Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The dominant religious expression of the Indian subcontinent. Its salient characteristics include a hoary mythology, an absence of recorded history (or "founder"), a cyclical notion of time, a pantheism that infuses divinity into the world around, an immanentist relationship between people and divinity, a priestly class, and a tolerance of diverse paths to the ultimate ("god"). Its sacral language is Sanskrit, which came to India about 5,000 years ago along with the Aryans, who came from Central Asia.


The following are the Hindu sacred texts: (1) Vedas, which are four in number (Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva; 1500 to 1200 B.C.E.); (2) Upanishads (some traced back to the sixth century B.C.E.); (3) Dharma Shastras (sixth and third centuries B.C.E.); (4) Ramayana and Mahabharata (third century B.C.E. and first century C.E.); (5) Puranas (first and tenth centuries C.E.); and (6) Tantras (sixth-seventh centuries C.E.).

The Vedas are mythopoeic compositions that celebrate the divine guardians of earth (Aditi), sky (Varuna, Indra, and Surya), and fire (Agni). The fire sacrifices were conducted by kings and their priests to acquire prosperity in work, success in warfare, and felicity in domestic life. The Upanishads were collectively called Vedanta. These texts often contain mystical discourses between a virtuoso and his disciples. They are less ritualistic and more introspective in orientation. Many of them impart esoteric knowledge to the aspirant who seeks illumination. The Dharma Shastras are canonical treatises that enjoin upon Hindus observance of ritual and normative regulations. They uphold a hierarchic social order in which the higher and lower castes are ranked according to the level of their ritual purity. For centuries they have been accepted as the compendia of norms for the social behavior of the Hindu.

The Ramayana and Mahabharata are records of ancient dynastic struggles. They delineate the heroic deeds of men and women who were pitted against court intrigue, warfare, and turbulence. The themes drawn from them are put into plays, songs, and ballads; up to the present, they have inspired creativity in literary and other cultural outputs. The Puranas are records of theophany that aim at the destruction of evil (symbolized by demons) and the recovery of good (symbolized by suffering people). The Puranas center on the principal deities of the post-Vedic era: Shiva, Shakti, and Vishnu. Tantras are a body of formulae and techniques that eliminate the mechanical rituals to seek a direct access to superconsciousness.


The three central tenets of Hinduism on the transcendent level are Dharma, Karma, and Moksha. Dharma is the basic moral force that holds the universe (composed of all sentient beings) together. By contrast, Karma is individualized. A man or woman's present status in life is a consequence of good or evil deeds in past lives. Likewise, present conduct holds the key to future existence. Fatalism and free will are two faces of the same synergy. Individuals can cross over metaphysical and social obstacles through sustained effort. Hagiographic accounts of India reveal the success of esteemed men and women who overcame their limitations through determination. Moksha is the transcendence of karmic bondage: the cessation of births and deaths. Even in the present life, one can attain liberation from worldly ensnarements and attain mental peace. The Bhagavad Gita (Divine Song) shows the path through which an individual finds detachment in the midst of occupational commitments.

For the numerous householders who constitute the bulk of Hindu society, there are three social pursuits that are normatively defined. These are dharma (ritual and legal obligations), artha (attainment of prosperous life), and kama (satisfaction of sexual and procreative needs). These tenets show that Hinduism did not lack commitment to this world. The virtuosi have mainly pursued the transcendent ends; the laity have usually operated on a normative level. Popular Hinduism has centered on fasts and feasts, pilgrimage to temple towns, and so on. It provides scope for the religiously minded people to reach emotional catharsis through collective participation in rituals.


Brahmins are, in ritual terms, at the top of the caste system. They are the literati safeguarding the sacred traditions of Hindus. They are mostly householders who are often aligned with sectarian or monastic centers. Brahmins are not monolithic; only a few of them are priests catering to people's sacramental needs. Many of them have been engaged in secular pursuits both in the past and at present. Although not landed or wealthy, they have retained a high ritual position. Their social exclusiveness and inflexibility have often made them targets of attack by Hindu reformers; however, a number of Brahmin individuals were absorbed into the heterodox sects because of their intellectual acumen. This was a paradoxical element in the development of Hinduism.

Although there is no central church in Hinduism, sects have arisen within it from time to time to reform, innovate, and provide a more concise interpretation of spirituality. Hindu orthodoxy has often been challenged by heterodox sects, but Hinduism and its sects have always retained links with each other. The main inspiration to innovate has come from orthogenetic sources. Buddhism and Jainism were the early sects that devalued priestly liturgy; they protested against the ascriptive constraints (caste and status) and promoted a new ethicospiritual order. Buddhism made compassion to all living entities (man, animal, and plant) religiously significant; Jainism forbade killing of animals and birds for food. Both these groups made monasticism a more important factor than worship at the temple.

Subsequently, the bhakti (devotional) sects emerged in south India during the sixth to eleventh centuries C.E. and in north India during the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries. These sects propagated a liberalism that freed people from ritual and social inhibitions and made them all equal before god. These bhakti sects mediated between the Marga (Sanskrit tradition) and the Desi (folk tradition) and reached out to the common people. Through their literary compositions, they greatly enriched the regional languages, such as Punjabi, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Kannada, and so on.

In the wake of colonial rule, new reformist trends emerged in Indian society. Hindu reformism had three well-known figures: Ram Mohan Roy, Dayananda Saraswati, and Vivekananda. Drawing upon the Vedantic tradition, they staunchly supported a cultural nationalism . The political awakening came in the early part of the twentieth century. Aurobindo, Tilak, and Gandhi were among the notables who launched the struggle for freedom from foreign rule. All of them made attempts to redefine Hinduism and make it more adaptable to modern times. In the meantime, the colonial policies of the British rulers engendered a feeling of separateness between Hindus and non-Hindus (especially Muslims). Amity had persisted between the two communities up to the colonial period, in spite of the political rivalries of Hindu and Muslim rulers. The Partition of India (1948) estranged the two groups on a large scale; it was the culmination of a political process that had begun some decades earlier. A careful study of Hinduism will reveal that the phrase Hindu communalism is an oxymoron: Hinduism has been tolerant, while communalism has been overzealous. Despite its traumatic impact on the plural society of India at present, it will weaken or fade out in the near future.

Social Scientific Study of Hinduism

The pioneer sociologist to study India on a comparative basis was Max Weber, who inquired into Hinduism and its sects; he drew upon the Indological literature that was available in Germany. More recent studies have taken a social anthropological approach. Bose (1975) has described the religious ties that exist between India's tribes and castes; an index of these ties is the participation of Hindu men and women across the country in celebrations at places of pilgrimage. Ghurye (1969) has shown that the major gods and goddesses of Hinduism are symbols of ethnic integration; the complex process of assimilating minor, local deities into the all-India pantheon of major deities—namely, Shiva, Vishnu, and Shakti—has lent unity to an extremely heterogeneous society. Srinivas (1952) has depicted the Hinduization of an indigenous group in a hill area of south India; this study has enabled him to develop the concept of "Sanskritization" for the analysis of wider aspects of Hindu society. Dumont (1970) has traced the worship of a folk deity of south India to the interactions between Aryan and Dravidian liturgical forms. Marriott (1955) has studied the encounter between the Great Tradition (derived from Sanskrit scriptures) and the Little Tradition (derived from folk beliefs and practices) in a village in north India. Singer (1972) has highlighted the adaptability of the Great Tradition to modern times in spite of its religiosity and hieratic structure.

Beyond these social anthropological works, economic and psychological aspects have been considered. Mishra (1962) has examined economic growth in Hindu society with an emphasis on diachronic aspects. Kakar (1982) has referred to the roles of shamans and mystics in the treatment of certain mental illnesses that have afflicted Hindus. Pocock (1973) has analyzed the social impact of a Vaishnavite sect on the beliefs and rituals of a village in western India. Ishwaran (1983) has explored the rise of a Shaivite sect in south India that, inter alia, contributed to an indigenous model of modernization. Babb (in Madan 1991) and Haraldsson (1987) have analyzed different aspects of the cult surrounding the south Indian mystic Sathya Sai Baba. Vidyarthi (1961) has studied the ritual interdependence between the Brahmin priests of a sacred center in north India and the pilgrims of various castes. Oommen (1986, 1994) has referred to the dominant cultural mainstream (derived from Hinduism and caste hierarchy) that has tended to treat religious minorities as outsiders. Venugopal (1990) has shown that the reformist sects in India have contributed to a sociopolitical ordering of Indian society. In addition to these, there are also studies of temple dancers, ritual specialists, and ascetic groups who belong to Hindu society.

C. N. Venugopal


N. K. Bose, The Structure of Hindu Society (Delhi: Orient Longman, 1975)

L. Dumont, Religion, Politics and History in India (Paris: Mouton, 1970)

G. S. Ghurye, Caste and Race in India (Bombay: Popular, 1969)

E. Haraldsson, Modern Miracles (New York: Fawcett, 1987)

K. Ishwaran, Religion and Society Among the Lingayats of South India (New Delhi: Vikas, 1983)

S. Kakar, Shamans, Mystics and Doctors (New York: Knopf, 1982)

T. N. Madan (ed.), Religion in India (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991)

M. Marriott (ed.), Village India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955)

V. Mishra, Hinduism and Economic Growth (Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1962)

T. K. Oommen, "Insiders and Outsiders," International Journal of Sociology 1(1986):53-74

T. K. Oommen, "Religious Nationalism and Democratic Polity," Sociology of Religion 55(1994):455-479

D. F. Pocock, Mind, Body and Wealth (Oxford: Blackwell, 1973)

L. Renou, Hinduism (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1961)

M. Singer, When a Great Tradition Modernizes (New York: Praeger, 1972)

M. N. Srinivas, Religion and Society Among the Coorgs of South India (Oxford: Clarendon, 1952)

C. N. Venugopal, "Reformist Sects and the Sociology of Religion in India," Sociological Analysis 51(1990):S77-S88

L. P. Vidyarthi, The Sacred Complex of Hindu Gaya (Bombay: Asia, 1961)

M. Weber, The Religion of India (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1958).

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