Hindu Dharma: General characteristics and some common beliefs

Hindu Dharma: General characteristics and some common beliefs – Purusharthas– rituals and ethics – festivals and sacred days – pilgrimage and fairs.

  • Hinduism is one of the oldest religions in the world. It is a religion followed by several racial and ethnic groups.
  • The Hindu sacred texts deal with the ethical behaviour of an individual of a family and of society in general.
  • They also discuss and prescribe rules of administration, politics, statesmanship, legal principles and statecraft.
  • Hinduism, the world’s oldest religion, has no beginning–it precedes recorded history. It has no human founder. It is a mystical religion, leading the devotee to personally experience the Truth within, finally reaching the pinnacle of consciousness where man and God are one.
  • Hinduism has four main denominations–Saivism, Shaktism, Vaishnavism and Smartism

Concepts of Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha

  • A life of righteousness for a Hindu is possible through the fourfold scheme of practical endeavour. It comprises the concepts of dharma, artha, kama and moksha
  1. Dharma is honest and upright conduct or righteous action.
  2. Artha means a righteous and honest pursuit of economic activities.
  3. Kama is the fulfillment of one’s normal desires.
  4. Moksha is liberation, that is absorption of the self into eternal bliss.
  • Related to these four concepts are the concepts of karma and samsara. Depending upon one’s deeds (karma) one is able to reach the stage of moksha or liberation.
  • The stage of moksha or liberation is a term for describing the end of the cycle of birth and rebirth.
  • The cycle of birth and rebirth is known as samsara. The Hindus believe that each human being has a soul and that this soul is immortal.
  • It does not perish at the time of death. The process of birth and rebirth goes on until moksha is attained.
  • This cycle of transmigration is also known as samsara, which is the arena where the cycle of birth and rebirth operates.
  • One’s birth and rebirth in a particular state of existence is believed by the Hindus to be dependent on the quality of one’s deeds (karma).
  • For a Hindu, the issue of liberation is of paramount significance.

Karma and Samsara

  • The concepts of dharma, artha, kama and moksha are related to tenets of karma and samsara.
  • Karma is a word used for all activity or work. Samsara is the term used for the arena where the cycle of birth and rebirth continues to operate until one attains liberation.
  • This is also called the theory of reincarnation or punarjanma.
  • Actions are divided into good or bad on the basis of their intrinsic worth.
  • Good deeds bring fame, merit and are the path to heaven. Bad deeds bring notoriety and lead to punishment and life in hell.
  • It is recognised that an individual’s overall position in a future life depends on the way he or she lives the present one. This belief, which gave a positive or negative value to certain actions, developed into a general theory of actions and is called the karma theory.
  • The concept of karma is fully developed and woven into the belief in re-birth, which in turn is related to the belief concerning heaven, hell, and moksha.
  • An individual’s fate after death is determined by the sum total of grades and attributes of his or her actions or deeds (karma) during his or her life. Better birth and status is obtained if there is a surplus of many good deeds in a person’s life.
  • Otherwise one’s status falls in the next life. Another related belief-is that the world moves in a cyclical process (birth and death follow one another).
  • By following one’s karma prescribed within the fourfold scheme of dharma, artha, kama, moksha an individual strives to get out of this otherwise infinite cyclical process of birth and death. Depending on one’s previous and present karma, one prospers or suffers in this world.
  • Later after death he either gains heaven or is punished with life in hell.
  • Thus a human being after death may become a denizen or inhabitant of heaven or hell, may be reborn as an animal, or even be reborn as a tree. All this depends on one’s karma. An individual usually wanders through many births till he or she finds final release or moksha.

9 Basic Hindu Beliefs

  1. Reverence for Our Revealed Scriptures

Hindus believe in the divinity of the Vedas, the world’s most ancient scripture, and venerate the Agamas as equally revealed. These primordial hymns are God’s word and the bedrock of Sanatana Dharma, the eternal religion which has neither beginning nor end.

  1. All-Pervasive Divinity

Hindus believe in a one, all-pervasive Supreme Being who is both immanent and transcendent, both Creator and Unmanifest Reality.

  1. Three Worlds and Cycles of Creation

Hindus believe there are three worlds of existence–physical, astral and causal–and that the universe undergoes endless cycles of creation, preservation and dissolution.

  1. The Laws of Karma and Dharma

Hindus believe in karma–the law of cause and effect by which each individual creates his own destiny by his thoughts, words and deeds–and in dharma, righteous living.

  1. Reincarnation and Liberation

Hindus believe that the soul reincarnates, evolving through many births until all karmas have been resolved, and moksha–spiritual knowledge and liberation from the cycle of rebirth–is attained. Not a single soul will be eternally deprived of this destiny.

  1. Temples and the Inner Worlds

Hindus believe that divine beings exist in unseen worlds and that temple worship, rituals, sacraments as well as personal devotionals create a communion with these devas and Gods.

  1. Yoga Guided by a Satguru

Hindus believe that a spiritually awakened master, or satguru, is essential to know the Transcendent Absolute, as are personal discipline, good conduct, purification, pilgrimage, self-inquiry and meditation.

  1. Compassion and Noninjury

Hindus believe that all life is sacred, to be loved and revered, and therefore practice ahimsa, “noninjury.”

  1. Genuine Respect for Other Faiths

Hindus believe that no particular religion teaches the only way to salvation above all others, but that all genuine religious paths are facets of God’s Pure Love and Light, deserving tolerance and understanding

The Four Stages of Life

The Life of a Hindu is considered to be divisible into four stages, namely

  1. Brahmacharya ashram
  2. Grihastha ashram
  3. Vanaprastha ashram
  4. Sanyasa ashram
  • It is the dharma of a Hindu to pass through these stages in one’s life. The male members of Brahman, Kshatriya and Vaishya varna pass through four different ashram (stages) in their life.

 

 

Brahmacharya Ashram

  • The first ashram is called brahmacharya ashram (the educational stage) from which the fourth varna, viz., Sudra and women of the first three varna are barred Brahmacharyashram ends (after studentship) at marriage. Celibacy is prescribed till marriage.

Grihasthashram

  • The second stage of life is called the grihasthashram.
  • During this a man rears a family, earns a living and performs his daily personal and social duties.

Vanaprastha ashram

  • Following this a man gradually enters the third stage of life called the vanaprashthashram. During this stage the householder relinquishes his duties in the household, and devotes his time to religious pursuits. His links with his family are weakened. During this ashram a man retires into the forest with or without his wife leaving behind the householder’s cares and duties.

Sanyasa ashram

  • The final phase of a Hindu’s life begins with the stage known as the sanyasashram. In this stage one attempts to totally withdraw oneself from the world and its cares by going to the forest and spending the rest of life in pursuit of moksha.
  • The four stages of a Hindu’s life just described are together called the varnashrama system. There is an ideal scheme, which correlates the vamashrama phases to ages at which a particular ashram begins. However, it is the endeavour that is important and not the age at which this begins.
  • Thus Hinduism permits young unmarried sanyasi, as well as those who never go beyond grihasthashrama.
  • Thus there is nothing compulsory about living life in the varnashram scheme. It is, however, highly recommended.
  • At present most Hindus do not systematically go through the varnashrama. They do, however, accept these stages to be the ideal ways in which a Hindu should spend his life.
  • Like the four varna, the four stages of life are models. In real life, we find that occupations associated with each varna are not followed precisely in accordance with what is written in the sacred texts.
  • Today a Brahman may be employed in a shoe company, selling shoes to all the customers irrespective of their varna or caste.
  • The Hindus are divided into castes or jati which are hereditary groups.

FESTIVALS AND PILGRIMAGES

  • Festivals, pilgrimages and other ceremonial occasions are usually linked with religion.
  • As such they show how both personal identity of the individuals as well as collective identity of the groups are highlighted by the patterns of interaction during these events. Festivals manifest the social cohesion and solidarity of the community.

Festivals

  • Most of the Hindu festivals are linked to the arrival of particular seasons. For example, the festival of Diwali marks the arrival of winter season while that of Holi signifies the beginning of summer season. Some festivals are associated with eclipses and movements of the heavenly bodies such as the moon and other planets.
  • Many festivals are held in the honour of the deities like Krishna, Siva, Durga, Lakshmi and Rama, e.g., Dussehra, Durgapuja, Janmashtami, etc.
  • Local festivals have their roots in the ecology of the region, celebrating myths associated with plants like coconuts, tulsi (basil), the sacred tree, or with animals, like elephants, snakes and monkeys.
  • There are regional festivals connected with the agricultural cycle such as the occasion of first ploughing, sowing or harvest. Among the artisans, carpenter, blacksmith and brass-workers, people worship the deity called Vishwakarma.
  • We shall not go into the ritualistic aspect of these festivals. The emphasis here is on the role these festivals play in social life of the people. During festivals, people in a locality get together and their participation in a common activity enhances their feeling of belonging to a community.
  • These occasions also provide the chance to people for buying and selling special commodities. By preparing special food and wearing special clothes, people bring about the feelings of freshness and change in their day-to-day life.
  • This regenerates them for carrying the routine activities. Recurrence of festivals and associated rituals strengthens their faith in the stability and integrity of their social order.
  • Festivals like Holi, Diwali and Dussehra are celebrated on a scale, which includes participation of Hindus as well as non-Hindus.
  • They provide occasions for a meeting across religions. Associated with festivals are fairs, which are held at prescribed times on a holy spot. Sometimes, fairs assume independent significance and attract the participation of cross-section of society. Some famous fairs such as the fair of Sonepur or Pushkar draw people from all over the country.
  • In these fairs, craftsmen bring their special artware, artists come to present their shows, agricultural surplus is brought for selling, brisk trading is carried on in cattle, horses, elephants.
  • Each fair is both a religious and a secular occasion and people participate in both with equal enthusiasm.

Pilgrimage

  • Not very different from a fair is a pilgrimage.
  • The cultural unity of the Hindus is expressed in the institution of pilgrimage.
  • When a pilgrim goes to the southern pilgrim centre at Rameshwaram, he or she also aspires to reach the northern end of the country, at Badrinath.
  • Most pilgrims also aspire to go to Puri in the east and to Dwarikanath in the west.
  • In these places of pilgrimage, there is often a fair being held during the periods pilgrims arrive in large numbers.
  • Generally, people go to these places in large groups. Such groups are mostly formed on the basis of kin relationships.
  • They may also include neighbours, friends and business partners.
  • Different sects of Hinduism have acquired pilgrim centres around the whole country over time.
  • Besides the four centres in the four directions, the Sakta sect has more than fifty centres of pilgrimage.
  • There are seven places of pilgrimage, dedicated to the Sun god, Surya. One of them is in Multan, in West Pakistan.
  • Despite linguistic, racial, and cultural differences, most Hindus undertake long and arduous journeys to the many varied pilgrim places. This adds an important dimension to their social life.
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