Historical origins and aspects of society
Relatively little is known about the origins of Hinduism, as it predates recorded history. It has been said to derive from beliefs of the Aryans, ('noble' followers of the Vedas), Dravidians, and Harappans living in the Indian subcontinent. Hinduism subsequently birthed Buddhism and Jainism, which in turn affected the development of their mother religion. Varying ideas of the origin of the Veda and understandings of whether or not the Aryans were native or foreign to Indian soil can change estimates of Hinduism's age from 4000 to 6000 years. See Early Hinduism and Aryan Invasion Theory.
Historically, the word Hindu predates the reference to Hinduism as a religion; the term is of Persian origin and first referred to people who lived on the other side (from a Persian point of view) of the Sindhu or Indus river. It was used as a signifier not only of ethnicity but of Vedic religion as far back as the 15th and 16th centuries by such figures as Guru Nanak (the founder of Sikhism). During the British Raj, the term's use was made standard, and eventually, the religion of the Vedic Hindoos was given the appelation 'Hinduism.' In actuality, it was merely a new signifier for a culture that had been thriving for millennia before. See the Hindu (ethnicity) page for more discussion.
Legal Definition of Hinduism
In a 1966 ruling, the Supreme Court of India defined the Hindu faith as follows for legal purposes:
Acceptance of the Vedas with reverence as the highest authority in religious and philosophic matters and acceptance with reverence of Vedas by Hindu thinkers and philosophers as the sole foundation of Hindu philosophy.
Spirit of tolerance and willingness to understand and appreciate the opponent's point of view based on the realization that truth is many-sided.
Acceptance of great world rhythm — vast periods of creation, maintenance and dissolution follow each other in endless succession — by all six systems of Hindu philosophy.
Acceptance by all systems of Hindu philosophy of the belief in rebirth and pre-existence.
Recognition of the fact that the means or ways to salvation are many.
Realization of the truth that numbers of Gods to be worshiped may be large, yet there being Hindus who do not believe in the worshiping of idols.
Unlike other religions, or religious creeds, Hindu religion's not being tied down to any definite set of philosophic concepts, as such.
Current geographic distribution
The nations of India, Mauritius, and Nepal as well as the Indonesian island of Bali are predominantly Hindu; significant Hindu minorities exist in Bangladesh (11 million), Myanmar (7.1 million), Sri Lanka (2.5 million), the United States (1.7 million) Pakistan (1.3 million), South Africa (1.2 million), the United Kingdom (1.2 million), Malaysia (1.1 million), Canada (0.7 million), Fiji (0.5 million), Trinidad and Tobago (0.5 million), Guyana (0.4 million), the Netherlands (0.4 million), Singapore (0.3 million) and Suriname (0.2 million).
Dharma in orthodox Hindu society: caste
According to one view, the Caste system shows how strongly many have felt about each person following his or her dharma, or destined path. A perversion, according to many Hindus, of dharma's true meaning, caste plays a significant role in Hindu society, although it is now losing favor and is illegal in India. .
In early Vedic periods, the established Brahmins began discriminating against young candidates for priesthood based on caste. This became more ingrained over centuries until social mobility all but became a thing of the past. In spite of centuries of numerous reform movements, notably within Vedanta, bhakti yoga and Hindu streams of Tantra, and reformers, with recent stalwarts like Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi, caste is so deeply ensconced in the Indian consciousness that even Christian converts have been known to separate church meetings for different castes. A number of Muslim communities have retained caste practices as well. What was first an injunction to living one's dharma in surrender to God became an oppressive mandate to surrender to Man.
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