Introduction to Hinduism

I had prepared a screencast video introducing Hinduism to Hindus and others. You can access the video here. Here is the text from the video:

The name

Hinduism gets its name from the river Sindhu (Indus). Persians called the people, religion and culture of the region around and beyond the river Sindhu as “Hindu”.

The actual name of the religion is “sanaatana dharma” – “the eternal and universal way”.

(“Lectures from Colombo to Almora” – Swami Vivekananda, Gita 12.20)


Hinduism allows diverse lines of thought and practices with almost no dogmas. Covering a wide range like “spiritual humanism”, “worship through abstract symbols”, “worship through Nature”, “worship of formless”, “worship through human-like forms”, “worship through saints” and “knowledge as pure Consciousness”, Hinduism allows people to have their own explanations and ways of life and worship. Also, followers are free to declare their saints and gurus.

(Gita 7.21, 4.11, 12.8-14, 13.25-26)


Vedanta is a system that takes the best of all the various Hindu ideas and practices (including yoga and meditation), and presents an integral system which suits people with various levels of subtlety of understanding. Vedanta was formalized about 5000 years back by Sage Vyaasa. Almost all of the Hinduism being practised for the past 1000 years is based on Vedanta.

Indian culture

Hinduism is a view of life translated into a way of life, which is the Indian culture. Hinduism and Indian culture are inseparable from each other.

Here is a short introduction to the Hindu view and way of life.

Four goals

1. Every living being wants to be secure and propagate its species. This goal is called “artha”.
2. Every living being wants to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. This goal is called “kaama”.
These two goals are common to animals and human beings. Human beings have two more goals, which are unique.
3. One person’s pursuit of artha and kaama should not stand in the way of another person’s legitimate pursuit of artha and kaama. Also, today’s pursuit of artha and kaama should not spoil the future possibility of greater artha and kaama. The regulations and restrictions on the pursuit and indulgence in artha and kaama to ensure equitability and sustainability is called “dharma”. Dharma is practised as honesty, kindness and self-control.
4. Life will have ups and downs. Problems in life are inevitable. People need to be self-motivated to face them with cheerfulness. This is got by the conviction that real happiness is an inner attitude that does not depend on the presence or absence of external people, objects and situations. This unconditional happiness is always there within. It has to be realized by knowing the real relationship between the individual and the whole of Existence. This is called “moksha”. A life based on dharma is a pre-requisite for moksha.

(“Introduction to Vedanta” – Swami Paramarthananda, Taittriya Upanishad – 1.11.1, Gita – 6.32, 18.37-38, 2.11, 2.55-57, 2.71, 13.31)

Who am I? – Five sheaths

The individual is a composite of five sheaths:
1. Annamaya – physical sheath: the body
2. Praanamaya – physiological sheath: all the involuntary activities in a living body like respiration, digestion, circulation, etc., and all voluntary activities like holding, locomotion, speech, etc.
3. Manomaya – mental sheath: all sense faculties like vision, sound, smell, etc., and the faculty to have likes and dislikes
4. Vignaanamaya – intellectual sheath: the faculty to evaluate right and wrong, and the faculty of freewill to make a decision
5. Aanandamaya – bliss sheath: subconscious mind, memory, tendencies and the stored potential results of past action

(Gita 18.14-15, Taittriya Upanishad 2.2-5)

Who am I? – The Jiva

The real individual (called “jiva”) is the person who holds the freewill. All the other adjuncts are instruments of the jiva to express in the world and experience it. The jiva is accountable for the actions and attitudes. The jiva has to face the consequences of them. They cannot be escaped even by death.

This relationship is illustrated in the Vedas by the analogy of a chariot. The road is the world. The horses are the senses. The rein is the mind. The charioteer is the intellect. The master is the jiva.

(Katha Upanishad 1.3.3-4)

Three beneficial actions

To ensure a peaceful and prosperous life in the long term, three actions are given as guidelines for life:
1. Yagna – paying back five debts: (1. deva) taking care of nature, (2. bhoota) taking care of other living beings, (3. manushya) taking care of other human beings, (4. pitru) taking care of family, (5. rishi) taking care of teachers, educational and cultural institutions, and nurturing knowledge.
2. Daana – charity: giving with respect, to people who need, without expecting anything in return
3. Tapas – discipline: honesty, kindness, self-control, cleanliness, contentment, study, etc.

These are guidelines to lead a Dharmic life. They have to be followed by everyone.

(Gita 18.5, 17.20, 17.14-16, Taittriya Shakha 2.10)

Who is Ishvara?

At the level of every sheath, the individual is not separate from the Whole. The physical body is not separate from the physical Universe. Similarly, the individual mind is a part of the Universal mind.

The whole of Existence is called Ishvara.

Just as the numerous living cells are part of the body, all living creatures are part of Ishvara. Thus, serving living beings is the best way to serve and worship Ishvara.

At every level, the jiva interacts with the Ishvara every moment. Depending on the context of the interaction, Ishvara responds accordingly. For a healthy, positive and grateful attitude towards life, the Universal Ishvara is worshipped. To enable worship, Ishvara is personified.

When the jiva is considered as a living being, Ishvara is considered as the life giving Sun (Surya Deva) or Mother Earth (Bhoo Devi).

When the jiva is considered as a student, Ishvara is personified as Saraswati, the goddess of learning. When the jiva is considered as an Indian, Ishvara is personified as Mother India (Bhaarat Maata).

When the jiva is considered as the doer of actions, Ishvara is considered as the bestower of the fruits of the actions.

When starting a work, Ishvara is worshipped as Vigneshwara, the Lord of obstacles. When bathing in Ganga river, Ishvara is worshipped as Mother Ganga.

Thus, the Universal entity is called by different names and is worshipped through different forms depending on the context.

Ishvara is also the pure Consciousness that is present within every living being as the sense of ‘I’.

All yagna, daana and tapas should be done by the individual jiva as an offering to the Universal Ishvara.

(Gita 6.30, 13.31, 15.7-9, 15.13-14, 7.21, 4.11, 9.26-27, 15.12-13, 9.19, 10.20, 5.29)

Worship and meditation

To help develop this practice and attitude, formal worship of Ishvara through any form by offering flowers, fruits, water, light, incense, etc. is practised. To drive the idea deep into the mind, meditation is practised. Hinduism has developed detailed principles and practices for various kinds of worship and meditation to suit people of different temperaments.

Each person can pick any of the various forms and procedures as the favourite one for regular worship and meditation.

(Gita 9.26, 7.21, 6.10-14)

Stories of devotees and saints

To imbibe these ideas into the mind and life of people, various stories based on historical and legendary characters and incidents are popular in the Indian culture. Stories in the Vedas, Puraanas, Ramayana, Mahabharata, anecdotes in the life of various saints, stories told by various saints, etc. help people to understand these principles.

They also help form a personal emotional relationship with Ishvara.

Way of life

Various festivals and places of pilgrimage are connected with these incidents and characters. Celebrating the festivals and visiting the places of pilgrimage remind of the principles and help imbibe the ideas. The rituals related to personal events like birth, start of schooling, marriage, death, house-warming, birthday, etc. are all reminders of these principles.

Indian classical art forms like dance, drama, music, painting, sculpture, etc. are all based on these stories and characters.

Universal acceptance

Thus, Hinduism shows a way to people to lead an honest, kind and peaceful life. The central themes of Hinduism are individual accountability and individual being an integral inseparable part of the Universal. Hinduism gives freedom to people to come up with various schemes of life to cater to these two themes. So Hinduism allows other religions, atheism and agnosticism to thrive and cater the needs of its followers to help them to lead an honest, kind and peaceful life.

Unfortunately today, the exclusive claims and aggression of other religions are pushing Hinduism to become defensive against them to survive.

Ancient and modern

Hinduism (and its daughters like Buddhism) is perhaps the only religion that meets the criteria of a modern social institution – progressive, decentralized, humanist, democratic, rational, pragmatic, non-dogmatic, encouraging asking questions, non-compulsive, non-exclusive, customizable, pluralistic, self-improving, etc.

It is because of this that it is called “sanaatana dharma” – “eternal and universal way”.

FAQ: Does Hinduism support discrimination based on birth?

Hinduism does not support discrimination based on birth (jaati). The scriptures only talk about division (varna) of people based on character and profession. Division based on birth is a social problem prevalent among most Indian societies irrespective of religion.

Almost all Hindu leaders in the past several centuries have fought against discrimination based on birth. The situation has improved a lot over the years. The reason for its prevalence is more political than religious.

FAQ: Do Hindus worship many Gods?

No. As you might have seen in this presentation, Hindus worship one Supreme God, who is immanent and transcendent. Based on the context, God is worshipped through various forms, names and procedures.

Hinduism also says that people of all religions worship the same God through different forms and names. Thus, Hinduism is perhaps the only truly “monotheistic” religion.

FAQ: Do Hindus worship idols?

No. Hindus do not worship idols. They worship God through the images. Just as how citizens of a nation show respect to the nation by saluting the national flag, Hindus worship the omnipresent God through symbols.

All religions, sports, businesses, universities, etc. use various symbols like names, sounds, forms, icons, direction, etc. Human mind needs symbols to operate.

FAQ: Do Hindus worship cows?

Cow has been very close to Indian society for a few thousand years. Also, the cow is a very peaceful, docile, smart and loving animal. It yields milk, dung and urine which have a lot of uses. This has elevated the cow to a high status. Kindness to cow is considered as exemplary of kindness to all living beings.

To the Hindus, cow is one of the popular symbols of God.

FAQ: Do Hindus believe in rebirth?

If the concept of freewill is accepted, then the entity that holds the freewill has to be accountable for the exercise of freewill. As actions can be done even at the last moment of life, a post-death existence becomes the only logical possibility to face the fruits of that action.

All religions believe in post-death existence.

As there are differences in situations at birth, Hinduism gives a logical proposition that there should have been pre-birth existence also. Thus, rebirth is a logical consequence of acceptance of freewill.

FAQ: What is meant by OM?

The sound OM is a symbol of Ishvara.

It is composed of three parts: A, U and M. A is the basic sound. It uses the inner most part of the human sound producing system. U uses the middle part of the human sound producing system. M uses the last point in the human sound producing system. Thus, these three sounds represent all the sounds that a human being can make.

Thus, OM is a word that represents all the words. As Ishvara is all that exists put together, OM becomes the sound symbol of this concept of Ishvara.

Further seeking

To know more about Hinduism, you can visit the nearest Hindu institution like the centers of Ramakrishna Math, Vedanta Center, Chinmaya Mission, Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, Divine Life Society, etc. You can read the articles and online books available at this website:

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