The Hindu religious thought embodies a variety of ideas, principles and practices, giving rise to various religious schools or ‘sampradayas’. Each school worships the Supreme Deity, which represents a particular aspect of the Ultimate Reality. Each school has temples, ‘guru’ lineages, religious leaders, pilgrimage centres, monastic communities and sacred literature. Some of these schools hold such divergent views that each appears to be a complete religion in itself. Yet, they all believe in the central doctrines of the Hindu religion, such as ‘karma’, ‘dharma’, reincarnation, divinity of the ‘atman’, sacraments, deity worship, ‘guru-shishya’ (teacher-disciple) tradition and the authority of the Vedas.
The science of Vedanta is enshrined in the original spiritual texts of India. It is founded on the authority of the Upanishads, ‘Bhagwad Gita’ and the ‘Brahmasutram’ of Badrayana Vyasa. Vedanta brings out the mystical, ethical and metaphysical aspects of philosophy. Vedanta is the one principle of truth encompassing all religions. There are three different philosophies on this concept. ‘Advaita’ (non-duality) implies that there is an identity of Brahman and ‘Jiva atman’, while ‘Dvaita’ (duality) differs from ‘Advaita’ and maintains an ultimate diversity between Brahman and ‘Jiva atman’. ‘Visistadvaita’ (qualified non-duality) maintains a crucial differentiation as well as a fundamental identity. Advaita is the oldest extant school of Vedanta founded by Adi Shankaracharya. Advaita asserts that the real, essential identity of the ‘jiva’, the individual self, is nothing other than the Brahman itself. It asserts that the Brahman, the ‘impersonal’ God and the universal soul, is the Absolute Truth. Brahman has multiple roles to play: the creator, the maintainer, and the destroyer all in one. The teaching follows from the statements of the Upanishads (‘Mahavakyas’) like ‘tat tvam asi’ and ‘aham brahmasmi’. It is in this cardinal doctrine that ‘Advaita’ differs from all other schools of Vedanta. The ‘Visishtadvaita’ philosophy was expounded by Sri Ramanuja, according to which, the Brahman has all the good and desirable qualities like ‘satyam’, ‘jnanam’ and ‘anandam’. The main exponent of the ‘Dvaita’ philosophy was Sri Madhava (Purnaprajna). It says that the supreme goal of life is service of god.
Other systems which are less popular than the above mentioned philosophies include ‘Dvaitadvaita’ (dual-non-dual doctrine), ‘Suddhadvaita’ (pure non-dualism) and ‘Acinntyaa bhedabheda’ (oneness and difference), which were expounded by Nimbarka, Vallabha and Vidyabhusana respectively. All the above philosophers have written commentaries on the ‘Prasthana-traya’ (triple canon) of the ‘Vedanta, which are the ‘Upanishads’, ‘Brahma sutra’ and the ‘Bhagwad Gita’.
The Hindu religious systems have been classified by Adi Shankaracharya into six major paths, called ‘Shad-maths’: ‘Shaivism’ (worship of Lord Shiva), ‘Vaishnavism’ (worship of Lord Vishnu), ‘Shaktism’ (worship of Shakti), ‘Ganapathyam’ (worship of Lord Ganesha), ‘Kaumaram’ (worship of Lord Karttikeya) and ‘Sauram’ or ‘Jyotiam’ (worship of Surya).
The followers of Shaivism venerate the Ultimate Reality as Lord Shiva. This tradition has been traced back by scholars to the Indus Valley Civilization. The archeologists have discovered the so-called proto-Pashupati seals of this civilization, which depict Shiva as Lord Pashupati, seated in a yogic pose. There are many schools of Shaivism, of which the six major systems are Shaiva Siddhanta, Pashupata Shaivism, Kashmir Shaivism, Vira Shaivism, Siddha Siddhanta and Shiva Advaita. These systems differ somewhat in their doctrines pertaining to the relationship between Shiva, the Atman and the world.
Most Hindus worship Lord Shiva as a member of the Hindu Trinity. However, the followers of Shaivism, called Shaivas or Shaivites, worship Him as the Ultimate Reality. The predominant philosophy of Shaivism is monistic-theism. According to this doctrine, Lord Shiva is both personal and impersonal. In the personal aspect, Shiva creates, controls and pervades all that exists. In this aspect, Shiva is what other religions call God. Shaivism declares that there is nothing outside Shiva and, thus, recognizes the oneness of Pati-pau-pasa (God- Atman -World). In the impersonal aspect, Shiva transcends all existence and in the liberated state the Atman is one with Shiva.
The main objects of Shiva worship are shivalinga and images of Shiva. The linga symbolizes both the creative and destructive power of the Lord and great sanctity is attached to it by the devotees. The banalingas are very sacred objects of worship to the followers of Shaivism. These are the elliptical stones of a special kind found in the bed of the river Narmada, one of the seven sacred rivers in India. Fresh flowers, pure water, young sprouts of Kusha (a holy grass) and durva (called bent or panic grass), fruit, bilva leaves and sun-dried rice are used in the ritual part of the Shiva worship. According to tradition, offering leaves of the bilva tree (wood-apple) is considered very auspicious for the worship of Lord Shiva. Mahashivaratri (the great night of Shiva) is an annual festival that falls on the fourteenth day of the dark fortnight of Phalguna (February-March), and is dedicated to the worship of Lord Shiva. In mythology, Shiva is the husband of Parvati, the daughter of the Himalayas. They have two sons, Ganesha and Karttikeya and a daughter Jyoti. Their residence is the snow-clad mountain Kailash. The mythology depicts Shiva both as God of terror as well as benevolence. His five powers are revealment (offering grace to the devotees), concealment (obscuring by His power of maya), creation, preservation and dissolution. The major scriptures of Shaivism are Vedas, Shaiva Agamas and Shaiva Puranas.
Vaishnavism venerates the Ultimate Reality as Lord Vishnu. This tradition began during the Vedic period when its earliest schools Pancharatra and Bhagavata became popular around 300 BC. Modern day Vaishnavism includes five popular schools founded by Ramanuja, Madhva, Nimbarka, Vallabha and Chaitanya. Most Hindus worship Lord Vishnu as a member of the Hindu Trinity. However, the followers of Vaishnavism, called Vaishnavas or Vaishnavites, worship Lord Vishnu as the Ultimate Reality. Although the philosophy of Vaishnavism includes dualism of Madhva, qualified dualism of Ramanuja, and nearly monistic views of Vallabha, the predominant philosophy of Vaishnavism is dualism. According to this doctrine, there are two categories of the Ultimate Reality. Lord Vishnu as personal God is the Absolute Reality, and the Atmans (individuals souls) are the relative realities, eternally distinct from each other and Lord Vishnu, but dependent on Him. The doctrine of incarnation (avatara) is fundamental to all Hindus, especially to Vaishnavas. Lord Vishnu assumed each avatara for a particular end and as the situation demanded. The number of avataras of Lord Vishnu is generally accepted to be ten, with Rama and Krishna being the two most popular among the Hindus.
Vaishnavism stresses on complete surrender (prapatti) to Lord Vishnu and His incarnations and advocates devotion (bhakti) as the highest spiritual discipline. The objects of worship are the images of Lord Vishnu and His incarnations, and salagramas, small stones of different colors (predominantly black) recovered from the bed of the river Gandaki, one of the tributaries of the Ganges river in India. Fresh flowers, water, fruits and leaves of the tulasi plant are used in the ritual part of the worship of Lord Vishnu and His incarnations. One of the unique features of the Vaishnava worship is kirtana, which consists of choral singing of the names and deeds of Lord Vishnu and His incarnations, accompanied by drums and cymbals and synchronized with rhythmic bodily movements. The major scriptures of Vaishnavism are Vedas, Agamas, Puranas, Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagwad Gita.
Shakti means “creative energy,” and Shaktism means “Doctrine of the Creative Energy.” Shaktism venerates the Ultimate Reality as the Divine Mother-Shakti or Devi-of the universe. Archeologists have recovered thousands of female statuettes at the Mehrgarh village in India, which indicate that Shakti worship existed in India as far back as 5500 BC. There are references to the female deities in the Rig Veda, including a popular Hymn to the Divine Mother, which holds special sanctity to Hindus in general and Shaktas (the followers of Shaktism) in particular. Shaktism visualises the Ultimate Reality as having two aspects, transcendent and immanent. Shiva is the transcendent aspect, the supreme cosmic consciousness, and Shakti is the supreme creative energy. Shiva and Shakti are God and God’s creative energy, which are inseparably connected. Metaphorically, Shiva and Shakti is an inseparable divine couple, representing the male and female principles in creation.
Shaktism greatly resembles Shaivism, but Shiva is considered solely transcendent and is not worshipped. Like Shaivism, the goal of Shaktism is to unite with Shiva. Such unity is possible only with the grace of the Divine Mother, who unfolds as iccha shakti (the power of desire, will and love), kriya shakti (the power of action), and jnana shakti (the power of knowledge and wisdom). Within Shaktism, Shiva is the un-manifest Absolute and Shakti is the Divine Mother of the manifest creation. The Divine Mother is worshipped in both the fierce and benign forms. The fierce forms of Goddess include Kali, Durga, Chandi, Chamundi, Bhadrakali and Bhairavi. The benign forms of Goddess include Uma, Gauri, Ambika, Parvati, Maheshvari, Lalita, Lakshmi, Saraswata and Annapurna. The major scriptures of Shaktism are Vedas, Shakta agamas and Puranas.
Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity, represents that aspect of the Ultimate Reality which removes obstacles. Hindus, therefore, invoke Lord Ganesha at the beginning of all undertakings, whether religious, spiritual or worldly, for Lord Ganesha removes obstacles and brings success to the enterprise. Ganesha is also called Vighneshvara, meaning “the Lord presiding over the obstacles.” In the Rig Veda, Ganesha is the name of Brihapati, the Lord of prayer (the Holy Word). In mythology Ganesha is the first son of the divine couple Shiva and Parvati. Ganapatyas, followers of Ganapathyam, venerate Lord Ganesha exclusively as the form of the Ultimate Reality (Brahman) that is accessible to the mind, senses and (through devotional practices) the heart. Ganapatyas regard Moraya Gosavi (1651 AD), the famous devotee of Ganesha, as their spiritual progenitor. Tradition holds that Moraya experienced a series of visions of Ganesha at a shrine at Moragaon, near Pune. An annual ten-day festival, Ganesha Chaturthi, is held in August-September to celebrate the birth of Ganesha. The major scriptures of this tradition are Vedas, Skanda Purana, and Mudgala Purana.
The followers of this tradition venerate Lord Karttikeya, also called by other names such as Murugan, Kumara, Skanda, Subramanya and Shanmukhanatha, as their Ishta Devata (personal-God). Lord Karttikeya represents the power of the Ultimate Reality (Brahman) that destroys ignorance, bestows divine knowledge, upholds dharma (righteousness), removes worries and strengthens human will. In popular pictures and images, Karttikeya is shown holding a spear, which symbolizes his divine power to destroy ignorance and unrighteousness. On the day of Vaikasi Vishakham in May-June, elaborate pujas and special ceremonies (abhishekam) are conducted in homes and temples in the honour of Lord Karttikeya. His protection and grace are specially invoked on the day of Skanda Shashthi, which falls on the sixth day after the new moon in October-November. In January-February, another holy festival (Tai Pusam) is celebrated in his honour. Special pujas are performed in honor of Lord Karttikeya every month on Krittika nakshatra and Shashthi, the sixth day after the new moon.
The power of the sun to dispel darkness, illuminate the world and nourish mankind is recognized by Hindus as an aspect of the infinite power of the Ultimate Reality (Brahman). The worship of this triple power of the Divine, symbolized by the Vedic deity Surya, the Sun-god, is called Sauram. Surya is worshipped by Hindus s an object of meditation during many physical exercises. Devout Hindus recite sacred verses selected from the epic and Puranic literature daily early in the morning before commencing the day’s work. The best known of the hymns to the sun is one from Ramayana that was imparted to Rama during his battle with Ravana.
Hindus in general worship the sun every year on the seventh day after the new moon in the month that corresponds to January-February. Sacred mantras are recited for the special worship of the sun, especially on Sundays, birthdays and at other special functions. Prostrations are made to the sun after each tenth mantra until one hundred and thirty-two prostrations have been completed. These prostrations are called Surya-Namaskara.
The following most sacred Rigvedic prayer, named after its meter, is called Gayatri, meaning “the saviour of the singer.” It is considered to be the mantra of all mantras, the most potent mantra, repeated as many times as possible by Hindus daily in puja and personal chanting to venerate the sun as the Creator (Savitar). The mystic power of this mantra is so high that it is called Vedamatri, meaning “Mother of the Vedas.” Gayatri Mantra is imparted to a young boy for initiation into Vedic tradition.
Yamas & Niyamas:
Yamas & Niyamas are the Moral and Ethical Ideals of Hindus. Ethics can be described as the science of morality, and morality as the living of a virtuous life. Hindus place greater emphasis on the attitude of the mind rather than on postulation of the elaborate theories of what is right and what is wrong. Accordingly, the Hindu vision of morality and ethics is characterized by the following considerations: Ahimsa (non-injury), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (controlling sex), Kshama (forgiveness), Dhriti (firmness), Daya (compassion), Arjava (honesty), Mitahara (Refrain from consuming meat), Shaucha (purity), Hri (remorse), Santosha (contentment), Dana (tithing), Astikya (faith), Pujana (worship), Shravana (hearing of scriptures), Mati (cognition), Vrata (sacred vows), Japa (chanting) and Tapas (austerity).