Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest and most influential religions. It is extremely diverse. Different practices and beliefs occur in different countries, regions, and villages.
At one time Hinduism was widespread in Southeast Asia. From around 600 BC it extended from India into Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. In most of East Asia it was later obscured by Buddhism and Islam. It still prevails in Bali and parts of East Java, and since the late 1800s has been reintroduced to Peninsular Malaysia.
Hinduism originated in India around 1500 BC. It was polytheistic and ritualistic. Originally all rituals were simple and performed at home. They gradually became complex and a priestly class was trained to carry out the rituals. The priests thus became a means of access to the gods.
In 600 BC the people revolted against the priests, who had become controlling. A new form of Hinduism developed, emphasizing personal meditation rather than priestly ritual. Today there are domestic shrines and rituals, local shrines, and famous temples and pilgrimage sites.
Hindus view the cosmos as a sphere, enclosing several concentric layers of seas, continents, heavens, and hells.
Brahman is the ultimate reality; the ultimate source of all being. It is an impersonal, universal force that cannot be defined. The cosmos is an expression of Brahman. Most Hindus believe that they also are expressions of Brahman.
Atman is the soul or self, an inherent, eternal part of all living things, which seeks union with Brahman.
Maya is a central Hindu concept. The visible world is maya—it appears as we see it but conceals a different reality. Time is cyclic rather than chronological, and also degenerative, moving from a golden age through two ages of lesser goodness to the present, degenerate age. At the end of every present age, a fire or flood destroys the universe and a new golden age follows, thus continuing the cycle. Human life is also cyclic.
Reincarnation is when the soul is reborn after physical death into the body of another human or animal. The continuous reincarnation process is called samsara.
Karma determines each new birth. It is based on our ignorance. Having forgotten that we are extensions of Brahman, we have followed our desires and are thus bound to the law of karma. We reap what we sow, in the present and future lives.
Moksha is release from karma, death, decay, anger, lusts, and maya. This release is attained though understanding and detachment from worldly pleasures. One is taught to understand that the self does not really exist, and that reality is the oneness of Brahman. This can be reached in three ways:
- Action and ritual
- Knowledge and meditation
Devotion is sometimes interpreted as commitment to God, who is approachable, offering salvation as a gift, not reward for effort. It is also sometimes interpreted as devotion to a deity or to something human such as family or one’s master.
The Sacred Cow
From ancient times, the cow has symbolized the universe and its gifts to humanity. Cows are givers of life, food, sacrifice, and worship. They are not eaten, but milk, urine, and dung is used for food, fuel, and ritual. The god Krishna is often depicted as a cowherd.
Vedas are the oldest Hindu scriptures. They record the religion of the Aryan peoples who settled in India around 1500 BC. They were nomads, probably from central Asia or the Baltic. Their religion included sacrifice to gods representing the forces of nature. Veda means “knowledge.” There are four Vedas, of which the oldest is the Rig Veda. Each is divided into four: mantras (verses or hymns sung during rituals), brahmanas (explanations of the mantras), aranyakas (reflections on the meaning of the mantras) and upanishads. Upanishads are philosophical, poetic, mystic meditations on the nature of existence, atman, Brahman, and the universe.
Two Epic Tales
Ramayana: 24,000 couplets on the life of Rama, a good king and an incarnation of the god Vishnu. In the Ramayana he is depicted as an Odysseus figure. A Ramayana dance is still performed in Cambodia and Indonesia.
The Mahabharata: The story of the Aryan clans, told in 100,000 verses composed over 800 years. This includes the devotional Bhagavad Gita or “Song of the Blessed Lord,” the most popular Hindu scripture.
Gods and Goddesses
There are thousands of Hindu deities, but worship varies regionally. Most Hindus believe in a triad of gods that are manifestations of Brahman: Brahma (creator), Shiva (destroyer), and Vishnu (preserver). However, some believe only in one god, some believe in many gods, some in no god, and some in several manifestations of one god.
- Sin is caused by ignorance, which produces bad karma.
- God is an impersonal force, or one of many gods, and Jesus is also likely to be identified as one of many deities.
- Christianity is seen as a Western religion and Christians do not appear spiritually respectable because many are materialistic. Meat-eating can also appear not to be spiritually respectable (some Hindus are vegetarian).
- There are many paths to God.
- To be “born again” implies reincarnation.
Hinduism in Indonesia
Hinduism spread to Indonesia in the first century AD. Islam superseded it in the thirteenth century, except in Bali, which is now the largest Hindu region outside India. Hinduism is also still practiced in much of Islamic East Java, and much Indonesian art is Hindu. Balinese Hinduism is characterized by pantheism and includes elements of Polynesian religions. Most gods are identified with nature. Brahma is associated with fire and volcanoes, as well as creation as in Indian Hinduism. The most powerful gods are those identified with mountains, lakes, and the sea.
- Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa: The supreme unknowable god.
- Ancestors: These are the most approachable. The rites of the living enable the souls of the ancestors to reach heaven. The ritual is repaid by blessing from the ancestors and sometimes guidance via a medium.
- Ancient kings: Also revered as important deities.
- Dewi Sri: The rice goddess. Shrines can be seen in rice fields and food offerings are left.
- Saraswati: A female consort of Brahma and the goddess of the arts, wisdom, and knowledge.
Hinduism in Malaysia
Around 9 percent of the population of Malaysia is comprised of Tamil Indians, of whom nearly 90 percent are Hindus.
Hinduism spread to Malaysia very early and was important until Islam arrived in the fifteenth century. Traces of Hinduism remain in the Malay language, literature, and art. Indian settlers came to Malaysia from Tamil Nadu in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were labourers working on rubber plantations and a few English-educated Indians who became forerunners of today’s professional middle class. There is also a Hindu minority from Northern India.
Malaysian Hinduism is diverse, with large urban temples dedicated to specific deities, and smaller temples on estates. Estate temples generally follow the tradition of the Indian region from which the workers originate. Many people follow the Shaivite tradition (worship of Shiva) of Southern India. Folk Hinduism is common, including spiritualism, animal sacrifice, and worship of local gods.
Since the Second World War a revival of Hinduism has occurred among Indian Malaysians, with the foundation of organizations and councils to bring unity or to promote reform.
- Pray for Christian influence among the Malaysia Tamils. Missions are limited by visa restrictions.
- Pray that outreach happens from Indonesian and Malaysian churches.
- Ask God to bring political stability and greater religious tolerance among Hindus.
- Intercede for Malaysia and Indonesia. Hinduism is less militant in East Asia but does hinder Christian witness.
- Lift up the Balinese church, which is very new and small.