Hinduism, as a religion, is many faceted, yet bound by a common search for truth. It is a way of life, a fellowship of faiths. It originated as a simple form of worship of the forces of nature and gradually spread to the vast terrain of Indian subcontinent, evolving into a complex system of belief, action and social organization and drawing into its fold local cults, gods and goddesses and diverse beliefs and modes of worship prevalent among the people.
Philosophical Hinduism believes in the oneness and all-pervasiveness of the Supreme Soul. The individual souls are but different manifestations of the Supreme Soul. Before the individual soul ultimately realizes its identity with the Supreme, it must work out its destiny by passing through a series of births. According to his station in life and stage of spiritual growth, a man must perform his duties.
Hindus have a vast body of literature, the four Vedas being the most sacred and the earliest. Associated with them are the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upnishads. Two books which have greatly influenced Hindu life and thought are the epics- the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In the Mahabharata is contained the Bhagwad Gita, the quintessence of the Hindu way of life.
The mythological content of Hinduism is vast and rich and revolves around gods and goddesses who are believed to represent the various forces operating in the universe and, more particularly, in all human nature. At the centre of it all is the great Hindu trinity represented by Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer.
But Shiva of the Hindu pantheon is more than a mere destroyer. He is also the reproducer of life, the force that destroys in order to create. In this sense he is the god of all creative endeavour.
Shiva in popular symbolism, is generally represented as an ascetic sitting on a tiger skin. Snakes are coiled round his blue neck, his head and his body. He has a third eye in the centre of his august forehead, and a crescent moon rests on his head. His abode is the high mountain, Kailash in the Himalayas, and his mount is the sacred bull, Nandi. He is also worshipped in the form of a "linga", representing the power behind creation. He is also Nataraja, lord of the dance, and is represented as such in sculptures and bronzes.
Shiva's consort has been given a variety of names according to her various forms, attributes and actions. Broadly, she represents two forms of the female energy or principle- one mild or protective, the other fierce or destructive. In her former aspect, she is called Uma, Gauri, Hemavati, Jagatmata, Bhavani, Amba and Parvati; and in the latter, she is known by such names as Durga, Kali and Chandi.
The most widely worshipped form is Durga, the goddess of battle. She is shown as having ten arms holding different weapons of retribution. She was sent by the gods to destroy Mahishasur (the buffalo demon). Her mount is the lion. Although warlike in aspect, Durga is worshipped as the Mother who triumphs over evil.
Kali, perhaps a relic of the primitive pre-historic religion, looks fiercer than Durga. She wears a necklace of skulls, and her red tongue hangs hungrily out of her mouth. Animal sacrifices used to be made to this goddess whose dance of conquest is famous in legend.
Son of Shiva and Parvati is Ganesha. This god is very popular, being the household deity of prudence and prosperity. It is considered highly auspicious to invoke his blessings at the commencement of any undertaking.
According to a legend in the "Matsya Puana", Parvati ordered Ganesha to keep guard at her door while she bathed. Shiva, coming home, was denied entry by him. The angry father cut off Ganesha's head, but on Parvati's request he ordered that the head of the first living being found should be brought to him. This happened to be that of an elephant. Ever since, Ganesha has an elephant's head.
Vishnu, the Preserver of the Hindu Trinity, is the benevolent deity, who descends to earth whenever the creation is threatened by the Evil. Two of his best known incarnations are Rama and Krishna.
Rama is the seventh incarnation of Vishnu. His exploits form the subject of the great epic, the "Ramayana".
Born in Ayodhya (Uttar Pradesh), as heir to the throne, Rama was exiled from his kingdom for fourteen years. His devoted wife Sita and his younger brother Lakshamana accompanied him into exile. Ravana, the ten-headed demon who was king of Lanka, carried away Sita during her husband's absence. Rama set out in search of her and a great battle ensued between him and Ravana. Assisted by Hanuman, Rama was victorious and brought faithful Sita back to his capital, where there was great rejoicing. His brother, Bharata, who had loyally ruled the kingdom as Rama's regent, welcomed them with open arms. For Hindus, Rama is the ideal man and king and Sita the ideal of womanhood.
The other popular incarnation of Vishnu, Krishna, was born to destroy Kansa, the evil king of Mathura. He grew to manhood among the cowherds of Mathura, and the love of "gopis" (Milkmaids) for him symbolises the yearning of the soul for God. In the great war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas described in the Mahabharata, Krishna sided with the Pandavas, his cousins. The "Bhagvad Gita" , based on a discourse given by him to prepare Arjuna, one of the Pandavas, for his duty in the great battle, contains the essence of the Hindu way and view of life. Krishna is represented as a handsome youth, sky-blue in colour, and holding a flute.
The consort of Vishnu is Lakshmi who, like the Greek Aphrodite, rose from the foam of the ocean. Enchantingly lovely, she stands on the lotus which is her symbol. She is the much-sought-after goddess of wealth and prosperity.
Brahma is the Creator in the Trinity. His consort is Sarasvati who is worshipped as the goddess of learning and of the arts and sciences. She is represented as riding a swan and holding a lute in one hand.