What Is Hinduism?
Hinduism is an Indian Dharma, or a way of life, widely practiced in South Asia. Hinduism has been called the oldest religion in the world, and some practitioners and scholars refer to it as Sanātana Dharma, “the eternal tradition,” or the “eternal way,” beyond human history. Scholars regard Hinduism as a fusion or synthesis of various Indian cultures and traditions, with diverse roots and no founder. This “Hindu synthesis” started to develop between 500 BCE and 300 CE, following the Vedic period (1500 BCE to 500 BCE).
Although Hinduism contains a broad range of philosophies, it is linked by shared concepts, recognisable rituals, cosmology, shared textual resources, and pilgrimage to sacred sites. Hindu texts are classified into Śruti (“heard”) and Smṛti (“remembered”). These texts discuss theology, philosophy, mythology, Vedic yajna, Yoga, agamic rituals, and temple building, among other topics. Major scriptures include the Vedas and Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Agamas. Sources of authority and eternal truths in its texts play an important role, but there is also a strong Hindu tradition of the questioning of this authority, to deepen the understanding of these truths and to further develop the tradition.
Prominent themes in Hindu beliefs include the four Puruṣārthas, the proper goals or aims of human life, namely Dharma (ethics/duties), Artha (prosperity/work), Kama (desires/passions) and Moksha (liberation/freedom/salvation); karma (action, intent and consequences), Saṃsāra (cycle of rebirth), and the various Yogas (paths or practices to attain moksha). 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 (monastic practices) to achieve Moksha. Hinduism prescribes the eternal duties, such as honesty, refraining from injuring living beings (ahimsa), patience, forbearance, self-restraint, and compassion, among others. The four largest denominations of Hinduism are the Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism and Smartism.
Shiva is the Supreme Lord. He is called Mahadeva, the “Great Lord,” or Vishvanatha, the “Lord of the Universe.” He is seen as both creator and destroyer, the one who pours forth the universe from himself and draws it within, once again, at the end of time. As a Divine dancer, Nataraja, the energy and balance of his dance are a perfect emblem of Shiva’s relentless activity, pouring forth and withdrawing the universe. “He” is also imaged as both male and female, sometimes in an anthropomorphic image: the right half of the body male and the left half female. In abstract form as well, the simple stone shaft called the linga is sometimes seen as a male/female symbol of cosmic wholeness.
Maha Shivaratri, the “Great Night of Shiva” is the year’s most important celebration of Shiva. It was on this night, they say, that the linga of light was revealed. According to legend, those who worship Shiva on this night, staying awake through the night, are released from many lifetimes of sin.
In New York at the Ganesha Temple, there is an all-night vigil on the night of Shivaratri, with full liturgical rites of bathing (abhisheka) and decorating the linga. To the singing of hymns, the priests pour one offering after another on the linga—milk, yogurt, honey, turmeric. Between each libation, they rinse the image of Shiva completely with copious streams of water. At the end of the long ritual, the curtain is closed while the priests bedeck the linga with the most elegant ornamentation of flowers and then present Lord Shiva in this most beautiful form for worship.