Fragment of a four-faced linga, 900–1000. Central India. Sandstone. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, Gift of Edward Nagel, B71S10.
Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest religions. It has complex roots, and involves a vast array of practices and a host of deities. Its plethora of forms and beliefs reflects the tremendous diversity of India, where most of its one billion followers reside. Hinduism is more than a religion. It is a culture, a way of life, and a code of behavior. This is reflected in a term Indians use to describe the Hindu religion: Sanatana Dharma, which means eternal faith, or the eternal way things are (truth).

The word Hinduism derives from a Persian term denoting the inhabitants of the land beyond the Indus, a river in present-day Pakistan. By the early nineteenth century the term had entered popular English usage to describe the predominant religious traditions of South Asia, and it is now used by Hindus themselves. Hindu beliefs and practices are enormously diverse, varying over time and among individuals, communities, and regional areas.

Unlike Buddhism, Jainism, or Sikhism, Hinduism has no historical founder. Its authority rests instead upon a large body of sacred texts that provide Hindus with rules governing rituals, worship, pilgrimage, and daily activities, among many other things. Although the oldest of these texts may date back four thousand years, the earliest surviving Hindu images and temples were created some two thousand years later.

What are the roots of Hinduism?

Hinduism developed over many centuries from a variety of sources: cultural practices, sacred texts, and philosophical movements, as well as local popular beliefs. The combination of these factors is what accounts for the varied and diverse nature of Hindu practices and beliefs. Hinduism developed from several sources:

Prehistoric and Neolithic culture, which left material evidence including abundant rock and cave paintings of bulls and cows, indicating an early interest in the sacred nature of these animals.

The Indus Valley civilization, located in what is now Pakistan and northwestern India, which flourished between approximately 2500 and 1700 B.C.E., and persisted with some regional presence as late as 800 B.C.E. The civilization reached its high point in the cities of Harrapa and Mohenjo-Daro. Although the physical remains of these large urban complexes have not produced a great deal of explicit religious imagery, archaeologists have recovered some intriguing items, including an abundance of seals depicting bulls, among these a few exceptional examples illustrating figures seated in yogic positions; terracotta female figures that suggest fertility; and small anthropomorphic sculptures made of stone and bronze. Material evidence found at these sites also includes prototypes of stone linga (phallic emblems of the Hindu god Shiva). Later textual sources assert that indigenous peoples of this area engaged in linga worship.

According to recent theories, Indus Valley peoples migrated to the Gangetic region of India and blended with indigenous cultures, after the decline of civilization in the Indus Valley. A separate group of Indo-European speaking people migrated to the subcontinent from West Asia. These peoples brought with them ritual life including fire sacrifices presided over by priests, and a set of hymns and poems collectively known as the Vedas.

The indigenous beliefs of the pre-Vedic peoples of the subcontinent of India encompassed a variety of local practices based on agrarian fertility cults and local nature spirits. Vedic writings refer to the worship of images, tutelary divinities, and the phallus.

Common to virtually all Hindus are certain beliefs, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • a belief in many gods, which may be seen as manifestations of a single unity. These deities are linked to universal and natural processes.
  • a preference for one deity while not excluding or disbelieving others
  • a belief in the universal law of cause and effect (karma) and reincarnation
  • a belief in the possibility of liberation and release (moksha) by which the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara) can be resolved

The Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu combined as Harihara, 600–700. Central India. Sandstone. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, Museum purchase, B70S1.
Hinduism is bound to the hierarchical structure of the caste system, a categorization of members of society into defined social classes. An individual’s position in the caste system is thought to be a reflection of accumulated merit in past lives (karma).

Observance of the dharma, or behavior consistent with one’s caste and status, is discussed in many early philosophical texts. Not every religious practice can be undertaken by all members of society. Similarly, different activities are considered appropriate for different stages of life, with study and raising families necessary for early stages, and reflection and renunciation goals of later years. A religious life need not be spiritual to the exclusion of worldly pleasures or rewards, such as the pursuit of material success and (legitimate) pleasure, depending on one’s position in life. Hindus believe in the importance of the observation of appropriate behavior, including numerous rituals, and the ultimate goal of moksha, the release or liberation from the endless cycle of birth.

Moksha is the ultimate spiritual goal of Hinduism. How does one pursue moksha? The goal is to reach a point where you detach yourself from the feelings and perceptions that tie you to the world, leading to the realization of the ultimate unity of things—the soul (atman) connected with the universal (Brahman). To get to this point, one can pursue various paths: the way of knowledge, the way of appropriate actions or works, or the way of devotion to God.

Principal Texts of Hindusim

Babhruvahana fights the demon Anudhautya from a series illustrating the Mahabharata, 1830–1900. India; Maharashtra state. Opaque watercolors on paper.Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, Gift of Walter and Nesta Spink in honor of Forrest McGill, 2010.464.
While there is no one text or creed that forms the basis of all Hindu beliefs, several texts are considered fundamental to all branches of Hinduism. These texts are generally divided into two main groups: eternal, revealed texts, and those based upon what humanity has learned and written down. The Vedas are an example of the former, while the two great epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana, belong to the latter category. For centuries, texts were transmitted orally, and the priestly caste, or brahmins, was entrusted with memorization and preservation of sacred texts.

The Vedas

The Vedas are India’s earliest surviving texts, dating from approximately 2000 to 1500 B.C.E. These texts are made up of hymns and ritual treatises that are instructional in nature, along with other sections that are more speculative and metaphysical. The Vedas are greatly revered by contemporary Hindus as forming the foundation for their deepest beliefs.

The early Vedas refer often to certain gods such as Indra, the thunder god, and Agni, who carries messages between humans and the gods through fire sacrifices. Some of these gods persist in later Hinduism, while others are diminished or transformed into other deities over time. The Vedas are considered a timeless revelation, and a source of unchanging knowledge that underlies much of present-day Hindu practices.

Mahabharata and Ramayana

These two great epics are the most widely known works in India. Every child becomes familiar with these stories from an early age. The Mahabharata is the world’s longest poem, with approximately 100,000 verses. It tells the story of the conflict between the Pandava brothers and their cousins the Kauravas, a rivalry that culminates in a great battle. On the eve of the battle, the Pandava warrior Arjuna is distressed by what will happen. The god Krishna consoles him in a famous passage known as the Bhagavad-Gita (meaning “the Song of the Lord”). This section of the Mahabharata has become a standard reference in addressing the duty of the individual, the importance of dharma, and humankind’s relationship to God and society.

A second epic, the Ramayana, contains some of India’s best-loved characters, including Rama and Sita, the ideal royal couple, and their helper, the monkey leader, Hanuman. Rama is an incarnation of the God Vishnu. The story tells of Rama and Sita’s withdrawal to the forest after being exiled from the kingdom of Ayodhya. Sita is abducted in the forest by Ravana, the evil king of Lanka. Rama eventually defeats Ravana, with the help of his brother and an army of monkeys and bears. The couple returns to Ayodhya and are crowned, and from that point the story has evolved to acquire different endings. Episodes of the Ramayana are frequently illustrated in Hindu art.

The Puranas

The Puranas are the primary source of stories about the Hindu deities. They were probably assembled between 300 to 1000 C.E., and their presence corresponds to the rise of Hinduism and the growing importance of certain deities. They describe the exploits of the gods as well as various devotional practices associated with them. Some of the Vedic gods—Indra, Agni, Surya—reappear in the Puranas, but figure less importantly in the stories than do Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, the various manifestations of the Goddess, and other celestial figures.


Around the same time as the recording of the Puranas, a number of texts concerning ritual practices surrounding various deities emerge. They are collectively known as Tantras or Agamas, and refer to religious observances, yoga, behavior, and the proper selection and design of temple sites. Some aspects of the Tantras concern the harnessing of physical energies as a means to achieve spiritual breakthrough. Tantric practices cross religious boundaries, and manifest themselves in aspects of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.

Hinduism and the Practice of Faith

Woman, accompanied by attendant, worships at outdoor linga shrine, 1800–1900. Northern India. Opaque watercolors on paper. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, Gift of Mr. Johnson S. Bogart, F2003.34.17.
Religion pervades many aspects of Hindu life, and religious observance is not limited to one location, time of day, or use of a particular text. It assumes many forms: in the home, at the temple, on a pilgrimage, through yogic practices, dance or music, at the roadside, by the river, through the observation of one’s social duties and so on.


The general term used to describe Hindu worship is puja—the most common forms of worship taking place in the home at the family shrine and at the local temple. Practices vary depending on location, but generally speaking, the worshiper might approach the temple to give thanks, to ask for assistance, to give penance, or to contemplate the divine. Worship is tied to the individual or family group, rather than a service or congregational gathering. Puja occurs on a daily basis, or even several times throughout the day, as well as at specific times and days at local temples, and with abundant festivities on the occasions of great festivals.

In the temple, the devotees are assisted by the priest, who intercedes on their behalf by performing ritual acts, and blessing offerings. Worship often begins by circumambulating the temple. Inside the temple, the priest’s actions are accompanied by the ringing of bells, passing of a flame, and chanting. Traditionally, dance also formed an essential part of temple worship.


A key concept in the worship of Hindu deities is the act of making eye contact with the deity (darshan). The activity of making direct visual contact with the god or goddess is a two-sided event; the worshiper sees the divinity, and the divinity likewise sees the devotee. This ritualistic viewing occurs between devotee and God in intimate domestic spaces, as well as in tremendously crowded temple complexes where the individual may be part of a throng of hundreds or thousands of other worshipers. It is believed that by having darshan of the god’s image, one takes the energy that is given by the deity, and receives blessings.

This essential Hindu practice also demonstrates the profound importance of religious imagery to worship and ritual. While in most other religious traditions images are believed to represent or suggest divine or holy personages, or are altogether forbidden, in Hindu practice painted and sculpted images are believed to genuinely embody the divine. Appropriate ritual imbues images with authentic divine presence. Literal physical connection in the form of visual contact is essential to religious devotion, whether on a local and ongoing basis, or in the undertaking of great pilgrimages.


Hindu temples

by Asian Art Museum

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Video from the Asian Art Museum.

Sacred space and symbolic form at Lakshmana Temple, Khajuraho (India)

by Dr. Cristin McKnight Sethi
Sculpture of a woman removing a thorn from her foot, northwest side exterior wall, Lakshmana temple, Khajuraho, Chhatarpur District, Madhya Pradesh, India, dedicated 954 C.E.

Ideal female beauty

Look closely at the image to the left. Imagine an elegant woman walks barefoot along a path accompanied by her attendant. She steps on a thorn and turns—adeptly bending her left leg, twisting her body, and arching her back—to point out the thorn and ask her attendant’s help in removing it. As she turns the viewer sees her face: it is round like the full moon with a slender nose, plump lips, arched eyebrows, and eyes shaped like lotus petals. While her right hand points to the thorn in her foot, her left hand raises in a gesture of reassurance.

Images of beautiful women like this one from the northwest exterior wall of the Lakshmana Temple at Khajuraho in India have captivated viewers for centuries. Depicting idealized female beauty was important for temple architecture and considered auspicious, even protective. Texts written for temple builders describe different “types” of women to include within a temple’s sculptural program, and emphasize their roles as symbols of fertility, growth, and prosperity. Additionally, images of loving couples known as mithuna (literally “the state of being a couple”) appear on the Lakshmana temple as symbols of divine union and moksha, the final release from samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth).[1]

The temples at Khajuraho, including the Lakshmana temple, have become famous for these amorous images—some of which graphically depict figures engaged in sexual intercourse. These erotic images were not intended to be titillating or provocative, but instead served ritual and symbolic function significant to the builders, patrons, and devotees of these captivating structures.[2]

Lakshmana temple, Khajuraho, Chhatarpur District, Madhya Pradesh, India, dedicated 954 C.E. (Chandella period), sandstone (photo: Christopher Voitus, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Chandella rule at Khajuraho

Location of Khajuraho, India

The Lakshmana temple was the first of several temples built by the Chandella kings in their newly-created capital of Khajuraho. Between the 10th and 13th centuries, the Chandellas patronized artists, poets, and performers, and built irrigation systems, palaces, and numerous temples out of sandstone. At one time over 80 temples existed at this site, including several Hindu temples dedicated to the gods Shiva, Vishnu, and Surya.[3] There were also temples built to honor the divine teachers of Jainism (an ancient Indian religion). Approximately 30 temples remain at Khajuraho today.

The original patron of the Lakshmana temple was a leader of the Chandella clan, Yashovarman, who gained control over territories in the Bundelkhand region of central India that was once part of the larger Pratihara Dynasty. Yashovarman sought to build a temple to legitimize his rule over these territories, though he died before it was finished. His son Dhanga completed the work and dedicated the temple in 954 C.E.

Nagara style architecture

Vaikuntha Vishnu, womb chamber (<em>garbha griha</em>), Lakshmana temple. 1076-1099 C.E., sandstone (photo: Christine Chauvin, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Vaikuntha Vishnu, womb chamber (garba griha), Lakshmana temple. 1076-1099 C.E., sandstone (photo: Christine Chauvin, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The central deity at the Lakshmana temple is an image of Vishnu in his three-headed form known as Vaikuntha[4] who sits inside the temple’s inner womb chamber also known as garba griha (above)—an architectural feature at the heart of all Hindu temples regardless of size or location. The womb chamber is the symbolic and physical core of the temple’s shrine. It is dark, windowless, and designed for intimate, individualized worship of the divine—quite different from large congregational worshipping spaces that characterize many Christian churches and Muslim mosques.

The Lakshmana Temple is an excellent example of Nagara style Hindu temple architecture.[5] In its most basic form, a Nagara temple consists of a shrine known as vimana (essentially the shell of the womb chamber) and a flat-roofed entry porch known as mandapa. The shrine of Nagara temples include a base platform and a large superstructure known as sikhara (meaning mountain peak), which viewers can see from a distance.[6] The Lakshmana temple’s superstructure appear like the many rising peaks of a mountain range.

Plan of Lakshmana temple

Approaching the divine

Devotees approach the Lakshamana temple from the east and walk around its entirety—an activity known as circumambulation. They begin walking along the large plinth of the temple’s base, moving in a clockwise direction starting from the left of the stairs. Sculpted friezes along the plinth depict images of daily life, love, and war and many recall historical events of the Chandella period (see image below and Google Street View).

Section of a narrative frieze encircling the temple at the level of the plinth, Lakshmana temple, Khajuraho, Chhatarpur District, Madhya Pradesh, India, dedicated 954 (photo: Sheep”R”Us, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Ganesha in niche, exterior mandapa wall, south side, Lakshmana temple, Khajuraho, Chhatarpur District, Madhya Pradesh, India, dedicated 954 (photo: Manuel Menal, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Devotees then climb the stairs of the plinth, and encounter another set of images, including deities sculpted within niches on the exterior wall of the temple (view in Google Street View).

In one niche (left) the elephant-headed Ganesha appears. His presence suggests that devotees are moving in the correct direction for circumambulation, as Ganesha is a god typically worshipped at the start of things.

Other sculpted forms appear nearby in lively, active postures: swaying hips, bent arms, and tilted heads which create a dramatic “triple-bend” contrapposto pose, all carved in deep relief emphasizing their three-dimensionality. It is here —specifically on the exterior juncture wall between the vimana and the mandapa (see diagram above)—where devotees encounter erotic images of couples embraced in sexual union (see image below and here on Google Street View). This place of architectural juncture serves a symbolic function as the joining of the vimana and mandapa, accentuated by the depiction of “joined” couples.

Four smaller, subsidiary shrines sit at each corner of the plinth. These shrines appear like miniature temples with their own vimanassikharas, mandapas, and womb chambers with images of deities, originally other forms or avatars of Vishnu.

Following circumambulation of the exterior of the temple, devotees encounter three mandapas, which prepare them for entering the vimana. Each mandapa has a pyramidal-shaped roof that increases in size as devotees move from east to west.

Figural groupings on the temple exterior including Shiva, Mithuna, and erotic couples, Lakshmana temple, Khajuraho, Chhatarpur District, Madhya Pradesh, India, dedicated 954 (photo: Antoine Taveneaux, CC BY-SA 3.0). View this on Goole Street View.
Once devotees pass through the third and final mandapa they find an enclosed passage along the wall of the shrine, allowing them to circumambulate this sacred structure in a clockwise direction. The act of circumambulation, of moving around the various components of the temple, allow devotees to physically experience this sacred space and with it the body of the divine.

Entrance to the first Mandapa, Lakshmana Temple, Khajuraho, Chhatarpur District, Madhya Pradesh, India, dedicated 954 (photo: <a href=Antoine Taveneaux, CC BY-SA 3.0)" width="3872" height="2592" />
Entrance to the Mandapa, Lakshmana Temple, Khajuraho, Chhatarpur District, Madhya Pradesh, India, dedicated 954 (photo: Antoine Taveneaux, CC BY-SA 3.0)

[1] Mithuna figures appear on numerous Hindu temples and Buddhist monastic sites throughout South Asia from as early as the 1st century C.E.[2] Some scholars suggest that these erotic images may be connected to Kapalika tantric practices prevalent at Khajuraho during Chandella rule. These practices included drinking wine, eating flesh, human sacrifice, using human skulls as drinking vessels, and sexual union, particularly with females who were given central importance (as the seat of the divine). The idea was that by indulging in the bodily and material world, a practitioner was able to overcome the temptations of the senses. However, these esoteric practices were generally looked down upon by others in South Asian society and accordingly very often were done in secrecy, which raises questions about the logic of including Kapalika-related images on the exterior of a temple for all to see.[3] There is also at least one temple at Khajuraho, the Chausath Yogini Temple, dedicated to the Hindu Goddess Durga and 64 (“chausath”) of her female attendants known as yoginis. It was built by a previous dynasty who ruled in the area before the Chandella kings rose to power.[4] The original Vaikuntha at Lakshmana temple was itself politically significant: Yashovarman took it from the Pratihara overlord of the region. Susan Huntington indicates that the stone image currently on view at Lakshmana temple, while indeed a form of Vaikuntha, is not in fact the original (metal) image which Yashovarman appropriated from the Pratihara ruler. Appropriating another ruler’s family deity as a political maneuver was a widespread practice throughout South Asia. For more on this practice, see the work of Finbarr B. Flood, Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval ‘Hindu-Muslim’ Encounter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), particularly Chapter 4. A similar Vaikuntha image now appears in the central shrine of the Lakshmana temple and is notable for its depiction of the deity’s three heads with a human face at the front (east), a lion’s face on the left (south), and a boar’s face on the right (north)—the latter two of which are now badly damaged. An implied, though not visible fourth face is that of a demon’s head at the rear of the image (west-facing) which has led some scholars to identify this form as Chaturmurti or four-faced.[5] In general, there are two main styles of Hindu temple architecture: the Nagara style, which dominates temples from the northern regions of India, and the Dravida style, which appears more often in the South.[6] The base platform is sometimes known as pitha, meaning “seat.” A flattened bulb-shaped topper known as amalaka appears at the top of the superstructure or sikhara. The amalaka is named after the local amla fruit and is symbolic of abundance and growth.

Varanasi: sacred city

by Asian Art Museum

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Video from the Asian Art Museum

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