The large majority of Indians (82%) are Hindu. The proportion of Muslims is 11.3%. There are also Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Jews, Parsis, Baha’is and Animists.
It would seem as if Hindus have not much in common with western religion. In a sense, that is true. There is no central hierarchy, no common confession of creed and no founding father in whom all Hindus believe. Hindus express their religious feelings in various ways. For this reason, a concept such as ‘ahimsa’, non-violence, and ideas about vegetarianism co-exist with rituals in which animals are slaughtered or self-punishment is practised. A belief in reincarnation co-exists with a belief in a heaven for ancestors, and highly formalized rituals occur as well as highly emotional ceremonies. To get a better understanding of Hinduism, you should ask individual Hindus about their ideas on the matter. You will find that almost all Indians have very distinct ideas about their own religious experiences and are usually eager to tell you about them. You will probably notice that there are many different personal views amongst them.
Hindus generally recognize the fact that life has four objectives. In the first place, the aim is to live up to one’s religious and social obligations vis-à-vis the family and society. These obligations are summarized in the concept of dharma. Secondly, it is important to gain sufficient material possessions, so that alms can be given to beggars and itinerant holy men and the family can be sustained. This is known as artha. The third aim in life is experiencing sexuality or kaama, which should result in male offspring. The son is necessary to perform ancestral rituals. The last and highest goal is liberalization from reincarnation, or moksha (a comparable and much more well-known concept in the West is the Buddhist Nirvana). Apart from living up to these obligations, the individual Hindu is free to think whatever he or she wants. He can choose his own spiritual master or guru. There is a lot of respect for gurus and elderly people. An equal amount of respect is also paid to the numerous living holy men. Many of these holy men wander through India and are called saddhus.
Most Hindus also believe in karma. This is the law that one deed prompts another, and everything you come across in life is actually a result of previous deeds. By doing good deeds you can build up credits from which you will reap the benefits, either in this life or in a following one. Hindus spend a lot of time worshipping gods that live in the temples. These can be enormous temples, or small home shrines in a corner of the room where the family god is worshipped. In the temple, their god lives like a king. Many Hindus believe that it is possible to actually meet their god in the temple.
The world of gods
A visit to a Hindu temple is an introduction to an extensive pantheon of gods. Most Hindus will tell you they believe in one god, even if it seems thousands exist. When you question them about this oddity, you will often be told that the manifest forms should be seen as the planes of a diamond. If a ray of light falls on the diamond, a different plane will light up every time, but it will still be the same diamond. In the following we will pay attention to a few important Hindu gods: Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesha. We shall also touch upon some goddesses.
In the west, the Hindu trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva is often known. Brahma is hardly worshipped, however, as he is too abstract, does not take on a definite personality and has created hardly any exciting myths. In the whole of India, there is only one temple that is dedicated to Brahma, in Pushkar (Rajasthan). Brahma is the creator of the universe and he is portrayed having four heads. Sarasvati originally was described as Brahma’s daughter, but in later times was described as his wife. She is seen as the goddess of the arts and is mostly portrayed with a stringed instrument in her hands.
Shiva is one of the most important gods in Hinduism. He is often portrayed as an ascetic. He is dressed in a tiger skin or an elephant skin, as a reference to two demons he has once slain. His body is greyish or white, because he rubs himself with the ashes from incinerated bodies. He wears his hair in long braided strands, the style many ascetics in India have their hair. He has three eyes – the third embellishes his forehead. From this third eye he can evoke a destructive fire, to destruct the universe when creation nears its end. In his figure and the attributes he carries, Shiva unites many opposites. Hindus explain this is because he is a god encompassing the whole universe, from high to low, from clean to foul. Thus in his one ear he wears an earring customarily worn by village women from low castes, while in his other ear he has an earring with the shape of a mythical crocodile typically worn by Brahmins. In one of his hands he holds a drum, damaru, resembling an hourglass. With this drum he indicates the rhythm of creation. One of his other hands carries a blazing fire that he destroys the world with. On his head he wears flowers, including the highly toxic datura, a flower from which hallucinatory substances can be distilled. Around his neck he has venomous snakes, symbols of death. On his head he also has a moon’s crescent, another symbol of death. His mount is the bull Nandi. Nandi almost always lies in front of Shiva temples. Shiva has always been the god of ascetics. Many of his followers are saddhus (holy men), wandering through India alone or in groups, their bodies rubbed with ashes, doing penance in bizarre ways. They can be recognized by the three horizontal lines they paint on their foreheads. Their attribute is the trident. Shiva’s women are known by many names and figures. Parvati is Shiva’s most well known partner – she became the symbol of the submissive, subservient woman. She had to sit and watch how Shiva went off with beauties in and out of season, but he would always come back to her. Parvati is the peaceful form of the concept of shakti (female energy), although she can also manifest herself in different, more ferocious forms: Durga, Chamunda or Kali. Durga is often worshipped as an independent goddess who has nothing to do with Shiva. She was created especially to save the gods of a terrible disaster, with her own weapons. As Kali (‘the black’) Parvati occurs in her most terrible shape. She is black, her tongue protrudes from her bloody mouth, and she is hung with chopped human heads and skulls, wandering over horrible final resting places. She is supposed to offer help where no other god still has any power. Remarkably, even the lowest castes are allowed to worship her, which makes her following very large. Uniquely, she is presented with blood sacrifices; during her festivals, numerous black male animals are sacrificed, varying from cats to buffaloes.
Vishnu is a god appearing in numerous appearances. He usually has a character milder and friendlier than Shiva, although even he has ecstatic aspects. Vishnu is usually pictured with a blue body colour and four arms, in which he holds a shell, a club, a lotus flower and a discus. He often wears a crown and a yellow robe. Around his neck he has a wreath of forest flowers and various pieces of jewellery, including a jewel that fulfils wishes. Vishnu has two mounts, the snake Shesha and the bird Garuda. The snake serves him as a resting place, while the bird carries him through the universe. Vishnu guards the world and in case something threatens to go amiss, he will act. He will appear on the earth as an incarnation. The Hindus know ten classic incarnations: fish, tortoise, swine, the man-lion Narasimha, dwarf, Rama with the axe, Rama with an arch, Krishna, Buddha and finally, Kalki. The last incarnation of Vishnu, Kalki, still has to appear. He will appear as a horseman on a white horse with a sword that ‘flares as a comet’. With this sword he will destroy all demons that threaten the world. The most popular incarnations of Vishnu are Krishna and Rama with the arch, the hero of Ramayana. Krishna himself figures in many different stories and situations, and is especially popular in his appearance as a young cowherd. He has a number of affairs with the shepherdesses of the village where he lives. Later he becomes a great religious preacher and he lays down his message to humankind in the Bhagavad Gita, an important philosophical text that is a central text in the Mahabharata.
A particularly popular god is Ganesha. He can be instantly recognized between the hundreds of god figures of the Indian pantheon, as he has an elephant’s head. Tens of different appearances exist of him. He is considered to be the spiritual son of Shiva, who would not be the one who begot him, however. He was born from the bath oil of his mother Parvati as a handsome boy. He developed his elephant head later. When Shiva came home after a long absence, Parvati was just taking a bath. She had put her son Ganesha in front of the door, on guard. Ganesha had not seen Shiva and refused to let him in. Shiva flew into a rage and beheaded the guardsman. Only when he heard he had murdered his own son, he had to quickly find the head of any other being to replace it, and this happened to be an elephant. When the elephant’s head was hewn off and fell onto the ground, one of the tusks broke off. It was placed in the sky in the shape of a moon’s crescent. Ganesha is a god that takes away hindrances, when worshipped. If not worshipped, however, he can create hindrances. Ganesha does everything for the people that worship him and for that reason criminals and black magicians often worship him. Ganesha is worshipped in almost all Hindu temples. He resembles a rat.