Hinduism is the world's third most prolific religion after Christianity and Islam. With a history spanning many thousands of years, it is the dominant religion in South Asia and has been very influential in Southeast Asia, sharing its origin with Buddhism and Jainism.
Hinduism has been spread to many countries by South Asian emigrants. While the faith has traditionally been less proselytic than many other religions, modern movements such as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishnas) have helped spark increased interest in Hinduism in Western countries since the 1960s.
Due to their superb architecture and cultural value, many Hindu temples have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
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Origins and deities
Hinduism is an extremely diverse religious and spiritual tradition. It has no founder, governing body or single holy book, although the Vedas (Sanskrit: वेद Veda, lit. knowledge) are regarded by most Hindus to be the holiest and most authoritative religious texts. It is often referred to as not just a religion but a way of life. The beginnings of Hinduism are at least as old as the Vedas, the earliest of which are estimated to date from approximately 1700 BCE, with traces of the religion found in the earlier Indus Valley Civilisation, beginning from 3300 BCE. Many scholars now believe that the Vedic mythology of Hinduism originally evolved from proto-Indo-European mythology, thus sharing a common origin with many mythologies of pre-Christian Europe, such as the Greek, Roman, Celtic, Slavic and Germanic mythologies. The Vedas and other texts, including the Upanishads, Puranas, and the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics, are in the ancient and sacred language of Sanskrit.
Hinduism is a richly iconic religion, celebrating many Gods and Goddesses in the form of statues and paintings, and with music, dance and poetry. Hindus believe in a cycle of birth, death and rebirth, corresponding to the Hindu trinity of Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver and Shiva, the destroyer. Hindu Gods are believed to be able to come to the mortal world in the form of avatars - incarnations in human or animal form who can also shape-shift. The most famous examples are Rama and Krishna, two much-beloved avatars of Vishnu. The belief in avatars has also allowed Hindus to adopt elements of other religions, for example by accepting Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu. Many Hindu Gods have consorts, with Saraswati as the consort of Brahma, Lakshmi as the consort of Vishnu, and Parvati as the consort of Shiva. These consort Goddesses also can come down to Earth as avatars, frequently as the wives of their respective husbands' avatars. Other deities that are venerated include Indra, the god of thunder and lightning, and king of the gods, Agni, the god of fire and Ganesha, the elephant-faced god and son of Shiva. There is also a Hindu belief in the Brahman — the divine oneness — and therefore, some Hindus believe that all the Gods and Goddesses are manifestations of an overall oneness, and are monotheists.
Hindus, especially in India and Nepal, have traditionally believed in a system of castes, which are essentially rather rigidly-defined social classes. The four main castes are the Brahmins, the highest caste which consisted of the priests, the Kshatriyas, which consisted of the kings, warriors and other members of the nobility, the Vaishyas, which consisted of the peasants, craftsmen and merchants, and the Shudras at the bottom, which consisted of the servants of the three higher castes. There are also a substantial number of people outside the caste structure, literally outcastes or "Untouchables" (also known as the dalit), who were so low on the social order that they were shunned by people with a caste. One's station in life at birth is traditionally considered to be a product of karma, the actions and consequences of what a living thing did in a previous life. One's caste was hereditary and considered to be the karmic result of reward or punishment for actions in a previous life, and intermarriage between people of different castes was strictly forbidden. Those who broke the rules of their caste would be thrown out and become an outcaste. Some advances have been made including affirmative action, but while casteism has been outlawed by the Indian government, like many other long-standing traditions, caste-based practices continue.
Geographic scope of Hinduism
Hinduism started in the Indian Subcontinent and spread to much of Southeast Asia during the reigns of the great Maurya, Gupta and Chola empires. It was prevalent in many powerful Southeast Asian empires and kingdoms for centuries, where it gave birth to some of the most beautiful and impressive temple complexes in the World. Nowadays, most of the population in formerly Hindu parts of Southeast Asia adheres to Islam, Buddhism or Christianity, though the Indonesian island of Bali remains majority-Hindu. However, vestiges of Hinduism continue to survive in the folk tales and arts of the region and in the syncretic beliefs of many Southeast Asians, including large numbers of Javanese people, who practice a mixed Animist/Hindu-Buddhist/Muslim belief system called Kejawen.
Starting in the 19th century, there was a great exodus of Hindus from British India to other British colonies such as Malaya, Guyana, Trinidad, Fiji, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Burma, Hong Kong and Mauritius, mostly to work as indentured servants or unskilled laborers. In the 20th and 21st centuries, many Hindus have immigrated from India, East Africa and the West Indies to the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada and other Western countries, and a very large number have travelled to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and other Arab Gulf States to work. Today, the only countries with a Hindu majority are India, Nepal and Mauritius. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, commonly known as the Hare Krishnas, were founded in New York City in 1966 and have proselytized around the world, gaining converts to their brand of Hinduism.
Holy places and beings
Many bodies of water are holy to Hindus, but above all is the great Ganges River of India, known in many northern Indian languages as Ganga and itself considered a Goddess. Ablutions in the river, being cremated there, or simply being close to it are considered holy.
The holiness of cows to Hindus is well-known around the world. Cows have the run of many streets throughout India, and most Hindus would never kill a cow for food but instead use the cow's milk and make dairy products with it, including ghee (clarified butter), yogurt, paneer (fresh cheese curd), buttermilk and a variety of desserts. In Nepal, although the meat of domestic cows is not eaten, the meat of water buffaloes is part of Nepalese cuisine.
Monkeys are often considered holy and identified with the monkey god, Hanuman, one of the heroes of the classic Ramayana epic, so do not be surprised if lots of monkeys are running free and looking to steal your sandwich when you visit a temple that honours Hanuman. Elephants are also revered animals for Hindus as they are closely identified with the god Ganesha.
The Swastika and other symbols
For thousands of years Hindu people have used the Swastika as a symbol of peace that represents the Brahman (divine oneness) long before the Nazis twisted it into a symbol of evil. It is a very sacred symbol and is not meant to offend but instead to signify the universal connection of the entire Universe and all life in all its aspects, and especially energy. The Swastika is shared by Buddhists and Jains as a religious symbol.
Another very prominent symbol in Hinduism is the sacred sound Om (also spelt as Aum). Om refers to the oneness of the Atman (soul) and Brahman (ultimate reality and entirety of the universe). You will commonly hear the word chanted as part of mantras in temples and yoga schools. It is also common to see the Sanskrit inscription of this word.
Types of religious sites
There are many types of Hindu religious sites including:
- Temple: A structure designed to bring humans and Gods together. Temples in South Indian style typically include one or more gopuram, which are ornate and often colorful towers. South Indian empires had great influence in Southeast Asia in ancient times, so the construction of gopuram spread there as well.
- Ashram: A spiritual hermitage or monastery
- Goshala (also spelt Gaushala): A sanctuary and place of shelter for cows, a holy animal in the religion
- Ghat: A series of steps leading down to a holy body of water (river or lake)
Cities and other destinations
Because of the vastness, complexity and diversity of the religion, there are hundress if not thousands of Hindu holy sites in the world, mostly in South Asia. The destinations listed below are among the holiest but are only a small sample what you can experience as a traveller.
- 1 Amarnath (28 km northeast of Pahalgam), the site of the holy iced stalagmite Shiva Lingam
- 2 Haridwar, literally meaning the "Gateway to God", located at the banks of the Ganges (Ganga) River
- 3 Jammu, also known as the City Of Temples, is a major place of Hindu pilgrimage
- 4 Katra, the gateway to the Mata Vaishno Devi temple, the second most visited Hindu temple in the world
- 5 Ayodhya, birthplace of mythological hero, Rama
- 6 Khajuraho, a town famous for its large and ancient Tantric temple complexes
- 7 Kurukshetra, the site of the epic Mahabharata war and where Krishna is said to have delivered the message of the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna.
- 8 Mathura, believed to be the birthplace of Krishna.
- 9 Varanasi, the holiest city in the religion and one of the oldest continuously-occupied cities in the world.
- 10 Dwarka, the city which Krishna is believed to have founded and ruled for 100 years. Also the site of the western matha, established by Adi Shankaracharya in the 8th century
- 11 Madurai, centre of worship of the Goddess Meenakshi, the consort of the God Shiva
- 12 Thanjavur, once the capital of the great Chola Empire, and also home to many magnificent temples dating from that period.
- 13 Tirupati, home to the Tirumala Venkateshwara Temple, the most visited place of worship in the world
- 14 Konark, has one of the greatest sun temples in the world, dedicated to the deity Surya, partially in ruins but gradually being restored
Rest of South Asia
- Dhaka, the capital, is home to the 800-year-old Dhakeshvari Temple, the country's "National Temple"
- Kathmandu, home to Nepal's holiest Hindu shrine, the Pashupatinath Temple
- 15 Hinglaj, Balochistan. The Hinglaj Mata (Mother Goddess) temple is inside a cave and is surrounded by arid hills and gorges. Also revered by the local Muslim community, it has become a unifying point for Pakistan's remaining Hindu community. Devotees from across the nation make a four-day pilgrimage in April every year.
- 16 Umerkot, Sindh. The Shiva temple in Umerkot is one of the country's most famous, with the temple holding a vibrant three-day Shivaratri festival held in February/March every year. The pond at the temple complex is believed to have formed from Shiva's tears.
- Kataragama, A Hindu pilgrimage centre in southern Sri Lanka venerated by Sri Lankans of all faiths. The village itself is small but landscapes are great. Once inside the temple complex you will attend rituals that are strongly suggestive. The main event is the annual Esala Festival in July or August but ceremonies are held daily.
- Munneswaram Temple, located in Munneswaram village, a few km away from Chilaw, is well known for its celebration of Navaratri and Sivarathri festivals.
- Besakih, site of the holiest Hindu temple in Bali, on the slopes of the sacred volcano, Gunung Agung
- Prambanan, a very large ancient temple complex in Central Java
- Ubud, Bali, has quite a few temples and is well-known as a wellspring of classical and modern Balinese music and dance, which have religious content and are often performed in temple ceremonies
- 18 Batu Caves, in Kuala Lumpur's northern suburbs, features a huge statue of the God Murugan guarding the bottom of the stairs.
- Penang is also home to a significant Indian community, and the Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Temple, located on a hill in George Town, is the focal point of Thaipusam celebrations in Penang.
- Yangon – Home to a significant ethnic Indian community that traces its origins to the colonial era, and the Shri Kali Temple in Little India is the main temple of the community.
- Bagan – The Nathlaung Kyaung Temple, dedicated to Vishnu, stands as the only surviving Hindu temple in Bagan among thousands of Buddhist ones. Not far to the south of Bagan, in Myinkaba, is the Nanpaya Temple, which was built by the captive Mon King Makuta, and is dedicated to Brahma.
- Little India – The heart of Singapore's Indian community is naturally a place to look for Hindu temples, and several historically important temples are found in the area. The Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, dedicated to Krishna, is perhaps the most important among them, and serves as the starting point for the annual Thaipusam and Thimithi processions. Another important temple, and the oldest in Little India is the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple dedicated to the goddess Kali.
- Chinatown – Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore's oldest and most impressive Hindu temple is, perhaps surprisingly, located here and not in Little India. Particularly notable for its impressive and colourful gopuram on top of the main entrance. The annual Thimithi fire walking ceremony is held here.
- Tank Road – Home to the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple, decicated to Murugan and the end point of the annual Thaipusam procession.
- Bangkok – Home to a significant ethnic Indian minority, with the Mariamman Temple in Bangrak being the main temple of the community. Vestiges of Hinduism also survive in Thai Buddhism, and there are several nominally Buddhist shrines dedicated to Hindu deities, the most famous being the Erawan Shrine near the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel, dedicated to Brahma.
- Ho Chi Minh City – Once home to a significant ethnic Indian minority of Tamil origin, this community largely fled Vietnam following the Fall of Saigon. However, the main temple of the community, the Mariamman Temple in District 1, still stands and continues to be an active place of worship.
- My Son, ruins of the former Champa civilisation, a Hindu kingdom whose lands mainly covered what is now the central part of Vietnam.
Rest of the World
- Ganga Talao (lake) in Savanne, Mauritius is the most sacred site for Mauritian Hindus.
- Nadi, Fiji has the Sri Siva Subramaniya Temple, the largest Hindu temple in the Pacific, featuring a colourful gopura.
- Trinidad and Tobago has the largest Hindu population among the Caribbean island nations. The Temple in the Sea at Waterloo is a popular pilgrimage site for Indian Trinidadians, and was built entirely on reclaimed land when the government denied its main benefactor permission to build it on existing land.
There are many different Hindu festivals, some celebrated only in particular regions or only by devotees of a particular Hindu deity. In some predominantly Hindu areas the main festivals of other religions, such as Christmas or Eid al-Fitr, are also public holidays and are at least respected if not celebrated.
The diversity of Hinduism means there are very few festivals, if any at all, celebrated by every devotee. However there are festivals that are celebrated or at least recognised by the vast majority of Hindus to be very significant.
Diwali is the most important festival in Hinduism, and celebrated by Hindus the world over in late October or early November each year, at the dark of the moon in the Hindu month of Kartika; both the Sikh and Jain religions also have major festivals on the same day. The festival lasts five days in most parts of India. It celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair. The main deity involved is Lakshmi, the Goddess of Prosperity. Many lanterns are lit, both in homes and around temples. Many people buy new clothes for the occasion. During the night in the big cities, fireworks will go off in every street and last for hours. There are many fine photo opportunities for travellers.
Dussehra commemorates the death of demon Ravana at the hands of Rama, and is arguably the most important moment in the Ramayana epic tale. Throughout the Hindu world, giant effigies of Ravana are burnt to celebrate the triumph of good over evil.
Holi, the festival of colours, is celebrated at the full moon before the spring equinox. The eve of Holi typically has bonfires, music and dancing. On the day itself, people paint each other with bright colours; dry powdered paints, buckets of liquid and water pistols are all used. Often plain white cotton garments are worn, to avoid messing up better clothes. It can get rather raucous, though some respect is shown; for example the Buddhist monks at Bodhgaya can walk through a crowd without being painted. Tourists, however, are not exempt — in fact, some of the crowd may particularly enjoy painting visitors. Tourists should dress with this in mind.
Maha Shivaratri, meaning "the great night of Shiva", is celebrated annually in honor of the god Shiva and his wife, the goddess Parvati. It falls in the month of Maagh corresponding with January/February in the Gregorian calendar. Best places to attend Mahashivrati are Junagadh (Gujarat), Mandi (Himachal Pradesh), Ujjain (Madhya Pradesh), and Srikalahasti (Andhra Pradesh).
Makar Sankranti is a harvest festival falling on the same date in the Gregorian calendar every year: 14 January. It's celebrated almost everywhere in India and Nepal. Makar Sankranti is known as Maghi in Punjab, Thai Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Uttarayana in Gujarat and Rajasthan, and Lohri in Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.
Bonalu is a Telugu/Hindu festival celebrated for a Mother Goddess in Hyderabad and other parts of Telangana. It falls in the month of Ashada Masam, in July/August. Participants in the Bonalu festival bear the deity on their head. Some trancing women dance while drummers give them the rhythm in a carnival-like atmosphere.
Navratri, meaning "nine nights" is a major festival in honor of the deity Durga, the wife of Shiva, held four times a year all over India. Traditional Garba dances are performed during the festival in Gujarat's main cities. Navratri is one of the most significant festivals among Punjabi and Jammu Hindus. Many devotees fast for up to seven days and on the eighth day perform Kanjak Puja , where young girls representing Durga are venerated and worshipped.
Thaipusam or Kavadi is a festival in honor of Murugan, the Tamil God of War. Kavadi, literally meaning "sacrifice at every step" in Tamil, is a dance performed by the devotees during the festival. You can witness Thaipusam at Palani, where thousands of devotees flock to attend Kavadi. Outside of Tamil Nadu, Thaipusam celebrations take place in Mauritius; Batu Caves, a few km away from Kuala Lumpur; and Singapore.
Thimithi, the Tamil fire walking festival celebrated just before Diwali, in which male devotees walk on burning coals. Also celebrated by the Tamil diaspora in Malaysia and Singapore.
Nyepi, or the Hindu New Year, is the most important festival in Bali, where Diwali is not celebrated. On this day, all Balinese Hindus are required to refrain from all forms of entertainment, avoid lighting fires and observe a code of silence (which means no talking) for the entire day, as this is believed to be necessary to fool the evil spirits into thinking that the island is deserted. This means that the entire island, including the airport and all tourist facilities, shuts down for the entire day, and a curfew is imposed, meaning that you will be confined to your hotel. That said, many rituals are performed on the days leading up to, and the days immediately after this day, and these are a great way for tourists to experience the local culture.
Galungan is the Balinese equivalent of Diwali, marking the triumph of good over evil, albeit celebrated on a different day. During this period, the Balinese believe that the spirits of their dead ancestors return to the world of the living, and offerings of food are made in order to appease them. You will see pejor, bamboo poles with offerings suspended at the end, lining the streets of Bali.
- Bharata Natyam (classical Indian dance) and various forms of classical Indian music are very commonly dedicated to a Hindu God or Goddess. For example, many kriti have lyrics of praise to a deity, and these are known to Hindu audiences even if the melodies are performed at a concert only by instrumentalists.
Traditional forms of Hindu and Hindu-derived religious performance include:
- Kecak, a Balinese dance, usually by a group of men, who also do a loud rhythmic chant of "cha-ke-chak," which reenacts a battle from the classic Hindu epic, the Ramayana
- Legong, a classic Balinese dance that is traditionally performed by girls at ceremonies at Hindu temples
- Wayang Kulit, the shadow play based on stories from the Ramayana. There are different styles within Indonesia, notably including Central Javanese and Balinese, and related shadow play genres exist in other Southeast Asian countries — including Malaysia, where the state of Kelantan used to be the wellspring of another style of Hindu-derived Wayang Kulit and a traditional operatic style called Mak Yong, which included tales from the other major Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, but these are increasingly hard to find. In Central Java, Yogyakarta and Solo are best-known for Wayang Kulit.
- Wayang Orang, the traditional drama of Solo, Central Java that is performed live on stage by actor/dancers, with the accompaniment of a gamelan (classical Javanese orchestra) and based on stories from the Mahabharata
Visitors to Hindu temples are required to take their shoes off before entering. Do not touch or climb onto the statues without permission. It is a safe option to dress conservatively when visiting, though the suitable dress standards will vary from region to region. Generally, the dress standards of South India and Bali are more liberal than those of North India. Men and women should avoid very explicit public displays of affection. In some temples, men and women are required to sit in separate areas.
Many orthodox Hindu temples forbid entry to people of low castes and women during their menstrual period, and some forbid entry to non-Hindus. There are also a few temples that forbid entry to all women.
The head is considered to be the holiest part of the body, and touching somebody else's head, even that of young children, is considered to be disrespectful and offensive to Hindus.
Sanskrit is the original language of the Vedas, Hinduism's principal religious texts, as well as well-known Hindu epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana. It is no longer spoken natively by any significant sector of the Indian population, though it continues to be widely used as a liturgical language in many temples, and many Sanskrit words survive in the languages of South and Southeast Asia.
In addition to using the holy language, Sanskrit, Hindu temples tend to use the local language of the region when conducting their services. There are English signs at most popular Hindu temples around the world. Outside South Asia, the languages used in the temple are often based on the ethnic makeup of the community who go to the temple. For example in Western countries, Hindi may be spoken in North Indian-style temples while Tamil may be spoken in South Indian-style temples.
The cow is considered to be a holy animal in Hinduism, meaning that killing a cow is regarded as sacrilegious. Accordingly, Hindus are forbidden from eating beef, though this rule is interpreted somewhat loosely by Nepalese Hindus, who eat the meat of water buffaloes (but not domestic cows). Hindus from certain groups and regions including most orthodox Brahmins are vegetarian. Vegetarianism in a Hindu context generally means not consuming meats and eggs but allows for the consumption of dairy. In fact, the high consumption and reliance on milk and dairy products is one of the reasons why Hindus hold the cow in great esteem.
Some Hindu temples serve delicious vegetarian food at a low price. The holy food served at temples is called Prasad/Prashad and varies according to the festival and season. There are usually signature dishes for each major festival. There are often special "fasting" dishes served, which omit a particular food group. The type of fasting food again depends on the festival and reason for the fast.
Most major airlines provide both Hindu vegetarian and Hindu non-vegetarian special meal options on their flights, though these generally have to be requested in advance.
Bhang, a drink made from the cannabis plant, milk, spices and sugar is fervently consumed in Northern India and Nepal during the Holi festival (February-March). Devotees often chant holy prayers before drinking the beverage and entering into a dreamlike, spiritual state. Note that bhang is illegal in any country or jurisdiction where cannabis is prohibited, as marijuana is an integral ingredient of the recipe.
Some Hindu sects forbid the consumption of alcohol, while the Hare Krishnas forbid the consumption of tea, coffee, Coca Cola and any other caffeine-containing drinks.
Many ashrams, temples and other Hindu organizations teach yoga and meditation. Many foreigners including the Beatles have visited India to study these, but there are also many places that offer such classes outside of Hindu-majority areas. The word Om, used by millions of people as a mantra (sound) to aid in meditation, is an ancient Sanskrit word that has many meanings, including that of the divine oneness of all. The beginnings of yoga date back to at least the 5th century BCE, and while the knowledge and practice of yoga has spread far beyond the Hindu community, its original context was Hindu.
There are many animals considered holy in Hinduism, including cows, monkeys and elephants. Often these animals are allowed to roam around freely around temples. Other animals such as stray dogs — and in rural areas, goats — are also frequently spotted. While fascinating, it is best not to feed or grab the attention of the animals. Watch out for monkeys and bulls in particular. They can attack you when you least expect it.
Incense and ceremonies involving fire are a common feature of Hindu rituals. The smoke and smell will be uncomfortable for some and can pose a risk to people with respiratory issues such as asthma.
The consumption of beef is illegal in Nepal and some states of India. Non-Hindus are also known to have been lynched for eating beef by fundamentalist Hindu mobs, who see it as their sacred duty to protect cows.