Hinduism is considered the oldest religion in the world. Its roots can be traced back to 1500 BC in India, with some dating it back even further. Hinduism is still the main religion in India. And it has grown: Hinduism is now the third largest world religion, following Christianity and Islam. With no founder and no specific historical events that led to its creation, Hinduism can be tough to define. But you may have already seen some of its basic concepts in other religions – and even at the gym.
Who is Brahman?
Hindus believe in One Ultimate, which they call “Brahman.” Brahman is divided into more than 3,000 other gods. In other words, Brahman can appear in many forms as many gods. Among the gods and goddesses most important to Hindus are Krishna and Shiva, Kali, Durga, and Shakti. To put it another way, the Ultimate may be viewed by many people in many different ways; therefore the various gods could just be considered manifestations of or other names for the one Reality.
Just as all gods are versions of Brahman, people are also thought to be part of that Ultimate. Brahman is in everything and everyone – including people, gods, and even animals. The problem for humans begins when they do not understand their unity with the all-pervasive Ultimate.
It can be hard to put a label on Hindus. Hindus believe in one God, but they also believe in many gods, and they also believe all things are part of God. They are neither wholly monotheistic nor polytheistic nor pantheistic.
Hindu beliefs draw on the ideas put forth in sacred Hindu scriptures including the Upanishads, Vedas, and epics like the Ramayana and (perhaps the most well-known to non-Hindus) Bhagavad Gita (part of the Mahabharata epic).
- Dharma: Hindus believe there is a divine order to things that is manifest in everything from law to growth to one’s duty on Earth.
- Reincarnation: When people don’t realize their unity with the universe, they get stuck in a cycle of reincarnation: birth, death, birth in a new body, death, and so on. Reincarnation begins when a person’s physical body actually dies. Then their “soul” (a very rough translation of “atman”) moves into a new body, which is then born into the world. And being a part of the world is seen as failure for Hindus, since they believe continued life leads to continued suffering. It’s better to be born into higher and higher positions until you get out of life and become part of the bigger universe.
- Release (“moksha”): Release from the cycle of suffering brought about by continual rebirth into the world.
Generally, there are three paths Hindus can use to achieve moksha. These vary, based on the diversity of the religion.
- Knowledge: Hindus use the brain to realize they’re one with the universe through yoga. It involves stopping mental activity (try not having any thoughts sometime!), focusing on breathing, and sometimes twisting the body into poses. Meditation is thereby used to help the mind focus on the universe.
- Action: Hindus try to do the right thing. This is especially important for Hindus thanks to karma, a concept in which one is rewarded for good actions and punished for bad actions. If you lead a good life, you may be born into a higher lifestyle or escape reincarnation altogether. If you do bad things, you may see negative consequences in this life – and you may be born into a lower realm in the next life (yes, you could even be reborn as an armadillo).
- Devotion/worship (“puja”): Hindus worship gods to realize their own unity with those gods. And the best type of devotion is asceticism where you give up everything you have (even your family) and your desires for material things, to be able to focus on the universe.
If you’re looking for more background on Hinduism, perhaps the best online resource is What Is Islam?, a book produced by Hinduism Today.
Hinduism Today also offers a 5-part YouTube video series, “Introduction to Hinduism.” Note: Once you get through the first video, you’ll see a link to go to the second video, and so on.