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.
Due to their superb architecture and cultural value, many Hindu temples have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
There are many types of Hindu religious sites including:
- Temple: A structure designed to bring humans and Gods together
- 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)
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 Hindu mythology shares a common origin with many of the mythologies of pre-Christian Europe, such as those of the Greeks, Romans, Celts, Slavs and Germanic tribes, with this ancestral mythology often being called Proto-Indo-European mythology. The Vedas and the other texts, including the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics, were all written in Sanskrit, an ancient and sacred language.
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, all of whom are worshipped and adored. All three 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, and the belief in avatars has also helped 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. They also can come down to Earth as avatars, frequently as the wives of their respective husbands' avatars. There are many other deities who are venerated, including Indra, the 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. 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.
Hindus, especially in India, have traditionally believed in a caste sysyem, 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 and craftsmen, 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", who were so low on the social order that they were shunned by people with a caste. One's caste was hereditary, and intermarriage between people of different castes was strictly forbidden. Some advances have been made including affirmative action, but while casteism is outlawed by the Indian government, like many other long-standing traditions, caste based practices continue.
While Buddhism has influenced much of Asia (as well as the Western world in modern times), Hinduism has largely remained within the Indian Subcontinent, except proselytic movements such as the Hare Krishna, and a Hindu diaspora around the world. Hinduism spread to much of Southeast Asia during the reigns of the great Maurya, Gupta and Chola empires, with the Indonesian island of Bali being notable as one of the last remaining Hindu outposts in the region. Nevertheless, despite much of the population having converted to other religions such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, vestiges of Hinduism continue to survive in the folk tales and arts of Southeast Asia.
Holy places and beings
Many bodies of water are holy to Hindus, but above all, 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 proximity 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 yogurt, paneer (fresh cheese curd) and a variety of desserts. In Nepal, although the meat of domestic cows is not eaten, the meat of water buffaloes is commonly eaten as 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.
The Swastika and other symbols
For thousands of years Hindu people have been using 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.
The most other 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.
Cities and other destinations
- Haridwar, literally meaning the "Gateway to God", located at the banks of the Ganges (Ganga) River
- Katra, the gateway to the Mata Vaishno Devi temple, the second most visited Hindu temple in the world
- Ayodhya, birthplace of mythological hero, Rama
- Khajuraho, a town famous for its large and ancient Tantric temple complexes
- Varanasi, the holiest city in the religion and one of the oldest continuously-occupied cities in the world
- Madurai, centre of worship of the Goddess Meenakshi, the consort of the God Shiva
- Tirupati, home to the Tirumala Venkateshwara Temple, the most visited place of worship in the world
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
- 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.
- Angkor Wat, the largest Hindu temple complex in the world
- 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
Rest of the World
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.
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.
Diwali is 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, 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.
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.
Navrati, 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 main cities
Thaipusam or Kavadi is a festival in honor of Murugan, the Tamil God of War. Kavadi, literally means "sacrifice at every step" in Tamil is a dance performed by the devotees during the 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.
- 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 requested 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 are more liberal than those of North India.
Many orthodox Hindu temples forbid entry by people of low castes and women during their menstrual period, and some forbid entry by non-Hindus.
Sanskrit is the original language of the Vedas, which is regarded by most Hindus as the holiest of all 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.
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.
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.
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.