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Hinduism was, and is, one of the most powerful and resilient religions in the history of the world. In the 20th century it withstood communism; throughout history it withstood evangelism by other religions; and in the last millennium it withstood Islam.

Hinduism is an ancient polytheistic religion, consisting of multiple gods who were ultimately thought to be part of one god: Brahma, the supreme god of life. The name "Hindu" comes from the word Hindustan, the Persian word for riverland; the birth of Hinduism was the merger of the Upanishadic and Vedic religious traditions in ancient India. Muslim invaders of the A.D. 11th and 13th centuries began using the term "Hindu" to describe Indians from this region who were not Buddhists and who refused to convert to Islam. In the A.D. 16th century European merchants and missionaries started using the term also. But while Hinduism is not limited to one set of clear and specific beliefs, it does represent an overall belief system and today there are nearly one billion adherents to Hinduism in the world, nearly all of whom live in or emigrated from India. (There are also significant Muslim and Christian populations in India today; Mother Theresa won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for her Christian charity work there.)

Hinduism focuses on "The Eternal Way," which means that certain spiritual principles are true for eternity, transcending what is man-made. This is like a science of consciousness. The advancement of knowledge is emphasized by Hinduism, and today many Indians can be found obtaining PhDs or medical degrees. Many Indians (notice that the term "Indian" in this lecture refers to South Asia) are entering engineering and similar high-tech professions, and American companies are hiring more and more Indians for these jobs because of the high quality of their work and their willingness to work for less wages by American standards. Politically, Hindus in the United States are more Republican than other immigrant groups.

Hinduism encourages meditation using yoga. Historically, Hindus believed in reincarnation, a belief that spread even to the Greek philosopher Pythagoras in 560 B.C. Visitors to India are impressed or surprised by seeing cows wandering about, disrupting traffic and commerce. The expression "sacred cow" comes from the Indian belief in reincarnation, and the view that a cow may be the reincarnation of someone’s deceased relative.

The basic belief of Hinduism is in a cycle of life often represented by a dancing woman in a ring of fire, who is the god "Shiva" representing creation and destruction. Other symbols are the god Brahma representing creation, and the god Vishnu representing preservation or continuance of life. In Hindu statutes a flat palm facing the onlooker represents peace, while a drum symbolizes creation.

In 1966, the Supreme Court of India defined what Hinduism is for legal purposes:

1. Belief in the authority of the Vedas (ancient hymns to the gods, written in Sanskrit). The oldest collection of hymns in the Vedas is the Rig Veda, which was written between 1800 and 1300 B.C. The greatest Veda hymn is the "Bhagavad Gita," a section in the Mahabharata concerning life's never-ending spiritual journey towards perfection, to be attained by adhering to a code of conduct. The Bhagavad Gita is a spiritual guide to life's problems, like the parables of Christianity.

2. Spirit of tolerance and willingness to understand and respect an opponent's view. Hinduism adapts to and incorporates other belief systems.

3. Belief in world rhythms: long periods of creation, maintenance and dissolution follow each other in endless succession.

4. Belief in reincarnation (rebirth) and pre-existence. Your teacher for this course knows a Hindu who says his misfortune must be due to his having sinned in a prior life.

5. Belief that there are many ways to salvation. Many Hindus greatly respect Jesus, for example.

6. Belief that the number of gods to be worshiped may be large, although some Hindus reject the worship of gods altogether.

7. Unlike most other religions, Hinduism is not defined by a specific set of philosophical concepts.

Lacking from this modern legal definition is the caste system set forth in the Code of Manu, whereby the accumulation of a person's good deeds (or evil acts) in his prior lives (his "karma") determine whether he is born into a family at a higher or lower caste level, or even lower as an animal or plant. Upon full compliance with the Hindu moral code, the person is released from the "wheel of life" and attains unity with Brahma (universal all). This belief is known as "Moksha". Obviously the caste system is politically incorrect today, with many Hindus believing in it privately but reluctant to speak about it publicly.

The highest caste is the "Brahmans" (priests and scholars). This term has been incorporated in a non-religious sense into English (spelled as "brahmins") to mean wealthy, aloof New England families, like the 2004 Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry's family. The traditional goal of Hindus is to reach Brahma, or spiritual perfection, by observing dharma (DER-muh) (moral or religious duties of your caste). Below the Brahmans in the Hindu case system are the Kshatriya (rulers), the Vaishya (peasants), and then the Shudra (serfs). Below the lowest caste level are the "untouchables" or Harijans, who are slaves and outcasts. Few talk publicly about the caste system any more because it is so politically incorrect.

In Hindu society, government was by a local prince or "raja", also spelled as "rajah". The English word "raj" means reign.

The omission of the traditional caste system from the Indian Supreme Court's modern definition illustrates how Hinduism adapts to changing times. ‘’’This remarkable ability to adapt has helped Hinduism survive for thousands of years and become one of the oldest surviving religions’’’. For example, Hinduism survived the threat posed by the rival religion Buddhism simply by treating the founder of Buddhism like another god and adding him to the religion. Hinduism has treated Christianity in a similar manner, by accepting Jesus as "a" God. Today India is 82% Hindu.

Hinduism holds a special reverence for all living creatures, and violence against life is prohibited. Abortion was traditionally rare in India, but some report that it has increased greatly in recent decades as the country is industrialized and influenced by Western atheistic beliefs. The attitude towards women in Hinduism is of special respect in the family structure. Women obeyed their husbands under Hinduism. A much-criticized (but rare) practice in India was for a wife, after her husband's death, to throw herself on her husband's funeral pyre to die as a way of honoring him. This is known as "sati" or "suttee" (suh-TEE). Hinduism practices cremation of the deceased.

If you see a physician in American who is of Indian descent you may find the "Oath of the Hindu Physician" hanging on his wall: "... Speak the truth; Not eat met; Care for the good of all living beings; ... Be simply clothed and drink no intoxicant; ... Consider time and place; Always seek to grow in knowledge; ... Never take a present from a woman without her husband's consent; ... What happens in the house [of the patient] must not be mentioned outside ...."

Hinduism has been the backbone of Indian culture for thousands of years. This religion enabled Indians to survive countless invasions, such as by Alexander the Great in 327 B.C. when he conquered most of the Indus valley. Not even Alexander and the Hellenistic influence could change Indian culture much. Hinduism has also withstood both Islam and communism. The Hindu faith is extremely resilient to foreign beliefs, and the survival of Hinduism protected the Indian culture and way of life.


Jainism is a branch of Hinduism that emphasizes the principle of non-violence towards all life. Jainism requires strict vegetarianism, to avoid killing any living species. Jainism was founded by Mahavira (540-468 B.C.), who taught self-denial and non-violence against any form of life. Jainism's strict requirements of self-denial caused it to lose popularity, but the religion remained strong and today has over 4 million adherents worldwide (including 7000 in the U.S.). It later influenced Gandhi in India, and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the United States.

Your teacher for this course was once approached for advice by a physician who is an adherent to Jainism, and before agreeing to help him your teacher first wanted to make sure the physician did not perform any abortions. It should have been obvious that physician did not perform any abortions: Jainism strictly prohibits the taking of any life.

Unlike Hinduism, Jainism rejects the authority of the Vedas, the sacred scriptures of Hinduism.


Siddhartha Gautama was a royal Hindu prince who lived from 563 to 483 B.C. As a young prince he was disturbed by seeing suffering in old or sick people. On one occasion, he saw a dead body (a corpse) and was deeply upset by it. As a Hindu, Prince Siddhartha believed in reincarnation but the possibility of repeated suffering in many lives disturbed him further. According to legend, he meditated for a long time under a tree and emerged from it as the "Enlightened One" who founded Buddhism. Once he became the Buddha, his followers referred to him as "Buddha Shakyamuni" ("Shakya" was the name of his royal family, and "muni" means "able one" -> "Shakyamuni"), or simply "the Buddha" for short. The term "Buddha" today can also apply to any "Awakened One" in Buddhism.

Buddhism has no "God", and is often described as a "belief system" rather than as a "religion".

Siddhartha declared that happiness is found not by improving one's "karma" under Hinduism, but by embracing Four Noble Truths: (1) suffering is universal, (2) craving or desire causes it, (3) the cure is to eliminate the craving or desire, and (4) following the Eightfold Path helps eliminate this desire in order to attain "nirvana". Nirvana is a release from suffering to attain inner peace and complete contentment. The Eightfold Path is a multifaceted guide to nirvana that relies on wisdom (right view and intention); ethics (right speech, action & livelihood); and mind (right effort, mindfulness & concentration). In other words, the Eightfold Path is a system of meditation that can be followed by anyone at any social or caste level, which makes Buddhism more attractive to the lower class than Hinduism, which calls them untouchables.

Legend states that 49 days after the Buddha's enlightenment, he began teaching. He taught the first Wheel of "Dharma" (one's duty or nature) to achieve protection from suffering. Later, the Buddha taught the second and third Wheels of Dharma. Together these teachings became the source of the Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, of Buddhism. The Mahayana teaching describes how to attain full enlightenment ("Buddhahood") for the sake of others. The Buddha also taught the Hinayana, or Lesser Vehicle, of Buddhism. The Hinayana teaching describes how to attain freedom from suffering for oneself alone. The Buddha encouraged everyone to practice Dharma to improve inner peace and happiness, and improve the quality of life. Inner peace is considered under Buddhism to be the key to outward peace.

What is the practice of Buddhism like? Buddhists seek a moral life that emphasizes meditation. The goal of the meditation is to end cravings and desires and attain a release from suffering, or "nirvana". Buddhism also encourages increased wisdom and understanding. Buddhists tend not to proselytize aggressively, but does fully accept converts. There are Buddhists in most countries today.

Founded in India, Buddhism has grown to become the fourth largest world religion (behind Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, in that order). A strict version of Buddhism spread in Southeast Asia (e.g., Cambodia and Vietnam). A more liberal (less strict) version spread into China, Japan and Korea. Buddhism has a larger following in the U.S. today than Hinduism, but Hinduism is much stronger than Buddhism in India. The most famous Buddhist is probably the Dalia Lama, who won a Nobel Peace Prize and lives in exile in India after advocating independence for Tibet from communist China.

There are many statues of the Buddha, and they vary from country to county to show the Buddha as an inhabitant of the local country. The hand position (mudras) in the statute shows whether the Buddha is teaching, giving a blessing, or meditating.

Comparison of Hinduism with Buddhism[edit]

Buddhism welcomes all and has an easier time gain converts than Hinduism does. But Hinduism, with its stronger emphasis on families and a social structure, has far more adherents than Buddhism does.

There are many similarities between the two religions. Buddha himself was a Hindu. Here is a list of what Hinduism and Buddhism have in common:

1. Both religions promote meditation and other forms of spiritual practice.

2. Both religions preach non-violence towards all forms of life.

3. Both religions believe in karma.

4. Both religions believe in multiple hells and heavens.

5. Both religions emphasize detachment and renunciation of materialism, and treat desire as the major cause of suffering.

But keep in mind the key differences between Buddhism and Hinduism:

1. Buddhism does not believe in the existence of souls or "first cause" (God). For this reason many do not consider Buddhism to be a true religion, but merely a belief system. In contrast, Hinduism believes that Brahman is the Supreme Creator and that the soul (Atman) does exist.

2. Buddhism views the world as filled with sorrow, and the highest goal of human life is to end sorrow. In contrast, Hinduism has four major goals for everyone to pursue: religious duty (dharma), wealth (artha), desires (kama) and salvation (moksha).

3. Hinduism believes in four stages in life (ashramas), while Buddhism rejects this.

4. Hinduism is a religion of the individual and thus has no monks. Buddhism has many monks.

5. Hinduism does not have any prophets, while Buddhism reveres Buddha as its founder.

6. Buddhism rejects the sacred scriptures of Hinduism, the Vedas.

The Hindu response to the competition presented by Buddhism was to treat Buddha as another god of Hinduism (the incarnation of Mahavishnu, one of the gods of the Hindu trinity). This was typical of how Hinduism adapted to other religions to thwart the competitive threats. This enabled Hinduism to remain far more popular than Buddhism within India, but not outside India.

India's Contributions[edit]

What can we thank ancient India for? Our Arabic numerals, which are derived from Hindu numbers. Also, near the end of classical India (around A.D. 500) the game of chess was invented there. Notice that the game of chess does not involve any chance; Hinduism is against gambling. The original game of chess lacked the powerful "queen", and Muslim versions of the game lack the queen to this day.

Vedic mathematics, which is an ancient math system found in the Hindu scriptures, is taught to this day. It emphasizes solving complex math problems orally. India first discovered the separate concept of "zero" around the sixth century, which was a significant intellectual breakthrough.

Indian religions add a transcendental quality that has found popularity worldwide in the form of meditation, and some American liberals left Christianity for it. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a 19th century Massachusetts writer, was an example: "I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavat-Gita. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spake to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions that exercise us."

Today, the popularity of the English language in India, its low cost of living, and its intelligent workforce make it an attractive place for large American companies to relocate or "offshore" their jobs. Often when Americans call "customer service" for large companies, they are actually reaching low-cost operators in India, sometimes using Americanized first names.

India is more than a country. It is a subcontinent. It is vast in size: two-fifths the area of all of Europe. 150 different languages are spoken there today. Even though India has traditionally been a poor country, for decades it has produced more food than it can consume.


China, like India, is significant because it has so many people. China and India each has a population of about 1 billion persons today, and one third of the entire world now lives in China or India. Japan, North and South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Pakistan, and many other countries are also part of Asia, and Asians make up more than half the world's total population.

But China and India are vary different from each other. There is no Hinduism in China. There is very little ethnic diversity in China, in contrast with India and many Western countries today. Christianity has struggled to convert China, and only about one out of nine Chinese are Christian. And even that small number is due to courageous efforts in the face of much persecution of religion by the communist government that rules China.

China has always been isolated by geographic protections. The highest mountains in the world, the Himalayas, separate it from India. The Himalaya Mountain Range is famous for having the world's tallest peaks, including Mount Everest and K2. Vast amounts of semi-desert land known as the Gobi desert separate China from the Middle East and the area which was Mesopotamia in ancient times.

In the south of China, the Yangtze river flows for 3000 miles, navigable from the sea for half of its course. In the north is the Yellow river (now called the Huang He), which runs westward from the Yellow Sea (labeled in the map) and then northward a bit before turning south. The Yellow river obtained its original name from the murky tan color of its waters. The Yellow River is known for its tendency to flood surrounding lands, often with disastrous results. The silt and sand carried in the muddy water builds up on the bottom of the river until it blocks the water's flow and causes the river to divert its course, flooding into another area. Floods like these make the course of the Yellow River change often.

Ancient China[edit]

The earliest archaeological evidence in China is of the Shang dynasty, 1766-1122 B.C. By folklore it began when a virtuous and wise man named T'ang overthrew the decadent emperor Chieh of the Hsia dynasty. The Shang dynasty ended when it was ultimately overthrown and replaced by the Chou dynasty.

The Shang dynasty built cities in northern China, along the eastern banks of the Yellow river. It did not control all of the land that belongs to China today. Sometimes called the Yellow River Civilization, the Shang dynasty benefited from the use of bronze, which Mesopotamia had introduced to China around 2000 B.C. Notice that Bronze had previously been invented in Mesopotamia around 3000 B.C.

The Shang dynasty had writing in the form of oracle bones: questions and answers inscribed on actual bone. For archaeologists, these bones were the first concrete evidence that the Shang dynasty really had existed. Oracle bones were widely sold as "dragon bones" and believed to have magical healing properties, and the bones were generally ground up and used as medicine. No one realized what the bones were until a high ranking official who was sick noticed that the bone which was to be ground for his medicine was covered in strange glyphs! His discovery proved the existence of the Shang dynasty.

The Shang empire consisted of city-states, with much war between the various cities but particularly against the non-urbanized, agricultural populations in the rural areas. The capital cities shifted as often as power changed hands. The Shang dynasty perfected the wheel and used chariots in warfare.

China used a pictographic form of writing that it continues to utilize to this day, albeit in a more developed form. Then the word looked like its meaning, but today the characters are much more complex.

Shang Dynasty Military The Shang Dynasty (1600 BC -1046 BC) is said to have amassed a thousand chariots to overthrow the Xia, this is certainly a greatly exaggerated figure. Perhaps 70 would be more appropriate. However, Chinese society was becoming stratified and the warrior elites who made up the chariot core had become an aristocracy. The chariots carried three people, an archer, warrior and driver. The archer had become equipped with the new and deadly but expensive compound bow. Another innovation borrowed from the derided steppe nomads, now called the Horse Barbarians and actively campaigned against. The warrior used a dagger-axe, a long handled axe with a dagger blade mounted on it. Chariots served as mobile command centers, firing platforms and shock forces. However, the bulk of the army was made up of agricultural laborers conscripted by nobles who were under the ruling dynasty. The feudal system that developed required these subservient lords to provide supplies, armor and weapons for the conscripts. The Shang king kept a force of around a thousand troops that he personally led in battle. A Shang king could muster an army of about five thousand for in border campaigns or call all his forces up in a grand army numbering around 13,000 to face down serious threats such as insurrection and invasion. Shang infantry were armed with an assortment of stone or bronze weapons, including spears, pole-axes, long handled dagger-axes and simple bows. For defense they used shields and occasionally bronze or leather helmets.

The infantry fought in massed formations under the banner of their noble or the Shang king himself. A rudimentary military bureaucracy was established in order to organize and supply these troops. The Shang rulers demanded a lot of bronze weapons and ceremonial vessels, required a lot of labor and expertise. This in turn spurred the economy as vast efforts were required for mining, refining, and the transportation of copper, tin, and lead ores.