Hinduism, religion that originated in India and is still practiced by most of its inhabitants, as well as by those whose families have migrated from India to other parts of the world (chiefly East Africa, South Africa, Southeast Asia, the East Indies, and England). The word Hindu is derived from the Sanskrit word sindhu (“river”—more specifically, the Indus); the Persians in the 5th century BC called the Hindus by that name, identifying them as the people of the land of the Indus. The Hindus define their community as “those who believe in the Vedas” (see Veda) or “those who follow the way (dharma) of the four classes (varnas) and stages of life (ashramas).”
Hinduism is a major world religion, not merely by virtue of its many followers (estimated at more than 700 million) but also because of its profound influence on many other religions during its long, unbroken history, which dates from about 1500 BC. The corresponding influence of these various religions on Hinduism (it has an extraordinary tendency to absorb foreign elements) has greatly contributed to the religion’s syncretism—the wide variety of beliefs and practices that it encompasses. Moreover, the geographic, rather than ideological, basis of the religion (the fact that it comprises whatever all the people of India have believed and done) has given Hinduism the character of a social and doctrinal system that extends to every aspect of human life.
II. Fundamental Principles
The canon of Hinduism is basically defined by what people do rather than what they think. Consequently, far more uniformity of behavior than of belief is found among Hindus, although very few practices or beliefs are shared by all. A few usages are observed by almost all Hindus: reverence for Brahmans and cows; abstention from meat (especially beef); and marriage within the caste (jati), in the hope of producing male heirs. Most Hindus chant the gayatri hymn to the sun at dawn, but little agreement exists as to what other prayers should be chanted. Most Hindus worship Shiva, Vishnu, or the Goddess (Devi), but they also worship hundreds of additional minor deities peculiar to a particular village or even to a particular family. Although Hindus believe and do many apparently contradictory things—contradictory not merely from one Hindu to the next, but also within the daily religious life of a single Hindu—each individual perceives an orderly pattern that gives form and meaning to his or her own life. No doctrinal or ecclesiastical hierarchy exists in Hinduism, but the intricate hierarchy of the social system (which is inseparable from the religion) gives each person a sense of place within the whole.