Hinduism is the oldest extant religion dating back to over 3000 BC. Modern Hinduism is a collection of beliefs and rites from all over the Indian Subcontinent. There are many gods so this is a real polytheistic religion. The more important of the deities are described below.
Brahma is the creator. All Hindu gods have six arms but Brahma also has four faces. The creator's job is completed so there are few temples to Brahma. His consort is Sarasvati who rides on a swan.
Vishnu is the preserver. He is shown holding a coral shell. Vishnu has made many incarnations on the Earth (like the Christian god). These include Rama who is the subject of carvings, stories and dance all over Asia. The epic Ramayana (an Asian
version of the Odyssey) is the story of Rama. Another incarnation is Krishna who lived amongst peasants and cavorted with milk maids. Krishna is always shown in blue, playing a flute. Many Hindus believe that Buddha is also an incarnation of Vishnu. Vishnu's consort is Laxmi, goddess of wealth.
Shiva is the destroyer and reproducer. Shiva is king of the River Ganges. He lives in the Himalaya and smokes ganga. His symbol is the trident. He is closely associated with a giant bull called a Nandi which is often found outside Shiva temples. Shiva's reproductive qualities are symbolized by the Lingam, a phallic image common in Shiva temples. Shiva's consort is the beautiful Parvati, who epitomises all the womanly virtues. She has another form, the evil Durga (or Kali) who requires sacrifice. Worshippers of Kali used to perform human sacrifice. They were called Thugees from where the English word thugs is derived.
Ganesh is the popular and much worshipped son of Shiva and Parvati. His father once lopped his head off in anger and replaced it with an elephant's head! He is the god visited when a new venture is about to begin.
Hinduism has a caste system where everybody is born into one of five castes:
· merchants and governors
· the untouchables or lowest caste.
It is believed that one's caste is determined by the actions (or Karma) in a past life. A good life means the next one will be better and vice versa. The holy animal is the Cow (another form of Laxmi). True Hindus are vegetarian and will not eat meat.
The holiest site for Hindus is Varanasi (also called Benares) on the banks of the River Ganges. All good Hindus dream of dying here. Hindus (unlike Jews, Christians and Muslims) cremate their dead (on sandalwood logs) and scatter the ashes on a river, preferably the Ganges. The Hindu scriptures are written in Sanskrit, the 'Latin' of the North Indian languages.
Hinduism is mainly associated with India and Indians. In the past much of South-East Asia shared this faith; even now there are cultural influences from the Hindu periods in places like Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand. The Indonesian island of Bali is Hindu to this day.