Hindu Rituals

When I first introduced the concept of karma I mentioned that its original meaning was ritual action, later it acquired moral connotations. I talked in another article about how rebirth might be improved by following the moral law. Now it is time to explore how positive karma may be produced by meritorious religious activity. Participating in these activities creates the karmic merit that yields favorable future lives.

The Daily Rituals

Almost all Hindus practice daily rituals of some sort, depending on caste, family custom and geographical region. A typical pious householder would rise before the sun and utter the name of his personal god, his ishta devata. He touches the earth and then bows to the images of the deities in his room. Almost every Hindu home contains sacred images of the gods, particularly of those who one is most devoted.

The guidelines for rituals prescribe a bath. This is widely practiced. Besides serving the purposes of hygiene, the bath helps to remove pollution that one might accumulate during the course of a day. After this, one applies forehead markings using color paste to indicate one’s devotion to a particular god and to a religious community. These markings are important, without them rituals are ineffective.

Following the bath, the householder recites a morning prayer comprised mainly of the repetition of an ancient mantra, called the Gayatri Mantra. This prayer is repeated daily by million of Hindus. This is followed by hymns, readings from sacred texts, worship performed by burning incense and prostrating. This form of worship is known as puja. Varied forms of puja are prescribed by each religious community. The morning rituals are followed by similar but less elaborate rites that happen at noon and at the evening.

The Rituals for the Stages of Life

Hindus celebrate and ritualize the moments of transition in the life of an individual. These events are more than just occasions for individuals. They are intended for the entire community to recognize the significant changes that individual members undergo. Hindus mark the changes of life with a series of celebrations known as samskaras. Some Hindu communities observe as many as sixteen different samskaras. The most significant ones for all Hindus are those that concern birth, initiation, marriage and death.

The rituals of birth include samskaras that are celebrated before and after the child arrives. Some Hindus conduct a “parting of the hair” ritual to ensure a safe and healthy pregnancy. For this rite, the husband parts his wife’s hair and applies red powder to protect her and the child from evil spirits. Ten days after the child is born a naming ceremony is performed. Even the first haircut, when the child is about three, is frequently the occasion for a ritual.

Initiation usually occurs when a child reaches the teen years. We already discussed the initiation of upper caste boys. As you may recall, the initiation marked a boy’s second birth and his entrance into student-hood. Although the orthodox traditions of the Brahmins do not prescribe an initiation for girls, many Hindu communities in fact celebrate a girl’s passage to womanhood. The rite often consists of a period of seclusion, a ritual bath and a feast.

Wedding rituals signify what many Hindus consider the most important rite of passage in life. We already discussed this ceremony in the article about the role of women in Hinduism. By way of brief review let me remind you that the wedding rites are always grand and frequently expensive. They are celebrated in various ways throughout India with each region contributing its own distinctiveness to the ritual. The ceremonies are conducted by a priest and involve the giving of a wedding necklace and the circumambulation of the sacred fire.

The final samskara in any individual’s life is the funeral. Cremation is by far the most common funeral custom. Only very small children, sannyasins (wandering ascetics) and members of small and atypical sects are buried rather than burned. Ordinarily, the funeral rites begin almost immediately after the person dies. After the body is washed and clothed is taken by a procession to a cremation ground. Funeral processions are a common sight throughout India. The body is surrounded by flowers. There is usually no coffin, so the body is not hidden from view.

At the burning grounds, often located near a river, untouchables take charge of the cremations. If it is near sacred rivers, such as the river Ganges, the corpse is immersed and placed on a pyre wood. Such wood is scarce in India. Funerals can be expensive. Many times poor people can’t afford a funeral and just place the corpse in the river. The cremation fire is usually lit by the eldest son, who prays to the fire god Agni to transport the soul to the place of the ancestors. After the cremation, the family members turn and without looking back take a purifying bath and return home. The ashes are later committed to the river.

The Role of Women in Hinduism

Historically, the female life cycle in Hinduism has been different from that of males. In the classical, medieval and most of the modern periods, females have followed a three-stage pattern. Today, the roles of women in Hindu society are changing, as they are throughout the world. Increasingly, the life pattern of females resembles the stages of life for males.

The basic principles governing the roles of girls and women in Hindu history were set forth in the Laws of Manu. This ancient code specified that women must be honored and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands and brothers-in-law who desired their own welfare.

“Where women are honored, there the gods are pleased. Where they are not honored, no sacred rite yields rewards.”

In the Vedic world, women were required to be present for the rituals to work, even though they had no official role to play in them. Manu continues:

“Day and night, women must be kept dependent to the males of their families. If they attach themselves to sensual enjoyments, they must be kept under one’s control. Her father protects her in childhood. Her husband protects her in youth. Her sons protect her in old age. A woman is never fit for independence.”

These final sentences implicitly sets forth the three life stages for the female.

The Early Stage

As a girl, the female lives under the watchful protection of her parents, who are jealously concerned with protecting her virginity. She is considered pure but inauspicious, because she lacks a life-giving power. When she marries, she becomes impure but auspicious. The impurity is caused by sexual intercourse and menstruation.

For most of Hindu history, the girl was not allowed to have the same kind of education as her brother. Boys left home to receive their education from a guru. Girls always had to be under their fathers’ watchful eye. What education she got came from her parents. She spent most of her time learning domestic skills from her mother, as well as some ritual aspects of religion. She was not considered capable of studying the Veda.

The Arrangement of Marriage

In classical medieval and modern times, girls often married early in life, thereby entered the second stage, that of the householder. Today, young Hindu women do not usually marry until their twenties, but this has not always been the case. Frequently, the arrangement of marriage took place just after the girl was born, or some time later in her childhood. Occasionally, the marriage would be arranged to a boy who was relatively close in age, but it was not uncommon for a young girl to be matched to a much older man, perhaps twenty or thirty years her senior.

A girls’ parents had interest in arranging her marriage as early as possible because of the great concern with virginity. When girls’ marriage was arranged when they were young, their purity became the responsibility of the groom’s family.

Obviously, marriages meant something quite different in Hindu society that it does in the present day Western world. In India, marriages has been regarded as alliances between families for the purposes of reproduction and economic stability, not so much an avenue for personal enrichment as they are often considered in the West.

Accordingly, Hindu marriages had historically been arranged by the groom’s and bride’s older relatives. Bride and groom did not meet until shortly before the wedding, or at the wedding itself. In seeking a suitable spouse for one’s son or daughter, family members took more into account than simply personal compatibility between the man and the woman. Certainly, the prospective families’ wealth and social standing, caste and sub-caste, health, the prospective spouse’s occupation and the compatibility of the pairs’ astrological charts were issues of prominent concern.

It’s worth noting that marriages in India historically and to the present day rarely end in divorce. This is in due in part to Indians’ view of the purpose of marriage and in part to the social, economic and legal pressures impending on the marriage. Getting a divorce was extremely difficult and socially stigmatized. Yet, it is worth reflecting whether having marriages arranged by one’s elders might not also have contributed to its longevity. Having seen many happily married Hindus whose marriages have been arranged, I marvel at the success of this custom.

A New Life

Historically, the onset of menstruation was a girl’s right of passage. It marked her change in status from inauspicious to auspicious. Shortly afterward, her wedding would take place on a day and time determined by a reputable astrologer. Even if her marriage has been arranged much earlier, she would not actually move to her husband’s house until after the wedding.

Specific wedding rituals vary from region to region, but they are usually conducted by a priest and usually involve circumambulating a sacred fire. This is a practice probably dating back to Vedic times.

Following the wedding, the new bride goes to live with the husband’s family. The pattern in traditional India was for male children to continue to live with their parents until the parents’ death. As a result of this pattern, grandparents, parents, brothers and their wives and children all lived together under the same roof.

Entering the new home, the bride becomes subject to her mother-in-law. The young wife is expected to obey her mother-in-law and contribute to the well being of the family. The mother-in-law-daughter-in-law relationship still is a notoriously painful one in India. The transition to marriage could be terribly traumatic for the young woman. One day she was in the affectionate and protective atmosphere of her parents’ home, and the next day she finds herself in the home of strangers, where she is often treated no better than a servant.

The Duties of the Wife

As a wife, the Hindu woman was expected to live up to the ideals of the Stri Dharma, the duties of the good wife. According to Stri Dharma, a wife should regard her husband as a god. She should serve him, follow him, pray for his well being and eat after he eats. She shares his karma and his destiny, for this reason she sometimes should fast and go on pilgrimages to ensure her husbands’ long life and success. If he dies prematurely, it was often regarded as her responsibility, her bad karma.

The husband should provide for his wife’s material needs, her security, protection and social status. The husband should also revere his wife as a goddess. The Laws of Manu tell husbands that the happiness of the wife is the key to the stability of the family. According to Manu, where women are honored, there the gods are pleased.

Today, in many places throughout India, there are special public buses for women only. Women are allowed to avoid waiting in lines by going to the head of long queues to purchase such things as train tickets.

If a woman gave birth to a son her status was even further enhanced. Giving birth to sons vastly improves her standing with her mother-in-law and with the rest of her husband’s family. A proverbial blessing for a woman among Hindus is “may you be the mother of a hundred sons”.

Popular Hinduism has even produced “male producing rituals” to help a couple ensure the birth of a son. There are not corresponding female producing procedures. A recent study about abortions in Bombay showed that 999 out of 1000 abortions where performed on female fetuses. The economic liability of female is sighted as the rationale.

In the past, female infants were even abandoned. Today this is rarely the case. Even though it is clear that most couples want boys more than girls, once a child arrives it is loved for its own sake, whether male or female. Hindus have great affection for babies and there are even lullabies about infants as gifts from gods.

Following Her Husband to Death

The death of her husband is a crisis for every Hindu wife, and marks her entrance into the third stage of life. As a result of the sometimes great disparity in the ages of husband and wife he almost always is gone first. Up until the 19th century, this crisis often meant a choice between two undesirable realities: sati or widowhood.

Sati is the name for the ritual in which the wife burns alive on her husband’s funeral pyre. According to traditional belief of many Hindus, for a woman to immolate herself at her husband’s cremation guaranteed great rewards for the family and an opportunity to be with her husband in the next life. Even the place where the sati occurred was consecrated and often became a pilgrimage site.

The term sati is taken from an epic story of Sati, who was one of the wives of the great god Shiva. In the myth, Sati’s own father insulted Shiva. Sati burst in rage. In her anger, she burst into flames and dies. When Shiva returns he finds the corpse and in his grief, he picks it up and carries it aimlessly all over India. As he wandered, parts of the goddess’ remains fell to earth. At the locations where they fell temples were built to honor those body parts.

The story is often told to suggest that a good wife would follow her husband to death. Yet, there is great debate about the extent women actually chose this fate for themselves. There is a good deal of evidence that many women were thrown on to the burning pyre against their will by their sons or other family members. In other cases, they were drugged or intoxicated when they performed sati.

The British outlawed sati in the 20th century when they ruled India. Since that time the ritual is extremely rare. Some scholars have suggested that some women may have chosen sati when they considered the alternative, which was widowhood.

The Hard Life of the Widow

The life of the widow historically has been very difficult. Even a horrible death might seem preferable. Generally, widows could not remarry. This has been the case even in modern times. Forbidding marriage to widows has been an important issue of concern because many women were widows in their 30’s and even 20’s. Usually a widow was required to shave her head to be unattractive to other men. Often she was given the hardest household tasks to perform and was forbidden to eat with the rest of the family. The widow was viewed as unlucky, inauspicious and dangerous, the embodiment of all negative qualities in women.

Some families have even reportedly taken their widows on pilgrimages to the city of Vrindavan, a city known for its widows. Then, they abandoned them there. An estimate made in the year 2000 indicated that there are between 25 and 35 million widows in India. Their luck in life has been so rough that there are movements within Hinduism today seeking to make their lives better. There is evidence that these movements are having positive effects.

In fact, there are ongoing movements throughout India seeking to improve the situations of all areas of women’s lives. These changes could not be made simply through legislation. The vast majority of Hindus live in villages and laws made in New Delhi are often hard to enforce. Changes in lives of women and men therefore must be encouraged at the local level.

Women in Politics

Women’s access to political power has also had a positive effect on the general treatment of women. With models such as Indira Gandhi, females have had images of successful women working in what has traditionally been a man’s realm of responsibility. Interestingly, powerful women in politics are common throughout the Indian subcontinent. The countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have all had women Prime Ministers.

Although these movements indicate the roles of men and women are changing, perhaps more today than even before in India’s history, social changes in India evolve slowly. Patterns of behavior are deeply edged in the soul of Hindu India.

The Role of Men in Hinduism

When we talked about the caste system we observed how in classical Hinduism there are particular dharmas or duties for individuals according to their standing in society. At about the same time in Hindu history, specific expectations also arose concerning one’s sex, resulting in different patterns of life for men and women.

Regulations formulated in classical Hinduism prescribe particular stages of life to be followed by upper caste men and women.

The same text that specifies dharmas to each of the castes, the Laws of Manu, also set forth an ideal pattern of life for upper caste males. The Laws of Manu were written by and for these men. At about the same time, a parallel pattern begins to emerge for females of high castes. Most ideals were based on the notion of stages, a very common way of thinking about an individual’s life: from childhood to old age. It is important to keep in mind that these stages of life were regarded as ideals and pertaining to the three upper castes. For that reason, they did not necessarily described the life cycle of each and every member of Hindu society.

They did, and they still do to a large degree, depict the way life should be lived according to the believe of millions of Hindus.

According to Manu, males undergo four orders or Ashramas during the course of a life time.

The Brahmacharya or the “Student Stage”

This Ashrama begins when the boy is initiated into the “twice born” through a special ritual in which he would receive a sacred thread (read about the caste system to learn more about this). This thread signifies his standing as an upper caste member, although this does not indicates to which caste he belongs.

The Laws of Manu specify that initiation should take place when the boy is seven if he were a Brahmin, ten if he were a Kshatriya, or eleven if he were a Vaisya. This initiation is what constitutes the second birth.

In the classical and Medieval period of India’s history, the initiation would mark the time when the initiated left home to live and study with a guru. During this period, the young man lived a highly disciplined life and studied the Vedas and religious rituals.

The teacher would teach him the ways of personal purification, morning and evening devotions to the gods, and sacrificing. He was expected to be completely devoted to his teacher and his studies. The Laws of Manu forbade specific things: honey, meet, perfumes, spicy foods, girlfriends, dancing, singing, playing musical instruments, gambling and even looking at women. All of these things were believed to pollute or to detract attention from studies.

A young man remained a student until it was time for him to marry and to become a productive member of society. Marriage was regarded as the natural state for adult men and women. To deviate from this path was considered unusual and shameful.

The Household Stage

The student entered the household stage in his early twenties. During this period, the young man would rise a family, pursue an occupation appropriate to his caste, establish himself as financially independent and as a responsible contributor to society.

Due to the householders’ importance to the well-being of the social order, the Laws of Manu proclaim this is the most excellent stage. It is at the householder stage that we see life of males and females most closely intertwined. Indeed, this is the only stage of life that the two sexes share, according to this patterning.

The Third and Fourth Stage

The Laws of Manu go on to specify a third and fourth stage for men beyond the householder stage. These final two Ashramas pertain to the pursuit of religious objectives. In the third stage, that of the “forest dweller”, a man and possibly his wife move to a more modest dwelling, usually to the edge of a village near a forest. Here he, and perhaps she, begin to withdraw from active social life in order to become more introspective and devoted to the life of the spirit. It is important to note that this stage begins only after a man has raised a family, earned an income and discharged his obligations to society.

The Laws of Manu were very interested in keeping men in their prime at the householder stage, where they could be productive members of society. It seems that these codes were a response to what had become something of a problem: Young men leaving off searching religious experience before they could be of any use to society. In this sense, the Ashramas were intended to regulate religious behavior by delaying religious experience until one’s later years.

The fourth stage of life is an specially interesting one. It is a stage of rigour and austerity that few men would embark upon it. This is the Ashrama known as Sannyasa, or “renunciation”. When a man enters this stage, he renounces his former identity and everything associated with it: his name, his wife and family and all material goods. He lives his remaining days as a wandering solitary ascetic. He performs no rituals, no works and subsists only on the generosity of others. Those who contribute to the well-being of the sannyasi could accumulate good karma by doing so.

With no incumbencies, the sannyasi is free to devote full energies for the search of god and salvation. Today, these holy persons are a familiar sight in India, easily recognized by their orange robes.

Further reading:

The Founder of Hinduism

One of the most frequently asked questions about Hinduism (or any other religion), is who was its founder? Who was the founder of Hinduism? Who started this religious tradition that today has around one billion followers?

Although in other major world religions like Buddhism, Christianity and Islam we can trace the origin of the tradition to a single man, Hinduism is so ancient and complex that it is impossible to find that historical person. In fact, it is unlikely that such an individual even existed.

What we can do, however, is to trace the origin of Hinduism to various historical and cultural sources. There are two main sources which influenced the emergence of Hinduism as we know it today: the culture of the Indus Valley civilization and the culture of the Aryan civilization.

The Indus Valley Influence

The Indus Valley civilization is considered one of the great cultures of the ancient world. Although Hindus would not regard the Indus Valley civilization as part of their sacred history, there is evidence that elements from this culture contributed to the great amalgam of Hinduism.

One of the most important aspects that Hinduism inherited from this great civilization is its sense of purity and pollution. Great concern with cleanliness is evidenced throughout the Indus Valley civilization. Large cities had large central baths with public access. These baths were not only build with hygiene in mind, but specially to maintain ritual purity.

In these baths, people came to restore the pristine order that may have been disrupted by inappropriate behavior or simply by coming into contact with a person that is seen as unclean. This tradition is still present today in Hinduism, as many people regard certain things and persons as unclean, as we see with the caste system.

The Aryan Influence

The second important source that influenced Hinduism is the Aryan civilization. The Aryans were very different from what we know about the Indus Valley dwellers. The Aryans were nomads rather than settled down agriculturalists. They didn’t build great cities like the Indus Valley civilization.

Since the Aryans were migratory, they left in the way of archeological evidence. Almost everything we know about them is based in what is now a collection of writings called the Vedas. These writings are considered Hinduism’s holy book.

The Veda is a rather unusual collection of literature. It is not narrative like the Bible. It tells no grand story of gods and humans. The Vedas are more like a liturgy manual. It includes hundreds of hymns addressed to various deities, as well as myths, some spells and a bit of philosophical speculation.

According to the beliefs of most Hindus today, the Vedas existed prior to this world and embodies an eternal law that transcends even the gods. The words of the Vedas, according to traditional conviction, were revealed to ancient sages called Rishis in a distant past.

Today, the Veda is regarded as the most authoritative and sacred Hindu scripture. So important is the Veda that Hinduism is sometimes called Vedic Dharma: the religion of the Veda. Acceptance of the authority of the Veda has been a criterion for determining which schools of Indian thought are orthodox and which are heterodox.

Further Reading:

The Dharma of Hinduism

When we explore the classical Hindu view of karma we may note that this notion takes on decidedly moral overtones with the ideas of positive and negative karma. What we didn’t talk about is what determines wether the karma is good or bad and how to know the difference. To answer these questions I must introduce the concept of Dharma.

Dharma is one of those difficult to translate notions that have various meanings and associations, so I prefer to leave it untranslated. In the present context, Dharma means the pattern for proper and appropriate living. It is in another words the moral law. Yet it is more than this, because it shares a cosmological dimension with the older Vedic idea of Rita (the cosmic order). This cosmological element conveys the sense that the pattern for appropriate living is rooted in the order and nature of things. It is not based on the whims of human beings.

The Axial Age, when Hinduism was started, was a time of new or perhaps renewed interest in the proper regulation of human behavior. Confucius in China, the prophets in Israel and Plato and Aristotle in Greece were deeply concerned with the way human beings should treat other humans. In India as well, new codes for human action were elaborated in this early period of Hinduism.

Dharma, as a moral principle, is rather abstract and requires concretization to make it applicable to daily life. Accordingly, numerous attempts to specify and codify the Dharma were made. There emerged a whole genre of literature known as the Dharmashastras, which has since become the largest literary genre in India.

The Laws of Manu

The most important and influential representative of the Dharmashastras were the Laws of Manu, which were written down at about the time of Jesus but probably reflect earlier understandings of the structure of society. These laws were believed to have been given by Manu, who according to myth was the primal ancestor of all humanity.

What is important about Manu’s laws is that they assign different dharmas to the strata of Indian society. In another words, dharma is specific to one’s caste. One of the most interesting meditations on the subject of the caste-specific dharma is the Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the most beloved of Hindu scriptures.

Further Reading: The Caste System

The Caste System

The caste system is a social, economic, political and religious phenomenon. And it is extremely complex. Here we will simplify greatly to try to understand it.

The Hindu caste system is based on an assumption that lies at odds with the assumption of Western democratic ideals: that all people are created equal. From the classical Hindu perspective it is apparent that people are born with different intellectual and spiritual qualities and capabilities. These differences dispose different people to different sorts of occupations and responsibilities in society.

The innate differences with which people are born derive from how they acted in previous lives. This is the law of karma. How we act now determines who we will become. And who we are now has been determined by how we have been in the past.

A Hierarchical Structure Founded on Purity

Of course, caste is more than just a division of labor. It also entails a hierarchy. The hierarchy of caste is not based on wealth. It is founded on purity. Those at the top of the social ladder are regarded as more spiritually pure than those at the bottom. The entire system is thus a gradient of purity.

Some in India defend the principles of caste saying that it makes more sense to make the social distinctions based in merit and function rather than on money, as it is done in the West. Like the words Hinduism and India, the word caste is not an indigenous Indian word. Caste is actually a Portuguese expression that fits the Indian social system a little imprecisely.

The term caste refers to what Hindus call Varna and Jati. These two terms designate two different but related systems of organizing Indian society. Varna means color and the term jati means birth, or more specifically, birth group.

If Westerners are at all familiarized with the caste system, they usually think of what Hindus call Varna. The Varna system is essentially the traditional Hindu division of labor, comprised of the four categories we mentioned in the discussion of Aryan civilization:

  • Brahmins: the class of priests and intellectuals who comprise about 6% to 7% of the population.
  • The kshatriyas: the warriors and administrators.
  • The vaishyas: who are the merchants, farmers and artisans.
  • The shudras: the peasants or the common folk.

The first three castes are known as the twice born, because as children their members undergo a ritual initiation compared to a second birth. The shudras, however, have no such ritual initiation, so they are known as the once born.

The Untouchables

Outside of the Varna system altogether are those who have no caste. These are the persons known variously as outcastes, untouchables and harijans: the word used by Gandhi meaning “children of god”.

Today, members of this group prefer to call themselves dalits, meaning “the oppressed ones”. People in this class are the handlers of leather, the body burners and the toilet cleaners. In short, the persons who perform the dirty work in Indian society. Other Hindus regard this kind of work so highly polluting that they cannot remove the impurity with standard procedures of purification.

The untouchables both are and are not Hindus. Up until the advocacy of Gandhi, they were forbidden from entering Hindu temples. They lived outside the villages and towns and couldn’t use public facilities like the well. The Indian constitution outlawed untouchability when the nation gained its independence from Great Britain. They did so by making the untouchables a part of the shudra varna.

Despite this theoretical abolition of untouchability, its practice remains a very real and present part of daily Hindu life.

The Jatis or Birth Groups

In addition to Varna, the caste system is made of a large number of jatis or “birth groups”. Jatis may be thought of as subcastes, existing within the larger Varna groupings. As its name implies, one subcaste is determined by birth and one does not leave it except under very rare circumstances.

Unlike the Varnas, which are pan-hindu, jatis are local groupings. Because of this fact the actual number of jatis has not been determined with certainty. However, estimates suggest that there may be over 3000. There are hundreds of jatis in each Varna. Local ranking is not always the same. In other words, in one region of India a particular jati may be considered part of one varna, and in another region maybe it is regarded as part of a different varna.

Just as the varna system is hierarchical, so too is the jati system. Although there is little or no social mobility for individuals in the caste system, there is some mobility for subcaste as a whole. Members of some jatis might attempt to gain a greater standing for their entire subcaste by imitating the behavior of higher castes.

In the past, it has been sometimes possible for social aspirants to buy a higher caste rank. There have even been some lower caste kings who had their genealogies reconstructed to prove that they were of the warrior caste. This, however, are rare exceptions to the rule, for the vast majority has its destiny.

In addition to specify occupation, castes also determine many others facets of everyday life. These are based on the dynamics of purity and pollution.


One’s caste and subcaste imply marital restrictions. Generally, people are expected to marry within their caste and even within their subcaste.

Men cannot marry another caste but in special occasions women can. In the matrimonials, the clasified ads that many Hindus use for the purpose of arranging marriages, caste is always featured. Even when couples have what now is called “love marriages”, that is, marriages based on romance rather than on family arrangements, they still overwhelmingly marry within their social groups.


Caste determines the kinds of food one may eat. The kinds of people for whom one may receive food and the kinds of people with whom one may eat. The high caste Brahmins maintain strict vegetarian diets, whereas eating meat may be accepted at lower caste levels, where ritual purity is of less concern.

Animal flesh is considered unclean and those who wish to maintain purity avoid it. In much of South India most restaurants are assumed to be vegetarian, unless they explicitly advertise themselves as non-vegetarian.


Caste also determines the type of people with whom one can associate or whom one may touch. This obviously is the origin of the term “untouchability”. Touching someone less clean than oneself is thought to be polluting. This is why it is essential to marry within one’s caste.

Some high caste persons would consider even seeing an untouchable as ritually polluting. We must remember that in India seeing is tantamount to touching.

The Functions of Each Caste

Lower castes cannot perform the duties of upper castes, but if necessary, upper castes members can do lower caste work. It is not uncommon, for instance, to see a Brahmin at a business. Sometimes it is not possible for a Brahmin to find work as a priest.

There are limitations to this flexibility, however. As the laws of Manu state:

“It is better to discharge one’s own appointed duty incompletely than to perform completely that of another. For he who lives according to the law of another caste is instantly excluded from his own.”

Early Hindus believed, as do many modern ones, that if everyone performs his or her duty unquestionably a balance could be maintained in the world and humans could live in peace. The laws of Manu explain the basics of this attitude:

“In order to protect this universe, He, the most resplendid one, assigns separate duties and occupations for those who sprang from his mouth, arms, eyes and feet.”

Caste, then, exists for the good of the world, and to upset it in any way leads to social and eventually cosmological disruption.

You may ask how this caste structure is enforced. By family and intracast pressure. In other words, it is not usaully a matter of the upper castes enforcing rules on the lower castes, although that sometimes happens. More frequently, however, enforcement comes from within one’s own group.

Most castes have caste counsils, in which the interests of the caste are discussed and advanced.


Let’s examine what are the duties and responsabilities of the caste members. Our source will be the Laws of Manu. According to these laws, this is the Dharma for Brahmins:

“Brahmins shall live dully performing the following six acts, which are enumerated in their proper order: teaching, studying, sacrificing for himself, sacrificing for others, making gifts and receiving them.”

Among these six acts ordained for the Brahmin, three are his means of subsistence: sacrificing for others, teaching and accepting gifts from pure men. Many people grow cynically when they hear that one of the duties of the Brahmins is to receive gifts from other castes. What a difficult job that must be, they think.

Yet, accepting gifts creates the opportunity for others to generate merit by increasing their positive karma, which enables them to gain a more favorable rebirth. In this sense, the giving of gifts to Brahmins is reciprocated. Still, the laws of Manu clearly explain the value of the Brahmins:

“On account of his preeminence, on account of his superiority of origin, on account of his observance of particular restrictive rules and on account of his particular sanctification the Brahmin is the lord of our castes.

The attainments of his previous lives are what make the Brahmin worthy of such honor. For it is by the production of great merit in his earlier life times that the Brahmin has achieved this status in the present life.”


The Dharma of the kshatriyas according to the laws of Manu is this: “To dully protect this whole world.”

The laws of Manu go on to specify that the kshatriyas must protect the world in two ways. First, they must protect their people from foreign enemies:

“Their duty is to fight thy foes, be they equal in strength, or stronger or weaker. They must not shrink back from battle. Not to turn back in battle, to protect the people, to honor the Brahmins is the best mean for a king to secure happiness. Those kings who seeking to slay each other in battle fight and do not turn back go to heaven. Nonetheless, the kshatriya should, whenever possible, seek peaceful resolution to conflict”.

Second, the kshatriya is responsable for maintaining the order of the caste system itself, knowing that a breach of caste causes social chaos and ultimate destruction. According to the laws of Manu:

“The whole world is kept in order by punishment. Through fear of punishment the whole world yields enjoyments.”


According to Manu, this is the dhrama for the Vaishyas:

“After the Vaishya has recieved the sacraments and has taken a wife, it should always be attentive to the business whereby he may subsist, that of attending cattle. A Vaishya should never conceive this wish: I will never keep cattle. A Vaishya must know the respective value of gems, of pearls, of metals, of cloth made of thread, of perfumes and of condiments. He must be acquainted with the manner of sowing seeds and of the good and bad quality of fields. He must know perfectly all measures and weights.”


This is the dharma for the Shudras:

“To serve the Brahmins is the highest duty of a Shudra which leads to beatitude. A Shudra who is pure, who serves his betters, is gentle in his speech and free from pride and always seek refuge with the Brahmins, attains in his next life a higher cast.”

A Shudra, though emancipated by his master, is not released from servitude, since that is innate in him.

Since the laws of Manu do not recognize the “untouchables” as part of the caste system, it makes no mention of their particular dharma.


The caste system in India has made for a highly stable society. It hasn’t changed substancially for the last two thousand years. Certainly, there has been friction between and among the castes and subcastes. However, the system itself has remained stable.

This fact may be a bit surprising. How is it that a society based on hierarchy and privileges has not been subject to revolutions from the lower classes? To answer this question we must return to the religious foundations of Hindu life. The concepts of reincarnation and karma work to support the idea that one’s circumstances in life are the consequence of our own actions. Our place in life is not accidental. All persons are responsible for where they happen to be and where one happens to be is fair and just.

By the same token, these concepts function to encourage individuals not to resist the system but to fulfill the dharma of one’s caste, because in doing so, one’s position in the next life is sure to improve.

Further reading:

How Hinduism Was Started

How Hinduism was started? To understand how this religious tradition began, we need to look at its roots, that is the Indus Valley Civilization and the Aryan Civilization. By 600 B.C. the religious system of the Aryan Vedic tradition began to undergo reassessment and criticism. For many, this old religion of rituals and sacrifices seemed no longer to address their deepest spiritual needs. New questions and concerns were emerging and the sacrificial system appeared unable to answer these completely. There seemed a be a widespread dissatisfaction with the elitism of Brahmins.

More than this, there seemed to be doubts about the value of rites and what they can produce. Very fascinating and influential texts called the Upanishads composed at about this time reflect this assessment of the good of Vedic rituals.

In this collection of works, the ways of the Rishis, the seers of old, are favorably contrasted with those who seek only the benefits of Vedic ritual. Quoting the Upanishads:

“Rising above the desire of sons, wealth and the world; they follow the life of the pilgrim. For the desire of sons and wealth is the desire of the world, and this desire is vanity.”

Two related streams of thought appeared to have prompted this reappraisal of the tradition. One we can detect from the texts of this period more interested with the nature of the human than what we see in the Veda, particularly this aspect called the self or soul.

Behind this curiosity about the soul there seems to be a growing anxiety about death. Numerous accounts relate tales about journeys to the Underworld and speculations about what might happen when we die.

Correlated with the concern about the nature of the human was a second stream of thought focused on a deeper understanding of the structures of reality. Increasingly, sages became more suspicious of the world of appearance and speculated about what might lie behind it.

The New Ideas and the Axial Age

Indian thought simultaneously broadened both its interior and exterior horizons, becoming at the same time more meditative and metaphysical. Curiously, this transformation in Indian religion happened at a time when similar developments were occurring in other important cultural centers throughout the world. At roughly the same moment in history we find such pivotal thinkers as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece; Confucius and other philosophers in China; Zoroaster in Persia; the Hebrew prophets in Israel; and in India itself the Buddha and Mahavira, the founders of Buddhism and Jainism respectively.

The rise of these individuals marked a new an perhaps unprecedented interest in who and what the human was, and a deep concern for understanding appropriate human behavior. So impressive was this era and so influential for subsequent humanity that the German philosopher Karl Jaspers called it the Axial Age.

Jaspers thought the epoch spawning from 800 to 200 B.C. signals the actual emergence of the individual self in human history. Certainly, there seems to be a greater emphasis placed on the individual during this time. It is also during this time that the major world religions are established in their characteristic forms. Confucianism in China, Buddhism and Jainism in India, Judaism begins to take shape in Israel for the later development of Christianity and Islam.

Even more than just the creation of new religions, though, the very function of religion appears to have changed during this time. Before the Axial Age, religions’ main concern was with keeping the world going by ritually renewing the cosmos. After the Axial age, religion functions more as an agent of personal transformation.

Post-Axial Age religions allow individuals to do such things as secure a happy afterlife or learn how to treat other human beings. Often, the religious dynamic is one of personal change. For example, from being a sinner to being holy or from being ignorant to gaining enlightenment.

It is during the Axial age that classical Hinduism emerges from its Aryan and Indus Valley roots. Now we will talk about the two ideas that marked the beginning of classical Hinduism:
  • The Doctrine of Reincarnation: What is reincarnation? What meaning does it have in Hinduism? The belief in reincarnation or transmigration of the soul is a fundamental assumption of virtually all philosophical and religious perspectives that have originated in India. 

  • The Law of Karma: The belief in the reincarnation of the soul is a fundamental assumption of Hinduism. The form that one returns to after death can be almost anything: another human, an animal, perhaps a demon, perhaps a god. What determines one’s status in the next life is simply the way one lives one’s life here and now. The word for this concept has become a familiar one in the West, Karma. Karma is simply action and its consequences.

Hinduism and Karma

The word karma is a common one in our world. But what is karma? First, we need to understand something about Hinduism. The belief in the reincarnation of the soul is a fundamental assumption of Hinduism. The form that one returns to after death can be almost anything: another human, an animal, perhaps a demon, perhaps a god. What determines one’s status in the next life is simply the way one lives one’s life here and now. The word for this concept has become a familiar one in the West, Karma. Karma is simply action and its consequences.

In older Vedic times, karma referred to ritual action. In classical Hinduism in came to include moral action. This moral connotation implied essentially two kinds of karma: good karma and evil karma. By performing good actions one accrued positive karma. Wicked and immoral actions accrued negative karma.

A preponderance of good karma meant a favorable rebirth. A preponderance of bad karma meant an unfavorable rebirth. Although we may speak about many philosophical subtleties, karma is ultimately that simple.

For many, karma is hard to conceptualize. Jainism, which was established at just about the same time as classical Hinduism thinks of karma as a very fine imperceptible substance that literally clings to the soul. The classical Hindu notion is less materialistic than the Jain. In Hinduism, karma is more akin to a form of energy. Just as dropping a pebble into a pond causes ripples that reverberating on the surface of the water, so every action has reverberating consequences. These consequences return to the agent.

The essential offshoot of the concept of karma is that every person gets what he or she deserves. In this respect, karma is the principle of absolute justice. The reaping of karma may not occur immediately. It may take more than one life time, but it will occur. This occurs impersonally just like the law of gravity acting on physical bodies.

What Hindus mean by karma is reflected in the Western expression “what goes around comes around”. For better or worse, we cannot escape the consequences of our action.

What is Reincarnation

What is reincarnation? What meaning does it have in Hinduism? The belief in reincarnation or transmigration of the soul is a fundamental assumption of virtually all philosophical and religious perspectives that have originated in India. Although they tend to understand it differently; Hindu, Buddhists and Jains share the view that humans are reborn after they die. In Hinduism, this idea involves the actual rebirth of the soul in another physical form.

We are not certain where the notion came from in Indian thought. Transmigration is not mentioned in the oldest parts of the Vedas, so an Aryan origin is doubtful. The concept may represent a reappearance of a belief from the subjugated Indus Valley civilization, but this too is uncertain.

The notion of transmigration probably began as an esoteric doctrine propagated by small groups of wandering sages. It is striking that the concept of the soul’s rebirth developed in India at just about the same time it was being discussed and accepted by certain philosophers in Greece, such as Pythagoras, Socrates and Plato. Unlike India, however, the idea of reincarnation never gained popular acceptance in Greece and always remained a philosophers’ theory.

In India, the concept of transmigration arose at a time of serious doubt about the traditional sacrifices and the rewards. Among those who accepted the Vedic idea of heaven, many began to question wether heaven itself was a permanent reward. Perhaps heaven was not everlasting bliss. Perhaps one went to heaven and then died again, only to be reborn once again in the earth.

Perhaps even the gods themselves were subject to death. Reincarnation was not first known as rebirth, as it is called today, but as redeath. This accents these fears about dying.

In a short period, the belief in transmigration was widely accepted. Today, this understanding of human destiny remains a fundamental assumption of Hinduism. On the more popular level the idea is practically self-evident. It is clear that the world undergoes a constant cycle of regeneration, so there is no reason to assume that the same is not true for our central selves.

Even on the more philosophical levels sages usually find no need to argue the case. Philosophers discuss the modes and forms of transmigration rather than question its existence.

The form that one returns to after death can be almost anything: another human, an animal, perhaps a demon, perhaps a god. What determines one’s status in the next life is simply the way one lives one’s life here and now. The word for this concept has become a familiar one in the West, Karma.

They cycle of transmigrations governed by the laws of karma is called Samsara. The word Samsara means literally “wandering”. That word intimate for us that Hindus do not regard Samsara as a happy or pleasant situation. It is indeed the essential problem of life. We are caught on a wheel of endless existences bound by our actions, wandering aimlessly from life time to life time.

The History of Hindu Rituals

The Aryans, like most religious people throughout the world, considered ritual much more important than doctrine and belief. The Veda itself was a manual of ritual, not of creed statements or theology. We’ll examine the kinds of rituals the Aryans practiced, the purposes for which they were intended and the persons who performed them.

I will talk about three basic kinds of rituals. Of course, this is an idealized explanation. In practice, Aryan ritual was undoubtedly more complex. I’ll talk about rituals of the home, shamanic rituals and rituals for special occasions.

Home Rituals

We know very little about home rituals. The Veda itself was more concerned with other types of ceremonies. Home rituals were probably simple sacrifices at the domestic fires, where the father served as priest by offering food to the devas in the morning and evening. The purpose was to honor the gods and to acknowledge one’s dependence on them. Perhaps even to ensure that the gods will continue being generous.

Today, still the home is the focus of devotion in Hinduism. Virtually every Hindu devote has some Shrine space wether small or large dedicated to a god or goddess.

Shamanic Rituals

A ritual specialist called an Atharvan performs the shamanic rituals. Aryan families call upon this priest to provide help during times of crisis, such as sickness; times of transition, such as birth, naming, initiation; and during auspicious days, such as harvest time. The name Shaman is a term used cross-culturally to refer to those persons who have special access to the spiritual world and are able to use that connection for the benefit of others.

In some African traditions this Shaman might be called a with doctor. In some Native American traditions a medicine man or medicine woman. As these names suggest, one of the principal functions of the Shaman is healing the sick.

Like Shamans in other cultures, the Atharvan priest cured with rites involving incantations, herbs and fire. But the Atharvan could do more than just heal. He provided protection from demons and snakes. He promoted good luck in gambling. He could cause misfortune for one’s enemies.

The Atharvaveda is the text that contains the mantras that were used to effect these desired things. A passage from the Atharvaveda provides a rather amusing instance of a curse for destroying a man’s virility while holding a special herb that probably resembled a penis.

The kinds of rituals enacted by the Atharvan priests are still important in popular Hinduism today, even though the Atharvan as such is not a familiar figure. There are many persons who conduct similar sorts of rituals for healing, providing protection from devils and foretelling the future through astrology and other means.

Sacrifices for Special Occasions

The most important sacrifices for Aryan religious life may have been the fire sacrifices. These rituals were much more elaborate than other rituals and were performed with less frequency, yet much of the Veda was concerned with this type of ritual.

They were conducted for different occasions. Only members of the priestly cast were able to enact this kind of rituals. They required great skills and only those with a training of a Brahmin had the needed expertise. Indeed, as these rituals grew in importance for the Aryans, the Brahmins grew in power and prestige.

A typical fire sacrifice involves a team of Brahmins, each charges with different responsibilities. Setting up and performing the sacrifice might take several days or even weeks. Under Brahmin supervision workers created a sacred space outdoors by erecting a temporary canopy using very precise measurements. Under the canopy altars were created to contain the sacred fires. Three altars corresponded each to a component of the Trilaka (earth, midspace and heaven).

The ritual performance began with the purification of the sacrificer. The sacrificer, by the way, was not the Brahmin but the person who paid to have the ritual conducted on his behalf. The sacrificers presence was necessary even though they did not have a specific role in the ritual.

Once the ritual was under way the gods were invited to attend. An animal such as a goat was sacrificed and cooked. Then the sacred food was offered to the gods and eaten by the participants. The most important aspect of the sacrifice, however, were the hymns sung by the Brahmins. These were the verses of the Veda, and it was essential that they be chanted correctly. One Brahmin’s sole responsibility was to be sure that the sacred words were correctly uttered and correct any mistakes made by the others.

Mistakes rendered the ritual ineffective and perhaps even dangerous. Hence the Brahmins placed great importance on the exact memorization of the Veda.

These rituals were performed for a variety of reasons but ordinarily they had very worldly aims. Sacrifices sought to improve the relationship of the sacrificer to the gods in order to achieve a greater success in business, to bring more and better cattle, to produce manly sons and to promote health and longevity.

The attainment of a pleasant afterlife in heaven might also be included in this list but they are secondary to the other reason. As I mentioned before, the Aryans held many different and sometimes contradictory views on the fate of humans after death. Aryan religion does seem more oriented towards practical concerns of the here and now rather than the hereafter.

The Power of the Word

In the early Vedic period, the Aryans believed that this kind of rites effectively persuaded the gods to act on behalf of the sacrificer. Persuasion came on the form of flattering songs sung on a deivas’ honor and offering pleasant food such as meat and Soma. Over time, however, they came to think that by manipulating the objects of the sacrifice, specially by uttering the powerful words, they were controlled the cosmic powers associated with the elements of the ritual. Thus, the sacred words themselves came to be seen as powerful.

The creative power of the sacrifice even acquired a technical name, that is Brahman. The similarity of names with Brahmin is intentional here. So important is the spoken word that the later vedic tradition personified voice as a goddess. The personification of voice reflected the view that language itself has a divine origin. The words we hear and speak are only partial manifestations of an eternal meaningful and inexhaustible reality.

Vedic creation myths even suggest that the ancient Rishis brought the gods into existence by naming them. Later sources tell of how the entire universe is created from the primordial mantra “OM”.

Today, Hinduism retains much of this emphasis on spoken word. Throughout India scriptures are often recited in villages and towns over loud speakers, sometimes beginning at four o’clock in the morning. Even if no one hears or listen to the recitation it is considered meritorious because it generates communal blessings for the entire society.

The Vedic Understanding of Human Beings

For the Aryan civilization, the essence of human life is the soul, which they associate with breath. The word they used to designate the soul was Atman. The Sanskrit Atman has cognates in the English word atmosphere and in the German word Atem, which means to breath.

The ancients frequently associate breath with the soul. That connection derives from the simple observation that one a person dies the breath leaves the body, thus they concluded that the breath must be what animates the body. From here we are just a short step from the deduction that the soul endures when the body perishes.

At death, the soul was believed to join the gods and the other death in a happy existence. However, there is not complete agreement in the Veda about the ultimate human destiny. Some hymns suggest that the soul descends into a place called the underworld ruled by the god of death. Some indicate that the soul simply dissolves along with the body.

Apparently, the Aryans were as mystified by the fate of the humans as they were by the creation of the world.

The Origin of Castes

When the Aryans arrived to the Indian subcontinent their society was already stratified according to occupation. Their culture comprise a division similar to that of Christian Europe.

There were the priests and the teachers who were called the Brahmin. The warriors and administrators were called the kshatriyas and the merchants, artisans and farmers were called the vaishyas. The later vedic period also mentions a fourth class of people called the shudras, who were the people of the land, what we might call peasants. Many scholars think the Shudras may have been descendents of the old Indus Valley civilization who were incorporated in Aryan life.

This occupational division marks what became the foundation of the subsequent cast system.

The evidence for the stratification of Aryan society comes from a remarkable vedic text called “The Sacrifice of the Purusha”. This song tells of the ritual dismemberment of the primordial called the Purusha. In this text, the gods bind the giant Purusha, slay him sacrificially and use his parts to create the very components of the world.

From his body, the gods created four classes of human beings:

“When they divided the Purusha. In how many parts did they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his two arms, eyes and feet? His mouth became the Brahmin. The arms became the warriors. His eyes the people. From his feet the servants were born.”

The parts of the Purusha out of which the social classes were created are not accidental. They reflect a hierarchy from top to bottom. They also invoke images appropriate for the respective occupations of these classes.

The song of the Purusha sacrifice is important for because it roots the division of social classes into the very nature of things. To try to upset or disorder social stratification is to invite cosmic chaos.

The Hindu Gods

Which are the most important Hindu gods? First, how do Hindus define the word god? There are about twenty Sanskrit words for the English word god. The most commonly used word is deiva. A deiva is a divine being or a supernatural power but not necessarily an omniscient and omnipotent being. Deivas are not moral exemplar nor law givers like Yahweh or Allah in the Western monotheistic traditions.

According to Hinduism’s cretion story, they were created after the world’s creation and they are subject to its laws. By tradition, the Veda is said to mention the existence of 33 different deivas. These deivas dwell in different parts of three levels of the world and most of them have specific divine functions associated with the fundamental concerns of the Aryan civilization.

Major gods, for example, address anxieties concerning floods and agriculture. War gods respond to threats from outside the community. Other gods help preserve internal communal stability by enforcing compliance with the order of Rita (the cosmic order).

Some devas have more than one function, such as Agni, who is the god of fire and the mediator between human and the gods. It is not necessary to talk about each one of the gods of the Hindu pantheon, as some are more important than anothers. To give you a flavor of the range of Vedic theology, let me acquaint you with some of the more interesting primary devas.


In terms of the sheer number of hymns addressed to him, Indra is the most important deva in the Rigveda. One quarter of the over one thousand songs are composed in his honor. His popularity probably reflects his importance to the Aryan community.

Indra is a god of war, similar in some respects to Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible. Indra, like Yahweh was the god who gave success in battle, and he was believed to lead the Aryans in war.


He he is also the god who controls the monsoon rains. One of the Vedic myths tells how the heroic Indra slew Vritra, the demonic dragon that controlled the primordial waters; and how he released the waters to create the world.


Next to Indra in popularity is the deva Agni, the divine fire. Nearly one fifth of the songs in Rigveda are addressed to Agni. The word Agni is quite easy to remember when one recognizes the English cognate, ignite, is also associated with fire.

Agni, the god of fire

Agni was unique among the devas in that he dwelled in all three levels of the world: heaven, the midspace and the earth. Because of this mobility, Agni served as the mediator between the gods and humans. Through the ritual fire he carries sacrifices to gods and through the fires of cremation he transports the dead.


The deva Varuna was the guardian of Rita, the principle of cosmic, moral and ritual order. Varuna enforces Rita, but he did not create it. The gods are subject to Rita just as humans are. The Aryans imagined Varuna sited in a large palace in heaven from where he watched the world and punished those who violated Rita. He was thought of as all-seeing and is described as the thousand-eyed one.

Because of his role as custodian of Rita, sinners sought to appease Varuna through pleasing ritual sacrifices.

Varuna, the custodian of Rita


Like Agni and Varuna, the Deva Soma had an empirical manifestation. Soma appeared to the Aryans as a particular plant whose juices were used in ritual. Drinking Soma induces ecstatic experiences. Through Soma one was able to see the gods, to feel a sense of immortality, courage and even sexual virility.


Rudra was known as the “Howler”. Rudra had no friends among the gods and he dwelled in wild and terrifying places. He despised human beings and often afflicted them with sickness and misfortune. Aryans often left their offerings to Rudra outside the village and they implored him to stay away.

Paradoxically, Rudra was also a hero. This kind of paradox we shall encounter frequently as we study the gods of classical of Hinduism, specially the god Shiva. In fact, scholars believe that the vedic deva provided a prototype for the later god known as Shiva.

Although there were many gods the Aryans worshipped, they often treated one god or goddess as the supreme deity. Max Muller, the 19th century scholar of the Veda coined the term henotheism to describe this practice. Henotheism is a sort of synthesis of polytheism and monotheism in which one god is worshipped without denying the existence of the other gods. This approach to divine worship continues throughout much of Hinduism today.

The Hindu Creation Story

What is the Hindu creation story? We have to look at the tradition of the Aryans and specifically the Veda, Hinduism’s holy book. The Aryan civilization honored how this world came into being and the Veda offered several different explanations. It doesn’t seem to be a problem that the stories of the world’s creation are often at odds with one another. Even today, the Hindu tradition contains dozen of different accounts of creation.

One of the most intriguing of the cosmogonies is a short hymn that is intended to astound and confuse rather than to explain. It has been the subject of hundreds of commentaries throughout Hindu history. As I write here an English translation I will also give my own commentary. This is called the hymn of creation:

“There was neither non-existence nor existence. There was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. There was neither death neither immortality. There was no distinguishing sign of day or night. That One breathed by its own impulse. Other than that, there was nothing beyond.”

This Vedic cosmogony opens by taking us to the limits of our capacity to think. Our ordinary ways of thinking depend on dualities: yes and no, subject and object, is and isn’t. This song presses beyond this duality by invoking a time that is no time, a place that is no place. It is a time and place where there is neither nothing nor not-nothing.

The hymn introduces an entity only known as That One. The identity of That One is not clear, but we do know that it breaths by its own power:

“Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning. With no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force was covered with emptiness. That One arose with the power of heat.”

The story gets more complicated and obscure. It now suggests that there were primordial waters with no distinguishing marks, similar perhaps to that water and chaos of the Biblical account of creation. That One now appears to be identified with the life force. The heat is a creative energy that is associated with the god Agni.

“Desire upon That One in the beginning. That was the first seed of mind. Poets, seeking in their hearts with wisdom, found the bond of existence in non-existence. Their cord was extended across. Was there below? Was there above?”

With these verses the hymn seems to have become impenetrable. Perhaps it is suggesting that That One began to desire as a result of his creative heat. Desire and heat are often associated with one another. Desire is the seed of thought, the beginning of the process by which the world was brought into being.

When we think we see some clarity in the hymn it introduces poets. Percy Bysshe Shelley said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but even Shelley didn’t imagine such a grand role for poets in the world’s creation. These poets, however, are more that just word smiths. They are sages, saints and philosophers.

Where they came from and what role they played in the world’s creation is not clear. Some commentators have suggested that the hymn maintains that the poets bring That One into existence through their meditating powers. Others think that the poets merely discern the structure of existence through wisdom after the world’s creation.

Then, rather surprisingly, the hymn takes an unexpected turn. After making these pronouncements, it becomes profoundly humble:

“Who really knows? Who here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? The gods came afterwards. Who then knows whence it has a reason. Perhaps it formed itself or perhaps it did not. The One who looks down upon it in highest heaven, only he knows, or perhaps he does not know?”

There is something refreshingly honest about these concluding verses. Without reaching a point of cynicism or nihilism it reminds us that thoughts about the origin of the cosmos remain speculative. From the beginning we are enveloped in a mystery.

Hinduism’s Holy Book

The Aryans gave Hinduism its priestly language, Sanskrit; and what could be called Hinduism’s holy book: The Veda. The Veda is a rather unusual collection of literature. It is not narrative like the Bible. It tells no grand story of gods and humans. The Vedas are more like a liturgy manual. It includes hundreds of hymns addressed to various deities, as well as myths, some spells and a bit of philosophical speculation.

It is clear that the Veda is concerned primarily with rituals and it was probably composed to be recited at sacrifices. The term Veda means “wisdom”. It derives from the Sanskrit root ved which means simply to see. You may recognize an English cognate in the word video. Seeing is an extremely important dimension for Hindu religious experience.

According to the beliefs of most Hindus today, the wisdom embodied in the Veda is timeless because it has no origin. It existed prior to this world and embodies an eternal law that transcends even the gods. The words of the Veda, according to traditional conviction, were revealed to ancient sages called Rishis in a distant past.

Some Hindus even maintain that the Veda contains all knowledge, even the principles of nuclear physics and the distance between heavenly bodies. A few even claim that the reason the West attained such rapid technological and scientific progress is because Westerners appropriated Vedic knowledge when its contents where revealed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Today, the Veda is regarded as the most authoritative and sacred Hindu scripture. So important is the Veda that Hinduism is sometimes called Vedic Dharma: the religion of the Veda. Acceptance of the authority of the Veda has been a criterion for determining which schools of Indian thought are orthodox and which are heterodox.

Despite this fact, the Veda has never been widely read in India. The vast majority of Hindus have never read a fragment of them. For the daily life of ordinary Hindus, writings such as the Mahabharata, the Puranas and the Bhagavad Gita are far more significant.

The Vedic World View

Presenting the Vedic world to you I fear I’ll be making it seem more systematic and coherent that actually was. The collection of Vedic writings is not systematic theology. It wasn’t written with modern categories of thought in mind. There are passages whose entire meaning is totally obscure.

We should remember also that because the Veda represents the perspective of the priestly cast in the Aryan society. We cannot be certain of how widespread these views were. Lower classes did not keep records or had anything comparable to the Veda.

The Veda is divided into four Samhitas or collections, each concerned with a particular aspect of ritual. The oldest and most important of these is called the Rigveda. The Rigveda contains over a thousand hymns to various gods and goddesses. The word rig means praise, so this collection is aptly named.

Some scholars have argued that the Rigveda may be over 30000 years old. Most of them, however, believe it to be of much more recent origin, between 2300 and 1200 B.C. The Rigveda contain Mantras or sacred words that are used during rituals.

The other Samhitas include the Yajurveda, which contains instructions for sacrifices; the Samaveda, which contains melodies to be sung during sacrifices; and the Atharvaveda, which offers spells and incantations for rituals. In order to understand what the Vedas say about the nature of the world, you might be interested in reading the following articles:
  • The Hindu Creation Story: The Aryan civilization honored how this world came into being and the Veda offered several different explanations. It doesn’t seem to be a problem that the stories of the world’s creation are often at odds with one another. Even today, the Hindu tradition contains dozen of different accounts of creation.

Return from Hinduism's Holy Book to Origin of Hinduism

The Aryan Civilization

Who were these Aryans? Most historians believe that the Aryans related to people who migrated into Iran, Irak, Ireland and other parts of Europe. In many ways, the Aryans were different from what we know about the Indus Valley dwellers. First, they were no highly organized. The Aryans were nomads rather than settled down agriculturalists.

Unlike the dwellers of the Indus Valley, the Aryans used horses and chariots. It is clear that the Aryans brought with them to India different gods, different rituals and a different language. The Aryan language evolved into Sanskrit, the official language of the Hindu tradition.

The word Aryan is derived from the Sanskrit word Arya, which means “noble one”. The Aryans loved their language. Sanskrit means “well formed”, and the Aryans believed it to be the perfect linguistic embodiment of the nature of reality. Some Western scholars have even believed that Sanskrit was the original language of humanity.

Sanskrit is closely connected to many European languages. Linguists speak of the Indo-European language family. We can see the similarities in many words. For example, the Sanskrit word for god is “deiva”, akin to the English word divine or deity, or the Latin word deus.

The Aryans and the Vedas

Since the Aryans were migratory, they left in the way of archeological evidence. Almost everything we know about them is based in what is now a collection of writings called the Vedas. This is the oldest and most sacred of Hindu scriptures. Originally and for thousand of years the Vedas existed only in oral tradition, preserved by special memorization techniques by Aryan priests.

The Vedas were never intended to be written. The oral word as contrasted with the written word is considered extremely powerful and potentially dangerous. Only the priests were competent enough to recite the Vedas effectively without causing a great danger. Old Hindu law even stated that if a lower cast person were to hear the Vedas, his ears should be filled with melted lead.

Initially horrible punishments were also prescribed for the priests who manifested its contents to outsiders. The Vedas was finally put in writing by the priestly cast after the arrival of the Muslims in India in the early modern period. Still, priests were not persuaded to show the contents of the Vedas until the late 18th and 19th centuries.

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The Indus Valley Seals

The excavation of the Indus Valley civilization has revealed many intriguing artifacts. The most interesting of these relics are seals used to stamp designs in soft clay. Anthropologists believe that these seals probably have some religious significance. When anthropologists say that something has religious significance what they really are saying is that they don’t know what these objects meant.

These seals were probably used to mark property in trade, but the importance of the design themselves is a matter of speculation. It is interesting to note that similar seals have been found as far away as Mesopotamia, suggesting perhaps a commercial connection between these great civilizations.

The Power of Sexuality

Most scholars who examine these seals think that the images depicted on them were related in some way to fertility rituals. The great majority of seals portray animals, almost exclusively male animals with horns and massive flanks and legs. The emphasis in the horns and flanks does suggest an intense interest in sexuality and reproductive functions.

Some of the seals

This sort of concern with the power of sexuality is not at all uncommon and it is intimately connected with the experience of the sacred. Still, we are up to wonder why animals rather than humans are taken as representative of the males’ sexual powers.

I’d like to suggest that perhaps these depictions are associated with the human effort to appropriate animal powers. Throughout the world, early humans often sought to incorporate into themselves certain qualities that they admired in animals.

In the movie “Dances with Wolves”, the character played by Kevin Costner is directed to eat the warm heart of the first bison that he kills as a way of appropriating its courage, which is believed to reside in the heart.

The depiction of sexual energy in animals we find in the Indus Valley seals may suggest a similar effort to acquire powers that humans lacked or simply wanted in greater abundance.

Female Sexuality

Indus Valley’s culture fascination with sexuality is also evidenced with the discovery of numerous terracotta figurines depicting women with exaggerated hips and breasts. Similar representations have been unearthed in many parts of the world, leading scholars to theorize the existence of a mother goddess religion, long antedating the worship of male gods.

The details of that theory are debatable but is does seem evident, at least in the Indus Valley civilization, that the reproductive powers of women were revered and celebrated. Perhaps women themselves were regarded as sacred. It is clear that the worship of goddesses has a long and deeply rooted tradition in Hinduism, and may in fact derive from Indus Valley’s practices.

The Origin of Meditation?

There is a seal illustrating a man sitting down in what appears to be the lotus position, a fundamental pose in yoga and meditation. This seal rises the intriguing possibility that this early dwellers on the Indus were practitioners of meditation. If true, then India has had a contemplative spirit throughout its history.

The Pashupati Seal

The sited figure seems to have three faces looking in different directions. It is not clear what or who this image represents. Many scholars believe that this figure may be an early representation of the god who later came to be known as Shiva. Multiple faces are often used in Hindu iconography to suggest omniscience.

To compare the Indus Valley image with a modern Hindu image of Shiva helps substantiate the scholarly claim.

A modern statue of Shiva

To round up this portrait of the religious dimension of the Indus Valley let me sum up what we know. Indus Valley religion seems intensely concerned with procreation and purity. It may have involved the worship of male animals as a way of incorporating their sexual powers. Female powers of reproduction were also regarded as sacred.

Purification practices, meditation and the well organized cities suggest that the Indus dwellers were very interested in order and restrain.

The Demise

After the Indus Valley was discovered in the 19th century, scholars were faced with having to explain the demise of this great civilization and its relationship with the Aryans, the people with whom Hinduism has long been associated.

The dominant theory suggested that the Indus civilization came to an end around 1500 B.C. when bands of lighter skinned Aryans verged into the Indian subcontinent and conquered the darker skinned Indus dwellers. Today, this invasion theory is in serious doubt. Scholars are revising their understanding of the cultures of early India, although many still hold to the idea of Aryan conquest.

We know that the Indus civilization was already in decline by 1500 B.C., when the Aryans supposedly subdued the region by military conquest. Between 1900 and 1600 B.C. the Indus river may have changed its course. Maybe the entire region desiccated. This has been confirmed by recent satellite photography.

Furthermore, there is no evidence archeological or otherwise to suggest such a massive conquest. Aryans’ own extensive writings don’t mention a migration of people from outside of India. In fact, there is evidence that the Aryans and the Indus may have coexisted in the same are for some time before the ultimate demise of the Indus Valley culture.

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The Origin of Hinduism

Hinduism is the world’s oldest living religious tradition. It is unlikely that there was a single founder of Hinduism, but if there were such an individual, he or she is unknown to us today. Although we don’t know the name of individuals, we do know several cultures that contributed to the development of Hinduism.

Of these contributing sources, two are specially important for our understanding of the history of the Hindu tradition. The first is the Indus Valley civilization. The second source is a group called the Aryans, a nomadic group of people who might have migrated to India from Central Asia.

It may be fair to say that Hinduism is not only the world’s oldest religion, it is also the most pluralistic. Its great diversity is what makes the concept of Hinduism problematic. Determining what all Hindus have in common is exceedingly difficult.

This pluralism has produced an attitude that denies the possibility of ever completely knowing the whole truth. It is the viewpoint that maintains that there are many valid viewpoint. Each perspective is partially correct. A famous passage from the oldest Hindu scripture, the Vedas, makes this point: “The truth is one but the sages call it by different names”.

Hinduism is a tradition that honors all seekers after the truth and recognizes that different persons require different ways of relating to divine reality. That’s one of the great strengths of Hinduism: its ability to absorb ideas and practices from different sources without giving up its fundamental orientation.

The Hindu tradition emerged from the confluence of several cultures, the most important of which were the Indus Valley civilization and the Aryans. The relationship between this cultures is not altogether certain but the evidence does suggest that they were quite different from one another.

Each culture seems to have contributed distinctive elements to the emergence of Hinduism. From the Indus Valley, Hinduism may have gained a concern with ritual purity and spiritual discipline. Perhaps also a proclivity towards the worship of the goddess. From the Aryans received its priestly language, Sanskrit; and its most sacred scripture, the Vedas. We shall see in other articles that the Aryans’ contribution was much more than this.

In this series of articles I will try to unravel the origin of what we now call Hinduism:

  • The Indus Valley Civilization: About 150 years ago, a discovery was made that has caused scholars to revise their understanding of the early history of India. The Indus Valley civilization, as it is now known is considered one of the great cultures of the ancient world. Although Hindus would not regard the Indus Valley civilization as part of their sacred history, there is evidence that elements from this culture contributed to the great amalgam of Hinduism.

  • The Indus Valley Seals: The excavation of the Indus Valley civilization has revealed many intriguing artifacts. The most interesting of these relics are seals used to stamp designs in soft clay. Anthropologists believe that these seals probably have deep religious significance. 

  • The Aryan Civilization: Who were these Aryans? Most historians believe that the Aryans related to people who migrated into Iran, Irak, Ireland and other parts of Europe. In many ways, the Aryans were different from what we know about the Indus Valley dwellers. It is clear that the Aryans brought with them to India different gods, different rituals and a different language. The Aryan language evolved into Sanskrit, the official language of the Hindu tradition.

  • Hinduism’s Holy Book: The Aryans gave Hinduism its priestly language, Sanskrit; and what could be called Hinduism’s holy book: The Veda. The Veda is a rather unusual collection of literature. It is not narrative like the Bible. It tells no grand story of gods and humans. The Vedas are more like a liturgy manual.

The Indus Valley Civilization

About 150 years ago, a discovery was made that has caused scholars to revise their understanding of the early history of India. In 1850’s, while excavating for a railroad system in Northern India, workers discovered the existence of an ancient and sophisticated civilization that had long been forgotten.

The Indus Valley civilization, as it is now known is considered one of the great cultures of the ancient world. What came to light since the first excavation suggests that the Indus Valley civilization was as great as ancient Egypt. Although Hindus would not regard the Indus Valley civilization as part of their sacred history, there is evidence that elements from this culture contributed to the great amalgam of Hinduism.

A Well Organized Urban Society

What is known about the Indus Valley culture comes exclusively from archaeological evidence, since its cryptic language has never been completely deciphered. In fact, we do not know what the inhabitants of this civilization called themselves.

The archeological evidence suggests that the Indus Valley culture flourished between 3000 and 1500 B.C. About 17 different cities have been unearthed so far and they display remarkably similar features, suggesting a social and political unity. Indus Valley civilization may have expanded over one million square kilometers.

The cities were well organized and carefully planned. The Indus Valley was relatively peaceful culture, as very few weapons have been discovered. The residences were specially impressive. Many were equipped with inner bathrooms and plumbing. In fact, great concern with cleanliness is evidenced throughout the civilization.

Not only homes features sophisticated toilet facilities, but municipalities did as well. The cities Mohenjo-daro and Harappa each had large central baths with public access.

The prominence of these baths in homes and cities suggests that the dwellers of the Indus Valley civilization were concerned with more than simple hygiene. They seem to be greatly interested in matters of ritual purity. Ritual purity is not a concept that is familiar to modern Westerners. It might be helpful to clarify this concept.

All societies maintain structures of order, what we might call simply a sense of what is right and appropriate. The structures are not always explicit or written out as laws. Taboos are often given to those areas of life were one may run the risk of violating order. For the structures to be maintained many cultures reinforce taboos with harsh punishments.

One of the most common ways for societies to maintain order is with the opposition of cleanliness and dirt. More technically purity and pollution. Essentially, all societies have things that they regard as clean and dirty. These things might be food, people or kinds of activities.

Purity and Pollution

Accounts of what is clean and dirty varies greatly from culture to culture and time to time. This has nothing to do with hygiene as such, but it has a great deal to do with social and religious order.

Frequently, cleanliness and dirtiness are functions of context rather than the intrinsic nature of things. For example, suppose that I’m at a restaurant enjoying a green salad. As long as I observe proper attitude and politely convey my food to my mouth with the fork all is well, but at the moment I drop a piece of lettuce on my tie I’m dirty. On the plate, on the fork and in my mouth the lettuce is nice and clean. On my tie, it is dirt. Nothing about the lettuce changes but its context has. A sense of order has been violated.

Some people would not drink water drawn from the bathroom tap because they regard it as somehow dirty. It is not really unhygienic because it is the same water that comes from the kitchen tap and it is the same water you use to brush your teeth. However, to some people drinking water from a bathroom tap seems out of place and inappropriate.

Understanding the dynamics of purity and pollution helps us to grasp what is probably the central purpose of the great baths in the Indus Valley civilization: to remove the ritual dirt incurred by everyday living. Today, many Hindu temples have tanks that function as ritual baths. Many bodies of water, such as the Ganges, serve this purpose.

In these baths, people came to restore the pristine order that may have been disrupted by inappropriate behavior or simply by coming into contact with a person that is seen as unclean.

What we see in the Indus Valley civilization is the earliest expression of a religious practice that runs throughout all of the Hindu history.

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