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
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.