Fact sheets

An Introduction to HINDUISM in Australia

Hinduism is the oldest of the major religions in the world going back at least 5,000 years. It evolved gradually, originally in the area that is now northern India. In the course of its development it was influenced by the various groups of people who migrated to India and also by Buddhism and Islam. Although Hinduism is today the world's third largest religion and many of its 800 million followers live in many countries, most still live in India. Within Hinduism there are many variations in both the beliefs and ways of life.

Hindus call their religion Sanatana dharma which means the "immemorial way of right living". Hindus trace their beliefs to ancient scriptures called the Vedas which they believe are the revelations of God. Though there are many gods in Hinduism, Hindus believe there is one Supreme Being, Brahman, who is the source of all existence. There is some difference within Hinduism, however, about the nature of that Supreme Being. Most Hindus say that God is beyond name and form, but that God can be worshipped through a variety of forms. They see all the numerous gods and goddesses of Hinduism as many different manifestations of the one God. Other Hindus believe that the one God is really Lord Shiva and that other gods are lesser divinities. Still others believe that Lord Vishnu is the one true God and all others are demigods.

Hindus do not see themselves as worshipping idols. They believe that God can be worshipped with or without form. It is left to the choice of the devotee. Those who worship God through form believe that God is present within consecrated images. They do not worship a mere stone, they worship God whom they believe to be especially present within the consecrated image.

There are two main gods in Hinduism today, Lord Vishnu who has incarnated as Rama and Krishna, and Lord Shiva. Lord Vishnu's wife is Lakshmi, the goddess of beauty and prosperity. Lord Shiva's wife is Parvati who represents his power or shakti. She is the Mother Goddess and is further manifested as Durga who destroys evil and as Kali who calms fears. Shiva and Parvati's son is the much loved Ganesha who represents wisdom and freedom from obstacles.

Hinduism divided society into four varnas or groups, the Brahmins who were priests, the Kshatriyas who were soldiers and rulers, the Vaishyas who were shopkeepers, traders and farmers and the Shudras who were servants for the other three. There were also people who were outside the varnas called the Dalit, outcasts who performed the lowest tasks. The varna a person is born into is the result of good and bad deeds or karma in previous lives. This caste system was outlawed in India in 1949 but it remains a significant force.

Hindus believe in samsara or reincarnation. When a person dies they believe the soul or atman moves on to another being. Hindus believe that the souls of plants, animals and people are all the same, hence their respect for all life. Many Hindus are vegetarian. Cows are sacred to Hindus because they represent the earth which is said to be a goddess and, like the earth, the cow takes little, just grass, and gives much in return.

Hindus believe that every person has their own dharma or duty according to their background and varna, which includes worshipping God, working hard and not hurting other people and animals. Hindus have four aims in life. The first is to do their dharma to the best of their ability, the second is artha, providing for their family and the third is kama, being able to enjoy life in a moderate way. When these three aims are achieved the fourth aim is moksha which allows a person's soul to break out of the cycle of rebirth and join with Brahman. There are four yogas or paths people may take to achieve moksha. They are the paths of knowledge, meditation, devotion and good works. Hindus worship in temples but because they believe God is in everything every part of life can be part of worship. Most Hindu homes have a shrine where the family worships at least once a day.

There are hundreds of places of pilgrimage all over India. The four most important temples are in the north, south, east and west corners of the country. Hindus try to visit all four during their lives. Because water is necessary for life Hindus believe that rivers are a symbol of God and that bathing in one of the seven holy rivers will wash away sin. The River Ganga (Ganges) is the most famous. Many Hindus have little bottles of water from the river in their family shrine.

The most important Hindu festival is Divali. It celebrates the return of Rama and Sita from exile and also the day Mother Goddess destroyed the demon Mahisha. It is a time for honouring the goddess Lakshmi, settling accounts and making up quarrels and arguments. Houses are cleaned and decorated with rows of little lamps called divas. There are many other festivals. Navatri celebrates the worship of the Mother Goddess and her victory over evil. Janamasthami celebrates the birth of Krishna and Ramanavmi the birth of Rama. Guru Purnima honours the teachers. Raksha Bandhan honours the relationship between brothers and sisters. Holi celebrates the arrival of spring in India but in Australia it celebrates harvest with bonfires and feasts.

Most Hindu holy books are written in Sanskrit, an ancient language which is only spoken by scholars. The Vedas are the oldest of the Hindu holy books. The Vedas go back to 1200 BCE but were not written down until about 1400 CE. Hindus believe that they came from God and are the basic truths which never change. Instructions about how Hindus should live their lives are contained in 2685 verses in the books of the Laws of Manu which were written down before 300CE.

The symbol used for Hinduism is the Sanskrit letters for the sound Aum (pronounced Ah-oo-m) which represents God. Aum begins and ends all prayers, chants and hymns.

Indian crews from the Bay of Bengal came to Australia on trading ships soon after 1788 and others came later as labourers in convict ships. A few Hindus came to live and work in Australia under the system of recruiting indentured labour in the 1830s, some came as camel drivers and some as itinerant merchants or hawkers There were very few women or children among the immigrants and many men travelled back and forth to their original homelands, some returning permanently. By 1896 a firm of merchants from Hyderabad in India had branches in Melbourne. In 1898 about thirty merchants from Sindh settled in Melbourne including Mr Pamammull. He began as an opal polisher and established an opal trading enterprise which is continued today by his third and fourth generation descendants.

By 1911 there were an estimated 1,000 Hindus in Australia. As a result of immigration policies, no major immigration of Hindus took place until the 1960s and 1970s. However in the 2011 Australian Census 276,000 people recorded an affiliation with Hinduism This was an increase of 189% since the 2006 Census making Hinduism the fastest growing religion in that time. About 85% of Hindus now living in Australia were born overseas in countries including Fiji, India, Sri Lanka and South Africa.

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Theme: Cultural diversity and multiculturalism