A focus on: Hinduism

03 October 2018

Continuing our series on how religion and culture can impact on practice, Professor Eleanor Nesbitt looks at Hinduism.

The beginnings of Hinduism go back thousands of years and there is no single ‘founder’ or sacred book. Hindus are free to believe and practise as they choose (Queensland, 2011). Many are influenced by a spiritual teacher (guru) or follow the teachings of a spiritual movement such as ISKCON (Hare Krishna) or the Swaminarayan religion.

Although Hindu tradition is constantly changing, adapting and innovative, there are strong continuities (Desai, 2012). Most Hindus believe that God is actually one, although worshipped in the form of many gods and goddesses. Another key concept is dharma, often translated as ‘religion’. It includes an individual’s duty and appropriate behaviour at different stages of life. Karma, the cosmic law that everyone reaps what he or she has sown, is also generally accepted. Hindus generally regard their present life as just one of many incarnations on the way to ultimate release (moksha) and union with God.

Hindus in general have a high regard for their religious tradition for being ancient, inclusive, flexible, hospitable and respectful of other communities. Indeed, their practice may include Buddhist, Christian or Sikh influences, depending on their family’s background.

The world’s billion Hindus (most of them living in India) are diverse, with their mother tongue, foods eaten, and festivals varying from one region to another.

Britain’s Hindus too are diverse (Warrier, 2006), although the majority are Gujarati, Punjabi or Tamil. About half of the UK’s approximately 817,000 Hindus live in London (UK Government, 2011). Most British Hindus, their parents or grandparents, migrated to the UK directly from India. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, Hindus arrived from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Some Hindu families have come from other formerly British colonies. Others settled in the late 20th and early 21st century, from Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Hindus tend to identify with their family’s area of origin and mother tongue, such as Bengali, Gujarati, Maharashtrian or Tamil, regardless of the extent to which they speak the language concerned. British-born Hindus generally have a weaker connection with their family’s country of origin and may also have a weaker sense of belonging to a distinct caste (hereditary lineage). However, most absorb the emphasis on family welfare rather than on individual autonomy.

It is good practice to check carefully with each Hindu client, or their relatives, whether there are special preferences or requirements to take into account.

Your guide

Daily prayer

Many Hindus have a small shrine at home for their daily worship. In the shrine are pictures of their parents, if deceased, and deities. There is no weekly day for congregational worship but public temples (mandir) are packed with devotees on festival days and Hindus often visit a temple for darshan – to pay their respects to God and to feel blessed.

On their foreheads some women (though not widows) have a bindi – a red spot. If a man has a mark (red powder, ash or sandalwood paste) on his forehead, it usually signifies he has recently taken part in a religious ceremony. India is the spiritual homeland (with many pilgrimage sites) for most Hindus and they visit, too, for the clothes, jewellery and other requirements of Hindu marriages.

How this affects you

Note indications that a client is Hindu or has taken part in a Hindu religious ceremony. For example, having a shrine at home, if someone has a red thread around their wrist (indicating recent participation in a special rite) or if a man has a forehead mark. Always respect a client’s modesty such as a preference for a practitioner of the same sex. Enquire whether you should remove your footwear on entering a Hindu home. Be aware that a patient’s senior relatives and in-laws may be involved in decision-making around health and care issues (Jootun, 2002).

Dietary practice

This varies, although most Hindus avoid beef (the cow is seen as a holy animal). Many are vegetarian and this often means excluding anything containing egg, animal fats and gelatine. Reasons for vegetarianism include a traditional emphasis on non-violence as well as Hindu teaching that vegetarianism is purer and conducive to spirituality. Many non-vegetarian Hindus observe certain days (from weekly to annually) when they either fast or abstain from non-vegetarian food. Traditionally, many Hindus use only their right hand to put food in their mouths.

Hindu families’ traditional diets involve staple carbohydrates – usually rice and/or chapatis. Time-honoured systems of medicine that many Hindus may draw on (Ayurveda and Unani being the most prominent) encourage people to understand illness as resulting from an imbalance. So, a person with a ‘cold’ condition would avoid ‘cold’ foods such as oranges and a person in a ‘hot’ condition (such as pregnancy or a fever) might avoid ‘hot’ foods such as nuts.

How this affects you

It is safest to assume that a Hindu client won’t eat beef and that non-vegetarians will tend to eat chicken rather than red meat. Whether or not a Hindu eats eggs, fish or meat, their main sources of protein are likely to be milk and dairy produce and a wide range of pulses. Dietary guidance needs to take into account clients’ staple foods and also the fact that some vegetarian diets are low in iron. Older relatives may be offering clients advice based on the ‘hot’/‘cold’ classification of food.

Clients appreciate having water to wash their hands before eating and also for oral hygiene afterwards. If someone is unable to use their right hand, sensitivity is required in helping them to adjust.

Hindu festival calendar

October 2018 - September 2019

9-18 October: Navaratri

Gujaratis dance around a goddess shrine for nine nights (starting 28 days before Divali).

15-19 October: Durga Puja (for Bengalis)

Worship of goddess Durga.

18 October: Dassehra or Vijayadashami

Many Hindus celebrate Lord Rama’s defeat of the demon king, Ravana.

Others celebrate the goddess Durga’s defeat of a buffalo demon.

7 November: Divali/Deepavali

A festival of light, celebrating Lord Rama’s return with his abducted wife Sita to his kingdom of Ayodhya.

13 January: Lohri

Celebrated with a bonfire, usually after a son’s birth.

15-18 January: Pongal

A winter harvest festival celebrated with a special rice dish.

4 March: Mahashivratri (Shivratri)

Celebration of god Shiva.

21 March: Holi

A springtime festival of colour, taking place on a full moon day.

14 August: Raksha Bandhan

The importance of the brother-sister relationship, and the regard for cousins as siblings, is celebrated.

2 September: Ganesh Chaturthi

Celebration of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, who is believed to bless undertakings with good fortune.

Family relationships and childbirth

Hindus have a tradition of strong family relationships, reinforced by frequent participation in the events surrounding marriages and deaths (Jackson and Nesbitt, 1993). Hindus are brought up expecting to marry and have children – especially sons. Parents regard it as a duty to see their children suitably married. Homosexuality is taboo and LGBT individuals may accept a heterosexual marriage.

Childbirth-related practices vary. During pregnancy, some women observe rituals such as simantonnayana (similar to a baby shower) in the seventh month. Following childbirth a woman may be expected to rest and not leave the house for 40 days to ensure rest and recuperation. Noting the exact time of birth is important, especially if an astrologer is to draw up the child’s chart (Many Hindus assume that the planets influence human life. For instance, astrologers may also be consulted about illness). There is no objection to family planning from a religious point of view, but there may be social pressures.

Older people expect to be cared for by their sons and daughters-in-law and are ill-prepared for the isolation they experience if they are living alone or their children are out at work.

How this affects you

It may be necessary to gently suggest the need for a carer for older people whose children aren’t able to look after them (the preferred carer may be from the same background, Gujarati or Punjabi for instance, as it’s felt they may understand their needs and language better). Realise that a woman may carry on getting pregnant until a son is born and that her mood may be low following the birth of a girl. It’s best to involve a woman’s husband in any discussion of family planning. Practitioners should also be aware of the sensitivity surrounding homosexuality.


There are many Hindu festivals, but even the most observant only celebrate a few. The dates depend on the phases of the moon. For example, Divali is always on the ‘dark night’ of a lunar month in late autumn, when fireworks seem brighter. Hindus also celebrate life-cycle rituals: these can include a child’s first solid food, the first shaving of a male infant’s head, and the granting of a sacred thread.

How this affects you

Hindus appreciate indications that non-Hindus are aware of festivals. Appointments may still be possible on festival days as Hindus are used to carrying on with work and appointments without having days off. Marriages, however, may override other priorities and they involve families in huge amounts of preparation.


Eleanor Nesbitt is professor emeritus in religions and education at the University of Warwick, specialising in the religious socialisation of young people.


Hindu children in Britain by Robert Jackson and Eleanor Nesbitt (1993)

Faith guides for higher education: a guide to Hinduism by Maya Warrier (2006) – bit.ly/HE_Hinduism

Hindu birth customs by Dr AR Gatrad et al (2004) – bit.ly/BMJ_birth_customs

Hinduism – bit.ly/NHS_Hinduism_guide

Caring for the Hindu patient – bit.ly/caring_Hindu


Desai, P N. (2012) ‘Indian Religion and the Ayurvedic Tradition’ in Cobb, Mark, Puchalski, Chrisina M. and Rumbold, Bruce (eds) Oxford Textbook of Spirituality in Healthcare, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 37-43.

Jackson, Robert and Nesbitt, Eleanor (1993) Hindu Children in Britain, Stoke on Trent: Trentham books.

Jootun, D. (2002) ‘Nursing with Dignity: Part 7: Hinduism’, Nursing Times, 98(15) 38-40

UK Government (2011). Religion in England and Wales  2011. See: ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/religion/articles/religioninenglandandwales2011/2012-12-11 (accessed 4 September 2018).

Warrier, M. (2006) Faith Guides for Higher Education: A Guide to Hinduism, Leeds: Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies, University of Leeds. Available at https://warwick.ac.uk/services/equalops/resources/guide_to_hinduism_in_he.pdf (accessed 7 September 2018).

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