Studying religion
Studying religion

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Studying religion

8.2 The diversity of Hinduism

The complex tradition now known as Hinduism has emerged largely from the coming together of four main elements:

  1. The traditions of the original inhabitants of India, some of which may still continue in the cultures of India's more remote tribal peoples.

  2. The influences of the Indus Valley civilisation that flourished in northwest India until approximately the middle of the second millenium bce.

  3. The very old and highly developed culture inherited by the Tamil-speaking people of south India.

  4. The religion brought into north-western India during the middle of the second millenium BCE by Indo-European settlers who called themselves ‘aryans’ (arya or ‘noble ones’). Their traditions have been perpetuated in the sacred text of the Veda (hence ‘Vedic religion’) and transmitted primarily by the brahmin caste, held to be the most ritually pure group in Hindu society and positioned at the top of the hierarchy of the Hindu caste structure.

(adapted from Klostermaier, 1989, p. 31)

We know that the way in which religion is lived out by real people is often very different from the standards found in sacred books. Interviews on the streets of my local market would soon show that Christianity as popularly practised looks different from that found in the Bible and in creeds. I don't mean that people fail to live up to their beliefs (a different question), but simply that popular belief and practice rarely correspond to the ‘official version’ of any religion. ‘Hinduism’ certainly cannot be understood narrowly in terms of its most important sacred book, the Veda, and the practice of the caste entrusted with preserving it.

If you are beginning to despair about getting a clear picture of Hinduism, then you are on the right lines! This shows that you are beginning to get into the way of trying to see religion in context and not to make it conform to your expectations. For, as I explained earlier, the reason for taking Hinduism as an example in this course is because it will not be pressed into neat and tidy boxes. Thinking critically about the boundaries of Hinduism will help you to reflect further on the use of the concept ‘religion’ and the wider question of how to go about studying forms of religion.

Exercise 15

Hindus themselves are well aware that Hinduism tolerates a degree of variety that often confuses outsiders. This is how Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888–1975), a notable Hindu philosopher and Indian statesman, summed up the differences within Hinduism:

In practical religion, Hinduism recognizes that there are those who wish to see God face to face, others who delight in the endeavour to know the truth of it all. Some find peace in action, others in non-action.

(Radhakrishnan, 1927, p. 89)

I would like you now to consider these three questions:

  1. What does this statement indicate about the nature of Hindu religious belief and practice?

  2. What does it imply will be the likely outcome of concentrating upon just one form of Hindu belief and practice?

  3. Relating this statement about Hinduism to our ongoing concern with the way in which we study religion in general, to what extent, if at all, could Steve Bruce's definition of religion (Section 5.5) and Ninian Smart's seven-dimensional model (Section 5.4) cope with the differences that are all part of Hinduism?


  1. Hinduism does not seem to require its followers to accept one view about the nature of ultimate reality. Some aim to ‘see God face to face’, which implies belief in a personal god. Others aim ‘to know the truth of it all’: a quest to realise the truth about the nature of reality that may not involve a commitment to a personal god. The distinction between preferences for ‘action’ and ‘non-action’ suggests that Hindus do not express their beliefs in one set form of practice.

  2. It surely implies that concentrating on one form of Hindu belief and practice to the exclusion of the others would not do justice to the variety that is so characteristic of Hinduism.

  3. Having tested Steve Bruce's definition of religion in Britain, I think we can now see that it could also cope with the variety of Hindu beliefs and practices. Remember, for example, his inclusion of supernatural entities and impersonal powers or processes. I think that this would embrace both those Hindus ‘who wish to see God face to face’ and those ‘who delight in the endeavour to know the truth of it all’. Smart's seven-dimensional model is also sufficiently flexible to accommodate Hinduism, and taking each dimension in turn could provide a basis on which to bring together different examples of Hindu belief and practice. I will show you what I mean when we explore Hinduism in Calcutta.

Let's now relate Radhakrishnan's general statement about the ‘practical religion’ of Hinduism to the specific examples. Hindus often speak about their ishtadeva (chosen deity – I am going to use ‘deity’ to avoid the Christian overtones of God and because we will be talking about ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’). The ishtadeva of one Hindu may be the deity Shiva whereas another Hindu may revere Kali, the Mother Goddess (Figure 10). We might say that these Hindus wish to ‘see God face to face’. In fact, Hindus speak of receiving the darshan (sight or vision) of their chosen deity, and the hope of receiving this provides a motive for going to a temple or maybe on pilgrimage. Yet, although many Hindus focus their devotions on a particular deity – for example, Kali – there has long been a tendency within Hinduism to view all the different deities as aspects of one supreme being. This vision of unity underlies the rich and varied religious symbolism that surrounds the actual practice of worship offered to many deities. Hindus typically become attached to one deity through family tradition or individual temperament rather than as a result of rejecting other deities. Devotion to an ishtadeva would not prevent respect being shown to other deities nor would it rule out participation in the rituals and festivals offered to them.

Figure 10
Photo: Sharma Picture Publications
Figure 10 Popular image of Kali

The path of worship and devotion is not of the same importance for all Hindus. Some Hindus speak of a non-personal reality, brahman (not to be confused with the caste), when explaining the nature of existence, and seek to experience a state of identity with this reality rather than a personal relationship with a deity. Worship and devotion are not rejected but are viewed as a starting point or aid to a more meditative path. This may lead some in time to a more solitary and ascetic lifestyle away from the ties of family and daily employment. Such people, I think, are those described by Radhakrishnan as endeavouring ‘to know the truth of it all’.

Behind Radhakrishnan's reference to seeing God, knowing the truth of it all and paths of action and non-action is a well established distinction in Hinduism between the ‘way of devotion’ (worship), ‘the way of wisdom’ (meditation) and ‘the way of action’ (the responsibilities of ritual and dharma). All of these paths have value but none are obligatory. This helps to explain why, although temples may be thronged with devotees, Hindus will insist that nothing requires their attendance at temples. Attendance is merely one of a number of spiritually beneficial practices.

Exercise 16

This is a good point to pause and consolidate the background information provided so far about the broad features of Hinduism. Please read ‘Introduction: Benares’ by David R. Kinsley (attached below), which will give you an overview of Hinduism.

A6: Hinduism: A Cultural Perspective by D.R. Kinsley © 1993. Reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Upper Saddle River, NJ. Reading A6: David R. Kinsley, ‘Introduction: Benares’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus