Hinduism is the product of two main stages of development.
Sometime around the year 1200 B.C.E., possibly closer to 1500 B.C.E., India
was invaded from the northwest by certain Aryan peoples of Europe. They
proceeded to make the darker skinned natives the lowest class of society, while they became the three upper classes,
the priests or Brahmans, the warriors, and the workers. Over the centuries,
these classes crystallized into a rigid caste system in which the
dark-skinned peoples became the "outcasts," or the "untouchables," since contact with them or even their shadow was believed to
be degrading. Today, among the Hindus, there are more than three thousand
different sub-castes into which the four major castes are divided.
The Aryans brought with them their own form of religion, which became intermingled with the beliefs and practices of the natives and developed into the worship of numerous gods, spirits of the dead, and forces of nature. Slowly, certain more important gods emerged, principally those of the Sun (Fire), Rain, and Earth, each bearing different names in different places. All sorts of myths about them as well as rituals, formulas, prayers and guides for conduct arose. They were collected into one of the world's earliest sacred literatures, the Vedas, "Knowledge," of which there are four major works. Perhaps the most important of these, Rig-Veda, "The Veda of Praise," which is a collection of more than a thousand hymns or prayers to various gods. Some are directed to the older deities - Dyaus Pitar (the "Jupiter" of the Romans), a great mother-goddess, and Mitra (corresponding to "Mithra" of the Persians), perhaps originally a sun-god. Many more, however, are devoted to the nature deities of India, such as Indra, the storm- god; Rudra, the mountain-god; Yama, the god of the dead; and Varuna, the god of the skies, who maintain order in the physical universe.
Beginning around 600 B.C.E., the beliefs that are now central in Hinduism started to appear. In the main they are found in a number of works, quite difficult to understand, called the Upanishads, meaning "sessions with a teacher." According to their teachings, the basis of all existence, whether that of gods, men, beasts, the earth, or sky-is a single substance. It is called "Brahman," the indefinable, unknowable source of everything in the universe, an impersonal "Something." Brahman alone is the real essence of everything and whatever man sees in the world is simply its appearance, not its genuine substance. Similarly, all human desires for wealth, food, happiness, and the like, involve things that are not basically real, and hence are doomed to frustration.
Man's objective in life is to unite his inner self, his soul, with its real essence which is Brahman. When this state of unity is reached, the individual achieves the condition of ecstasy known as "Nirvana." This term comes from the two Sanskrit words meaning "not" and "wind" in the sense that something remains completely undisturbed. Hence, in this connection, "Nirvana" means to be "undisturbed by any desires." TO achieve this is to merge completely and eternally with Brahman.
However, this is extremely difficult to accomplish. Man and everything in the universe must pass through repeated rebirths in their efforts to return finally to Brahman and end the process of reincarnation. Therefore, the main hope for the individual is that his life will merit reincarnation in some higher form and thus continue his progress toward Brahman.
A life of merit means that one will be reincarnated into a higher caste the next time he appears on earth. An unworthy life may mean reincarnation as an animal, a tree, or even a vegetable. One of the Hindu writings declares, "For stealing grain, a man becomes a rat;...For stealing a woman, a bear, ; for stealing cattle, a he-goat."
One's station in life, especially the caste into which he has been born, is the result of his behavior during his previous lives. If a person was born an untouchable, he must have sinned during his former existence and, therefore, merited nothing better. Those who have been born into the highest caste have obviously earned this position through their good works in former lives. The caste into which one is born remains unchangeable during his lifetime.
The Hindu, then, sees his life in vastly different terms than the religious person of the West. The latter views physical existence as concluded within a single lifetime. Though his spirit lives on, no one anticipates a repeated renewal or existence on earth.
Not so to the Hindu. To him each individual has a multiple existence extending over a long series of previous and future lifetimes. He begins the cycle as one of the simpler forms of life, and gradually, through repeated rebirths, attains the state of a human being. What happens thereafter in successive lifetimes will be the consequence of his actions, operating through the unchanging Law of Karma.
Karma is a word that means "deeds" or "works." In effect, it determines the consequences of one's intentions and deeds upon his next reincarnation. Operating on the basis of strict "cause and effect," the Law of Karma rewards (or punishes) the individual for his acts during his lifetime with the form of rebirth he merits.
There are number of stages through which people may pass on their way upward to Brahman. The lowest is when one's primary interest is seeking pleasure. Above this comes the desire for wealth, power or fame. Next, his life is dedicated to duty in behalf of others, his fellow man and the community. Finally, there is that stage when he seeks and attains Nirvana and the infinite Brahman. It is then that the cycle of lives is blissfully concluded.
To achieve the final merging of oneself into Brahman within a single lifetime is possible only for those within the three upper castes. But even for them, it is most unlikely because of the extreme difficulty of performing these four demands:
(1) After the appropriate rites of childhood, the young man devotes himself to the study of Hindu sacred literature, especially the Vedas.
(2) Upon reaching manhood, he embarks upon a period of good works, including marriage, establishing a family, and carrying on his duties toward society.
(3) Around middle-age, and only when one feels sincerely called, he forsakes the world. He now lives as a hermit and concentrates upon a spiritual matters through the study of the Hindu sacred writings until he becomes indifferent to all desires.
(4) Finally, he lives as a "holy man," reentering the world to give of his inspiration to others, but obvious to all physical wants. He may undertake severe mental and physical discipline through the practice of yoga, "yoking" oneself to Brahman through intense concentration and seeking to attain the highest state of bliss.
How has this affected women in the religion?
Women, who are not considered to be in the same respect as men in the history of Hinduism, have gotten more involved lately. For women, in the Way of the Works of Hinduism, it has traditionally required the faithful fulfillment of her duties to her husband, which include obedience, patience and respect. In the Ordinances of Manu, a collection from around 200 B.C.E. says this:
No act is to be done according to her own will by a young girl, a young woman, or even by an old woman, though in their own homes. In her childhood, a girl should be under the will of her father; in her youth, of her husband; her husband being dead, of her sons. A woman should never enjoy her own will.....
Over the centuries much of this has undergone modification. Certainly, today, in India, where women are guaranteed equality. All are now entitled to vote, and an increasing number are now becoming educated, the traditional belief is not to have women involved.
The practices of Hinduism
Much of the Hindu ritual is carried on by priests who minister at many local shrines. However, there are a number of other important religious specialists, and among them are the yogin, swami, and guru.
A yogin, or the holy man, is one who has renounced all worldly life and is seeking to attain Nirvana through his own particular spiritual disciplines. Both he and the swami, a member of a religious order, serve as good influences upon the lives of the ordinary Hindu. The swami is vowed to chastity, poverty and obedience, and adheres to the religious and social practices of his order. A guru is one's personal religious teacher. His task is to transmit to individual knowledge of the Vedas.
It is impossible to describe all of the numerous rituals and holy days that play a part in the worship of the Hindu gods, because of each of the countless deities has his own special rites.
The Hindu is obliged to carry on many daily practices. These are performed in the morning, at midday, and evening, and they involve a great many different rituals. Among them are bathing, placing special marks on one's forehead, assuming certain bodily positions, precise recitation of sacred texts that may be repeated scores of times daily, study and the like. The orthodox Hindu must also carry out his "Five Daily Obligations," involving the offering of food to the god, generally at his private shrine at home, reading from the Vedas, a water libation, a food-offering to the animals, and care of guests, for which alms to the poor may be substituted.