Sanatan Dharm or Hinduism is world’s third largest, oldest, about a billion-strong and dominant Asian religion. It is next only to Christianity and Islam in the world. It is most powerfully present in India, with thousands-years old history running to 2000 BC, which gives it a strong 4000-years presence.
The word Sanatan means ‘eternal’, ‘perennial’, or ‘forever’, thus Sanatan signifies a dharm that neither has a beginning nor an end.
The followers of Santana dharma followers have been called ‘Hindus’ by outsiders who recognised them as an ancient civilisation across the river ‘Sindhu’. They inhibited and spread all over the Indus river valley in the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent. The word ‘Hindu’ has been derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Sindhu’ meaning the ‘Indus’ river in the north-western part of the Indian subcontinent consisting of modern-day Pakistan and Northern India. Hinduism refers to the religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions native to Hindustan (India). By 13th century, the name ‘Hindustan’ came into being which meant “the land of Hindus”.
Related terms such as ‘Hinduka’ were used by Kashmir Rajatarangini (Hinduka) in 1450 AD. Other references are the 16th – 18th century Bengali (Indian regional language) Gaudiya Vaishnava texts such as Chaitanya Charitamrita and Chaitanya Bhagavata. There is a strong sense of unity and feeling among Hindus from the very dawn of their civilisation 4000 years ago.
About 90 per cent population of India consider themselves Hindus while the rest belong to other beliefs, faiths and spiritual categories. Approximately 30 million Hindus live outside India and in different parts of the world such as Europe, US and Canada.
The Sanatan Dharm followers or Hindus do not have specific founder, a date or text marking its beginning or origin and they believe it to be eternal and beyond human beings. Some followers believe that the cosmos is full of divine or spiritual beings or ‘Devtas’ who interact with humans and directly influence the world.
Hinduism includes complex religious, philosophical and social structure. They believe in the holy trinity of ‘Brahma’, ‘Vishnu’, and ‘Shiv’. Hindus can be followers of Vishnu or Shiv in particular but all believe in the existence of Brahma or the supreme reality behind all that is. The devotees of God Shiv are called ‘Shaiv’, devotees of Vishnu are called ‘Vaishnavs’, devotees of goddess are called ‘Shakta’ and the ones who know and understand the ultimate nature or form of the divine to be abstract, all-pervading and all-encompassing or Brahma are called ‘Samarth’.
Hindus have distinct philosophical and intellectual views and not a set of rigid belief system. In general, Hindus have wide range of laws and traditions which are followed by all. The concept of karma, dharma and societal norms play pivotal roles in the life of Hindus. They believe in the result of karma (the universal law of cause and effect) on merit. The concept of karma is wide which states that even thoughts affect the present and future lives.
There is emphasis on the eternal duties and traits which all have to follow regardless of class, caste, sects and include duty, commitment, and honesty, absence of violence, purity, goodwill, self-restraint and compassion among others. It refers to the “eternal” duties all Hindus have to follow, regardless of class, caste, or sect, such as honesty, refraining from injuring living beings, purity, goodwill, mercy, patience, forbearance, self-restraint, generosity, and asceticism. Sanatan dharm has become synonymous with ‘eternal’ truth and teachings of Hinduism. Hinduism is much more than the concept of dharm or religion and encapsulates the perfect way of living life and the fulfilment of eternal harmonious principles.
Hindus have four Puru??rthas or aims of human life that are – Dharma or duties, Arth or source of livelihood, Kam or sex and Moksha or liberation from the cycle of rebirth and death. There are various paths or practices to attain Moksh. Hindus involve themselves in daily puja (worship), recitation of mantras (holy rhymes), meditation, pilgrimages, annual festivals and celebrations whereas some practice Sanyas (leaving social and material possessions and practicing ascetic life in inhibited mountainous, forest areas) for Moksh.
Hindus offer devotion to various purposes such as devotion to a particular God or gods, devotion to one’s duties which could be towards his or her profession, family, mediation or any other primary responsibility.
Hindu texts have the concepts of Shruti and Smriti which contain philosophy, theology, mythology, rituals, temple building, yagyas and many others which form strong foundations of the ancient religion. The prominent holy scriptures include Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, Ramayan, Bhagvad Gita etc., among which the Vedas and Upanishads are Shruti and others are Smriti.
All Hindus recognise Vedas as authority which are a collection of ancient sacred scriptures. Among the first texts of Hindus are those relating to the rituals dedicated to numerous gods and goddess who represent different forces of Nature. But a different approach began around 700 BC which was philosophical in Nature and included the Upanishads and the Vedanta philosophy. Some other faiths also emerged out of Hinduism such as Buddhism and Jainism during the course of time which was Hinduism only earlier.
Hinduism started gaining popularity in other parts of the world such as in the West because of its unique worldview philosophy of diversity and peace. It began during the 20th century and by the turn of the century it had a powerful presence in the West because it had offered an attractive alternative to Western faith. There were popular Hindu movements in different parts of the West such as Hare Krishna and New Age.
They influenced the thinking of that part of the world strongly and the result was the formation of various cults. Hinduism had directly influenced that part of the world and there were incorporations of Hindu and Indian beliefs, practices in the thinking and philosophy of the West. The ancient Indian system of Yoga and Chakra became prominent and were an essential part of religious and books, spiritual congregations and seminars organised on health, spirituality and religion.
There have been modernisation movements also during the 19th century Bharat (India) which saw philosophers, educationists and social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Vivekananda, Sarvapalli Radha Krishnan and Mahatma Gandhi. These were the people who reasserted Hinduism after a gap of a few centuries and established it back as the major asset and basis of Hindu civilisation.
They reversed some western ways which had crept into the Hindu system of living and constructed the glory of the world’s most ancient civilisation back. The focus was again back to the original Hindu teaching of universalism and these changes influenced the Western world and their way of believing and thinking. Hindu teachings were exported to the West where they became an important cultural force. Different and new ways of solving social problems were introduced by them.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy introduced many transforming changes in the society and influenced Swami Vivekananda who induced many revolutionary ideas in Hindu philosophy and established a new system of thinking which had many followers.
Swami Vivekananda later founded the Ram Krishna Mission which made Hinduism most popular and laid the foundation of global Hinduism. Sarvapalli Radha Krishnan was one of India’s finest scholars to engage Indian and Western philosophy and presented Hinduism as essentially a rational and logical religious approach devoid of national boundaries. These historical figures made the religion transcend all boundaries between world societies.
Hinduism reflects a philosophy or tradition of a complex, organic and multileveled system. It has evolved with time and includes different concepts, beliefs, systems, ideologies and philosophies. But the fundamental concept of creation, sustenance and destruction of the universe by the holy trinity remains common to all. All Hindus base their faith in the holy texts and scriptures of the Vedas.
Hinduism recognises several divine beings subordinate to the Supreme Being. It believes in the existence of atman or the soul or self and rebirth (reincarnation) of one’s atma and immortality of Karma or actions and personal duty or Dharma. Dharma is the most significant goal of a human being which includes his or her conduct including duties and virtues or the right way of living according to the law which has made the universe and life possible.
Arth is the virtuous pursuit of wealth for livelihood, economic prosperity and financial security. Kama means the desire, wish, passion or longing for the pleasure of the senses, enjoyment of life, sex and love. Hinduism regards pursuance of kam as an essential and healthy goal of life when practiced according to dharm. Moksh is the final and most important aim of human life.
It is considered to be a state without any sorrow or suffering and liberation from the cycle of life and death. It is associated with the freedom from all suffering in afterlife as understood by the theists while in some schools, it is realised as earthly or worldly goal only which is achievable in the present life through self-realisation and knowing the whole universe as the self.
There are several Yogas in Hinduism which have been taught by the sages for reaching certain goals. This discipline of exercise and specific or exact physical postures trains the body from various angles. It helps train the body for better health, peace of mind and spiritual insight by controlling one’s mind and body.
It requires high degree and long term tough practice and perseverance to attain the desires goals. The Yogic texts include Yog sutras, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, The Bhagvad Gita and the Upanishads, which is the philosophical and historical basis of Yoga. Yoga is a means for better and improved life which includes Bhakti Yog, Karm Yog, R?j Yoga and Gyan Yoga. One can practice single or more than one type of yoga depending upon his or her interest.
Hindus worship in Mandir (Temple). It is regarded as Devsthan or Ishwar’s (God’s) place and can be of various gods, goddesses or deities. Hindus engage in Puja (worship) at Mandirs with Mantras (sacred recitation) and rituals. The procedure of worshipping different deities varies. These sacred places have a primary deity, together with other subordinate deities. Hindus regularly visit these holy places and offer Puja to different deities. They perform or offer Puja at home or Mandir. At home, they establish shrines with Murtis (statues or icons) of their traditional or chosen God.
Vedas are the oldest and most sacred texts of Hindus. Rig-Veda says that the hymns or mantras were composed by seers in the ancient times who had visualised them during meditation. But they were termed as not being composed by humans during the post Vedic period. These mantras are recited during holy and religious ceremonies and other auspicious occasions in Hindu households. The various spiritual and philosophies that developed in India have different approaches towards the holy texts of Vedas.
The mainstream thought considers them to the original and ultimate authority on Hinduism. But there are other peripheral branches of beliefs which have other beliefs and primarily include Buddhism and Jainism. These branches neither accept nor deny the authority of Vedas and are termed ‘heterodox’ or ‘non-Vedic’ by the mainstream Hindu schools.
Vedas are divided into four collections that are – The Rig-Ved, The Samved, The Yajurved and The Atharvaved which are composed in the form of shlokas or hymns and sutras or instructions. Rig-Ved addresses gods and has ancient mythology and Vedic rituals and practices. Sam Veda, Yajurved and Atharvaved; all consist of hymns from The Rig-Ved for different purposes. Samved contains sacred recitations at soma sacrifice. The Yajurved has hymns and prose for rituals and instructions. The Atharvaved has prose against sorcerers, enemies, diseases and corrections regarding mistakes committed during rituals. They also contain household ceremonies, rites and spiritual knowledge.
Upanishads are primarily philosophical texts and contain shashtrarth or discussions on philosophy and impart knowledge. Upanishad literally means ‘sitting near, laying siege to a teacher’ for gaining wisdom and knowledge. These are part of Shruti or the ‘heard’ knowledge which included detailed accounts of debates on philosophical topics between early Sages and seers. Upanishads number at 200, and out of them, 13 are considered as primary texts.
The Bhagavad Gita
The Bhagavad Gita is one of primary holy and sacred text of Hindus which teaches the rules of the world. It is a collection of teachings which God Shri Krishna gave to the Pandav warrior prince, Arjun at the time of the epical battle of Mahabharata. It consists of 700 verses and is an ancient Sanskrit epic regarding Arjun’s philosophical and spiritual queries and depicts the ethical and moral struggles of human life.
Bhagavad Gita clears all confusions or illusions (Maya) that engulf the human mind and calls for selfless action. This teaching for selfless action inspired leaders of the Indian independence movement such as Gandhi. Bhagavad Gita has been interpreted by various people including Adi Shankaracharya who, in the 8th century, was the first to comment on it.
R?m?ya?am or Ramayan is a Sanskrit epic as told to the Hindu sage and Sanskrit poet, Valmiki. Ramayan and Mahabharat are Hinduism’s two great ancient creations. Ramayan has characters like Rama as the epitome of duty and ideal qualities and teaches man’s duties towards relationships, duties as a an ideal king, duties as an ideal father, duties as an ideal son and duties as an ideal husband. It is a collection of duties as Rama’s journey in life. It consists of 24000 verses composed under seven kands (or stages). There are also 500 sargas or cantos which tell about Rama as the avatar of God Vishnu.
It tells about the abduction of ram’s wife Sita by the king of Lanka. Ramayana has been a source of great inspiration for all through ages spanning thousands of years. During the course of Hindu civilisation, it has produced many heroes who have sacrificed themselves for others and bigger causes of humanity and values.
The holy Hindu scripture is about human values, duties, relationships, ideals, dharma and duty. It had deep and profound influence on Sanskrit poetry and Hindu way of life, values and culture. Ramayana is not just a story but proceeds in a conversational manner while interpreting dharma through philosophical themes spared in between.
The prominent characters of the epic include Rama, Sita, Lakshman, Hanuman and Ravan which form the part of cultural identity of countries in south Asia such as India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Southeast Asia countries of Indonesia and Thailand. This epical literature has been translated into multiple languages like Indonesian, Thai, Cambodian, Malaysian, Filipino and Burmese.
The Puranas are a huge collection of stories and allegory. Among them, eighteen are ‘Mahapuran’ and nineteen are Upapuranas. The ‘Mahapuran’ constitute an authority on gods and goddesses, religious ceremonies and rites, and the teerth-sthans or the holy places on earth or Bharat.