are equally necessary for the development of society. The concept of the universal social man and the four castes constituting his different limbs is, therefore, interpreted as a division of labour that ensures the smooth functioning of society.

Manusmrti also contains the concept of four ashramas or stages: the stage of the brahmacharin (student), the stage of the garhasthya (householder), the stage of the vanaprastha (hermit; literally, one who has moved to the forest), and the stage of the sannyasin (ascetic). Every individual must go through the four stages, so that his personality can blossom forth in its full splendour and he can ultimately realise the identity of his own self with the self of the universe. When the searching student receives instructions from his teacher, there is communication simply between the teacher and the taught. When the individual enters into the stage of householder, he is required to enter into a relationship with a number of persons, with the members of his family as well as with friends, thus expanding the boundaries of his personality. After renouncing the world and removing to the forest, he establishes a relationship with nature, with trees and creepers, with rivers and oceans. Finally as an ascetic, with no fixed abode, he is able to transcend the boundaries of his ego completely.

The four ends of life The goal of life, according to Hinduism, is the attainment of moksa (salvation), deliverance from all sorrow, doubt, and fear, signifying the sense of liberation from the bondage of the ego. When human beings attain liberation, they realise the identity of their individual selves with the self of the universe. However, this is the last of the four ends of life: dharma (religion), artha (wealth), kama (libidinal satisfaction) and moksa.

However, Hinduism was a practical religion. It set before human beings not only heaven in the hereafter, but also on earth here, a welfare state (sarvodaya samaja), in which all would be pleasantly and profitably occupied. To quote Manu: 'That which secures abhyudaya (prosperity) here, and nihshreyasa (highest bliss) or moksa hereafter, is dharma'. Hinduism sees no contradiction in the four goals of life: 'Some say dharma and artha, are best; others, kama and artha; others, dharma only; yet others, artha only. But the final truth is that abhyudaya consists in, and is achievable by, all three together'.

The final happiness, whether termed nihsreyasa, nirvana, moksa, or mukti, etc, results from a merging of the jivatman, the individual self, with the paramatman, supreme universal self, and therefore with all the countless individual selves.

But even those who feel no need to believe in a god or gods, or in an after-life and the like agree that some laws, some rules of conduct, are indispensable for social life. Laws and rules of conduct may differ from time to time and place to place, but without some curb on human vagaries and evil propensities, no decent and secure social life is possible. Hence the necessity of balancing social interests on the foundation of the spiritual kinship of men, howsoever conceived.

The law of karma Hinduism is also characterised by the law of karma, or action, the belief that all events follow from the action done either in this birth or in a previous birth. The soul is eternal and cannot be confined to a single birth nor can it be destroyed after a few brief years on earth. The wheel of life therefore goes on revolving, enabling the individual to progress a few steps in each birth on the road to liberation. The ultimate objective is always liberation or cessation of embodiment, resulting from the union of the individual self with the self of the universe.

The belief in an immanent working of the divine spirit in the universe, especially in the maintenance of the social order, is a cardinal tenet of Hinduism. An intimate relation is supposed to exist between cosmic happenings and social phenomena, particularly the ordering in the state. If the king ruled justly and proper social relations were maintained, rains would fall in season, and there would be no pestilence or calamities. Any calamity to individual or social life indicates the presence of some social disorder and prompts a search for the offending agent. The law of karma acts as an invisible and impersonal law of recompense and retribution, but in reality restores moral equilibrium.

Once it is believed that there is re-birth and that the particular physical form the soul embodies is according to the deeds done by it in a previous birth, the question of extending recognition to the existence of different worlds naturally comes to the fore. It is believed that the soul goes to hell or heaven of various grades according to the quantity and quality of sinful and meritorious acts.

Emergence of Buddhism and Jainism The popularity of the concept of sangsara, the unending or almost unending passage from death to re-birth and re-birth to death, influenced to a great extent the attitude of Indian people and encouraged certain tendencies in the social life of India. The prospect of endless re-births, even when long periods of residence in the heavens were assured, proved distasteful to many. The quest for security in one life, where there would no longer be fear from painful re-birth, was re-doubled. The religion of buddhism and jainism and other less known heterogeneous systems owe much of their existence to the growth of this doctrine which appears to have become universal by the time of the buddha.

The great majority of Indians still believe in this doctrine of re-birth and the concomitant doctrine of karma, which says that man is reborn in happy or unhappy conditions according to his work in a previous life. This doctrine in its Buddhist form has affected more than half of Asia. This provided a practical sanction against perpetration of misdeeds, as it was believed that this would lead to inevitable suffering while righteous conduct would bring happiness in the next life. Though Buddhism and Jainism were 'reformations' of Hinduism, they emerged as separate religions.

The Hindu pantheon Many popular conceptions were simply carried over into Brahmanical religion from primitive beliefs, and some have travelled down from Vedic times. Personification and deification have both played their part, with the effect that not only were the powers of nature personified into divine and semi-divine beings, but also the pitas (ancestors) and sages of the race were given divine status. Even abstract qualities, like shraddha (faith), manyu (anger), nirrti (death), dhi (intellect), hri (modesty), pusti (nutrition), medha (intelligence), dhrti (patience) etc were personified as deities. With the rise of sectarianism, the different heavenly abodes (lokas) of the various gods were more sharply distinguished, and each god was provided with a retinue of semi-divine beings in keeping with his function and status. Even Buddhism and Jainism, which worshipped no gods proper in their philosophy, admitted in their religious developments a multitude of heavens and hells and popular semi-divine beings, like yaksas and gandharvas, as also the denizens of various grades of the nether region or hell. Also the prophets of their respective faiths received an adoration bordering on religious devotion.

It is interesting to note that though the concept of a formless and absolute infinite (Brahman) was floated by the Upanisads, the idea gradually changed and the concept of a personal god whom the average human could love and comprehend gradually emerged. This transition was easy and natural, and almost inevitable, because the human mind finds it difficult to establish a relationship with an impersonal god. The Upanisadic doctrine of an impersonal god was fused with the devotional worship of a personal god and a beginning was thus made which led to almost revolutionary changes.

Indeed, one of the most important traits of the Brahmanical religion is this spirit of reconciliation and harmony between orthodox and sectarian forms. Its most notable expression is to be found in the theological conception of the Trimurti, ie the manifestation of the supreme God in three forms of brahma, vishnu, and shiva, with Brahma, the creator, being undoubtedly a pale reflection of the Brahman of the Upanisads. But the attempt cannot be regarded as a great success, for Brahma never gained an ascendancy comparable to that of Shiva or Vishnu, and the different sects often conceived the Trimurti as really the three manifestations of their own sectarian god, whom they regarded as Brahman or the Absolute. Still, the spirit of re-conciliation bore significant results. Henceforth the Hindus may be divided broadly into two classes, viz (1) extreme sectarians who confine their devotion and worship almost exclusively to their sectarian deity like Vishnu, Shiva, Kali, etc and (2) general followers of the Brahmanical religion who revere and worship all these and other gods, even though they might be specially attached to one sectarian deity, and also follow some of the important Vedic rituals and practices. Thus the Smartas (experts in Hindu social law, the law of inheritance, etc) prescribed the regular worship of the five gods Vishnu, Shiva, Durga, Surya, and ganesh while the rest of the Hindu pantheon are also freely worshipped by many.

A further step towards the reconciliation of the different sects may be traced in the attempt to establish the identity of Vishnu and Shiva, as found in the Skanda Upanisad. The image of Hari-Hara, like that of Ardhanarishvara (Shiva-Parvati), is a visible symbol of this doctrine. There is hardly any doubt that, in spite of the existence of the extreme sectarians who do not tolerate any god other than their own, the general mass of Hindus, even today, while professing one sect or other, have a general reverence for all the Hindu gods. The epigraphical records prove that this has been the case throughout.

The six systems of Hindu philosophy grew up around Sangkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimangsa and Vedanta philosophies. These systems are not really opposed to each other, but proclaim the same eternal Truth. This view is first met with in Pravodha-chandrodaya, an allegorical Sanskrit play written in the court of King Kirtivaman during the latter half of the eleventh century AD. In a famous scene in this play, there is a dispute between the Buddhists, Jains, and followers of other heterodox sects on one side, and the Vaisnavas, Saivas, and Sauras, aided by the six schools of philosophy, on the other. The basic unity of orthodox Hinduism as against the heterodox sects, which is so vividly brought into prominence in this scene, forms a feature of Hinduism up to the present. Vijnana Bhiksu, a Samkhya philosopher of the sixteenth century, also proclaimed the essential unity of the six systems of philosophy. Of all the religious sects and cults, the Vaisnava cult of krishna and radha demonstrates new and remarkable tendencies, as a result of which the cult spread to almost all the parts of India. When it was carried out to its extreme form by Vallavacharya, who did not emphasize spiritual fervour and morality, the cult degenerated. In its degraded form, the sect emphasised the cultivation of free love, which was antagonistic to the spirit of Indian culture.

Fortunately Bengal was saved from this degradation by chaitanya, who elevated the passions of Radha and Krishna to a high spiritual plane and stressed the emotional at the cost of the ceremonial side of religion. His piety, devotion and fervour introduced a pure and spiritual element in vaisnavism, which offered a bright and refreshing contrast to the religion promulgated by Vallavacharya.

In addition to the purification of the Bhakti cult and its elevation to a high spiritual level, these Vaisnava teachers, together with Chaitanya, have made other notable contributions. These may be summed up as (1) preaching in the vernacular; (2) ignoring caste distinctions and admitting even the lowest castes to their fold; and (3) rejecting rites and ceremonials as useless and laying stress on morality and purity of the heart. While Ramananda and Chaitanya allowed some image worship, others carried this last feature to an extreme form, discarding all images.

The eighteenth century was marked by the impact of western thought, leading to the religious reforms of the nineteenth century and bringing back the rationalism of the fifth century BC. Raja rammohun roy was its great exponent. The new spirit led to the foundation of the Brahma Samaj (including Prarthana Samaj), the Arya Samaj, and the Theosophical Society on the one hand, and all-round reform in orthodox Hindu religion and society on the other.

The close of the century saw the advent of Sri ramakrishna who sought to reconcile not only the rationalist doctrine with the emotionalism and ritualistic orthodoxy of the earlier ages, but also the seemingly different conflicting religions. His disciple, swami vivekananda, gave a definite shape to his views. Formulating the teaching of his master into a definite creed, Vivekananda founded the ramakrishna mission which is now a potent force in India as well as in other countries. Vivekananda propounded the doctrine that all religions, if truly followed, are but different ways to salvation, and there is no inherent conflict between one religion and another. The Ramakrishna Mission synthesises the varied cultures of India, combining the philosophy of the Upanisads and Sankara with theistic beliefs, the pursuit of abstract principles with meditation and devotion. While the rituals of the Vedic religion are performed with meticulous care, it observes no distinctions of caste and creed and honours not only Buddha and Chaitanya, but jesus Christ, hazrat muhammad (Sm), and Zoroaster.

Hinduism in Bangladesh Vedic Hinduism developed slowly in Bengal and merged with folk religion and local customs. Though Bengali Hindus revere the Vedas as their scriptures, the Gita, Chandi, Bhagavata, Ramayana and Mahabharata are more popular. Though due to the division of India and various political and social factors, there is a dilution of the religion, the basic principles of Hinduism inform the beliefs and practices of this community. Hindus are mainly guided by Shruti, Smrti, tantra and Purana. Similarly, the caste divisions though they persist do so in a weakened form.

The religious rites of the Hindus of Bangladesh are similar to those of the Hindus of west bengal. The worship of the mother goddess dominates, under various forms. The autumnal durga puja is the main religious festival. This is followed in importance by saraswati Puja. The goddess Kali or Shyama is celebrated as the goddess of Sakti and worshipped everywhere in Bangladesh. Another form of the goddess Durga is as Jagaddhatri, and jagaddhatri puja is also celebrated in Bengal, but on a smaller scale. The goddess Laksmi is worshipped in almost all the Hindu houses as the goddess of wealth. Every household has an altar to Laksmi, who is worshipped every Thursday. Brahmin priests, who preside over the other pujas, are not needed at this weekly worship. laksmi puja is celebrated, in particular, on the autumnal full moon after Durga Puja. Other pujas and festivals include dolayatra, rathayatra, Jhulanayatra, Rasayatra, Kartik Puja, Shivachaturdashi, Nila Puja, Annapurna Puja, Ganga Puja, Siddheshvari Puja, Ratanti Kalika Puja, Naga Puja, manasa Puja, Surya Puja, Ganesh Puja, vishvakarma puja, shitala Puja etc. janmastami, the birth of Krishna is celebrated with grand processions in different cities of the country, including Dhaka. Daksinaraya and Banabibi Puja are held in the sundarbans area of southern Bengal.

Some pujas are celebrated by different groups or professions. For example, businessmen worship Ganesh, while blacksmiths and carpenters worship Visvakarma. Saraswati is mainly worshipped by students, who believe that the goddess of learning will be pleased and bless them so that they will do well in their studies. Manasa is generally worshipped for protection against snake bites, and Sitala and ola devi are worshipped for protection against small pox and cholera.

Some pujas are specifically for the purpose of getting some desired object or avoiding some misfortune. Among these pujas are Shani Puja, Satyanarayana Puja, Aksayatrtiya, Sitanavami,bhratrdvitiya, Jamaisasthi, Katyayanivrata, Chaitra Sangkranti, Savitrivrata, Shivaratrivrata, Vipattarinivrata, Mangalachandivrata, Suvachanivrata, Mahalaya, Dipavali, Pausaparvana etc. Sani Puja, for example, is held to placate the god Sani, so that his cruel glance does not bring misfortune. Bhratrdvitiya and Jamaisasthi seek blessings for brother and son-in-law respectively. Young girls observe Savitrivrata and Shivaratrivrata in order to get good husbands. In addition, there are harvest celebrations such as navanna. kirtan songs form part of religious practices.

Fasting as a religious obligation or for a vow is mostly observed by women.

In Bangladesh most Hindus worship sakara Brahma (different gods and goddesses), but there are also a few who worship nirakara Brahma (god without form), among them the followers of Brahmo Samaj and Swarupananda Brahmachari. There are many followers of Vaisnavism, founded by Chaitanya in Bangladesh. In addition there are many followers of saintly figures such as ramakrishna, lokanath brahmachari, Ramathakur, jagadbandhu, anukulchandra, Swami Pranavananda, Swami Dayananda, harichand thakur, Anandamurti etc.

The religious and social reform movements headed by Raja Rammohun Roy and iswar chandra vidyasagar influenced this area also. sati was abolished by the British colonial rulers, along with Gauridana and Kulin polygamy. [Ramaranjan Mukherjee]

Bibliography AL Basham, The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism, Beacon Press, Boston, 1989; RC Majumdar, The Cultural Heritage of India, Vol. IV, R K Mission Institute of Culture, 1937.