We accept Hinduism as the oldest extant religion in the world today. It is also the third biggest with more than a billion followers. Yet, many, including my own friends who identify as Hindu, do not understand and appreciate Hinduism for what it is. In this article, I would like to explain Hinduism briefly from its philosophies to theology to its texts.
The first thing to understand about Hinduism is that it is not only a religion. I can explain this better using the example of Yoga. Many people first getting introduced to Yoga think it is only about holding poses and exercise. But Yoga is much more than that. Poses or Asanas are only one of the eight aspects of attaining Yoga. Similarly, religion is only one aspect of Hinduism. Just like a person looking at Yoga poses may understand Yoga only as Asanas, a person looking at Hindu rituals may imagine Hinduism to be only a religion. But it is in fact an amalgamation of philosophy, religion, science, and culture.
The words Hindu and Hinduism are themselves foreign. If you had asked any person worshiping a Hindu god in the 14th century about his religion, they may have given you a blank stare. Or they would have called themselves a Shiva Bakth, Vishnu Bakth, or simply as being dharmic. When foreigners wrote about India, they gave the name Hindus to the large population living on the land east of the river Indus. In their view, they saw the practices and customs these Hindus followed as similar and branded it as Hinduism.
We need to understand here that this Hinduism developed organically. Even the Vedas dating back 3500 years do not mark the beginning of Hinduism. There’s no single founder like other religions. And nobody gave structure to it in a way like Patanjali gave Yoga with his seminal work. Many of the philosophies, cultural practices, and religious thinking of Hinduism existed before the Vedas. Just like how many aspects of Yoga philosophy existed before Patanjali. There is also evidence of people worshiping animal and human forms long before the Vedas.
Some gods mentioned in the Vedas like Indira, Agni, and Vayu were part of the culture of those who developed key concepts in Hinduism. Over time, many philosophers, religious figures, and texts have given Hinduism some sort of a loose structure developing over the existing framework. So I ask you to imagine Hinduism as an opensource framework that came into existence some 3500 years ago. By combining all the cultures, religions, and philosophies existing in a geographical space called Bharata.
In an opensource project of today, people of different expertise contribute to make it bigger, or refine it, or branch it into different projects based on their ideas. Similarly, Hinduism has allowed various philosophers, religious figures, and cultural icons to take from it, change it, develop it, or repackage it into what suits their ideals and needs. This has developed different interrelated schools of thought, philosophy, and religion. Buddhism is an excellent example of how Hindu philosophy, culture, and terminology helped develop a distinct religion by a religious figure.
Religions under Hinduism are many. It even accepts being non-religious. For example, I question the existence of god as someone creating and controlling the universe. You may call me an agnostic person. But I am still a Hindu. Other people who call themselves as Hindu will largely accept me as a Hindu. An atheist can be a Hindu too. For atheism is one of the principal schools of Hinduism. This surprises many Hindus themselves conditioned by western and contemporary ideas of Hinduism. Even though they accept fellow atheist Hindus without even thinking about it. Other major religions conservatively do not accept anyone if they deny belief in their founders, gods, or principles.
In Hinduism, there are not one but four primary schools of Atheism. They are the Nastika schools of Hindu philosophy: Carvaka, Ajivika, Jainism, and Buddhism. Some of them developed into religions like Jainism and Buddhism and continue to this day. Among theistic traditions of Hinduism, there are six major schools: Samkhya, Nyaya, Yoga, Vaisheshika, Mimasa, and Vedanta. All of them, and especially Vedanta, helped develop the various common religious practices of Hindus today. We collectively call these practices as Sanatana Dharma, knitting together the cultural fabric of Hindus.
Vedanta school also became the major religious school of thought in Hinduism. It helped develop the various religious traditions like Shaivism, Vaishnavism, and Shaktism each having its own primary god and philosophy. For Hindus, belonging to one of these religious traditions is like following a religion like Islam or Christianity. For example, a Hindu following Shaivism may not marry someone following Vaishnavism, may not go to the same temples, and won’t pray to the same gods. But their Sanatana Dharma will be more or less similar.
This is another very important thing to learn about Hinduism. All the schools of Hinduism share from each other. We can call no school as purely heterodox or orthodox. Such classifications are recent western constructs to define Hindu schools of philosophy and religion. For example, Vaisheshika school of Hinduism proposes that perception and inference are the primary ways to understand the universe, just like Buddhism did later. Thus making it scientific, and its philosophies helped develop much of Hindu science. Yet it upholds the Vedas, making it a theist school compared to Buddhism. So it is very difficult to silo a Hindu philosophy or any Hindu into a rigid definition.
My friend who goes to Church and prays to Jesus calls himself a Hindu. Most Hindus will accept him, though a fundamentalist, narrow-minded sect of Hindus won’t these days. And they seem to grow in number thanks to influence of media. I hope this brief introduction to Hinduism will help them see the bigger picture on Hinduism. Though, I must warn that by very definition, Hinduism allows such fundamentalist religious sects to develop and flourish under its banner. They have always existed alongside mainstream open minded Hindus and will continue to do so. And some vested interests use them to portray all of Hinduism in bad light manipulating people’s ignorance.
From philosophy and theology, let’s come to Hindu texts. Hinduism does have a huge volume of written texts. Probably the highest in the world by some estimates. Sadly, much of them stored in magnificent libraries of great Hindu and Buddhist universities like Taxila and Nalanda were plundered and destroyed by invading forces of different religions. Fortunately, Hinduism maintains an oral tradition that makes it easy to rewrite some of the lost knowledge under Shruthi. Which is one of the six main categories under which Hindu texts fall. The others are Smruthi, Puranam, Ithihasam, Agamam, and Siddhantam.
Under Shruthi (or the knowledge directly coming from the universe), we have the Vedas, their Vedangas, Vedantas (including Upanishads), and Upavedas. These cover everything from Hindu philosophy, metaphysics, theology, to science, economics and even healthcare under Ayurveda. Under Smruthi (or knowledge inferred by humans), we have eighteen major works written by various sages in different times dealing with practical applications of the knowledge in Shruthi. Always remember much of Hindu works are lost (with some even secretly stored in western universities) and what we have now may only be the tip of an iceberg.
There are many Puranas explaining everything from the Hindu creation of cosmos in Sargah Purana to genetic lineages in Vamsa Purana. Ithihasam or history is preserved in Ramayana and Mahabharata. They are in my view meant to be opensource books which need to be updated by scholars in prescribed poetic style. But haven’t been done so for many centuries now. Hopefully someone will soon come up with a new epic from the end of Mahabharata once they understand this. And a new epic will be added to ithihasa defining the current age.
Agamams and Siddhantams are prescribed traditional knowledge on anything ranging from rituals, theology, epistemology, to building temples and calculating eclipses as prescribed in Surya Siddhanta. They are a rich source of mathematical and scientific knowledge.
If you like to understand Hinduism further, I would encourage you to read about Hindu Philosophies I have mentioned before. Understand what each of the main six theist and four atheist philosophies teach and preach. Understand how each of these schools of philosophy and their texts created and affected the juggernaut called Hinduism now.
But always keep in mind the opensource nature of Hinduism with its liberal mixing of ideologies and theologies. Successive generations have contributed to Hinduism, creating layers of thought just like they have done so to Hindu epics and texts. Hinduism as a theological and metaphysical framework embraces polytheism, agnosticism, chaos, and contradictions.
Remember, one of the first texts of Hinduism asks nearly 3500 years ago, and I am paraphrasing:
Where did all this creation come from? May be there’s a creator who created it. May be he didn’t. Or may be, he doesn’t exist.