Essentials of Hinduism - Lesson 1

Introduction to Essentials of Hinduism

An introduction to Hinduism, discussion of their sacred texts, and the ten themes of the Upanishads.

Timothy Tennent
Essentials of Hinduism
Lesson 1
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Introduction to Essentials of Hinduism

Introduction to Hinduism

I. Hindu Texts

II. Ten Themes in Upanishads

A. Brahman

B. Atman

C. Tat Tvam Asi

D. Samsara

E. Maya

F. Karma

G. Moksha

H. Monism

I. Yoga

J. Satcitananda

  • An introduction to Hinduism, discussion of their sacred texts, and the ten themes of the Upanishads.

  • The ten metaphors of Hinduism and how Hinduism is structured overall.

  • A look at the more popular forms of Hinduism. You can find images for each of the gods Dr. Tennent describes by downloading the, "Hindu Gods and Goddesses Images" file under the Downloads heading on the class page, or by searching the web using the name of the god, followed by the keywords, "hinduism images."

  • Four themes in the Devotional movement

  • A brief comparison of the beliefs and practices of Hinduism and Christianity. You can see the English translation of a tract that Dr. Tennent wrote using his Hindi pen name by clicking on the link, "Your Questions, Our Answers" under the Downloads heading on the class page. The tract identifies questions commonly asked by Hindus in India about Christianity and gives responses to each one. 

A summary of Hinduism's historical and theological themes. You may access the seminary level course on this subject by Dr. Tennent, by going to Introduction to Hinduism. 

Recommended Books

Essentials of Hinduism - Student Guide

Essentials of Hinduism - Student Guide

This course serves as a summary of the beliefs and practices of Hinduism by Dr. Timothy Tennent. There are five messages that will introduce readers to a summary of the...

Essentials of Hinduism - Student Guide

Dr. Timothy Tennent
Essentials of Hinduism
Introduction to Essentials of Hinduism
Lesson Transcript


Welcome to the Introduction to Hinduism. The is the summary course for the larger full course entitled “Introduction to Hinduism.” Why do we call Hinduism a “world religion?” We know that often Islam and Christianity are referred to as “world religions,” but what about Hinduism? Hinduism is a world religion because it fulfills one or both of two criteria. It either must be widespread geographically, or it must numerically contain more than five percent of the world population. Hinduism does contain more than five percent of the world population; and therefore, Hinduism is by that alone considered a world religion. Currently Hinduism is slightly greater than 13 percent of the world. Hinduism is not as widespread geographically as Christianity or Islam; but through the Indian diaspora of Indians who relocate around the world, it is actually quite widespread and Hinduism is found in virtually every corner of the world. It is mainly because of its numerical strength that Hinduism is classified as a world religion. In the full course, we have quite a lengthy discussion regarding the numerical growth of Hinduism and how this is related to the larger context of other religions.

The next kind of opening discussion we need to have is how to define Hinduism. Hinduism is not an easy religion to define. Nehru, the first prime minister of India, was once asked to define Hinduism. He replied, “Hinduism is all things to all men.” I think that reflects some of the difficulty in coming up with a clear definition. The term “Hinduism” used to describe a religion in India does not actually emerge until the early 19th century when missionaries began to describe religion in India. The problem is, the missionaries encountered a wide range of cultural and religious practices, even competing religions within India - highly developed monotheism alongside very low, crass forms of fetishism and polytheism, all of which were eventually put under the great umbrella we today call “Hinduism.”

The term “Hindu” is actually often used in early literature as a geographic term in reference to a key river in the Indian subcontinent known as the “Indus River.” Invaders could not pronounce the word, “Indus” without putting a strong “h” on it, “Hindus,” and so it became the name of the people who lived along the Indus River, known as “the Indus” or now, “Hindus.”

Defining Hinduism is actually quite problematic because it involves various cultural as well as religious dimensions. In the full course, we actually develop four different classifications of definitions, rather than any single definition. We look at the cultural definitions; that is, people who regard themselves as Hindus just because they are born in India and they go back to the original, kind of geographic, ethnic orientation of the word. Secondly, there are those who define Hinduism based on a certain common source of authority, someone who accepts certain ancient text in Hinduism without necessarily particular doctrinal content. Thirdly, there are those who do share a common doctrinal core of the idea of Hinduism; that a Hindu must believe in certain kinds of doctrine such as Karma or transmigration or atman, or something of that nature. Finally, there are a number of people who regard themselves as Hindu because they keep certain social obligations such as the castes, who avoid eating meat, they venerate the cow, etc.

These become actually important to think about because when you talk to someone who calls themselves a Hindu, you cannot automatically assume that it has strictly religious connotations; it could have social, it could have cultural, it could have a whole number, even geographical, connections with it. This needs to be understood and negotiated when talking to Hindus, to find out what exactly they mean when they call themselves a Hindu.

We also think it is important to understand the development historically of how Hinduism arose. We had the wonderful experience, beginning after the early 20th century, of uncovering a vast early civilization known as the Indus Valley Civilization. This was a great civilization that ranks right up there with the Mayan Civilization or the Egyptian or Mesopotamian Civilizations that we have grown up knowing about in our history books. The Indus Valley Civilization was a tremendously remarkable civilization. It is that which provides the early context for Hinduism. Later, in the year 1500 B.C. and following there were a number of migrations into India from the north that is often called the “Aryan” migrations into India. This was a period of several hundreds of years where lighter-skin people began to move into India, between 1500 B.C. and 1200 B.C. It is these people that began to really reflect on what we today call “Hinduism.” These Aryans began to have oral traditions which carried certain ideas that were clearly the forerunners to what we now call Hinduism. Over an 800-year period some of the most remarkable literature ever composed emerged and is today the basis for Hinduism.  In the full course, there is a much lengthier discussion of this historical development. I think you will find it quite interesting.


Coming to the actual text of Hinduism, it is only natural to ask the question, “What text do Hindus regard as sacred?” “What is like our Bible, or like the Koran in Islam?” Hinduism has a number of sacred books that are collectively part of their corpus of sacred literature. The earliest and most ancient and in some ways, I guess the widest held to be given authority, is a group of four collections of works known collectively as the Sanhitas, but are individually known as the four Vedas: The Rig-Veda, the Sama-Veda, the Yajur-Veda and the Atharva-Veda. These four works, known collectively as the Sanhitas, individually as the “Four Vedas” represent some of the earliest material in Hinduism. What are the Rig Vedas? What are the Sama-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, Atharva-Veda, etc.? Essentially this is a corpus of material that is in praise to certain early gods and goddesses that were worshiped in the very earliest days of what we now call “the Vedic period” in early, early proto-Hinduism. The Rig Veda, for example, is actually divided into ten smaller books. These ten books collectively contain 1,028 metrical hymns that are sung to these various gods. Most of these gods are associated with nature, such as god of sky, god of fire, god of sun and wind and the dawn, etc. These early hymns of praise to god later get reworked into chants where people will chant these. They believe that by chanting these hymns in another metrical form, it will release a certain kind of spiritual power and that is known as the Samaveda. This happens throughout the Veda documents. That is a very important understanding of how the early development occurs. In a full lecture, you get an extensive discussion of the four Vedas.

Later, early proto-Hindu writers began to add to the Vedas different appendices, mainly commentaries on the Vedas or other kinds of speculative, philosophical treatises. These get added to the Sanhitas until eventually you have a group of writings known as the Brahmanas which are basically commentaries. Then you have the Aranyakas which are treatises. Finally, and most importantly, the Upanishads. The Upanishads will take some of our time to fully explain because the Upanishads present the most important body of literature in the Hindu corpus. The Upanishads is the basis of what we today call “Hindu philosophy.” It is a huge part of various reflections on Hinduism that appear throughout the ages.  The Upanishads present a very significant document. I think it is one of the most important documents to be aware of if you want to study Hinduism.  The Upanishads, along with the Rig Veda, are widely believed to be two of the most sacred and important documents in the Hindu religion.


At this point we will explore the ten major themes in the Upanishads. If you understand these ten themes, then you will be able to clearly have the basis to understand the entire Hindu religion, so it is very, very important to have this. The remaining part of this lecture will be a discussion of these ten themes in the Upanishads.


The first theme is the theme of Brahman. What is Brahman? Who is Brahman? That is a very important question in the Hindu religion. I think this term, “Brahman” represents in some way the key quest of Hinduism. The whole Hindu religion, or more accurately the collection of Hindu religions, are all in some way in search of the answer to the question, “Who or what is Brahman?” It is the determined Sanskrit for ultimate reality. Some would answer the question in terms of personal monotheism. Others, that Brahman in some kind of all-pervading essence or undergirding reality of the universe. Some would answer in more monotheistic terms, others in more monistic terms. This is a very, very difficult concept to nail down in a single definition. So, let’s keep it quite broad.

Brahman is ultimate reality and Hindus will define it in a wide variety of ways. There are definitely Hindus who believe that Brahman is a personal god in ways that are very similar to how a Christian or a Muslim might regard God. There are other Hindus who believe in many, many gods, or even in one pervading essence of the universe, that somehow we all participate in. This is one of the key quests of Hinduism. One of the things that Hindus do in discussing Brahman, right in the Upanishads, is making the distinction between two ways that Brahman is spoken of; either as Nirguna Brahman or as Saguna Brahman. Nirguna means “without qualities”; Saguna means “with qualities.”

Whenever you talk about god with qualities; for example, saying god is love, god is just, god is creator, etc., this is often regarded by some of the Hindu philosophers as speaking of Brahman as “Saguna,” that is, with qualities. It is believed that the higher way of speaking of god, or the higher way of understanding god is never with qualities, but rather without qualities, Nirguna Brahman. If Brahman is spoken of in any kind of descriptive way, it goes to the lower level of Saguna. If he is spoken of in general categories, this is Nirguna Brahman. This is very important obviously for Christian proclamation because Christians often talk about God in very personal, descriptive terminologies: God is personal, God is loving, He came to die on the cross for us, etc. All of that language is reduced to Saguna Brahman, Brahman with qualities, and is believed by Hindus to be ultimately illusory.

Nirguna Brahman is ultimately the only proper way that god can be spoken of. That is to say, without any descriptive or qualifying elements. Otherwise, they believe it is simply human attempts to impose upon the ineffable reality some kind of human qualities or conceptions which simply cannot be made about the ultimate reality. The word “Brahman” is a very important concept that does dwell clearly in the Hindu firmament and has to be understood as part of the major discussion and yet left open-ended in terms of how many Hindus understand the term, “Brahman.”


The second of the ten key themes is the term “atman.” Atman is the word for soul or essence in Hinduism. Atman refers to the ground of our being. It is our essence. It is sometimes translated as “universal soul.” Atman is that which is the basis of all reality. This is a fundamental concept in Hinduism. If you ask the question, “What is the essence of the ‘I” itself?” the answer is “atman.” This is the stuff which forms the essence of humanity, but also it is the essence of everything, including plants, animals, even rocks and inanimate objects.  The atman can be captured within various impurities and finite existences, but it is ultimately detached from physical existence. You may have heard of the doctrine of reincarnation. The atman is that which migrates from body to body and is re-manifested in various lifetimes. This is the essence of the person that lies beneath all of the outward accretions, including the human body. This is often why it is translated a “soul” or “self” because they are trying to get it down to the essence of what makes us “us.” The word “atman” is an important term in the Upanishads and continues to play a key role in Hinduism. 


The third theme in the Upanishads is a phrase which must be understood in order to understand how the philosophers approached the Upanishads. It is a phrase in Sanskrit, “Tat Tvam Asi.” This is a phrase which means, “thou art that” or “you are that.” It is a phrase that comes from one of the Upanishads, the Chandogya Upanishad. It is in reference to a discussion that goes on between a teacher and his student.  In the course of this guru talking to his student, he points to various things that he sees and he tells the student that the essence of that item, whether it be a rock or a person or anything, the essence of that is atman and you are that. You are the essence of the sea, you are the essence of the tree, you are the essence of a lump of clay; whatever it is that one points to, it shares the same essence that we share. The key insight of the Upanishads is the recognition that your essence is identical with the essence of the universe. This is the phrase, “Tat Tvam Asi, you are that.” There is no “I and thou”. There is no “me and you.” We all share an in-common essence, a common ground of being and this ground of being is known as “atman” and “Tat Tvam Asi” is identification between our essence and the essence of the whole universe.

We have already learned that Brahman is the fundamental, undergirding essence of the universe; and of course, the great insight of the Upanishads is that there is no difference between the essence that we have and the essence of the universe or the essence of Brahman, which is the essence of all things. This is a way of identifying your essence with the essence of Brahman and the essence of the whole universe and it is summarized in this phrase, “Tat Tvam Asi.” It is widely believed to be one of the most important insights of the Upanishads and is part of what in Hinduism is often called a cosmical homology.  This means the ability to take something small and through it, understand something that applies to the whole universe. The belief is, if you can understand the essence of your own self, which is atman, then by implication you can understand the essence of the whole universe. This idea of extending what you observe on a small scale, to what is true of the whole universe, is very important in Hinduism and it is summarized by this expression, “Tat Tvam Asi.”


The fourth of our ten key themes in the Upanishads is the term “samsara.”  Samsara literally means “flow.” It is like a river flowing or a wheel that turns around and around and around. Maybe you have seen the Indian flag. You notice that on the flag, in the very center of it, is a wheel. This is a key theme in India, the idea of the ever-turning wheel. It refers to the individual cycle of life and death and rebirth, which never ends in the Hindu worldview until you have this insight of Tat Tvam Asi, that your essence is the same as the essence of the universe. In the meantime, we are trapped on the little samsara and we continue to be reborn into the world. Samsara is the point of anguish. This is the problem, the key problem in Hinduism. It is from this doctrine of samsara that the important doctrine of transmigration or reincarnation flows within Hinduism.  As long as we remain trapped in separate, independent existence; that is, we think that we are separate, we think that there is an “I” and we think that there is a “thou;” rather than seeing everything as a part of that single essence, we will continue to migrate into new forms of existence.  Upon death, your atman, that is, your essence, will migrate to a new life and re-born and re-birthed and you will live another life. This will continue repeatedly until you finally break free from the wheel of samsara and are liberated in a term which is called “moksha” which we will look at later on: that is, release, a salvation term.

Samsara is important. This is the individual cycle of life and rebirth and transmigration or reincarnation flows out of that. In the full lecture, we have extensive discussion about how the real samsara is understood in terms of actual years. They believe that this wheel that turns is divided into different periods of time that last anywhere from 432,000 years to 1.7 million years as this wheel turns. It is quite a remarkable way of understanding the Hindu view of time, which is much more cyclical than our more linear time. If you are interested in that discussion, you can listen to the lectures about samsara, which give the full insight about that. 


The fifth of the ten terms is the term, “maya.” Maya is quite a difficult term actually to define with absolute accuracy.  Some will define the term maya as “appearance” or “illusion:” and by that implying that for the Hindus the world is somehow illusory or not real. There is no doubt that some Indian thinkers do use the term maya to refer to illusion and argue that the world is illusory. However, I think the majority of Indian scholars would find this to be an improper definition or translation of the word “maya.” The word maya makes a distinction between the phenomenal world – that is, the world of our senses, which cannot be identified with Nirguna Brahman – and the real world, the true world, which is somehow lodged behind the things that we see. They do believe that the things that we see and experience are real. As you walk down the road, you look down at the road or if you meet somebody on the road and shake hands with them, they don’t deny that those things are real. It is simply that those things do not have ultimate reality. Those things are part of a false view of the world because you are still seeing things in separateness, rather than in ultimate unity, which is atman and Brahman.  So maya, I believe, is better defined as simply, “a false way of looking at the world,” a false way of looking at the world due to ignorance or the superimposition of ultimate reality upon it.


The sixth term of the ten is the term, “karma.” Karma is a term that most of you have heard of, I’m sure. It is certainly a very important term in the broader scheme of Hinduism as well as Buddhism. The word karma means literally, “act or deed.” It is one of the eternal principles present in the universe which Hindus regard as immutable. It is an immutable law of cause and effect, or sowing and reaping. Karma states that every action is the effect of a cause; and it is in turn the cause of an effect. All karma is every deed or every act that you perform in your life has a corresponding effect which either further imbeds you in the state of samsara, or will further liberate you from the bondage of samsara and ignorance and the way we falsely superimpose our ideas on the world; and eventually we get released into a liberated state. Therefore, karma is an extremely important concept. There are different kinds of karma the Hindus refer to in their writings. Again, the full lectures have a further exposition of what karma is.


The seventh term is the term “moksha.” Moksha refers to release from the bonds of karma or samsara. This is an important term because this is essentially the salvation or liberation word in Hinduism. This is the esoterico-logical equivalent of salvation in Christianity. Moksha means “release.” This is the goal of Hinduism, that is a result of the realization and the appropriation via good karma of the truth that your atman is one with Brahman.  Moksha is what happens when you finally recognize the truth of Tat Tvam Asi, that thou art that, your identity is the same as the identity of the universe. That is the most important cosmic homology; that is, the ratio between your life and the whole essence of the universe. That identity is the basis of all Hinduism. This why Hinduism is ultimately characterized as monistic; that is, believing in one fundamental reality in the whole universe. That reality is known as “Brahman.” The great insight of Hinduism is that your atman is Brahman. “I am that, thou art that” and when you achieve that realization, you enter into moksha and release from the wheel of samsara. You can begin to see how all of these terms actually fit together in creating the building blocks of the Indian worldview.


The eighth of our ten terms is the term “monism.” This is actually a term we have already discussed in passing because monism simply means that there is only one ultimate principle of existence or being. Reality is not divided, there is not god and then the other; everything is Brahman. At its essence, there are no distinctions between anything and the essence of the universe and the essence of Brahman. This is a classic example of a monistic religion. However, it is critical to understand that in the Hindu discussion they often do not use the word “monism.” Monism is more often used in western discussions about Hinduism that use classical western categories. I want to introduce you to the concept of monism because it is important in your reading of western literature about Hinduism because it is often regarded as monistic. I want to alert you to the fact that even though this is a very commonly used term in the west in terms of referring to Hinduism as a monistic worldview, in the Indian worldview you will encounter the term, not monism but non-dualism. It is a negated way of saying the same thing. Rather than saying, “We are monistic,” they say, “We are not dualistic” when you are non-dualistic. That is more commonly the way that you hear it referred to among eastern writers. 


The ninth of the ten terms is the term, “yoga.” Yoga is a term which in many ways will cause us problems because we have to first erase our databank about what we think about the word “yoga” and begin to kind of re-establish the word “yoga” from its traditional base to where we are today. Yoga has come into the American vocabulary to refer to certain kinds of guided exercises, kind of like a spiritual aerobics program with an eastern flavor to it, or a more holistic exercise, etc. Actually, the term “yoga” goes back to a very different kind of setting. We need to explain that and then show it is tied into the more American western conception today.

Yoga is actually one of six schools of Hindu philosophy. Hinduism is divided into six schools of thought that are accepted as legitimate schools of philosophy. One of these is the school of yoga. It is actually the fourth of the six schools of Hindu philosophy. The reason yoga got associated with all of the breathing techniques and various exercises you are familiar with is because the yoga school of philosophy basically says they agree with another school of philosophy in terms of its teaching, the teaching of a school called “Samkhya” who believe that Samkhya, the realization of those truths, could not be realized without performing certain meditative techniques. Yoga became the way that a person could achieve Samkhya, going through various meditation and guided exercises that are now part of the larger world of yoga and how it is viewed in the west.

Yoga must first be seen as a school teaching philosophy and later, a much broader usage, refers to just a way or a path toward liberation. Not just a specific remedy of yoga to achieve the goals of Samkhya; but yoga can be used quite widely to refer to which way on the path of liberation do you follow? What is your means of being liberated from sorrow? What is your yoga? It can be a path or a way towards liberation.  This usage has occurred because yoga has involved a lot of emphasis on breath control, posture, meditation, concentration, etc.  That becomes actually a very important aspect of Hindu thought.  Because Hindus believe that resonating throughout the universe is an un-struck sound which is often identified with the expression, “aum.” If you know Hinduism, you will know that the most important mantra in Hinduism is this expression, “aum.” It is often spelled “a-u-m” because of the diphthong, the sliding sound from the “a” to the “u” leading to the “m.” This sound, which is made by Hindus all over the world, is believed to be the sound that resonates through the entire universe.  Often in meditation Hindus will connect with this sound and will make the sound and try to get into a spiritual resonance with it. They believe that once you get into the resonance with the aum, you can begin to hear the words of revelation and other insights that come out of the Hindu worldview. Yoga was such a specialty in this that it became identified with various techniques and ways people use to attain liberation. Therefore, the term “yoga” has quite a number of broad and also very specific usages.  You should be aware of that and discuss it in thinking about Hinduism.


The tenth and final concept that we need to look at in this summary lecture is actually not a theme which is particularly dominant in the Upanishads; but I believe it is vital to be aware of because of the theological implications of it for Christian reflection later on in Hinduism. There are 18 Upanishads that form the collection from which we are now looking at some of the themes. As I mentioned before, Brahman is defined and described in various ways in the text, but other times they refuse to define him. This led to the distinction between Brahman without qualities and Brahman with qualities.

However, at the very end of the Upanishads, in the last Upanishad, there is a point where it seems that the Upanishads are willing to make certain limited statements describing Brahman; and yet clearly making it clear this is Nirguna Brahman. This is the highest level of Brahman. It is in these three words, “Sat chit ananda.” This is collectively known as “the doctrine of Sat Chit Ananda It is essentially moving these three words together into one word. These three terms can be translated in English as “being, consciousness and bliss”.  Sat is “being.” “Chit” is consciousness. “Ananda” is bliss or joy.

This is important because later Indian Christian theologians will use this concept to advance Christian discussion and even the doctrine of The Trinity within the Indian worldview. In the full lectures, we actually have an entire case study where we examine how certain Indian Christians have tried to use the terms, Sat, Chit and Ananda, to promote the idea of The Trinity to Hindus. It is important because it is a doorway to actually talk about God at the highest level. Almost anything you say about God is automatically reduced to a lower level, to Saguna which is then in turn denounced as illusory. There must be a way to break in with a discussion about God at the highest level; those who have been able to identify The Trinity with being, consciousness and bliss and giving it more personalistic ramifications have been quite successful, I think, in opening up a door of discussion with Hindus.

All of these concepts that are there in the Upanishads are actually developed textually in a number of very important ways. In the full lecture, we actually take time to look at 13 key texts in the Upanishads, which I call the Mahavakyas of the Upanishads. The word “Mahavakya” means “the great utterances of the Upanishads.” We take time to actually examine all 13 of these passages because these are the most important 13 passages found in the Upanishads. This would be comparable to going through the entire Bible and picking out key texts, like the creation account, the giving of The Ten Commandments, the return from exile, Jesus Christ’s birth, the teachings of Christ, sermon on the mount, the resurrection, Paul’s letters, etc.; to try to pick out key texts from Genesis 1, Romans 8, Revelations 7, whatever; major texts that are critical to understanding the overall framework of The New Testament, indeed the entire Bible.

In the same way, because the Upanishads represents quite a voluminous amount of material, it would be difficult to wade through all of it without some guidance.  I have distilled the Upanishads into these themes which we looked at, these ten themes. Then we look at actually 13 passages and we show how those passages elucidate these themes that we have looked at and to fill out some of the theology of the Upanishads called the Mahavakyas, the great utterances of the Upanishads.

It is in the full lecture, not in the summary lectures, that you get an examination of all 13 of these passages. We turn to the passages, we read the passage and we discuss it in full.


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