iskcon and hinduism eng 6099

HINDUISM (Fact Sheet)
This article is provided by ISKCONInternational Society for Krishna Consciousness of Hong Kong
What is Hinduism?
Hinduism is a Western term which refers to the diverse religions and cultural traditions
stemming from the Vedas, the ancient Sanskrit writings of India. Followers themselves
would often prefer the term “Sanatan Dharma” (The Eternal Religion) indicating belief in
universal and everlasting truths. The tradition, therefore, has no clearly definable beginning,
though scholars date it back more than five thousand years ago. “Hinduism” doesn’t refer to
one particular religion but, rather, is a catchphrase for a group of religions, all with origins in
India. These religions share certain underlying teachings, and for the reason they are all
placed under the Hindu umbrella. Hinduism has no single founder and no common set of
beliefs and practices.
The name Hindu was given by the Persians invaders to refer to the various beliefs and
practices of the people living around or beyond the river Indus, then called the “Sindu”.
With the rise of Muslim domination it came to refer more specifically to those Indians who
were not Muslims.
Most scholars would agree on the Hindu’s common allegiance to the Vedas, or Vedic
scriptures, although the word Hindu never appears in these texts themselves. These two
terms, “Hindu” and “Hinduism” have become the most widely recognized and used terms to
identify the diverse cultural and religious traditions stemming from the ancient scriptures of
India, the Vedas.
Based largely on the 1920’s excavations at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, scholars of that era
believed that Hinduism’s root lie in the Indus Valley civilization which flourished, they say,
between 3000 and 1800 B.C.E.
A century after this civilization waned, the theory at the times stated that a nomadic Indo –
European tribe migrated into Northern India and brought with them the Vedic literature and
the religious tradition at the base of this literature. Together with the indigenous beliefs and
practices of India at that time Hinduism gradually grew into the conglomerate of religions
found in India today.
This view of the origins of Hinduism, however, is being questioned and debated in scholarly
circles. Some scholars are arguing the Aryan invasion never happened and that the Vedic
era, and hence the Vedic literature, are older than originally thought and that they are
indigenous to India.
Interestingly, Hinduism accommodates a good number of theological perspectives—with its
various religions espousing monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, and so on. It is thus
characterized by a rich variety of ideas and practices that can’t be confined by one particular
Of all the diversity of Hindu religious belief and practice the most prominent are
Vaishnavism, which refers to the worship of Vishnu/Krishna as the Supreme Godhead and is
monotheistic in its outlook; Shaivism, the veneration of Shiva, who is commonly known as
the God of destruction; and Shaktism, reverence for the Goddess, who is accepted as the
Mother of the Universe.
All varieties of Hinduism share certain traits, thus, according to expert consensus a religion
may properly be called a form of Hinduism if it has the following characteristics, or essential
1: Belief in the divinity of the Vedas, the world’s most ancient scripture, as well as faith in
the “fifth Veda,” or the epics and the Puranas, which are the main holy books of the
Hindu religion
2: Belief in one, all-pervasive Supreme reality, manifesting as both an impersonal force,
which is called Brahman, and as a personal divinity (known variously, according to
whichever particular tradition one adheres to)
3: Belief in the cyclical nature of the time—that there are world ages that repeat themselves
like seasons.
4: Belief in karma, the law of action and reaction, by which each person creates his or her
own destiny
5: Belief in reincarnation—that the soul evolves through many births until all past deeds
have been resolved, leading to ultimate liberation from the material world
6: Belief in alternate realities with higher beings—God and His manifold manifestations—
who can be accessed through temple worship, rituals, sacraments, and prayer
7: Belief in enlightened masters, or gurus—exemplary souls who are fully devoted to god
and who act as a conduit for others to reach Him
8: Belief in non-aggression and non-injury (ahimsa) as a way of showing love to all
creatures. This includes the idea of the sacredness of all life and its concomitant
universal compassion.
9: Belief that all revealed religions are essentially correct, as aspects of one ultimate reality,
and that religious tolerance is the hallmark of true wisdom
10: Belief that the living being is first and foremost a spiritual entity, a soul within the body,
and that the spiritual pursuit is consequently the essence and real purpose of life
11: Belief that an organic social system, traditionally called Varnashrama, is essential in the
proper and effective functioning of humankind, and that this system should be based on
intrinsic quality and natural aptitude as opposed to birthright.
All forms of Hindu religion will not always demonstrate adherence to these principles to the
same degree, or in the same way. The Varnashrama social system, to cite one example, is
rigidly enforced by some Hindu traditions, while vehemently rebelled against in others. The
worshippers of Vishnu, to cite another example, are generally strict supporters of non-injury
to sentient beings (ahimsa), taking it to the point of vegetarianism. Shaktas, or worshippers
of the Goddess, on the other hand, tend to deemphasize this principle and sometimes engage
in animal sacrifices and eat meat, although will always avoid beef, as the cow is considered
sacred by all Hindus. Overall, however, the 11 principles outlined previously are found in all
religions that call themselves Hindu, and so one can speak of an overarching Hindu tradition.
Although most Hindus believe in One Supreme (whether personal or impersonal in nature)
they advocate the existence of many lesser gods, or “demigods”. The demigods are the
equivalent, although on a universal scale, of ministers for various government departments,
i.e., water, electricity, finance, defense and so on. Demigods are thus said to be the
controlling deities for the functions of the universe. Examples of the more prominent
demigods are given below.
Durga (goddess of material nature)
Indra (god of rain)
Surya (sun-god)
Chandra (moon-god)
Ganesh (the remover of obstacles)
Yama (god of death)
Saraswati (goddess of learning)
Lakshmi (goddess of wealth)
Karttikeya (god of war)
Hindu Society
The Hindu social system is known as “Varnasrama”. Presently this system is largely based
upon family heritage and social hierarchy and has become infamously known as the “caste
system”. The scriptures, however, state that originally a person would be stationed in
society according to personal qualities, nature and behavior, rather than birth. The
Varnasrama system is a socio-religious system for social organization that aims for the best
possible placement of individuals within society, in both a material and spiritual context.
The four varnas are decided by nature and qualities with the corresponding occupations
being given accordingly. The four varnas are:
Brahmin (the priests, teachers and scholars)
Kshatriya (the administrators, leaders)
Vaishya (the farmers and merchants)
Shudras (the craftsmen and workers)
According to Vedic society there are four spiritual orders and stages in life known as
asramas. Whilst the “varna” refers to a person’s occupational position in life the “asrama”
refers to a person’s spiritual/religious position in life.
Brahmachari (celibate student life)
Grihastha (married life)
Vanaprashta (retired life)
Sannyasa (renounced life)
The varna and asrama system are not exclusive of each other but rather make up a holistic
system of social and personal organization directed to both material and spiritual growth.
Rituals, Sacraments and Worship
Wherever Hindus find themselves, they perform certain rituals and ceremonies that mark
them as distinctly Hindu. These ceremonies are performed at particularly pivotal points in a
Hindu’s life. There are up to sixteen such pivotal ceremonies in a Hindu’s life, although not
every Hindu will perform them all. These ceremonies are something like the equivalent of
the Christian sacraments and are known in Sanskrit as samskaras, or rites of passage. These
rites are clearly formulated rituals meant to help a person progress spiritually and mark
various stages in a Hindu’s life.
Examples of such sacraments are the naming of the child; the feeding of first grains to the
child (celebrated between the 3rd and 6th month of the child’s birth); piercing of the ears
(done in the 3rd or 5th year of the child’s life); a ceremony ensues when studies are
completed; the Hindu marriage ceremony would be one of the most important of the
sacraments and is an elaborate ritual sometimes taking a week to perform. The funeral is the
final sacrament and generally takes place with the cremation of the body of the deceased.
This is followed by the ashes being dispersed in a holy river. This is symbolic of the body
returning to the elements from which it came.
Much ritual is also performed during the daily worship undertaken by a Hindu. This worship
takes place in three different arenas: in the home, in a temple and/or at a road side shrine.
Road side shrines are primarily found in India, whilst most religious life is performed at
home along with regular visits to the temples. Most Hindu homes will have a room or a
special section of their dwelling for worship. Such worship is call “puja” and is centered on
an image or picture of God (in any of His or Her manifestations) and a picture of their guru,
or spiritual teacher as well.
The scriptures that describe the process of worship divide it into five categories, or parts, of
activity. These categories are interrelated and interdependent. Home worship is necessarily
very simple, whilst temple worship will be somewhat more formal and complex and will
strictly adhere to the five parts that comprise the process of worship. The five parts are as
1) Approaching the temple includes such preliminary functions as bathing, putting on clean
clothes, ornamenting the body with sacred markings, tilaka, cleaning the temple, or room
where the Deity is worshipped, and the cleansing of the articles of worship.
2) Gathering articles for worship entails collecting and gathering all the items of
worship,i.e.,flowers, holy leaves, garlands, utensils for worship and so on.
3) Establishing and becoming fixed in one’s spiritual identity prepares oneself spiritually for
the worship of the Deity. This will include purification by sipping water and chanting
mantras, worship of the spiritual master/teacher and the chanting of prayers that remind
one of one’s spiritual nature.
4) The actual worship of the Deity wherein the Deity, in its image is actually bathed,
dressed and decorated. Food is offered, followed by a worship ceremony called arati. The
most commonly performed act of worship is arati, the procedure of which is briefly given
Arati/worship ceremony
a) Begin by cleaning oneself, by bathing if possible, or at least washing one’s hand,
mouth and feet.
b) Perform acamana/ purification by sipping water and chanting mantras.
c) Prepare arati paraphernalia.
d) Offer obeisances to the spiritual master and ask for his permission to worship the
e) Request the deity/ies permission to begin the service.
f) Perform the arati/ceremony.
g) After finishing pay obeisances to both the Deity, begging for forgiveness, and the
spiritual master, thanking him for the allowing one to do the service.
h) Clean arati paraphernalia.
A full arati will have a tray with seven items that are to be offered by waving the items in
a circular motion in front of the deity. This ceremony begins and ends with the blowing of
a large conch shell. The sound of the conch shell is said to bring auspiciousness and
announce the beginning and end of the ceremony. The seven items to be offered are as
follows, 1) incense, 2) lamp, 3) conch shell (small) for offering the sacred water, 4) small
cloth for, 5) tray with flowers, 6) chamara, 7) peacock fan.
5) The fifth and final aspect of worship is the general cultivation of spiritual practice, which
takes part throughout the day and throughout one’s life. Worship is thus not considered
to be something that is performed segregated from the rest of one’s daily life but is rather
part of a holistic life that incorporates spiritual practices and material duties.
ISKCON-The International Society for Krishna Consciousness
This article is provided by ISKCONInternational Society for Krishna Consciousness of Hong Kong
When His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada entered the port of
New York City on September 17, 1965 at the age of 69, with just seven dollars in Indian
rupees and his translations of ancient Sanskrit texts, few Americans took notice. He was not,
however, merely another immigrant. He was on a mission to introduce an ancient religion,
which originated in India, into mainstream America and thereafter around the world.
With his translations of the ancient Sanskrit texts Srila Prabhupada began to share the
timeless wisdom of Krishna consciousness. His message of peace, goodwill and developing
love of God resonated with many young people. On July 11, 1966, he officially registered
his organization in the state of New York, formally founding the International Society for
Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), which is also popularly known as the Hare Krishna
ISKCON traces its spiritual lineage directly to the speaker of the Bhagavad-gita (a
foundational Hindu text) Lord Krishna, who is revered as the Supreme Personality of
Godhead. The text teaches that the goal of life is to develop love of God, or Krishna. Love of
God is realized through the practice of bhakti-yoga, the science of devotional service.
In the latter part of the 15th century, a saint named Chaitanya Mahaprabhu revitalized the
bhakti-yoga tradition by introducing an expansive spiritual movement that swept India.
Central to this renaissance was Chaitanya’s emphasis on the chanting of Krishna’s name.
Underlying this simple practice was a profound and comprehensive theology. Hare Krishna
devotees worship Lord Chaitanya as an incarnation of Krishna for this age, and ISKCON is a
vibrant continuation of the movement Chaitanya began.
In the eleven years that followed the founding of ISKCON in 1966, Srila Prabhupada circled
the globe 14 times, bringing the teachings of Lord Krishna to thousands of people on six
continents. Under his inspiration, Krishna devotees established temples, rural communities,
educational institutions and restaurants in cities all over the world. He also started what
would become the world’s largest vegetarian food relief program. He spearheaded a rival of
the Vaisnava tradition in its home, India, by opening a number of large temples and teaching
extensively throughout the country. ISKCON has since grown into a worldwide
confederation of over one million members, from a variety of backgrounds. Today there are
more than 400 Hare Krishna temples across six continents.
Srila Prabhupada's most significant contributions, perhaps, are his books. He authored over
70 volumes on the Krishna tradition, which are highly respected by scholars for their
authority, depth, fidelity to the tradition, and clarity. Several of his works are used as
textbooks in numerous college courses. His writings have been translated into 76 languages.
His most prominent works include: Bhagavad-gita As It Is, the 30-volume SrimadBhagavatam, and the 17-volume Sri Caitanya-caritamrita.
Website references
Reference book:
Rosen. S J, ed, Bailey. L, W, (2006). Introduction to the World's Major Religions: Hinduism.
Westport : Greenwood Press.