What is Hinduism?

HINDUISM

A student of Hinduism can be compared with one of those blind-folded wise men who set about to examine an elephant by touching it and came up with totally different ideas about what the elephant looked like, none of which were factual. Hinduism is like a multifarious ocean of beliefs and modes of worship with an indeterminate origin. It comprises within itself the most sublime philosophies and gross fetishism of all kinds of objects which are worshipped.

This is one religion with a history stretching from around the second millennium B.C.E. upto the present.

The Pantheism of Hinduism

A contemporary author has observed, "As a matter of fact orthodox Hindus have believed in every kind of theism, polytheism, and pantheism. They have worshipped any object which they prefer, or practically none. They followed any standard of morality or almost none. Yet they have been recognised as Hindus in good and regular standing as long as they have not flagrantly violated the rules of caste or for that offence been out-casted".

Educated Hindus though have rejected the primitive features and have developed a refined religion which they follow alongwith the cruder versions that resemble primitive animism followed by their rural and tribal brethren. Throughout its long history there have been many reform movements in Hinduism, the best known of which were Buddhism and Jainism in around the 6th century B.C.E. and Sikhism in the 16th century C.E. The recent reform movements such as the Brahmo Samaj, the Arya Samaj Prarthana Samaj, have been protests against ritualism and idolatory, but their membership is very small.

In other primitive religions, when a great reformer has come, the entire primitive religion has become uniform, and unified and has consequently become cohesive and monotheistic as in the case of Zoroastrianism and Islam. But in India the followers of a reformer have always been a separate sect and the old Hindu religion has continued to be the religion of a vast majority.

As Hinduism has always been an eclectic religion it becomes difficult to identify all features which are universally recognised in this religion. The objects of veneration and worship in Hindu temples are very startling to those not familiar with the history of this hoary religion (One has to remember that the term religion is very loosely applied to Hinduism. It is more a collection of attitudes and forms of worship).

It is widely recognised that most elements of present day Hinduism descended from the amalgam of the religious beliefs of the Aryans who are said to have come into India (West Punjab) around 1750 B.C.E. and those of the earlier peoples who reportedly were the founders of the Indus valley civilization.

(Many scholars refute the Aryan invasion theory and also the date stated here for the entry of the Aryans into India. These scholars propound that India was the original home of the Aryans and it was from India that they spread to other parts of the globe. These scholars say that it was the Aryans themselves who founded the Indus (or Saraswati) valley civilization.

This is one point of view and the dating these scholars propound is supported by the star patterns mentioned in the Vedas, and the epics. Deciphering of the Indus Valley script as to be, in fact, Sanskrit also supports the point of view that the founders of the Indus - Saraswati - valley civilization were also Sanskrit speakers and hence Aryans (and not pre-Aryans). However, the author of this web page cannot claim any authority to either support or refute either theory. But then this debate is not relevant to our discussion as here we are not concerned with the fact whether the Aryans came into India from other parts of our globe or left India to go to other parts of our globe. That the Aryans existed in history is enough for our discussion. We are concerned with their modes of worship.)

The earliest objects of worship were the forces of nature and the religion was in essence polytheistic. Later on came the personified Gods like Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva while the polytheistic nature remained unchanged.

Partial Amalgamation through the Concept of Incarnation (Avatara)

With a view to having a unifying medium, in this mushrooming pantheon, was propagated the monotheistic philosophy that there is one God, one supreme reality (Brahman) and the various personified Gods, Goddesses and animistic objects of worship are incarnations (Avataras) of God. While God himself was indestructible, the various incarnations in which he descended to Earth in the form (Rupa) of an ordinary mortal had to go through the cycle of birth and death. The incarnation idea helped to partially unify the plethora of deities as different manifestations of a single divine entity. It also facilitated the absorption of deites from other religions and tribal cults which had been outside the pale of Hinduism.

Assimilation, acculturation, amalgamation have been the hallmarks of the development and growth of the Hindu religion.

Many deities are themselves a result of amalgamation of two or more deities. For instance we have Hari-hara who is an amalgam of Hari (Krishan who is an incarnation of Vishnu) and Hara (Shiva). This amalgamation of the two recognised principal deities Vishnu and Shiva was undertaken to ease out the dualism in the Hindu religion due to the existence of the two principal sects Vaishnavism (worshippers of Vishnu) and Shaivism (worshippers of Shiva) who were frequently at loggerheads with each other. There are innumerable other sects though. Another deity who is also amalgam of Vishnu and Shiva is variously known as Sashta and Ayyappa. He has a famous shrine devoted to him at Sabarimala in Kerala

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