Hinduism: The world’s third largest religion


Hinduism differs from Christianity and other Western religions in that it does not have a single founder, a specific theological system, a single system of morality, or a central religious organization. It consists of “thousands of different religious groups that have evolved in India since 1500 BCE.” 1

Hinduism has grown to become the world’s third largest religion, after Christianity and Islam. It claims about 837 million followers – 13% of the world’s population. 2 It is the dominant religion in India, Nepal, and among the Tamils in Sri Lanka. According to the “Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches,” there are about 1.1 million Hindus in the U.S. 3 The “American Religious Identification Survey” is believed to be more accurate. 4 They estimated smaller number: 766,000 Hindus in 2001. Still, this is a very significant increase from 227,000 in 1990. Statistics Canada estimates that there are about 157,015 Hindus in Canada. 5

Hinduism is generally regarded as the world’s oldest organized religion.

Most forms of Hinduism are henotheistic religions. They recognize a single deity, and view other Gods and Goddesses as manifestations or aspects of that supreme God. Henotheistic and polytheistic religions have traditionally been among the world’s most religiously tolerant faiths. However, until recently, a Hindu nationalistic political party controlled the government of India. The linkage of religion, the national government, and nationalism led to a degeneration of the separation of church and state in India. This, in turn, has decreased the level of religious tolerance in that country. The escalation of anti-Christian violence was one manifestation of this linkage. With the recent change in government, the level of violence will diminish.

The History of Hinduism

Hinduism is the oldest and most complex of all religious systems. Providing an adequate history for the development of Hinduism is difficult, since it has no specific founder or theology and originated in the religious practices of Aryan tribes who moved to India from central Asia more than three thousand years ago. The Aryans attacked the Harappan people who lived in modern day India around 1500 BC. Eventually, through adaptation to the religious beliefs of the other, both groups developed similar religious belief systems, founded on the polytheism of the Aryans and the sanctity of fertility of the Harappans.

Soon, the predominantly Aryan society developed the caste system, which ranked society according to occupational class. The caste system is as follows:

Brahmins priests

Kshatriyas soldiers, king-warrior class

Vaishyas merchants, farmers, Sutras laborers, craftspeople

Harijahns “untouchables”- those thought to be descended from the Harappan aboriginal people-extremely poor and discriminated against

The higher a person’s caste, the more that person is blessed with the benefits and luxuries life has to offer. Although the caste system was outlawed in 1948, it is still important to the Hindu people of India and is still recognized as the proper way to stratify society.

Since the early days of Hinduism, it has branched and now encompasses a wide variety of religious beliefs and religious organizations. Not only is it the primary religion of the region around India, but portions of Hindu beliefs have found their way across oceans to other countries and have been influential in the foundations of other religions, such as Transcendental Meditation and Buddhism.


McDowell, Josh and Don Stewart, Handbook of Today’s Religions. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983. Twelfth printing, June 1992.

Shelley, Fred M. and Audrey E. Clarke, eds. Human and Cultural Geography. Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1994.


‘Brahma’ courtesy of http://members.nbci.com/_XMCM/ekprem/hinduism.htm

Hindu Terms

Atman The real self, the eternal life principle.

Brama The creator god

Brahman Ultimate Reality

Brahmin A member of the priestly caste, the highest class.

Dharma The teachings of virtue and principle

Karma The culminating value of all of one’s life actions, good and bad, which together determine one’s next rebirth and death.

Mahabharta One of the national epics of India.

Maya The power that produces the phenomena of physical existence.

Moksha The term for liberation from the bondage of finite existence.

Puranas Part of the Hindu scriptures consisting of myths and legends mixed with historical events.

Samsara The rebirth of souls passing on from one existence to another until release can be achieved, reincarnation.

Upanishads Part of the Hindu sacred texts containing treatises on the nature of ultimate reality and the way to achieve union with the absolute.

Veda The oldest of the Hindu scriptures, consisting of four collections of sacred writings.

Yoga The Hindu path of union with the divine. Any sort of exercise (physical, mental or spiritual) which promotes one’s journey to union with Brahma.


McDowell, Josh and Don Stewart, Handbook of Today’s Religions. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983. Twelfth printing, June 1992.

Basic Beliefs of Hinduism

Hinduism is based on the concept that human and animal spirits reincarnate, or come back to earth to live many times in different forms. The belief that souls move up and down an infinite hierarchy depending on the behaviors they practiced in their life is visible in many of the Hindu societal policies. The caste system survives and charity towards others is unheard of because each individual deserves to be in the social class they were born in. A person is born into the highest class because they behaved well in a past life, and a person is born into poverty and shame because of misbehaviors in a past life.

Today, a Hindu can be polytheistic (more than one god), monotheistic (one god), pantheistic (god and the universe are one), agnostic (unsure if god exists), or atheistic (no god) and still claim to be Hindu. This open theology makes it difficult to discuss basic beliefs since there are many ideas about what Hinduism means. However, these universal ideas must be mentioned.

Central to Hinduism are the concepts of reincarnation, the caste system, merging with brahman (or the ultimate reality), finding morality, and reaching Nirvana (the peaceful escape from the cycle of reincarnation).

Religious documents include Sruti, (what is heard) and Smriti, (what is remembered). The Sruti include deeply religious things communicated to a seer and recorded. The Vedas, the religious writings, include mantras (hymns of praise), brahmanas (sacrificial rituals) and upanishads (108 sacred teachings). The Smriti include the law (books of laws), puranas (myths, stories, legends) and epics (sets of holy myths including Ramayana and Mahabharata).

The Hindu paths to salvation include the way of works (rituals), the way of knowledge (realization of reality and self-reflection), and the way of devotion (devotion to the god that you choose to follow). If the practitioner follows the paths of these ways, salvation can be achieved.


McDowell, Josh and Don Stewart, Handbook of Today’s Religions. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983. Twelfth printing, June 1992.

Shelley, Fred M. and Audrey E. Clarke, eds. Human and Cultural Geography. Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1994.