The Hindu religion is one of the world's oldest religions, dating back approximately four thousand years. The highest concentration of Hindus are found in India; however, there are communities of Hindus in countries all over the world. Hindu beliefs and traditions stem from their sacred scriptures, principally the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, which contain instructions on diet and worship practices.
The majority of Hindus are vegetarian. There are many passages in their sacred scriptures that instruct on food and eating with particular emphasis on abstaining from eating meat. Manu Smriti 5.48 states, “Meat can never be obtained without injury to living creatures, and injury to sentient beings is detrimental to [the attainment of] heavenly bliss; let him therefore shun [the use of] meat.” Other foods and beverages that are avoided by devout Hindus are alcohol and caffeinated coffees and teas, which are said to cloud the mind and make meditation difficult. Garlic, onions and spicy peppers are also avoided as they are believed to incite passion and make spiritual devotion more difficult; mushrooms are avoided as they are said to promote ignorance.
The Sacred Cow
Hindus believe that the cow is a sacred animal; therefore, killing or eating its meat is considered a sacrilegious act. The Sanskrit word for cow is aghnaya, meaning “not to be killed.” Hindus do, however, use cow byproducts in ritual worship and many families have at least one milk-giving cow. The five products of the cow are known as panchagavya and include milk, curd, ghee, urine and dung. These are used in worship rituals known as puja.
Worship in Homes and Temples
Worship and prayer in Hinduism is mainly a personal experience. Hindus create shrines to the gods in their homes where they recite mantras and make offerings such as flowers, fruit, incense, water, milk and ghee three times a day. Hindus may also worship in temples called mandirs, which is more common during special religious festivals and holidays. Mandirs vary from humble to ornate structures. Worshipers may visit any time of the day to make offerings and recite mantras.
Many Hindus make holy pilgrimages to locations with special spiritual significance, such as the city of Varanasi. Varanasi is believed to be the home of the god Shiva, and a Hindu who dies in Varanasi is believed to break the cycle of reincarnation and reach nirvana or heaven. The Kumbh Mela is the largest religious festival on earth where every 12 years millions of Hindus make a pilgrimage to a site where the waters of the sacred rivers Ganges and Jumma meet. The water is believed to turn to nectar for one day, and Hindus bathe in the river and drink its water to purify their bodies and spirits.
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