Origins of Hinduism

Hinduism developed over a long period of time; although the religion is about 3,000 years old, some elements are much older. Hinduism is not based on the teachings or words of any one person. Although there have been many teachers within Hinduism, it has no single fundamental teacher and no prophets. Hinduism does not have one holy book that lays out tenets of the religion. It combines ideas from different cultures and periods.

In what ways does this make Hinduism different from other major world religions, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Taoism?

Facts about Hinduism

Here are some facts about Hinduism.

  • Has about 800 million followers worldwide
  • Has no founder or prophets
  • Not a single, unified religion
  • About 80% of the population of India considers themselves Hindus
  • Over 3,000 years old
  • Includes the concept of a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth
  • Has many deities, including Krishna, Shiva, and Rama

Use these facts to write a paragraph about this ancient religion.

The Spread of Hinduism

About 3,000 years ago, Hinduism began near the Indus River of northwestern India. It spread throughout India and across East Asia. Although many of the countries in this region later adopted Buddhism or Islam as their primary religion, Hindu influence is still seen in the culture and literature of much of Southeast Asia. Today Nepal is the only official Hindu state in the world. (Although many Indians are Hindu, India has no official state religion.)

Find Nepal on a map. Why do you think this country has stayed primarily Hindu while other countries converted to other religions?

Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma?

Hinduism is the Western name for traditional Indian religion. The Indian name is Sanatana Dharma, or “Universal Religion.” The word Hindu is probably a Persian mispronunciation of “Sindhu,” another name for the Indus River. This name was first used for traditional Indian religion in the early 1800s. Since then, it has become the accepted English term.

Think about other instances where ideas from one culture are given a different name by another culture. How would you react if an idea that is important to you were referred to by a different name? Do you think it is appropriate to use our own words for ideas from other cultures, or should we use the original culture’s terms?


The concept of dharma is important in Hinduism. Dharma has several different meanings. Following our dharma involves conducting ourselves righteously and according to our role in life. When we are young, our role in life is to be a good son or daughter. As we grow older, we should be good students, good friends, and good citizens. When we have decisions to make, we should do what is right, even if it goes against our best interests.

On an individual level, many people, consciously or unconsciously – do act in this way. But on a global level, people often put their own interests first. Think of a situation (either from history or from current events) where a person or a country acted based on self-interest rather than on what is right. Describe the situation. Then say what the person or the country should have done. How would that have affected history or current events?

Transmigration of Souls

In the Hindu view of life, the soul is not permanently attached to one body. A soul first enters the world in the body of a simple life form – not a human. When that first body dies, the soul moves on to a more complex life form and is reborn there. This has been compared to the way people outgrow clothes and need new ones. The process of rebirth is called samsara, The Bhagavad Gita, part of a Hindu epic, says:

Worn-out garments are shed by the body; worn-out bodies are shed by the dweller.

When the soul has reached a certain level of development it enters a human body. It continues to pass from body to body, but the choices the soul makes in each life affect the next life. Unkind acts in one lifetime may mean hardships in the next lifetime. In this way, the soul creates its own future. If bad things happen to us, we have no one to blame but ourselves; these bad things are caused by our own negative acts in past lives.

If people are responsible for their own futures, what would be the best way to act in this lifetime?

The Soul

Shankaracharya was a Hindu teacher who founded four great monasteries in India. He once explained that humans are like jars filled with air. Our souls are the air. This air is the same as the air outside the jar. When the jar breaks at death, the inside air joins the outside air.

What is your reaction to this description?

The Law of Karma

In the Hindu view of the world, souls go through an endless process of death and rebirth. Our actions in this life affect the next life. This is called the law of Karma.

In a way, we can look at karma as cause and effect. Every individual action has an effect, good, neutral, or bad. If we live a life of good deeds, good things will eventually happen to us – if not in this life, then in the next one. If we are selfish and narrow-minded, then bad things will happen to us.

In this way of thinking, there are no such things as accidents or luck – either good luck or bad luck. Everything that happens is the result of some action we took either in this life or one in the past.

Think about something unexpected that happened to you recently, either good or bad. Describe the incident. Did you think it was an accident or “just luck”? Would your attitude towards the even change if you thought your own past actions bad caused it? Explain.

Karma: Fatalism, or Complete Control?

According to the Hindu law of karma, a person’s future is determined by his or her past actions. Some people interpret this as meaning that humans are controlled by fate. We don’t really have control of what happens to us in this life, as the outcome has already been set.

Other people interpret the law of karma as meaning that humans have complete control. If we focus on what we do in the present, we can ensure good things in our future. We also have control of the way we react to things in the present. A negative event may have been caused by a negative act that we committed in the past. If we react to it in a negative way – with anger, for example, or with a selfish focus – this reaction may cause yet another negative event in the future. But if we respond in a positive way, not getting angry but accepting the event as part of life, the future effect may be positive.

Can you identify with either of these ideas of life – controlled by fate or controlled by our own actions? Choose one of these ideas. Write about how this idea of life might affect the way you act.