The Vedas, Core Beliefs, & Reincarnation
Hinduism is the indigenous religion of Southeast Asia and primarily India. Hinduism is an ancient religion that has no single founder, teacher, or prophet. The religion is also comprised of many different sects. The different sects of Hinduism vary in their interpretations but they all incorporate the sacred texts.
The sacred texts of Hindu are known as the Vedas. The Vedas are ancient writings that contain hymns, incantations, and rituals. These writings are considered some of the oldest religious texts in existence. Upanishads, which are a segment of Vedic philosophy and the Bhagavad Gita, which is also part of the Vedas date between 400 and 300 B.C (Sacred-texts, 2010). Hinduism is one of the oldest religions still practiced today (Duiker and Spielvogel).
One of the defining characteristics of Hinduism is that it holds a large number of beliefs and practices that are not rigid and dogmatic. According to Duiker and Spielvogel (2013), Hinduism does not require that follower adhere strictly to any one idea. Hinduism incorporates many outside religious and cultural practices while maintaining its core beliefs. This can be seen in the fact that Hindus share many concepts such as karma with other religions such as Buddhism. The primary core beliefs and practices of Hinduism include:
Idol worship — a picture, statue or carved image,
Casteism — classes into which Hindu society is divided,
Reincarnation — Samsara- the cycle of rebirth or reincarnation.,
Karma- the belief that one’s actions accumulate over one’s life and at death this accumulation of actions determines one’s placement in the next rebirth, either higher or lower in status.
Dharma- virtue, specifically this concept refers to one’s duties within a particular caste. It is virtuous to perform one’s duties in a willing and correct manner.
Moksha — the spiritual goal of release from reincarnation. Moksha- the end of the cycle of rebirth or liberation from it. This is the ultimate goal and result for understanding Brahman (Flesher, 1998).
Because Hinduism is a cultural practice as well as a religion, it is comprised of many myths, gods, and philosophic ideas. Similar to Buddhism, Hinduism is a religion which is based on the idea of karma and reincarnation. The Hindu perspective on karma and rebirth is entrenched in a belief that humans are trapped in a cycle of rebirth. Each rebirth of a person places him or her in a specific place in the caste system depending upon their actions in their prior life.
The cycle of rebirth continues until a Hindu realizes the Brahman or ultimate reality. This is also referred to as achieving enlightenment. For the Hindu, the liberation from the earthly existence is to become one with the Brahman (Flesher, 1998). This belief varies in its interpretations. But because Hindus believe that as long as one is trying to achieve enlightenment (in one form or another), than whatever path (religion) is used, should be respected. This belief allows for allows for many diverse beliefs and flexibility with religions. For instance, Krista Bhakta is a person who is Hindu and Christian. These people have adopted Christian belief while maintaining Hindu tradition (Duiker and Spielvogel).
Hinduism is a socio-religious belief system that incorporates traditions and cultural norms and mores. For example, Hinduism values the concepts of purity of spirit and mind which is believed to create good karma. The idea of purity manifests in Hindu culture in a multitude of ways such as:
· never using harsh, angered or indecent language
· keeping a clean and healthy physical body
· never drinking after someone or offering a drink to someone after already drinking from the same vessel
· never touching people with the left hand or handing things to others with the left hand (Flesher).
Another cultural practice in Hinduism is achieving dharma. Not to be confused with karma, dharma is a virtue and belief in the proper path. Hindus recognize this virtue by performing their duties, responsibilities, and life properly and to the best of their ability (Flesher). For example, a writer would need to write the best possible books or a business person would need to conduct his or her business with the greatest degree of ability possible. When a person performs his or her duties in this way, he or she is fulfilling their dharma. This concept is linked with the caste to which he or she is born because it outlines the person’s place in society. By following one’s chosen path in accordance with dharma, then he or she will create good karma which will lead them to better dharma in the next life (Flesher).
It is important to understand that the traditions and culture of the Hindu life are wrapped in this idea of rebirth and karma. These concepts are entrenched in the caste system. The rebirth of a person into a better or worse class is contingent on karma and this must be adhered to daily. This is due to the belief that cause and effect of one’s actions accumulates throughout life creating a point of judgment to the next existence which determines the person’s caste. The caste system has changed tremendously since ancient times as it is not as rigid as it once was.
The caste system in ancient India was not a division of labor or a loose knit social order. The system was a rigid system of classification of people which determined social hierarchy and occupations. One could not move from the caste that he or she was born into. For example, the priestly class, known as the Brahmins was at the top of the caste system and they were believed to be descendants of the seers of past rulers (Duiker and Spielvogel).
Brahmins would, from the time of conception, be considered religious scholars. They would eventually lead lives of sexual abstinence and refrain from eating animals. These individuals would train with other educated philosophers and would eventually become philosophers who would provide knowledge and understanding to other people who needed council. Ultimately, the purpose of Brahmins would be to teach and provide spiritual council on how to break the cycle of rebirth by realizing the ultimate reality (Brahman); enlightenment. For these individuals their task would be to teach other how to achieve liberation from the earthly existence and to become one with the Brahman (Flesher).
While descriptions of caste divisions seem easy to understand, it is in reality a very misunderstood concept. The caste system is not simple to define because it encompasses so many areas of life and culture. For example, a particular caste may have limited occupations or even specific dietary choices. The cast impacts so many areas of life that it is difficult for outsiders to understand and make sense of it. Govind Sadashiv Ghurye an Indian Professor of Sociology expressed this problem stating:
…we do not possess a real general definition of caste. It appears to me that any attempt at definition is bound to fail because of the complexity of the phenomenon. On the other hand, much literature on the subject is marred by lack of precision about the use of the term (Ghurye 23).
Often people think of the caste system in a sense of labor or social division but these definitions are inadequate to describe the system. The caste can be thought of as an intricate social order that is interwoven into the fabric of one’s life (Ghurye). Understanding it in this way allows one to see its connection to Hinduism in a more coherent fashion.
While the caste system is linked with Hinduism it has grown out of the concept of purity. The idea of achieving purity or increasing one’s spiritual and mental purity seems to be the basis of this belief. This can be seen in the fact that the lowest levels of the caste system are reserved for what is considered the most impure work.
The Untouchables occupy a place that is not clearly defined by boundaries and is outside of the varna scheme. Their jobs (such as toilet cleaning and garbage removal) cause them to be considered impure and thus “untouchable.” Historically the untouchables were not allowed in temples and many other public places (Mount Holyoke College).
As a result of the caste system, people are often discriminated against. Sadly, the caste system was reinforced by Hinduism because of the belief in dharma and karma (Ghurye). Rather than resisting the caste system, Hinduism supports it by promoting the ideas of trying to stay within the chosen path that one was born into. This explains why the caste system has survived for nearly two thousand years.
Despite Hinduisms tendency to reinforce the cast system, in contemporary India, Hinduism is radically altering this problem. Today, discrimination is outlawed in India such that people cannot be turned down for jobs specifically because of their caste. The caste system has become a means of implementing Affirmative Action programs in order to stop caste discrimination (Duiker and Spielvogel).
Today, Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion and has remained remarkably unchanged for thousands of years (Flesher). The ability of Hinduism to adapt in the modern world shows the religion to be extremely resilient. The lack of oppressive doctrine also gives the believer a great deal of flexibility in his or her lifestyle. This sharply contrasts religions such as Christianity and Islam that are often extremely structured and mandate specific behaviors and ethics. The loose belief structure of Hinduism may ultimately be its strength and reason for longevity.
Duiker, William J. and Jackson J Spielvogel. The Essential World History Vol I: To 1800. Vol. 1. Boston: Cengage, 2013.
Flesher, Paul. The Hindu Cosmos. 25 January 2000.
Ghurye, Govind Sadashiv. Caste and Race in India. Prakashan: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969. Print.
Mount Holyoke College. History of the Caste System in India. 2014. Internet. 6 May 2014.