What is the essence of Hinduism

Lexicon of Religions:

With around one billion followers, Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world. There are a large number of Hindu beliefs, but all of them refer to the tradition of the Vedas. Vishnuism, Shaivism and Saktism are the main currents.

The term Hinduism denotes a multitude of different beliefs and teachings as well as different ideas about God. It is not a single, homogeneous religion, but a group of related but different religious traditions. They each practice their own customs, sometimes follow completely different philosophies and can even hold different views about the divine. That is why in science one speaks mostly in the plural of the "Hindu religions".

What they have in common is the reference to the oldest texts, the Vedas, a common cultural background and a certain social model, the caste system. This also includes the great importance of the religious ritual in the family and temple as well as the belief in rebirth. An essential element is also the belief in God in a personal or impersonal form and the great importance of the guru. These similarities apply to most Hindu groups, but there are exceptions to all points.

Three mainstreams and many subgroups

The designation of the three basic currents is derived from the name of the mainly worshiped deities: Vishnuiten (God Vishnu as the highest), Shivaiten (God Shiva as the highest) and the Shaktas (Shakti, the mother goddess, as the highest). These currents are in turn divided into different sects, each interpreting the basic Hindu texts and philosophies differently. Their various teachings refer to the basic texts of their respective founders or gurus. Despite all, sometimes considerable, differences in doctrine, in practical life of faith, the believers are usually not strictly separated from one another. People pray together and celebrate parties together.

From some of the reform movements within Hinduism, which rejected not only the caste system with the Brahaman priesthood, but also the authority of the Vedas, independent religions developed over time. These include, for example, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. If, from a scientific point of view, it is a question of one's own religions, in the consciousness of Indian society, as in Indian law, they count as variants of Hinduism.

High culture versus popular religions

Science distinguishes between two versions of Hinduism, whereby the boundaries are fluid: on the one hand, the dominant, supra-regional high culture, which refers to the old texts handed down in Sanskrit and whose priests traditionally come from the Brahmin caste, on the other hand, the popular folk culture that is limited to certain regions Traditions, so-called popular religions. These not only have their own priests, but also hold services in their own language.

The folk religions worship not only the high gods, such as Shiva, Vishnu, Devi, Rama, Krishna, and the elephant-headed Ganesha, but also other, mostly only regionally worshiped deities. These forms of worship of the popular religions are often considered impure by strict representatives of the high religion. Nevertheless, there is no sharp limit: in the practice of faith, mostly popular forms of Sankskrit Hinduism are mixed with elements of popular religion.

No supreme authority, numerous scriptures

Since Hinduism consists of completely different currents, no beliefs are equally valid for all Hindu religions. There is also no supreme authority that is binding on all believers. Heads are exclusively authoritative for the respective tradition. In addition to various oral and written traditions, the respective gurus are often important authorities. They can still be alive today as well as the spiritual teachers of history. In spite of all the diversity, however, the teachings must be in accordance with the most important Hindu scriptures, the Vedas.

The corpus of the sacred texts is very extensive. In addition to the Vedas, the later "Upanishads" are among the most important writings, both are considered revelations. Important works are also the two great epics "Ramayana" and the "Mahabharata", which contains the most popular of all Hindu scriptures, the "Bhagavadgita". A number of “Puranas” narrate stories of the gods, with a deity always in the center as the highest.

Formation over the millennia

Hinduism emerged on the Indian subcontinent over the millennia. In contrast to Islam, Hindus were those people who lived near the Indus River in today's Pakistan and who belonged to traditional religions. The denomination of religion, Hinduism in today's sense, did not gain acceptance until the 19th century through Western influence. A common name, especially in the middle class, is "sanatana dharma" (eternal law).

There is no agreement as to who is to be called a Hindu. On the Indian subcontinent, those who are born into a Hindu family are traditionally considered to be Hindu, as it is not only about religious beliefs, but also about social groups.

83 percent of all Hindus live in India

After Islam and Christianity, Hinduism is the third largest world religion, to which almost a billion (2012) people worldwide feel they belong. Except in the countries of origin India, where around 83 percent of the population are Hindus, as well as Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, Hindu religions are meanwhile also widespread in other parts of the world.

The most important countries with a large Hindu diaspora are Mauritius, Fiji, as well as the USA and Canada, South Africa due to immigration of Hindus looking for work by colonial labor migrants. In Europe, through colonial history, Hindus are mainly represented in Great Britain. Since the 20th century, Hindu religions have spread throughout the West through various missionary gurus.

More reviews on Hinduism

Other world religions in the ORF religious lexicon