The Name

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


  • Hinduism is not idolatry.The idols of gods are only various facets of the One Supreme Being.
    Idol worship act as a stepping stones to the reach the Supreme Being, therefore, there is nothing condemnable about it.
  • Hinduism is not fatalism
    The theory of karma that one reaps what one sows is not fatalistic. On the other hand, Hinduism gives infinite opportunities and assurance that sooner or later, all will be perfect and attain liberation. A person is free to do good or bad deeds in life. Accordingly he will also get good or bad results. The intensity of such deeds may be such that the result cannot be exhausted in one life. Hence one has to admit of future births. This fact has been accepted in the Hindu scriptures.
  • Hinduism is not the caste system
    Caste is a part of its social arrangement based on the division of labour. However, in true religion, caste has no place. All caste are eligible Sri Krishna declared in the Bhagavadgita, “Those who are more inclined to the world, such as women and the commercial (Vaisya) and serving (Sudra) classes of people – even they realize the highest ideal, if they take refuge in Me.”


Am I a Hindu?

A Hindu is one who accepts, believes and practices the following basic tenets:

  1. Accepts the Vedas (Srutis)
    Vedas are not mere books but Words of God. Therefore, all the various Hindu sects accept the authority of the Vedas. Acceptance has to be followed by faith in its efficacy and strict adherence to its injunctions. Anything that contradicts the Srutis has to be rejected as poison.
  2. Recognizes that the ultimate goal of human life is to realize God or Truth. Wealth, name, fame, youth, pleasure, everything is temporary and is perishable. God alone is Eternal. Therefore, human life should not wasted in pursuing the material pleasure at the cost of
  3. Worships God in any Name/Form/Quality’
    God is OMNIPOTENT and OMNIPRESENT. Therefore, the One God can manifest in any forms and names. This does not mean that the Hindus worship many Gods! Different sects provide different ways but all will ultimately reach the same goal. Therefore, there is no reason for dispute or quarrel with anyone who follow a different path. Each one has to stick to his or her path without belittling others paths.
  4. Believes in incarnation of God
    God out of His compassion may come down to protect the devotees and to establish religion. The determining factor is the need of the time.
  5. Respects all religions/ prophets/ founders/ scriptures
    Hinduism is the Mother of all religions. This means, Hinduism looks upon all other religions as another way of reaching the ultimate goal of life.
  6. Believes in the Law of KARMA
    We are the maker of our own destiny. God does not reward or punish anyone. We sow what we reap is the basis of this theory.
  7. Believes that a Hindu is NOT a sinner but maybe committing sins. There is no concept of eternal damnation in hell. The theory of Karma gives infinite opportunities for everyone to be good and to strive for perfection.
  8. Believes in the 4 (Purushartha) – Dharma/ Artha/ Kama/ Moksha
    A Hindu has to acquire wealth righteously, enjoy physical pleasure righteously, and lead a virtuous life and strive for liberation. This gives a balanced way of life, where a person is expected to spend his life in striving to attain the four things that makes life worth living.
  9. Believes that Everything is DIVINE
    Hinduism recognizes that all finite things are symbols of the Infinite. God is the Infinite. Therefore, everything is as divine as God.


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:

  • the Jnanamarga (the path of knowledge) or
  • the Bhaktimarga (the path of devation).


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:


  1. The Murti – the idol of a deity which is prepared as per the directions given in the Dhyanasloka (hymn of meditation) of the deity as revealed in the depths of mystical meditation, to the sages.
  2. The Yantra – a mystical 2-dimensional or geometrical pattern which can be drawn like the Sri Chakra
  3. The Mantra – the sound form or the thought form, which can be uttered in contemplation


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 most important mantra is the Pranava or Aum. It represents the Brahman or the one ultimate reality in Hinduism. According to the Bhagavadgita, ‘Brahman is one-syllabled Aum’.


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.”


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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.


Image Worship

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.