4: Hinduism

Hindu Temple
Punjab, India

Key Terms

  • Caste System
  • Dalit (Untouchable)
  • Exegesis (Interpretation)
  • The Vedas
  • Samsara
  • Yoga (Path)
  • Asceticism
  • Karma
  • Moksha
  • Puja


  • Major populations: India, Nepal, Britain, the U.S.
  • Designated as a world “religion” in 1787
  • Adherents: Nearly 1 billion (3rd largest religion)

  • Key texts: The Vedas, the Gita, Mahabharata, Ramayana
  • Places of worship: Hindu Temple, Shrine

  • Do They Proselytize? No.
  • Dogmatic? No.
  • Theistic? Yes.

  • Totems: Om symbol, fire, lion, the Ganges River, red dot (bindi), sacred thread
  • Taboos: The color black, eating of cows (sometimes all meat)


I. Hinduism in Historical Context

  • A Short History of Hinduism
    • Collection of traditions that have been around for thousands of years
    • Vastly different approaches depending on geography and family history
      • India is a vast region (comparison image)
      • The great variety of Indian rituals and beliefs will come together
        in the modern period as the “religion” of “Hinduism” (1787)
  • The Hindus in History: Disparate Beliefs
    Cultural Influences: Mughal Empire, Islam
    • Hinduism is an umbrella term for the disparate and often contradictory beliefs and practices indigenous to India
    • Some form of sacred ritual has been practiced in India since before the Bible
    • Mughal empire reinforced Islam throughout India in the 1500s,
      creating a need for religious distinction
      • In the 1500s, “Hindu” means a non–Muslim living in the Indus River Valley
        • Modern border crossing between India & Pakistan (youtube)
  • The Hindus in History: Concretizing Beliefs
    Cultural Influences: British Empire, Christianity
    • When the British Empire shows up, they ask the (local) Indians about
      their rituals and beliefs (so they can be taxed). (Youtube: colonial spread.)
    • The rituals and teachings of particular regions become normative for all of India
      • In the 1700s, “Hindu” means a non–Muslim, non–British Indian
    • A hybrid of British imperial concerns and geographically diverse rituals and beliefs become syncretized into the “religious” identity known as “Hinduism”
      • By the 1800s, “Hindu” becomes a source of nationalist pride for Indians

II. Major Paths of Hinduism

  • Karma Yoga: the Path of Action
    • Focuses on achieving satisfaction in ones life by fulfilling ones duty
    • This duty was traditionally assigned to ones caste, a system which is largely criticized
    • Very few followers today
  • Jnana Yoga: the Path of Knowledge
    • Focuses on fasting, non-possession, and bodily discipline
    • One gains insights into the universe and soul through asceticism
    • Must be a male who terminates his marriage, gives away his possessions,
      abandons his name, meditates all day, and becomes a professional beggar
    • Practitioners: fewer than a million
  • Bhakti Yoga: the Path of Devotion
    • Focuses on performing devotional acts to a self-selected avatar (god?)
    • No caste requirement
    • Practitioners: close to a billion

III. Hinduism as a World “Religion"

  • Hinduism is first written about as a cohesive “religion” in the West in 1787
  • Hindus did not have missionaries to encourage the spread of Hinduism
    • Hinduism is not exclusive - Hindus celebrate many paths to God so their “religion” need not be spread
      • As a consequence, all religions are welcome in India
  • Hindus spread to Africa in the 1800s as Indian laborers travelled during British Colonialism
  • Spread to Britain from East Africa after Idi Amin’s expulsion of Indians in 1972
  • Hinduism follows the Indians who practice it


I. The Hindu Texts

Rig Veda

Truth is One, but the sages speak of it by many names.


The Story of Arjuna and Krishna from the Bhagavad Gita

Video Clip


Ramayana: a story of Diwali 

Video Clip

  • Crash Course on Indian history and texts (clip from :55 to 5:10)

  • The Vedas (1200 BCE - 700s CE)
    • The Vedas are the world’s oldest (continuously used) sacred texts.
    • Written in Sanskrit
    • The Vedas have four parts
      • The early four original Vedas (instructions for priests)
      • The later Upanishads (philosophical debate on priestly rituals)
        • Upanishad verses used in Matrix soundtrack: clip
      • The Brahmanas and Aranyakas (which have both instructions and philosophical discourse)
    • The Vedas instruct priests to perform rituals (often with fire) to appease the gods in order to bring order into the world
    • Vedas introduce avatars of God (translated as gods?) and the paths to truth

  • The Mahabharata (400 BCE - 400 CE)
    • Storytelling provides analogies to direct action and attitudes
    • Provide stories of the avatars (gods?) and give insight into rituals
    • The Mahabharata is longer than the Bible, the Iliad, and the Odyssey combined
    • The Bhagavad Gita (“Song of the Lord”) is the most famous part of the M.
    • Primary focus is duty

  • The Ramayana (200 BCE - 200 CE)
    • The Ramayana is twice as long as the New Testament, and far shorter than the Mahabharata.
    • Primary focus is on love, trust, and the ethics of marriage as told through the narrative of Rama and his wife Sita.

II. Key Teachings and Concepts in Hindu Texts

  • In Brief: The Paths to God (Brahman)
    • Brahman/God is all things (pantheism)
      • God sends avatars of Godself into the world (c.f. Jake in Avatar, clip)
      • Avatars are later translated as “gods” but that’s, at best, confusing
    • Ultimate Goal (Moksha) is freedom from the prison of Samsara
      • Samsara: the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth through reincarnation
      • Karma influences your attainment of this goal
      • Karma earned is positive or negative based on actions during this incarnation

  • Worship of the Avatars/gods: Vishnu, Shiva, and Shakti
    • Stories of the avatars/gods are embedded in sacred texts of Hinduism
    • Ancient trinity: Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Sustainer), and Shiva (the Destroyer)
    • Modern trinity: Vishnu, Shiva, and Shakti (the Great Goddess)
    • Bhakti yoga has three main branches, each of which focuses on one of the trinity

III. Exegesis: Traditions of Hindu Interpretation

  • Karma Yoga interpretation of the Vedas (oldest sacred teachings)
    • Focus: performing one’s duty according to his caste
    • Requires one to be at peace given birth status and occupation
    • Core text: Mahabharata, especially the Bhagavad Gita

  • Philosophical interpretation of the Vedas (begins in 500s BCE, parallels Greek philosophy)
    • Focus: achieving moksha over time through aquiring good karma
    • Jnana yoga will deliver the individual from samsara
    • Core text: Upanishads, compiled beginning in the 6th century BCE
    • Features of Philosophical Hinduism
      • Gurus are teachers who import the methods for attaining knowledge

  • Devotional interpretation of the Vedas (becomes popular after the Buddha)
    • Focus: achieving moksha in this present life through active devotion
    • Moksha can be attained through the mercy and grace of a god/avatar
    • Core texts: Both Mahabharata and Ramayana epics
    • Features of Devotional Hinduism
      • Devotional acts are active and include large groups of people
      • Example of Bhakti Hindu Wedding (clip)


I. Hinduism & the British empire

  • Scholars today find the label of "religion" for Hinduism problematic
    • The conceiving of the texts, rituals, and beliefs of ancient Indians as a coherent "religion" is a modern, imported concept
    • Was Hinduism Invented? Britons, Indians, and the Colonial Construction of Religion by Brian K. Pennington
  • The effects of Modern colonialism
    • British empire used a Western conception of religion to shape Hinduism to fit their needs
      • In this way, Indians were the subaltern of the British hegemonic power structure
        • Subaltern: a social group beneath the social group in power
        • This power structure usually occurs through colonization
        • This social structure continues today in the guise of skin color prejudice
      • So, to be Hindu in Colonial India meant to be less than British/Christian
    • Native Hindus, in turn, formalized an informal set of practices and beliefs
      • First, as a means of consolidating power in the upper (Brahmin) caste
      • Then, as a collective means of refusing the religions/cultures of the colonial powers
      • Now, in post-colonial India, "Hinduism" is a unifying marker of social identity and ethnic pride for Indians

II. Hinduism & the Caste System

  • Major castes in Hindu texts
    • (Brahmins) priests, scholars, teachers
    • Administration and Soldiers
    • Farmers, Merchants, and Artisans
    • Laborers
  • British introduce the Dalit (Untouchable) underclass
    • Dalits are relegated to the worst jobs in the empire
      • Butchers, waste disposal, etc.
      • The British concern for contagion marked the Dalits as "Untouchable"
    • Dalits live in a separate area of town
    • Dalits cannot use public facilities like water wells
    • The ancient Hindu texts have no such caste as "Untouchable"
      • The 1947 Constitution of India renders the caste system illegal
      • Legally, there's no more Dalits. Actually, about 20% of Indians are still considered Dalits.


I. Enacting Hinduism

Puja Offering (Jasmines)
Sri Lanka

  • Common Practices of Hinduism
    • Yoga (Western conception) is not often practiced
    • Pilgrimages to sacred cities, rivers, and mountains
    • Offerings are made at shrines while on pilgrimage
  • Puja (video)
    • Shrine at home
    • Sweets are typical offerings
    • Lamp or incense is lit
    • Can occur on any day, but Thursdays are common
    • Family-oriented ritual
    • Offerings occur in tandem with festival schedule
  • World encounters with Hindu Culture
    • British-Indian foods (Gordon Ramsey video)
    • Hatha/Force Yoga — a modern yoga (example video)
      • Almost 9% of American adults practice Hatha Yoga
      • About 44% of Americans are interested in trying it
    • Bollywood films (song and dance video)

II. Becoming a Hindu

  • No official ceremony or conversion process
  • The most popular form of Hinduism (Bhakti) is about simple practice
  • Join a Hindu temple or organization

III. The Hindu Calendar

  • Lohri (January) marks the end of winter
  • Pongal-Sankranti (February) celebrates rice harvest
  • Holi (March) celebration of spring and the new year
  • Shivaratri (March) honors Shiva
  • Sri Vaishnavas (April) honors Vishnu
  • Rathyatra (May) honors birth of Lord Jagannath
  • Janmashtami (August) honors birth of Krishna
  • Dusserah (September) celebrates victory of good over evil
  • Ganesh Chaturthi (September) honors birth of Ganesh
  • Diwali (October) festival of lights (wisdom over darkness)

Holi Festival

IV. General guidelines for visiting a Hindu Temple

  • Q. How should I be dressed?
    • Dress casually but well-covered. Legs should be covered below the knee.
      No head covering required. Generally avoid black clothing.
    • White clothing (not black) is worn at Hindu funerals
  • Q. What are the totems used in the service?
    • Statues, pictures, and other representations of avatar(s).
    • Flowers and incense placed in front of avatar(s).
    • Lamps lit around avatar(s).
  • Q. Will contributions to the temple be collected?
    • Yes. $5 is considered polite.
  • Q. How should I behave in a Hindu service?
    • Remove your shoes before entering the sanctuary
    • Remain silent and seated unless chanting with congregants
  • Q. What are the death and mourning customs of Hindus?
    • Hindus are cremated, not buried
    • For the bereaved, bring fruit to their home before Shraddha ceremony
    • Shraddha: ritual for the bereaved, 10-30 days after death (depending on caste)