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Hindu History Lesson: Hinduism from Ancient Times

Hinduism Today
April/May/June 2007

Hindu History, Chapter One: Hinduism From Ancient Times

The largest civilization in the ancient world developed in the Indus
Valley of India over 5,000 years ago. In the thousands of years that
followed, India produced many great empires under which science, art
and philosophy flourished. Out of this rich history developed the
Hindu religion, today the third largest in the world.

Note to Students, Parents and Teachers:

This Educational Insight is Hinduism Today magazine's response to the
controversy in California over the way Hinduism is taught in public-
school history books. It is a 16-page lesson on Hindu history,
beliefs and practices for sixth graders written from the Hindu point
of view. It is historically sound and acceptable in content and tone
to the various denominations of the Hindu community.

The problem with every existing textbook for this grade level is that
Hinduism is presented negatively, incompletely and inaccurately. This
lesson is patterned after a typical chapter on the other faiths in
these same books. It deliberately does not follow the specific
California standards for presenting the Hindu religion because we
believe them to be deeply flawed and contrary to the State's own
general rule that teaching material must: 1) be historically
accurate, 2) "instill in each child a sense of pride in his or her
heritage" and 3) avoid "adverse reflection" on a religion. It is our
intent that this lesson will serve as a model for US textbooks,
providing an authentic depiction of the eminent history and
traditions of the faith while giving 10-year-old Hindu students
justifiable pride in their religion.

In most states teachers are allowed to supplement the textbooks with
additional material. This lesson may be offered as a more accurate
basis for the classroom study of the origins and development of
Hinduism in ancient India.

Section One: Origins of Hinduism

Hinduism Today's Teaching Standards: At the beginning of each of
these chapters sections, we present our outline for Hinduism in 6th
grade history books. It is intended to replace existing lists of
required topics, such as those found in the California Standards.

1. Explain the similarities between Indus-Sarasvati civilization and
later Hindu culture.

2. Discuss why the Aryan Invasion theory has been disputed by many

3. Discuss the social and political system and advancement of science
and culture.

4. Explain the development of religion in India between 1000 bce and
500 ce.

What You Will Learn...

Main Ideas:

1. Many Hindu religious practices are seen in the archeological
remains of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization.

2. The sacred texts of Hinduism are in the Sanskrit language and were
originally memorized but unwritten.

3. Ancient Indian art and science were highly developed.

The Big Idea: Hinduism developed over thousands of years in India.

Key Terms: Indus and Sarasvati rivers; Vedas; Sanskrit

If YOU lived then...

Your house is built on a wide, waterless riverbed. Your father tells
you it was once the giant Sarasvati River, five kilometers across.
There is not enough rain to provide for the family's crops and
cattle. Travelers tell of another great river, the Ganga, hundreds of
miles away. Your father and other villagers decide they must move.

How would you feel about the long journey?

Building Background India's known history begins with the Indus-
Sarasvati civilization, 5,500 years ago. We know from archeology that
this culture shows many features of later Hindu practice.

Understanding Ancient Indian History

The early cities of India developed along the Indus and Sarasvati
rivers starting around 3500 bce. They are called the Indus-Sarasvati
civilization or, sometimes, the Harappan culture. It was the largest
and most advanced civilization in the ancient world. But the mighty
Sarasvati River dried up, and what was once a fertile area became a
desert. The people of the region moved to other parts of India and
beyond. By 2000 bce the civilization had entered a period of decline.

The Religion of the Indus-Sarasvati People

A great many artifacts have been discovered from the Indus-Sarasvati
cities. These include pottery, seals, statues, beads, jewelry, tools,
games, such as dice, and children's toys, such as miniature carts.

The flat, stone seals have pictures and writing on them. Scholars
have not yet agreed on what the mysterious script on the seals
means.They show deities, ceremonies, symbols, people, plants and
animals. We learn from them that people at that time followed
practices identical to those followed by Hindus today. One seal shows
a meditating figure that scholars link to Lord Siva, while others
show the lotus posture used by today's meditators. The swastika, a
sacred symbol of good luck used throughout Hindu history, is common.

There are statues, including a small clay figure with its hands
pressed together in the traditional Hindu greeting of "namaste." A
figurine of a married woman shows a red powder called sindur in the
part of her hair. Hindu women today follow this same custom as a sign
of their married status. The pipal tree and banyan tree are depicted
often. These remain sacred to Hindus to this day.

The Vedas

The central holy books of Hinduism are the four Vedas. Hindus regard
them as spoken by God. They are in Sanskrit. The Vedas were not
written down but memorized. Students might spend twelve years
learning these scriptures. Some would memorize one Veda, others all
four. Even today there are priests who can chant an entire Veda--as
many as 10,500 verses--from memory.

The relationship between the people of the Indus-Sarasvati
civilization and those who composed the Vedas is not clearly
understood. We know that the Rig Veda describes the Sarasvati as the
"most mighty of rivers" flowing from the Himalayan mountains to the
ocean. Therefore, the holy texts had to be composed well before 2000
bce--by which time the river had dried up. The Vedas describe a
powerful and spiritual people, their clans, kings and emperors. Their
society was complex. The economy included agriculture, industry,
trade, commerce and cattle raising. The Vedas contain thousands of
hymns in praise of God and the Gods. They describe a form of fire
worship, yajna, around a specially-built brick fire altar. In several
Indus-Sarasvati cities archeologists have unearthed what look like
fire altars.

The Aryan Invasion Theory

Many school books present an "Aryan Invasion" of India. It is the
theory that Aryan invaders came from central Asia in 1500 bce and
conquered the indigenous Indus-Sarasvati civilization. It was these
foreigners, the theory states, who wrote the Rig Veda in Sanskrit.
The theory was proposed in the 19th century by scholars in Europe,
based on language studies. In part, it tried to explain why Sanskrit
is so closely related to European languages, including English. Many
scholars now dispute this theory because all the evidence for it is
questionable. Additionally, modern scientists have found no
biological evidence, such as DNA, that people came from outside India
in significant numbers since at least 6,000 bce.

Many common explanations about Indian history and culture are based
on the Aryan Invasion theory. Those who defend it claim that
Sanskrit, the caste system and Hindu ways of worship came from
outside India. If you are studying India in school, you may read
about this outdated theory.

Hinduism Emerges

As the Indus-Sarasvati culture declined, many of its people migrated
to other places. They settled mostly in north and central India,
especially along the Ganga River system. They interacted with tribes
who had lived in those areas from ancient times. Around 1000 bce, the
Tamil-speaking Dravidian people in the South had separately developed
a sophisticated language and culture. Because of inadequate
archeological research, we do not know a lot about this period.
However, by 600 bce, India had developed a common culture from north
to south and east to west. By this time the social, religious and
philosophical ideas and practices central to Hinduism are fully
evident. These are in continuity with the religion of the Indus-
Sarasvati culture, the teachings of the Vedas, Dravidian culture and
elements of the tribal religions.

Hindu public worship, described in the Vedas, took place in temporary
shelters built for that purpose. The earliest mention of permanent
temples for the worship of God is in the Grihya Sutras, around 600

Indian Society

A distinctive feature of India at this time was the varna or class
system. Society was classified into groups with specific occupations.
These groups tended to become hereditary. There were four broad
classes--priests, warriors, merchants and workers (including
craftsmen). The system provided order and stability to society. Later
on, the varnas divided into hundreds of sub-sections called jatis
(castes). Individual jatis developed a strong identity and pride in
their occupation. From time to time people would move from one caste
to another, or establish new ones. The evolving caste system became
unfair to the people at the very bottom of the social order. Though
caste is still an important factor in arranging marriages, caste
discrimination is illegal in modern India.

Women have always been held in high regard in India. Some of India's
foremost religious and political leaders are women. Hinduism is the
only major religion in which God is worshiped in female form.

Life in ancient times was hard work for both men and women. The women
were responsible for running the household; the men for their craft
or farm, as well as security. In general, women had fewer property
rights than men, but received lighter punishments for crimes and paid
fewer taxes. They participated equally with their husband in
religious ceremonies and festival celebrations. Some women were
highly educated, and a few even composed several of the holy Vedic

The period from 1000 bce through the Gupta period up to the mid-6th
century ce was a time of great advancement. Hindus discovered the
zero and established the counting method, including the decimal
system, we use today. Their astronomers knew that the Earth orbits
the Sun and calculated the length of a year with great precision.
Medicine was so advanced that doctors were performing complex surgery
not equaled in Europe until the 18th century. In ancient times India
was one of the most advanced and wealthy nations on Earth. Since
ancient times, a quarter of the world's people have lived in India.

Impact Today: The disputed Aryan Invasion theory is still taught as
fact in most books on India

Academic Vocabulary:

continuity: unbroken connection or line of development

hereditary: passed from parents to children

Timeline: Early Indian History

5000 BCE: Beginning of Indus-Sarasvati cities

2600-2000 BCE: Height of Indus-Sarasvati civilization. The city of
Lothal includes large buildings and an enclosed harbor.

2000 BCE: Sarasvati River dries up. People move to North and Central

600 BCE: India is a unified culture at this time. Large cities
flourish in the Gangetic Plains. Indian physician Sushruta develops
complex methods of surgery. Tamil language flourishes in the South.
First mention of temple worship appears in the Grihya Sutras.

500 BCE: Magadha Empire in the North and Pandyan Kingdom in the South
flourish. Buddhism and Jainism, offshoots of Hinduism, become
prominent religions.

321 BCE: Foundation of the pan-Indian Maurya Empire. Time of great
advancement in science, statecraft, economy, architecture, music and

200 BCE: Tiruvalluvar composes Tirukural, one of India's greatest
scriptures on ethics

200 CE: Hindu influence starts to spread into what is now Cambodia,
Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. In 1200 ce, the Hindu temple called
Angkor Wat is built in Cambodia. It is the world's largest religious

320 CE: Gupta Empire reigns over most of India, with Tamil kingdoms
in far south. This is the Golden Age of India and Hinduism, with
respect and tolerance for all religions.

Section 1 Assessment

Reviewing Ideas, Terms and People

1. a. Explain: What happened to the Sarasvati River?

b. Analyze: What customs from modern Hinduism are depicted in
artifacts of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization?

2. Elaborate: What are the advantages of a hereditary occupation?
What are the disadvantages?

3. a. Summarize: How are women regarded in Hindu society?

b. Recall: What are some of the great scientific achievements in
ancient India?

4. a. Explain: How were the Vedas preserved?

b. List: What kind of information is in the Vedas?

c. Explain: Why is it important that the Rig Veda mentions the
Sarasvati River as a "mighty river?"

5. Analyze: What does your school history book say about the Aryan
Invasion? How does this lesson differ?

Section Two: Hindu Beliefs and Scriptures

Hinduism Today's Teaching Standards:

5. Explain the basic Hindu beliefs regarding God, the Gods and
Goddesses, dharma, karma and reincarnation. Describe basic Hindu

6. Discuss the Hindu principles of nonviolence and religious

7. Describe the Vedas and their Upanishads, Ramayan, Mahabharat
(including the Bhagavad Gita) and other important Hindu scriptures.

What You Will Learn...

Main Ideas

1. Hindus believe in a one Supreme God and also many Gods and

2. Dharma, karma and reincarnation are central Hindu beliefs. There
is a special emphasis on nonviolence.

3. Vedas are the primary Hindu scriptures. There are other important
scriptures as well.

The Big Idea: Hindus believe every soul will ultimately achieve God

Key Terms: Sanatana Dharma, Brahman, deva, puja, karma,

If YOU lived then...

The king has passed a new law increasing the taxes on farmers. The
farmers in your village have not had a good year. The harvest is
smaller than usual. The new tax may mean people will go hungry. Some
in the village want to attack the tax collectors. Others want to lie
about the amount of harvest. Still others say a peaceful protest will
cause the king to change his mind on the tax increase.

How would you respond to the tax increase? Why?

Building Background: From its beginnings, Hinduism has been an open-
minded religion. It is a basic Hindu belief that there are many ways
to approach God. Hinduism does not dictate one way as the only way.
Hindus believe "Truth is one, paths are many" and that every person
eventually finds spiritual salvation.

Religion Permeates the Hindu's Daily Life

Hindus base their way of life upon their religion. The Hindu culture
comes from Hindu beliefs. The key beliefs are in a one Supreme God,
subordinate Gods and Goddesses, heaven worlds, the divinity of the
soul, dharm, karm, reincarnation, God Realization and liberation from
rebirth. God Realization means the direct and personal experience of
the Divine within oneself. The original Sanskrit name for Hinduism is
Sanatana Dharma, meaning "eternal religion."

Belief in God and the Gods and Goddesses

Hindus believe in and worship a one Supreme God. In the scriptures,
the Supreme God is called Brahman or Bhagavan, worshiped as both male
and female. Brahman is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving and
present in all things. God created everything in the universe out of
Himself. This creation is not separate from Him. He guides the
evolution of everything over vast spans of time. Ultimately, He
absorbs the universe back into Himself. This cycle of creation,
preservation and absorption repeats without end.

The Supreme God is both transcendent and immanent. These are two key
philosophical concepts. As transcendent, God exists beyond the
physical universe. As immanent, His divine form pervades all nature
and humanity.

In Hinduism, the soul is called atman. God exists within each soul.
The Chandogya Upanishad explains it like this: "What you see when you
look into another person's eyes, that is atman, immortal, beyond
fear; that is God."

Hinduism has different branches with varying beliefs and practices.
The four major branches are Saiva, Shakta, Vaishnava and Smarta.
Saivas and Shaktas call the Supreme God Siva, though Shaktas worship
the female aspect of God. Vaishnavas call Him Vishnu. Smartas may
choose one of six Deities to worship as the Supreme. By whichever
name or form, He is the same, one Supreme God. The Rig Veda says,
"The seers call in many ways that which is One."

Hindus may also worship Gods and Goddesses, called devas, such as
Ganesha and Sarasvati. In Sanskrit, deva means "shining one." In some
ways, these divine beings who live in the heaven worlds are like the
angels and archangels in Western religions. Some Hindus consider the
Gods and Goddesses as alternative forms of the Supreme God, and not
as individual divine beings.

Each God and Goddess has particular powers and areas of
responsibility. For example, Ganesha is the Lord of Obstacles. Before
beginning a new project, a Hindu may pray to Ganesha to remove any
obstacles blocking his way.

In the Vaishnav tradition, Lord Vishnu appears on Earth as a divine
personality, or avatar, from time to time to restore morally right
living. Of Vishnu's ten avatars, Lord Ram and Lord Krishna are the
most important. Ram and Krishna are not separate Gods. They are two
forms of the one Supreme God.

In temples and shrines, the Supreme God and the Gods and Goddesses
are worshiped in a ritual called puja. Puja is a ceremony in which
the ringing of bells, passing of flames, chanting and presenting of
flowers, incense and other offerings invoke the Divine beings, who
then come to bless and help the devotees. During the puja, through
holy chants, gestures and sacred ritual, highly trained priests guide
the worship. The priests treat the Deity with utmost care, attending
to Him as the King of kings. The purpose of the puja is to create a
high religious vibration and communicate with God or a dev through
the murti, or consecrated statue, that is the focus of worship. Deity
is the proper English word for murti. The word idol is often used,
but it is incorrect.

Hindus also practice internal worship of God. Sitting quietly, they
may repeat the name of God while counting on beads. Others may chant,
sing or meditate upon God. In Hinduism, there are many ways to
worship the Divine.

Dharma, Karma and Reincarnation

Dharma means righteousness, divine law, ethics, religion, duty,
justice and truth. Dharma means the proper way one should live one's
life. To follow dharma, one should be religious, truthful, kind,
honest and generous. Dharma includes the practice of nonviolence,
called ahimsa in Sanskrit. It is the ideal of not injuring others in
thought, word or action.

Karma, a central Hindu belief, is the law of cause and effect. It
means that anything you do will eventually return to you in this or
future lives. If we do something selfish or hateful, we will in time
experience the same pain and suffering we caused to others. If our
acts are good and kind, we will receive goodness and kindness.

Reincarnation means literally to "re-enter the flesh." It is the
belief that the soul, atman, is reborn in a new body, experiencing
many lifetimes. The purpose of rebirth is to progressively achieve
spiritual maturity and God Realization. Eventually each soul learns
to live by religious principles and avoid creating negative karma.
The process of reincarnation continues through many lives until the
soul achieves liberation.

Hinduism's Sacred Scriptures

The four Vedas are the holiest scriptures for all Hindus. The
Upanishads, an important part of the Vedas, explain the Hindu
philosophy. The next most important scriptures, also in Sanskrit, are
the Agamas. There are specific Agamas for each major tradition in
Hinduism--Saiva, Shakta and Vaishnava. The Agamas explain philosophy,
personal conduct, worship and temple construction. There are hundreds
of other scriptural texts dealing with religious and secular law,
government, social order, economics, ecology, health, architecture,
science, music, astronomy and many other subjects. The Puranas are
encyclopedic accounts of the forms and avatars of God, the many
subordinate Gods and divine beings, creation, spiritual teachings,
historical traditions, geography and culture. The Tirukural is a
Tamil masterpiece on ethics and moral living. The Yoga Sutras of
Patanjali explore yoga and meditation.

The Ramayan and Mahabharat are two sacred epic histories of India.
The Ramayan is the story of Lord Ram, who is the seventh incarnation
of Lord Vishnu, and his divine wife Sita. This 24,000-verse poem
describes Prince Ram's birth, His banishment to a forest for 14
years, the abduction of Sita by the demon Ravana and Ram's victory
over Ravana. The Ramayan remains immensely popular to this day in
India and Southeast Asia.

The Mahabharat, "Great India," is a 78,000-verse story of a massive
war that took place in ancient times between the Pandavas and their
cousins, the Kauravas, for the throne of a great kingdom. It also
describes the nature of self and the world, karma, important family
lineages of India, human loyalties, saints and sages, devotion to God
and the ideals of dharma. Lord Krishna, the eighth incarnation of
Lord Vishnu, is a key figure in the epic. A central episode called
the Bhagavad Gita narrates Krishna's dialogue with the Pandava
archer, Arjuna, on the day of the battle. It is one of the most
popular and revered among Vaishnava and Smarta scriptures. Hindu
sacred music, dance, drama and the arts draw heavily on the Ramayan,
the Mahabharat and the many Puranas.


The Hindu principle of ahimsa, or nonviolence, is important today.
Mahatma Gandhi, a devout Hindu, said, "Nonviolence is the greatest
force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest
weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man." By nonviolent
means Gandhi largely won India's independence, using peaceful
protests, boycotts, strikes and speeches. In the 1950s, Martin Luther
King, Jr. studied Gandhi's methods and went to India to meet his
followers. He learned how India's nonviolent movement worked and
applied the same methods to fight for and win civil rights for
America's black minority. Aung San Suu Kyi, a devout Buddhist, has
campaigned without violence for years to win democracy for the people
of her native Myanmar (Burma). In 1991 she won the Nobel Peace Prize
for her peaceful struggle against the country's military
dictatorship. Another example is Cesar Chavez, who won rights for
California farm workers using nonviolent methods.

Analysis Skill: What are the advantages of nonviolence over violence
in bringing about social change?

Academic Vocabulary

subordinate:lower in rank, less important

pervade: to be present throughout

encompass: to surround and hold within

consecrated: made sacred through ceremony

invoke: summon a Deity; appeal to

secular: activities or things not related to religion

Section 2 Assessment

Reviewing Ideas, Terms and People

1. a. Define: What is Sanatana Dharma?

b. Explain: What is a deva?

c. Elaborate: What are the two key terms used by Hindus to describe
the Supreme God?

2. Categorize: What are the four main branches of Hinduism?

3. a. Recall: Why do Hindus pray first to Lord Ganesha?

b. Identify: What are the two most popular incarnations of Lord

c. Explain: What is the purpose of the Hindu puja?

4. a. Explain: What is karma?

b. Illustrate: What are some examples of following dharma?

c. Explain: What is the purpose of reincarnation?

5. Summarize: Make a list of Hindu scriptures, starting with the

6. Evaluate: Why do Hindus believe that there are many ways to
approach the Supreme God?

7. Understanding nonviolence: Write a paragraph explaining your way
to deal with the tax increase example given on page six. Do you think
a nonviolent approach would succeed?

Sacred Texts: An Excerpt from the Upanishads

Translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester

The Upanishads are the part of the Vedas that teach philosophy. The
word upanishad means "sitting by devotedly," as a student sits near
his guru to learn. This excerpt is taken from the Kena Upanishad. It
explains the nature of the Supreme God, called Brahman in Sanskrit.

Try to sum up the meaning of each sentence in your own words.

Once the Gods won a victory over the demons, and though they had done
so only through the power of Brahman, they were exceedingly vain.
They thought to themselves, "It was we who beat our enemies, and the
glory is ours."

Brahman saw their vanity and appeared before them as a nature spirit.
But they did not recognize Him.

Then the other Gods said to the God of fire, "Fire, find out for us
who this mysterious nature spirit is."

"Yes," said the God of fire, and approached the spirit. The spirit
said to him: "Who are you?"

"I am the God of fire. As a matter of fact, I am very widely known."

"And what power do you wield?"

"I can burn anything on Earth."

"Burn this," said the spirit, placing a straw before him. The God of
fire fell upon it with all his might, but could not consume it. So he
ran back to the other Gods and said, "I cannot discover who this
mysterious spirit is."

Then said the other Gods to the God of wind: "Wind, can you find out
for us who he is?"

"Yes," said the God of wind, and approached the spirit. The spirit
said to him: "Who are you?"

"I am the God of wind. As a matter of fact, I am very widely known. I
fly swiftly through the heavens."

"And what power do you wield?"

"I can blow away anything on Earth."

"Blow this away," said the spirit, placing a straw before him. The
God of wind fell upon it with all his might, but was unable to move
it. So he ran back to the other Gods and said, "I cannot discover who
this mysterious spirit is."

Then said the other Gods to Indra, greatest of them all, "O respected
one, find out for us, we pray you, who he is."

"Yes," said Indra and humbly approached the spirit. But the spirit
vanished, and in his place stood Goddess Uma, well adorned and of
exceeding beauty. Beholding her, Indra asked:

"Who was the spirit that appeared to us?"

"That," answered Uma, "was Brahman. Through Him it was, not of
yourselves, that you attained your victory and your glory."

Thus did Indra, and the God of fire, and the God of wind, come to
recognize Brahman, the Supreme God.

Word Help

philosophy: a theory or attitude that guides behavior

vain: excessively proud

mysterious: unknown

consume: to destroy completely, as by fire

adorned: beautifully dressed

beholding: looking at something remarkable

attained: won; achieved

Understanding Sacred Texts

1. Analyzing: Hindus believe that the Supreme God is immanent. That
means He exists everywhere in the universe, in everyone and
everything. How does this belief appear in the story?

2. Comparing: What is the difference between Brahman, the Supreme
God, and the other Gods introduced here--Indra, the God of fire and
the God of wind?

3. One verse says that the Gods were vain. What test did the Supreme
God put them through?

4. Indra took a different approach to finding out who the spirit was.
Why did he succeed when the others failed?

Section Three: Hinduism in Practice

Hinduism Today's Teaching Standards

8. Describe the spread of Hinduism outside of India in ancient and
modern times.

9. Describe the daily observances of Hindus, home and temple worship,
religious teachers and the major festivals.

10. Explain how Hinduism has survived over the last 5,000 years.

What You Will Learn...

Main Ideas

1. Hinduism has spread outside of India several times.

2. Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world.

3. Hindus practice religion at home and in temples and through the
many festivals.

The Big Idea: Hinduism is the oldest world religion flourishing

Key Terms: samskara, bindi, puja, swami, Kumbha Mela

If YOU lived then...

You are born in Fiji in 1910. Your parents were brought from India by
the British to work in the sugarcane fields as indentured laborers.
Now they are free of debt and own farmland. The public school is OK,
but your parents want you to go to the best private school. The
principal there says you must leave Hinduism and convert to his
religion before you can enroll.

What do you think your parents would do?

Building Background: Hinduism is the only major religion from the
distant past that is still vibrant today. It survived because of its
tradition of home-centered worship, because of its rich teachings and
many religious leaders, and because it is not merely tolerant of
other religions but respects the validity of all spiritual paths.

Traditions and Holy Days

Hinduism is the oldest living religion in the world. There are today
nearly a billion Hindus worldwide, 95 percent of whom live on the
Indian subcontinent. Hinduism continues to thrive for many reasons.
Its followers find answers to their deepest questions about the
mysteries of life. With personal religious practices, pilgrimage to
sacred shrines, temple- and home-centered worship, Hindus strive for
God Realization. And through celebration of the yearly cycle of
vibrant and colorful festivals, they experience great blessings and

Basic Practices

There are five basic practices, pancha nitya karmas, often observed
by Hindus. They are to: 1) worship daily, 2) follow dharma, 3)
observe the samskaras (rites of passage), 4) celebrate the holy days
and 5) go on pilgrimage to sacred places. Other practices include
meditation, chanting of mantras, study of scripture, hatha yoga and
other yoga techniques, and simple austerities, such as fasting. There
are many samskaras, including a child's name-giving ceremony, the
first feeding of solid food, the beginning of formal education and
marriage. It is a common practice for Hindu women to wear a bindi, a
red dot on the forehead. A similar mark, called tilaka, is worn by
men at the temple or on ceremonial occasions. This forehead mark
symbolizes many things, especially spiritual vision.

Worship in the Home

Every Hindu home has a place of worship. It may be as simple as a
shelf with pictures of God or an entire room dedicated to worship.
Many families have a spiritual guide or guru whose picture is
displayed in the shrine. There, the family may light a lamp, ring a
bell and pray daily. The most devout hold a formal morning worship
ritual. They offer flowers, incense, lights and food to God while
chanting sacred verses. Individual members will often go to the
shrine for blessings before leaving for school or work. At other
times one may sit alone in the shrine, pray and chant the names of
God, read from scripture, meditate silently or sing devotional songs.

Temple Worship

Hindus prefer to live within a day's journey of a temple. The temple
is a special building, revered as the home of God. The main Deity is
enshrined in the temple's central sanctum. In India, there are
hundreds of thousands of temples, most quite ancient. Temples in
India can be enormous, covering many acres, having vast pillared
hallways that can accommodate 500,000 devotees during a festival.
Often one or more families of priests oversee the temple and conduct
the worship over many generations. When Hindus migrate outside India,
they build a temple as soon as possible. At first, community leaders
themselves conduct the daily rituals. Later, professional priests are
hired. There are now hundreds of Hindu temples in America. The
largest are in New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Texas and

The temple worship ceremony, or puja, is usually performed by a
priest from India. During the ceremony, he worships God by chanting
Sanskrit verses from the scriptures and performing arati. Arati is
the waving of an oil lamp in front of the Deity while bells are rung.
The priest also offers flowers, sweets and fruit. These offerings are
then distributed to the devotees as a blessing from God. Hindus may
visit the temple throughout the day to worship and meditate.

Hinduism's Saints, Teachers and Swamis

Hinduism has a rich history of saints and sages, both men and women.
Their lives are educational and inspiring. They come from all castes.
Some saints, such as Adi Shankara, have written detailed explanations
of the Vedas and other scriptures. Other saints, such as Mirabai,
Tukaram and Sambandar, taught through devotional songs. Recent saints
include Sri Ramakrishna and Anandamayi Ma. Their deeply religious
lives have uplifted millions of Hindus and others worldwide.

There are hundreds of thousands of religious scholars and teachers,
both men and women, known as pundits. Some give spellbinding
discourses on sacred scriptures, including Ramayan and Mahabharat.
Tens of thousands may attend such gatherings, which include
storytelling, preaching, devotional singing and drama. These events
often go on for days or even a month.

Hinduism has millions of swamis and other holy persons. Swamis are
unmarried men (and some women) who have taken up spiritual life full
time. Swami means "he who knows himself." Some live in monasteries;
others wander as homeless mendicants. Swamis are the religious
ministers of Hinduism. Many swamis teach, others run large
institutions that perform social service for their communities, and
still others live alone and meditate long hours each day in their
pursuit of divine enlightenment. Special among these are the holy
gurus. Gu means darkness and ru means remover. So guru literally
means "the one who removes darkness." These men and women are great
religious teachers, some with millions of followers. Several gurus
have popularized the Hindu practice of yoga by establishing training
centers all over the world. No one person or institution is in charge
of Hinduism. Instead, there are thousands of independent spiritual
traditions, monastic orders and religious institutions.

The Yearly Festival Cycle

There are many religious festivals celebrated by Hindus each year.
They are observed at home, in temples and public places. Most Hindu
festivals are observed according to an ancient solar-lunar calendar.
Several festivals honor the avatars of Lord Vishnu. For example, Ram
Navami celebrates the birth of Lord Ram in March/April. Krishna
Janmashtami, in July/August, celebrates the birth of Lord Krishna.

Mahasivaratri takes place in February/March, when devotees fast and
worship the transcendent Lord Siva all night in the temple. Diwali,
or Dipavali, is the biggest festival of the year. It is dedicated to
Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, and takes place in October/November.
Navaratri is the second largest festival. It lasts nine days and
takes place in September/October. It is dedicated to the worship of
the Goddess, Shakti. in her three forms: Durga, the Goddess of
Protection; Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, and Sarasvati, the
Goddess of Knowledge.

Holi, in March/April, is a highly spirited festival where everyone
sprinkles each other with colored water and powders. It signifies the
triumph of good over evil and marks the beginning of the winter crop
harvest. Vaikasi Visakham (May/June) is sacred to Hindus, Buddhists
and Sikhs. Guru Purnima is a special festival to honor one's
spiritual teacher, or guru. It takes place on the full moon day in
July. There are also many social festivals in India, such as Pongal.
It is held in January and celebrates the incoming harvest.

One special festival, the Kumbha Mela, takes place in a twelve-year
cycle. Hindu saints and millions of devotees travel to certain sacred
rivers at an auspicious time for worship. The 2001 Kumbha Mela was
held at Prayag (modern Allahabad) in North India. It was attended by
70 million people, including 30 million on January 24 alone. This was
the largest religious gathering ever held on the Earth.


Hinduism is the oldest world religion. It accepts that there are many
ways to worship God. It has endured for so long because the religion
and culture have instilled in each Hindu a unique and strong sense of
identity and community. The Rig Veda concludes, "Let there be
everlasting unity and peace among all human beings."

Hindu Migration Through the Centuries: Hinduism has spread outside of
India in several waves. First it was adopted by cultures throughout
Southeast Asia through the 12th century ce. Second, in the 19th
century many Hindus moved to the various European colonies, such as
South Africa, the Caribbean and Fiji. And most recently, Hindus
migrated to more than 150 countries in the 20th century.


The biggest Hindu festival of the year is Diwali, or Dipavali, the
Festival of Lights, celebrating the victory of good over evil, light
over darkness. It takes place for five days around the new moon in
October/November. It also honors the return of Lord Ram to Ayodhya
after 14 years in exile. Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth is invoked
for prosperity, and Her presence is felt in every home. Hindus
thoroughly clean the house, take a special bath and put on new
clothes. Thousands of small lamps, including traditional clay oil
lamps (pictured at right), are placed everywhere and fireworks signal
hope for mankind. It is a national holiday in India and in many
countries with large Hindu populations. Some Hindu festivals take
place mostly at home, such as Raksha Bandhan, which is on the full
moon in July/August. Sisters tie a rakhi, or colored thread, around
the wrist of their brothers. In return, the brother gives his sister
a present and promises to protect her. The rakhi can also be given to
anyone chosen as an "adopted brother."

Analysis Skill: How do festivals help remind people to be more kind
and generous to one another?

The Impact Today: There are Hindu temples in nearly every country of
the world

Academic Vocabulary:

indentured: under contract to work for a certain number of years

austerity: a difficult practice of self-denial and discipline

meditate: think deeply about, go within yourself or seek God within

mendicant: a holy person who lives by begging

auspicious: a favorable time--for the Mela, as determined by the
Hindu calendar

Section 3 Assessment

Reviewing Ideas, Terms and People

1. a. List: What are the five basic practices of Hinduism?

b. Define: What does the bindi, red dot, signify?

c. Explain: How do Hindus use their home shrine room?

2. List: What are the various kinds of priests and holy men and women
in Hinduism?

3. a. Explain: What is the year's biggest Hindu festival?

b. Define: What is the meaning of the rakhi bracelet?

c. Recall: What is special about the Kumbha Mela?

d. Elaborate: Why has Hinduism lasted so long?

4. List: Make a list of three columns. In the first column write the
name of a major Hindu festival. In the second, put the time of year
it occurs. In the third list what it celebrates.

5. Understanding Hindu practices: Why do you think Hindus want to
live near a temple?

Chapter One Standards Assessment

Directions: Read each question and circle the letter of the best

1. Evidence for what form of worship in the Vedas was found by
archaeologists in the ruins of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization?

* A. Temple worship
* B. Worship at fire altars
* C. Devotional singing
* D. Sacred dancing

2. The Indus-Sarasvati civilization ended because:

* A. Aryans conquered it
* B. The Sarasvati River dried up
* C. There was a great famine
* D. The people died of plague

3. The Aryan Invasion theory was based upon:

* A. Biological evidence, such as DNA
* B. Archeological discoveries
* C. Language study
* D. Ancient histories

4. Which discovery was not made in ancient India?

* A. The concept of zero
* B. Surgery
* C. That the Earth orbits the Sun
* D. The moons of Jupiter

5. Evidence of Hindu temple worship can be as early as:

* A. 1200 bce
* B. 600 bce
* C. 300 ce
* D. 900 ce

6. Which of these descriptions does not apply to women in ancient

* A. Had fewer property rights than men
* B. Were never educated
* C. Wrote parts of the Vedas
* D. Paid fewer taxes

7. Which of these words does not describe the Hindu concept of the
Supreme God?

* A. Creator of the universe
* B. Transcendent
* C. Immanent
* D. Jealous of other Gods

8. Hindus believe that the dev, such as Lord Ganesh or Goddess
Lakshmi, are like:

* A. Archangels
* B. Nature spirits
* C. Mythical heroes
* D. Imaginary people

9. Which of the following is not used in nonviolent protests?

* A. Peaceful rallies
* B. Boycotts
* C. Strikes
* D. Vandalism

10. The Hindu scriptures include:

* A. The Vedas, Upanishads and Bible
* B. The Vedas, Ramayan and Qur'an
* C. The Vedas, Upanishads, Ramayan and Mahabharat
* D. The Mahabharat and the Iliad

11. Hindus believe that every other religion:

* A. Is an acceptable way to approach God
* B. Is wrong
* C. Is useful, but only Hindus go to heaven
* D. Is not as good because Hinduism is older

12. How many countries do Hindus live in today?

* A. 20
* B. 50
* C. 100
* D. More than 150

13. The saints of Hinduism are:

* A. Primarily high-caste men
* B. Only people who lived a long time ago
* C. Men and women of all castes
* D. Mostly great scholars

14. The biggest religious event in the world is:

* A. The Kumbha Mela
* B. Easter Sunday in Rome
* C. The annual pilgrimage to Mecca
* D. Christmas in New York City

Internet Resources: Go to  http://www.hinduismtoday.com/education/
for a PDF version of this lesson with clickable links to resources.
Also at the same url are additional teaching resources and letters of
endorsement from academics and community leaders. To order additional
copies of this educational insight, go to

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Jai Maharaj, Jyotishi
Om Shanti

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