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The Hindu Scriptures
Cyclic Existence
The Caste System
Spirituality and Stages of Life

The Hindu Scriptures

The ultimate canonical authority for all Hindus are the four Wikipedia link Vedas. The oldest of which, the Rg-Veda, consisting of over a thousand sacred hymns, was composed (at leats in their present form) in northwest India probably between 1300 and 1000 b.c.e., although traditional Hindus put the date as far more ancient. (see Age of Vedas)  It was supplemented by the Yajur- and Sama-Vedas, and finally the Atharva-Veda was added perhaps around 900 BC. As well as magical spells the Atharva-Veda contains alternative medicinal techniques that are now becoming acknoelwedge in the alternative medicine of the West.

As with the sacred texts of the Judao-Christian-Islamic family of religions, the Vedas (including the Brahmanas (priestly commentaries) and the Upanishads (mystical treatises)) are considered the infallible word of Divinity, or sruti, “what has been heard [from the gods]”, and no syllable can be changed.  The practical compendium of Hinduism is contained in the Smriti, or “what is remembered,” which is also orally preserved, but which can however be altered or revised.  Included in the Smriti are the two great Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, as well as the various Puranas, and other writings.

Levels of Meaning in Holy Scripture: Vedic
Levels of Meaning in Holy Scripture: Judaic and Vedic
by Dr. Thomas Hickey

Cyclic Existence

According to Hinduism and the heterodox Indian religions, existence is cyclic rather than (in the Judeao-Christian and secular West) linear.  In fact there is an endless series of cycles in the Indian cosmologies.

Time is both degenerative - going from the golden age, or Krita Yuga, through two intermediate periods of decreasing goodness, to the present age, or Kali Yuga (a similiar cosmologyw as propounded by Hesiod, and the Kali Yuga has been confouned with hesiod's "Iron Age") - and cyclic: at the end of each Kali Yuga, the universe is destroyed by fire and flood, and a new golden age begins.

Personal existnce is cyclic as well.  After death, the soul leaves the body and is reborn in the body of another person, animal, vegetable, or mineral. This process of endless entanglement in activity and rebirth is called samsara.  The precise quality of the new birth is determined by the accumulated merit and demerit that result from all the actions, or karma, that the soul has committed in its past life or lives. Karma accrues in this way; they also believe, however, that it can be counteracted by expiations and rituals, by “working out” through punishment or reward, and by achieving release (moksha) from the entire process of samsara through the renunciation of all worldly desires.

The Caste System

One of the most misunderstood aspects of Hinduism is the so-called "caste system" (jati). This has to be distinguished from varna, "colour". Some have suggested this was originally a racist term used by the Aryan (Indo-European) invaders who wrote the Vedas to distinguish themselves from the dark-skinned indiginous inhabitants. However it could also be argued that this theory is far fetched, because among the Dravidians or the darkest of all Indians have emerged some of the greatest of all Hindu saints and philosphers including the great Adi Shankaracharya.

There are four varnas - the Brahmans (priests and intellectuals), the Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers); the Vaishyas (artisans), and the Shudras, or workers (originally servants).  These castes reflect the social stratification or personality types, stemming from the tripartite division of ancient Indo-European society (priest, warrior, and general populace), as evidenced in Greece and Rome, e.g. the Republic of Plato, where the ideal society consists of Philosophers who rule through wisdom, Warriors, and the masses (who were the only ones allowed to own property).  The four varnas are said to spring from the differnt parts of the Primordial Man (Purusha).  Each varna containing hundreds of gradations or castes.  According to this one is condemned to the caste one is born into, cannot marry outside it, can only do certain employment, eat certain food, etc.  The unhappiest of all are Harijans, or "Untouchables", who lack a caste altogether, and whose mere presence was  considered polluting to other castes (It shoudl be pointed out that non-Hindu e.g. westerners, are also technically Harijans or casteless).  Reformers like Gautama Buddha, various Tantrics, and Mahatma Gandhi, have through the ages condemned the caste system, and nowadays things are slowly changing and the caste sytem is being reinterprted.  I have also been told that one's caste is not something one is born into but corresponds to one's aptitudes and vocation in life, and that the fatalistic socially-entrenched application of the caste system is a distortion of the original truth.

Spirituality and Stages of Life

The spiritual aspect of Hinduism is known as the sanatana dharma (the ancient, or eternal, dharma).  Central to this is the tenet of ahimsa, or non-harmfulness, the absence of a desire to injure, which forms the ethical basis for vegetarianism  Ahimsa is also a central tenet of the heterodox Indian religions like Buddhism and Jainism.

The Bhagavad-Gita describes three paths to religious realization. To the path of works, or karma (originally sacrificial and ritual acts, but more recently applied to selfless work without desire for the fruits of one's labours, or for the service of God), and the path of knowledge, or jnana (e.g. the monistic Upanishadic and Vedantic realisation of the Self), and the path of devotion to God, or bhakti, a religious ideal that came to combine and transcend the other two paths.

Bhakti in a general form can be traced in the epics and even in some of the Upanishads, but its fullest statement appears only after the Bhagavad-Gita, gaining momentum from the vernacular poems and songs to local deities, particularly those of the Alvars, Nayanars, and Virashaivas of southern India and the Bengali worshipers of Krishna.

The spiritual aspect of Hinduism represent the fourth (and final) stage and goal of life.  In Hinduism there are four stages of life (ashramas), and four “goals of a man” (purusharthas).  The ashramas are the chaste student (brahmachari), the householder (grihastha), and the forest-dweller (vanaprastha), and the renouncer (sannyasi).  The purusharthas are artha (material success), dharma (righteous social behavior), and kama (sensual pleasures), and liberation or release from samsara (moksha).

This was later modified into:

1. A Brahmacharya : a person walking the path of brahmaan. He takes the vow of chastity(never to indulge in sex), Non attachment to money or any place. Sanyaas (being alone) is a small part of the brahmacharya's life - the terms are not synonynous.

2. Householder (grahasti) : a person who marries and along with his wife, walks the path of dharma.  He has to take care of his family and also do social work for the society.

Obviously, there have been quite a few disputes between advocates of both the paths, on which is better.  However, Vivekananda and most vedantists are of the opinion that both are great in their own place.

These themes are not unique to Hinduism.  Carl Jung speaks of two stages, establishing oneself in the world (the first half of life) and attuning more to the spiritual (the second half).  The American adept Da Free John (Adidam) has seven stages of life, which loosely correspond to the seven chakras.

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page by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 23 October 1999