World Religions other than Christianity

World Religions other than Christianity


A Brief Introduction

Hinduism is the world’s oldest living religion, originating in the Indian sub-continent about 5,000 years ago. There are around 800 million Hindus worldwide, and it is the most numerically dominant religion in modern India.

There was no single founder of the Hindu traditions, which are believed to have come to India through the arrival of the Aryans, from the west, around 1700-1500 BCE, though some dispute this and point to earlier traditions native to the Indus Valley.  The oldest of the Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, were written in the period between 1500 and 500 BCE, known as the Vedic Period.


The term ‘Hinduism’ is really a term used by travellers to India in the 18th and 19th centuries to describe the different but related religious ideas, cultures and philosophies which they found there.  It has been suggested that it is more accurate to speak of “Hinduisms” rather than a single tradition.  Hindu religious leaders prefer to use the term Sanatana Dharma (the universal law of order – unity in diversity) instead of Hinduism.

The word ‘Hindu’ stems from the Sanskrit term to describe India – Sapta Sindhu [pronounced Hapta Hindu] – the land of seven great rivers.  Sindhu is also the name of the River Indus, which is in present-day Pakistan.  Invading Greeks under Alexander the Great dropped the letter ‘H’, thus giving the name Indus, which formed the word ‘India’.

Hinduism is a living religion and continues to develop; Hindus in different parts of India follow different traditions of Hinduism.  There are also traditions which have been very influential in the West, perhaps best known of which is the Krishna Consciousness movement (ISKCON, or the “Hare Krishna” movement), which relates to the Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism.  (Hare Krishna simply means “Lord Krishna” and reflects the centrality of the deity Krishna in the worship of this tradition.)


Hindu beliefs and teachings are very diverse. Most Hindus believe that there is one Supreme God or Universal Being, known as Brahman, who can be known in many forms.  The three best-known Hindu deities are Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Preserver) and Shiva (the Destroyer).

Hindus believe that the supreme reality – Brahman – is not limited, and therefore can be known in many forms (avatars), both male and female.  These include Vishnu (incarnated as Lord Krishna or Lord Rama), Lakshmi (Vishnu’s wife), Shiva (the Lord of the Dance), Ganesha (the elephant-headed god) and Hanuman (the monkey god).  Krishna is the most popular of these manifestations of God for many Hindus.  His name means “the most attractive person”.  Many stories and legends are told about the various deities, and statues (murtis) and images of the gods are displayed in Hindu temples and homes.  The images in a Hindu shrine are often painted blue, as a symbol of holiness.

The concept of Brahman, the impersonal supreme universal being, is sometimes confused with Brahma – the creator God.  The two words are almost the same, but Brahma is regarded as a personal being.  The other closely related word is Brahmin – the priest or priestly caste.

Hindus believe in reincarnation – the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.  When a person dies the soul (atman) moves on to another being – which may be a person, an animal or a plant.  They hope to escape from this cycle of rebirth (samsara) to achieve union with Brahman.  This can be achieved by spiritual knowledge, gained through meditation, or by good deeds or by devotion.  The actions which affect rebirth are known as karma.  A good karma in this life will mean a good life next time; a bad karma in this life will mean a hard life the next time.

The four paths, or yogas, for escape from the birth-rebirth cycle are:

  • The path of knowledge – study under a good teacher
  • The path of meditation – freedom from pressures around
  • The path of love – special devotion to a god or gods and pilgrimage
  • The path of dharma – following one’s duty in the best way possible.

Because of their belief that all living beings are spiritual by nature, and therefore should not be killed, Hindus who strictly follow their faith do not eat meat, fish or eggs and lead a non-violent life-style.


The most familiar sign or symbol of Hinduism is the lettering for the word OM (sometimes ‘Aum’) in the ancient language of Sanskrit.  The origins of this are obscure but the sound is believed to be an aspect of the creation of the cosmos.  It is used as a basis for meditation.

The swastika is found all over Hindu temples, signs, altars, pictures and iconography in India and Nepal, both from the past and today.  Clockwise it represents the evolution of the universe (Pravritti), anti-clockwise it represents the involution of the universe (Nivritti). It is also seen as pointing in all four direction (North, East, South and West) and thus signifies stability and groundedness. The swastika is considered extremely holy and auspicious by all Hindus, and is regularly used to decorate all sorts of items to do with Hindu culture.  (The symbol is found widely in the ancient world but was taken over in Europe by the Nazis in the 1920s as a symbol of white supremacy.)


The Caste system (jati) has been a traditional feature of Indian culture and is therefore closely tied in with religious practice, although modern Indian governments have attempted to outlaw it.  It relates to social status at birth and stems from the exclusivity of certain occupations, attempting to keep different castes and sub-castes separate from each other.

Caste relates to dharma – the social and religious duty of a person according to his or her status in life.  Some groups of people are believed to be good at certain things, and thus it is their dharma to live according to their group (varna).  There are four main varnas:

  • Brahmins – priests
  • Kshatriyas – soldiers
  • Vaishyas – shopkeepers and farmers
  • Shudras – servants

Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), the great Indian social and political reformer, highlighted the often dire situation of those who have no caste, the Outcastes (dalit).  He called them Harijan – children of God.  In some sections of Indian society the divisions based on caste still run deep.


Hinduism has many scriptures and sacred writings, written in the ancient language of Sanskrit.  The oldest are the Vedas, existing for a long time in oral tradition before eventually being written down.  The Rig-Veda is the earliest and most sacred and contains over one thousand poems.  The Gayatri Verse from the Rig-Veda is used by many Hindus in morning worship:

“We focus our minds on the perfect splendour of the sun god, who sustains the Earth, the Interspace and the heavens.  May the sun god inspire our thoughts.”

There are four Vedas, each one containing:

  1. hymns of praise;
  2. instructions for fire rituals;
  3. prayers for worship and meditation; and
  4. discussions between teachers and pupils.

The Upanishads (meaning ‘sit down near’ or ‘lessons’) are the last part of each Veda.  They were written around 600 BCE, and introduced the idea of reincarnation.  People used to sit down near wise teachers and learn from them.

The Sutras (meaning ‘threads’) are short sayings and verses based on the Vedas, and were written between 500 and 100 BCE.

There are also several famous epic spiritual poems, best known of which are the Ramayana which tells the story of Prince Rama (written around 100 BCE and 100 CE) and the Bhagavad-gita (the Song of God), written around 250 CE.  The narrative stories from the Ramayana or the Puranas are much loved by children and are very familiar, often being represented in comic-strips or videos.


Hindu worship (puja) may take place in the temple (mandir), including the singing of hymns, ringing bells, the burning of incense and the reading of scriptures by priests, but it may equally take place in the home or at a roadside shrine.

Hindu temples range from the small and simple to the very grand and elaborately decorated, outside as well as inside.  They are usually dedicated to a specific god.  Each temple has at least one priest who looks after the images of the gods and leads the prayers.  People may come to worship individually or in groups.  Group worship normally involves the singing of hymns from the Vedas, saying prayers and lighting a small fire, and waving a live flame over the images of the gods.  A red or sandalwood paste mark on the forehead represents the idea of the body as the temple of God and is put on (normally by married women) before worship.  This is called a bindi or tilak.

Hindu homes will always have a shrine, normally small and simple, though well-off families may use a whole room.  The shrine always includes an image or picture of one or more of the gods, surrounded by flowers, decorations and perfume or incense.  At least once a day a Hindu will spend time at the shrine – making puja – and reciting from the scriptures.  They begin with the word aum (or Om) – a way of expressing their oneness with the eternal spirit of the universe.  They may meditate in order to focus their thoughts only on God.  A devout Hindu may believe that everything they do, including everyday household tasks, can be counted as worship.

Outside India temples have often been converted from other buildings, including houses or even disused schools or churches.


It is said that Hindus have a festival for every day of the year – and more!  Some are very widely celebrated while others relate only to certain communities, regions or traditions.

One of the best known festivals is Diwali, a festival of lights which marks the New Year in some parts of India, normally during late October or November.  The theme is light and darkness, and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, is believed to visit homes that are well lit up by lamps.

Holi, dedicated to Lord Krishna, is a joyful Spring festival.  Bonfires are lit and children throw coloured water and powders at each other.  In the evening people visit friends and exchange greetings and sweets.

The Sacred Thread Ceremony (Upanayana) is an initiation rite for boys from the three higher castes, most usually taking place between the ages of eight and twelve.  In some traditions it marks the start of the child’s formal education.  The thread of three strands is placed around the boy’s left shoulder and under his right arm and is worn for life, signifying “a second birth” and the taking on of spiritual disciplines – the control of thoughts, words and actions – often under the guidance of a spiritual teacher.

Traditional Hindu Marriage ceremonies, often conducted partly in Sanskrit, may last for several days and involve many rituals.  These often include the bride and groom taking seven steps together, led by the priest who conducts the ceremony, around the sacred fire – a very ancient tradition symbolizing the importance of walking together throughout their married life.  Arranged marriages (which should always be distinguished from ‘forced marriages’) are still very common among Indian families, including those who do not live in India.  This tradition indicates that the parents are taking full responsibility for the welfare of their children.  It is also a very common expectation that Hindus will marry within the same caste as themselves.


There are many places of pilgrimage (yatra) throughout India, many of them associated with specific gods or a particular temple.  Some Hindus travel on very long pilgrimages as a form of worship and may have saved up for most of their lives to do so.  At the pilgrimage temple or shrine the pilgrims may go on their hands and knees as a mark of humility and repentance.

The most popular pilgrimage centre is the city of Varanasi (formerly known as Benares), which is on the banks of the holy River Ganges.  The pilgrims go to the ghats – special platforms alongside the river – to bathe and offer puja.  Washing is an important symbol in Hinduism, indicating that sins are being washed away.  The ghats are also used to cremate dead bodies and to scatter the ashes into the river.  (It is believed that cremation will help a person’s soul to escape quickly from the body.)

Other centres of pilgrimage are Puri on the east coast, Badrinath in the north and Dwarka in the west – all are temples to Vishnu.  Another centre, Rameshwarma in south India, is a temple to Shiva.

Hindus in Northern Ireland

Immigrants from India began to arrive in Northern Ireland from the late 1920s and it is estimated that there are now more than 2,000 Hindus, particularly in the Belfast area but also scattered throughout the Province.  A Belfast Indian Community Centre was established in part of a former Methodist church near Carlisle Circus in 1979 and it includes a small Hindu temple with a full-time priest and daily services.  The Centre supports many cultural and social activities including classes in Hindi and Indian dance and the shared public celebration of the major Hindu festivals.  Education is also an important function, both for local Hindu families and for visiting school groups.

A small community of “Hare Krishna” Hindus is also based in Northern Ireland, with a house and temple at Dunmurry, between Belfast and Lisburn.  For a time this community also used Inis Rath island in Upper Lough Erne as a spiritual centre.

The following dating system has been used:

  • BCE: Before the Common Era;
  • CE: Common Era.