Hinduism, a collection of traditions, is one of few ancient religions to survive into modern times. It developed over 5000 years ago in the Indus Valley of India, the largest civilization in the ancient world. Hindus believe their religion has no identifiable beginning or end, and refer to it as Sanatana Dharma or the Eternal Way. The Vedas, one of Hinduism’s primary religious texts, means “knowledge” in the Sanskrit language and were preserved through a rigorous oral tradition for thousands of years before being written down. They present key Hindu teachings through hymns on the divine forces of nature. Hindu philosophy was further developed in the Upanishads; restated in story form in the Puranas and two epic histories: the Ramayana and Mahabharata; and through countless life stories, devotional poetry, and commentaries by learned sages.
Hinduism, along with Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, are often referred to as the “Dharma Traditions.” The Dharma Traditions share many concepts such as dharma, karma, samsara, and moksha (see later), though each religion understands and interprets them differently. Over many centuries, Hinduism's pluralistic ethos was reflected through India's embrace of other religious groups such as Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians when they were persecuted elsewhere.
What do Hindus believe?
The deepest spiritual truth gleaned through the Vedas is that Brahman, or Supreme Consciousness (used interchangeably with “the Divine” and “God”), pervades the entire universe. This divine reality is present in all living beings, eternal, and full of bliss. Moreover, the entire creation is said to have emerged from, rests in, and will dissolve into Brahman. In Hindu lore, these three functions, of creation, sustenance, and dissolution, are said to be the work of what is the commonly referred to as the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, respectively. Many Hindus believe that Brahmanis formless and infinite and can be worshiped as such or in different forms. Other Hindus believe that the Divine is in one true form. For example, some Vaishnavas believe that the one supreme form is Krishna, while Shaivites understand this form as Shiva.
Hindus believe that the soul, Atman, is eternal. When this physical body dies, the soul is reborn in another body (samsara, or continuous cycle of life, death, and reincarnation). Rebirth is governed by the Law of Karma: that every action has a result, like cause and effect. According to the Law of Karma, what one experiences in this life is the result of one’s past actions, either from this birth or previous births; and in the converse, how one acts today will impact the future, the effects of which will be experienced either in this and future births. How one deals with the problems he or she faces in this life determines whether one creates good or bad karma for his or her present and future lives.
Human beings have four goals in life:
Dharma - A mode of conduct most conducive to spiritual advancement
Artha - the material prosperity one pursues
Kama - enjoyment of the material world
Moksha - liberation from suffering caused by dependence on the material world and from the cycle of birth and rebirth
One of the most widely read Hindu scriptures is the Bhagavad Gita. It outlines three primary paths (though not mutually exclusive) to the experience of God’s presence and joy, and to obtain the fourth goal of moksha. The paths are:
Karma Yoga: performing one’s duty selflessly
JnanaYoga: studying and contemplating on the scriptures
Bhakti Yoga: loving God through devotion and service
Because Hindus believe that Brahman can appear in many forms, Hindus accept that there are a variety of ways in which all human beings connect with the Divine. In Hinduism, God is worshipped in both male and female forms. The female form is known as Devi, which is a manifestation of Shakti and means energy. Other forms resemble animals or birds. Each of these forms of God has symbolic meaning. Hindus enjoy telling stories about the various forms to inspire love of God and instill ethical values.
Hindus pray to the many forms of Brahman as individual manifestations who represent particular divine qualities or powers. For example, Ganesh is the God of Wisdomis honored by Hindus and followers of other Indian religions as the remover of obstacles. He is revered for his great wisdom and is invoked before any undertaking. Other commonly worshipped Hindu Gods include Goddess Saraswati, who Hindus believe helps with learning and wisdom. Lakshmi is worshipped as the Goddess of Prosperity. God is believed to have taken the human form of Rama to show people how to live the path of Dharma. Krishna is said to have come to eradicate evil and protect good. Lord Shiva is worshipped as the lord of time and change.
The various forms of God are represented in consecrated images known as murtis. A murti can be made of wood, stone, or metals and offers Hindus a way to visualize and meditate upon Brahman, which due to its infinite nature is believed to be beyond the grasp of the human mind. Murti is often translated as ‘idol,” but a more accurate translation is “embodiment.” Hindu families conduct their daily worship at home altars and also at temples on special occasions. Many Hindus consult gurus, or spiritual guides, for advice or answers to spiritual questions.
Hinduism promotes not only tolerance and respect for other religions, but also acknowledges the potential for truth in them. Accordingly, Hindus believe there should be no discrimination against any person based on one’s religion. The core philosophy of Hinduism is the search for truth, not the specific path taken.
Hinduism embraces science as one of the ways in which humans seek to understand the world we live in. Hindu scriptures describe the concept of planets in the solar system circling the sun, and the earth as round and rotating on its axis. Ancient Hindus also made noteworthy strides in astronomy, chemistry, mathematics, metallurgy, medicine (ayurveda) and surgery, including many findings upon which modern science, medicine and technology are based.
Hinduism around the World
With more than a billion Hindus, Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world. About 80% of India’s population is Hindu, and about 45 million Hindus live in neighboring countries in the Indian subcontinent. Since 1965, Hindus have migrated to the United States, and 2.3 million now live in North America. Significant numbers of Hindus still live in various parts of South and Southeast Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and the South Pacific. Many Hindus were sent to various colonies by the British as plantation laborers in the 19th and 20th century.
Evidence of Hindu influence historically is still seen all over South East Asia. Ancient Hindu temples were built at in Cambodia and Java; and about 4 million Hindus live in Indonesia. Stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata are very popular in Thailand, Laos, Malaysia and Indonesia. The practice of Yoga originated in Hinduism and is now popular all over the world.