Hinduism Quintych (watercolor study), Mark W. McGinnis, 1998

Hinduism is a faith that has the tendency to baffle or even frighten the Western observer. It is a faith that can be seen as having no real God, only an abstract, unknowable, creative force existing in all creation. It can be characterized as a religion with one supreme God that is the creator, preserver, and destroyer. It can be understood as a faith of many gods and goddesses who are all manifestations of one great God. It can be characterized as a religion with thousands of gods and goddesses, each worthy of devotion. The difference of beliefs within Hinduism is greater in some cases than the differences in the West between Christianity and Islam or between Judaism and Baha’i.

Hinduism is not a single faith. It is many faiths which, having evolved in one part of the world, share some common origination points and foundations. In the three thousand years that this complex system has been unfolding it has absorbed many different cultural and philosophical influences. This great legacy has led to the vast array of spiritual beliefs that the people of South Asia have decided to follow. While the barrage of unfamiliar terminology and names in Hinduism may seem formidable, they are all fused together under the encompassing nature of Hinduism. A good approach for the Westerner wishing to learn something of this religious medley is to forgo wishing to put everything into neat compartments and to relax and enjoy the wonderful variety that exists within Hinduism.

Hinduism can be seen as the result of the mixing of three cultural traditions: the ancient Indus Valley culture that flourished from 2500 BCE to 1500 BCE, the Aryan culture that migrated into South Asia from the Caucasus region, arriving around 1500 BCE, and the tribal cultures of India. Many arguments exist as to how these cultures mixed to form what we call Hinduism (Flood 23). The Aryans brought with them their even more ancient scriptures, the Vedas, written in the Indo-European language, Sanskrit, which was to become the sacred language of Hinduism. They had three primary focuses for worship: Angi, the fire god; Indra, the warrior god; and Soma, a god symbolizing a hallucinogenic plant.  The Aryans slowly spread throughout south Asia, finally establishing their domination over the native Dravidian people in the 6th century BCE (Flood 30). The Veda is considered by some to be of divine authorship containing all knowledge. One definition of a Hindu is one who believes the Veda as the revelation of god. The Veda was passed down orally from generation to generation of Vedic priests, the Brahmans, and was not committed to writing until thousands of years after its composition as writing was thought to be a polluting act. The scope and complexity of the Veda is formidable. There are four Veda: Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda (Flood 35-6).

The Rig Veda, the oldest of the four, can be translated as Praises of Sacred Knowledge. It is composed of over one thousand hymns, comprised of more than ten thousand verses. The hymns are said to be the voice of the ancient sages making their voices heard through the verse. The following are selected segments of three hymns from the Rig Veda praising the primary gods of the conquering Aryans:

Of Indra:

All sacred songs have magnified Indra expansive as the sea,

The best of warriors borne on cars, the Lord, the very Lord of strength.

Strong in thy friendship, Indra, Lord of power and might, we have no fear.

We glorify with praises thee, the never-conquered conqueror. (6)

Of Angi:

O ancient Herald, be thou glad in this our rite and fellowship;

Hearken thou well to these our songs.

Whate’er in this perpetual course we sacrifice to God and God,

That this gift is offered up in thee

May he be our dear household Lord,

Priest, pleasant and choice-worthy may

We, with bright fires, be dear to him.

The Gods, adored and with brilliant fires, have granted precious wealth to us

So, with bright fires, we pray to thee.

An Immortal One, so may be the eulogies of mortal men

Belong to us and thee alike.

With all thy fires, O Angi, find pleasure in this our sacrifice.

And this our speech, O Son of Strength. (16)

Of Soma:

Thou, Soma, art the Lord of heroes, King, yea, Vrta-slayer thou:

Thou art auspicious energy.

And Soma, let it be thy wish that we may live and may not die:

Praise-loving Lord of the plants art thou.

To him who keeps the law, both old and young, thou givest happiness,

And energy that he may live.

Guard us, King Soma, on all sides from him who threatens us: let never

The friend of one like thee be harmed.

With those delightful aids which thou hast,

Soma, for the worshipper –

Even with those protect thou us.

Accepting this our sacrifice and this our praise, O Soma, come,

And be thou nigh to prosper us.

Well-skilled in speech we magnify thee,

Soma in our sacred songs:

Come to us, most gracious One.

Enricher, healer of disease, wealth-finder, prospering our store,

Be, Soma, a good Friend to us. (57)

There are schools or branches of  Brahmans, the highest class of Hindus that specialize in specific books of the Veda. Generation after generation for three thousand years the Veda has been memorized and passed down from father to son. Along with the text the Brahman also learns to perform the necessary rituals contained in the Veda (Flood 39).

Easily confused with the Hindu class, Brahman, is the term brahman which is used to express the essence of the ritual and also the essence of the universe. It is also the essence of the true self (atman) that is the true nature and being of a person beyond all difference. Brahman is the ultimate bliss of truth: the understanding of the ultimate unity of all creation (Flood 84). This cosmic braham was described in the Brihadarnyaka Upanishad as follows:

This Self is Brahman indeed: it consists of understanding, mind, breath, sight and hearing; of earth, water, wind and space, light and darkness, desire and desirelessness, and the lack of it, right and wrong: it consists of all things. This is what is meant by the saying: ‘It consists of this: it consists of that.’

As a man acts (karma), as he behaves, so does he become. Whoso does good, becomes good: whoso does evil, becomes evil. By good works a man becomes holy, by evil works he becomes evil. (Zaehner 89)

Vedic world view has two primary components: first that the universe is the result of the sacrificed body of the primordial cosmic man, and second, that humans are responsible to regenerate the world to repetition of that sacrifice through ritual (Knipe 32). The original sacrifice is described in the Rig Veda as the gods’ sacrifice and dismemberment of a cosmic giant, different parts of his body being transformed into the different classes of people. From his mouth the Brahmans, the priests, were formed; from his arms came the Ksatriya, the warrior class; from his thighs came the Vaisya, the commoner class; and from his feet came the Sudra, the servant class. The Brahman were to sustain the community though ritual, the warriors were to protect the community and rule over it, the commoners were to raise the food and perform the crafts of the community, and the servants were to serve the other classes. These were hereditary positions in the society and sacred in their conception. Of these four classes the first three were called “twice-born” because the male members undergo a rite of passage ritual that gives them full membership to the class (Flood 48) .

Vedic ritual as described in the scriptures did not require a special building, icons, or texts, just the Brahman priest who knew the specific procedures and recitations. The sponsor might instigate a ritual for the blessing of sons, cattle, good crops, social standing, power, or purity.  A primary aspect of most Vedic ritual was that of a sacrificial  fire which would carry the sacrifice to the god or gods being invoked. The sacrifice itself could be a wide range of substances: grains, milk, butter, soma plant (later replaced by non-intoxicating plants), and sometimes domestic animals, although these were not common. The fire was the vehicle to transport the sacrifice to the deva, the god. Two primary types of rituals developed: solemn, public rites and domestic, life-cycle rites. Public rites usually use three fires and domestic rites use only one. Some of these ancient rites survive today with some Brahmans carrying on the rituals intact from thousands of years ago. While the central act of the Vedic ritual was the simple offering of a substance into the fire, preparations and closings can be very complex, lasting many days and requiring up to four priests, each with assistants and specific duties (Flood 40-2).

One of the most important concepts evolved through the Veda is that of dharma. Dharma is an all-encompassing ideology that embraces both ritual and moral behavior, whose neglect would have bad social and personal consequences. All Hindus had their dharma, which is their proper duties in all aspects of life. Purity and pollution is an important aspect of the Hindu concept of dharma. This purity can refer to physical purity of the body, which must be maintained through cleanliness, but also a deeper sense of the fear of pollution that must be prevented through separation of the classes. Hindu social space must be maintained to preserve the purity of  the members of the class.

Of the four classes, the three twice-born classes are permitted to hear the Veda;  only the Brahman are allowed to learn it and recite it during rituals. Each class is associated with specific colors: the Brahman with white, the Ksatriyas with red, the Vaisyas with yellow and the Sudras with black.  Each of the four classes are broken down into more divisions called castes. The caste system is commonly divided into sub castes and then into sub-sub castes, and so on creating a very complex leveling of society. A village may contain as many as twenty or thirty different caste groups within it. Castes sometimes come together to form caste blocs, as a result of which the boundaries between the castes sometimes lack firm boundaries. In a village the caste members have their houses clustered in groups. Certain public eating places are used only by certain castes; lower castes do not use the facilities of higher castes. The caste system is not a hidden aspect of life but  a very visible part of social structure. One is born into a caste and remains in the caste until death. Many occupations, especially the trades and services, are caste specific. The concepts of purity  and pollution are at the core of the caste system with the Brahmans the purest and the Harijans, the Untouchables, the most polluted. The Brahmans keep their purity partially by having lower castes do polluting work for them, such as barbering, laundering, sanitation work. The consumption of pure foods, bodily cleanliness, and sexual relations within caste are also ways of maintaining purity (Fuller 13-15). The harsh discrimination against the untouchable castes, which make up about one-fifth of India’s population, is now officially prohibited. They have been outside even the servant, Sudra, class and had no rights in society (Flood 61).

Between the 9th and 6th centuries BCE evolved the concepts that living beings were reincarnated into the world (samsara) time and time again and the quality of the rebirth was a result of their actions (karma) in previous life. The process was one of suffering and could be minimized by gaining spiritual knowledge. Ascetics, for example,  attempted to renounce this world to transcend the suffering of this existence. The ultimate goal of their efforts is called moksha, salvation, liberation, from the cycles of rebirth — freedom from the karma of innumerable lifetimes (Flood 75-6).

The tradition of the renouncers, also called ascetics, led to the development of two other religious traditions in India: Buddhism and Jainism. Both new faiths took the path of renunciation and cast off much of the Vedic rituals of Hinduism.

Another tradition developed in the Veda was the asrama system, which refers to the stages of one’s life. The ideal stages for a Brahman male would consist of childhood, then a celibate student stage that could last from 9 to 36 years living with his teacher and learning the Vedas. The student would then undertake the householder stage of life, marrying and having a family. When he became wrinkled and gray he could undertake the renouncer stage of his life, retiring to a contemplative life with or without his wife. The final stage of life is complete celibate renunciation, not using even a cooking fire, begging all meals with no obligations other than the  struggle for liberation (mokhsa), going beyond any connection with the material world (Flood 62). Hindu rites of passage in the asrama system can number up to forty but the count is usually between twelve and eighteen and the four that are the most commonly followed are birth rites, initiation rites, marriage rites, and funeral rites (Flood 202).

Many bodies of literature grew in Hinduism as commentary on the Vedas. One of these bodies of writings came to be called the Upanishads. These texts were written by poet-philosophers and, while often based in the sacrificial concepts of the Vedas, branched into many new areas of religious endeavor such as meditation, Yoga, and focus on specific deities such as Vishnu and Shiva (Knipe 42). In the Upanishads yoga is described as a steady control of the senses that permits one to cease mental activity thus allowing a supreme state of mind. It is also compared with controlling a chariot. The self is the driver, the body is the vehicle and the senses are the horses. The self must control the senses as the driver must control the horses if chaos is not to dominate. Yoga is the technology that can lead to an understanding of the nature of existence. The mind and the senses are taught to be restrained and controlled. The individual can gain control over the “I” or ego and the true self can be experienced. The disciplines of Yoga are constructed to aid in the transformation of consciousness.

One of the most famous types of yoga is called raga-yoga — the best yoga. It carries forward the premise that yoga is a cessation of mental wandering. Its objective is to  train the mind to be one-pointed through a path of eight steps. The first step is that of ethical restraint comprised of non-violence, truthfulness, honesty, celibacy, and generosity.  The second step is discipline that includes cleanliness, serenity, asceticism, study and devotion. The next steps are posture, breath control, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and finally absorbed concentration, which consists of a multi-leveled concentration of thought. The yogi learns to develop an awareness and control of breath, body and consciousness that can lead to increasingly higher states of concentrated absorption. Finally a refined state of  transcendence is achieved.

Another form of yoga is called hatha-yoga, which involves an elaborate system of difficult postures accompanied by breathing techniques. The purpose of the system is to gain liberation by awakening the true identity of the individual and joining it with the absolute. This is achieved by aligning the esoteric anatomy of the body to channel the energy of the body to a root center that awakens this awareness.

The primary goal of yoga is liberation but some seek and find what can be considered magical powers as well. These power have been said to include knowledge of past lives and the past and the future, telepathy, enormous strength, supernormal senses, and levitation. While such powers are seen by some as indicators of progress on the path, they are also seen as a hindrance to the ultimate goal of liberation as they form attachments to the material world (Flood 94-101).

The purity of Vedic ritual began to give way in about 500 BCE to devotional  worship of specific deities. This devotional worship, called bhakti, was a way for individuals to express love and devotion to a deity. This approach to worship grew to be the central religious practice of most Hindus. A literary tradition grew around this devotion beginning with the great epics of India’s literature, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

The Mahabharata is the world’s longest epic poem at over 100,000 verses. It was compiled over several centuries, from the first century BCE to the first century CE. It is a battle story that functions on many different planes: from the ethical battle on the human plane, to the battle between the lower and higher self on the spiritual plane, to the actual physical battle of the contending forces in the story. The story revolves around the contention for the throne of a kingdom between factions of the royal family. The many adventures and entanglements of the plot make it overwhelming in its detail: from blind fathers, to sons all with the same wife, to gambling, to exile, to war, to philosophy, to dogs, and gods disguised as charioteers and dogs. Within this great epic, as one small component, lies the famous Bhagavad Gita with the classic dialogue between the god Krishna and the warrior prince Arjuna (Flood 103-6).

It is in the Bhagavad Gita that the concept of bhakti, personal devotion to a supreme god as the ultimate reality, is clearly elaborated. It is presented by Krishna as a way of religious devotion that can be more important than the sacred Vedic ways of the past. The Gita has been occasionally called the Hindu New Testament or the Hindu Sermon on the Mount. At first it seems a strange analogy, a plea for a prince to go into bloody battle being compared with Jesus’ gentle speech of love and meekness. But in many ways it is an apt comparison. As Jesus set the direction for Christianity and the break from traditional Judaism so Krishna sets the way of personal devotion over the traditions of Vedic sacrifice and opens the door for individual salvation.

The following are some quotes from the Bhagavad Gita highlighting some of Krishna’s argument to the reluctant warrior prince Arjuna:

Learn thou! the Life is, spreading life through all;

It cannot anywhere, by any means,

Be anywise diminished, stayed or changed.

But for these fleeting frames which it informs

With spirit deathless, endless, infinite,

They perish, Let them perish, Prince! and fight!

Who shall say, “Lo! I have slain a man!”

He who shall think, “Lo! I am slain!” those both

Know naught! Life cannot slay. Life is not slain! (Arnold 8)

Seek refuge in thy soul; have there thy heaven!

Scorn them that follow virtue for her gifts!

The mind of pure devotion – even here —

Casts equally aside good deeds and bad,

Passing above them. Unto pure devotion

Devote thyself: with perfect meditation…(Arnold 11)

I make and unmake this Universe;

Than me there is no other Master, Prince!

No other Maker! All these hang on me

As hangs a row of pearls on its string.

I am the taste of  the Water;

I the silver of the moon, the gold of the sun,

The word of worship in the Veds… (Arnold 36)

I am the Sacrifice! I am the Prayer!

I am the Funeral-Cake set for the dead!

I am the healing herb! I am the ghee,

The Mantra, and the flame, and that which burns!

I am – all this boundless Universe – (Arnold 45)

And whoso loveth Me cometh to Me.

Whoso shall offer Me in faith and love

A leaf, a flower, a fruit, water poured forth,

That offering I accept, lovingly made

With pious will. Whatever thou doest, Prince!

Eating or sacrificing, giving gifts,

Praying or fasting, let it all be done

For Me, as Mine. So shall thou free thyself

From Karmabandh, the chain which holdeth men

To good and evil issue, so shalt come

Safe unto me – when thou art quit of flesh –

By faith and abdication joined to Me! (Arnold 46)

There is “true” Knowledge. Learn thou it is this:

To see changeless Life in all the Lives’

And in the Separate. One Inseparable…..

There is “right” Action: that which – being enjoined –

Is wrought without attachment, passionlessly,

For duty, not for love, nor hate, nor gain….

There is the “rightful” doer. He who acts

Free from self-seeking, humble, resolute,

Steadfast, in good or evil hap the same,

Content to do aright – he “truly” acts. (Arnold 91)

Finally after much soul searching, Arjuna agrees to Krishna’s argument and goes into battle and fulfills his dharma as a warrior:

Trouble and ignorance are gone! The Light

Hath come unto me, by Thy favor, Lord!

Now am I fixed! My doubt is fled away!

According to thy word, so I will do! (Arnold 97)

A slightly shorter epic is the Ramayana, which has been dated around the fourth century BCE. Originally composed by Valmiki in Sanskrit, it has been said every one of India’s hundreds of millions of people, from the highest Brahmin to the lowest  untouchable, knows this story in one form or another. It can be taken as a tale of character studies, a literary masterpiece, or as scripture, depending on the perspective of the reader or listener (Narayan xi). In its traditional narration a storyteller, who had memorized all ten thousand five hundred stanzas of the epic poem, would quote them in song or verse over the span of forty days in three-hour presentations (Narayan 170).

It is a phenomenal story that fuses morality, religion, adventure, love, lust, war, violence, and beauty into a tale that puts most modern attempts at the same themes to shame. A bare-bones highlighting of the plot follows.

King Dasarnath ruled a perfect kingdom as the perfect sovereign. His only sorrow was he had no children. Through the intercession of the gods he was granted a series of sons with his wives and bliss reigned in the country. The most radiant of all the sons was Rama. He was admired by all and exhibited the ideal of obedience and kindness. In his daily return from studies with the religious sages he would speak with the people of the kingdom and ask what he could do for them to make their lives better.

The greatest sage of the nation came to the king, asking that Rama accompany him on a long journey to perform important rites. The king nearly refused the sage out of his great love for his son but in the end acquiesced and allowed Rama and his brother Lakshama to go with the sage. On the trip they crossed a great desert that had been made lifeless by a terrible demon and her army. The horrific creature attacked the three travelers and Rama slew her with his bow and arrows of great magical power. The sage then went on to teach Rama all the magical powers of warfare.  It is at this point that we begin to understand that Rama is actually a human incarnation of the great god Vishnu. The trip continues and they perform the rites the sage had planned.

Throughout the trip the  sage continues his education of Rama with a variety of stories. The following is a sample of his teachings to Rama:

Every inch of ground on earth, as you may have realized by now, has a divine association. Mother Earth has been here since the beginning of creation, being one of the five primeval elements. She has seen countless pairs of feet running on thousands of aims and pursuits, both evil and good, and will continue until Time swallows and digests everything. Even after the participants have vanished, every inch of earth still retains the impress of all that has gone on before. We attain full understanding only when we are aware of the divine and other associations of every piece of ground we tread on. (Narayan 17).

As the journey progresses Rama’s destiny to destroy evil and restore good becomes more evident and more associations are developed between Rama and the gods. When they reach a great wealthy city on their journey  the sage and the king of the city decide Rama is to be wed to one of the king’s daughters, Sita, which is fortunate as Sita saw Rama enter the city and fell madly in love with him. In a huge procession nearly all Rama’s home city comes to the great wedding, which also includes all of Rama’s brothers marrying sisters of Sita.

After Rama and Sita’s return to their homeland his father decides it is time to retire and announces that Rama is to be the new king. The people of the nation are overwhelmed with joy and preparations are made for the coronation. On the eve of the great event the king’s first wife reminds him that she saved his life and that he promised her two wishes. She now claims those wishes. The first is to have her own son crowned king and the second is that Rama be exiled to the forest for fourteen years. The king is devastated but cannot refuse. Rama takes the news with complete calm and prepares to leave. His adoring wife Sita and his brother Lakshama do not let him leave without them. The brother chosen to be king is grief-stricken when he finds out and refuses the crown but relents when encouraged by Rama, but only until Rama returns from exile. Rama, Lakshama, and Sita lived an ideal life of simplicity and renunciation in the forest until they are confronted by Soorpanaka, the sister of the king of all demons, Ravana, who has conquered the gods and earth. The demoness  becomes obsessed by lust for Rama and tries to convince him to take her as his wife. He refuses and she decides to kidnap Sita and remove the competition. Lakshama foils her attempt and cuts off her nose, ears, and breasts as punishment. Soorpanka returns to her brother and demands vengeance. She also tells him of Sita and he becomes infatuated with her and plots a successful kidnapping.

The rest of the story revolves around Sita’s virtuous distress and Rama’s difficult and arduous rescue of his wife. In the long, difficult ordeal Rama and Lakshama enlist the aid of an army of monkeys and their great, powerful general Hanuman. In the climax of the rescue a personal battle between Rama and Ravana seems a never-ending barrage of supernatural weaponry  with the balance of the battle shifting from one to the other. Rama finally finds Ravana’s vulnerability and slays him. Sita’s liberation takes a unexpected turn when Rama announces that she cannot live with him as she has been living unescorted in another man’s house, thereby violating the code of behavior, her dharma. Sita in turn proves her virtue by having a large fire built, into which she steps. The ancient Vedic fire god, Angi, carries her out of the fire and presents her to Rama, establishing her integrity. Brahma, the creator, then appears to Rama and proclaims that he and Sita  together are the Supreme God without beginning or end. The fourteen years of exile having passed, they return to their homeland and are installed as the rightful rulers.

Within this framework of plot a proliferation of richly detailed description, subtle character development, and many stories of Vishnu’s other incarnations as well as of  lives of other gods and supernatural powers make the story a feast for the reader or listener. But the primary theme is the virtue of Rama and Sita. In spite of occasional lapses they display the qualities of the perfect Hindu couple and become the model to be emulated for all time. The Ramayana also played an important role in the development of bhakti, devotionalism, as Rama and Sita came to be the preferred deities of millions of Hindus. In addition to Vishnu being the focus of devotion through Rama and Sita, Rama’s monkey commander, Hanuman also has many devotees as well (Flood 145). Due to his great protective strength and courage, statues of Hanuman stand at the perimeters of thousands of villages throughout India.

Another body of literature in support of the rise of devotionalism was the Puranas, the stories of the ancient past. These complex narratives gave the genealogies of deities and kings, cosmologies, law codes, descriptions of ritual and pilgrimages to holy sites.

The Puranas consisted of eighteen texts and eighteen sub texts and laid out essential information about not only the three primary gods, Vishnu, Siva, and the Goddess, but also many other deities in the Hindu pantheon. These writings present a view from the perspective of a particular deity, often putting the deity at the center of creation and the overall worldview. The Puranas also put forward the bewildering Hindu concept of time. The world is seen as going through a cycle of four stages or yugas. The total cycle takes over four million years and the world moves from a more perfect state to a more degenerate state as the cycle progresses.  We are in the final stage, the kali-yuga, of degeneration in our current time, but we still have over 400,000 years to go until the world will be renewed to its perfect state and the cycle will begin again. The total of the four yugas is called a manvantara. A thousand manvantaras comprise one day for Brahma. When a thousand of these have occurred, there will then be one night for Brahma in which the world will be destroyed by fire or flood for one thousand manvantaras. The process continues for all eternity and serves no other purpose than the play of God (Flood 109-13).

In the sixth to the eighth centuries BCE two previously minor Vedic deities gain the primary focus as devotional gods: Shiva, who was called Rudra in the Riga Veda, and Vishnu. Each is seen by followers as the supreme god with full creative and destructive powers. Vishnu came to be depicted as a blue youth, standing upright with four arms holding a conch, discus, mace, and lotus. He is also often depicted reclining, sleeping on the coils of the great cosmic snake, Sesa, floating on the cosmic ocean. On awaking Vishnu created the universe. A lotus appears from his navel and from it Brahma appears to form the Universe. Vishnu then maintains it and Shiva destroys it. When the world descends into times of darkness, Vishnu manifests himself in the world in his various incarnations or avatara. Vishnu’s incarnations have been traditionally set at ten: Matsya, the Fish; Kurma, the Tortoise; Varaha, the Boar; Narashimha, the Man-lion; Vamana, the Dwarf; Parasurama, Rama with an ax; Rama; Krishna; Buddha; and Kalki. All these incarnations fit with the creation, destruction, and recreation mythology of Vishnu.

The Matsya Purana tells how the first man, Manu, is saved from a cosmic deluge by the Fish. The Tortoise places himself at the bottom of the ocean of milk as the support for the mountain Mandara, which is then used as a stick by the gods and demons to churn the cosmic ocean, from which various desired and undesired objects emerge, including the nectar of immortality. The Boar rescues the Earth, personified as a goddess, from the bottom of the cosmic ocean and brings her to the surface where he spreads her out, piles up mountains and divides her into seven continents. The rest of Vishnu’s incarnations fall chronologically in line but the last incarnation is yet to come, Kalki, called the White Horse, who will come at the end of our current dark age to destroy the wicked and restore purity for the new cycle (Flood 114-6). Vishnu’s primary consort is Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune. His second wife is Bhuvdei, the goddess of the earth.

One of the most popular incarnations of Vishnu is Krishna. He was an amorous young prince brought up as a cowherd who wandered the forest destroying demons, dancing, and making love with milk-maids. His erotic exploits make him a beloved character and focus of much veneration in poetry through the ages. Many different orders evolved that worshipped Krishna, most focusing on his loving nature and his relationship with his most famous consort Radha (Flood 142). Devotion to Krishna and his lover Radha  is a contradiction for a Hindu. It is an erotic and mutually devotional relationship  between Krishna and a married woman, an adulterous affair. It is also between castes –  Radha being from a low caste of cowherds and Krishna being a Kshatriya prince. These are very serious violations of the dharma of both individuals. In contrast, another couple is the focus of much devotionalist worship, Rama and Sita, who make the ideal Hindu couple following their dharma to perfection. But the devotion to Krishna and Radha is symbolic of the power of bhakti, devotionalism, to overcome even tradition. Devotion to these deities can be made by anyone — any gender, any caste, any economic or educational level (Fuller 156-7).

While the traditions of Vishnu worship are firmly grounded in the world of Hindu householder, with Rama and Sita being the ideal, the traditions of Shiva worship are grounded in the world of the renouncer, the ascetic. Shiva is depicted in many ways: as an ascetic with wildly, matted hair; as a family man with his wife Parvati and their two sons, the elephant-headed remover of obstacles, Ganesa, and the god of war, Skanda; and as the phallic symbol, the linga found in most Hindu temples. Shiva does not have a series of earthly incarnations as Vishnu has, but he does have manifestations he can take at anytime: Bhairava, the terrible; Bhikshantana, the beggar; Dakshinamurti, the guru; and Nataraja, the lord of the dance. In this final form he is the creator, maintainer, and destroyer of the cosmos. He is four-armed, dancing on a dwarf of ignorance in a circle of flames.

Shiva’s primary cult is focused around the linga, a round topped pillar representing his erect phallus on a base representing the vulva, the yoni. It is found in all his temples. The linga is symbolic of Shiva’s great creative powers and his great erotic potency. Shiva is seen as encompassing and possessing all opposites and is sometimes depicted as half man and half woman. Sati, another of Shiva’s wives, was outraged when her father snubbed her husband and did not invite him to an important sacrifice. In her outrage she intentionally burnt herself to death with her yogic powers. Shiva, enraged, destroyed the entire group and then resurrected it all, including Sati (Flood 150). This is the origination story that led to the controversial Hindu tradition of the wife dying on the funeral pyre of her husband.

Thousands upon thousands of temples are dedicated to the two preeminent gods of  Hinduism, Vishnu and Shiva. The third great god, Brahma, has a prominent role as a creator but is not widely worshipped and plays a subordinate role to the two great gods. Both Shiva and Vishnu have as many as 1,000 names. The pantheon of Hindu gods include many demons as well as deities, and these demons are usually devotees of Shiva or Vishnu, who gave them their powers. The demons and deities are linked together in symbiotic relationships, creating a balance between order and chaos (Fuller 32).

The goal of the bhakti devotee of Shiva or Vishnu is the loss of the self and the material world in favor of a total outpouring of love and devotion to the eternal and transcendent Lord. With bhakti the focus is on salvation that can be achieved through the love and grace of the Lord, with caste and gender being of little consequence (Flood 169).

The Tantras are scriptural writings that began to appear around 600 CE. They evolved into a vast body of texts. There are Buddhist and Jain Tantras as well as Hindu. Followers regard them as superior to the Veda. Many of the Hindu Tantras take the form of a dialogue between Shiva and the Goddess. The meaning of the dialogues are often obscure and regarded as secret, only to be revealed by a guru after appropriate initiation into the sect. The Tantras are famous for their ferocious deities, ritual sex, and consumption of alcohol and meat, but much of the content of the Tantras are of a more sober nature and range over a wide field of topics (Flood 158-9).

While the great bulk of Hindu devotional literature has revolved around Shiva and  Vishnu, a third and equally important devotional tradition in south Asia is Goddess worship. There are countless goddesses throughout India but they are all usually seen as manifestations of the single Great Goddess, Maha Devi. She often has two very different faces: first that of the life giver, the benevolent mother; and second the terrible, ferocious force that demands blood offerings to placate her wrath. Saktas is the name given to the devotees of the Goddess and tens of millions of Hindus revere her in one form or another. One of the most famous and widespread manifestations of Devi is called Durga, a warrior goddess. She is most famous for her slaying of the buffalo demon, Manishasura. The Buffalo Demon had been given the power that no man could kill him and went on a reign of terror, conquering the earth and threatening the heavens. The heavens and all the gods are saved when Durga, a woman, conquers and decapitates the great demon (Flood 174-5).

The idea of paradox is often associated with the Goddess; she is erotic, yet detached, beautiful yet terrible, gentle yet heroic. She is the ultimate reality to her devotees. She is the great illusion that binds all human beings, but also has the power to liberate.  She is depicted as the demon-slayer Durga seated on lion or tiger; as terrible emaciated, blood-drinking Kali or Caminda; as the consorts of the great Hindu gods; as local or regional female deities or icons, in the form of stones, poles, diagrams, or stylized female genitals (yoni); or as natural phenomena such as rivers (as the sacred rivers Ganges or Kaveri) or sacred lakes, trees, or grooves in the land (Flood 177).

The Goddess can also be seen as the ultimate creative force in the universe. She is seen to unfold the cosmos and contract it in endless cycles, giving her equal powers with Vishnu and Shiva. This power is associated with the absolute and prime sound of the syllable OM — identified as energy, light, and consciousness – which begins and ends most Hindu prayers and hymns. Village goddesses are often connected with the cycles of the agricultural year. Village rituals often follow these seasonal changes, bringing the events of peoples’ lives into the rhythm of nature.

Deities can be classified as either “hot” or “cool.” Hot deities, usually those associated with the Goddess, are connected to passion and the lower social levels. The hot deities need to be cooled. Cool deities are often associated with purity and the higher social levels. Male deities are more often connected with cool deities (Flood 188-96).

Hindu rituals fill all areas of life. Rituals take place in the home, in the temple, at wayside shrines, at pilgrimage sites, at holy natural sites. Rituals are done to mark special occasions, to ask for blessings, to placate angry gods, to mark the stages of life. Rituals give shape to life. They give coherence and continuity. They anchor people to the past and future (Flood 198).

Puja is the offering of vegetarian food, flowers, or incense to a deity. Puja might be offered in simple ceremonies in the home or in elaborate ceremonies in the temple, where priests recite sacred verses and bathe and dress icons with a variety of offerings. To be present at such services is to gain some blessings from the deities and to receive back some of the food blessed by the god. The temple ceremonies are begun behind closed curtains where the priests bath the idol and anoint it with substances such as sesame oil and curd. The deity is then dressed and adorned with gold, jewels, and perfumes. Food is then offered to the deity and bells rung. The curtain is then drawn back and the devotees can behold the vision of the deity. The priests wave camphor lamps before the icon and circle the icons with loud drumming and horn blowing. A priest them takes the camphor lamps to the devotees who cup their hands over the flames and touch their eyes and faces, bringing the light and warmth of the deity to their own being. The devotees are then given turmeric powder or white ash to mark their foreheads with and the puja is over. They might also take away blessed food that had been offered to the deity to be eaten later (Flood 208-9). Puja is at the heart of popular Hinduism. It is performed by both lay people in their homes and priests in the temples everywhere in India. At the heart of the ritual is a devotee’s welcoming and honoring an adored guest into home or temple — the deity being the guest. This ritual, both honoring and displaying personal affection toward the guest, creates unity between deity and worshipper that if approached with purity dissolves the difference  between the human and the divine (Fuller 57).

A primary goal of temple puja is to please the deity. If the ceremony is well and properly performed, the community will be protected and will flourish. If the puja is not performed or poorly performed, the deities can become angry, and distress and misery can befall the community. In the process of puja the deity comes down toward the human level and the devotee comes up toward the divine level. The result can be the devotee merging identity with the deity. For example, the lamps, usually with a camphor flame, which are waved in front of the deity as the climax of the worship, absorb some of the deity’s power and benevolence. The devotees who cup their hands over the flames and then touch their eyes, transfer that power and blessing to themselves. It is once again a joining of the divine and human. Other sanctified puja substances (prasada) given to worshippers are ash or powder put on the forehead, consecrated water sprinkled on the head or swallowed, flowers used in the ceremony and the sanctified food from the puja (Fuller 58-74).

Images of deities are meant to display the powers and attributes of the god or goddess. They are strictly governed by traditional rules that specify particular features, proportions, number of arms, what is held in each hand, and other attributes. Pictures sometimes substitute for sculptural images. With the advent of cheap color printing, poorer homes often contain only pictures of favorite deities who are worshipped. Village deities may be symbolized by painted stones, metal tridents, or pots that stand at small shrines or under trees. Natural phenomena may also be the subject of puja. Rivers and other places are subject of worship and veneration. The cow is frequently venerated for its association with Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune.

Darshana, gazing on the image of the deity, is thought to bring good fortune, well-being, grace, and spiritual merit to the devotee, especially when done in the early morning at the temple just after the deity has been awakened. It is considered an exchange of vision between the deity and the devotee. The power of vision is an important part of worship. The third eye often depicted on images of Shiva is symbolic of his great power. This is symbolized on humans as well by the mark placed above the bridge of the nose to symbolize a third eye and point of spiritual power.

Hindu ritual is often accompanied by the repetition of sacred words called mantras. They are sentences, phrases or words that have ritual power. They may be said loudly or whispered or said mentally. They are often given to individuals by gurus and are to have the power to help the worshipper or bring to life the spirit of the deity (Flood 221). A common practice in Hinduism is to write mantras on bits of paper placed in silver tubes or inscribed on copper plates to be worn by the devotee as protection against evil or for curative power or simply as an act of devotion (Knipe 80).

Vegetarianism is followed primarily by the Brahman and Vaishya classes and food sacrifices of puja are vegetarian. Animal sacrifices to the ferocious “hot” deities is radically different. The animals most frequently used are male goats, pigs and fowls. The ultimate sacrificial animal is the male buffalo, which is still used occasionally in sacrifice to Durga in reenactment of her conquest of the buffalo-demon. The great majority of animal sacrifices are to the “hot” goddess deities including Kali, Durga, and regional and village goddesses. The sacrifices are to placate the deities whose rage is cooled through the blood of the sacrificial animals. The worship of the ferocious female deities is found most fully developed in Tantric Hinduism where Kali is often depicted wearing a garland of human skulls, drinking blood from a skull cup and dancing in a cremation ground (Fuller 84-6). The demands for blood sacrifice as part of some worship of the Goddess are in stark contrast to the tradition of ahimsa (non-violence) so prominent among the Brahmans and renouncers (Flood 183).

Pilgrimage in India is commonly called a tirthayatra, journey to a holy place — a crossing place. Many cities are considered holy as are some rivers and mountains. Shorter, more local pilgrimages to shrines and temples are considered local pilgrimages,  usually undertaken to get favor from deities. Longer pilgrimages to major Hindu centers are often done for their own intrinsic value and the fruits are left in the hands of the gods. The crossing place of a pilgrimage may be a symbolic crossing between the world of the human and the world of the divine. It is a place where the two worlds can make closer contact. The pilgrim can be said to have temporarily taken on the role of the renouncer, one who is detached from the ordinary daily concerns of the world. It is generally acknowledged that pilgrimage on foot is of greater merit than vehicular pilgrimage. Pilgrimage does create some loosening of the divisions of caste, gender, and class. With all the people following the common goal of the pilgrimage, the normal social boundaries are not as rigid and give people a chance for a different social environment for the duration of the pilgrimage experience (Fuller 207-222).

Connected with pilgrimage for many Hindus, festivals follow the Hindu lunar calendar.  Some festivals are pan-Indian and some are celebrated only at specific temples. People by the thousands will line the streets of the festival cities to see the icons borne through the city on huge, elaborate carriages, sometimes pulled by hundreds of  devotees (Flood 211).

Hindu devotionalism is not always directed at the gods of the Hindu pantheon; it is at times also given to living god-men. God-men are usually renouncers who gain a wide following and are granted a state of divinity by their followers. A 20th century god-man is Sathya Sai Baba. Claiming to be Shiva incarnate, he has a large following and has been given credit for many miracles. His following is primarily the urban middle class. He offers them salvation and they offer him devotion (Fuller 178-9). One other way that human beings can become the focus of devotion is  when a deity possesses a devotee in the ritual process and the devotee becomes the manifestation of the deity. This type of possession occurs most frequently during festivals (Flood 220).

Another aspect of Hindu spiritualism is focused on the area of misfortune. In the Hindu world when misfortune falls on an individual, family or community, they will often turn to their gods for help. The cause of the suffering is often attributed to malevolent ghosts, witches, sorcerers, or the evil eye. The misfortune might also be the result of impersonal forces such as inauspicious times caused by the planets. When an individual or community does not uphold their dharma, they invite the wrath of the gods whose job it to see that dharma prevails in the universe. If this happens, it is up to the individual to make amends with the correct rituals to appease the offended deity.

Many Hindus lay their misfortunes such as illness, childlessness, or even death at the feet of ghosts of people who died premature or “bad” deaths. A bad death is one that comes to a child or youth, one that comes to a woman in childbirth, a suicide or a victim of murder, disease, or snakebite. The ghost of these people or those whose funeral rites were improperly handled cannot pass over into the world of the dead, so they stay in this world and cause trouble. These ghosts often inflict sickness, madness, or bad luck on members of their former family. To find if this has happened one consults a diviner-priest of a local deity. If the spirit is identified, then the offended people can enshrine the spirit and worship it as a household deity and thereby pacify the spirit (Fuller 225-7).      The evil eye is often  blamed for misfortune by many Hindus. It is caused by the envious gaze of jealous people. It is most harmful to children and there are a multitude of rituals to ward it off. Higher-status, more educated Hindus do not place much credence in ghosts, witches, the evil eye, and so on. The believe their proper worship of great gods is the proper way to prevent misfortune, and they view the lower class preoccupation with the spirit world as primarily superstition (Fuller 238-9).

Auspicious and inauspicious times are also a concern of many if not most Hindus. Few people would consider scheduling a wedding without consulting an astrologer about the best, most auspicious, time for the ceremony (Fuller 242). Many Hindus are involved with the astrology, and especially the sinister role of Shani, the planet Saturn, in causing problems in people’s lives. Temples are constructed throughout India to the nine planets where people give offering to create harmony with the celestial bodies (Knipe 89).                                                         Women throughout much Hindu history were subject to the control of men for their entire lives: a girl to her father, a wife to her husband, and a widow to her sons. Although not written in the Veda a tradition developed where a “good” woman was expected to die on the funeral pyre of her husband (sati). The practice is now illegal but still occasionally takes place in India. Devotion of a women to her husband was considered a religious duty; the husband was to be seen as a god to his wife. Women had power within the home but little or none outside the home (Flood 66). However, the exclusion of women from inner religious practices is not a constant factor of the long history of Hinduism. During the Vedic and Upanishadic  periods many women spiritual leaders and saints are noted. The same is true during the period of Tantric sects, which were primarily focused on female deities. In the far south of India some matriarchal systems still survive from tribal times, managing to escape the male dominance of the Aryans and the later Muslim invaders (Ross 62-3). Women’s rituals are considered the real cement that holds Hindu culture together at its most important level, the family. Daily vows, prayers, devotions and occasional  pilgrimage form a critical part of the system in which  the wife attempts to maintain the correct connection to the gods in order to bring good fortune and protection to her family (Knipe 134). In contemporary times the position of India’s educated women has equaled or in some ways surpassed that in the West, with India having popularly elected a woman prime minister, Indira Gandhi, in 1966.

The decline of the Mughal empire in the 18th century left an opening for the British Empire builders and by middle of the 19th century the British were in firm control of India. In the early 19th century what is called the Hindu “renaissance” began to develop, stimulated by Ram Mohan Roy, an Indian made wealthy by the British East India Company. Roy believed that God was the transcendent and unknowable creator of the universe. He maintained that all religions could find common ground and that God could be known through studying his creation and  through reason. This “renaissance” put an emphasis on the truth of Veda, a rejection of icon worship, a rejection of caste, an attempt to promote Hinduism on a ethical level equal or superior to that of Islam and Christianity (Flood 250-2) While this intellectual movement had an impact on the educated classes it had little meaning for the great masses of Hindus who followed their devotionalist ways.

In the 20th century one Hindu, Mohandas Gandhi, had an impact on India and the world that is still reverberating today. He believed that God was truth and the individual self was truth as well, as self and God were one and the same. He strove to unite social justice goals with this sense of God (Flood 260-1). He was devoted to ahimsa and the renouncer traditions and through his efforts contributed greatly to gaining India’s independence from British rule. His teachings still influence many people around the globe.

Among the many Hindus to have an impact on the Western world in the 20th century was Krishnamurti, an English-educated Indian. He was adopted by the Theosophical society, an English group which tried to fuse the fundamental teaching of the West and the East. They believed that Krishnamurti was the new Messiah to the world but he completely rejected their role for him. He went on to teach a philosophy of pure awareness based on the Advaita Vedanta, a Hindu philosophy developed in the ninth century by the sage Sankara. Krishnamurti gained a large following in the West and is well known for his dialogues with world scholars (Flood 270).

In a discussion with Swami Venkatesananda, Krishnamurti was asked if he thought the essence of the Hindu understanding of an ultimate God was still relevant — if the concept that the Self and Brahman were synonymous was relevant or in need of revision. The following is a small part of that discussion:

Krishnaji: …How do I know the highest? Because the sages have talked of it? I don’t accept the sages. They might be caught in illusion, they might be talking sense or nonsense. I don’t know; I am not interested. I find that as long as the mind is in a state of fear, it wants to escape from it, and it projects an idea of the Supreme, and wants to experience that. But if it frees itself from its own agony, then it is altogether in a different state. It doesn’t even ask for the experience because it is at a different level.

Swamiji: Quite, quite.

Krishnaji: Now, why do the sages, according to what you have said say “You must experience that, you must be that, you must realize that?”

Swamiji: They didn’t say, “You must…”

Krishnaji: Put it any way you like. Why should they say all these things? Would it not better to say, “Look here, my friends, get rid of your fear. Get rid of your beastly antagonism, get rid of your childishness, and then when you have done that …

Swamiji: …nothing more remains.

Krishnaji: Nothing more. You’ll find the beauty of it. You don’t have to ask, then.

Swamiji: Fantastic, fantastic! (169-70)

Later in the conversation Krishnamurti elaborates further:

Nothing more is necessary. Look at yourself. Observe yourself. Go into yourself, because in this state as we are, we will create a monstrous world. You may go to the Moon, you may go further to Venus, Mars and all the rest of it, but you will always carry yourself over there. Change yourself first! Change yourself — not first – change yourself. Therefore to change, look at yourself, go into yourself – observe, listen, learn.  That’s not a message. You can do it yourself if you want to.(171)


…we are so concentrated upon our own worries, our own hopes, our own desires and experiences, that we shut ourselves in a cage of our own thinking; and we don’t look beyond it … Don’t do that. Look at everything and through looking at everything you’ll discover your cage. (172)

In essence, Krishnamurti’s teachings do agree that each of us is the universe, but we build up walls of the ego around us until we cannot see that we are Brahman. In building these walls we create the pain that is all around us. He sees the individual as guilty of the ills of society; hence, each individual is responsible for breaking down the walls and eliminating the “me.” In doing so the individual matures and now being at one with creation, the injustices around him or her are unthinkable. Krishnamurti sees the individual as the world:  the anger, hatred, fragmentation, and misunderstanding of the individual projected into the world, creating the mess of the world. It can only be solved by individuals healing themselves first.

Whether we are looking at the abstract psychology of Krishnamurti, the sacrificial Vedas, the theistic devotion to Vishnu or Shiva, the worship of any of the great pantheon of goddess deities from dignified Lakshmi to the blood-thirsty Kali, a village deity symbolized by a painted rock, the devotion to a long-dead local hero, or an individual sacrificing to a malevolent ghost, we are dealing with Hinduism.

One of Hinduism’s greatest accomplishments was to develop the firm belief that union with God is achievable here on earth in this lifetime, whether a fusion with the spirit of Brahman or a devotee merging with a deity in puja. Salvation is attainable through whatever road the person chooses to pursue (Ross 76). Hinduism’s great umbrella shelters a diversity of ways of coming to a spiritual understanding of our existence. It has a place for everyone regardless of education or class. For the Hindu, it is a faith for all and all faiths in one.


Arnold, Sir Edwin (translator), Bhagavad Gita, New York: Dover Publications, 1993.

Flood, Gavin, An Introduction to Hinduism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Fuller, C. J., The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Griffith, Ralph T. H. (translator), The Rig Veda, New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1992.

Knipe, David M., Hinduism: Experiments in the Sacred, San Francisco: HaprerSanFrancisco, 1991.

Krishnamurti, J., The Awakening of Intelligence, San Francisco: HaprerSanFrancisco, 1973.

Narayan, R. K., The Ramayana: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic, New York: Penguin Books, 1972.

Ross, Nancy Wilson, Three Ways of Asian Wisdom, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966.

Zaehner, R. C. (translator), Hindu Scriptures, New York: Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knof, 1992.

1998 copyright Mark W. McGinnis

The full book, Designs of Faith, is now available at Amazon.com

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