Hinduism | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Hinduism, the religion of approximately one billion people in India, Africa, Indonesia and the West Indies. Immigration from these countries (principally India) to Canada has provided the base for a Canadian population of about 297,200 Hindus (2001 census, last figures available).


Hinduism, the religion of approximately one billion people in India, Africa, Indonesia and the West Indies. Immigration from these countries (principally India) to Canada has provided the base for a Canadian population of about 297,200 Hindus (2001 census, last figures available). Evidence of the existence of Hinduism dates back 4,000 years. It reached a stage of high philosophical, religious and psychological development by 1500 BC and has sustained it to the present.

Supremacy in India

Hinduism has maintained its supremacy in India despite numerous migrations into the country and attempts at evangelization by other religions; notably, BUDDHISM, ISLAM and CHRISTIANITY. Hindu culture and religion possess a unique vitality which has enabled Hinduism to become the foundation of the religions practised by over half the world's population. People in China, Japan, Tibet, Burma [Myanmar], Thailand and Ceylon [Sri Lanka] all look to India as their ancestral spiritual home.

Uniqueness of Hindu World

For the Hindu, God is the one supreme universal spirit that underlies all human, animal and material life, and towards which all religious feelings and theology strive. To Hindus each religion's and every devotee's particular picture of God represents a true aspect of God. But the uniqueness of the Hindu world view centres on 4 important concepts: anadi (beginninglessness), karma (the moral law of life), samsara (rebirth) and moksha (freedom or release). The basic Indian world view assumes a cycle of birth, death and rebirth leading the believer to the desire for release from this endless round of suffering - "suffering," because life in this world implies separation from the divine.

Cycles of Creation

Hindu thought has no concept for the creation of the universe, assuming that everything - the universe, God, scripture and humanity - has existed without beginning. Within this view is the idea of cycles of creation with relative beginnings. Each cycle begins from a pre-existent seed state, grows, flowers, withers and dies. But, just as a dying flower leaves seeds for its own propagation, each cycle drops a seed which begins the next state.


In Hindu belief, the universe we are now experiencing is in one such relative cycle of creation. A consequence of this view is typified in the term "karma." Each person is responsible for his or her own destiny. If one performs good actions and thinks good thoughts, this will establish the probability of a good future even in the next cycle of creation. The doctrine of karma teaches that when a person acts or thinks, a memory trace or seed laid in the unconscious will predispose the individual to that same kind of action or thought in the future. Each person is reborn (reincarnated) again and again, according to his or her karma.

Doctrine of Reincarnation

Many of the thoughts and desires we find when we analyse our unconscious impulses come from thoughts and actions of previous lives. What we experience in this life is in part a consequence of all the good and bad actions and thoughts of previous lives. The doctrine of reincarnation is manifested in society by the caste system, which has 4 levels at which an individual may be reborn, according to the karmic merit accumulated: brahman (priest or teacher), kshatriya (warrior or politician), vaishya (merchant or professional) and sudra (servant or labourer). Long after these categories were established, some sudras became known as untouchables, or "outcastes."

Reaching the Level of the Gods

The karmic balance in the unconscious at the time of death determines the state or level at which a person will be reborn. Through countless lives one can spiral upwards, finally to reach the level of the gods. There the individual experiences the honour of sitting in the place of a deity, exercising the deity's cosmic function until the good merit is exhausted. If through evil living one is reborn as an animal, he will simply follow his instincts and experience the suffering that such instincts produce. Such is the cycle of rebirth, "samsara." How to find a way out of this cycle is an important question in Hinduism and Buddhism. The Hindu answer is called "moksha."


Moksha is release from the merry-go-round of birth, death and rebirth. The 3 ways of obtaining release are the yoga of knowledge, the yoga of action and the yoga of devotion. The yoga of knowledge involves intellectual and psychological techniques developed by Hindu holy men to control their actions and analyse their unconscious. They remove the karmic obstructions of previous lives, recovering the nature of their true selves. The true self is shown to be nothing other than Brahman, or God. The goal of all knowledge, therefore, is the experience of union with the divine.

The yoga of action requires that duty be done with no thought for oneself or for the benefit or suffering that one experiences in fulfilling it. Through the performance of one's duty as a dedication to the Lord, a kind of inner purification takes place, resulting in divine union. The yoga of devotion, the most common path, requires that prayers, the chanting of scripture and meditation on the image of the Lord be undertaken with such intensity that inner karmic obstructions are burned up and the Lord is revealed within consciousness. All that is required is willingness to surrender oneself completely in devotion to God. Regardless of which path is followed, the end is the same: the discovery of the true nature within oneself of a spiritual soul (atman) which is at one with God.

Hinduism in Canada

Immigration to Canada of people from India or of Indian origin began in 1903-04 (see SOUTH ASIANS). The census records of 1911 list Hindus and Sikhs together, for a total of 1758. Most of Canada's East Indian community of the first half of this century was of the SIKH faith, and extensive Hindu immigration started only in the 1960s. In the 2001 census, 297,200 declared Hinduism as their faith. The earliest Hindus were Punjabis who came along with the first Sikh migrations. The next largest group were Hindi speakers from Uttar Pradesh and surrounding areas of northern India - largely middle class in background. They came with a large group of South Asian professionals who arrived in Canada during the 1960s. About the same time Tamil and Bengali Hindus began to arrive. During the 1970s many Hindus arrived from former British colonies that were achieving independence and discriminated against South Asians. They came from East Africa, South Africa. Fiji, Mauritius, Guyana and Trinidad. They settled mainly in the larger Canadian cities. In Canada, as elsewhere in the Hindu diaspora, the structure of religious life has undergone a marked change.

The practice of caste generally follows that in India, with marriages usually made along caste lines; nevertheless the practice is tempered by the egalitarianism of Canadian society.


The traditional roles of temple, home altar, village festival and PILGRIMAGE to sacred sites have largely given way to a development in which temples function as the local church does for Christianity. Temples have been built in major Canadian cities from Halifax to Vancouver. A regular pattern of Sunday worship services is cultivated. These services often make reference to the Hindu sacred calendar, commemorating saints and marking seasonal or religious festivals; but the celebrations are conducted on convenient Sundays, since it is often difficult to meet during the work week.

Where the Indian community is large enough, several temples develop along cultural or ethnic lines. One of the older temples in Toronto (founded 1976) serves a largely West Indian Hindu community, while the Indians from Africa and India attend other temples. There are now more than 50 Hindu temples in Ontario, mostly in the Toronto area. The oldest Hindu temple there, the Prarthana Samaj, was established in 1967 when a former church was purchased. Immigrants from Guyana and Trinidad purchased a building on Yonge Street in 1981 that became their temple - the Vishnu Mandir. A new temple was built in 1984 and another in 1990. It draws 600-700 people to a Sunday service. The service proceeds in Sanskrit, Hindi and English. A variety of images are present in the temple and the front altar holds statues to the gods Durga, Hanuman, Ganesh and Rama, with discussion underway regarding the possible inclusion of the Buddha and Lord Mahavira of the Jains. The eclectic nature of this very successful temple is evident.

By contrast the Tamil immigrants from South India, South Africa, Singapore and Malaysia have established quite a different pattern. They emphasize the purity of the building and its rituals on a pattern that parallels exactly the traditional practice of South India. Rather than adapting to a Canadian congregational style, as the Vishnu Temple has done, the Tamil Ganesh Temple focuses on the worship of the individual gods such a Ganesh, Shiva, Durga and Murugan at different altars by individual worshippers with or without the mediation of a priest. Thus several activities involving different worshippers, priests and gods may be going on simultaneously reproducing the general cacophony of sound typical of a South Indian temple. Unlike the Vishnu Temple, Sunday is not a special day at the Ganesh Temple. Festival days, however, are and then 10 000 -15 000 people may attend.

The Toronto area with its large concentration of close to 200,000 Hindus offers a magnification to the patterns that exist in more or less developed form in other Canadian cities. While a multiuse temple with Canadian Protestant-style congregational worship may satisfy communities with smaller numbers of Hindus, ethnic and sectarian differences seem to manifest themselves once the population of Hindus becomes large enough to support such divisions.

Traditions and Services

In cities other than Toronto and Vancouver where there is a single temple, it is frequently under the influence of either the Arya Samaj or the Sanatanist tradition. Both use the Vedas, the ancient Hindu scriptures, as the source of their rituals. Arya Samaj worship is conducted through the Agnihotra, a ritual involving a series of purifications, the chanting of mantras (incantations) and scriptures, along with offerings to Agni, the god-fire who bears all sacrifices to God.

Although Hindu art is noted for its magnificent depictions of the gods, Arya Samaj groups do not use images of the various Hindu deities in the act of worship. Sanatanists construct worship around a similar set of purifications, chants and offerings. However, there are lengthy oblations made to various deities through the use of their images. The gods most often called upon are Ganesa, Visnu, Siva, Suryanarayan and Devi.

The services are several hours in length, requiring a knowledgeable priest familiar with the complexities of the formal ritual pattern. Both Arya Samaj and Sanatanist forms of worship are structured to make allowances for the Canadian setting and for the diversity of belief among Canada's Hindus.

Most temples in Canada are run by boards along "congregational" lines and are served by one or 2 lay priests. Trained and initiated priests, called pundits, serve a Sanatanist temple in Toronto and a Samajes temple in Vancouver. A number of language programs are sponsored by temples across Canada. In some communities children gain a cursory knowledge of Sanskrit, the ancient language of Hindu scripture and ritual, and of languages such as Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati and Tamil, in which myths and legends are told and devotional hymns sung.

Traditional practice requires a series of 12 initiation rites (samskaras) or personal religious ceremonies. This cycle has been modified dramatically in the Canadian setting, although most Canadian Hindus are married and cremated according to tradition. Some of them practise rites associated with conception, birth, the first haircut and the initiation of boys into full caste membership (the upanayana, or "sacred thread," ceremony).

Hindu communities in the diaspora are visited regularly by various gurus and swamis (monks). These may be formally associated with an institution or movement in North America such as the Ramakrishna Mission, or may hail from one of the great ashrams (religious communities) of India. The Sri Ramakrishna Mission actively circulates swamis throughout the Vedanta societies in Canada. Although Hindu religious life in Canada is circumscribed by a shortage of priests, a lack of sacred sites and a new set of cultural norms, numerous Hindus remain in contact with gurus who guide their personal religious paths. AS of 2013, there were 62 temples stretching from Nova Scotia to Vancouver.

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