“Hinduism: A system of religious beliefs and social customs, especially influential in India. As both a way of life and a rigorous system of religious law, Hinduism developed over period of about 50 centuries. Unlike most religions, it requires no one belief regarding the nature of God: it embraces polytheism, monotheism, and monism. More important are the beliefs concerning the nature of the Universe and the structure of society. The former is described by the key concepts of dharma, the eternal law underlying the whole of existence; karma, the law of action by which each cause has an effect in an endless chain reaching from one life to the next; and moksha, liberation from this chain of birth, death and rebirth. The latter is prescribed by by the ideals of varna, the division of mankind into four classes or types, the forerunner of caste; ashrama , the four stages of life; and personal dharma, according to which one’s religious duty is defined by birth and circumstance. There are an estimated 705 million Hindus in the world.

Hindu revivalism arose from Hindu encounters with western ideas in the 19th and 20th centuries. There are many thinkers and ideas associated with the process. Raja Ram Mohun Roy (1772-1833) was the forerunner of new Hinduism; he learned English, located Hindu ideas in the context of Western ones in order to promote Hindu self-understanding, and founded the reform movement the Brahmo Samaj (Society of God). Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905) was his successor as the leader of the society; he explicitly questioned the infallibility of the Vedas and called for an experimental spirituality based on the aphorisms of the Upanishads. The most famous figure was Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), who claimed that Vedanta was the Hindu exemplification of that oneness to which all religions aspired, and that the idea and practice of tolerance and universality were India’s gift to the world; he admired Western self-confidence and scientific success, and formed a model of mutual influence in which the West taught its material skills to India, which reciprocated with its spiritual teachings. Dayananda Saraswati (1824-83), founder of the Arya Samaj (Society of Aryans), tried to emphasize the global significance of Vedic teachings by discerning scientific and technological ideas in them.

The term ‘Hindu revivalism’ is used to describe an ideology of nationalism based on allegedly Hindu values that is professed by some groups (notably the BJP party) in contemporary Indian politics.”

Excerpted from: Wright, Edmund, Ed. The Oxford Desk Encyclopedia of World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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