About the Book
Hinduism is often difficult to comprehend due
to its ancient origin, multifuriousness, vastness and absence of one authority.
No book on Hinduism, therefore, can be complete. This book, however, tries to
attempt a well-documented and holistic view of Hinduism from historical and
sociological perspectives. It intends to serve as a basic introductory text.
The presentation is based on a first-hand
reading of Hindu scriptures in Sanskirt combined with knowledge of social
sciences. The emphasis is on three major Hindu scriptures: the Bhagavad Gita,
the Manusmriti and the Vedas, particularly
the Rigveda. These three texts constitute the basic framework of Hinduism. This
book provides adequate information about the three scriptures and discusses in
detail terms such as gotra, jati, varna and dharma. It
also discusses the issue of divine punishment for violating the dharma.
The book provides a detailed history or the
origin or the culture and religion that flourished along the Indo-Gangetic
Plains. It discusses migrations, their impact and the emergent civilizations.
The objective is to understand how the religion evolved with people.
It also studies the recent developments, particularly
the impact of science and technology with regards to the Hindu society. Whether
the Rigvedic values are relevant today have also been explored.
About the Author
Born into a large family of orthodox Brahmanas,
the author obtained his basic training in Vedic religion and rituals from his
father, who was a high school headmaster and a scholar in Vedic literature.
Higher education first in the University of Madras and later in the United
States brought new perspectives to his thinking on
religion. Although specialized in the academic discipline of geography, the
author developed a special interest in social anthropology and ancient Indian
history that helped him understand Hinduism better.
After completing his academics career, he
joined the Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi, and spent nearly
three decades in that institution. He was Professor and Head of the Department
of Geography, University of Delhi, for well over a decade and held various
other important positions in the university. After retirement in 1996, the
author devoted all his time to the study of the Hindu scriptures in Sanskrit.
The present work is the outcome of his labour for well over a decade.
This book represents the outcome of my efforts
to understand Hinduism which has many facets-from the most sacred spiritual
tradition to the worship of demons and animal sacrifice. It has taken me
decades to understand the totality of Hinduism and then articulate the end
results of my learning process. I do hope that the book will help others to
understand Hinduism better.
My journey begins with early childhood when I
obtained training from my family particularly from my father, who was a keen
student of Linguistics, a scholar in Sanskrit, and a good critique of Hindu
philosophy. As a child, I was used to Vedic rituals and the recitation of mantras.
I learned the Devanagari script at the age of four. I remember my father
reading to us Valmiki’s Ramayana verse by verse and then explaining to us their
meaning. I went through the processes of upanayana and the annual upakarma and
learned to do my daily sandhya vandana rituals, although I did not then fully
appreciate their meaning. Sanskrit was very much a second language at home,
since all my brothers and sisters learned Sanskrit at school and recited verses
from the works of Kalidasa. I did study Sanskrit for a few years in school, but
did not continue the course further.
As I entered adulthood and college, I became an
agnostic. I firmly believed that all religious rituals are a waste of time. I
discontinued all rituals and went to temples only on rare occasions. I did all
along believe in an abstract God, who I thought would not respond to my petty
demands and prayers. I accepted full responsibility for all my failures and
thanked God for my successes.
After college and upon entering into employment
in the academic field, I became a keen student of history, sociology, and
social anthropology besides geography, which was my own area of specialization.
Indeed, I was interested in all social sciences that made me read widely. &
a student and as a teacher in Indian and foreign universities, I had access to
excellent reading material and I took full advantage of it. I read about Hindu
religion, other religions, and western philosophy. Much of this had nothing to
do with what I taught at the universities nor my own research and publications.
This was done purely for personal satisfaction.
Still later, as I approached retirement, I made
up my mind to learn Sanskrit afresh and study the Hindu scriptures. This was my
way of keeping my mind and intellect occupied after retirement. & a
preparation for this, I bought books on Sanskrit grammar together with an
advanced dictionary. After retirement from the University of Delhi in 1996, I
devoted full time to the learning of Sanskrit grammar.
Bhandarkar’s two books on Sanskrit grammar was
the foundation on which I obtained a grasp of the language. This was
supplemented by books in Malayalam script on Sanskrit grammar. Malayalam was
the medium of instruction while I was in school. Further, most Hindu scriptures
in Sanskrit are available in the Malayalam script with translations and
explanatory notes in many cases. My familiarity with both the Malayalam and
Devanagari scripts was of great advantage to me. The learning of Sanskrit
grammar took two years, but it was time well spent; the reason is that to
obtain a dear and unbiased understanding of the scriptures one has to study the
original texts in Sanskrit. There is no short cut.
After two years, I was ready to read the
original Sanskrit texts. My first choice was the Bhagavad Gita with Sankara
bhashyam in Sanskrit prose. I got a copy of the Bhagavad Gita in Devanagari
script with the bhashyam. I devoted two years to the study of the Bhagavad
Gita. It was a difficult exercise. I greatly appreciated Adi Shankaracharya’s
explanations, verse by verse. It tells us the essence of the spiritual path
that all of us have to follow, at least to the extent possible.
The next step logically was to look into the
Manusmriti which focusses on the practice of religion; it has more to do with
the social system, rather than the metaphysical aspects of religion. The
Manusmriti is nearly four times larger than the Bhagavad Gita; however, it is
much easier to read and understand, since it deals with day to day life. It is
written in a simple and straight forward style. At first, I had a negative view
of the Manusmriti; but later, I realized that I am looking at it through
coloured glasses. It is about a society that is no longer extant. It did play a
major role for over 2,000 years and until the beginning of the 20th Century.
But we cannot understand the past without reading the Manusmriti and its
description of Hindu dharma.
There are several texts of lesser importance
which I read (in Sanskrit) more casually as and when time permitted. Among such
texts of importance are the Brahmasutra, Kathopanishad, and Pantanjali Sutra in
translation, an anthology of important verses from the Upanishads, and the
well-known Yaksha Prasna.
After completing the study of the above
classics, I strongly felt that I need to go to the roots or origin of our
religion and trace its evolution. For this, one must study the Rigveda.
Fortunately, a friend gifted me a copy of the four Vedas-in four volumes- consisting
of the mantra part alone. I was, in particular, fascinated by the Rigveda.
Understanding and appreciating the Rigveda is impossible without some
understanding of social anthropology, since we are dealing with a tribal
society that existed about 3,500 years ago. My knowledge of social anthropology
and ecology helped me greatly to understand and appreciate the Rigveda. I
interpreted the Rigveda essentially as a study in human ecology of a bygone
age. The Rigveda has no parallels in any other religion. It is not mythology.
It is pure religion in verses composed by poets, who were human beings with
real names and who lived a long time ago. All other Shruti texts are also real
but they include some legends as well, while the Puranas represent true mythology.
Upon completion of my reading of the Rigveda
and the other three Vedas, I reached a stage when it was necessary for me to
put down in writing what I had learned. I did this over a long period of time -
years in fact. Starting with an enquiry into the nature of Hinduism, I moved on
to an article on a synoptic view of the evolution of Hinduism, before
attempting articles on the substantive works. Eventually, I ended up with 21
articles divided into two parts-the religious part and the social part. These
articles were suitably modified and put together in the form of the present
In my experience, I have found no work in the
English language that gives an authentic introduction to Hinduism. I have tried
to achieve two objectives in this book. The first objective is to provide a
historical and social frame of reference for understanding Hinduism. The second
objective is to give an authentic overview of three scriptural texts, namely,
the Rigveda, the Bhagavad Gita and the Manusmriti. These three texts define
Hinduism both in terms of its religious and social dimensions. Further, I have
added a few chapters to focus on contemporary issues, such as our caste system
and the impact of science and technology. Above all, this is a holistic
exposition of Hinduism. It is my belief that those who have never had an
opportunity to read religious texts in original will find this book very
Writing a book requires inspiration and I owe
this largely to my brothers and sisters, all elder to me, who have themselves
read the Sanskrit texts and are conversant with all religious concepts and
rituals. My contribution has been the interpretation of Hinduism in the light
of my knowledge of social sciences. From the start, I circulated my papers by
email, not only to my brothers and sisters, but a much larger audience of
relatives and friends. I am thankful for their words of encouragement and at
In November 2006, I gave an open lecture on the
evolution of Hinduism, as part of a short series of lectures on the Historical
Geography of India, in the Department of Geography, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi. The response to my lectures overwhelmed
me and the idea of publishing this work originated at that point in time. Dr
Anu Kapur, a former student and a member of the faculty, insisted that I take
steps to get the book published and the present work owes much to her help in
this regard. I am indeed grateful to all my friends, former colleagues and
students of the University of Delhi for their enthusiastic support. I do hope
that they will enjoy reading this work as much as I have enjoyed writing it.
The origin of mankind, according to modern
science, occurred in Africa about 60,000 years ago and from there people
migrated to all parts of the world. The Indian Subcontinent received its first
batch of migrants only about 12,000 years ago. From this date onwards, we have
archaeological evidence of human habitations in some parts ‘of the
subcontinent. These early inhabitants practised agriculture and animal
husbandry and they buried their dead, thereby indicating that they practised
some form of religion.
Migrations of people into the Indian
Subcontinent occurred from several directions-from the west along the Makran
coast (modern Baluchistan and Iran), and the various mountain passes of the
north-west; from the north by way of Tibet; and finally from the south by way
of Burma. These migrations occurred periodically and continued up to the Middle Ages (1600 AD).
The subcontinent’s oldest civilization, namely
the Harappan Civilization, which dates back to 2500 BC, has made significant
contributions to the present day religious belief and practices. The Harappan
script has not been deciphered so far and hence the elements of the Harappan
culture and religion have come to us indirectly through an oral tradition. They
were later transformed into a written tradition, first by the Buddhists and
Jainas in the Pali language and later by Brahmanas in the Sanskrit language.
The Rigvedic people constitute a very important
migratory group who came to the subcontinent at around 1500 BC. They made an
impact far greater than their numbers would warrant. The reason for this is
that they memorized their religion in the form of verses and preserved not only
their religion but also their language, that is, Sanskrit, for posterity.
Sanskrit, however, ceased to be a spoken language around 1000 BC while its
importance as a literary language continued for about 2,000 years.
What is notable here is that many other groups
of people also came to India in later periods and today they constitute the
majority of the population of the region west of the Ganga River.
Religion is as old as mankind. The earliest
migrants as well as those who came in the later periods to the subcontinent had
their religions. Many of these religions or at least some of their religious
practices have continued into the present through an oral tradition. These are
clearly evident in rural India even today.
Around 600 BC, two other major religions of
India came into being, namely Buddhism and Jainism. They also have
significantly influenced religious belief and practices in India in later time
periods. Buddhism and Jainism are well documented and are traceable to
historical persons. This period also witnessed the demise of the Rigvedic
religion and in its place the emergence of two major schools of thought-the
Poorva Mimamsa school and the Uttara Mimamsa school.
The former, founded by Jaimini, the disciple of the great Rishi Veda Vyasa, is
well illustrated in Manusmriti, while the latter represents the religion of the
Upanishads, which is later expounded in the Bhagavad Gita.
From around 200 AD, we find the emergence of a
new religion in the Sanskrit language. The texts describing this religion are
known as Puranas. They also include the two great Indian epics-Ramayana and
Mahabharata. This religion is known as Hinduism.
Where does the word
‘Hinduism’ come from and what does it mean? The term ‘Hinduism’ does not
occur in any Sanskrit text. This word is of Persian origin and it was
extensively used by the medieval rulers of India, who used Persian as their
court language. The word ‘Hindu’ was first applied to the people of India in
general and later to its religions as well.
Hinduism became the most accepted name for the
religion(s) of India during the British period and today it is accepted by one
and all. Nevertheless, there are a few who would like to call this religion as
dharma or sanatana dharma. These two terms can be traced to the Manusmriti.
This classic text of social laws is no longer acceptable to the majority of
Indian people and as a result, the suggested terms are ignored by a large
majority of Hindus.
The word Hinduism includes not only the
religion(s) based on Sanskrit texts, of which we have a large number, but also
the hundreds of religions of rural India which have come down to us through
oral tradition and whose origin, in a number of cases, is older than the
religions represented in the Sanskrit texts. The importance of Pre-Rigvedic
religions to the totality of Hinduism has largely been ignored in the past. In
Manusmriti, there are passing references to the religious practices followed by
the Shudras. Manusmriti’s dharma is largely meant for the upper three
varnas-Brahmana, Kshatriya and Vaishya-and it hardly attaches any significance
to the religions or religious practices followed by the Shudras.
Hinduism is a unique religion. There never was
a concept of religious conversion in Hinduism. The religious beliefs, rituals
and associated social practices can vary greatly among Hindus. Yet there are
certain common ideas, beliefs, and practices acceptable to all. Unlike other
religions, Hinduism does not insist on conformity and a Hindu has absolute
freedom of thought. There never was a controlling authority in Hinduism. The
practice of Hinduism is purely voluntary.
The term ‘Hinduism’ will be used in this work
as a collective noun; it represents several religions which are in some ways
very similar to each other. Hinduism stands in stark contrast with the major
religions of the Middle East. Christianity and Islam are based on a messenger
of God, while Hinduism does not have a historical person as its originator,
although many made significant contributions to it. Again, unlike Hinduism,
both Christianity and Islam have definite religious texts-the Bible and the
Qur’an-which are sacred and sacrosanct.
Another notable aspect is that the religions of
the Middle East display little tolerance towards other religions. Islam
preaches good Muslims to convert people to Islam. Evangelization is a common
feature in Christianity. At the birth of Christianity and Islam, there were
numerous other faiths. However, majority of these have now vanished. Yet pagan
beliefs and practices do exist even among Christians and Muslims in various
countries even today. These are grudgingly tolerated at best.
Hindus do have several scriptural texts. We
have the four Vedas, namely Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda, the
Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita. All these are written in Sanskrit. The fact
of the matter is that few people know Sanskrit and even fewer have actually
read these texts. Unlike the Bible and Qur’an, our religious texts are not
published in large volumes; nor are they translated into modern Indian
languages. An English translation of the Rigveda does exist but ironically, it
is very difficult to obtain a copy of the oldest and most sacred Rigveda.
In India and East Asia, a wide variety of
religions co-exist without acrimony. In rural India, different jatis in the
same village follow different religious practices and worship different Gods.
Many religions based on Sanskrit co-existed with a variety of other religions
from pre-historical times. In the past, they had separate identities but now
they share a common name. However, a common name does not mean uniformity.
There was no stress on uniformity and other religions, sects and cults in
Hinduism co-existed peacefully in the same region. Hinduism is very unique,
positive and liberal and has hardly any rigidity associated with Middle Eastern
religions. It is open ended and broad based, allowing
greater flexibility and individual freedom.
In China, the question what is your religion
would most likely not be answered at all. This is true of Japan as well. People
follow Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, or Shin to ism but refuse to be tagged.
It is impolite and rude to ask such persons to name their religion. The
situation is more or less similar in India; the Hindus do give a ready answer,
however, it can have plethora of meanings. Hinduism is not a single religion
but a mixture of many religions. The label ‘Hindu’ is really unimportant; the important
ones being concepts, beliefs, and practices.
Despite these, there exist profound
similarities, sharp dissimilarities and utter variance in religious beliefs and
practices among all Hindus in India. But the question is how can
we understand these complexities.
I have tried to simplify the situation by
recognizing two admittedly artificial categories of Hinduism. The first, but
not necessarily in that order, are the religions based on Sanskrit texts; and
the second, hundreds of local religions which do not have a religious text but
have legendary Gods of their own and age-old forms of worship. These include
the Harappan culture and its successors. The worship of God Shiva and Goddess
Shakti, animals, stones, trees and host of spirits have their roots in the
pre-Rigvedic culture. Bhakti and puja, as forms of worship, were alien to the
Vedic age. The forms of worship practised today may have come forth either from
pre or post-Rigvedic era. However, I have focussed only on the religions that
existed before the Puranic period (before 200 AD) as revealed by Sanskrit
texts. The Puranic religion based on Sanskrit texts represents an integration
of the earlier Sanskritic religions with a number of non-Sanskritic religions
of India. This point will be elaborated upon in a subsequent chapter.
The objective of this book is to present my
understanding of Rigvedic religion and its two successors, that is, the Poorva
and the Uttara Mimamsa school, according to the
original Sanskrit texts. The interpretation is based on my knowledge of social
sciences, particularly ancient Indian history and social anthropology. It is
intended to present them as they existed at the time of their origin and not in
the form in which we understand or use them today. Unlike the Middle Eastern
religions, Hinduism has evolved from prehistoric times to recent times through
a gradual process of change.
A religion can be understood only in the
context of the social conditions of the time in which it was actually in vogue.
We have an excellent account of the society and religious practices around 300
BC in the Manusmriti. This classic and valuable historical document has been
reviewed in depth in this book in order to get an insight into the society of
the pre-Puranic age. In fact, Manusmriti should be used as a yardstick to judge
religions and societies before and after its time.
Organization of Book-This book is divided into
two parts; the first deals with religious issues and the second focuses on the
social aspects. In the first part, the nature of Hinduism is examined, followed
by a synoptic view of its evolution from Rigvedic times to its current state.
Three chapters are devoted to the Rigveda, which represents the root of
Hinduism based on Sanskrit texts. The religion that emerged in the later Vedic
period is then interpreted. This religion is rather unique, as it differs from
both the Vedantic school as well as the Poorva Mimamsa school.
This is followed by a summary of the Bhagavad Gita in four parts-a synthesis of
various schools of thought presented in the Puranic story-telling context.
Nevertheless, the Vedantic school’s thinking predominates over all the other
schools of thought.
This religion is known as the Upanishadic
religion and was interpreted by Adi Shankaracharya in 8th Century AD. This part
concludes with a review of Bhaja Govindam, where Adi Shankaracharya renders
advice to all householders. This is valid even today as it was in 800 AD.
The second part begins with the origin of the
Indian Subcontinent, particularly the Indo-Gangetic Plain, and further examines
the historical and pre-historical evidence of human habitations, migrations,
and emergent civilizations in the subcontinent.
Three chapters are then dedicated to the
Manusmriti, which outlines the varna, ashrama, dharma,
raja dharma and finally the issue of divine punishment for violating dharma.
These chapters stand apart from the subsequent ones, focussing on a particular
time in the Indian history and informing about the society that existed then.
The later chapters focus on the current day society in India, as understood in
relation to the past and hence the relevance of the Manusmriti.
The chapter also explains the caste system in
India, both in terms of its historical origins and its contemporary relevance
and importance. The terms jati, varna, and gotra are
all examined in depth and the confusion that the term ‘caste’ raises has also
been resolved in the chapter. Like the word ‘Hindu’, the word ‘caste’ also has
multiple connotations and it is necessary to fully comprehend the differences
in meaning when using this term.
Births and deaths are integral to any religious
discussion. In the chapter on janma, karma and bhaga, the relative importance
of birth, human action through the exercise of free will, and the chance factor
India has now emerged as a world leader. It has
a rapidly growing economy based on science and technology. India has been going
through a scientific industrial revolution for the past 150 years. What impact
does science have on religion and in particular on Hinduism? What is the
prognosis? This aspect is addressed in the chapter on society, religion, and
What do Hindus believe in today? This is too
difficult a question. Nevertheless, one can make a few statements on what
educated Hindus believe in today. However, opinions may vary as these
statements may be considered true or false.
If faith is the basis for defining a religion,
then it is possible to define a Hindu in terms of what he believes in.
Fortunately, such a definition exists in the Bhagavad Gita. This is reframed in
a slightly different form in a chapter on the definition of Hindu.
The concluding chapter of this book looks at the
future scenario and what one can learn from the study of the past. Hinduism has
many ideas to offer to the world. Nevertheless, religion is a personal matter
and every individual may choose what is relevant to him or her. This study
represents an exploration of religious ideas expounded in ancient Sanskrit
texts and these are presented here in their original form without bias or
distortion. The objective of this book is to help the reader to form his own
appreciation of the Hindu religion.
Nature of Hinduism
Evolution of Hinduism
Introduction to Rigveda
Opening Verses of Rigveda
Closing Verses of Rigveda
The Bhagavad Gita: Jnana Yoga
The Bhagavad Gita: Karma Yoga
The Bhagavad Gita: Bhakti Yoga
The Bhagavad Gita: Tatva Jnana
Time Perspective in Hinduism
Bhaja Govindam: A Review
Land and People
Manusmriti: varna Ashrama Dharma
Manusmriti: Raja Dharma
Manusmriti: varna Samkara
The Caste System
Janma, Karma and Bhaga
Society, Religion and Science
Common Beliefs Among Hindus
Conclusion: The Message
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