Peter's Science and Religion Pages
Not being a Hindu scholar, the source for much of these notes on Hinduism is probably "The World's Religions", Lion Publications 1982
Hinduism has no founder or prophet. (Hindu is the Persian word for Indian.) There is no institutional structure or set creed. It is a cultural thing.
Hinduism is the product of 5000 years of Indian culture.
The one idea common to all Hinduism, is the eternal cycle (sanatana ) which involves re-incarnation, or the flow of life through many existences.
Linked with this, is the idea of order or ones duty (dharma ) in accordance with ones class.
There is also karma (work or action) which says that the consequences of actions in one life flow into the next existence.
The Hindu hope is for release (moksha) from the cycle of existence.
Release comes by following one of the four paths (yogas):
the path of action (karma yoga),
the path of knowledge (jnana yoga),
the path of devotion (bhakti yoga), or
the path of insight (raja yoga).
The majority of Hindus are vegetarian and their reverence for the cow is a symbol of reverence for all animals. Nobody knows precisely why cows are sacred but they can go anywhere and eat anything.
The endless life-giving waters of the Ganges is a symbol of life without end. After cremation ones ashes are cast on the waters of the sacred river and life continues.
The Hindu gods.
Some show devotion (bhakti ) to one particular god. Some worship many gods and others none at all. Some worship one-god-and-many as incarnations (avatars ) of him.
(A) Early gods
(1) Indra is a warrior who overcomes the powers of evil. With his thunderbolt he stops the Dragon who tries to block the flow of the waters. He appears as conqueror of the sun releasing the imprisoned dawns. He is depicted on an elephant, with jewels, a kingly turban, and a thunderbolt.
(2) Agni is the personification of the sacrificial fire (Latin ignis = fire) and carries the gifts which the priests pour into the flames into the presence of the gods. Agni is thus the life force of nature, who unites earth, heaven and the air between. Agni "restores life to all beings." "The all is reborn through (him)."
(3) Varuna is chief of the gods (Greek Uranus) because he administers ceremonial rite (rita) and law (dharma). He ensures that there is no transgression of the cosmic order by cosmic or human beings.
(B) Later gods
(1) Brahman is above & beyond worship - unknowable. Brahman is neutral and impersonal; the origin, cause and basis of all existence. In it are to be found pure being (sat), pure intelligence (cit) and pure delight (ananda).
Brahma is often portrayed with four faces (compass points) and with four arms holding four texts, the Vedas, He sometime sits on a lotus, which is a symbol that he comes from himself and is not begotten.
Savasvati is his consort, the goddess of knowledge, learning and truth.
(2) Vishnu the great preserver, is in charge of human fate. He is the symbol of divine love. He comes near to humans through ten incarnations or "descents" (avatars). Many of these are thought to be partial.
Lakshmi is his consort, the goddess of fortune and beauty.
(3) Shiva is the destroyer and re-creator. The source of both good and evil. In him all opposites meet and become resolved in a fundamental unity. The phallus (lingam) is his symbol and in most of his temples there is a bull, the symbol of virility. In him there is ceaseless activity and eternal rest. He is the king of the dancers, the embodiment of the cosmic rhythm at the heart of all existence.
Kali is his consort - both ferocious (with a garland of skulls and skirt of severed hands) and serene (as the night of rest and peace between cycles).
The ten avatars of Vishnu
Matsya: the fish. He appeared at the time of the great flood to warn people.
Kurma: the tortoise. He rescued treasures from the flood.
Varaha: the boar: He raised the earth from the flood.
Nara-Simha: the man-lion. He defeated evil demons.
Vamana: the dwarf. He defeated evil demons.
Parusha-Rama: Rama with an axe. He destroyed some of the warrior class who threatened to dominate the world.
Rama-Chandra: a noble hero, the epitome of virtue.
Krishna: a warrior and a king. In him the being of Vishnu is held to be totally present.
Buddha: the enlightened one.
Kalki: yet to come!
The Hindu texts
The Songs of knowledge (Rig Veda) is a collection of over 1000 hymns divided into four groups. They are usually addressed to a single god though many feature in them.
The most popular is Indra.
It begins a tradition which puts doubt on attempts to describe the ultimate truth. e.g. on creation:
"Who knows it for certain; who can proclaim it here; namely, out of what it was born and from what creation proceeded ... whether he (Indra) made it or whether he has not? ... he alone knows, or perhaps even he does not know."
The Veda also gives the basis of social order in terms of a world soul (purusha). The mouth is the priests (Brahmins), the arms are the rulers (Rajanya or Kshatriya), the thighs are the landowners, merchants and bankers (vaishya), and the feet are the workers, artisans and serf (shudra). This led to the caste (varna = colour) system with the shudras (the darker) at the bottom.
The Sit down near teachings (Upanishads) set out to discover the ground of the universe, the Reality (Brahman) which was before all other existence. The basis of human consciousness, the individual self (atman) is a part of the Reality.
"Brahman dwells within all and outside all - unborn, pure, greater than the greatest, without breath, without mind." Yet Brahman is "ever present in the hearts of all - the refuge of all and their supreme goal." Thus the way to salvation is through knowledge or spiritual insight.
In the Ramayana, (24,000 couplets) we have the loving husband and the faithful wife. Rama is the personification of righteousness (one of the ten avatars). In the story, he is ousted from his throne and his faithful wife Sita abducted and taken off to Sri Lanka. The monkey god (Hanuman) helps rescue her by making a monkey bridge back to the mainland of India.
Rama is invoked at the start of something and its successful completion. Sita is the model for the faithful wife who is so identified with her husband that she ascends her husbands funeral pyre and is cremated with him.
In the Mahabharata story, (90,000 couplets) two sets of cousins claim to be rightful rulers. The five Pandora prevail in the end, but only after lengthy and bitter conflict. The eldest brother, Yudhisththira goes off to ascetic meditation. Arjuna shares his dislike for war, but shows great ability as a general. The high point is called the "song of the lord" (Bhagavad Gita), where Arjuna hesitates battling with his kin. He debates with his charioteer who is none other but Krishna! Krishna argues that death doesnt destroy the soul, and a man must do his duty according to his class. Doing your duty with a spirit of detachment doesnt make you guilty of anything.
The Bhagavata Purana has more stories of Krishna. He starts as a prince but is forced to flee from his cousin Kamsa and becomes a cow herd. He is a skilful flute player and plays many pranks on the wives and daughters of the cow herds.