Hinduism is the western term for the religious beliefs and practices of the vast majority of the people of India. One of the oldest living religions in the world, Hinduism is unique among the world religions in that it had no single founder but grew over a period of 4,000 years in syncretism with the religious and cultural movements of the Indian subcontinent. Hinduism is composed of innumerable sects and has no well-defined ecclesiastical organization. Its two most general features are the caste system and acceptance of the Veda as the most sacred scriptures.
Hinduism is a synthesis of the religion brought into India by the Aryans (c.1500 B.C.) and indigenous religion. The first phase of Hinduism was early Brahmanism, the religion of the priests or Brahmans who performed the Vedic sacrifice, through the power of which proper relation with the gods and the cosmos is established. The Veda comprises the liturgy and interpretation of the sacrifice and culminates in the Upanishads , mystical and speculative works that state the doctrine of Brahman, the absolute reality that is the self of all things, and its identity with the individual soul, or atman. Later Upanishads refer to the practices of yoga and contain theistic elements that are fully developed in the Bhagavad-Gita.
Post-Vedic Hinduism in all its forms accepts the doctrine of karma , according to which the individual reaps the results of his good and bad actions through a series of lifetimes. Also universally accepted is the goal of moksha or mukti, liberation from suffering and from the compulsion to rebirth, which is attainable through elimination of passions and through knowledge of reality and finally union with God.
Responses to Buddhism and Jainism
In the middle of the first millennium B.C., an ossified Brahmanism was challenged by heterodox, i.e., non-Vedic, systems, notably Buddhism and Jainism. The priestly elite responded by creating a synthesis that accepted yogic practices and their goals, recognized the gods and image worship of popular devotional movements, and adopted greater concern for the daily life of the people. There was an increase in writings, such as the Laws of Manu, dealing with dharma , or duty, not only as applied to the sacrifice but to every aspect of life. Their basic principle is varna-ashrama-dharma, or dharma in accordance with varna (class or caste) and ashrama (stage of life). The four classes are the Brahmans, Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (farmers and merchants), and Shudras (laborers). The four stages of life are brahmacharya or celibate student life (originally for study of the Veda), grihastha or householdership, vanaprastha or forest hermitage, and sannyasa, complete renunciation of all ties with society and pursuit of spiritual liberation. (In practical terms these stages were not strictly adhered to. The two main alternatives have continued to be householdership and the ascetic life.) The entire system was conceived as ideally ensuring both the proper function of society as an integrated whole and the fulfillment of the individual's needs through his lifetime.
The post-Vedic Puranas deal with these themes. They also elaborate the myths of the popular gods. They describe the universe as undergoing an eternally repeated cycle of creation, preservation, and dissolution, represented by the trinity of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer as aspects of the Supreme.
Medieval and Modern Developments
In medieval times the esoteric ritual and yoga of Tantra and sects of fervent devotion arose and flourished. The groundswell of devotion produced poet-saints all over India who wrote religious songs and composed versions of the epics in their vernaculars. This literature plays an essential part in present-day Hinduism, as do puja, or worship of enshrined deities, and pilgrimage to sacred places. The most popular deities include Vishnu and his incarnations Rama and Krishna, Shiva, the elephant-headed god Ganesha, and the Mother-Goddess or Devi, who appears as the terrible Kali or Durga but also as Sarasvati, the goddess of music and learning, and as Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. All the gods and goddesses, each of which has numerous aspects, are regarded as different forms of the one Supreme Being. Modern Hindu leaders such as Swami Vivekananda, Mohandas Gandhi, and Aurobindo Ghose, have given voice to a movement away from the traditional ideal of world-renunciation and asceticism and have asserted the necessity of uniting spiritual life with social concerns.
After independence in 1947 the impact of Hinduism on the political life of a country in which more than 80% of the people are adherents was moderated by the long-term rule of the Congress party, which has striven to maintain a secular democracy. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims, however, have long been a fact of life in India, as evidenced in the creation of Pakistan, the conflict over Kashmir, and the subsequent wars between India and Pakistan. There have also been tensions with the Sikh minority, some of whom have sought independence for the Punjab, leading to violence in the 1980s.