Login *:
Password *:


6-08-2015, 21:05

One Land, Many Faiths

Religion has been an integral part of India’s culture
since its beginning. In addition to goddess
figurines, the Indus seals reveal a collection of figures,
including animals such as the bull, elephant, and tiger,
as well as trees and gods in yoga postures. Some
drawings are similar to the linga, a symbol of the Hindu
god Shiva. Others show what appears to be Shiva with
three faces and a headdress with horns. In addition, religious figures appear
in India’s literature, music, and art. Today, Hinduism is the religion most
commonly associated with ancient India. India’s other well-known religions,
Buddhism and Jainism, were reactions to Hindu beliefs.


The religion people refer to as Hinduism began more than 3,000 years ago
during the Vedic era. Unlike many religions, Hinduism does not have a single
founder. Rather, it developed over time, shaped from existing religious
practices and beliefs.
The Indo-Aryans practiced Vedic Hinduism. The Rigveda is the oldest
literary source related to Hinduism. The ancient Indians wrote it in
approximately 300 BCE, though they shared its material orally more than
1,000 years earlier. The Vedas detail numerous gods—initially, 33—which
these early Hindus worshiped. The deities represented elements of the
natural world. Agni was the god of fire. Varuna and Vayu represented
thunder and wind. Surya and Usha were the gods of sun and dawn.
The Rigveda features a series of poems that outline a system of sacrifice.
Sacrifice was an important part of Vedic Hinduism. In homa, the fire-worship
ritual, believers sacrificed animals, including goats, oxen, sheep, and
sometimes horses. The worshipers offered their gods the meat from the
sacrifices, along with bread,
butter, milk, and soma, a beverage.
In return, the gods supposedly
granted worshipers whatever they
wanted, such as long life or victory
in battle.
In the 500s BCE, Brahmanism
developed from Vedic Hinduism.
This religion’s name comes from
Brahma, the almighty creator,
and Brahmins, the highest caste.
The idea of Brahma emerged in
approximately 500 BCE. According
to myth, Brahma came from a
golden egg and created the planet
Earth and everything on it. When
depicted, Brahma usually has four
faces, which reflect the four Vedas
and the four social classes, among
other things in Vedic Hinduism.
The early Hindus believed in other gods as well.
These deities lived in other worlds people cannot
see. Eventually, Shiva, the destroyer, and Vishnu,
the preserver, gained prominence when they joined
Brahma in a triumvirate, or group of three. Vishnu
encompasses several lesser deities as well as local
heroes through avatars, or human or animal forms
of gods. In approximately 500 CE, Brahma’s status as
a major god began to decline. Hinduism has many
beliefs based on Brahmanism, including a single
supreme being: God.
While Hinduism has existed for a few thousand
years, the present-day version is quite different from
the religion that began in ancient India. Hinduism
has evolved, reflecting ideas and beliefs of the
people through the ages. Upinder Singh, history
professor at the University of Delhi, wrote about the
complex religion:
Modern-day Hinduism differs from other major world religions in many
important respects, in that it has no founder, no fixed canon which
embodies its major beliefs and practices, and no organized priesthood.

It is also marked by a great variety in beliefs,
practices, sects, and traditions. Some scholars
argue that Hinduism is not so much a religion as
a set of socio-cultural practices; others argue that
it is inextricably linked to the existence of caste;
and still others hold that we should talk of Hindu
religions in the plural rather than the singular.1


By the 500s BCE, when Siddhartha Gautama lived,
people were questioning Vedic Hinduism and
Brahmanism, particularly sacrificial rituals. New
schools of thought emerged, including Buddhism.
The Buddha disagreed with sacrifice. He deemed
the Vedic custom cruel because of the killing. He also opposed the caste
system, promoting equality instead. The Buddha did not promote a god or
gods. No deity would provide salvation; knowledge and meditation would.
Buddhists seek nirvana, which translates to “blowing out.” Followers seek
to blow out, or end, hatred, greed, and any delusions they may have. They
strive for a more positive being, which will come from endless compassion,
deep spirituality, and unending peace.

Buddhism experienced a great period of
growth during the reign of Ashoka, from 272 BCE
to 231 BCE. Ashoka converted to Buddhism and
gave the religion greater recognition than it had
previously. He also influenced the faith’s growth,
extending it beyond India. However, within a few
hundred years, Buddhism greatly declined in
India, although it prospered in other parts of Asia.
Buddhism experienced a revival in India during
the Gupta period, thanks to support from the
Guptas, but then it experienced another decline
that included destruction of Buddhist holy places.
The first known surviving stone images of Hinduism
date to the end of the Mauryan era. By the time the
Guptas emerged in 320 CE, Hinduism had emerged
as the most prominent religion.


Like Buddhism, Jainism emerged as a rejection of
Vedic practices, particularly animal sacrifice. This
renunciation is the religion’s central belief, ahimsa:
do no harm to any living thing.

A man named Vardhamana founded Jainism. He lived during the time of
the Buddha, from 599 BCE to 527 BCE. He was also known as Mahavira. Like
the Buddha, Mahavira was born of nobility and chose to give up physical
comforts for a simpler life.
Jainism has three guiding principles: right belief, right conduct, and right
knowledge. Each follower agrees to the five mahavratas, or “great vows”:
nonviolence, honesty, no stealing, sexual restraint, and nonattachment
to possessions.
Those who practice Jainism, Jains, show their belief in nonviolence
through their diet. They are strict vegetarians. In addition to practicing
vegetarianism, Jains perform six rites each day. These include meditation,
praying, and sitting or standing motionless for periods of time.
Jainism is highly ascetic. Mahavira lived his belief in doing no harm to
any living thing. He allowed mosquitoes to feed on him and dogs to bite him.
He gave up clothing because beings had to suffer in its creation. He died as a
result of starving himself.
Mahavira’s followers wrote down his words and memorized them to
share with future followers. Jainism risked being lost because its vow of
nonpossession meant its monks and nuns could not keep books, including
those about their own faith. Because they were also not allowed to write,
they could not record the teachings of Jainism. During the Gupta period,
Jainism experienced a revival. In 460 CE, a council of Jains met and had their
scriptures written down, preserving the religion.


In the 500s BCE, as Buddhism and Jainism emerged, followers of
Brahmanism advocated messages similar to those of these new faiths:
asceticism, meditation, and the ancient tradition of yoga. The goal of such
practices was release from the physical, material world and from samsara,
the cycle of life, death, and transmigration, or rebirth.
Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism share many common beliefs. For
example, all three believe in cycles, rather than in beginning and end points.
The religions believe the universe is in a state of constant change, creating,
preserving, and dissolving.
Karma and transmigration are two other features of all three religions.
Karma is the idea that how a person lives will determine his or her life. If
one thinks, says, or does good things, good fortune will come in return.
But if one thinks, says, or does bad things, misfortune will result for that
person. Transmigration, also called reincarnation, is the belief a person is
reborn repeatedly to resolve all karmas. The soul evolves with each life.

When the soul has finished evolving, it is freed from the cycle of rebirth.
Ahisma is another important part of the three faiths. It comes from the belief
that all life is precious and sacred. It is closely tied to the ideas of karma
and transmigration.