Hinduism (hin´dōōĬzəm), 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.

Early Hinduism

Hinduism is a synthesis of the religion brought into India by the Aryans (c.1500 BC) 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 (see Vedanta). 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 (see transmigration of souls). 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 BC, 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 (see 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 (see bhakti) 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 (see Indian National Congress, 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 (see Sikhism).

Since the late 1980s there has been increasing popular support for Hindu nationalist parties among the people of India. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which has long rejected the secular state and called for orthodox Hindu religious practice, is influential in the mainstream Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), one of India's most important political parties. The extremist Shiv Sena and Vishwa Hindu Parishad parties have been relentless in their attacks on Muslims. The 1992 destruction in Ayodhya of a Muslim shrine and anti-Muslim riots in Mumbai in 1993 were sparked by Hindu nationalists and are among the events that have heightened Hindu-Muslim tensions.


See C. N. E. Eliot, Hinduism and Buddhism (3 vol., 1921; repr. 1968); A. B. Keith, The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads (1925, repr. 1971); S. Radhakrishnan, The Hindu View of Life (1927, repr. 1962); L. Renou, Religions of Ancient India (1953, repr. 1968) and Hinduism (1961); R. G. Zaehner, Hinduism (1962); A. T. Embree, ed., The Hindu Tradition (1966, repr. 1972); T. J. Hopkins, The Hindu Religious Tradition (1971); P. H. Ashby, Modern Trends in Hinduism (1974); A. L. Basham, The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism (1989).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Hinduism: Selected full-text books and articles

Hinduism: A Very Short Introduction
Kim Knott.
Oxford University Press, 1998
Understanding Hinduism
Frank Whaling.
Dunedin Academic Press, 2006
Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices
Julius Lipner.
Routledge, 1998
Cybelle Shattuck.
Routledge, 1999
Was Hinduism Invented? Britons, Indians, and Colonial Construction of Religion
Brian K. Pennington.
Oxford University Press, 2005
Women's Lives, Women's Rituals in the Hindu Tradition
Tracy Pintchman.
Oxford University Press, 2007
Sacred Hindu Symbols
Gautam Chatterjee.
Abhinav, 2001
The Bhagavad Gita
W. J. Johnson.
Oxford University Press, 1994
Hindu Ethics: A Philosophical Study
Roy W. Perrett.
University of Hawaii Press, 1998
Saomnyasa Upaniosads: Hindu Scriptures on Asceticism and Renunciation
Patrick Olivelle.
Oxford University Press, 1992
The Sacred Thread: Hinduism in Its Continuity and Diversity
J. L. Brockington.
Edinburgh University Press, 1981
The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition
Tracy Pintchman.
State University of New York Press, 1994
Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu Religious Teaching
Kirin Narayan.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator