Because Hinduism is a massive presence in India, travelers and tourists might benefit from this guide.
So, all over the world, India is known as a holy country.
As a result, when some people think of India, they may think of specific things.
For example, maybe the happy people of Hare Krishna, Yoga, and lots and lots of devotees.
Of course, India is a modern country.
But, yes, India is also a country full of holy sites.
Because the country is predominantly Hindu, a traveler will be surrounded by Hindu beliefs and customs.
And there is no place in India more Hindu than Banaras, or Varanasi, or Kashi—whatever name you use.
So, let’s talk about Hinduism through the eyes of Banaras.
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Hinduism is composed of millions of gods, holy days exceeding a thousand, and over a billion followers.
Because it’s a massive religion, it’s rather liberal, unlike any other major religions in the world.
For instance, you probably won’t see any Hindu civil wars.
How is this possible?
Well, it has to do with its primary foundation.
In Hinduism, it is a personal journey.
For example, your entire life is about what was, is, and will be—as it is related to you.
Because you live around karma, you’re living with what you did in the past and are working towards the future.
So, karma is the root.
Karma is a Hindu spiritual principle that dominates existence because it has cause and effect.
For instance, the intention and actions of a soul will, without a doubt, influence the future of that soul.
“It all depends on the path you’re following,” says Prakash, a pandit (Hindu scholar) in Varanasi. “We don’t say your path is wrong, because we don’t know,” he adds. “Instead, we can say your path is different.”
In other words, life is your business.
As a result, no one cares what you “really” believe.
Therefore, no need for religious hatred.
But, of course, Hindus are like everyone, and they have religious hatred.
For example, there are Hindus who harass, beat up, and even kill non-Hindus because those non-Hindus eat beef.
Likewise, there are extremist Hindu groups, some of which India considers or considered in the past as terrorist groups.
Similarly, there is the concept of “saffron terror,” which takes into account Hindu violence.
Meanwhile, a Hindu extremist killed Gandhi, for example.
But, generally speaking, Hinduism is very peaceful.
A major misconception about Hinduism is that Hindus worship many “gods.”
When you speak to Hindus, you immediately find out this is not the case.
“We believe in one energy,” says Prakash, the scholar in Varanasi. “However, that energy can have unlimited representations!”
For example, compare this with Muslims beliefs of the 99 attributes of God or the Christian concept of Trinity.
So, there are millions of Hindu divine representations.
However, they are all representations of a particular divine energy.
In other words, Hindus believe everything goes back to one energy or what a Christian would call “God.”
This one energy is called brahman.
“Brahman doesn’t have one physical appearance or interpretation,” explains Shalu Sharma, the author of Hinduism Made Easy. “Brahman exists in many forms, so it is impossible to interpret this God in just one way.”
In other words, Brahman is the energy that all Hindu divine energies ultimately lead back to.
For example, someone might be a follower of Krishna (one of the most popular representations).
However, that person may believe Krishna is simply an avatar of Vishu (a more significant representation).
Finally, that person may believe Vishnu came from Brahman.
“But a person may choose Krishna because the Krishna representation speaks to that person’s heart,” explains Prakash.
Likewise, an animal such as snake or even flowing water like a river can represent God.
Similarly, sometimes a fantastical representation such as the elephant-headed Ganesha can be used.
“The energy is same, no matter what represents it,” says Prakash.
Now that you understand that part let us talk about popular representations that you will definitely encounter in India.
First of all, you should know that there are significant representations of God in both masculine and feminine.
For instance, there are three central masculine representations of God, known as trimurti (“three representations” in Sanskrit).
They are Brahma (not to be confused with Brahman), Vishu, and Shiva.
So, Brahma is responsible for the comic function of creation.
Then, there is Vishnu, who is the preserver.
On the other hand, you have Shiva, the destroyer.
Likewise, there are female counterparts.
For example, there is the tridevi (three feminine energies).
So, Brahma has a consort called Saraswati.
Likewise, Vishnu has Lakshmi.
And, similarly, Shiva has Parvati.
Of course, there are tons of people who follow one of the feminine representations!
Meanwhile, there is another group of Hindus who acknowledge the feminine energy being the main deity.
For example, Shakti is a female counterpart at the top and that the major power rests with the feminine.
In other words, some people believe that from Brahman came Shiva and Shakti.
However, they believe that masculine energy (Shiva) is just transcendent.
Therefore, the feminine energy (Shakti) is accessible to humans.
So, these followers are diverse.
Naturally, more and more followers will eventually lead to a denomination.
So, today most Hindus follow Shiva or Vishnu, or one of the avatars of Vishnu, or one of the children of Shiva, or one of the feminine consorts.
For example, someone might follow Rama, an avatar of Vishnu, or Ganesha, a child of Shiva, or Parvati, the consort of Shiva.
As such, the three largest denominations of Hinduism are Shaivism, Vaishnavism, and Shaktism.
So, Shaivism considers Shiva the mahadeva or Supreme Lord (the entity that connects to Brahman).
Likewise, Vaishnavism recognizes Vishnu as the Supreme Lord.
However, Shaktism takes the feminine form the Supreme Lord, and the faithful often follow one of the goddesses.
“I’m a believer in Shaivism,” says Prakash, the scholar. “I believe Shiva is both in the trimurti and is also the being beyond all of the other beings.”
So, according to Prakash, there is Brahman, and then from Brahman came Shiva.
“At this point, Shiva is not masculine energy or feminine energy,” explains Prakash.
Then, from Shiva came both Shiva and Shakti—the point at which masculine and feminine energies divide.
“The masculine energy further divides into Vishnu and Brahma,” says Prakash. “Likewise, the feminine Shakti energy divides into Parvati, Saraswati, and Lakshmi.”
However, Prakash is immediate to point out that not every single follower of Shaivaism believes this.
“For example, someone could believe the feminine is unimportant and is just a consort,” he explains. “So, such a person would not follow a female representation.”
In other words, don’t expect Hindu beliefs to “match” because they are diverse.
Although there are hundreds of thousands of mandir or temples across the country, there are some specific spots that are very holy.
For example, the sapta puri (literally, “seven cities”) are seven pilgrimage sites that are holy to diverse people.
In other words, these are cities in which multiple groups of worshippers might be heading to the same spot.
One could say these seven pilgrimage sites are the holiest places in the country.
They include Ayodhya (for Rama), Mathura (for Krishna), Haridwar (for Vishnu), Varanasi (for Shiva), Kanchipuram (for Parvati), Ujjain (for Shiva) and Dwarka (for Krishna).
Varanasi, also known as Banaras, gets the most pilgrims.
So, this is a major city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
It is a city with many names.
For instance, to many Hindus, it is Kashi.
Meanwhile, there are two Ganges tributaries known as Varuna and Assi, one in the north and the other in the south.
As a result, a major belief is that the city formed between the two and was named Varanasi.
Therefore, this is the name the Indian government uses.
Yet, the Bengali mispronunciation of “Varanasi” as Benares seems to have stuck in the form of Banaras.
It is also globally known as such.
Regardless of what you call it, it is undeniable that Varanasi is by far the spiritual capital of India.
It is home to over 25,000 temples in and around its city limits.
“Whatever this city is, it is only due to Shiva,” smiles Prakash. “I would say that you cannot find a city like this anywhere else in the world.”
Of course, it is also a city inhabited by diverse people.
For example, some come here for commercial reasons.
On the other hand, others come to serve the pilgrims.
Then, of course, there are those others who ended up taking such a residency by the practicality of it all.
For example, the Muslims who predominantly work as merchants, landlords, or tour guides.
Similarly, there are a host of professionals at the higher institutes, even if they are experts in religion or sociology.
However, no one can dispute the Hindu energy of this city.
The Ganges, known locally as ganga, is more than a river.
In fact, the locals refer to it as ganga devi.
It is a feminine representation of divine energy.
It is the avatar of energy with many names, including Jaahnavi, Bhagvati, Vaishnavi, Vishnupadi, Bhagvatpadi, Tripathaga, Payoshnika, Mahabhadra, Alaknanda, and many others.
“She heals all things, purifies the heart, and will give you real value,” says Prakash.
As a result, many temples are built on its banks.
“However, the temples are functional, but the real power is in the water,” explains Prakash.
So, twice a day, morning and evening, an aarti or the offering of light and incense are made to her.
Meanwhile, these days this pooja, or ritual offering, has become some tourist attraction.
Because of the singing, and that mostly a local crowd gathers, tourists are curious.
As such, it is the heartbeat of everything in the city.
So, the worshippers have many uses for the river.
For example, they come here to worship Ganga, to purify their bodies, and as a place of contemplation.
Likewise, they also use it to wash in general—both their bodies and their garments.
Meanwhile, for some locals, it is merely a source of water.
Of course, there is a significant tourist industry connected to the worship of the city in general, which uses it as a commercial space.
For example, there are boat owners, who rent their boats to tourists or to pilgrims.
In other words, they serve both for traveling between the different temples and crossing to the other side.
So, this is definitely more than a typical river.
However, this is a true case of the reality that even a river can represent God in Hinduism.
City of Shiva
Sure, the Ganga might flow through the town.
Sure, there might be celebrations in the morning and evening for her.
But, ultimately, this is the city of Shiva.
Among the Hindus, this is a city in which if you were to die while you are here, you might escape the wrath of reincarnation.
As such, it has been referred to as the city of the dead.
Shiva, as the destroyer, is the ultimate king of death.
His purest form, the mahakala, makes him literally the end of everything.
“Maha means greater,” explained Shivansh, a young priest, “and kala means time,” he added, as he eagerly continued, “So it means Lord Shiva is even greater than time!”
We will cover the city of the dying later, but let’s talk about Shiva for now.
For instance, Shivansh is part of a group whose love for Shiva leads them to a life of service.
“For Lord Shiva, I can do anything,” he says.
They come to work in the temples, in the city, or any other way they feel contributes.
Meanwhile, Shivansh says he had been groomed from a young age to become a priest.
“My family is priests,” he smiles. “I’m fortunate.”
There is so much passion in him when he talks about Shiva.
Place of Death
Because some Hindus believe a person who dies here escapes reincarnation, they come here when they suspect they’re dying.
For example, Vikram is a man who came to the city several years ago with his dying father.
“He was tired of this life and never wanted to return,” says Vikram.
After his father passed, he stayed.
Afterward, he stayed for economic reasons.
However, he now says there is a connection between him and his father that won’t allow him to leave.
“The goddess has gotten me here,” he said. “I will be here until I die, or when she no longer wants me here.”
So, because he speaks English well, Vikram works as a middleman between the boat owners and the tourists.
As a result, he says he makes a lot more money than he would have made back home selling eggs.
“Now I’m making four or five times more money,” he smiled.
There are many like Vikram whose death brought to the city.
Destiny of Souls
So, as you have seen in the diverse personalities here, Hindus come in all kinds.
For example, there are Hindus of different castes.
“Every person has a role in the world,” says Prakash. “It is the destiny of that soul what the role is,” he adds.
However, this role changes.
For example, a person can be born in a high caste one time.
However, if the person abused their privilege, then they could come back in a lower caste the next life.
So, in Hinduism, there are four levels of social status called varna.
“For example, a person like myself who is born in a brahmin family is at the top,” says Prakash.
For instance, Brahmins are the priests, scholars, and teachers.
“Because those were the most important jobs in ancient India,” he explains. “So, if you’re the priest, you’re more important than the king!”
After that, there is the kshatriya, who are the rulers, warriors, and administrators.
Then, there is the vaishya, who are agriculturalists and merchants.
Finally, there is the shudra, who are the laborers and service providers.
So, here you see the practical side of Hinduism.
Meanwhile, there is another ideology called jati or castes in which you’re born into a specific profession.
“It used to be more fluid in the past,” says Prakash. “For example, you could be part of particular varna and belong to a specific jati as well.”
However, the British made everything a mess because they tried to “perfect” the system.
“So, now you had to be one of the four or untouchable,” he says.
As a result, around 25% of India does not belong to any of the primary four.
Let’s dive into that more.
Destiny of Families
So, in Hinduism, it is not just about the soul of one person in practice, as well.
For instance, your entire life is organized by your family jati or caste.
“I was born into a Dom family,” says a young man at a funeral ghat—temples on the riverbank. “We are the people who burn the dead,” he adds. “We are the cremation family.”
So, the Dom is a clan within the Dalit or Scheduled Caste.
They are the ones who hold the “eternal flame.”
An ancient story says that Parvati, the consort of Shiva, had lost her earring.
So, Shiva went in search of it and found out that a Brahmin man had hidden it.
Because he was angry, Shiva cursed the man to a life of nothingness.
However, the man pleaded with Shiva, and Shiva reconsidered.
Instead, the man was given the flame from which anyone burned would escape reincarnation and enter heaven.
As a result, the Dom families of Varanasi today are descendants of that man.
Because of its spiritual value, you would think that the Doms would be the most respected on earth.
However, they are actually considered untouchables and face a lot of discrimination.
In other words, if you’re born into a Dom family, it is tough to get another type of life.
So, Hindu festivals are some of the times when you feel like there is so much equality.
Because people are celebrating, they don’t tend to show prejudice.
Meanwhile, there are some festivals that are really colorful and you want to be part of!
For instance, diwali is the festival of light and usually takes place late fall or early.
So, Diwali festivalgoers light fireworks and are in good mood, as they are celebrating the defeat of the darkness!
Likewise, holi is another popular festival, which is known as the festival of color.
For this festival, the people throw diverse colors at one another and the whole atmosphere is filled with laughter and fun!
So, this is taking place in the early to mid spring.
Similarly, ganesh chaturthi is a major festival that celebrated the elephant-headed representation of God.
Because Ganesha is the dissolver of difficulties, he is one of the most popular!
This festival takes place from mid summer to early fall.
Because the Hindu calendar has so many festivals, check with your tourism experts such as your hotel before you leave!
For instance, call the hotels you plan to stay at in advance and find out when the major festivals are taking place.
In other words, plan to be in India when there is cheer and your travel will be even that more enjoyable!
Faith & Government
So, there is a love-hate relationship between the government and the Hindus.
Because India is secular, the laws are an evolving system that is fair on paper.
However, to enforce it can make it a difficulty.
For example, on paper, discrimination on caste basis is illegal.
Likewise, untouchability is outlawed.
Similarly, there are equity laws that take into consideration past discrimination in helping communities move forward.
For instance, there are quotas in government-funded institutions to ensure people from “lower” castes are treated fairly.
Any Indian, regardless of caste, can get free education, for example.
However, the Indian government also recognizes this is a predominantly Hindu society.
After all, India was the Hindu country when the Indian Subcontinent was divided into Muslim (Pakistan) and Hindu (India).
In other words, non-Hindus complain that the government is too Hindu.
Meanwhile, a lot of Hindus say that the government is mistreating their faith.
So, this is important for the traveler to know because everyday Indians invite you to illegal activities.
Ashok Rathore (pictured in prayer) is a fashion model who is from Jaipur, Rajasthan.
However, his family is actually originally from a village not far from Jodhpur.
As a result, they have an ancestral deity in their home area that the family uses as representation of the divine energy.
Because the deities are generally feminine, they are called kuldevi or clan mother deity.
In fact, Ashok calls her mata or mother.
“She guides our every move,” says Ashok.”
So, Ashok, like many his family, will make prayers or puja to her.
For instance, he will shower, place flowers on her alter, and sit in front of her cross legged.
Afterwards, he puts the hands together, closes his eyes, and whispers prayers.
So, the prayers are made morning and evening.
“I feel very good after the prayer,” says Ashok.
A real connection.
Hinduism is a really diverse faith.
For instance, there are many representations of God—both masculine and feminine.
Of course, some are more popular than others.
However, most Hindus believe in eternal energy that is one.
In other words, they believe that everything goes back to one.
So, while it may seem like they are worshipping different gods, they are actually worshipping one God.
Meanwhile, because of the diverse ideologies, there are many different denominations.
As a result, there are denominations that acknowledge masculine energy, and there are some that follow a feminine one.
Likewise, there are holy sites shared by all, as well as sacred sites that are exclusive to one particular group.
Because Hinduism is a soul-focused faith, the individual’s efforts are essential.
However, one’s life is highly influenced by family fortune, too.
For instance, there are diverse social classes or castes, including “high” and “low” ones.
So, depending on in which family you were born, your life can be easy or difficult.
Finally, while the Indian government is a secular democracy, the Hindu beliefs are more closely followed—even if illegal.
To learn more, visit the Religious Tolerance website on Hinduism.
AJ Paris is a travel photographer based in New York. He is the editor of Caravanzers.