What is Hinduism?

Hinduism is practiced by about 1.2 billion people worldwide and is the world's third largest religion. Hinduism is also the world's oldest active religion. While the exact dates are disputed, it's believed that the roots of Hinduism can be traced back 4,000 to 5,000 years ago! Today, people who practice Hinduism can be found throughout the world but it originated in India and Hindus make up 80-90% of India's population today. Hinduism has fascinating customs, festive holidays, and wise teachings about the individual and the universe.

Student Activities for Hinduism

Essential Questions for Hinduism

  1. When and where did Hinduism originate?
  2. What do Hindus believe and what holidays do they celebrate?
  3. What objects or symbols are important or sacred in Hinduism?
  4. Where are its followers today and how many people practice Hinduism throughout the world?
  5. How do Hindus worship and who are the spiritual leaders?

What is Hinduism?

Hinduism is practiced by over a billion people worldwide and it is the world's oldest religion, having begun about 5,000 years ago in the Indus River Valley of India, near Pakistan. Hinduism has historically been deeply embedded in all aspects of society, from the government to the rigid social structure, or caste system, that was outlined in the Vedas, the oldest Hindu sacred texts. Hinduism is often referred to as Sanātana Dharma, a Sanskrit phrase meaning "the eternal law".

Some fundamental beliefs in Hinduism are: there is one universal God or soul known as Brahman (the universe and everything in it, one and the same); one has an immortal individual soul called atman; and that your actions within that soul will have effects on your next life. Karma is the good or bad actions that affect your next life in the future. Moksha is enlightenment, or the achievement of oneness with Brahman. As one prayer says, "Lead me from the unreal to the real." When one has achieved moksha, they are released from samsara: the cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation.

The Vedas are ancient sacred texts that were divinely revealed to ancient Hindu sages thousands of years ago. There are many sacred texts included in the Vedas but there are four main ones which form the basis of the Hindu faith. The four are: The Rig Veda, The Yajur Veda, The Sama Veda, and The Atharva Veda. The Upanishads are another set of sacred texts that expand upon the Vedas and were probably written between 800-500 BCE by Hindu scholars and philosophers. Other important texts include the Puranas, the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata, which is the longest poem ever written in the world!

Teachings of Hinduism

Hinduism teaches that we live in Cyclical Time; rather than having a beginning and ending, time is a cycle divided up into different Yuga or ages/epochs. The different ages are the Krita Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dvapara Yuga, and Kali Yuga. Together, the four ages or Yugas are over 4.32 million years! At the end of each cycle, human beings' evil deeds eventually lead to the destruction of all reality. Hindus believe that we are in the fourth or final Yuga, the Kali Yuga.

Hinduism also teaches the importance of one's Dharma. Dharma means following the right path to lead a good life. Hindus believe that proper behavior or following one's dharma maintains the balance of the universe. If every living thing follows its dharma, the universe will remain in balance. Every being has its own dharma or right way of living to follow.

There are four goals for leading a good life in Hinduism.

  • kama: the pursuit of happiness
  • artha: the pursuit of success
  • dharma: following your path to lead a just and good life
  • moksha: final enlightenment, which unites the individual soul with Brahman and frees them from the cycle of reincarnation.

Hindus should follow their Dharma while seeking Artha and Kama to achieve Moksha. Hinduism also teaches that in order to live a good life, one should avoid temptations of negative things such as: materialism and lust (Kama), anger (Krodha), greed (Lobha), delusion and ignorance about what is important by placing attachment on things and power (Moha), pride (Mada), and jealousy (Matsarya).

Hindu Gods

While Hindus believe in one supreme God, Brahman, there are incarnations of Brahman including the three main gods or triumviri.

The first of the three is Brahma, the Creator, who created everything in the universe. Brahma has four heads facing the four directions and representing the four Yugas and the four Vedas. He is depicted with a giant swan and his wife Saraswati, the goddess of learning.

The second god is Vishnu, the Preserver. He preserves the world and is depicted as having blue skin and usually holding a discus, a conch, and a giant eagle. Vishnu has many incarnations including Rama and Krishna. Vishnu's wives include the goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune and wealth, and Bhu Devi, the goddess of the earth.

The third god in the trinity is Shiva who is the destroyer. He has a third eye and is often depicted with his bull, Nandi. It is said that at the end of the 4th epoch, the Kali Yuga, Shiva will perform a dance that will signal the end of the universe. Parvati and Sati are Shiva's wives, and his sons are Ganesha and Murugan, the God of War. Ganesha is the elephant headed god who is known as the remover of obstacles. He is revered by Hindus and is honored before embarking on any new venture.

Hinduism in Practice

There are many different holidays and festivals within Hinduism. Three main holidays are Navratri, Diwali, and Holi.

Navratri means "nine nights" in Sanskrit and it is the popular nine-day festival celebration of fertility and the harvest. It honors Durga, the Hindu mother goddess. Navratri is on the first new moon in early autumn, usually in September or October. There are also four other Navratri celebrations throughout the year. The celebrations and ceremonies include colorful clothing, dancing, fasting, and rituals.

Diwali is the five-day Festival of Lights. It is a festival of new beginnings and the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness. Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, fortune, luxury, and prosperity, is believed to visit each house on Diwali eve to bless it with great wealth and luxuries. Diwali is also connected to the story of Rama and Sita from the ancient text, Ramayana.

Holi is a popular ancient Hindu festival, also known as the "Festival of Love", the "Festival of Colors", and the "Festival of Spring". It is usually held in March and signifies the end of winter and the beginning of spring as well as honoring the triumph of good over evil. Revelers throw bright colorful powders called gulal, light bonfires, eat sweets, and dance to traditional music.

There are many different sects of Hinduism throughout the world. Four major denominations of Hinduism are the Vaishnavas, Shaivas, Smartas, and Shaktas. Each sect varies slightly but remains the same in their core beliefs. Just as there are many different interpretations of Hinduism, there are also many different types of religious leaders. A Hindu priest may be a "Pujari" (a Temple Priest) or a "Purohit" (a Family Priest). Hindu priests take care of the temples, lead devotions in worship, prepare offerings, tend to holy fires, and conduct rituals and ceremonies. There are Hindu monks called Sannyasa as well as gurus who are teachers of the Hindu scriptures.

The Caste System

The Caste System is another basic tenet of Hinduism. The Caste System is a strict social order.

  1. The Brahmins (priests)
  2. The Kshatriyas (warriors)
  3. The Vaishyas (merchants and traders)
  4. The Shudras (servants and laborers)

The Bhagavad Gita and the Rig Veda both describe the caste system and that it was created from the god Purusha where the Brahmin were made from his head, the Kshatriyas from his arms, the Vaishya from his thighs and the Shudra from his feet. The idea was that a person would perform whatever function in life that was based on their abilities, not on their birth. Therefore, if someone had the abilities of a Brahmin, they would become so despite the caste they were born into. Also, all castes all had an equal and vital function in society and no caste was more important than another.

However, after the Laws of Manu (also called the Manusmriti) came about in the 5th century BCE, the caste system became much more strict and harsh. One rule stated that the Brahmin were the lords of all castes and another rule forbade any movement between the castes, so whatever you were born into, that is what you would be. Livelihoods such as sanitation were considered impure and the people performing those duties were stigmatized as "untouchables" and considered so low that they were outside of the caste system. This strict interpretation of the caste system created an unequal and oppressive society. In modern times, much progress has been made and Hindus of all walks of life are integrated in their work and school regardless of the caste they were born into.

Hinduism is a diverse, fascinating, ancient religion practiced by over a billion people around the world. With the activities in this lesson plan, students will become familiar with the origins of Hinduism as well as the beliefs, gods, holidays, and culture of Hindu people. They'll be able to demonstrate their knowledge in writing and illustrations using the Storyboard That creator!

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