Hinduism is the world’s oldest known religion and the fourth largest with over 900 million followers. It is the main religion of India, where 96% of its practitioners live, but the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal is the world’s only Hindu nation. Hinduism is the world’s most closed religion, in the sense that one is not only born a Hindu but also positioned into one of its four castes, the status of which is permanent for at least a lifetime.
Hindus believe in the Brahman, an eternal, infinite principal that has no beginning, has no end, and is the source and substance of all existence. A Westerner with a Judeo-Christian background might incorrectly compare Brahman to God, but the concept of “The Force” in Star Wars may be a more apt description of Brahman. Dropping the “n” in Brahman leaves Brahma, a deva or god that is born without a mother. Brahma created the universe, but he is not supreme and not synonymous Brahman.
Hindus believe in transmigration, the soul passing into another body at death, and in reincarnation, a cycle of death and rebirth. Hindus believe in karma, the idea that actions in one life have a direct effect on the events in the next life. To Hindus, salvation comes when one is finally released from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Many who practice Hinduism view suffering as purposeful. Hindus aim to find release from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that continues until a person can be freed from the desires that keep the cycle going. Once this recycling has ended, a person’s soul can return to Brahman.
The Hindu idea of heaven is contained in the word moksha, meaning freedom or salvation. Moksha is the annihilation of individuality, like a drop of water dissolving into the ocean. Hindus use yoga and meditation to strive for moksha.
Hinduism is deeply connected to the culture of India, has no known founder, and does not reflect the teachings of any particular prophet or holy person.
The roots of modern Hinduism go back as far as 3000 BC, according to Vedic traditions. Historically, Hindus can be referred to as the successors of Vedic Aryans and other tribes of India. From their descendants comes a popular name for India: Hindustan, meaning the land of Hindus. The complex, fully formed Hinduism of today did not emerge until these Vedic traditions interacted with the shamanistic movements of Buddhism and Jainism, both of which began as offshoots of Hinduism.
Sometimes the claim is made that Hinduism is a monotheistic religion because it accepts that all things are part of the divine force called Brahman. More accurately, Hinduism should be characterized as polytheistic because it embraces other religions as true expressions of Brahmanic principle. The incongruences that other religions may have with Brahman, and the outright opposition that some faiths have with others, which at times extends to Hinduism, make no difference to Hindus. One small characteristic of polytheism can be the obvious worship of many gods, but the more central characteristic is the belief that many paths exist and that no one truth overrides another.
Therefore, it is perfectly acceptable for Hindus to worship, for example, Allah, the God of monotheistic Islam. In Hindu temples, there are often pictures displayed of myriad different gods, some which are traditionally Hindu and others Eastern or Western. Except for the adoration of deities, Hinduism’s inclusion of many paths has much in common with the relativistic moral philosophy of Secular Postmodernism.
Hindu scriptures insist that Brahman cannot be described in words but can be understood only through direct experience. Nevertheless, Hindu sages have endeavored to depict the nature of Brahman. These attempts make up a large portion of the Hindu scriptures, particularly in the ancient Vedic texts known as the Upanishads.
Brahma comes from the same root word as Brahman, but Brahma is merely the creator. The god Shiva is the destroyer, and Vishnu is the affirmer. Hindus also worship the goddess Kali, the wife of Shiva and the goddess of time and change. The Hindu religion includes hundreds of other gods and goddesses that divide responsibility for all the parts of life in the world.
Hindu gods are not jealous, fighting gods, nor do they demand exclusive reverence. Because of this openness demonstrated by Hindu divinities, Hindus seek to include people of other faiths. However, a typical Hindu generally chooses one god for personal devotion (Krishna, Rama, Shiva, or Kali are among the top choices) and cultivates devotion to that chosen form while simultaneously respecting others. Occasionally, depending on circumstances or need, most Hindus will worship deities other than their top choice. Nonetheless, they believe that all of these gods are part of one divine essence that permeates the universe. It is not expected for a Hindu to know about every god, and it is considered impossible to worship everyone
Hinduism’s sacred texts include the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad-Gita, Mahabharata, and Ramayana. These scriptures are divided into two categories.
Shruti means “that which is not heard.” Shruti literature came from sages called rishis who are said to have written down the texts without any changes whatsoever from their eternal form. These texts, then, were revealed as opposed to being created by human authors. The Vedas, including the Upanishads, are the most important examples of Shruti. The Aryans, a conquering people from the north, brought the Vedic literature with them to the Indian subcontinent.
Smriti is “that which is remembered.” Smriti literature includes stories, legends, and laws that have been written down but not specifically revealed. The Smriti have come to represent an oral tradition of law and social customs in Hinduism. The three most important works of Smriti literature are the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Ramayana.
Of the four Smitri works, the two most widely read are the Bhagavad-Gita, which explains creation, the deities, the connection between humans and the divine; and the Upanishads, which gives spiritual advice to believers.
Of the four official Shruti Vedas, the oldest and most prominent is the Rig-Veda, or songs of knowledge, containing more than 1,000 hymns. In general, each hymn is addressed to a specific god, such as Indra, the warrior who overcame the power of evil, or Agni, the god of fire, who linked earth and heaven. The Rig-Veda teaches that life is illusory, fleeting, and has no meaning without sacrifice.
The Rig-Veda also introduces the most pervasive social element of Hindu tradition: the caste system. The castes are:
Brahmin (from the same root word as Brahman and Brahma) are priests and scholars.
Ksatriya are warriors and rulers.
Vaisya are tradespeople, merchants, and farmers.
Sudra are the laborers and serfs, artisans, and slaves.
Later, another group, the Unscheduled Caste, was introduced. Its members are more popularly, known as Untouchables.
In addition to the Rig-Vedas, the other Vedas are:
The Sama Veda, which concentrates on the divine chants.
The Yajur Veda that speaks of the sacrificial rituals.
The Atharva Veda, which focuses on the incarnations.
The Upanishads, known as the mystery writings, are also classified as Vedic literature. Written about 600 BC, they recount the oral teachings of the Hindu sages dating to around 1000 BC. The Upanishads are called Vedanta (end of the Vedas) and are the central theological teaching of Hinduism.
The Upanishads deal with the nature of ultimate reality. They speculate on the relationship between the individual soul (atman) and the soul of the ultimate reality, the ruler of the universe, Brahman. The nature of reincarnation and the nature of creation are primary themes of the Upanishads.
The Mahabharata, often called the fifth Veda, is a huge epic of 110,000 couplets that recount the war between the Pandavas, a family that symbolizes the spirits of goodness, and the Kauravas, who symbolize evil. Unlike the other Vedas that primarily focus on the importance of sacrificial ritual, the Mahabharata promotes bhakti, devotion to the lord. Unlike other Vedas, the Mahabharata is meant to be heard by all people: the rich and the poor, men and women alike. Book Six of the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad-Gita.
Considered the highlight of Smriti literature, the Bhagavad-Gita includes a famous dialogue between Krishna, an avatar who is an incarnation of Vishnu, the Hindu god who protects and preserves, and Arjun, a warrior prince.
Krishna appears on earth at intervals to fight evil. In this story, Krishna is Arjun’s good friend and charioteer. Krishna tries to convince Arjun of the wisdom of doing battle against enemies, but Arjun would rather show compassion.
As the warriors line up on the battlefield, Arjun sees members of his own family on the enemy side. His dilemma is to decide for himself, for his family, or for the gods. Arjun argues that going to battle would destroy the family and hurt his cousins. Krishna argues that the warrior’s role in society is to wage war, and fulfilling that role will help Arjun have a better birth in the next life. Moreover, nobler than compassion, which is a disguise for Arjun’s grief, is the requirement to dispassionately perform his duty with faith and without desire for personal gain. Arjun finally comes to see the wisdom of Krishna’s argument and agrees to fight.
The Ramayana is one of the most popular Hindu poems. Composed in Sanskrit, probably around 300 BC, it tells the story of Prince Rama, one of the most loved deities in India.
The point of the story is that doing the right thing in accordance with the law, dharma, is often painful and self-sacrificial, but it is still the right thing to do.
Chapter 1 (Arjun's Dilemma)
ARJUN WANTS TO INSPECT THE ARMY AGAINST WHOM HE IS ABOUT TO FIGHT
Seeing the Kauravs standing, and the war about to begin with the hurling of weapons, Arjun, whose banner bore the emblem of Lord Hanumaan, took up his bow and spoke these words to Lord Krishna: O Lord, please stop my chariot between the two armies until I behold those who stand here eager for the battle and with whom I must engage in this act of war. I wish to see those who are willing to serve and appease the evil-minded Kauravs by assembling here to fight the battle. Sanjay said: O King, Lord Krishna, as requested by Arjun, placed the best of all the chariots in the midst of the two armies facing Bhishm, Dron, and all other Kings, and said to Arjun: Behold these assembled Kauravs! There, Arjun saw his uncles, grandfathers, teachers, maternal uncles, brothers, sons, grandsons, and comrades.
Seeing fathers-in-law, companions, and all his kinsmen standing in the ranks of the two armies, Arjun was overcome with great compassion and sorrowfully said: O Krishna, seeing my kinsmen standing with a desire to fight, my limbs fail and my mouth becomes dry. My body quivers and my hairs stand on end. The bow slips from my hand, and my skin intensely burns. My head turns, I am unable to stand steady, and O Krishna, I see bad omens. I see no use of killing my kinsmen in battle. I desire neither victory, nor pleasure nor kingdom, O Krishna.
What is the use of the kingdom, or enjoyment, or even life, O Krishna? Because all those – for whom we desire kingdom, enjoyments, and pleasures – are standing here for the battle, giving up their lives and wealth. I do not wish to kill teachers, uncles, sons, grandfathers, maternal uncles, fathers-in-law, grandsons, brothers-in-law, and other relatives who are about to kill us, even for the sovereignty of the three worlds, let alone for this earthly kingdom, O Krishna.
ARJUN DESCRIBES THE EVILS OF WAR
Eternal family traditions and codes of conduct are destroyed with the destruction of the family. Immorality prevails in the family due to the destruction of family traditions. And when immorality prevails, O Krishna, the women of the family become corrupted; when women are corrupted, many social problems arise. This brings the family and the slayers of the family to hell; because the spirits of their ancestors are degraded when deprived of ceremonial offerings of rice-ball and water.
We have been told, O Krishna, that people whose family traditions are destroyed necessarily dwell in hell for a long time. Arjun sat down on the seat of the chariot with his mind overwhelmed with sorrow.
Chapter 3 (Path of Karmayog)
The Supreme Lord said: In this world, O Arjun, a twofold path of spiritual discipline has been stated by Me in the past – the path of Self-knowledge (Jnana Yoga) for the contemplative, and the path of unselfish work (Seva, Karma Yoga) for the active. One does not attain freedom from the bondage of Karma by merely abstaining from work. Everyone is driven to action – helplessly indeed – by the forces of nature. The deluded ones, who restrain their organs of action but mentally dwell upon the sense enjoyment, are called hypocrites.
WHY ONE SHOULD SERVE OTHERS?
One who controls the senses by a trained and purified mind and intellect, and engages the organs of action to selfless service, is superior, O Arjun. Therefore, O Arjun, becoming free from selfish attachment to the fruits of work, do your duty efficiently as a service to Me.
TO HELP EACH OTHER IS THE FIRST COMMANDMENT OF THE CREATOR
Brahma, the creator, in the beginning created human beings together with selfless service (Seva, Yajn, sacrifice) and said: By Yajn you shall prosper, and Yajn shall fulfill all your desires. Nourish the celestial controllers (Devas) with selfless service (Seva, Yajn), and they will nourish you. Thus nourishing one another, you shall attain the Supreme goal. The celestial controllers (Devas), nourished by selfless service (Seva, Yajn), will give you the desired objects. One who enjoys the gift of Devas without offering them anything in return is, indeed, a thief. For a Self-realized person, who rejoices only with the Eternal Being (Brahma), who is delighted with the Eternal Being and who is content with the Eternal Being, there is no duty. (Such a person has no interest, whatsoever, in what is done or what is not done. A Self-realized person does not depend on anybody (except God) for anything.
LEADERS SHOULD SET AN EXAMPLE
Therefore, always perform your duty efficiently and without any selfish attachment to the results, because by doing work without attachment one attains the Supreme Being. You should also perform your duty with a view to guide people, and for the universal welfare of society. O Arjun, there is nothing in the three worlds (heaven, earth, and the lower regions) that should be done by Me, nor there is anything unobtained that I should obtain, yet I engage in action. If I do not engage in action relentlessly, O Arjun, people would follow the same path in everyway. These worlds would perish if I do not work, and I would be the cause of confusion and destruction of all these people. As the ignorant work, O Arjun, with attachment to the fruits of work, so the wise should work without attachment, for the welfare of the society. The wise should not unsettle the minds of the ignorant, who are attached to the fruits of work, but should inspire others by performing all works efficiently without selfish attachment.
Hindus believe creation is cyclical. From the destruction of a previous universe, Brahma arises to create a new universe; Vishnu sustains it through a cycle of birth, growth, and decline; Shiva destroys the universe; and then the cycle begins again.
Brahma, the creator god, is also called Pitamaha, which means grandfather. Hindus regard Brahma as the ancestor of all the other gods and goddesses. He was born in a golden egg and created the earth and everything on it. Some later Hindu legends tell of Brahma’s birth from a lotus flower that grew from the navel of Vishnu. Brahma is also the god who represents the priestly class of Hindus called Brahmins.
Brahma was the major god of Hinduism for about 1,000 years, but as Hinduism grew and changed, Brahma became less central to Hindu worship than were Shiva and Vishnu. Today no part of Hinduism worships only Brahma, but all temples dedicated to Shiva or Vishnu have images of Brahma in them. Brahma is often depicted as having four faces and four arms, and he stands on a lotus flower throne.
Shiva is both the destroyer god and the restorer. Shiva is represented by a lingam, an image of a penis. Shiva is a paradoxical god because he can symbolize both the virtues of abstinence and the sensual values of sexual union. He is a herdsman of souls and an avenger of wrongs.
Shiva has three eyes, two for outward vision, and a third for inward vision. This third eye also has the ability to burn people with its gaze. He has a blue neck from swallowing poison. His hair is a coil of tangled locks, and he is the one who brought the sacred Hindu river, the Ganges, to earth by allowing it to flow through his hair.
Shiva has a partner goddess whose name is Kali (also known as Uma, Sati, Parvati, Durga, and Sakti). Shiva and Kali have two sons, Skanda and Ganesa.
Shiva is regarded by some Hindus as the Supreme Being and by others as forming a triad with Brahma and Vishnu. Shiva and his family live at the top of Mount Kailasa, one of the highest mountains in the Himalayas.
Vishnu is the protector and preserver of the universe. He is the lawgiver who establishes the dharma, the moral code, and the ritual practices of Hinduism. He is regarded by his worshipers as the supreme deity and savior, and by others as the preserver of the cosmos in a triad with Brahma and Shiva.
Vishnu is known and worshiped mainly through his manifestations of his nine earthly incarnations, or avatars, including that of Krishna, Rama, and the historical Buddha. Hindus believe that his tenth avatar will herald the end of the world.
As Brahma faded from primacy, Vishnu rose. He is now the most popular Hindu god and appears when evil needs to be overcome.
Vishnu also has female gods as his companions. They are Lakshmi, also called Sri, and Bhumidevi, symbolic of the earth. His home in the heavens is Vaikuntha.
The main task for humans alive on earth is to move beyond desires so that the soul can be released from the cycle of death and rebirth, called samara. Achieving release through moksha can take lifetimes, and Hindus believe that the soul goes through many reincarnations. Birth is a sign that the person has not attained enlightenment or release.
Depending upon the moksha, the consequence of action in this present life is that, at death, the soul, atman, is reborn in either a higher or a lower physical form. Through devotion or correct behavior, it is possible to ascend through the orders of reincarnation, achieve liberation from the cycle of rebirth, and be reunited with the Divine Power.
Ahimsa or Non-Injury
Ahimsa is the foundation of nonviolence toward any living thing. However, its meaning is more complex than simply not trying to hurt something. It also means not doing injury, known or unknown, to any other thing.
The Sanctity of the Cow
Stemming from the importance of cows in the lives of early Indians, the cow represents divine and natural goodness and is fervently protected under Hinduism.
The Caste System
In Hinduism, human beings are divided into four classes determined by birth. A person’s caste defines the job he or she may do, their marriage partner, their form of how to dress, the religious practices they should adhere to, and their level of freedom for mobility.
Impermanence of Life
According to Hinduism, nothing in life is permanent. By embracing yoga and other forms of prayer, people can choose between two paths in life—the path of desire and the path of renunciation. Those who seek the path of desire are bound to be unhappy, their victories fleeting. Those who choose the path of renunciation find happiness and eventually enlightenment.
Meditation, according to Vedanta, is the repetition of a sacred formula—a mantra. Mantras are chanted. Om is the first mantra in the Vedas and the Upanishads. Much of Mantra Yoga, as it is called, is done through japa (repetition, usually through a rosary). Through their meaning, sound, and chanting style, mantras help the sadhaka (practitioner) focus on meditation. They can also be used to aid in expression of love for the deity, another facet of Bhakti Yoga akin to the understanding of the murti. They often give courage in exigent times and serve to help invoke inner spiritual strength. Indeed, Mahatma Gandhi’s dying words are said to have been a two-word mantra to the Lord Rama: “Hé Ram!”
The most revered mantra in Hinduism is the famed Gayatri Mantra of the Rig-Veda 3.62.10. Many Hindus to this day, in a tradition that has continued unbroken from ancient times, perform morning ablutions at the bank of a sacred river (especially the Ganges) while chanting Gayatri and Mahamrityunjaya mantras.
Sanskrit is mostly used as a ceremonial language in Hindu religious rituals in the form of hymns and mantras.
BRANCHES OF HINDUISM
There are three divisions of Hinduism.
This categorization is more devotional than theological, and one’s favorite deity tends to classify one’s school of thought and rituals. Vedism is devoted to the Veda gods; Brahmanism looks to Brahma; Vishnuism favors Vishnu; and Shivaism looks to Shiva. These are the four main deities, although each deity has thousands of devotional branches.
Contemporary Hinduism would add two more. Shaktism worships Shakti, the Divine Mother. Tantric Hinduism uses ritual sexual intercourse, accompanied by magic spells and divinations, to unite with the sexual power of the goddess Shakti.
Smartism accepts and worships all major forms of gods—Ganesha, Siva, Sakti, Vishnu, Surya, and Skanda. Following a meditative, philosophical path, Smartism is generally considered liberal and non-sectarian.
The second division of Hinduism is based upon the chosen way to enlightenment. One may follow the Buddha’s example and choose The Middle Way. Another might go their own way with Transcendental Meditation or Zen. There is the emotional Bhakti way. Some Hindus emphasize the use of mantras or koans. Some use the physical practice of asana yoga as their chosen way.
In Hinduism, there are many gurus. Anyone who writes a commentary of the Vedas or the Gita becomes the head of a new denomination. There are now over 1,000 famous commentaries of the Gita alone.
HINDUISM IN THE MARKETPLACE
No centralized authority dictates Hindu business ethics, but duties to family and caste are major influences on behavior in the marketplace. To begin with, the caste system is complex, being composed of a vast array of sub-castes. The demand upon the Hindu is to accept his or her caste and all its obligations, privileges, and limitations. Compounding the demands of caste is one’s stage in life. The student is compelled to behave differently from an elderly person, just as the ethics of the priestly caste are not always the same as those of the warrior.
Gurus, wandering holy men, sadhus, and sages teach ad hoc business ethics. Sacred scriptures give general moral guidance. They prohibit murder, theft, adultery, and consuming alcohol. They promote kindness to others, respect for all life, vegetarianism, and honoring elders.
Among general sanctions against immorality, Anusana Parva says, “One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to [them]. This is the essence of all morality. All other activities are due to selfish desire.” Taittiriya Upanishad teaches that honesty is a key part of pure conduct: “Let your conduct be marked by truthfulness in word, deed, and thought.” The Law Code of Manu gives the Hindu version of the Golden Rule: “Wound not others, do no one injury by thought or deed, utter no word to pain thy fellow creatures.”
Hinduism promotes four goals in life: (1) love or pleasure that comes from karma; (2) gaining material wealth; (3) walking the path of dharma; and (4) release from reincarnation. The second of these goals is construed as the key to achieve all the others. For example, Arthashastra 9:7 teaches “...material wealth is the root of spiritual good and has pleasure for its fruit, that attainment of material gain...is attainment of all gains.”
Dharma is supposed to mitigate behavior, as it is based on sympathy, fairness, and restraint. To sin is to act selfishly instead of following dharma. Unfortunately, dharma depends upon which of the four castes one is born into, and one’s status in the four stages of life as a student, householder, retiree, or one who has renounced everything. The other stages have different dharma, each set within the subjective context of the four goals in life, the ambiguities of which may confuse the Western businessperson.
It may be completely ethical from a Hindu businessperson’s perspective to lie, cheat, and steal if he or she believes that doing so promotes his or her goals in life. A Hindu acquaintance of ours summed up the problem this way:
"If you are supposed to be dishonest to achieve your dharma and do not do so, then you are not living a virtuous life. Your dharma says you are supposed to be a successful business owner. So you do whatever it takes to achieve that. If being dishonest helps the business, the man [or woman] is doing what he [or she] is meant to do and that way can progress up the ladder of castes in each cycle of rebirth. If you are not supposed to be dishonest and you are simply greedy, you make up for that dishonesty by giving a donation to the temple. There is no incentive to be honest. These days you cannot trust anyone."