Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism is often regarded as the most ancient religion in the world. It is perceived as a way of life by most followers, and traditionally referred to as the ‘Sanatana Dharma’ (in Sanskrit Sanatana means ‘eternal’ and Dharma means ‘righteousness as a way of life’). The roots of Hinduism can be traced back to the period of Indus Valley Civilization. The river Indus was referred to as ‘Sindh’ from which the word ‘Hind’ is said to be derived, denoting the area of the civilization – bordered by the Himalayas in the North, and the Hind Mahasagar (Indian Ocean) in the South. The culture, traditions and lifestyle of the area which encompassed the entire Indian subcontinent came to be known as Hinduism. Its earliest evidence can also be observed in the Pashupati Mahadev seal, an image which is strikingly similar to the image of God Shiva. Hinduism has over a billion followers across the globe, predominantly living in the Indian subcontinent.
Hinduism is also known as a polytheistic religion, which means that it believes in the existence of multiple Gods and Goddesses. There are apparently millions of Gods and Goddesses (known as Devas and Devis) that are worshipped in the Indian subcontinent. Hinduism can be primarily categorized into three traditions namely Shaivism, Vaishnavism, and Shaktism. There are three main deities – Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the nurturer) and Shiva (the destroyer). These three symbolise the eternal cycle of life and death. Shakti is seen as a female force of the Nature.
While values of compassion, truth, non-violence, patience, and forbearance etc. are emphasised upon, there are six schools of Hindu philosophy. These are Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa and Vedanta. One of the prominent socio-spiritual concepts of Hinduism is Purushartha, the four end goals of human life, these are –
◙ Dharma (ethical duty),
◙ Artha (prosperity),
◙ Kama (desires) and,
◙ Moksha (salvation).
As an ancient religion, Hinduism’s philosophy developed with numerous texts like the Vedas, Puranas and Bhagavad Gita, and literary epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Vedas are a part of the oral tradition of Hinduism which was prevalent for several millennia. There are four Vedas, the oldest of which was composed during 1500 – 1200 BCE. Veda is a Sanskrit word which means knowledge and is derived from Sanskrit root word vid meaning ‘to know’. Vedas do not mention their authors. There are multiple perceptions towards its authorship; some believe it was created by divinity aka Brahma while other traditions believe that it was compiled by Vyasa who is also believed to be the traditional author of the Mahabharata. As time progressed, Vedas came to represent Hinduism’s most authoritative texts.
The word Purana literally means ancient. They contain a vast genre of literature about a wide range of topics and narratives about the history of the Universe from creation to destruction and the genealogies of Gods, Goddesses, Kings, Supreme Warriors, and Sages, along with folk tales and philosophy. There is 1 Maha Purana, 17 Mukhya Puranas (Major Puranas) and 18 Upa Puranas (Minor Puranas), which consists of over four-lakh verses.
Epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata
Ramayana and Mahabharata are two Sanskrit epics written in ancient India. They form the foundation of Hindu mythology and are widely recognised across the globe as the most important pieces of Sanskrit literature.
Ramayana describes the story of prince Ram of Ayodhya who spends fourteen years in exile on his stepmother’s request. During this period, the evil king of Lanka, Ravana, abducts his wife. He wages a battle against the king and emerges victorious. The epic also documents his return to Ayodhya after completing fourteen years. Ram is identified as the seventh incarnation of Vishnu and therefore worshipped. The tale of Ram embodies core values of Sanatana Dharma like honesty, duty, importance of family, and abiding by one’s word.
Mahabharata tells the tale of conflict and subsequent war between two factions of the Kuru clan, Kauravas and Pandavas. It is the longest written epic poem with 100,000 verses. An important spiritual and philosophical segment of the epic is Bhagavad Gita.
Considered as one of the core texts of Hindu spiritualism, Bhagwad Gita is essentially a philosophical conversation between Krishna (an incarnation of Vishnu) and Arjuna, just before the commencement of Kurukshetra war of Mahabharata.
Famous Temples and Spiritual Places
Temples in Hinduism not only hold religious but also artistic and historic value. Most Temples and Spiritual Places are located within India but some important temples are also located in countries like Nepal, Bhutan, Bangaladesh, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and China. Architectural style of Hindu temples in India can be categorized as Nagara (prevalent in northern India) and Dravida (prevalent in southern India).
Ram Janmabhoomi Temple in Ayodhya
Ayodhya is located in the state of Uttar Pradesh and known as the birthplace of Lord Rama. Ram Janmabhoomi is considered as one of the most important pilgrimage sites in India.
Krishna Janmasthan Temple in Mathura
Mathura is located in the state of Uttar Pradesh and known as the birthplace of Lord Krishna. Krishna Janmasthan is considered as one of the most important pilgrimage sites in India.
The Khajuraho group of temples in Madhya Pradesh is one of the finest examples of Nagara architecture in India. Built during 855 – 1050 CE by the Chandela dynasty, the temples’ artistic and historical importance has gained them the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site. Kandariya Mahadev, one of the Khajuraho temples dedicated to Shiva, is profusely decorated with intricate sculptures. Eroticism is a prominent theme in these temples as bodily pleasures were seen as an important part of an individual’s material and spiritual life.
Brihadeswara temple in Tamil Nadu was built in 1003 CE by Raja Raja Chola I. Considered as one of the finest examples of Dravida architecture, it is a part of the Great Living Chola Temples today along with Airavateswarar temple and Gangaikondcholapuram. The temples have been accorded UNESCO World Heritage status. Brihadeswara temple is one of the tallest and largest Hindu temples in India. It is also known as Dakshina Meru (Meru of the south). The temple houses one of the largest Shiva lingas (symbol of Shiva) in the world. Due to its religious, artistic, and historical importance, it continues to be one of the most visited places in the state of Tamil Nadu.
The Char Dham consist of four major pilgrimage sites in India. It is believed that visiting these sites helps achieve moksha (salvation). The four Dhams are – Badrinath in Uttarakhand, Dwaraka in Gujarat, Puri in Odisha, and Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu. It is believed that every Hindu should visit the char dhams during one’s lifetime.
Jyotirlingas are representation of the supreme God Lord Shiva, and known as an important pilgrimage centers. There are 12 Jyotirlingas Temples spread across India, these are – ‘Somnath Jyotirlinga Mandir’ and ‘Nageshwara Jyotirlinga Mandir’ in Gujarat; ‘Mallikarjuna Jyotirlinga Mandir’ in Andhra Pradesh;’Mahakaleshwar Jyotirlinga Mandir’ and ‘Omkareshwar Jyotirlinga Mandir’ in Madhya Pradesh; ‘Kedarnath Jyotirlinga Mandir’ in Uttarakhand; ‘Bhimashankar Jyotirlinga Mandir’, ‘Trayambakeshwara Jyotirlinga Mandir’ and ‘Ghrishneshwar Jyotirlinga Mandir’ in Maharashtra; ‘Kashi Vishwanath Jyotirlinga Mandir’ in Uttar Pradesh; ‘Baidyanath Jyotirlinga Mandir’ in Jharkhand; and ‘Rameshwaram Jyotirlinga Mandir’ in Tamil Nadu.
Shakti Peethas and considered as sacred pilgrimage sites dedicated to the devine mother Devi Sati (Goddess Parvati). According to legends, Sati (wife of Lord Shiva and daughter of King Daksha) witnessed his father King Daksha’s insults aimed at her husband Lord Shiva, and anguished by this insult she immolated herself. To overcome this grief, Shiva carried remains of Sati’s body and performed the Tandava (celestial dance of destruction). In order to make him leave the body, Vishnu used his Sudarshana Chakra to cut her body into many pieces. Those pieces fell on different places on earth, and Shakti peethas were built over these places. Shakti Peethas are important place of pilgrimage, and also attracts tantric worshippers. There are more than 51 Shakti Peethas scattered across the Indian subcontinent (including Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, China, Bhutan and Pakistan).
There are many more pilgrimage centers in India, some of these are – Vaishno Devi Temple in Jammu and Kashmir, Venkateswara Temple in Andhra Pradesh, Shri Siddhi Vinayak Temple in Maharashtra, Padmanabhaswamy Temple and Sabarimala Temple in Kerala, Rishikesh in Uttarakhand, Beluṛ Maṭh in West Bengal, etc.
Hinduism’s colourful diversity is reflected in its celebration of festivals. The celebrations vary with every region and ethnic community. However, there are some festivals that are celebrated among the entire Hindu community with equal fervour.
Dussehra / Vijayadashmi
The festival of Dussehra, also known as Vijayadashmi marks the victory of Lord Ram over the king of Lanka, Ravana. The festival is celebrated with theatrical enactments of Ramayana, burning of huge effigies of Ravana, and fireworks. Dussehra commemorates the victory of good over evil. The festival is called Dashain in Nepal and some north-eastern parts of India. Vijayadashami is celebrated on the same day, commemorating the victory of Goddess Durga over demon Mahishasura.
One of the most popular and widely celebrated Hindu festivals, this day marks the return of Lord Ram to Ayodhya after completing fourteen years of exile and defeating the Lankan king, Ravana. It is also known as Deepawali which means string of lights. Since it is celebrated on a new moon night, people decorate their houses with earthen lamps to spread light, thus the name. The festivities are marked by prayers, feasts, fireworks, and gifts to loved ones.
Janmashtami literally means birth (janam) on the eighth day (ashtmi) of the Shravana month of Hindu calendar. This festival marks the day of birth of Krishna (eighth incarnation of Vishnu). The festival is celebrated across the country with a distinct style of every region. In Maharashtra, large scale competitions are organised to reach a pot full of butter kept at a height. This symbolises the childhood of Krishna where butter was kept at height to prevent him from eating it. In Mathura, the place he was born, the festival is celebrated with colours, much like the festival of Holi.
The Kumbh mela is an important festival and a pilgrimage. It is held every twelve years at the banks of the rivers Ganga (Haridwar), Godavari (Nashik), Shipra (Ujjain), and Sangam (Allahabad) which is the confluence of three rivers – Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati. Ardh (half) Kumbh is held every six years. The destinations change in rotation. Kumbh draws not just Hindus but people from across the world and is thus, the largest human congregation in the world.
The inception of this festival is credited to saint and philosopher, Adi Shankaracharya. He wanted to create a space for gatherings, for spiritual and philosophical discussions. The mela is marked with large scale prayers, rituals, religious discourse, mass feeding of the monks and the poor, and general entertainment through fairs. Hinduism believes in Dharma, which means ‘righteousness’ as a ‘religion’ as well as a ‘way of life’. Despite being one of the most ancient religions in the world, Hinduism has continuously evolved and shaped itself according to the trends of time. It allows for every individual to mould their perception of Gods, Goddesses and Religion, thus creating a unified network of diverse beliefs and traditions. Hinduism as a way of life has permeated through the lives of people across the world.