Hinduism is the predominant religion of the Indian subcontinent. Hinduism is often referred to as Sanātana Dharma, a Sanskrit phrase meaning “the eternal law”, by its adherents. Generic “types” of Hinduism that attempt to accommodate a variety of complex views span from folk and Vedic Hinduism to bhakti tradition, as in Vaishnavism; Hinduism also includes yogic traditions and wide spectrum of “daily morality”, based on the notion of karma and societal norms such as hindu marriage customs.
Among its roots is the historical Vedic religion of Iron Age India, and as such Hinduism is often stated to be the “oldest religious tradition” or “oldest living major tradition.” It is formed of diverse traditions and types and has no single founder. Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion after Christianity and Islam, with approximately a billion adherents, of whom about 905 million live in India. Other countries with large Hindu populations can be found across southern Asia.
Hinduism’s vast body of scriptures are divided into Śruti (“revealed”) and Smriti (“remembered”). These scriptures discuss theology, philosophy and mythology, and provide information on the practice of dharma (religious living). Among these texts, the Vedas and the Upanishads are the foremost in authority, importance and antiquity. The Bhagavad Gītā, a treatise from the Mahābhārata, spoken by Krishna, is sometimes called a summary of the spiritual teachings of the Vedas.
Krishna (left), the eighth incarnation (avatar) of Vishnu or svayam bhagavan, with his consort Radha, worshiped as Radha Krishna across a number of traditions – traditional painting from the 1700s.
Hinduism refers to the religious mainstream which evolved organically and spread over a large territory marked by significant ethnic and cultural diversity. This mainstream evolved both by innovation from within, and by assimilation of external traditions or cults into the Hindu fold. The result is an enormous variety of religious traditions, ranging from innumerable small, unsophisticated cults to the major religious movements with millions of adherents spread over the entire subcontinent. The identification of Hinduism as an independent religion separate from Buddhism or Jainism consequently hinges on the affirmation of its adherents that it is such.
Prominent themes in Hindu beliefs include (but are not restricted to), Dharma (ethics/duties), Samsāra (The continuing cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth), Karma (action and subsequent reaction), Moksha (liberation from samsara), and the various Yogas (paths or practices). Click Here for More Info on Yoga.
Concept of God
Hinduism is a diverse system of thought with beliefs spanning monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, pantheism, monism, and atheism, and its concept of God is complex and depends on each particular tradition and philosophy. It is sometimes referred to as henotheistic (i.e., involving devotion to a single god while accepting the existence of others), but any such term is an overgeneralization.
Most Hindus believe that the spirit or soul — the true “self” of every person, called the ātman — is eternal. According to the monistic/pantheistic theologies of Hinduism (such as Advaita Vedanta school), this Atman is ultimately indistinct from Brahman, the supreme spirit. Hence, these schools are called non-dualist. The goal of life, according to the Advaita school, is to realize that one’s ātman is identical to Brahman, the supreme soul. The Upanishads state that whoever becomes fully aware of the ātman as the innermost core of one’s own self realizes an identity with Brahman and thereby reaches moksha (liberation or freedom).
Dualistic schools (sush as Dvaita and Bhakti) understand Brahman as a Supreme Being who possesses personality, and they worship him or her thus, as Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva, or Shakti, depending on the sect. The ātman is dependent on God, while moksha depends on love towards God and on God’s grace. When God is viewed as the supreme personal being (rather than as the infinite principle), God is called Ishvara (“The Lord”), Bhagavan (“The Auspicious One”) or Parameshwara (“The Supreme Lord”). However interpretations of Ishvara vary, ranging from non-belief in Ishvara by followers of Mimamsakas, to identifying Brahman and Ishvara as one, as in Advaita. In majority of traditions of Vaishnavism he is Vishnu, God, and the text of Vaishnava scriptures identifies this Being as Krishna, sometimes referred as svayam bhagavan. There are also schools like the Samkhya which have atheistic leanings.
Karma and Samsara
Karma translates literally as action, work, or deed and can be described as the “moral law of cause and effect”. According to the Upanishads an individual, known as the jiva-atma, develops sanskaras (impressions) from actions, whether physical or mental. The linga sharira, a body more subtle than the physical one but less subtle than the soul, retains impressions, carrying them over into the next life, establishing a unique trajectory for the individual. Thus, the concept of a universal, neutral, and never-failing karma intrinsically relates to reincarnation as well as one’s personality, characteristics, and family. Karma binds together the notions of free will and destiny.
This cycle of action, reaction, birth, death, and rebirth is a continuum called samsara. The notion of reincarnation and karma is a strong premise in Hindu thought. The Bhagavad Gita states that:
As a person puts on new clothes and discards old and torn clothes, similarly an embodied soul enters new material bodies, leaving the old bodies.(B.G. 2:22)
Samsara provides ephemeral pleasures, which lead people to desire rebirth so as to enjoy the pleasures of a perishable body. However, escaping the world of samsara through moksha is believed to ensure lasting happiness and peace. It is thought that after several reincarnations, an atman eventually seeks unity with the cosmic spirit (Brahman/Paramatman).
The ultimate goal of life, referred to as moksha, nirvana or samadhi, is understood in several different ways: as the realization of one’s union with God; as the realization of one’s eternal relationship with God; realization of the unity of all existence; perfect unselfishness and knowledge of the Self; as the attainment of perfect mental peace; and as detachment from worldly desires. Such a realization liberates one from samsara and ends the cycle of rebirth.
The exact conceptualization of moksha differs among the various Hindu schools of thought. For example, Advaita Vedanta holds that after attaining moksha an atman no longer identifies itself with an individual but as identical with Brahman in all respects. The followers of Dvaita (dualistic) schools identify themselves as part of Brahman, and after attaining moksha expect to spend eternity in a loka (heaven), in the company of their chosen form of Ishvara. Thus, it is said the followers of dvaita wish to “taste sugar”, while the followers of Advaita wish to “become sugar”.
Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies - Lectures and seminars in MP3 audio format by the OCHS as reference material for scholars and students.
The Vedas - An online collection of sacred texts