Re: Plea for help from 6th grader

Posted By Mani Varadarajan (
Thu, 6 Mar 1997 16:21:39 -0800

Jerry writes:
> My son, a 6th grader in Pennsylvania is working on a report on Hinduism.
> One of the questions he has to answer is "Who are the people (or person)
> responsible for the beginning of the religion. Tell about what the
> people (or person did)." Try as he might he has been unable to answer
> this question. He has asked me to hit 'the net' for help.

There is no founder of Hinduism per se, since Hinduism
is an amorphous mass of religious and cultural beliefs rather
than a single belief system such as Judaism, Christianity,
or Islam.

There are roughly three religious strands of Hinduism prevalent
today [the following terminology is borrowed from the late scholar
Agehananda Bharati, a Hindu monk and anthropologist at Syracuse

o ``Great Tradition'' Hinduism, which is an ancient
tradition of worshipful meditation, philosophy,
and literature, based on the Vedas, ancient
philosophico-religious texts ``perceived'' by
various seers from at least 1000 B.C.

Great Tradition Hinduism is centered around philosophical
learning, contemplative meditation, and devotional worship
of the deity (or deities) mentioned in the Vedas.
A central aspect of the religious process is devotional
worship, in temples and in the home, of God as the
Supreme Self, the Absolute Entity who contains
everything within Itself. This is what most western
Indologists identify as Classical Hinduism.

This form of Hinduism is the religion of the
intelligentsia and has long held sway among the
learned elite of India. It is also the most influential
form of religion, mostly due to its intellectual
and charismatic power and the significant personalities
who have propagated it over the years. However, it is
important to note that there is a wide variety of
belief systems in this broad tradition itself.

The Vedas are considered by the devout to be eternal,
authored not even by God Himself; the Vedas are thought
to be the very thoughts of God. As such, the people
responsible for the beginning of the religion can be
considered the ancient Vedic seers, known as
``rishis'', who perceived these truths and taught them
to their disciples. Well-known Vedic rishis include
Vishvamitra, Vamadeva, Yajnavalkya, and Uddalaka.

In the thousands of years since the Vedic seers, thinkers
of all sorts propounded philosophies based on the metaphysical
revelations of the Vedas. The most famous among these
philosophers are Sankara (7th century) and Ramanuja (11th century),
who each formed religious subsects and philosophical schools
that continue to flourish today.

o ``Little Tradition'' Hinduism, which is the form of
religion practiced in the villages and by the masses of
people in most parts of India. This consists of various
forms of shamanism, ancestor worship, totemism, worship
of local deities to ward off evil spirits, etc.

Obviously, there is no person or group of persons who
began this form of religion.

While the Great and Little Traditions have mutually
influenced each other a great deal, for the non-elite
Hindu, the instinct is to approach a local or family
deity in times of trouble. The philosophical
underpinnings of the all-pervasive Absolute Self,
the grand speculations of the Vedic thinkers, and the
colorful stories of the gods of the Hindu pantheon all
fade into the background for the average Hindu when
he or she is busy propitiating his local deity through
ritual offerings to ask for good luck or to ward off some
impending danger such as disease, etc.

It is important not to trivialize this aspect of the
religion. In fact, many social aspects of Great Tradition
Hinduism cannot be understood outside the context of Little
Tradition Hinduism.

o ``Neo-Hinduism'' -- this is the religion of the modern,
urban, English-speaking Hindus, who, alienated from their
cultural past and religious traditions, seek to create
a new Hindu consciousness through a modern reinterpretation
of the scriptures. The beliefs of these Hindus tend toward
a vague reformulation of monistic thought laced with a
strong dose of politics.

The calls for Hindu nationalist pride are the most obvious
example of this new form of Hinduism and is a trend that is
completely alien to the tradition of which they are heirs.

The originators of this modern movement (started 19th century)
include Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Swami Vivekananda, and others
in pre and post revolutionary India.

The non-English speaking, traditional Hindus in India
find this form of Hinduism completely irrelevant to
their lives; unfortunately, this is the new face of
Hinduism to the rest of the world, precisely because of
its modern, English-speaking roots.

I hope I haven't muddled the issue more than when you asked the question.