Hindus are people who practise the religion known as Hinduism, which they themselves call Sanatan Dharma. This means the ‘Eternal Way to God’ in Sanskrit. This way of living embraces many beliefs and practices, based on some broadly agreed principles about the nature and purpose of existence. ‘Hindu’ can also be used to describe one’s cultural heritage and identity. This is not a religion of many gods (as is often mistakenly thought). It is based on belief in one absolute cosmic energy, one God known as Brahman. The most sacred and commonly used religious symbol among Hindus is Aum. This represents unity with the essence of existence and is believed to be the fundamental vibration which created and sustains the universe.
Since Sanatan Dharma is eternal, there can be no single historical figure who may be described as its founder, and no particular date for its beginning. Scholars from East and West have traced its written history at least as far back as the civilisation that flourished in the Indus Valley between 3500 and 1500 BCE. Hindus believe that the ancient scriptures of the Vedas (‘knowledge’) were heard by Rishis (‘Vedic poets’ or sages) in states of deep meditation and transcribed many years later. The religion known today as Hinduism has evolved in response to changing fortunes over 5,000 years, and continues to do so. Its chequered history helps account for its highly diverse, inclusive and accommodating character.
Hindus believe Brahman to be the one uncreated, unchanging reality behind the diversity of life, the source from which everything proceeds and the goal to which everything must eventually return. Brahman is expressed throughout the universe in an infinite variety of ways, some of them interpreted as ‘gods’ or ‘goddesses’, each with their own special qualities and functions. The goal of the individual soul (Atman) is to break free of the realm of illusion (maya) and gain reunion with Brahman. This is moksha (liberation). Those souls who have not yet attained liberation continue their search for God through the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth (samsara), in various forms as dictated by the law of karma (cause and effect).
Sanatan Dharma has many scriptures written in Sanskrit, which can be chanted and read. The Vedas are the oldest, dating in their written form from around 1500 BCE. The Vedas contain hymns, incantations and rituals, as well as scientific knowledge. The Upanishads (800-400 BCE) discuss the doctrine of karma and describe ways in which the soul can be united with Brahman. The Ramayana provides guidance for day-to-day living as a householder. One of the most popular scriptures (certainly the best known outside of India and the Hindu community itself) is the Bhagavad Gita (‘Song of the Lord’), an extract from the epic poem, the Mahabharata, in which Lord Krishna instructs his disciple, Arjuna, in the requirements of the spiritual life.
Worship, prayer & meditation
Jains do not worship the Tirthankaras, but look upon them as living embodiments of perfection. Jains commonly chant mantras or contemplate images; such practices are known as puja. Recalling and reciting good deeds from the pious lives of the Tirthankaras generates a positive mental state in the individual, engendering religious merit which, in turn, contributes to good rebirth. Devotees focus on the Tirthankaras and other pure souls, so that they might follow their example more effectively. They may also engage in rituals involving decoration or anointing of images. Jains also practise a form of meditation called samayika for sessions of 48 minutes, to establish a peaceful state of mind and obtain some idea of what it means to follow a monastic life.
Jains believe that the souls of all living creatures throughout the universe are caught up in an endless cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth – and that it is the purpose of life to free oneself from this. Each soul is capable of achieving liberation when it rids itself of the burden of accumulated karma (the consequences of one’s deeds). This attaches itself to the soul and retards its progress toward the state of nirvana. This freedom is obtained by one’s own efforts, under the guidance and direction of scripture and example. Jain spiritual insight and practice deal with the smallest aspects of daily life, as much as they address the big questions of the purpose of existence. Most Jains fast at special times, during festivals and on holy days.
While the Jain way of life is rooted in ancient and traditional teachings, it is increasingly seen as being relevant to the needs of the modern world. For example, Jains should limit the extent to which they travel, and to which they consume resources. They should avoid violence, lying, lustfulness, and materialism, and steer clear of everyday sins, such as thinking or speaking badly of others, being inconsiderate or self-indulgent. Jains should also be charitable. Ahimsa directs the thoughts and actions of all Jains, as individuals and in their community (samaj). In keeping with this central principle, Jains are vegetarian. Some Jains show such commitment to their way of life that they choose to renounce all worldly things and become monks or nuns (though this is not so common outside India).
Like most religions, Jainism has many branches or traditions, affecting its development throughout its history. There are two well-known denominations: Digambara (‘Sky-Clad’) monks who wear no clothes and usually live in seclusion; Svetambara (‘White-Robed’) monks who are more moderate in belief and lifestyle. While such divisions have long been influential to Jains in India, they are of less importance to those living in other countries today. Being such a small minority in the UK, for example, has moved Jains to overcome many of these differences and build a robust community, for whom their common identity as Jains comes first. This unity is expressed in practical terms in Leicester’s Jain temple, where all the main traditions have their own shrines or rooms for worship.
The festivals celebrated by Hindus mark seasonal, historical and mythological events, rites of passage, life events and family relationships among other things. They all have underlying spiritual significance. Some are specific to certain regions, while others are celebrated by Hindus worldwide. Probably the best known is Diwali – a five-day festival when Hindus show particular devotion to Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and beauty. Diwali celebrates the triumphant return from exile of Lord Rama and his wife, Sita, as told in the Ramayana. Fireworks are set off to light their path home. Navratri is a nine-day festival during which Hindus worship different aspects of the great mother goddess, Shakti. Another popular festival is Janmasthami, which celebrates the birth of Lord Krishna.
There are around 900 million Hindus in the world, making it the world’s third largest religion, with 22% of the global population. Most live in India (780 million: 79% of the country’s population), although there are sizeable Hindu communities in South-East Asia, East and South Africa, and other places where Hindus have migrated, such as the Caribbean. Outside India, the largest Sanskrit university for the theological study of Sanatan Dharma is in Germany. Many Hindu teachings have made their influence felt beyond the Hindu community itself, including various forms of yoga (from its use as a physical fitness and dietary regime to the diverse practices of meditation), vegetarianism, Ayurvedic medicine, and the social and political application of the principle of non-violence.
Hindus in Britain
Hindus had visited and worked in Britain for centuries before there was any notable migration here. The number of Hindu students and professionals in Britain increased markedly from the late 19th century onwards. In the 1950s and 60s, significant numbers settled here, some direct from India, others via African states such as Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. Most Hindus in Britain today are Gujarati (55-70%) or Punjabi (15-20%), the remainder being from other parts of India, West Bengal or Sri Lanka. At the time of the 2001 Census, there were 552,421 Hindus in Britain, 1% of the population. Hinduism is the third largest religion in Britain. There are over 160 Hindu places of worship around the country, some of which enjoy pilgrimage status.
Hindus in Leicester
Large numbers of Hindus came to Leicester from the 1950s onwards, from India, East Africa, Southern Africa and Fiji. The 2001 Census records 41,428 Hindus in Leicester, 14% of the population, virtually unchanged since 1983. The first Hindu temple in Leicester was in Cromford Street, Highfields, in 1969. There are now more than 20. Shree Sanatan Mandir (founded 1971), in Weymouth Street, is the biggest and is also headquarters of the National Council of Hindu Temples, UK. Swaminarayan Hindu Mission has had a base in Loughborough Road since 1991. Shree Jalaram Prarthana Mandal in Narborough Road was the first purpose-built Hindu temple in Europe (in 1995). Leicester has a world-wide reputation for hosting Hindu festivals, including the largest celebration of Diwali outside India.