2: Hinduism


  • Adherents: 900 million (3rd largest)
  • Do They Proselytize? No.
  • Dogmatic? No.
  • Theistic? Yes.
  • Major populations: India & Nepal


I. Hinduism & History

Hindu Temple
Punjab, India

Key Terms

  • The Vedas
  • Samsara
  • Yoga
  • Karma
  • Moksha
  • Puja
  • A. A Short History of Hinduism
    • Hard to describe
    • Tradition that has been around for thousands of years
    • Vastly different approaches depending on geography and family history

  • B. The Hindus in History: Disparate Beliefs
    Cultural Influences: Mughal Empire
    • Hinduism is an umbrella term for the disparate and often contradictory beliefs and practices indigenous to India
    • Some form of sacred practice has been practiced in India since antiquity
    • Mughal invaders brought Islam in the 1600s, creating a need for religious distinction

  • C. The Hindus in History: Recent scholarship on Hinduism as “Religion”
    Cultural Influences: British Colonialism
    • Was Hinduism Invented? Britons, Indians, and the Colonial Construction of Religion by Brian K. Pennington
    • Critics assert the label of Hinduism implies a cohesiveness that is not valid
    • The notion of a single religious community of Hindus is false because of the diversity in beliefs

  • D. The Hindus in History: The Effect of Colonialism
    Cultural Influences: British Colonialism, Modern Indian Nationalism
    • Colonial modernity altered the course of the Hindu religion
    • As the British colonized India, they simultaneously sought to understand and quantify the native inhabitants
    • Native Hindus in turn, sought to formalize what had been an informal set of regional practices and beliefs


II. The Texts of Hinduism

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


The Story of Sita 

Video Clip

  • A. The Vedas (1200 BCE - 700s CE)
    • The Vedas (meaning: knowledge) are the world’s oldest sacred texts.
    • Considered uncreated scripture
    • Written in Sanskrit
    • The Vedas have four parts
      • The four original Vedas (instructions for priests)
      • The Upanishads (philosophical debate on priestly rituals)
      • 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 gods and the paths to truth

  • B. The Mahabharata (400 BCE - 400 CE)
    • Storytelling provides analogies to direct action and attitudes
    • Provide stories of the 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 Mahabharata
    • Primary focus is duty

  • C. The Ramayana (200 BCE - 200 CE)
    • The Ramayana is twice as long as the New Testament portion of the Bible, 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.

III. Key Concepts in Hindu Texts

  • A. In Brief: The Paths to God (Brahman)
    • Three Yogas or Paths to God
    • Goal is freedom from Samsara
    • Karma influences your attainment of this goal, called Moksha

  • B. Worship of the Gods: Vishnu, Shiva, and Mahadevi
    • Stories of the gods are embedded in sacred texts of Hinduism
    • Previous trinity: Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Sustainer), and Shiva (the Destroyer)
    • Currently understood trinity: Vishnu, Shiva, and Mahadevi, also called Shakti (the Great Goddess)
    • Bhakti yoga has three main branches, each of which worships one of the trinity 

  • C. Worship through Yogas (disciplines/paths)
    • karma yoga: the discipline of action (e.g. ritual)
    • jnana yoga: the discipline of wisdom (from the Upanishads)
    • bhakti yoga: the discipline of devotion/love (for lay people)

  • D. Life Cycle
    • Samsara - reincarnation, cycle of life, death, and rebirth
    • Karma - influences reincarnation
    • Moksha - liberation from samsara
    • Holiness of all life

IV. Exegesis: Traditions of Hindu Interpretation

  • A. Philosophical Understanding of the Vedas
    • Practitioners: a few million
    • Focus: nature and destiny of human soul
    • Jnana yoga will deliver the individual from samsara
    • Core text: Upanishads, compiled beginning in the 6th century BCE
    • Introduced karma, reincarnation, meditative and yogic techniques
    • The most devout followers are renouncers
    • Features of Philosophical Hinduism
      • Gurus are teachers who import the methods for attaining knowledge
      • The world and the self are concealed by the illusion of Maya
      • The distinction between Atman and Brahman

  • B. Devotional Understanding of the Vedas
    • Practitioners: close to a billion
    • Focus: achieving moksha in the present through active devotion
    • Bhakti yoga will deliver the individual from samsara
    • Moksha can be attained through the mercy and grace of a god
    • This god can also supply happiness in the present
    • Core texts: Mahabharata and Ramayana epics
    • Features of Devotional Hinduism
      • Devotional acts are active and include large groups of people
      • Songs, poems, dramas, dances, plays
      • Happiness is actively pursued and not shunned


V. 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) honor’s Rama’s return from exile

Holi Festival

VI. Enacting Hinduism

  • A. Nearly Universal 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

  • B. Puja
    • Shrine at home
    • Sweets are typical offerings
    • Lamp or incense is lit
    • Can occur at on any day, but Thursdays are common
    • Family-oriented ritual
    • Offerings occur in tandem with festival schedule

Puja Offering (Jasmines)
Sri Lanka