Ever wonder about Hinduism? In the west, the gurus, sages, yogis just seem to blur. Yoga in the west is all about health and little about spirituality, though this is changing. This article provides a brief introduction to Hinduism and a starting point list of resources for futher exploration.
There is no word “Hindu” in ancient India or Sanskrit. You could be a yogini, a swami, a tantric and a dozen other things. The gods and goddesses and their practice of worship, as well as the language of the people, changed from region to region and even village to village. The first reference to the word “Hindu” is in a Zorastrian sacred text. The term was also used by Muslims who were migrating to the region to distinguish the natives from themselves. In this sense, there is a strong parallel with America. Where “Indian” meant all the indiginous peoples, and their religion, not being the same as the settlers, must have all been one, as well.
The word “Hindu” is actually a corruption of the Sanskrit “Sindhu” which means “river” or even more specifically, the Indus River valley. A variant, “Hindoos” was used by the British during their occupation, probably borrowed from the Muslims. As a result of this, the “Hindus” became united under that banner word quite recently for political purposes rather than religious.
So what is Hinduism Today?
Although the specifics of the dieties and temple customs did change from region to region, there were many similarities, and sacred texts and customs were exchanged freely throughout the country. Hinduism is a term which covers the entire religious tradition, reforms, and movements from the time of the Vedic religion (or Brahminism) of about 6,000 years ago to today throughout the subcontinent of India.
It would be better to think of Hinduism as a tradition of religion than a religious tradition. This is what confuses so many westerners. It is a living tradition, not a static one which is run by some central authority. There is no one final authority or book in Hinduism, though there is a huge canon of writings. Rather, the Hindu recognizes the wisdom which can be gained from all traditions and inspired writings. This is true to such an extent, that a guru from one tradition can guide a student who follows a different path or tradition. The end is the same (enlightenment or god-realization), even if the names change, and an enlightened teacher can help the student on their own personal path until it is time for the student to move on.
If you are interested in starting an exploration into Hinduism, it is necessary to set aside the boundaries, pidgeon-holes, and either-or-ness of what westerners term religion.
Or in Hindu words:
Hinduism differs from other organized religions in the following aspects:
It is not based upon a particular founder.
It is not based upon a particular book.
It is not controlled by a central institution or authority such as a church or a sangha or association.
It is not averse to examine and assimilate fundamentally diverse thoughts and beliefs into its system.
It accepts other religions as various paths to salvation and does not favor organized attempts to proselytize people.
It has been evolving continuously, through internal reforms and as a reaction to the threats and challenges without.
“That which we call the Hindu religion is really the eternal religion because it embraces all others.” – Sri Aurobindo
Sri Aurobindo (August 15, 1872 – December 5, 1950) was an Indian nationalist, scholar, poet, mystic, evolutionary philosopher, yogi and guru. His followers further believe that he was an avatar, an incarnation of the Absolute.
(above from Wikipedia–read more about Sri Aurobindo at wikepedia)
Books available by and about Sri Aurobindo
I am proud to belong to a religion which has
taught the world both tolerance and universal
acceptance. We believe not only in universal
toleration, but we accept all religions as true.
– Swami Vivekanada
Swami Vivekananda (January 12, 1863 – July 4, 1902) was one of the most famous and influential spiritual leaders of the Vedanta philosophy. He was the chief disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and was the founder of Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission. Many consider him an icon for his fearless courage, his positive exhortations to the youth, his broad outlook on social problems, and countless lectures and discourses on Vedanta philosophy.
(above from Wikipedia–read more about Swami Vivekananda on Wikipedia)
View Books by or about Swami Vivekananda
Learn More about Hinduism
So what about all the different beliefs? It’s best to go to the experts. For the web, we recommend Wikipedia and Hinduism.com studied in tandem as a terrific starting point.
Books on Hinduism
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hinduism by Linda Johnsen: It’s hard to go wrong with a guide like this when you are starting out. The bonus is that it is extremely well researched by a western Hindu and very interesting to read. We also recommend her book on the Hindu Goddess tradition, listed below.
Hindu Gods & Goddesses by W.J. Wilkins: Explore the origins and related myths and legends about the gods and goddesses commonly worshiped in India as well as lesser figures – demons, sacred birds, and other lore.
Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation by Stephen Mitchell Arguably the most popular text in the Hindu library, it is the conversations between Krishna and a warrior before they go to battle, but the discussion is about life. The life and death setting poses a stark contrast to the words. The translator has an absolute genius for getting the literary quality as well as the meaning.
Deepak Chopra’s Kama Sutra The Kama Sutra is about the art of loving and has often had a primary focus as a guide to sex. But it’s a guide to the spirituality and sacredness of sex. Deepak Chopra is not just another “new age guru” but a doctor and a teacher who has a talent for translating Hindu philosphy into terms for westerners, often using western myths, which school teaches us are “just stories.”