Hinduism is a grand mosaic of many sampradayas, philosophies, rituals, festivals, mandirs, holy places, sadhus and shastras, and is often referred to by many scholars as a family of ‘religious’. Within these rich diversities, one can perceive common threads that bind Hinduism into a fascinatingly profound religion subscribed to by nearly one-sixth of humankind. Hinduism, an Introduction, informs readers about the spiritual, cultural and social heritage of Hinduism. Part I features a brief history and the core beliefs of Hinduism, its sacred texts, various denominations, mandirs, holy men and women, sacred places and rivers, festivals, rituals, and sacred symbols and objects.
The Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) is a global socio-spiritual organization committed to the moral and spiritual uplift of mankind. It was established in 1908 CE by Brahmaswarup Shastriji Maharaj in consonance with the Vedic teachings revealed by Bhagwan Swaminarayan (1781-1830 CE).
The Sanstha’s global network of 3,300 Satsang centres with its 12,600 weekly assemblies for children, youths and seniors are perennial sources of moral, social, cultural and spiritual activities and inspiration. The BAPS is an NGO in Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.
The energies of the BAPS volunteer corps of 55,000 youths and over 850 sadhus are channeled towards a number of philanthropic activities in the fields of education, health, environment, tribal uplift, disaster relief and others. Its world renowned cultural and spiritual complexes like Akshardham in New Delhi and Gandhinagar, and traditional mandirs in London, Nairobi, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta and Toronto are some of its epoch-making contributions to society. The BAPS, under the inspiration and guidance of Pramukh Swami Maharaj, has earned an endearing and unique place in the hearts of millions throughout the world.
Acclaimed as a unique and rare holy soul of India, Pramukh Swami Maharaj was born on 7 December 1921, in the village of Chansad, Gujarat. He is the fifth successor in the illustrious spiritual tradition of Bhagwan Swaminarayan and the embodiment of the universal Hindu ideals. He is the present leader of the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS).
In his presence doubts dissolve, confusions clear, hurts heal and the mind finds peace. His selfless love and morality soothes and inspires children, youths and elders of all backgrounds.
Out of his compassion for humanity, he has made over 15,500 village, town and city visits, sanctified over 250,000 homes, and read and replied to over 500,000 letters. He has ushered a cultural, moral and spiritual renaissance in India and abroad by establishing over 750 mandirs.
His divine humanism has provided succor to countless souls in times of natural catastrophe and need. His striking humility, simplicity and spiritualism have touched many religious and national leaders. Above all, his profound experience and realization of God is the essence of his success and divine luster.
From the perspective of many Hindus, the history and traditions of Hinduism are both ancient and timeless. This is attested to by the fact that its practitioners traditionally call it Sanatana Dharma, or the Eternal Religion. They believe it was revealed by Paramatma or God to many enlightened rishis over a period of several centuries. Efforts to establish a historical dating have been subject to continual revision. The majority of Hindus believe that it is the oldest of all world religions.
It is also the world’s most diverse religion. Hinduism embraces the worship of many deities, who are believed by many Hindus to be manifestations of the one supreme God. Hinduism is a grand mosaic of various sampradayas, philosophies, mandirs, shastras, sadhus, devotees, holy places, rituals and festivals. It is often referred to by some scholars as a ‘family of religions’. Within the rich diversities there are common threads that bind Hinduism into a fascinating and vibrant religion, subscribed to by nearly one-fifth of humankind.
An attempt has been made in this book, Hinduism, An Introduction, to explain Hinduism in a progressive series of basic concepts, with each chapter building upon the previous one. The first chapter deals with the meaning and history of Sanatana Dharma. This is followed by a description of the core Hindu beliefs and Hindu sacred texts that contain these beliefs. Next, we explore the expression of these core beliefs in the various philosophies, teachings and traditions of Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism and Smartism. Naturally, since each of these four branches of Hinduism has its own mandirs, shastras and gurus, these three pillars of faith are explained next. In all, this publication comprises of two parts, with a total of thirty chapters, that include a description of holy places, festivals, rituals, sacred symbols, sadhana, ahara-vihara, devotees, rishi-scientists, Hindu concepts and way of life, Hindu reformers, varnashrama dharma, impressions of India and Hinduism abroad, creation, Swaminarayan Sampradaya, India, FAQs and Selected prayers. Parts one and two have sixteen and fourteen chapters respectively with a total number of 712 pages. To complement the text, volumes one and two contain 397 and 351 photographs, paintings, graphic compositions and maps respectively.
Since relatively little is known about the Swaminarayan Sampradaya to outsiders, the author has included a chapter (in part two) to inform and satisfy the curiosities of those wishing to know about it. Whenever readers come across a Swaminarayan orientation, the author hopes that this will not be taken as an imposition of the Swaminarayan perspective, but rather as an attempt to inform or a natural consequence of his association with and study of this tradition.
This book is the product of reflection and consideration of a wide range of published and unpublished materials. It is written by a Hindu practitioner and BAPS Swaminarayan sadhu. Hence, this book is understandably influenced, to some extent, by the BAPS Swaminarayan understanding of Hinduism. The author has dealt with many beliefs and practices of Hindus, and their participation in Hindu traditions. So, this book is also to a great extent an effort to share the author’s appreciation off the many traditions that constitute Hinduism.
The intended readers of this book are Hindu youths and all others who would like to understand Hindu traditions from the perspective of the practitioner, and in this instance, a devoted member of the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha. It should be made clear that this book has not been written in a way that scholars and others, who bring different academic skills and modes of critical analysis, would write. In fact, for scholars of Hindu texts, languages, histories, and traditions, perhaps some of the content of this book may appear to be influenced by Vaishnava teachings and practices. I recognize and appreciate that some scholars will have different views and conclusions of their own. Thus, at the cost of repetition, and to avoid misunderstanding, this book is a perspective on Hinduism that comes from the ‘inside’.
While care has been taken to avoid an overly academic presentation, references to Hindu shastras and scholars are provided for the benefit of interested readers. Sanskrit words are italicized and their meanings mostly juxtaposed in brackets and also provided in the glossary. One reason why some Sanskrit or Hindi words are not italicized is because they have become a part of the English lexicon and are included in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, eleventh edition (2004). To facilitate pronunciation of names and Sanskrit words, only the long ‘a’ (as in car) has been shown in its diacritical form, ‘a’. no diacritic marks are used for anglicized words and names of places, and Indian leaders and spiritual masters of pre- and post- independent India. Another exception has been made by not using the ‘a’ and end ‘a’ for the names of places, sacred objects and people related to the Swaminarayan Sampradaya. This is done to retain the system familiar among BAPS Swaminarayan devotees. A brief bibliography and an index are provided.
Writing this book was a formidable challenge because of the diversity and sheer amount of information about the various philosophies. Traditions and practices in Hinduism. Hinduism is so vast, it is impossible to do justice to all of its rich diversity and profound depth in a single publication.
To resolve my fears and feelings of inadequacy for such an enormous undertaking, I sought the blessings of my guru Pramukh Swami Maharaj (Swamishri) in February 2007. I remain forever deeply thankful and indebted to him for his divine grace and guidance in completing this work in three years. I therefore dedicate this book to Bhagwan Swaminarayan and guru Pramukh Swami Maharaj (the fifth spiritual successor of Bhagwan Swaminarayan) for fostering and inspiring the values and traditions of Hinduism in countless Hindus, as well as faith and peace in the lives of many.
My appreciations to Pujya Ishwarcharan Swami, a senior sadhu of BAPS, who first suggested, on the request of Pujya Yogvivek Swami (Head of BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir, London), that we publish a book on Hinduism, and also for prompting and motivating me at regular intervals. His guidance and inspiration were invaluable. I also thank Dr Janakbhai Dave, an erudite scholar who has a master’s degree in Sanskrit, ancient history and culture from Bombay University, and PhD in Sanskrit from MS University, Vadodara, for his meticulous and painstaking effort in providing valuable additions, corrections and references. I express my appreciations to Pujya Shrutiprakash Swami, PhD in Sanskrit and Shad Darshan Acharya, Dr Narayanbhai Kansara, who has an M.A. in Vedanta and PhD in Sanskrit literature, for resolving many textual questions and doubts.
My gratitude to Pujya Amrutvijay Swam for going through the script and providing valuable suggestions and emendations. I am also grateful to Shri Varanasi Rama Murthy, a verteran journalist who had served on the staff of Times of India, Ahmedabad, for reviewing and enriching the text, and Shri G.M. Shah for his patient effort in typing and correcting the text. I remain indebted to the photographers (see p. xii) for the hundreds of photographs used in this publication and to Pujya Mukundcharan Swami for sharing many photos that he has taken in his publications: Hindu Rites and Rituals and Hindu Festivals. My sincere appreciations to AARSH, Gandhinagar, and the B.J. Institute of Learning and Research, Ahmedabad, for allowing us to scan and use their manuscripts and books as photographs, our departmental staff, Shri Prakash Suthar and artist Shri Jignesh Joshi, for their patient and proficient labour in the design and layout. My sincere thanks to Pujya Shrijiswarup Swami and his team for finalizing the design, layout and for the title cover. My gratitude to the many authors of books, magazines and websites on Hinduism, to Atmaswarup Swami and all those who have helped me in making this publication possible.
I sincerely hope and pray to Bhagwan Swaminarayan, all the divine incarnations, sages and guru Pramukh Swami Maharaj that this publication will inform and enrich all readers about the wisdom and traditions of Hinduism. In addition, may the readers be motivated to study and experience Hinduism further from other books, documentaries and visits to India.
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