Strangely enough ‘Hinduism’ is not its original name! In fact its adherents never gave it any particular name except ‘dharma’ which simply means ‘the eternal law that supports and sustains those who practice it’. Nor was there any need to do so since, being ancient-and in a way prehistoric-there was no other religion from which it had to distinguish itself from!
Actually, the origin of the words ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’ is geographical. The land of the river Sindhu (Indus) and the people inhabiting it came to be known as ‘Hindu’ among the ancient Persians, in whose language, the ‘S’ of Sanskrit became ‘H’. And this name has somehow stuck.
Looked at from this angle, all religions of Indian origin-whether it is Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, or tribal cults-become different facets of Hinduism. However, in practice, the term is applied specifically to the religion dependent on the Vedas.
The word ‘Sanatana Dharma’ (the ancient and eternal religion) is sometimes applied to Hinduism by its more orthodox followers.
What is Hinduism?
Birth and death, natural marvels, the bitter experiences of life – all these make man introspective. “Who am I? What was I before I was born? Where was I? Wherefrom, how and why have I come to this world? What is death? Where do I go after death? Or, is death itself the ultimate state? Do I become extinct then? Where did this world come from? How and why was it created? Who created it? If there is a God who is the creator and ruler of this world, what form has He? What is the relationship between him and this world, the other living things and my own Self? What is the object of human life? How does one attain it?”
Religious life begins with such questions and it is the journey one undertakes to find the answer to these questions.
Hinduism is a comprehensive system that contains various aspects of life: philosophy, religion, ethics, culture (including arts, sciences and literature). Therefore, Hinduism is sometimes dubbed as ‘a way of life’.
It is a religion because: it accepts the existence of God and attaining God is the ultimate goal of life. Hinduism places before us many paths that suit persons of different temperaments, but leading to the same ultimate experience.
It gives the moral and ethical disciplines that help a human being to purify himself and become fit for the pursuit of God. It gives different modes and methods of sadhanas or spiritual disciplines to aspirants of different temperaments.
According to Hindu mythology, a soul will have passed through eight million and four hundred thousand births before attaining this invaluable human birth! Therefore, one of the musician-sages, Purandara Dasa said: “Human birth is great, don’t waste it, O crazy men!”
What should a soul born in a human frame do? This is what Hinduism teaches in great details. It gives a person, the things he or she has to perform from cradle to grave. But religion does not stop at the grave alone. It tries to go beyond it.
What it is Not
Am I a Hindu?
A Hindu is one who accepts, believes and practices the following basic tenets:
The Goal of Life
Hindu Philosophy systems-especially the Vedanta-accept two things, viz, that God is one but can manifest himself through various names and forms; and that God-realization is the final goal of life which gives infinite bliss and puts an end to Samsara or transmigration.
Broadly speaking this can be achieved either through:
In Jnanamarga one has to contemplate on one’s Atman or the soul through the process of elimination, that he is not the body-mind complex but the soul. The nature of the Atman is pure consciousness and bliss.
In Bhaktimarga the seeker has to mediate on any aspect or forms of God with faith and devotion, and to repeat the mantra (the divine name of that aspect) duly received from a competent guru.
The various deities of the Hindu pantheon like Brahma, Vishnu and Siva or their manifestation like the Avataras (incarnations of Rama, Krishna and others) or other associated deities like the Devi (Divine Mother) or Ganapathi, are all different manifestations of the one Supreme God called ‘Brahman’ in the philosophical works.
Even as sugar-dolls, though with various names and forms, give the same sweet taste when eaten, meditation on any of these deities will also give the same mystical experience, experience of unalloyed bliss.
Symbolism in Hinduism
Since not everyone can understand abstract ideas, often symbols are used to help them understand truth. The image or symbol of God serves the purpose of providing in material and suitable form a convenient object of reverence. But Hinduism never considered them as ultimate. They were the stepping stones to a higher conception, something like the signposts or guides to better and higher thoughts.
However, Hinduism also warns that to be spiritually beneficial, true symbols should be selected as against the comparatively false ones.
Practically every deity of the Hindu pantheon has three modes of expression or manifestations:
Form and Sound Symbols
The image and mantra of a deity are embodiments of consciousness, through which God may be communed with. They are based upon the idea of the Mantra Sastra, which points out that every form has a corresponding sound at the back of it and every sound must have a form.
The vibration of A U M is of the sound-Brahman (nada Brahman). It is the Anahatanada, a universal continuous sound behind all broken sounds.
Swami Vivekananda says, “Is there any material sound of which all other sounds must be manifestations, one which is the most natural sound? Om (Aum) is such a sound, the basis of all sounds. The first letter, A, is the root sound, the key, pronounced without touching any part of the tongue or palate; M represents the last sound in the series, being produced by the closed lips, and the U rolls from the very root to the end of the sounding board of the mouth. Thus, Om represents the whole phenomena of sound-producing. As such, it must be the natural symbol, the matrix of all the various sounds. It denotes the whole range and possibility of all the words that can be made.”
Mantra Sastra regards several Aksharas as Bijas or seeds. Akshara means imperishable.
Aim, klim, hrim are some of the Bija-Aksharas and when Bija is joined to a mantra, it becomes a Bija Mantra. These mantras have great mystical significance. By vocal pronunciation or mental thinking they give illumination. They represent the deities and generally they are added to the Ishta-mantra, name of the chosen Ideal, given for repetition by the Guru.
In the Vaishnavite tradition, arca or images of Gods are considered not only symbolic but also fully living and conscious. Such images are called as arcavatara. During the consecration ceremony, God who is omnipotent ‘descend’ into the image with a subtle body and accept the worship.
Sri Ranganatha of Sri Rangam and Perumal of Tirupati are some of this arcavataras.