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
Most Hindus worship daily in their own homes. A dedicated place called the shrine is allocated where the Puja (worship) is carried out. A shrine can be anything from a room, a small altar or simply pictures and images (Murtis) of gods and goddesses. As there is great flexibility in practicing Hinduism, Hindus tend to have their personal way in which they prefer to pray, worship and apply the principles in their daily lives. So it is quite common to find committed Hindus from the same family having different lifestyles as long as the end goal is the same (achieving God). Communal worship and celebrations are carried out in a dedicated building called a Mandir (abode of God on earth – a Hindu temple). This could be a tiny temple to something elaborate. In temples, worship and puja are carried out by Hindu priests.
Hindus believe in reincarnation – a belief that the soul is eternal and continues to pass through the cycle of birth and death – Samsara to live many lives in different bodies. These lives are dependent on their actions – Karma. It is their individual karmas that determine their future successive lives. Hindus therefore aim to live in a way that will cause each of their lives to be better than the life before. The spiritual goal of a Hindu is to become one with Brahman – and this is called Moksha. Until moksha is achieved a Hindu believes they will repeatedly reincarnate so that they can progress towards this aim of self-realisation of the truth (the truth being that only Brahman exists and nothing else).
Hindus advocate the practice of ahimsa (non-violence) and respect for all life because divinity is believed to permeate all beings, including plants and non-human animals.
In accordance with ahimsa, many Hindus embrace vegetarianism to respect all forms of life. Vegetarianism is propagated by the Yajur Veda and it is recommended for a sattvic (purifying) lifestyle. Hindus believe having simple food can enhance the power of the mind and that pure thoughts are the foundation of living a spiritual and religious life. Observant Hindus who do eat meat almost always abstain from beef. The cow in Hindu society is traditionally identified as a caretaker and a maternal figure and Hindu society honours the cow as a symbol of unselfish giving.
There are many sub sects within Hinduism and some of the most popular ones that have come into existence recently are:
Swaminaryan: Swaminaryan was regarded as an incarnation of God by his followers. Swaminaryan’s philosophical, social and practical teachings are contained in the Vachanamrut, a collection of dialogues recorded by five followers from his spoken words. The Vachanamrut is the scripture most commonly in the Swaminaryen sect. It contains views on dharma (moral conduct), jnana (understanding of the nature of the self), vairagya (detachment from material pleasure), and bhakti (pure, selfless devotion to God), the four essentials which the Hindu scriptures describe as necessary for a jiva (soul) to attain moksha (salvation).
Hare Krishna (International Society for Krishna Consciousness ISKCON): Also referred to reverentially as the Maha Mantra (“Great Mantra”) A missionary movement which has very devout western converts. Their goal of life is pure love of God (Krishna)
Sai Baba: A movement that started in the 19th century in India where Shridi Baba became a very popular Saint amongst many devotees. A large temple in the Maharastra, dedicated to Shridi Baba is still visited by millions of devotees. The Satya Sai Baba movement that was established in the 1950’s in the south of India and has a large number of devotees including professionals who help with the running of schools and health care.
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.