Great World Religions: Hinduism

Course No. 6104
Professor Mark W. Muesse, Ph.D.
Rhodes College
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Course No. 6104
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Course Overview

Terms we associate with Hinduism—"Hinduism," "religion," and "India"—are all Western labels, terms that for most of history did not accurately reflect the thinking of those who practice this ancient faith. In fact, one of the primary themes of Professor Mark W. Muesse's lectures is the difficulty of studying Hinduism without imposing Western perceptions on it.

In Hinduism you will find a religion that is perhaps the most diverse of all. It worships more gods and goddesses than any other, and it rejects the notion that there is only one path to the divine.

A Window into All Religions

These lectures provide a window into the roots of, perhaps, all religions. You will explore over the course of Hinduism's 5,000-year journey:

  • The Indus Valley civilization
  • The sizable variety of Hindu gods and goddess
  • The sacred writings in the Vedas, Bhagavad Gita, and Upanishads
  • Ritual purity rites
  • The Aryan language of Sanskrit, whose roots can be seen in English words such as "divine," "video," and "ignite."

The story of Hinduism is the story of very non-Western traditions—arranged marriages and the caste system—that have survived and thrived for thousands of years; and of a wealth of gods, terms, and practices—karma, Krishna, yoga, guru—that have found a home in Western lives and language.

The course also explains that Hinduism rejects the notion that there is only one path to the divine, and at its best, it honors all seekers of truth.

Understand the Oldest Religion

Hinduism is the world's oldest living religious tradition, with roots deep in the early cultures of India. These ancient cultures, the most important of which were the Indus Valley civilization and the Aryan society, combined to create a highly diverse family of religions and philosophies.

The series moves chronologically through the history of Hinduism, from its earliest precursors through its classical manifestations to its responses to modernity. Along the way, Dr. Muesse discusses salient aspects of Hindu life and places them in historical and theological context.

The journey begins with an examination of the early cultures that most significantly shaped the development of Hinduism.

  • Dr. Muesse makes a brief visit to the indigenous culture of northern India, the Indus Valley civilization, before introducing the migration of the Aryans from Central Asia.
  • Hinduism received from the Aryans its most sacred and authoritative scripture, the Veda, which is explored in detail.
  • After the Vedic period, classical Hinduism formed many of its basic ideas and practices, including the notions of transmigration of the soul, reincarnation, and karma. Major social arrangements were established in Hindu culture.
  • The classic phase strongly influences the present day. Social stratification and gender relations greatly affect the nature of spiritual life for all Hindus. Professor Muesse discusses the caste system, and the different life patterns for men and women.

The Way of Action, the Way of Wisdom, the Way of Devotion

Hinduism is religiously and philosophically diverse. It affirms the multiplicity of the divine and acknowledges that there are multiple paths to divine reality. Dr. Muesse outlines:

  • The Way of Action, the spiritual discipline pursued by most Hindus, aims to improve an individual's future lives through meritorious deeds, according to the Hindu belief in reincarnation. The lectures look at several examples of such action, including ritual, festival, and pilgrimage.
  • The Way of Wisdom is a much less-traversed pathway to salvation because it is so demanding and rigorous. Gaining wisdom means to understand the unity of the soul and ultimate reality, and to live one's life accordingly.
  • The Way of Devotion, or bhakti, is oriented toward faith in a deity of personal choice. It is a widely chosen road to god among Hindus. Your introduction to bhakti practice comes through one of the most important and beloved Hindu texts, the Bhagavad Gita, a wondrous story of a warrior's dilemma and the counsel of the god Krishna. It has been a treasure trove of spiritual enrichment for Hindus for centuries.

Dr. Muesse also explores the functions of images in Hindu worship and how Hinduism can be both monotheistic and polytheistic. You learn about devotion to the Goddess and her many manifestations in the Hindu pantheon, and investigate some of the theory and practice of Tantra, a yogic discipline associated with the Goddess.

Hinduism Today

Modern Hinduism faces challenges from Islam and from Western culture. Theological differences between Hinduism and Islam have generated tense relationships between Hindus and Muslims, frequently erupting into outright violence.

Dr. Muesse describes the British Raj and the Indian independence movement led by Gandhi, includes examples of Hindu missions to the West, and discusses the tensions between Hinduism and modernity.

The many paths of Hinduism involve very different conceptions of divine reality, and Dr. Muesse explains how such divergent views coexist within the Hindu tradition.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Hinduism in the World and the World of Hinduism
    Reflection on the subject and the methods used to examine it are very important when one begins the study of Hinduism, a very old and complex religion. This inaugural lecture describes how Hinduism will be studied in this series. We examine the words "Hinduism," "religion," and "India," discussing why they are problematic yet useful for the study of our subject. x
  • 2
    The Early Cultures of India
    Hinduism is an amalgamation of elements from several cultural sources. This lecture focuses on two major contributors, the Indus Valley civilization, and the Aryans. The discovery of the Indus Valley civilization in the 19th century revealed a sophisticated and long-forgotten culture. In this lecture, we examine the artifacts left by this civilization and contemplate their import for its inhabitants and for the subsequent emergence of Hinduism. x
  • 3
    The World of the Veda
    In this lecture and the next, we explore the Aryan contributions to the emergence of Hinduism. Our guide is the rich collection of Aryan texts known as the Veda, today regarded by Hindus as their most sacred and authoritative scripture. We shall examine how these texts envisioned the world and its creation, some Vedic gods and goddesses, and the Veda's understanding of the nature and destiny of human beings and their place in the world. x
  • 4
    From the Vedic Tradition to Classical Hinduism
    This talk discusses the emergence of classical Hinduism and its views. We examine the place of ritual in Aryan life, their purposes, and their performers. In the central centuries of the first millennium B.C.E., remarkable changes raised doubts about the time-honored Vedic tradition. These doubts spurred the emergence of Hinduism. We see how philosophers came to see the human as an immortal soul encased in a perishable body and bound by action, or karma, to a cycle of endless existences. x
  • 5
    In addition to new ideas about life, classical Hinduism is defined by evolving social arrangements. This lecture and the next discuss the social foundations of Hinduism. We observe how Aryan society is transmuted into an exceedingly complex caste system. Rules regulating behavior within and between castes were developed and joined to the emerging ideas about the soul. These regulations had—and have—tremendous impact on Hindu social life, governing matters such as one's work, marriage, diet, and hygiene. x
  • 6
    Men, Women, and the Stages of Life
    Like caste, patterns of behavior became a fact of life during the emergence of classical Hinduism. We examine the roles of women and men and the social mores governing relationships. We see how regulations formed in classical Hinduism prescribed particular stages of life to be followed by men and women of caste. We give special attention to the householder stage, marriage, the patterns of family life, and the final stage of life, often widowhood for women and renunciation for men. x
  • 7
    The Way of Action
    Classical Hinduism established the central problem of human existence for Hindus—samsara, the cycle of continual transmigration of the soul. Hinduism offers three ways to deal with this problem. This talk focuses on the first: the path of action, the most important religious discipline for most Hindus. The principal features of the path of action are performing meritorious religious deeds, including rituals, festivals, and pilgrimages. x
  • 8
    The Way of Wisdom
    Changes that precipitated classical Hinduism also caused transformation in Indian religious practices. Numerous movements rose in response to these developments. This lecture will discuss the sages who tried to continue the Vedic tradition by maintaining the authority of the Veda. These sages produced practices and philosophies to address transmigration and karma. We explore the new solutions from within the orthodox Hindu tradition with a study of the highly valued Upanishads. x
  • 9
    Seeing God
    Early Western interpreters regarded Hinduism as a crude and hopelessly idolatrous religion. In this lecture we explore the dynamics of Hindu theism in theory and in practice. We see how the pantheon of Hinduism and devotion to images avoid idolatry, and we explore some of the rituals associated with worshiping the god(s). We focus on Siva, one of the most widely revered Hindu deities. x
  • 10
    The Way of Devotion
    Hinduism affirms the multiplicity of the divine as well as the multiplicity of paths to divine reality. In this lecture, we will look at the path of bhakti, or devotion. Oriented toward faith in a personal deity of choice, the path of devotion is a widely traversed road to god among Hindus. Our entry to bhakti practice will be through one of the most important and beloved of Hindu texts, the Bhagavad-gita. This wonderful story of a warrior's dilemma and the counsel of the god Krishna is a treasure trove of spiritual enrichment for Hindus. x
  • 11
    The Goddess and Her Devotees
    In this lecture, we study features of Goddess worship, a long-established tradition in India known as Saktism. We examine manifestations of the Goddess as consorts to the great gods and as autonomous devis. We learn that the feminine energy revealed by the Goddess is essential to Hindu theology. The lecture also explores the practices and concepts of Tantra, an esoteric yogic discipline with origins that may date to the Indus Valley civilization. x
  • 12
    Hinduism in the Modern Period
    Modern Hinduism has been challenged by Islam and Western culture. Both incursions into India have left profound and lasting imprints. In this lecture, we discuss Islam's effects on Hinduism; we discuss how theological differences have formed tense relationships between Hindus and Muslims that frequently erupt into violence. We consider the effects of British expansion into India and religious responses to British presence, and the religious philosophy of Mohandas Gandhi. We examine the articulation of Hinduism to the West and its movement beyond India. x

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Your professor

Mark W. Muesse

About Your Professor

Mark W. Muesse, Ph.D.
Rhodes College
Dr. Mark W. Muesse is W. J. Millard Professor of Religious Studies, Director of the Asian Studies Program, and Director of the Life: Then and Now Program at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He earned a B.A., summa cum laude, in English Literature from Baylor University and a Master of Theological Studies, a Master of Arts, and a Ph.D. in the Study of Religion from Harvard University. Before taking his position at Rhodes,...
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Great World Religions: Hinduism is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 59.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Worthwhile This is part of the Great World Religions series including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Each course is a short (12 lectures) introduction into the religion. This is good for someone who wants an introduction into comparative religion. Dr. Muesse has a challenging task: How to describe a “religion” that is really a family of widely varied religions including what god(s) to worship. He does manage to convey that diversity including the pantheon of gods and the different approaches to practice: The Way of Action (imperatives), the Way of Wisdom (philosophy), and the Way of Devotion (worship or cult practices). He considers Hinduism as a social structure as well as a “religion”. Unfortunately, Dr. Muesse’s presentation style is well below average by The Great Courses standards. I get the impression that he is reading without an audience present. I took the audio version. I doubt that the video would have added anything.
Date published: 2020-04-11
Rated 1 out of 5 by from why a woman's photo and not hindu man's photo? First of all how much knowledge a western british christan man has about the world's oldest religion is questionable and he is likely to be biased against non-abrahamic religions. secondly why did he put a hindu women's photo as thumbnail and not a hindu man's photo or some other thing's photo relevant to hinduism such as om or swastik? all other religion videos have either man's photo or some other thing. Why they did not put some white christan british women's photo in christanity for e.g thirdly hinduism's original name is sanatam dharm and it is very complex for a western man to understand and interpret it correctly. Even many hindus do not understand it properly. there are many more points but i wanted to make it short. hope they publish my review. Let's see.
Date published: 2019-04-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fine introduction to Hinduism I know little about the subject and was constantly surprised by the complexity of this family of religions it is far more diverse than Christian religions. I enjoyed it and will be listening to it again.
Date published: 2019-04-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very illuminating An excellent, revealing overview of the huge expanse of history that is contained in Hinduism.
Date published: 2019-03-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Well Done Introductory Course For an introductory course this was well done and fits some really good content in 12 short lectures. While I'm sure it is difficult to adequately cover all of the aspects of Hinduism in such a short period of time, I left the course certainly feeling like the essence of this great religion was presented in an easy to digest manner. This course covers all of the foundations and aspects of Hinduism from the ancient societies that formed the religion to its sacred books, to its main beliefs, to its pantheon of gods and goddesses, to the stages of life for a Hindu man and woman, to Hinduism’s interactions with other religions and peoples. My personal highlight was Lecture 12. The professor brings the history of Hinduism up through our times focusing on its interaction with Islam and imperial Britain. Thrilling stuff! The reason I couldn't give this five stars is it just didn't keep me at the edge of my seat the entire time and that is mainly attributed to the professor's teaching style. He had a certain air to him that made him seem too academic, almost robotic with little change of tone/emphasis and not much personality. I know this shouldn't matter in the long run when evaluating courses since judging one by personality vs. whether they taught effectively sounds shallow but The Great Courses has always been good at featuring professors who help you feel like the time spent was satisfying not just because you learned something but also because you were entertained and enthralled while doing so. Another downer was the discussion on the Bhagavad-gita (Lecture 10). Having listened to a number of other Professor's takes on this great book, I found this one to be lacking. Sure the professor narrated the events of the book and covered the important sayings but he didn’t seem to weave them into anything resembling a summary of its main theological meaning or insights as well as Professor Berkson did in "Cultural Literacy for Religion: Everything the Well-Educated Person Should Know" or Professor Hardy in "Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition". Still, this doesn't change my overall positive impression of the course. There is no better compliment to pay an instructor than: I walked away learning things I hadn't known going in. This course achieved that objective: Professor Muesse enriched my understanding of Hinduism. Good work!
Date published: 2018-09-25
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Samsara and Samskara This course was significantly contrary to my experience of Hinduism. I have studied Hinduism for over 40 years and have gone on pilgrimage to India. The material presented by Prof. Muesse is from a Western perspective, not from an Eastern perspective. The Western view confuses samsara with samskara. For example, samsara is not the indefinitely repeated cycles of birth, misery, and death caused by karma. Rather, samsara is reincarnation of a soul in an earthly body caused by karma until liberation (moksha) is attained in this life or the next. Also, Prof. Muesse's definition of samskara is "sacrament" which is incorrect. Samskara is correctly viewed as traces or temperament that evolves through the refinement of an individual inner consciousness and expressed personality, and is a form of "being-preparedness" in Vedantic psychology. All physical, verbal and mental activity, according to the Vedanta school of Hinduism, creates Samskara, or traces inside a person. These Samskaras together then manifest as inner personality and external circumstances, and depending then on individual's response thereto, these then bear phala (fruit) in the state where an individual realizes Self and reaches jivanmukti (moksha), Shankara and other Vedanta scholars suggest that the causes of impressions, such as ignorance, disappear, the individual reaches inner resolution and complete acceptance of self, thus becoming free of samskaras and attain a consequent blissful state of existence. Prof. Muesse asks the reader to consider the question: "why did the idea of transmigration of the soul, so important to religions of India, not appear in any major Western religion?" In fact, the idea of reincarnation of the soul did appear in early Christianity. Prof. Muesse apparently has not yet heard of the discovery at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945 of texts previously suppressed and destroyed. I would suggest that Prof. Muesse read The Apocryphal New Testament edited and annotated by William Hone in 1821, and The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels in published in 1981 to learn the history of the events at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 concerning how the idea of reincarnation taught by Jesus was suppressed and destroyed. I would recommend that truth seekers of East and West do not encounter Prof. Muesse until after they have read The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ Within You by Paramahansa Yogananda (2004).
Date published: 2018-04-19
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Good not great Very perceptive, but mattress somewhat by a simplistic delivery.
Date published: 2018-03-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Good Introduction and Explanation I found the course to be most informative as an introduction and explanation of Hinduism. I have been to India at least 6 times since 1985 for business have seen many of those things regarding Indian life through my travels. (I recall in the mid-1990's a colleague who said we need to finish early before the rain on a hot sunny day. A deluge started that afternoon as he told me it was the tears of joy that will always occur on that day as a start.) Important to me were explanations of basic terms which I have had to look up in my readings of the Yoga Sutras and Bhagavad-gita and Upanashads (under current study). I would recommend the course prior to such readings/studies for Westerners.
Date published: 2018-01-03
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