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Hinduism: Background of the Faith

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In this new feature of our website, we present every week a new selection of the teachings of Vedanta, taken from a variety of sources lectures and writings of Swami Adiswarananda, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Literature, and other spiritual texts.






Swami Adiswarananda

Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center

New York

Hinduism, considered the oldest religion of the world, is today practiced by over 500 million people in India and other countries. The word "Hindu" is a distorted form of "Sindhu," the Sanskrit word for Indus, the river that flows into the Arabian Sea. This mispronunciation is attributed to the Persians who invaded India at the end of the sixth century B.C. Later, during the Greek invasion of India (326 B.C.), the Greeks described the river Sindhu as "Indos," which was sometime afterward changed to "Indus." Since then, the country east of the river Indus has come to be known as India, its people as Indians, and their religion as Hinduism. The original name of Hinduism is Sanatana Dharma, which means "eternal religion." It was also known as Vaidika Dharma, or the "religion of the Vedas." The European traders and Christian missionaries who came to India at the beginning of the seventeenth century signified Hinduism as "Brahmanism."

A federation of many systems of thought, Hinduism is based not on any fixed sets of creeds and dogmas but on certain eternal principles. It was not founded by any historical personality. Many prophets, saints, mystics, and philosophers, both ancient and modern, have contributed to its growth, development, and perpetuation. The great teachers of Hinduism are Sri Rama (of the Ramayana), Sri Krishna (of the Bhagavad Gita), Sri Sankaracharya (A.D. 788-820), Sri Ramanuja (A.D. 1017-1137), Sri Madhva (A.D. 1199-1276), Sri Chaitanya (A.D. 1485-1533), and in modern times, Sri Ramakrishna (A.D. 1836-1886), and Swami Vivekananda (A.D. 1863-1902). Their lives demonstrate the validity of the spiritual teachings of Hinduism. Hinduism derives its authority primarily from the four Vedas: the Rig-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, the Sama-Veda, and the Atharva-Veda. Each Veda consists of four parts: the mantras, or hymns in praise of Vedic deities; the brahmanas, or the section dealing with rituals and ceremonies; the aranyakas, or philosophical interpretation of the rituals; and the Upanishads, or the concluding portions of the Vedas (known as Vedanta), which describe the profound spiritual truths. Hinduism derives its authority secondarily from another group of scriptures-the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita, the Puranas, and others. Of the two groups of scriptures, the Vedas along with the Upanishads are known as srutis, while the others are called smritis. Sruti is revelation and smriti is tradition.

[Copyright Swami Adiswarananda]

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