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Religious Beliefs

Hindu -

Hinduism: Basic Beliefs
The Sanskrit word “Om,” golden statues of four-armed dancers and half-human figures, the beautiful lotus flower, and vermillion bindis adorning the foreheads of married women. All these are symbols one of the oldest religions on earth.

Over three thousand years ago a wandering Aryan tribe settled in the banks of the Indus River (modern-day India). With them they brought traditions and stories of many gods. They joined with a people called the Dravidians, blending stories and cultures. Eventually this land came to be known as Hindustan, or “beyond the Indus,” and the persons who lived there became known as Hindus.

Hinduism, as a religion, is difficult to define, since there is no one body of belief common to all practitioners; there is no central authority, founder, or universal moral code. Rather, Hindusim over the millenia has absorbed many spiritual traditions, and its practice varies widely among believers. Therefore any generalizations made about Hinduism may meet with skeptism. Still, there are a few basic beliefs and practices common to all Hindi.

First is the belief in the law of karma. Literally translated, karma means “deeds” or “actions,” and the law of karma is a system of cause and effect whereby people’s actions determine the circumstances of their lives. In relationship to the principle of reincarnation, a cycle of rebirths by which an individual is reborn in a different body, the law of karma explains much of the inequalities in life. As a result of karma, one comes into his or her new physical life with a character and environment that represent all his or her actions in past lives. Those who have done well in previous lives will enter a pleasant womb, such as that of a Brahmin (priest caste), a Kshatriya (nobles and warrior caste) or a Vaishya (commoner and merchant caste.) On the other hand, one who has done very poorly in his or her past lives will return as an outcast, or maybe even an animal, such as a swine or a dog. Adherence to the law of karma maintains a strict caste system in India, and since one’s circumstances are a just consequence of past deeds, one must accept one’s position in life. There is hope however; for if one does well in one’s position, he or she can be assured of better conditions in the next life.

Karma, or the way of works is one of three paths to rmoksha, or the release from the round of rebirths. The other two paths are jyana, or the way of knowledge, and bhakti, the way of devotion.

Jyana is considered a higher way to achieve moksha. A person on this path will immerse himself in philosophical and mystical writings that explain the ultimate reality. Intense meditation is necessary to comprehend these teachings, since to understand, one must experience.

The path followed by the majority of Hindus today is bhakti, or the way of devotion. Unlike karma or jyana, which rely solely on the work of the individual, bhakti is a way of enlisting the aid of the gods to gain release from the wheel. Although the gods of Hinduism are many and varied, there are three major gods. Brahma, the creator, is viewed as having completed his work, and as such he is withdrawn from activity; therefore, most Hindi focus their devotion and worship on Shiva and Vishnu. In the Bhagavad Gita, Vishnu teaches that while the way of works and knowledge are good, devotion to him is the highest of all ways.

There is a vast collection of sacred texts associated with Hinduism. This collection includes the four Vedas (the “books of knowledge”); the Upanishad (literally translated “sittings near a teacher”); the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, two epics in Hindu literature; the Puranas, which are writings containing myth, lore, and legend; and the Laws of Manu, which encompass the codification and operations of the four caste system.

There are approximately 900 million Hindus today, making Hinduism the third largest religion in the world. About 80% of India’s population regard themselves as Hindus, and 30 million more Hindus live outside India. The twentieth century has seen the expansion of the religion into the West, where its tolerance for diversity has made it an attractive alternative to traditional Western religion. In addition, the influence of Hinduism can be indirectly seen on the growing New Age movement, in practices such as yoga and meditation.