Human Legacy Course/Hinduism

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Human Legacy Course I

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Hello and welcome to Lecture 2 of Week 4. In this lecture, we will be taking a brief look at Hinduism. Our question today is:

What would Rama do to save his wife? For centuries, readers have considered Rama and Sita, the main characters of the sacred Hindu epic the Ramayana, a model of an ideal couple. In the Ramayana, both Rama and Sita are willing to face great hardships to remain loyal to each other.

Early in the Ramayana, the young prince Rama renounces his claim to his father’s throne and becomes an exile from the kingdom at the demand of his father’s wife. Facing a potentially difficult and dangerous life in the wilderness, Rama begs his wife Sita to remain in the city where she will be safe. However, Sita does not want to live without Rama, and she follows him into the forest to share his exile.

Their happiness is shattered, though, when Sita is kidnapped by the demon king Ravana. Distraught, Rama immediately sets out to find and rescue his beloved. Joined by powerful allies, Rama builds a mighty army with which he challenges the powerful Ravana. In the end, the prince kills the demon and, at long last, is reunited with Sita.

Rama and Sita are widely admired for their total devotion to each other. In addition, both are praised for their devotion to their duties and obligations. Rama, for example, does not complain when he is ordered to give up his claim to the throne, because he sees it as his duty. Likewise Sita considers it her duty to accompany him into exile. Fulfilling one’s duties, or dharma, as Rama and Sita did is a central teaching of Hinduism, one of the world’s major religions.

Basic Teachings of Hinduism


One of the world’s oldest religions, Hinduism is practiced by most people in India today. Because it is so old, however, its origins are difficult to trace. Unlike other major religions, Hinduism has no founder. It evolved over thousands of years and was influenced by the cultures and traditions of many peoples.

Largely because it was influenced by so many cultures, the practice of Hinduism varies widely. Practices differ from place to place and even from person to person. However, a few fundamental teachings are shared by nearly all Hindus.



Among the most basic tenets of Hinduism is the belief in Brahman, the eternal being that created and preserves the world. Hindus believe that everything in the world is simply an aspect of Brahman.

Because Brahman is all-encompassing, literally including all of creation, many Hindus do not believe that the human mind is capable of understanding it. That is because people themselves are aspects of Brahman. Hindus also believe that each person has an atman, or soul, that is an aspect of Brahman. A person’s atman shapes his or her personality and cannot be destroyed, even by death.

Most Hindus believe that various manifestations of Brahman called devas are active in the world, helping to maintain order in nature. For example, Ganesha is considered the lord of wisdom, while Lakshmi grants wealth. Like many teachings of Hinduism, people’s views of the devas vary widely. For example, many Hindus recognize three devas—Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Siva the Destroyer—as particularly influential. Some believe in thousands of devas, while others worship only one, usually Vishnu or Siva, as the true manifestation of Brahman.

Rebirth & Salvation


Hindus believe that the universe and everyone in it are part of a continual pattern of birth, death, and rebirth. After death, they believe that the atman will be released from the body and later reborn in another, a process called reincarnation, or samsara. The nature of the person’s new life will be shaped by his or her karma, the sum effect of his or her deeds and actions during life. People who have behaved well will have good karma and can be reincarnated to a better station in the next life. Conversely, those who have bad karma will have a lower station.

For Hindus, the ultimate goal of human existence is moksha, escape from the cycle of rebirth. When a person achieves moksha, the atman leaves the world and reunites fully with Brahman. During their lives, Hindus work toward achieving moksha because it releases a person from worldly cares and the difficulties of life on Earth.

The way to achieve moksha is to fulfill one’s dharma, or set of spiritual duties and obligations. Individuals’ dharmas vary based on their class and their station in life. Fulfilling one’s dharma allows a person to create good karma, to avoid suffering, and, eventually, to break free from the cycle of rebirth.

Sacred Texts & Practices


As we have discussed, Hinduism has grown and evolved over centuries. Much of the religion’s evolution stemmed from a number of sacred writings that have been produced during that time. These texts influenced not only what people believed about Hinduism, but how they practiced the religion in their own lives.

Sacred Texts


The teachings and practices of Hinduism are based upon not one but many sacred texts. Most of these texts can be sorted into one of three categories:

  • the Vedas
  • later writings inspired by the Vedas
  • sacred epics

The Vedas, sacred hymns of praise, were among the earliest sacred texts of Hinduism. The name Veda means “knowledge” in Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language used for many sacred texts. Hindus consider the Vedas to contain eternal knowledge not written by humans but revealed to them by Brahman. The written Vedas, parts of which date back more than 3,000 years, are considered the core of Hinduism even today.

As time passed, sacred texts that built upon the Vedas appeared in India. Some, such as the Upanishads, were also believed to have been revealed to rather than written by people. The Upanishads are philosophical reflections on the Vedas, dealing with such questions as the nature of the world and the meaning of life.

Other sacred texts were based on themes found in the Vedas but composed by sages. Among them were two sacred epic poems, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Each of these epics tells a story but at the same time reflects on what it means to live according to Vedic teachings. The Ramayana tells of the relationship between Rama—the deva Vishnu in human form—and his wife Sita. For centuries, Rama and Sita have been seen as a model for Hindu couples to follow, both for their devotion to each other and their willingness to obey their dharma. The Mahabharata tells of a war between two families who want to control part of the Ganges River Valley. As it tells the story, the epic also teaches about dharma and proper behavior for rulers, warriors, and others.

Included within the Mahabharata is a passage that many people consider the most sacred of all Hindu texts, the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita, as it is sometimes called, was written as a dialogue between the warrior Arjuna and Krishna, again Vishnu in human form. Their conversation addresses in great detail many aspects of Hindu belief and philosophy.

Hindu Religious Practices


Because Hindu beliefs vary so widely, religious practices vary as well. Worship can take place anywhere— in large elaborate temples, in small village shrines, or at home. At temples, priests or other spiritual leaders might recite or read portions of the Vedas to worshippers. Sometimes an image of a deva is carried out of the temple and brought before the people. At home, individual worshippers might offer food, drink, or gifts to a deva. He or she might say special prayers, or meditate, or silently reflect upon the world and its nature.

To help them meditate, some Hindus also practice a series of integrated physical and mental exercises called yoga. The purpose of yoga is to teach people how to focus their bodies and minds, which will aid their meditation and help them attain moksha.

At some point during their lives, many Hindus desire to make a pilgrimage, or religious journey, to a holy location. Among the places considered sacred by many Hindus is the Ganges River, which is thought to flow from the feet of Vishnu and over the head of Siva. Through this contact with two devas, the river’s waters become holy. As a result, many Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges will purify them and remove some of their bad karma. Huge festivals held in towns along the Ganges each year attract millions of Hindu pilgrims from around the world.



Around 500 BC, a group of Hindus broke away from the religion and founded a new religion called Jainism. Led by a teacher named Mahavira, the Jains thought that most Hindus of the time put too much emphasis on ritual. The Jains thought this ritual was unnecessary, because people could achieve moksha by giving up all worldly things and carefully controlling their actions.

Central to Jain teaching was the idea of ahimsa, or nonviolence. Ahimsa was not a new idea. In fact, most Hindus also practiced ahimsa, though not to the same extent as the Jains did. Jains carefully avoid harming any living creature, from people to insects. As a result, Jains are usually vegetarians, refusing to eat meat from any animal.

In addition to renouncing violence, Jains promise to tell only the truth and to avoid stealing. They strive to eliminate greed, anger, prejudice, and gossip from their lives. Any of these things, they believe, can prevent a person from achieving moksha.

The most devout of Jains give up all of their possessions and become monks or nuns. They live outdoors, seeking shelter only during the rainy season. Monks and nuns cover their mouths with masks and sweep the ground before them as they walk. In this way they avoid accidentally killing insects by inhaling them or by stepping on them.

Most Jains are not monks or nuns. However, their pledge to uphold the principles of ahimsa leads many Jains to careers that do not involve the harming of animals. Jainism calls upon those who are not monks to periodically fast, especially during festivals and on holy days, and to limit their worldly possessions.


  • Question #1: In Hindu teaching, what are moksha and karma? How are these two ideas related to reincarnation?
  • Question #2: What is the nature of Brahman in Hindu belief?
  • Question #3: Why would a Hindu consider it important to follow his or her dharma?
  • Question #4: What role does yoga play in Hindu religious practice?
  • Question #5: What spiritual lessons do the Ramayana and the Mahabharata teach?
  • Question #6: How does the name Veda signify the importance of the Vedas to Hinduism?
  • Question #7: What is ahimsa? How do the principles of ahimsa shape life for Jains?
  • Question #8: What is one way in which life is similar for Jains who are monks and those who are not? What is one way in which life is different?

Thank you very much for listening to this. Goodbye.