Introduction to Hinduism (Sound and Vision)



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Phil B37: World Religions August 19, 2004

Professor McNellis



Historical Introduction to Hinduism

Ancient Hinduism


Introduction to Hinduism (Sound and Vision)


Earliest compositions considered ‘revealed’ are called śruti (‘that which is heard’)

The people that transmitted the sacred words were called ŗşis (‘seers’ or rishis)



  • Dual emphasis on hearing and seeing the holy

    • Importance of uttering, reciting, chanting prayers aloud (Om)

        • Om
          (recited at beginning/end of all Hindu/Jain prayers – used by Buddhist too)

          • 3 sounds: a – u – m (diphthong a
            and u is shortened it yields o)

          • sound begins deep within the body & ends at the lips (its auspicious)

          • Many Meanings (polyvance):

Mandukya Upanishad, but also Hindu community has speculated: means Brahman; beginning of universe, essence of knowledge; (a=awake world, u=dream world, n=sleep world)

        • Siva Nataraja: many arms representing many manifestations

  • Through sight and sound the Hindu seeks the sacred and experiences the divine

Hinduism, with no founder, is a religion of various imagery, sounds and meanings, yet is unified:

“A religion of plurality in unity” (not unity in plurality, which suggests one meaning)



Defining Hinduism: “A religion of plurality in unity”

  • No single entity, no founder


  • Hinduism, is Western construct, but Hindutva (‘Hinduness’) has political currency today
  • A Hindu (80% of India subcontinent) was called such by Persians rulers (meant ‘non-Muslim’ and ‘Indian’, populace of Hindustan, ‘land of the Indians, which is India before called India


In Persian language (Achaemenian Period, 6th BCE), the Hindi ‘s’ = Persian ‘h’

See connection: ‘haoma’ in Zoroastrianism is ‘soma’ in ancient India

(an elixir consumed by Vedic priests during ritual)

elixir: substance believed to maintain life indefinitely



  • Hinduism is a religion of India and its ancient conquerors (Aryans)



Hindu Origins


The Harappa Culture of the DRAVIDIANS (Indus River Valley Civilization, 2750-1500 BCE)

Harappa/ Mohenjo Daro (Mound of the Dead) Evidence: carbon-dating and excavations



    • Writing (carved script; unable to decipher – ‘U’ and ‘E’ symbols could be ‘boat’ or ‘comb’

    • Impressive builders (planned cities with citadel-like areas for civic and religious activities)

      • Great bath at Mohenjo Daro (built of brick set with gypsum mortar)

‘gypsum’= colorless, white, or yellowish mineral used for plaster

Size: 39x23 ft and about 10 ft deep

Two flights of stairs leading into the pool


  • Houses: one to dozen room tenements with each large one having a well

  • Sewer and irrigation systems.

  • Houses of Worship: areas with raised brick platforms and fire altars with ashes and animal bones. Some houses had a room with a fire altar inside, suggesting some kind of domestic fire ritual.

  • In the worship halls, large stone sculptures with terra-cota female figurines

        • Statuettes of Mother Goddess (female figure with short skirt, abundant jewelry, fan-shaped headdress with 2 cups on either side.

        • Cups have smoke stains, suggesting used for fire or incense

        • Many claim honoring females suggests higher status, but not true

        • Could be early version of Shakti (femine power) worship, counterpart to Shiva.

  • Found 2000 flat square seals and many amulets

    • Some with man seated in yoga-like posture on a low throne with animals near him (elephant, deer, etc) wearing large headdress (sometimes with 3 faces)

    • Headdress: has 2 horns with a plant (soma?) protruding between them (Kings in Sumer and Ancient Near East used to wear these)

      • Might be prototype of Siva – set of bangles wearing no clothes

  • Found several stones having phallic significance (possibly prototypes of the linga)

    • In temples, Siva identified as linga, an upright conical stone which for Hindus represent beginnings of creation and is tied to male procreative organ
    • Linga means “distinguishing symbol” but translated as “phallus”


    • Linga
      /yoni = male and female forces are united in creation of universe (usually bathed, anointed, and worshipped in temples)

    • Yet sex is not on Hindu minds: these are symbols, reminding us of spiritual potential in all creation and the positive (not destructive) energies of Siva

  • Abstract symbols – like swastika

End of Indus Valley Civilization: theories

  1. invasion by Indo-Europeans (Aryans)

  2. flood by Indus river (can’t be single cause)

  3. Epidemic of some kind (most likely all three)



The Indo-Europeans (‘light-skinned’ Aryans, 1750-1200 BCE)

  • Called Aryans– spoke language from which we derive Sanskrit, one of several Indo-European languages (Latin, German, English, Russian, Persian, and Greek)

Sanskrit “jnana” – cognate to English “knowledge”

ajnana’ to English ‘ignoranace”



Others ‘div’ to English ‘divine’; or Agni, the Fire God to English ‘ignite’

  • Migrated probably from Central Asia (Persia/Russian Steppes)

  • Introduced the horse to the Indian sub-continent

  • For whatever reason, settled down in Indus Valley and other places: Iran is a cognate of the Persian Aryan. (Ireland too)

  • Until recently, many historians portrayed them as conquering warriors, superior to the natives they subdued (no doubt a connotation Hitler used to indicate Germans as the ‘pure’ Aryan race, but his idea was hogwash). Aryans did see themselves as superior to those they conquered, especially in India, calling themselves ‘noble ones’.
  • Main Legacy: they composed many poems and manuals on rituals and philosophy (upshot: all was committed to memory), which would be, in part, compiled as the Vedas



The Vedic Religion (Summary)

  • Henotheistic (not just polytheistic) personification of nature:
    The Vedic Hymns (samhitas) to the gods and goddesses (devas)

    • Indra (Storm God) Major god of Rig Veda, who slays demon (most important Vritra) all the while preserving life of humans and gods

    • Agni (The Fire God) a messenger between humans and the gods because offering placed in fire to be sent to the world of the gods.

    • Varuna (The ‘Dome’ Sky God of Truth) god

    • Soma (deified intoxicating plant sometimes identified with moon) The drink of Indra. Made and drank during many sacrifices.

  • Personification of abstract principles of order and justice
    Rita or rta (Protector of Truth/Order)

Mitra (Promise Keeping God of Contracts)

  • Main form of worship (yajna, fire sacrifice): both in the household and temple
    Often performed also to persuade gods (devas), who represent good and depicted as the “shining ones”, to triumph over all that is evil for human beings (asuras)

    • Build (usually 3) fires and an altar on which to offer food (vegetables, butter or Ghee, milk, grain, animals)

    • The food is cooked and smoke rises, offering sweet smells to please the god

    • Proper ritual and recitation of hymns offered to the gods by expert, or priests (Brahmins) on behalf of devotees and also to maintain the universe as the first sacrifice created the universe (Agni for protection; Indra to crush enemies, etc)
      • Ritual tied to prevalence of cosmic and earthly order (rita), which was overseen and upheld by Varuna. Just as the worlds were created by a fire sacrifice so too do the worlds need a fire sacrifice to sustain it.



Read Hymn to the Supreme Person, Rg Veda

This yajna was the offering of all. The Supreme Person (Purusha) self-immolated in the fire of his own creation to create all the worlds.



      1. The cosmic person has a thousand heads/a thousand eyes and feet/It covers the earth on all sides/and extends ten finger-lengths beyond.

      2. The cosmic person (purusha) is everything all that has been and will be…

13) From his mind came the moon/from his eye, the sun/Indra and
Agni from his mouth/the wind came from his breath
14) From his navel came space/from his head, the sky/from his feet,
earth/from his ears, the 4 directions/ thus the worlds were created.



      • Emergence of the Four Classes (varnas, lit. colors)

        • Think light-skinned (Aryans) vs dark-skinned (Dravidians)

Loose form of it emerged out of initial cosmic sacrifice of Purusa
(v12) From his mouth came the priestly class/ from his arms, the rulers/ the producers came from his legs/ from his feet came the servant class

Indo-Europeans saw themselves as socially superior and considered the indigenous people they conquered as “socially inferior.”

(more about this later)

The Vedas (meaning ‘knowledge’) Dates: 1500 – 600 B.C.E.

Sanskrit root vid of Vedas is related to English ‘wit’ (wisdom)

Ritual texts meant to be recited at temples and home liturgies (fire sacrifices)

The Brahmins were the custodians of the Vedas, (revealed to rishis)

Words have fixed order that is “revealed” by “seeing” them within structure of the universe

4 Vedic collections, each divided into 4 sections

Rg Veda (1028 hymns to gods; spoken aloud at fire sacrifice)


Together these are called sruti ‘That which is heard’ (revealed texts) as opposed to smriti ‘that which has been remembered’ (written after & around 500BCE)
Sama Veda (songs or chants performed by music special at sacrifice)

Yajur Veda (ritual manual on how to perform fire sacrifice)

Atharva Veda (considered non-Aryan, not related to fire sacrifice but to rituals of chants alleviating illnesses and assuring good fortune)

The 4 sections of Vedas



Samhitas (hymnic compositions)

Brahmanas (ritual commentaries and treatises, appeared c. 800 BCE)

Aranyakas meaning ‘compositions of the forest’ (philosophical and last part of Brahmanas that require special guidance from guru because of its focus on ascetic living in the forest)

Upanishads (philosophical works, 800-300BCE)

Derived from upa (near), ni (down) and s(h)ad (to sit) ‘sitting down near’

Each Veda has one or more corresponding Upanishads (for example)


  • Rg Veda to Aitreya Upanishad

  • Sama Veda to Chandogya Upanishad (most famous)

  • Yajur Veda to Taittiriya Upanishad

  • Atharva Veda to Mandukya Upanishad (later)

Smriti texts: Consists in the ancient stories (puranas), the codes of law and ethics (dharmasastras or Laws of Manu, 100 CE) and the epics (Itihasas), which includes the Mahabharata and Ramayana.


  • Our book combines epics with the stories (Itihasa-purana)


The Upanishads (composed between c. 700-600 B.C.E.)

  • Sacrificial worldview of early Vedic period gave way to philosophical inquiry and discussion in the Aranyakas and Upanishads.

  • Composed during the wake of Buddhism (Gautama Buddha) & Jainism (Mahavira)

  • Didn’t completely reject the early hymns and sacrificial rituals but reformulated them.

    • Rituals were now allegorical and the symbolic structures analyzed

    • A kind of internalized sacrifice

  • Usually conversations between teacher/student, husband/wife, fellow philosophers

“May he protect us; may he be pleased with us. May he work with vigour; may our study illumine us both. May there be no discord between us. Om. Let there be peace, peace, peace (Taittiriya Upanishad II.1.1)





  • Involves Ethics: after years of learning Vedas, a departing student get advice from guru

“Speak the truth. Practice virtue. Do not neglect to study every day. Do not neglect truth, virtue, studying or teaching…Be one to whom you mother is a god, your father is a god, your teacher is a god, a guest is like a god…Give with faith…give liberally, give with modesty…give with sympathy…This is the command…This is the secret of the Veda (TU I.11.1-6)




  • The teachers of the Upanishads were called Gurus

    • Famous gurus: Yajnavalkya and Uddalaka

  • Important Terms

  • First mention of karma and samsara


      • Karma (“action”) In the Upanisads it come to mean the moral system of rewards and punishments (cause/effect) attached to actions. (not yet combined with caste system)

      • Just as science views the world as a

      • Notion of karma implies samsara, continuing rebirths, from which liberation is possible (moksha).

      • Moksha is possible through transformative “higher” knowledge (awareness), which is more than book knowledge. It begins by asking and answering the question: “What is it that being known, all else becomes known?”

        • Ancient Greece: “Why is there something rather than nothing?

      • Higher/lower knowledge: lower is conceptual, while higher is beyond conception (attained enlightenment) and ritual/practical knowledge of fire sacrifice.

    • Atman and Brahman/ Monism or Dualism?


Add from lecture notes …don’t forget




Pantheism and monism


Pantheism – literally “all” and “god”, that all things are in some sense divine

Monism – literally “single,” or “nonduality”

Not to be confused with animism (soul in everything), generally within polytheistic traditions.

Concept of Brahman understood through the Rig-Veda (brahma = hymn, prayer, sacred knowledge) to Aranyaka Upanishad (Brahman = Soul) to Chandogya Upanishads (Soul = a mode of Brahman) to the late Mandukya Upanishad (Brahman = absolute nondualiy) and finally to the Vedanta (“end of Vedas) by Sankara (788-820 CE) – Brahman = absolute nonduality which implies the idea that the world is an illusion). There is only one Reality and that is Brahman.
Brahman = Atman - to become aware of this indescribable reality is called sat chit ananda or “being-awareness-bliss”



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