The World's Oldest Religion
Approximately 80% of the population of India practices Hinduism, the world’s oldest religion and third largest.
On India’s northern boundary is the Himalayan mountain range, home to the highest elevation in the world, Mt. Everest. Major rivers, such as the Ganges and Indus river systems, carry water from high in the mountains, across temperate plains, to coastal lowlands that lead to the Indian Ocean.
India’s 1.2 billion people represent the world’s largest democracy. The mostly vegetarian society produces rice, wheat, tea, and sugarcane, and they’re the second largest exporter of textiles behind China.
The Ancient Writings of Hinduism
The traditions of the Hindu religion vary from region to region, but they each have in common a set of core beliefs, the pathway known as the “eternal way” that an individual walks to reach transcendence.
Hinduism is said to be the oldest “living” religion. For thousands of years it’s traditions existed only in the memory of gurus and holy sages who recited stories and chants to teach about the origins of the universe and the principles of dharma, karma, and reincarnation.
The oldest written texts are the four Vedas. Each one, the Rigveda, the Yajurveda, the Samaveda, and the Atharvaveda, is divided into four parts:
- The Samhitas consist of mantras and musical chants. They’re the oldest part of the Vedas, composed in 1200 BCE.
- The Brahmanas were added in 900-700 BCE and contain explanations of the hymns and stories in each of the Vedas.
- The Aranyakas explain the types of ritual sacrifice that were part of the ancient traditions of Hinduism.
- The Upanishads were added most recently, sometime in the 7th century BCE. They provide a comprehensive and practical foundation for the teaching of the Hindu religion, explaining the nature of Brahman and the path to transcendence.
The ancient texts of Hinduism were written in Sanskrit by holy sages who were said to be divinely inspired.
The Gods of Hinduism
Hinduism is a polytheistic religion that recognizes numerous deities, some that are central to the core beliefs of the Hindu religion and many that originate within local villages or families.
Hindus believe that an ultimate power, Brahman, exists in the universe and within every life form. This power is divine in nature and often personified by three gods, Brahma the creator, Vishnu the protector, and Shiva the destroyer. As these three gods interact, the universe is continually being created, destroyed, and preserved in a cycle that represents the Hindu concept of Samsara, or reincarnation.
Particular “Devas” are supernatural beings that represent various characteristics of Brahman. Hindus believe that these gods and goddesses are present everywhere in the universe and can be communicated with in a community temple or small alters within their homes.
In the countryside, the rivers, mountains and towns are considered sacred as well, believed to be either the birthplace of a particular deva or the place they reside.
A core tradition of the Hindu religion, and the goal of each Hindu follower, is the attainment of eternal peace with Brahman. Hindus believe that this only happens after spending many lifetimes on earth deepening their Hindu faith and trying to understand the true nature of the self as it relates to the world.
After death, a Hindu’s spirit could be reborn into either a higher or lower level of existence, the hope being that if they spend their lives in selfless devotion to religion, family, and community that they will be rewarded in the next lifetime.