Hinduism is the dominant religion, or way of life,[note 1] in South Asia, most notably in India and Nepal. Although Hinduism contains different philosophies, there are shared concepts, common ritual techniques, cosmology and pilgrimage to sacred sites.[1] It includes Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism[2] among other denominations, each with an interwoven diversity of beliefs and practices.[1][3] Hinduism, with about one billion followers[web 1] is the world’s third largest religion, after Christianity and Islam.

Hinduism has been called the “oldest religion” in the world,[note 2] and some practitioners refer to it as Sanātana Dharma, “the eternal law” or the “eternal way”[4] beyond human origins.[5] Western scholars regard Hinduism as a fusion[note 3] or synthesis[6][note 4] of various Indian cultures and traditions,[7][note 5] with diverse roots[8][note 6] and no single founder.[9] It prescribes the eternal duties, such as honesty, refraining from injuring living beings (ahimsa), patience, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion, among others.[web 2][10]

Prominent themes in Hindu beliefs include (but are not restricted to), the four Puruṣārthas, the proper goals or aims of human life, namely Dharma (ethics/duties), Artha (prosperity/work), Kama (emotions/sexuality) and Moksha (liberation/freedom);[11][12] karma (action, intent and consequences), samsara (cycle of rebirth), and the various Yogas (paths or practices to attain moksha).[13][14] Hindu practices include rituals such as puja (worship) and recitations, meditation, family-oriented rites of passage, annual festivals, and occasional pilgrimages. Some Hindus leave their social world and material possessions, then engage in lifelong Sannyasa (ascetic practices) to achieve moksha.[15][16]

Hindu texts are classified into Shruti (“heard”) and Smriti (“remembered”). These texts discuss theology, philosophy, mythology, Vedic yajna and agamic rituals and temple building, among other topics.[17] Major scriptures include the Vedas, Upanishads (both Śruti), Mahabharata, Ramayana, Bhagavad Gita, Puranas, Manusmṛti, and Agamas (all smriti).[17]


Main article: Hindustan

The word Hindu is derived (through Persian) from the Indo-Aryan[18]/Sanskrit[19] word Sindhu, the Indo-Aryan name for the Indus River in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent (modern day Pakistan and Northern India).[19][note 7] According to Gavin Flood, “The actual term ‘hindu’ first occurs as a Persian geographical term for the people who lived beyond the river Indus (Sanskrit: Sindhu)”.[19] The term ‘Hindu’ then was a geographical term and did not refer to a religion.[note 8]

The word Hindu was taken by European languages from the Arabic term al-Hind, which referred to the people who live across the River Indus.[20] This Arabic term was itself taken from the Persian term Hindū, which refers to all Indians. By the 13th century, Hindustan emerged as a popular alternative name of India, meaning the “land of Hindus”.[21][note 9]

The term Hindu was later used occasionally in some Sanskrit texts such as the later Rajataranginis of Kashmir (Hinduka, c. 1450) and some 16th- to 18th-century Bengali Gaudiya Vaishnava texts including Chaitanya Charitamrita and Chaitanya Bhagavata. It was usually used to contrast Hindus with Yavanas or Mlecchas.[22] It was only towards the end of the 18th century that European merchants and colonists began to refer to the followers of Indian religions collectively as Hindus. The term Hinduism was introduced into the English language in the 19th century to denote the religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions native to India.


The study of India and its cultures and religions, and the definition of “Hinduism”, has been shaped by the interests of colonialism and by Western notions of religion.[23] Since the 1990s, those influences and its outcomes have been the topic of debate among scholars of Hinduism,[24][note 10] and have also been taken over by critics of the Western view on India.[25][note 11]

Because of the wide range of traditions and ideas covered by the term, arriving at a comprehensive definition is difficult.[19] The religion “defies our desire to define and categorize it”.[26] Hinduism has been variously defined as a religion, a religious tradition, a set of religious beliefs, and “a way of life.”[27][note 1] From a Western lexical standpoint, Hinduism like other faiths is appropriately referred as a religion. In India the term dharma is preferred, which is broader than the western term “religion”. Hindu traditionalists prefer to call it Sanatana Dharma (the eternal or ancient dharma).[28]

Colonial influences

See also: Orientalism

The notion of common denominators for several religions and traditions of India was already noted from the 12th century CE on.[29] The notion of “Hinduism” as a “single world religious tradition”[30] was popularised by 19th-century European Indologists who depended on the “brahmana castes”[30] for their information of Indian religions.[30] This led to a “tendency to emphasise Vedic and Brahmanical texts and beliefs as the “essence” of Hindu religiosity in general, and in the modern association of ‘Hindu doctrine’ with the various Brahmanical schools of the Vedanta (in particular Advaita Vedanta).”[31][note 12]

Indigenous understanding

Sanātana Dharma

See also: Sanātanī

To its adherents, Hinduism is a traditional way of life.[38] Many practitioners refer to Hinduism as Sanātana Dharma, “the eternal law” or the “eternal way”.[39] It refers to the “eternal” duties all Hindus have to follow, regardless of class, caste, or sect, such as honesty, refraining from injuring living beings, purity, goodwill, mercy, patience, forbearance, self-restraint, generosity, and asceticism. This is contrasted with svadharma, one’s “own duty”, the duties to be followed by members of a specific caste and stage of life.[web 2] According to Knott, this also

… refers to the idea that its origins lie beyond human history, and its truths have been divinely revealed (shruti) and passed down through the ages to the present day in the most ancient of the world’s scriptures, the Veda. (Knott 1998, p. 5)

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica;-

The term has also more recently been used by Hindu leaders, reformers, and nationalists to refer to Hinduism as a unified world religion. Sanatana dharma has thus become a synonym for the “eternal” truth and teachings of Hinduism, the latter conceived of as not only transcendent of history and unchanging but also as indivisible and ultimately nonsectarian.[web 2]

The Sanskrit word dharma has a much deeper meaning than religion and is not its equivalent. All aspects of a Hindu life, namely acquiring wealth (Artha), fulfillment of desires (kama), and attaining liberation (moksha) are part of dharma which encapsulates the “right way of living” and eternal harmonious principles in their fulfillment.[40][41]

Growing Hindu identity

This sense of unity and ancientness has been developed over a longer period. According to Nicholson, already between the 12th and the 16th centuries “certain thinkers began to treat as a single whole the diverse philosophical teachings of the Upanishads, epics, Puranas, and the schools known retrospectively as the “six systems” (saddarsana) of mainstream Hindu philosophy.”[42] The tendency of “a blurring of philosophical distinctions” has also been noted by Burley.[43] Hacker called this “inclusivism”[44] and Michaels speaks of “the identificatory habit”.[17] Lorenzen locates the origins of a distinct Hindu identity in the interaction between Muslims and Hindus,[45] and a process of “mutual self-definition with a contrasting Muslim other”,[46][note 13] which started well before 1800.[47] Michaels notes:

As a counteraction to Islamic supremacy and as part of the continuing process of regionalization, two religious innovations developed in the Hindu religions: the formation of sects and a historicization which preceded later nationalism […] [S]aints and sometimes militant sect leaders, such as the Marathi poet Tukaram (1609-1649) and Ramdas (1608-1681), articulated ideas in which they glorified Hinduism and the past. The Brahmins also produced increasingly historical texts, especially eulogies and chronicles of sacred sites (Mahatmyas), or developed a reflexive passion for collecting and compiling extensive collections of quotations on various subjects.[48]

This inclusivism[49] was further developed in the 19th and 20th centuries by Hindu reform movements and Neo-Vedanta,[50] and has become characteristic of modern Hinduism.[44]

Hindu modernism

Swami Vivekananda was a key figure in introducing Vedanta and Yoga in Europe and USA,[51] raising interfaith awareness and making Hinduism a world religion.[52]

See also: Hindu reform movements

Beginning in the 19th century, Indian modernists re-asserted Hinduism as a major asset of Indian civilisation,[53] meanwhile “purifying” Hinduism from its Tantric elements[54] and elevating the Vedic elements. Western stereotypes were reversed, emphasizing the universal aspects, and introducing modern approaches of social problems.[53] This approach had a great appeal, not only in India, but also in the west.[53] Major representatives of “Hindu modernism”[55] are Raja Rammohan Roy, Vivekananda, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Mahatma Gandhi.[56]

Raja Rammohan Roy is known as the father of the Hindu Renaissance.[57] He was a major influence on Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), who, according to Flood, was “a figure of great importance in the development of a modern Hindu self-understanding and in formulating the West’s view of Hinduism.”[58] Central to his philosophy is the idea that the divine exists in all beings, that all human beings can achieve union with this “innate divinity”,[55] and that seeing this divine as the essence of others will further love and social harmony.[55] According to Vivekananda, there is an essential unity to Hinduism, which underlies the diversity of its many forms.[55] According to Flood, Vivekananda’s vision of Hinduism “is one generally accepted by most English-speaking middle-class Hindus today.”[59]

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was “one of India’s most erudite scholars to engage with western and Indian philosophy”.[60] He sought to reconcile western rationalism with Hinduism, “presenting Hinduism as an essentially rationalistic and humanistic religious experience.”[61] This “Global Hinduism”[62] has a worldwide appeal, transcending national boundaries[62] and, according to Flood, “becoming a world religion alongside Christianity, Islam and Buddhism”,[62] both for the Hindu diaspora communities and for westerners who are attracted to non-western cultures and religions.[62] It emphasizes universal spiritual values such as social justice, peace and “the spiritual transformation of humanity.”[62] It has developed partly due to “re-enculturation”,[63] or the Pizza effect,[63] in which elements of Hindu culture have been exported to the West, gaining popularity there, and as a consequence also gained greater popularity in India.[63] This globalization of Hindu culture was initiated by Swami Vivekananda and his founding of the Ramakrishna Mission, an effort continued by other teachers, “bringing to the West teachings which have become an important cultural force in western societies, and which in turn have become an important cultural force in India, their place of origin.”[64]

Western understanding

Western scholars regard Hinduism as a fusion[note 3] or synthesis[note 4][6] of various Indian cultures and traditions.[7][note 5]

Hinduism’s tolerance to variations in belief and its broad range of traditions make it difficult to define as a religion according to traditional Western conceptions.[65]

Some academics suggest that Hinduism can be seen as a category with “fuzzy edges” rather than as a well-defined and rigid entity. Some forms of religious expression are central to Hinduism and others, while not as central, still remain within the category. Based on this idea Ferro-Luzzi has developed a ‘Prototype Theory approach’ to the definition of Hinduism.[66]

Diversity and inclusivism


See also: Hindu denominations

Hinduism has been described as a tradition having a “complex, organic, multileveled and sometimes internally inconsistent nature.”[67] Hinduism does not have a “unified system of belief encoded in a declaration of faith or a creed”,[19] but is rather an umbrella term comprising the plurality of religious phenomena of India.[68] According to the Supreme Court of India,

Unlike other religions in the World, the Hindu religion does not claim any one Prophet, it does not worship any one God, it does not believe in any one philosophic concept, it does not follow any one act of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not satisfy the traditional features of a religion or creed. It is a way of life and nothing more”.[69]

Part of the problem with a single definition of the term “Hinduism” is the fact that Hinduism does not have a single historical founder.[70] It is a synthesis of various traditions,[71] the “Brahmanical orthopraxy, the renouncer traditions and popular or local traditions.”[72]

Some Hindu philosophies postulate a theistic ontology of creation, of sustenance, and of the destruction of the universe, yet some Hindus are atheists, they view Hinduism more as philosophy than religion.


Despite the differences, there is also a sense of unity.[73] Most Hindu traditions revere a body of religious or sacred literature, the Vedas,[44] although there are exceptions.[74] Halbfass cites Renou, according to whom this reverence is a mere

“tipping of the hat”, a traditional gesture of saluting an “idol” without any further commitment.”[75]

Halbfass does not agree with this characterization[75] and states that, although Shaivism and Vaishaism may be regarded as “self-contained religious constellations”,[73] there is a degree of interaction and reference between the “theoreticians and literary representatives”[73] of each tradition which indicates the presence of “a wider sense of identity, a sense of coherence in a shared context and of inclusion in a common framework and horizon”.[73]


Main article: Hindu denominations

Hinduism as it is commonly known can be subdivided into a number of major currents. Of the historical division into six darsanas, two prominent schools, Vedanta and Yoga.[76] The main divisions of Hinduism today are Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism and Smartism.[web 3] Hinduism also recognises numerous divine beings subordinate to the Supreme Being or regards them as lower manifestations of it.[77] Other notable characteristics include a belief in existence of ātman (soul, self), reincarnation of one’s ātman, and karma as well as a belief in personal duty, or dharma.

McDaniel (2007) distinguishes six generic “types” of Hinduism, in an attempt to accommodate a variety of views on a rather complex subject:[78]

Folk Hinduism, based on local traditions and cults of local deities and extending back to prehistoric times, or at least prior to written Vedas.

Shrauta or “Vedic” Hinduism as practised by traditionalist brahmins (Shrautins).

Vedantic Hinduism, including Advaita Vedanta (Smartism), based on the philosophical approach of the Upanishads.

Yogic Hinduism, especially the sect based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

“Dharmic” Hinduism or “daily morality”, based on Karma and upon societal norms such as Vivāha (Hindu marriage customs).

Bhakti or devotionalist practices

Michaels distinguishes three Hindu religions and four forms of Hindu religiosity.[79] The three Hindu religions are “Brahmanic-Sanskritic Hinduism,”, “folk religions and tribal religions,” and “founded religions,” such as Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Sikhism,[80] but also new religious movements such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Transcendental Meditation.[80] The four forms of Hindu religiosity are the classical “karma-marga”,[81] jnana-marga,[82] bhakti-marga,[82] and “heroism,” which is “rooted in militaristic traditions,” such as Ramaism and parts of political Hinduism.[81] This is also called virya-marga.[82]


Temple wall panel relief sculpture at the Hoysaleswara temple in Halebidu, representing the Trimurti: Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu.

Prominent themes in Hindu beliefs include (but are not restricted to), Dharma (ethics/duties), Samsāra (the continuing cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth), Karma (action, intent and consequences), Moksha (liberation from samsara or liberation in this life), and the various Yogas (paths or practices).[14]

Purusharthas (objectives of human life)

Main article: Purusharthas

See also: Initiation, Dharma, Artha, Kāma and Mokṣa

Classical Hindu thought accepts four proper goals or aims of human life: Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. These are known as the Puruṣārthas:[11][12]

Dharma (righteousness, ethics)

Main articles: Ethics of Hinduism and Dharma

Dharma is considered the foremost goal of a human being in Hinduism.[83] The concept Dharma includes behaviors that are considered to be in accord with rta, the order that makes life and universe possible,[84] and includes duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues and “right way of living”.[85] Hindu dharma includes the religious duties, moral rights and duties of each individual, as well as behaviors that enable social order, right conduct, and those that are virtuous.[85] Dharma, according to Van Buitenen,[86] is that which all existing beings must accept and respect to sustain harmony and order in the world. It is, states Van Buitenen, the pursuit and execution of one’s nature and true calling, thus playing one’s role in cosmic concert.[86] The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad states it as:

Nothing is higher than Dharma. The weak overcomes the stronger by Dharma, as over a king. Truly that Dharma is the Truth (Satya); Therefore, when a man speaks the Truth, they say, “He speaks the Dharma”; and if he speaks Dharma, they say, “He speaks the Truth!” For both are one.

—Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 1.4.xiv [87][88]

In the Mahabharata, Krishna defines dharma as upholding both this-worldly and other-worldly affairs. (Mbh 12.110.11). The word Sanātana means ‘eternal’, ‘perennial’, or ‘forever’; thus, ‘Sanātana Dharma’ signifies that it is the dharma that has neither beginning nor end.[89]

Artha (livelihood, wealth)

Main article: Artha

Artha is objective and virtuous pursuit of wealth for livelihood, obligations and economic prosperity. It is inclusive of political life, diplomacy and material well-being. The Artha concept includes all “means of life”, activities and resources that enables one to be in a state one wants to be in, wealth, career and financial security.[90] The proper pursuit of artha is considered an important aim of human life in Hinduism.[91][92]

Kāma (sensual pleasure)

Main article: Kama

Kāma (Sanskrit, Pali; Devanagari: काम) means desire, wish, passion, longing, pleasure of the senses, the aesthetic enjoyment of life, affection, or love, with or without sexual connotations.[93][94] In Hinduism, Kama is considered an essential and healthy goal of human life when pursued without sacrificing Dharma, Artha and Moksha.[95]

Mokṣa (liberation, freedom from samsara)

Main article: Moksha

Moksha (Sanskrit: मोक्ष mokṣa) or mukti (Sanskrit: मुक्ति) is the ultimate, most important goal in Hinduism. In one sense, Moksha is a concept associated with liberation from sorrow, suffering and saṃsāra (birth-rebirth cycle). A release from this eschatological cycle, in after life, particularly in theistic schools of Hinduism is called moksha.[96][97] In other schools of Hinduism, such as monistic, moksha is a goal achievable in current life, as a state of bliss through self-realization, of comprehending the nature of one’s soul, of freedom and of “realizing the whole universe as the Self”.[98][99]

Karma and samsara

Main article: Karma

Karma translates literally as action, work, or deed,[100] and also refers to a Vedic theory of “moral law of cause and effect”.[101][102] The theory is a combination of (1) causality that may be ethical or non-ethical; (2) ethicization, that is good or bad actions have consequences; and (3) rebirth.[103] Karma theory is interpreted as explaining the present circumstances of an individual with reference to his or her actions in past. These actions may be those in a person’s current life, or, in some schools of Hinduism, possibly actions in their past lives; furthermore, the consequences may result in current life, or a person’s future lives.[103][104] This cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth is called samsara. Libration from samsara through moksha is believed to ensure lasting happiness and peace.[105][106] Hindu scriptures teach that the future is both a function of current human effort derived from free will and past human actions that set the circumstances.[107]


The ultimate goal of life, referred to as moksha, nirvana or samadhi, is understood in several different ways: as the realization of one’s union with God; as the realization of one’s eternal relationship with God; realization of the unity of all existence; perfect unselfishness and knowledge of the Self; as the attainment of perfect mental peace; and as detachment from worldly desires. Such realization liberates one from samsara, thereby ending the cycle of rebirth, sorrow and suffering.[108][109] Due to belief in the indestructibility of the soul,[110] death is deemed insignificant with respect to the cosmic self.[111]

The meaning of moksha differs among the various Hindu schools of thought. For example, Advaita Vedanta holds that after attaining moksha a person knows their “soul, self” and identifies it as one with Brahman and everyone in all respects.[112][113] The followers of Dvaita (dualistic) schools, in moksha state, identify individual “soul, self” as distinct from Brahman but infinitesimally close, and after attaining moksha expect to spend eternity in a loka (heaven). To theistic schools of Hinduism, moksha is liberation from samsara, while for other schools such as the monistic school, moksha is possible in current life and is a psychological concept. According to Deutsche, moksha is transcendental consciousness to the latter, the perfect state of being, of self-realization, of freedom and of “realizing the whole universe as the Self”.[98][112] Moksha in these schools of Hinduism, suggests Klaus Klostermaier,[113] implies a setting free of hitherto fettered faculties, a removing of obstacles to an unrestricted life, permitting a person to be more truly a person in the full sense; the concept presumes an unused human potential of creativity, compassion and understanding which had been blocked and shut out. Moksha is more than liberation from life-rebirth cycle of suffering (samsara); Vedantic school separates this into two: jivanmukti (liberation in this life) and videhamukti (liberation after death).[114][115]

Concept of God

Main articles: Ishvara and God in Hinduism

Hinduism is a diverse system of thought with beliefs spanning monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, pantheism, pandeism, monism, and atheism among others;[116][117][web 4] and its concept of God is complex and depends upon each individual and the tradition and philosophy followed. It is sometimes referred to as henotheistic (i.e., involving devotion to a single god while accepting the existence of others), but any such term is an overgeneralization.[118]

The Nasadiya Sukta (Creation Hymn) of the Rig Veda is one of the earliest texts[119] which “demonstrates a sense of metaphysical speculation” about what created the universe, the concept of god(s) and The One, and whether even The One knows how the universe came into being.[120][121] The Raigveda praises various deities, none superior nor inferior, in a henotheistic manner.[122] The hymns repeatedly refer to One Truth and Reality. The “One Truth” of Vedic literature, in modern era scholarship, has been interpreted as monotheism, monism, as well as a deified Hidden Principles behind the great happenings and processes of nature.[123]

Hindus believe that all living creatures have a soul. This soul – the spirit or true “self” of every person, is called the ātman. The soul is believed to be eternal.[124] According to the monistic/pantheistic (non-dualist) theologies of Hinduism (such as Advaita Vedanta school), this Atman is indistinct from Brahman, the supreme spirit.[125] The goal of life, according to the Advaita school, is to realise that one’s soul is identical to supreme soul, that the supreme soul is present in everything and everyone, all life is interconnected and there is oneness in all life.[126][127][128] Dualistic schools (see Dvaita and Bhakti) understand Brahman as a Supreme Being separate from individual souls.[129] They worship the Supreme Being variously as Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva, or Shakti, depending upon the sect. God is called Ishvara, Bhagavan, Parameshwara, Deva or Devi, and these terms have different meanings in different schools of Hinduism.[130][131][132]

Krishna is worshipped as the avatar of the god Vishnu or Bhagavan, Supreme Being, in various traditions.

The Hindu scriptures refer to celestial entities called Devas (or devī in feminine form;[note 14] devatā used synonymously for Deva in Hindi), which may be translated into English as “gods” or “heavenly beings”.[note 15] The devas are an integral part of Hindu culture and are depicted in art, architecture and through icons, and mythological stories about them are related in the scriptures, particularly in Indian epic poetry and the Puranas. They are, however, often distinguished from Ishvara, a personal god, with many Hindus worshipping Ishvara in one of its particular manifestations as their iṣṭa devatā, or chosen ideal.[134][135] The choice is a matter of individual preference,[136] and of regional and family traditions.[136] The multitude of devas are considered as manifestations of Brahman.[note 16]

While ancient Vedic literature including Upanishads make no mention of reincarnation of God, the Puranas and the Epics relate several episodes of the descent of God to Earth in corporeal form to restore dharma to society. Such an incarnation is called an avatar. The most prominent avatars are of Vishnu and include Rama (the protagonist of the Ramayana) and Krishna (a central figure in the epic Mahabharata).

Both theistic and atheistic ideas, for epistemological and metaphysical reasons, are profuse in different schools of Hinduism. The early Nyaya school of Hinduism, for example, was non-theist/atheist,[137] but later Nyaya school scholars argued that God exists and offered proofs using its theory of logic.[138][139] Other schools disagreed with Nyaya scholars. Samkhya,[140] Mimamsa[141] and Carvaka schools of Hinduism, were non-theist/atheist, arguing that “God was an unnecessary metaphysical assumption”.[142][web 5][143] Its Vaisheshika school started as another non-theistic tradition relying on naturalism and that all matter is eternal, but it later introduced the concept of a non-creator God.[144][145] The Yoga school of Hinduism accepted the concept of a “personal god” and left it to the Hindu to define his or her god.[146] Advaita Vedanta taught a monistic, abstract Self and Oneness in everything, with no room for gods or deity, a perspective that Mohanty calls, “spiritual, not religious”.[147] Bhakti sub-schools of Vedanta taught a creator God that is distinct from each human being.[129]

Ahimsa, vegetarianism and other food customs

Main articles: Ahimsa, Vegetarianism and religion, Cattle in Religion, Sattvic diet and Mitahara

Hindus advocate the practice of ahiṃsā (non-violence) and respect for all life because divinity is believed to permeate all beings, including plants and non-human animals.[148] The term ahiṃsā appears in the Upanishads,[149] the epic Mahabharata[150] and ahiṃsā is the first of the five Yamas (vows of self-restraint) in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.[151] and the first principle for all member of Varnashrama Dharma (brahmin, kshatriya, vaishya and shudra) in Law of Manu (book 10, sutra 63 : Ahimsa, satya, asteya, shaucam and indrayanigraha, almost similar to main principles of jainism).[web 6][web 7]

A goshala or cow shelter at Guntur

In accordance with ahiṃsā, many Hindus embrace vegetarianism to respect higher forms of life. Estimates of the number of lacto vegetarians in India (includes adherents of all religions) vary between 20% and 42%.[152] The food habits vary with the community and region: for example, some castes having fewer vegetarians and coastal populations relying on seafood.[153][web 8] Some avoid meat only on specific holy days. Observant Hindus who do eat meat almost always abstain from beef. The cow in Hindu society is traditionally identified as a caretaker and a maternal figure,[154] and Hindu society honours the cow as a symbol of unselfish giving.[155]

There are many Hindu groups that have continued to abide by a strict vegetarian diet in modern times. Some adhere to a diet that is devoid of meat, eggs, and seafood.[156] Food affects body, mind and spirit in Hindu beliefs.[157][158] Hindu texts such as Śāṇḍilya Upanishad[159] and Svātmārāma[160][161] recommend Mitahara (eating in moderation) as one of the Yamas (virtuous self restraints). The Bhagavad Gita links body and mind to food one consumes in verses 17.8 through 17.10.[162]

Some Hindus from certain sects – generally Shakta,[163] and Hindus in regions such as Bali and Nepal[164][165] practise animal sacrifice.[166] In contrast, most Hindus, including the majority of Vaishnava and Shaivite Hindus abhor it.[web 9]


The Rigveda is the first and most important Veda[167] and is one of the oldest religious texts. This Rigveda manuscript is in Devanagari.

Main articles: Shruti, Smriti and List of Hindu scriptures

The ancient scriptures of Hinduism are in Sanskrit. These texts are classified into two: Shruti and Smriti. Hindu scriptures were composed, memorized and transmitted verbally, across generations, for many centuries before they were written down.[168][169] Over many centuries, sages refined the teachings and expanded the Shruti and Smriti, as well as developed Shastras with epistemological and metaphysical theories of six classical schools of Hinduism.

Shruti (lit. that which is heard)[170] primarily refers to the Vedas, which form the earliest record of the Hindu scriptures. While many Hindus revere the Vedas as eternal truths revealed to the ancient sages (rishis),[171][172] others do not associate the creation of the Vedas with a god or person. They are thought of as the laws of the spiritual world, which would still exist even if they were not revealed to the sages.[173][174] Hindus believe that because the spiritual truths of the Vedas are eternal, they continue to be expressed in new ways.[175] There are four Vedas – Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda. Each Veda has been subclassified into four major text types – the Samhitas (mantras and benedictions), the Aranyakas (text on rituals, ceremonies, sacrifices and symbolic-sacrifices), the Brahmanas (commentaries on rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices), and the Upanishads (text discussing meditation, philosophy and spiritual knowledge).[176][177][178] The first two parts of the Vedas were subsequently called the Karmakāṇḍa (ritualistic portion), while the last two form the Jñānakāṇḍa (knowledge portion, discussing spiritual insight and philosophical teachings).[179][web 10][180][181][182]

The Upanishads are the foundation of Hindu philosophical thought and have profoundly influenced its diverse traditions.[183][184] Of the shrutis (Vedic corpus), they alone are widely known, and the central ideas of the Upanishads are at the spiritual core of Hindus.[183][185] Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan states that the Upanishads have played a dominating role ever since their appearance.[186] There are 108 Muktikā Upanishads in Hinduism, of which between 10 to 13 are variously counted by scholars as Principal Upanishads.[187][188]

The most notable of the smritis (“memory”) are the epics, which consist of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The Bhagavad Gita is an integral part of the Mahabharata and one of the most popular sacred texts of Hinduism.[189] It is sometimes called Gitopanishad, then placed in the Shruti category, being Upanishadic in content.[190] Puranas, which illustrate Hindu ideas through vivid narratives come under smritis. Other texts include Devi Mahatmya, the Tantras, the Yoga Sutras, Tirumantiram, Shiva Sutras and the Hindu Agamas.



Main articles: Yajna and Hindu wedding

Offerings to Agni during Vivah-homa in a Hindu wedding

Most Hindus observe religious rituals at home.[191] The rituals vary greatly among regions, villages, and individuals. They are not mandatory in Hinduism. The nature and place of rituals is an individual’s choice. Devout Hindus perform daily rituals such as worshiping at dawn after bathing (usually at a family shrine, and typically includes lighting a lamp and offering foodstuffs before the images of deities), recitation from religious scripts, singing devotional hymns, yoga, meditation, chanting mantras and others.[192]

Vedic rituals of fire-oblation (yajna) and chanting of Vedic hymns are observed on special occasions, such as a Hindu wedding.[193][194] Other major life-stage events, such as rituals after death, include the yajña and chanting of Vedic mantras.[web 11]

Life-cycle rites of passage

Main article: Saṃskāra

Major life stage milestones are celebrated as sanskara (saṃskāra, rites of passage) in Hinduism.[195][196] The rites of passage are not mandatory, and vary in details by gender, community and regionally.[197] Gautama Dharmasutras composed in about the middle of 1st millennium BCE lists 48 sanskaras,[198] while Gryhasutra and other texts composed centuries later list between 12 to 16 sanskaras.[195][199] The list of sanskaras in Hinduism include both external rituals such as those marking a baby’s birth and a baby’s name giving ceremony, as well as inner rites of resolutions and ethics such as compassion towards all living beings and positive attitude.[198]

The major traditional rites of passage in Hinduism include[197] Garbhadhana (pregnancy), Pumsavana (rite before the fetus begins moving and kicking in womb), Simantonnayana (parting of pregnant woman’s hair, baby shower), Jatakarman (rite celebrating the new born baby), Namakarana (naming the child), Nishkramana (baby’s first outing from home into the world), Annaprashana (baby’s first feeding of solid food), Chudakarana (baby’s first haircut, tonsure), Karnavedha (ear piercing), Vidyarambha (baby’s start with knowledge), Upanayana (entry into a school rite),[200][201] Keshanta and Ritusuddhi (first shave for boys, menarche for girls), Samavartana (graduation ceremony), Vivaha (wedding), Vratas (fasting, spiritual studies) and Antyeshti (cremation for an adult, burial for a child).[202] In contemporary times, there is regional variation among Hindus as to which of these sanskaras are observed; in some cases, additional regional rites of passage such as Śrāddha (ritual of feeding people after cremation) are practiced.[197][web 12]

Bhakti (worship)

Main articles: Puja (Hinduism), Japa, Mantra and Bhajan

Priest attending a murthi

Bhakti refers to devotion, participation in and the love of a personal god or a representational god by a devotee.[203][204] Bhakti marga is considered in Hinduism as one of many possible paths of spirituality and alternate means to moksha.[205] The other paths, left to the choice of a Hindu, are Jnana marga (path of knowledge), Karma marga (path of works), Rāja marga (path of contemplation and meditation).[206][207]

Bhakti is practiced in a number of ways, ranging from reciting mantras, japas (incantations), to individual private prayers within one’s home or in a temple or near a river bank, sometimes in the presence of an idol or image of a deity.[208][209] Bhakti is sometimes practiced as a community, such as a Puja, Aarti, musical Kirtan or singing Bhajan, where devotional verses and hymns are read or poems are sung by a group of devotees.[210][211] While the choice of the deity is at the discretion of the Hindu, the most observed traditions of Hindu devotionalism include Vaishnavism (Vishnu), Shaivism (Shiva) and Shaktism (Shakti).[212] A Hindu may worship multiple deities, all as henotheistic manifestations of the same ultimate reality, cosmic spirit and absolute spiritual concept called Brahman in Hinduism.[213][214][note 16]

Bhakti marga, states Pechelis, is more than ritual devotionalism, it includes practices and spiritual activities aimed at refining one’s state of mind, knowing god, participating in god, and internalizing god.[215][216] While Bhakti practices are popular and easily observable aspect of Hinduism, not all Hindus practice Bhakti, or believe in god-with-attributes (saguna Brahman).[217][218] Concurrent Hindu practices include a belief in god-without-attributes, and god within oneself.[219][220]


Main article: Hindu festivals

The festival of lights- Diwali, is celebrated by Hindus all over the world.

Hindu festivals (Sanskrit: Utsava; literally: “to lift higher”) are ceremonies that weave individual and social life to dharma.[221][222] Hinduism has many festivals throughout the year, where the dates are set by the lunisolar Hindu calendar, many coinciding with either the full moon (Holi) or the new moon (Diwali), often with seasonal changes.[223] Some festivals are found only regionally and they celebrate local traditions, while a few such as Holi and Diwali are pan-Hindu.[223][224]

The festivals typically celebrate events from Hindu mythology, connoting spiritual themes and celebrating aspects of human relationships such as the Sister-Brother bond over the Raksha Bandhan (or Bhai Dooj) festival.[222][225] The same festival sometimes marks different mythologies depending on the Hindu denomination, and the celebrations incorporate regional themes, traditional agriculture, local arts, family get togethers, Puja rituals and feasts.[221][226]

Some major regional or pan-Hindu festivals include:

Makar Sankranti

Maha Shivaratri




Vasant Panchami


Ram Navami

Krishna Janmastami

Ganesh Chaturthi



Durga Puja


Gudi Padwa




Rath Yatra

Guru Purnima

Raksha Bandhan


Gowri Habba




See also: Hindu Pilgrimage sites, Yatra and Tirtha and Kshetra

Pilgrimage to Kedarnath

Pilgrimage is not mandatory in Hinduism, though many adherents undertake them.[227] While there are different yet similar pilgrimage routes in different parts of India, all are respected equally well, according to the universality of Hinduism. The following pilgrimage sites are most famous amongst Hindu devotees:

Old Holy cities as per Puranic Texts: Varanasi formerly known as Kashi, Allahabad formerly known as Prayag, Haridwar-Rishikesh, Mathura-Vrindavan, and Ayodhya.

Char Dham (Famous Four Pilgrimage sites): The four holy sites Puri, Rameswaram, Dwarka, and Badrinath (or alternatively the Himalayan towns of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri) compose the Char Dham (four abodes) pilgrimage circuit.

Kumbh Mela: The Kumbh Mela (the “pitcher festival”) is one of the holiest of Hindu pilgrimages that is held every 12 years; the location is rotated among Allahabad, Haridwar, Nashik, and Ujjain.

Major Temple cities: Puri, which hosts a major Vaishnava Jagannath temple and Rath Yatra celebration; Katra, home to the Vaishno Devi temple; Three comparatively recent temples of fame and huge pilgrimage are Shirdi, home to Sai Baba of Shirdi, Tirumala – Tirupati, home to the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple; and Sabarimala, where Swami Ayyappan is worshipped.

Shakti Peethas: Another important set of pilgrimages are the Shakti Peethas, where the Mother Goddess is worshipped, the two principal ones being Kalighat and Kamakhya.

Person and society


Main article: Varna (Hinduism)

Hindu society has been categorised into four classes, called varnas. They are the Brahmins: Vedic teachers and priests; the Kshatriyas: warriors and kings; the Vaishyas: farmers and merchants; and the Shudras: servants and labourers.[228]

The Bhagavad Gītā links the varna to an individual’s duty (svadharma), inborn nature (svabhāva), and natural tendencies (guṇa).[229] The Manusmṛiti categorises the different castes.[web 13]

Some mobility and flexibility within the varnas challenge allegations of social discrimination in the caste system, as has been pointed out by several sociologists,[230][231] although some other scholars disagree.[232] Scholars debate whether the so-called caste system is part of Hinduism sanctioned by the scriptures or social custom.[233][web 14][note 17] And various contemporary scholars have argued that the caste system was constructed by the British colonial regime.[234]

A renunciant man of knowledge is usually called Varnatita or “beyond all varnas” in Vedantic works. The bhiksu is advised to not bother about the caste of the family from which he begs his food. Scholars like Adi Sankara affirm that not only is Brahman beyond all varnas, the man who is identified with Him also transcends the distinctions and limitations of caste.[235]


A statue of Shiva in yogic meditation.

Main article: Yoga

In whatever way a Hindu defines the goal of life, there are several methods (yogas) that sages have taught for reaching that goal. Yoga is a Hindu discipline which trains the body, mind and consciousness for health, tranquility and spiritual insight. This is done through a system of postures and exercises to practise control of the body and mind.[236] Texts dedicated to Yoga include the Yoga Sutras, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Bhagavad Gita and, as their philosophical and historical basis, the Upanishads. Yoga is means, and the four major marga (paths) discussed in Hinduism are: Bhakti Yoga (the path of love and devotion), Karma Yoga (the path of right action), Rāja Yoga (the path of meditation), Jñāna Yoga (the path of wisdom)[237] An individual may prefer one or some yogas over others, according to his or her inclination and understanding. Practice of one yoga does not exclude others.


Hinduism has a developed system of symbolism and iconography to represent the sacred in art, architecture, literature and worship. These symbols gain their meaning from the scriptures, mythology, or cultural traditions. The syllable Om (which represents the Brahman and Atman) has grown to represent Hinduism itself, while other markings such as the Swastika sign represent auspiciousness,[238] and Tilaka (literally, seed) on forehead – considered to be the location of spiritual third eye,[239] marks ceremonious welcome, blessing or one’s participation in a ritual or rite of passage.[240] Elaborate Tilaka with lines may also identify a devotee of a particular denomination. Flowers, birds, animals, instruments, symmetric mandala drawings, objects, idols are all part of symbolic iconography in Hinduism.[241][242]


Main article: Hindu denominations

A Ganesha-centric Panchayatana (“five deities”, from the Smarta tradition): Ganesha (centre) with Shiva (top left), Devi (top right), Vishnu (bottom left) and Surya (bottom right). All these deities also have separate sects dedicated to them.

Hinduism has no central doctrinal authority and many practising Hindus do not claim to belong to any particular denomination.[243] Four major denominations are, however, more common: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism and Smartism.[244][245] These denominations differ primarily in the central deity worshipped, the traditions and the soteriological outlook.[246]

Vaishnavism is the devotional religious tradition that worships Vishnu[247] and his avatars, particularly Krishna and Rama.[244][248] The adherents of this sect are generally non-ascetic, monastic, oriented towards community events and devotionalism practices inspired by “intimate loving, joyous, playful” Krishna and other Vishnu avatars.[246] These practices sometimes include community dancing, singing of Kirtans and Bhajans,[244] with sound and music believed by some to have meditative and spiritual powers.[249] Temple worship and festivals are typically elaborate in Vaishnavism.[244] The Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana, along with Vishnu-oriented Puranas provide its theistic foundations.[244][250] Philosophically, their beliefs are rooted in the dualism sub-schools of Vedanta Hinduism.[244]

Shaivism is the denomination that focuses on Shiva. Shaivas are more attracted to ascetic individualism, and it has several sub-schools.[246] Their practices include Bhakti-style devotionalism, yet their beliefs lean towards nondual, monistic schools of Hinduism such as Advaita and Yoga.[245][249] Some Shaivas worship in temples, while others emphasize yoga, striving to be one with Shiva within.[244] Avatars are uncommon, and some Shaivas visualize god as half male, half female, as a fusion of the male and female principles (Ardhanarishvara). Shaivism is related to Shaktism, wherein Shakti is seen as spouse of Shiva.[245] Community celebrations include festivals, and participation, with Vaishnavas, in pilgrimages such as the Kumbh Mela.[251] Shaivism has been more commonly practiced in the Himalayan north from Kashmir to Nepal, and in south India.[244][252]

Shaktism focuses on goddess worship of Shakti or Devi as cosmic mother,[246] and it is particularly common in northeastern and eastern states of India such as Assam and Bengal.[244] Devi is depicted as in gentler forms like Parvati, the consort of Shiva; or, as fierce warrior goddesses like Kali and Durga. Followers of Shaktism recognize Shakti as the power that underlies the male principle. Shaktism is also associated with Tantra practices.[244][253] Community celebrations include festivals, some of which include processions and idol immersion into sea or other water bodies.[254]

Smartism centers its worship simultaneously on all the major Hindu deities: Shiva, Vishnu, Shakti, Ganesha, Surya and Skanda.[244] This tradition traces its origin to the efforts of Adi Shankara, the Advaita Vedanta scholar,[244] who considered worship of God-with-attributes (saguna Brahman) as a journey towards ultimately realizing God-without-attributes (nirguna Brahman, Atman, Self-knowledge).[255] The term Smartism is derived from Smriti texts of Hinduism, meaning those who remember the traditions in the texts.[245] This Hindu sect practices a philosophical Jnana yoga, scriptural studies, reflection, meditative path seeking an understanding of Self’s oneness with God.[244][245][256]



The Swaminarayan Akshardham Temple in Delhi, according the Guinness World Records is the World’s Largest Comprehensive Hindu Temple[web 16]

Main articles: Hindu temple, Murti and Hindu iconography

A Hindu temple is a house of god(s).[257] It is a space and structure designed to bring human beings and gods together, infused with symbolism to express the ideas and beliefs of Hinduism.[258] A temple incorporates all elements of Hindu cosmology, the highest spire or dome representing Mount Meru – reminder of the abode of Brahma and the center of spiritual universe,[259] the carvings and iconography symbolically presenting dharma, kama, artha, moksa and karma.[260][261] The layout, the motifs, the plan and the building process recite ancient rituals, geometric symbolisms, and reflect beliefs and values innate within various schools of Hinduism.[258] A Hindu temple is a spiritual destination for many Hindus (not all), as well as landmarks for arts, annual festivals, rite of passage rituals, and community celebrations.[262][263]

Hindu temples come in many styles, diverse locations, deploy different construction methods and are adapted to different deities and regional beliefs.[264] Two major styles of Hindu temples include the Gopuram-style found in south India, and Nagara-style found in north India.[265][266] Other styles include cave, forest and mountain temples.[267] Yet, despite their differences, almost all Hindu temples share certain common architectural principles, core ideas, symbolism and themes.[258]

Many temples feature one or more idols (murtis). The idol and Grabhgriya in the Brahma-pada (the center of the temple), under the main spire, serves as a focal point (darsana, a sight) in a Hindu temple.[268] In larger temples, the central space typically is surrounded by an ambulatory for the devotee to walk around and ritually circumambulate the Purusa (Brahman), the universal essence.[258]


Main article: Ashrama

Traditionally the life of a Hindu is divided into four Āshramas (phases or life stages; unrelated meanings include monastery).[198] The four asramas are: Brahmacharya (student), Grihastha (householder), Vanaprastha (retired) and Sannyasa (renunciation).[269]

Brahmacharya represents the bachelor student stage of life. Grihastha refers to the individual’s married life, with the duties of maintaining a household, raising a family, educating one’s children, and leading a family-centred and a dharmic social life.[269] Grihastha stage starts with Hindu wedding, and has been considered as the most important of all stages in sociological context, as Hindus in this stage not only pursued a virtuous life, they produced food and wealth that sustained people in other stages of life, as well as the offsprings that continued mankind.[270] Vanaprastha is the retirement stage, where a person hands over household responsibilities to the next generation, took an advisory role, and gradually withdrew from the world.[271][272] The Sannyasa stage marks renunciation and a state of disinterest and detachment from material life, generally without any meaningful property or home (Ascetic), and focussed on Moksha, peace and simple spiritual life.[273][274]

The Ashramas system has been one facet of the Dharma concept in Hinduism.[275] Combined with four proper goals of human life (Purusartha), the Ashramas system traditionally aimed at providing a Hindu with fulfilling life and spiritual liberation.[270] While these stages are typically sequential, any person can enter Sannyasa (ascetic) stage and become an Ascetic at any time after the Brahmacharya stage.[276] Sannyasa is not religiously mandatory in Hinduism, and elderly people are free to live with their families.[277]


Main article: Sannyasa

A sadhu in Madurai, India.

Some Hindus choose to live a monastic life (Sannyāsa) in pursuit of liberation or another form of spiritual perfection. Monastics commit themselves to a life of simplicity, celibacy, detachment from worldly pursuits, and the contemplation of God.[278] A Hindu monk is called a Sanyāsī, Sādhu, or Swāmi. A female renunciate is called a Sanyāsini. Renunciates receive high respect in Hindu society because their simple living, renunciation of worldly desires, and dedication to spiritual liberation (moksha) – believed to be the ultimate goal of life.[274] Some monastics live in monasteries, while others wander from place to place, depending on donated food and charity for their needs.[279]


Main article: History of Hinduism


James Mill (1773–1836), in his The History of British India (1817),[280] distinguished three phases in the history of India, namely Hindu, Muslim and British civilisations.[280][281] This periodisation has been criticised, for the misconceptions it has given rise to.[282] Another periodisation is the division into “ancient, classical, mediaeval and modern periods”.[283] An elaborate periodisation may be as follows:[17]

Prevedic religions (pre-history and Indus Valley Civilisation; until c. 1750 BCE);

Vedic period (c. 1750-500 BCE);

“Second Urbanisation” (c. 500-200 BCE);

Classical Hinduism (c. 200 BCE-1100 CE);[note 18]

Pre-classical Hinduism (c. 200 BCE-300 CE);

“Golden Age” (Gupta Empire) (c. 320-650 CE);

Late-Classical Hinduism – Puranic Hinduism (c. 650-1100 CE);

Islam and Sects of Hinduism (c. 1200-1700 CE);

Modern Hinduism (from c.1800).


Among the roots of Hinduism are the historical Vedic religion of Iron Age India,[289] itself already the product of “a composite of the indo-Aryan and Harappan cultures and civilizations”,[290][note 19] but also the Sramana[292] or renouncer traditions[72] of northeast India,[292] and mesolithic[293] and neolithic[294] cultures of India, such as the religions of the Indus Valley Civilisation,[295] Dravidian traditions,[296] and the local traditions[72] and tribal religions.[297][note 20]

Prevedic religions (until c. 1750 BCE)

See also: Peopling of India

The so-called Shiva Pashupati seal, Indus Valley civilization.

The earliest prehistoric religion in India that may have left its traces in Hinduism comes from mesolithic as observed in the sites such as the rock paintings of Bhimbetka rock shelters dating to a period of 30,000 BCE or older,[note 21] as well as neolithic times.[note 22] Some of the religious practices can be considered to have originated in 4,000 BCE. Several tribal religions still exist, though their practices may not resemble those of prehistoric religions.[web 17]

According to anthropologist Possehl, the Indus Valley Civilization “provides a logical, if somewhat arbitrary, starting point for some aspects of the later Hindu tradition”.[298] The religion of this period included worship of a Great male god, which is compared to a proto-Shiva, and probably a Mother Goddess, that may prefigure Shakti. However these links of deities and practices of the Indus religion to later-day Hinduism are subject to both political contention and scholarly dispute.[299]

Vedic period (c. 1750-500 BCE)

Main article: Vedic period


More information: Indo-Aryan migration v t e …

Indo-Aryan migration v t e

The Yamna culture 3500-2000 BC.

Scheme of Indo-European migrations from ca. 4000 to 1000 BCE according to the Kurgan hypothesis. The magenta area corresponds to the assumed Urheimat (Samara culture, Sredny Stog culture). The red area corresponds to the area which may have been settled by Indo-European-speaking peoples up to ca. 2500 BCE; the orange area to 1000 BCE. (Christopher I. Beckwith (2009), Empires of the Silk Road, Oxford University Press, p.30)

Map of the approximate maximal extent of the Andronovo culture. The formative Sintashta-Petrovka culture is shown in darker red. The location of the earliest spoke-wheeled chariot finds is indicated in purple. Adjacent and overlapping cultures (Afanasevo culture, Srubna culture, BMAC) are shown in green.

Archaeological cultures associated with Indo-Iranian migrations (after EIEC). The Andronovo, BMAC and Yaz cultures have often been associated with Indo-Iranian migrations. The GGC, Cemetery H, Copper Hoard and PGW cultures are candidates for cultures associated with Indo-Aryan movements.

Early Vedic Period.


Main articles: Indo-Aryans and Indo-Aryan migration

The Vedic period, named after the Vedic religion of the Indo-Aryans,[300][note 23] lasted from c. 1750 to 500 BCE.[302][note 24] The Indo-Aryans were pastoralists[304] who migrated into north-western India after the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization,[301][305][306][note 25]

During the early Vedic period (c. 1500 – 1100 BCE[304]) Vedic tribes were pastoralists, wandering around in north-west India.[309] After 1100 BCE the Vedic tribes moved into the western Ganges Plain, adapting an agrarical lifestyle.[304][310][311] Rudimentary state-forms appeared, of which the Kuru-tribe and realm was the most influential.[304][312] It was a tribal union, which developed into the first recorded state-level society in South Asia around 1000 BCE.[304] It decisively changed the Vedic heritage of the early Vedic period, collecting the Vedic hymns into collections, and developing new rituals which gained their position in Indian civilization as the orthodox srauta rituals,[304] which contributed to the so-called “classical synthesis”[313] or “Hindu synthesis”.[314]

Vedic religion

Main article: Historical Vedic religion

The Indo-Aryans brought with them their language[315] and religion.[316][317] The Vedic beliefs and practices of the pre-classical era were closely related to the hypothesised Proto-Indo-European religion,[318][319] and the Indo-Iranian religion.[320][note 26]

The Vedic religion of the later Vedic period co-existed with local religions, such as the Yaksha cults,[313][327][web 18] and was itself the product of “a composite of the indo-Aryan and Harappan cultures and civilizations”.[290] David Gordon White cites three other mainstream scholars who “have emphatically demonstrated” that Vedic religion is partially derived from the Indus Valley Civilizations.[328] [note 19] Their religion was further developed when they migrated into the Ganges Plain after c. 1100 BCE and became settled farmers,[304][329][330] further syncretising with the native cultures of northern India.[313]

This is the period when the Vedas and early Upanishads were composed. The oldest of these Vedic texts is the Rigveda, composed between c.1500-1200 BCE,[331][332][333] though a wider approximation of c.1700-1100 BCE has also been given.[334][335] The 9th and 8th centuries BCE witnessed the composition of the earliest Upanishads.[336]:183 Upanishads form the theoretical basis of classical Hinduism and constitute the Vedanta (conclusion of the Veda) literature.[337]

“Second Urbanisation” (c. 500-200 BCE)

Main article: Sramana

Increasing urbanisation of India in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE led to the rise of ascetic circles and of new ideas which challenged the orthodoxy of rituals.[338] These ideas led to Sramana movements, of which Mahavira (c. 549–477 BCE), proponent of Jainism, and Buddha (c. 563-483), founder of Buddhism, were the most prominent icons.[336]:184

The ascetic tradition of Vedic period in part created the concept of samsara and suffering, and the concept of liberation, which became characteristic for Hinduism, along with Buddhism and Jainism.[note 27]

These ascetic concepts were adopted by schools of Hinduism as well as other major Indian religions, but key differences between their premises defined their further development. Hinduism, for example, developed its ideas with the premise that every human being has a soul (atman, self), while Buddhism developed with the premise that there is no soul or self.[339][340][341]

The chronology of these religious concepts is unclear, and scholars contest which religion affected the other as well as the chronological sequence of the ancient texts.[342][343] Pratt notes that Oldenberg (1854-1920), Neumann (1865-1915) and Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) believed that the Buddhist canon had been influenced by Upanishads, while la Vallee Poussin thinks the influence was nihil, and “Eliot and several others insist that on some points the Buddha was directly antithetical to the Upanishads”.[344][note 28]

Classical Hinduism (c. 200 BCE-1100 CE)

After the Vedic period, between 500[314]-200[345] BCE and c. 300 CE,[314] the Vedic-Brahmanic culture spread to southern India and parts of Southeast Asia.[note 29]

Pre-classical Hinduism (c. 200 BCE-300 CE)

The “Hindu synthesis” or “Brahmanical synthesis”[314][345] incorporated Sramanic and Buddhist influences[345][346][which?] and the emerging bhakti tradition into the “Brahmanical fold” via the smriti literature.[347][345] This synthesis emerged under the pressure of the success of Buddhism and Jainism.[348]

According to Embree, several other religious traditions had existed side by side with the Vedic religion. These indigenous religions “eventually found a place under the broad mantle of the Vedic religion”.[349] The smriti texts of the period between 200 BCE-100 CE proclaimed the authority of the Vedas, and acceptance of the Vedas became a central criterium for defining Hinduism over and against the heterodoxies, which rejected the Vedas and relied on their own Sutras (texts).[350]

The major Sanskrit epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, which belong to the smriti, were compiled over a protracted period during the late centuries BCE and the early centuries CE.[web 19] They contain mythological stories about the rulers and wars of ancient India, and are interspersed with religious and philosophical treatises. The later Puranas recount tales about devas and devis, their interactions with humans and their battles against rakshasa. The Bhagavad Gita was composed in this period and consolidated diverse ideas.[351]

In early centuries CE several schools of Hindu philosophy were formally written down, including Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Purva-Mimamsa and Vedanta.[352]

“Golden Age” (Gupta Empire) (c. 320-650 CE)

During the Gupta period, the first Hindu temples dedicated to the gods of the Hindu deities, emerged.[353][note 30] During the Gupta reign the first Puranas were written.[355] According to P.S. Sharma, “the Gupta and Harsha periods form really, from the strictly intellectual standpoint, the most brilliant epocha in the development of Indian philosophy”, as Hindu and Buddhist philosophies flourished side by side.[356]

Late-Classical Hinduism – Puranic Hinduism (c. 650-1100 CE)

After the end of the Gupta Empire, power became decentralised in India. The disintegration of central power also lead to regionalisation of religiosity, and religious rivalry.[357] Rural and devotional movements arose within Hinduism, along with Shaivism, Vaisnavism, Bhakti and Tantra,[357] that competed with each other, as well as with numerous sects of Buddhism and Jainism.[357][358][359] During this period, the non-dualistic Advaita Vedanta was reformulated by Adi Shankara who systematised the works of preceding philosophers.[360]

Islamic rule and Bhakti movement of Hinduism (c. 1200-1750 CE)

Main articles: Islam in India and Bhakti movement

Babur visits a Hindu temple.

The Islamic rule period witnessed Hindu-Muslim confrontation and violence,[361][362] but “violence did not normally characterize the relations of Muslim and Hindu.”[363][364] Enslavement of non-Muslims, especially Hindus in India, was part of the Muslim raids and conquests,[365][366] but after the 14th-century slavery become less common,[367] and in 1562 “Akbar abolished the practice of enslaving the families of war captives.”[366] Akbar recognized Hinduism, protected Hindu temples, and abolished discriminatory Jizya (head taxes) against Hindus,[366][368] but occasionally, Muslim rulers of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire, before and after Akbar, from 12th century to 18th century, destroyed Hindu temples[369][370][note 31] and persecuted non-Muslims.

Though Islam came to Indian subcontinent in the early 7th century with the advent of Arab traders, it started impacting Indian religions after the 10th century, and particularly after the 12th century with the establishment and then expansion of Islamic rule.[371][372] During this period Buddhism declined rapidly, and a distinct Indo-Islamic culture emerged.[373] Under Akbar an “intriguing blend of Perso-Islamic and Rajput-Hindu traditions became manifest.”[374] Nevertheless, many orthodox ulamas (“learned Islamic jurists”) opposed the rapprochement of Hinduism and Islam,[374] and the two merely co-existed,[375] although there was more accommodation at the peasantry level of Indian society.[375]

According to Hardy, the Muslim rulers were not concerned with the number of converts, since the stability and continuity of their regime did not depend on the number of Muslims.[376] In general religious conversion was a gradual process, with some converts attracted to pious Muslims while others converted to Islam to gain tax relief, land grant, marriage partners, social and economic advancement,[377] or freedom from slavery.[378] In border regions such as the Punjab and eastern Bengal, the share of Muslims grew as large as 70% to 90% of the population, whereas in the heartland of Muslim rule, the upper Gangetic Plain, the Muslims constituted only 10 to 15% of the population.[note 32]

Between 1200 and 1800 CE, Hinduism revived in certain provinces of India under two powerful states, viz. Vijayanagar and Maratha. The 14th and 15th century Southern India saw the rise of the Hindu Vijayanagar Empire, which served as a barrier against invasion by the Muslim sultanates of the north, and it fostered the reconstruction of Hindu life and administration.[web 20] Vidyaranya, also known as Madhava, who was the 12th Jagadguru of the Śringeri Śarada Pītham from 1380-6,[379] and a minister in the Vijayanagara Empire,[380] helped establish Shankara as a rallying symbol of values, and helped spread historical and cultural influence of Shankara’s Vedanta philosophies.[381][382] The Hindu Maratha Confederacy rose to power in 18th century and ended up overthrowing Muslim power in India[383][384]

Hinduism underwent profound changes, aided in part by teachers such as Ramanuja, Madhva, and Chaitanya.[385] Tantra disappeared in northern India, partly due to Muslim rule,[386] while the Bhakti movement grew, with followers engaging in emotional, passionate and community-oriented devotional worship, participating in saguna or nirguna Brahman ideologies.[387][388][389] According to Nicholson, already between the 12th and the 16th century, “certain thinkers began to treat as a single whole the diverse philosophical teachings of the Upanishads, epics, Puranas, and the schools known retrospectively as the “six systems” (saddarsana) of mainstream Hindu philosophy.”[42][note 33] Michaels notes that a historicization emerged which preceded later nationalism, articulating ideas which glorified Hinduism and the past.[48]

Modern Hinduism (from c.1800)

Russian Krishnaites celebrating Ratha Yatra. In the late 20th century forms of Hinduism have grown indigenous roots in parts of Russia, significantly in Altay where Hinduism is now the religion of 2% of the population.

Hindu revivalism

With the onset of the British Raj, the colonization of India by the British, there also started a Hindu renaissance in the 19th century, which profoundly changed the understanding of Hinduism in both India and the west.[390] Indology as an academic discipline of studying Indian culture from a European perspective was established in the 19th century, led by scholars such as Max Müller and John Woodroffe. They brought Vedic, Puranic and Tantric literature and philosophy to Europe and the United States. Western orientalist searched for the “essence” of the Indian religions, discerning this in the Vedas,[391] and meanwhile creating the notion of “Hinduism” as a unified body of religious praxis[392] and the popular picture of ‘mystical India’.[392][390] This idea of a Vedic essence was taken over by Hindu reform movements as the Brahmo Samaj, which was supported for a while by the Unitarian Church,[393] together with the ideas of Universalism and Perennialism, the idea that all religions share a common mystic ground.[394] This “Hindu modernism”, with proponents like Vivekananda, Aurobindo and Radhakrishnan, became central in the popular understanding of Hinduism.[395][396][397][398][53]

Popularity in the west

Influential 20th-century Hindus were Ramana Maharshi, B.K.S. Iyengar, Paramahansa Yogananda, Prabhupada (founder of ISKCON), Sri Chinmoy, Swami Rama and others who translated, reformulated and presented Hinduism’s foundational texts for contemporary audiences in new iterations, raising the profiles of Yoga and Vedanta in the West and attracting followers and attention in India and abroad.

Hindu practices such as Yoga, Ayurvedic health, divination (astrology, palmistry, numerology), Tantric sexuality through Neotantra and the Kama Sutra have spread beyond Hindu communities and have been accepted by several non-Hindus:

“Hinduism is attracting Western adherents through the affiliated practice of yoga. Yoga centers in the West—which generally advocate vegetarianism—attract young, well-educated Westerners who are drawn by yoga’s benefits for the physical and emotional health; there they are introduced to the Hindu philosophical system taught by most yoga teachers, known as Vedanta.”[399]

It is estimated that around 30 million Americans and 5 million Europeans regularly practice some form of Hatha Yoga.[400] In Australia, the number of practitioners is about 300,000.[web 21] In New Zealand the number is also around 300,000.[web 22]


In the 20th century, Hinduism also gained prominence as a political force and a source for national identity in India. With origins traced back to the establishment of the Hindu Mahasabha in the 1910s, the movement grew with the formulation and development of the Hindutva ideology in the following decades; the establishment of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1925; and the entry, and later success, of RSS offshoots Jana Sangha and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in electoral politics in post-independence India.[401] Hindu religiosity plays an important role in the nationalist movement.[402][note 34][note 35]


Main article: Hinduism by country

Hinduism – Percentage by country

Part of a series on

Hinduism by country

(ॐ नम- शिवाय ) ॐ शब्द हिन्दू धर्म में और आध्यात्मिक जीवन में और हमारे वेदों में बहु 2014-06-04 23-12.jpg




North America


South America

This box: view talk edit

Hinduism is a major religion in India. Hinduism was followed by around 80.5% of the country’s population of 1.21 billion (2012 estimate) (960 million adherents).[web 23] Other significant populations are found in Nepal (23 million), Bangladesh (15 million) and the Indonesian island of Bali (3.9 million).[407] The majority of the Vietnamese Cham people also follow Hinduism.[408]

Countries with the greatest proportion of Hindus from Hinduism by country (as of 2008):

Nepal 81.3%[web 24]

India 80.5%

Mauritius 48.5%[409]

Guyana 28%[web 25]

Fiji 27.9%[web 26]

Bhutan 25%[web 27]

Trinidad and Tobago 22.5%

Suriname 20%[web 28]

Sri Lanka 12.6%[web 29]

Bangladesh 9.6%[web 30]

Qatar 7.2%

Réunion 6.7%

Malaysia 6.3%[web 31]

Bahrain 6.25%

Kuwait 6%

Singapore 5.1%[web 32]

United Arab Emirates 5%

Oman 3%

Belize 2.3%

Seychelles 2.1%[web 33]

Demographically, Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion, after Christianity and Islam.

Conversion debate

In the modern era, religious conversion from and to Hinduism has been a controversial subject. Some state the concept of missionary conversion, either way, is anathema to the precepts of Hinduism.[410]

Religious conversion to Hinduism has a long history outside India. Merchants and traders of India, particularly from the Indian peninsula, carried their religious ideas, which led to religious conversions to Hinduism in southeast Asia.[411][412][413] Within India, archeological and textual evidence such as the 2nd century BCE Heliodorus pillar suggest that Greeks and other foreigners converted to Hinduism.[414][415] The debate on proselytization and religious conversion between Christianity, Islam and Hinduism is more recent, and started in the 19th century.[416][417][note 36]

Religious leaders of some Hindu reform movements such as the Arya Samaj launched Shuddhi movement to proselytize and reconvert Muslims and Christians back to Hinduism,[420][421] while those such as the Brahmo Samaj suggested Hinduism to be a non-missionary religion.[410] All these sects of Hinduism have welcomed new members to their group, while other leaders of Hinduism’s diverse schools have stated that given the intensive proselytization activities from missionary Islam and Christianity, this “there is no such thing as proselytism in Hinduism” view must be re-examined.[410][420][422]

In recent decades, mainstream Hinduism schools have attempted to systematize ways to accept religious converts, with an increase in inter-religious mixed marriages.[423] The appropriateness of conversion from major religions to Hinduism, and vice versa, has been and remains an actively debated topic in India,[424][425][426] and in Indonesia.[427]

See also


Hinduism in Southeast Asia

Balinese Hinduism

Atheism in Hinduism

Criticism of Hinduism


Hindu calendar

Hindu deities

Hindu denominations

Hindu mythology

Hindu reform movements

Hinduism by country


Ethics of Hinduism

Rulership in Hinduism

Vedic-Puranic chronology

List of Hindu temples

List of notable Hindus

List of converts to Hinduism

List of related articles

Related systems and religions



Christianity and Hinduism

Eastern philosophy

Hindu philosophy

Indian religions

Islam and Hinduism


Hinduism and Judaism

Proto-Indo-European religion

Proto-Indo-Iranian religion




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Vivekjivandas (2010), Hinduism: An Introduction – Part 1, Ahmedabad: Swaminarayan Aksharpith, ISBN 978-81-7526-433-5

Walker, Benjamin (1968), The Hindu world: an encyclopedic survey of Hinduism

White, David Gordon (2000), Introduction. In: David Gordon White (ed.), “Tantra in Practice”, Princeton University Press

White, David Gordon (2006), Kiss of the Yogini: “Tantric Sex” in its South Asian Contexts, University of Chicago Press

Wink, Andre (1991), Al-Hind: the Making of the Indo-Islamic World, Volume 1, Brill Academic, ISBN 978-9004095090

Witzel, Michael (1995), “Early Sanskritization: Origin and Development of the Kuru state” (PDF), Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies (Praeger) 1 (4)

Zimmer, Heinrich (1951), Philosophies of India, Princeton University Press


Tap to expand

Further reading


Doniger, Wendy (1999), Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions, Merriam-Webster, ISBN 9780877790440

Flood, Gavin D. (1996), An Introduction to Hinduism, Cambridge University Press

Flood, Gavin (Ed) (2003), Blackwell companion to Hinduism, Blackwell Publishing, ISBN 0-631-21535-2

Jones, Constance; Ryan, James D. (2007), Encyclopedia of Hinduism, New York City: Infobase Publishing, ISBN 0-8160-5458-4

Klostermaier, Klaus (1994), A Survey of Hinduism (3rd (2007) ed.), State University of New York Press, ISBN 0-7914-7082-2

Lipner, Julius (1998), Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-05181-9, retrieved 12 July 2007

Michaels, Axel (2004), Hinduism: Past and Present (5th ed.), Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-08953-1

Morgan, Kenneth W., ed. (1987), The Religion of the Hindus (New ed.), Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, ISBN 81-208-0387-6

Rinehart, Robin (Ed.) (2004), Contemporary Hinduism: Ritual, Culture, and Practice, ABC-Clio, ISBN 1-57607-905-8

Werner, Karel (1994), “Hinduism”, in Hinnells, John (Ed.), A Popular Dictionary of Hinduism, Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, ISBN 0-7007-0279-2


Samuel, Geoffrey (2010), The Origins of Yoga and Tantra. Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century, Cambridge University Press


Richards, Glyn, ed. (1985). A Sourcebook of Modern Hinduism. London: Curzon Press. x, 212 p. ISBN 0-7007-0173-7


The Encyclopedia of Hinduism(International Edition) ( 11 Volumes) – Publisher : Mandala Publishing, Language : English

External links

Hinduism, Encyclopædia Britannica

Hindu Philosophy and Hinduism, IEP, Shyam Ranganathan, York University

Vedic Hinduism SW Jamison and M Witzel, Harvard University

The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), Wikisource

Hinduism by Swami Nikhilananda, The Ramakrishna Mission (one of the Theistic Hindu Movements)

All About Hinduism by Swami Sivananda (pdf), The Divine Life Society (one of the Theistic Hindu Movements)

Advaita Vedanta Hinduism by Sangeetha Menon, IEP (one of the non-Theistic school of Hindu philosophy)

Heart of Hinduism: An overview of Hindu traditions, ISKCON (Hare Krishna Movement)

What is Hinduism?, Editors of Hinduism Today Magazine

Hinduism outside India, A Bibliography, Harvard University (The Pluralism Project)

What’s in a Name? Agama Hindu Bali in the Making – Hinduism in Bali, Indonesia Michel Picard, Le CNRS (Paris, France)

Research on Hinduism

The Oxford Center for Hindu Studies, University of Oxford

Latest issue of The Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press

Latest issue of the International Journal of Hindu Studies, Springer

Latest issue of The Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies, Butler University

Latest issue of The Journal of Indo-Judaic Studies, Florida International University

Latest issue of the International Journal of Dharma Studies, Springer (Topical publications on Hinduism, other Indic religions)

Audio on Hinduism

Hinduism as a Religion, by Swami Vivekananda, World Parliament of Religion, Chicago in 1893 (Audio Version, Text)

Scholarly lectures on Hinduism, OCHS, University of Oxford


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