What is Hinduism?
Hinduism is perhaps the oldest of all religions and yet endures today as a healthy, colourful and exuberant tradition. It has intimate links with India, but its influence visibly extends throughout Britain and across the globe. It is conspicuous through its art, food, dress, music and philosophy. It is classified as one of the main world religions, and the source of other Eastern traditions such as Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism.
Scholars suggest that the term 'Hindu' was first used around the eighth century CE, by Persian invaders to refer to the people on the far side of the River Indus. The early connotations weren't specifically religious but more cultural, political and geographical Only later, when outsiders tried to impose their own doctrines on India, did Hindus try to define their tradition as a separate, autonomous whole, a religion similar to other world faiths. Many scholars today prefer to call Hinduism 'a family of religions', with each member unique but bearing distinctive family features.
How we explain this family likeness is a challenge. Definitions of the words 'Hindu' and 'Hinduism' remain somewhat arbitrary. Whatever definitions we choose, we will find someone claiming to be Hindu - or whom others consider Hindu - who falls outside the bounds of such criteria. For example, some suggest that being a Hindu is based solely on birth, but there are now many 'white Hindus'. Others perceive Hindus as those who comply with the Vedic literature (the Vedas and their supplements). Still others identify Hinduism with Sanatana-dharma, and notions of universal and eternal truths that transcend any specific texts. Caste practice is a persistent feature of the tradition, but many claim it has nothing to do with the religion itself. Others claim that caste is an aberration of the ancient Vamashrama-dharma system, referred to in the Rig Veda and thus central to the tradition. We cannot resort to defining the tradition solely on belief - a term little used by Hindus themselves - for not all subscribe to the same teachings, or even key concepts such as karma and reincarnation.
For teachers, the tradition poses specific challenges. It has no single founder, no one scripture, no common creed, and no universally-accepted code of conduct. It features numerous leaders, diverse doctrines, hundreds of holy books, and widely variant practices. Most Hindus believe in one God but venerate one or more of a multitude of deities. And, to challenge us further, we cannot say with any certainty when the tradition began. Followers themselves often claim it is eternal!
What is certain, though, is that trying to squeeze the tradition into a purely Western framework is problematic. As far as possible, we need to view the tradition through its own eyes - to empathise with its particular mood, grasp its unique world-view and get a whiff of its distinctive fragrance. This requires authentic resources, born of both personal commitment and a reflective, critical and educational approach; material from practitioners who have imbibed their tradition and, simultaneously, can make it accessible to others. We hope that this book, and the attendant material in the teachers' pack, will serve your purposes. Despite the complexities of the tradition, it can be categorized and explained, as we have tried to do here. Moreover, it exudes a universal and timeless charm that can only enrich our study of religion.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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