Hinduism is a unique religion. Except for Hinduism, the world’s most popular religions share the quality of having a single founder. Christianity is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, Islam on those of Mohammed, Judaism on those of Abraham, and Buddhism on those of Gautam Buddha. According to Adherents.com (2007), Hinduism is the fifth-ranked most popular organized religion in the world; however, unlike the top four religions, Hinduism lacks a unifying belief system.
One may wonder how the religion sustains itself when it is so different from the other major religions. All forms of Hinduism are based on four central themes, and the cultural and societal influences of these themes have made Hinduism vital to the region where it originated.
According to Das (2009), “Hinduism is a conglomerate of diverse beliefs and traditions”. True Hindus live their lives with devotion to ethics and duties, known as Dharma. Dharma is important because along with Karma (the effects actions have on one’s life), these two forces influence the soul’s reincarnation, or Samsara.
Hindus believe that after many lives of good Karma, the soul reaches the end of the Samsara process, called Moksha. Upon achieving Moksha, the soul gains “liberation from the limitations of space, time, and matter through realization of the immortal Absolute” (Fisher, 2005, p. 75). To ensure this upward movement of the soul, Hindus typically strive to observe tenets of non-violence, celibacy, truth, and cleanliness, among other ethical principles (Das, 2009).
Hinduism is practiced largely in the impoverished areas of India. What makes these areas impoverished? According to IndianChild.com, “The poor spend about 80 percent of their income on food while the rest of the population spends more than 60 percent”. One way in which the practice of Hinduism benefits people of this area is the belief that cows are sacred. Rather than using the cow for its meat, Hindus benefit more by using the cows for dairy and working the farmlands (Prakasa, 2008). Maintaining a nonviolent lifestyle has also kept warring to a minimum, and as a side effect few cows have perished as a result of war.
Sociologists using the social-conflict approach to their studies would find the Hinduism regions a gold mine of information. Most Hindu societies are organized into what is known as a caste system. In a caste system, individuals are born into a certain tier of social privilege and typically remain there throughout their lives. The highest tier, known as Brahmins, was the priestly caste. Brahmins served to bridge the gap between men and gods, acting as temple priests and invoking gods on behalf of others. Besides the two castes just below Brahmins, they were the only ones permitted to study the Vedas, the ancient Hindu holy texts (V, 2008).
Kshatriyas are those who make up the second highest caste in the Hindu caste system. This caste is known as the warrior class and the caste of kings. A king’s social duties included protecting his kingdom and its people, showering the Brahmins with luxurious gifts, and administering justice in a fair manner. Hindu kings were thought to be imbued with the essence of the gods, and as such were never to be despised. Never was a king’s authority to be questioned unless the king was not fulfilling his responsibilities to the Brahmins.
The Vaishyas and the Shudras make up the next two classes. Vaishyas were expected to “tend cattle, offer sacrifices, study the Vedas, trade, lend money and cultivate the land.” While they were allowed to participate in many religious rituals, they could not marry the women of a higher class. The Shudras relate most equally to the middle class of United States society. As the working caste, their only duties were to serve the higher three classes. They could observe some of the religious rituals, but in most cases were not required to do so. Already not allowed to study the Vedic texts, they were also not allowed to hear the sacred chants or eat food in the company of those from a higher caste.
Four castes are typically recognized, but many Hindu cultures observe a fifth, lowest class. The Chandalas were known as the “impure ones.” Chandalas were not allowed to walk in the same streets as men from higher castes, nor were they even allowed to enter the city during daylight hours. The sight of a Chandala was seen as a bad omen, and even their shadows were considered impure. Forced to live on the outskirts of society, Chandalas typically made their livings as graveyard caretakers, hunters, and professionals adept at cleaning human waste.
Being a very different religion from the other major religions, Hinduism has had a unique effect on the regions where it developed. Though one common belief system cannot be found, the tenets on which the religion is based have served to promote a very organized civilization. Whether or not that organization has been more beneficial than what a different organization would have been has been probably been hotly debated, but one undeniable fact remains: if the caste system was not a viable form of social construction, it would not have survived for so long. Perhaps much of the world can learn about the benefits of religious devotion and ethical lifestyle through study of Hinduism.