Social Studies School Service
Our Guarantee



© Learning Zone Express.
Hinduism is considered the world's oldest living religion. It originated in India approximately 4,000 years ago. Most Hindus live in India, with approximately 83% of Indians belonging to this faith. The Immigration Act of 1965 has increased migration of Hindus to the United States. The USA census of the year 2000 is expected to report 1,000,000 people with Indian ancestry.

Basic Beliefs

Hinduism is different from most religions. There is no prophet, no book, no dogma. They use poetic phrases passed down thousands of years to express their philosophy of life. Writings such as the Bhagwad Gita (BUHG un vvhd GEE tah) contain statements such as, "Truth is one, the wise perceive it in many ways". Statements such as this recognize the possible limitations of their viewpoint. They are receptive to the opinion of others. They refuse to condemn society to a single interpretation of reality.

Gods & Goddesses

Hindus have numerous gods and goddesses; but they are all manifestations of one supreme being, Brahmam or the Universal Spirit. Hindus believe that everything is cyclic. The universe has been created, sustained, and destroyed many times. There are three major expressions of Brahman who rule over these manifestations of the universe:
  1. Brahman, who created the world
  2. Vishnu, who sustains the universe for 432 million human years
  3. Shiva, who destroys the universe. This begins the cycle again.
Brahman is not generally worshipped by the individual. Vishnu and Shiva are the two main gods of Hinduism that are worshipped by the masses. Vishnu has a kindly nature and is thought to try to insure the welfare of humanity. He descends from heaven to earth in one of his avatars (physical forms) whenever a catastrophe faces the universe or if humanity needs comfort and guidance. While Vishnu is very involved with humanity, Shiva is aloof from people. He is sometimes pictured meditating alone. Shiva has a third eye of higher consciousness or wisdom located in his forehead. He has great power and is beyond the distinctions of good and evil. He can be loving. He saves man by "drinking" (removing) man's sins, hence Shiva's throat is blue.

Water is used in all rituals; it is an element of purification. The faithful offer water to the Gods, to the Wise Ones, and to the souls of the departed. To the water itself, is offered milk, as a symbol of fertility and plenty. In India, the river is considered a loving mother dispensing bounty, fertility, and prosperity. The Ganges (GAN jeez) River, the greatest waterway in India is also considered the most sacred. It is called Mother Ganges by millions of Hindus. Each year millions visit it, bathe in it, and take samples home. Those that are ill hope to be cured by the water. If not cured, at least to die in its comforting waters, since it is thought that they will go straight to Paradise.

Great Temples exist throughout India; they honor different gods. Hindus go to the Temple to worship as individuals. They do not worship as a congregation nor is there any day set aside for worship. The Temples are spread over acres and are like little towns. In the outer areas one will find tanks for ritualistic bathing, shrines, halls, and bazaars. Artists and sculptors practice their professions and sell their wares. Vendors hawk flowers, sandalwood, and souvenirs. The inner part of the Temple is where the image of the deity is kept. As one prays in this cool, darkened prayer hall; it is believed that the soul unites with the three forms of Brahman.

Devout Hindus also start their mornings with personal prayer and religious rituals (puja). The worship can not begin until he visits a stream to touch the purifying waters. Before eating, puja is also performed.

Reincarnation & Castes

Hindus believe nothing that once existed is ever completely destroyed, it merely undergoes a change in its form. Reincarnation is the rebirth of the soul after death into the body of another. This belief in reincarnation has resulted in a caste system. The castes divide the people into lifelong social positions. They are born into a caste. It is felt that the way one has lived in a previous life dictates into which caste you are born. If you have been a good person you are awarded by being born into a higher caste. The person who has been evil is punished by having to live his life as part of a lower caste. The original castes or orders were based on the different parts of the body of a god, Purusa.
  • Mouth - priests and teachers called Brahmins
  • Arms - warriors and rulers, the Ksatriyas
  • Thigh - farmers and traders, Vaisyas
  • Feet - menial laborers, the Sudras
Today these four original divisions have been divided into thousands of different castes. For each caste there are definite rules and regulations that dictate with whom they could marry, with whom they could socialize, and what they could eat.

Those that did not belong to any caste were thought to be created from darkness that Brahma discarded when he was creating the universe. These are known as outcasts or untouchables. The government has tried to outlaw the caste system, especially untouchables, but it has been difficult in the small villages.

  • Brahmins are the privileged or highest caste. Originally they were not permitted to engage in any type of work other than study and religious teachings. Now they can become lawyers, doctors, businessmen, government employees or university professors. Being a member of this caste still retains an esteemed social position. Originally, those from other castes were expected to support and sustain the Brahmins with gifts of food or money. The gifts provided the donator great benefits or merit. Brahmins are expected to be lacto-vegetarians.
  • Ksatriyas as the warriors and rulers were originally obligated to protect the community. They had to be willing to give their lives to protect the Brahmins and the sacred animals. Since they were warriors they were permitted to kill animals, other than the sacred cow, to eat.
  • The Vaisyas as farmers and traders were supposed to make money to improve the economic conditions of the country. They were encouraged to give gifts to the Brahmins and money to build Temples.
  • The Sudras serve the three higher classes with diligence and humbleness. Some of the subdivisions created out of this class are the weavers and the carpenters.
  • The outcasts or untouchables are not allowed to enter the villages and towns except to do the most menial labor. They are not allowed to own land or to build houses. They live in wretched conditions.

Hinduism & Food


Hindus believe that all living things contain a part of the divine spirit. Therefore, all life is sacred. If you take the life of even the smallest creature it is as if you harm part of Brahman. Most pious Hindus, especially Brahmins, are lacto-vegetarians. This means that the only animal food that they eat are dairy foods. The pious do not eat eggs since they are the beginning of life. As vegetarianism is considered the most desired method of eating, non-vegetarians eat vegetarian meals on auspicious or religious occasions. Avoiding meat is thought to contribute to inner self-improvement and physical well-being. Even some vegetables are considered taboo by Orthodox Hindus who do not eat onion, garlic, turnips, or mushrooms.

Meats Eaten: Those that do eat meat, eat it in small amounts with starches such as rice or bread. The main meat consumed by Hindu non-vegetarians is goat while some enjoy lamb or buffalo. Chicken and pork are sometimes avoided since these two animals are scavengers and they are considered unclean. Hindus who live in the area of Bengal (Eastern India) and on the Western coastal area eat fish.

Sacred Cow

All Hindus avoid eating beef since they venerate the cow. The cows appear to know that they are sacred. It is estimated that 40,000 cows wander the streets of New Delhi being patted by each person they meet. They amble slowly crossing highways or relax in the middle of the road if they feel so inclined. While all animals are considered sacred, the cow has been singled out as particularly sacred because they:
  • Have given years of faithful service in helping man till the soil and pull the carts
  • Provide man with food, milk.
  • Provide man with fuel, in form of cow dung, to heat his home and cook his food.
  • In Hindu mythology the cow was created by Brahman on the same day as the Brahmins thus it is an animal venerated above all others.
  • Symbol of motherhood.

Foods Effects

Hindus believe that there is a connection between foods, moods, fitness and longevity. Foods are divided into three major categories depending upon how they are believed to effect the body.
  • Sattvic foods are thought to contribute to making a person serene, enlightened, healthy, and long-lived. It is considered very complimentary to say that at a person is sattvic. Sattvic foods include rice, wheat, ghee, most legumes, some other vegetables, milk and milk products (except cheeses made from rennet). Rennet comes from the stomach of animals; to obtain it, the animal would have to be slaughtered.
  • Rajasic foods are believed to contribute to a person becoming aggressive, greedy, passionate and desiring of power. Warriors were encouraged to eat these foods. Rajasic foods are some meats, eggs, and foods that are very bitter, sour, salty, rich and/or spicy.
  • Tamasic foods when used for pleasure and in excess can contribute to lust, malice, confusion, slothfulness, and dullness. These foods are garlic, pickled, preserved, stale, or rotten foods and alcohol or drugs.

Indian Medicine

The classic system of Indian medicine called Ayurveda (the Code of Life and Longevity) involves the interaction of "humors" in the body and foods. If they are in balance the body will be healthy, out of balance the body will become ill.
  • Kapha foods like white sugar, millet and buttermilk are thought to be heavy, dense, and mucus-producing. They should be avoided when one suffers from respiratory ailments.
  • Vata or vayu are the "wind" or gas producing foods such as some legumes. They are thought to be "unpredictable" and should be avoided when the stomach is bloated.
  • "Hot" or ushna foods include mungo bean, cowpea, ripe eggplant, and papaya. These foods are thought to promote digestion.
  • "Cool" or seeta foods consist of the "typical" foods eaten by a lacto-vegetarian; many cereals, like rice, wheat, mung beans, kidney beans, most fruits and vegetables, milk from most animals except goats, butter and ghee. These foods are thought to impart strength and nourishment.

Obesity Disapproved

Even when one is eating proper foods, moderation is advocated since obesity is not approved. The laws of food consumption dictate that solid food should fill half the stomach, liquid one-fourth, and the remainder should be left empty for smooth digestion.

Fasting is practiced by many Hindus on days particular to the god that they worship. There is no "formula" for fasting as in other religions. It can be for one meal, part of the day, or for a few days, or can just involve eating a sparse diet or avoiding a particular food group. Fasting is thought to cleanse the body and uplift the spirit.

Sacred Kitchen

In the Hindu home the kitchen is considered sacred. Proper reference must be observed when preparing and consuming food. Those who prepare, and those who eat, must purify themselves first by ritual bathing of the entire body.

A Brahmin will not accept cooked food from a member of a lower caste, but will accept uncooked food. The shadow of a lower caste person can render the food unfit to eat.

There are vast differences between North and South India, not only in culture, language, and climate, but also in cuisine.


The total or partial abstention from meat by the Hindus has produced a cuisine that consists of a wide variety of plant-based dishes. Distinct flavors are produced through the use of a large assortment of spices and condiments. The kind of seasonings used vary with the dish, geographical region and purpose.
  • Gharam masala: Whole spices are purchased and taken home to grind and combine to make gharam masala. There are some spices that are generally always included in gharam masala. These would be coriander, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, nutmeg, and mace. In the United States one can purchase "curry powder" which is a combination of many ground spices.
  • Garlic, cumin, and asafetida: Indian food is often thought of as very flavorful and aromatic due partly to the use of garlic, cumin, and asafetida. Asafetida or hing, is a resin with a sharp smell that is used only in small quantities. In the United States this spice can only be found in Indian grocery stores.
  • Turmeric which produces a yellow color in many Indian dishes is also used as an antiseptic. Turmeric is a root that is generally used in powdered form. It is often found in "curry powder".
  • Tamarind: The sour pulp of the fruit of the tamarind tree is particularly popular in Southern India. It imparts a brownish coloring and a tart flavor that is appetizingly undefinable.
Medicines/Preservatives: Some seasonings are used as medicines; in India as well as the United States. Ginger is known to help an upset stomach. Salt and chilies contribute and enhance distinct flavors, but are also used in the hot climates to prevent spoilage.

Flavor Enhancing: In India seasonings are not just added to a dish as in the United States; they first must be prepared. Oil is heated in a skillet, the desired condiments and spices are added and then cooked to intensify the flavors. The cooked seasonings are added to the cooked entree or side dish.

Traditional Indian Meal

A traditional meal would be Curry (either Vegetarian or with Meat), eaten with hot rice and/or bread. Curries are not served over the bread; the bread is served on the side. Dal is often a fourth item included in an Indian meal. Relishes such as fried wafers, chutney or pickles may be added. Water is the preferred beverage, but spiced tea or coffee may be served.

The traditional way to serve an Indian meal is on a large metal plate of either silver, brass, or stainless steel called a thali. The rice is placed in a heap in the center of the thali and is surrounded by little bowls containing the various prepared items. Diners serve themselves by mushing foods together with the right hand and daintily carrying it to the mouth. An alternative is to tear a piece of bread and use it as a edible utensil. It is important to use the right hand since left hands are reserved for personal hygiene. Today in more wealthy homes, plates, spoons and forks are used.

  • Curries: India is known for its curries. A curry is a stew-like preparation of meats and/or vegetables. In India the food preparer would go to the market to carefully chose the spices to make the gharam masala that would enhance the ingredients used in the meat and/or vegetable curry to be prepared. Curries may be very dry or they may have a lot of gravy. Generally curries eaten with bread have a thickish gravy; while a curry with a thinner gravy is eaten with rice. Also, vegetables taste better with a thicker gravy, but meat and poultry produce juices that contribute flavor to a thinner gravy.
  • Tandoori or roast style: This is the driest form of meat preparation. Meat is marinated in spices and yoghurt. As the meat cooks in a very hot oven it absorbs the moisture resulting in a crisp texture. Tandooris are generally served with the yeast bread, nan.
  • Nuts of all kinds are used and served. Toasted and salted nuts are ever-present as nibbles and appetizers. They are often crushed or ground to form part of sauces, confections and desserts.
  • Rice is almost always served. It can be cooked plain or as a pullao (pilaf), with vegetables and/or meat.
  • Bread: In the northern part of India, bread is more popular than rice. However, different breads are eaten in the various regions of this large country. They include chappati, puri, and paratha. They are all non-yeast containing, but different in their thicknesses. Chappati is the thinnest; and paratha is the thickest and is sometimes stuffed.
  • Dal: Lentils are cooked to a sauce. Dal resembles lentil soup, but the cooking process is different. Dal over rice is a staple in many Indian homes, particularly those that follow a vegetarian life style.
  • Yoghurt is not only enjoyed for its tangy flavor, but it is thought to have all kinds of medicinal and therapeutic properties. Only plain yoghurt is used; not even vanilla flavored would be acceptable.
  • Raita is a light yoghurt dish that contains broiled, boiled, chopped, or grated vegetables or fruit. Cucumber raita is a special favorite.
  • Pappadoms (fried wafers), Chutneys, and pickles are welcome additions to many meals. Pappadoms are lentil-based, tortilla-like crackers which can be crumbled into rice and curry, or nibbled as an appetizer. They are generally purchased. Chutneys are sweet or salty relishes eaten with other dishes. Like curries, there are many different chutneys. Indian pickles are very spicy and tangy and are usually in mustard oil.
  • Cooking oil: Depending on the region, the oil used differs. In different regions one will find mustard seed oil, coconut oil, sesame seed oil, peanut oil, etc. Ghee is also used.
  • Ghee is a sacred food. Ghee is butter that has been clarified. The butter is heated over low heat to remove the water and to produce a pure fat. The heating causes browning and a distinct aroma. It is used as a flavoring or as a topping for rice and breads.
  • Desserts are not generally eaten after a meal. However, the desserts they have are generally rice or milk based.
  • Coconut: To insure a successful endeavor a coconut is cracked. Coconuts are considered sacred since they have three eyes on one end which represent the three eyes of Shiva. Shiva's third eye in the middle of his forehead is supposed to be the eye of Wisdom.
  • Beverages: Milk is one of the favored foods, but it is also one of the most expensive. Spiced, sweetened tea is the beverage of choice in Northern India. Sweetened coffee is favored in the South. Water is the preferred beverage with meals.
  • Alcohol: Drinking alcohol is a major sin in Hindu sacred law. There is, however, historical evidence that various wines were drunk.


With the myriad of gods worshipped in India, there are many religious observances. Even the New Year is celebrated by different groups at different times of the year. Diwali or the "festival of lights" celebrated in November is one of the best known New Year celebrations. Much preparation is made for the five day celebration. Lights shine in every window to guide good fortune and friends to the house. Young girls make "divas' out of shallow clay dishes filled with kerosene and a cotton wick. Set afloat in the river, it is hoped that the divas make it to the other shore still lit, to insure the maker's wishes will come true. Much time is spent in the Temple as well as in merry making. The final day is spent visiting friends and taking them a gift of homemade candy (barfi) as a symbol of friendship.

Permission is hereby granted to reproduce and distribute this publication for educational and research purposes. Any reproduction of this publication for commercial use is prohibited.