Hinduism is the world’s third-largest religion with 1 billion followers. It is also the world’s oldest ongoing religion with traces and roots dating back to 1500 BC. These factors alone make Hindu faith tricky to define.
Hinduism is an entire culture of various traditions, different beliefs, and ideas on spirituality. The main concepts in this religion allow it to evolve with scientific and cultural discovery while remaining quite spiritual in nature.
Hinduism has no religious authorities or governing body, so with 1 billion followers that do not abide to a strict belief system, the definition of this religion varies from person to person, from family to family, and from group to group.
It is a collection of different religious beliefs and groups held together with similar philosophies, concepts, culture, and heritage. These collections of views and ideas may seem complicated at first until you learn the basics of Hinduism. This deep dive will give you a look into the roots and customs that have thrived and evolved in the past 4,000 years and further explain the religion for any of those curious about Hindu beliefs.
The History of Hinduism
The term Hindu is not a term created by Hindus or even one that comes from their language. It is a term Persians used to describe the people who lived beyond the Indus River. Hindus usually refer to Hinduism as Sanatana Dharma, which means the eternal faith.
Hinduism originated from an ancient religion brought to India by the Aryans in 1500 BC. Aryans were nomadic northerners from Asia and were migrating into the Indus Valley when they brought many religious customs and the Vedas.
Indians believed the Vedas came indirectly from Brahman or God and reinterpreted the Aryan version of the Vedas for themselves. The Vedas defined truth for Hindus and were passed down by word of mouth for generations.
The Vedas are now sacred Hindu scriptures containing hymns and poems based on actual events in history, which were written by ancient saints and sages between 1500BC and 1000 BC. There are four Vedas named Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Artarva. Each one consists of four different parts the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads.
Hindus believe that the Vedas can be read in any order and lay the foundation for Dharma. The Vedas are guides for Hindus that withstand the periodic destruction and creation of the universe. They are highly regarded and have and will continue to preserve traditions and beliefs for the rest of time.
Hinduism does not have a binding holy book, and although the Vedas offer a source for many philosophies and spiritual ideas, they are still not the ultimate authority on Hinduism. It is Hindu tradition to think profoundly and question authority so one can develop ideas and rituals on their own.
Four Subgroups of Hinduism
Not all Hindus believe and practice their religion the same way. One subgroup may place more importance in specific deities or reject certain beliefs; this is quite common in most religions.
Hinduism is a collection of religions that share cultural history and ideas about spirituality. The four main subgroups within Hinduism are Saivism, Shaktism, Vaishnavism, and Smartism.
Each has its unique history as a subculture within Hinduism, such as sacred texts, temples, and religious teachers. Each of the four denominations has cultivated a wealth of knowledge and art, such as philosophies and architecture.
What ties these four sects of Hinduism is heritage and specific beliefs. All denominations recognize a belief in karma, the eternal soul, Dharma, reincarnation, and the Vedas. The culture they share is evident in temple worship, history, and many traditions.
The reason these four sects divide is because of conflicting beliefs in which of the many Hindu gods should be worshipped and is the Supreme. This difference is enough to separate into separate sects despite the many similarities.
Saivite Hindus (Saivism) worship the Supreme God as Shiva, the Compassionate One. Saivites worship in temples and value self-discipline. Yoga is a key practice within their belief system, and they strive to become one with the Shiva within them.
Shaktas Hindus (Shaktism) worship the Supreme as the Divine Mother, Shakti or Devi, in all her forms. Shaktas use chants, magic, sacred diagrams, and rituals in their practice for spiritual awakening.
Vaishnavites Hindus (Vaishnavism) worship the Supreme as Lord Vishnu and His incarnations. They are typically very devoted.
Smartas Hindus (Smartism) are quite lenient and accept all the major Hindu Gods. They follow a philosophical, meditative path, and oneness with God through knowledge. Most Hindus fall into this category since it abides with the tradition of finding and following your own Dharma.
God of Hinduism
Hinduism is a pantheistic religion, which means that to Hindus, God is not an all-powerful being that created the cosmos and life, but instead, their God is the cosmos, life, and everything before it. Essentially this Hindu God is the universe itself and everything in it, a universal soul referred to as Brahman.
Hindus believe in the eternal Brahman, and they also believe in different “lesser” gods and goddesses as well. The most popular ones are Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Ganapati, Saraswati, Surya, and so many more. These gods and goddesses each have an essential purpose within the religion, sacred texts, and culture.
Most Hindus believe there are millions of gods and goddesses, and this is often misconstrued as they all hold equal supreme power over the universe, which is not true. These gods and goddesses are apart of Brahman just like people and animals, except they are divine incarnations of different aspects of Brahman. Different sects within Hinduism place more importance on certain gods and goddesses, but most Hindus recognize the holy trinity of gods Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu.
Brahma, the Creator
Brahma is called the creator because he creates the universe every time it’s needed. Some Hindus believe that Brahma emerged from a divine golden egg in the cosmos that was planted by Brahman and Maya, female energy, in the first creation, water.
As he emerged from the golden egg, he created the forces of light and dark, then good and evil. After creating the cosmic forces, he decided to create gods, goddesses, and men.
During the chaos of creating, he birthed demons from his thigh, and as he abandoned his body, Night was also born. The Day was born when he left his body after creating good gods and goddesses.
Brahma is depicted as a red being with four heads and four arms. In his four arms, he holds a pot of water, a spoon, a rosary, the Vedas, and a lotus. He is sometimes riding a great white swan. Since he’s not as active as other gods in the lives of humans, he isn’t as worshipped in Hindu temples.
Vishnu, the Preserver
Vishnu is the preserver because he maintains the universe Brahma creates, and Shiva destroys. Vishnu has several incarnations or different avatars that Hindus worship.
He protects and sustains the world and the word of the Vedas. Vishnu and his incarnations are highly respected because he is the guardian, protector, and preserver of humankind and the entire universe. This is why he is usually considered a loving god.
Vishnu is depicted as a blue being with four arms. Jewelry and flowers adorn his body, and he wears a skirt and crown. He carries with him a mace, a conch shell, a lotus flower, and a chakra. Vishnu rides an eagle named Garuda as he protects the world.
When he incarnates himself into an avatar, his sole purpose is to protect and preserve the universe. Vishnu has reincarnated nine times to protect the world. Vishnu’s incarnations have been a fish, turtle, boar, lion, Vamana, Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, and Buddha.
Shiva, the Destroyer
Shiva is the destroyer because he periodically destroys the world so that Brahma can create it again. Hindus believe time to be an endless cycle of destruction and creation that occurs every 2,160,000,000 years.
Shiva, the destroyer, is one of the most notable and essential gods in Hinduism. Although Shiva is named the destroyer, he’s associated with goodness and creation. He was once a hedonist due to the grief of losing his wife Sati, but once she reincarnated as Pavarti, she taught him moderation and living a life without desire.
Shiva is depicted as a mostly blue being sometimes covered in ashes. He has a third eye, a cobra necklace, the vibhuti, and a trident. He usually wears animal skin and is sometimes depicted doing a great cosmic dance.
Ganesh is Shiva and Pavarti’s son. He was made out of clay to keep Pavarti company while Shiva was away serving the universe. He returned one day to find Ganesh outside of his wife’s chambers and without knowing who he was, ordered for him to be beheaded. Once he realized his mistake, he gave Ganesh a new elephant head.
Ganesh is one of the most well-known and treasured Hindu gods, and this is evident by the various places you can find his image throughout India. Ganesh is a favorite by many Hindus because he is the Lord of Good Fortune, Lord of Beginnings, and Remover of Obstacles.
Hinduism has many gods that all serve a purpose and teach a lesson through their mythology. The gods are all divine manifestations of Brahma, just like humans and animals. To become Hindu, you don’t have to believe in every single deity, god, or goddess, so go with what feels right.
What is Dharma in Hinduism?
Hinduism is a common term for Sanatana Dharma, which means the eternal way. The name itself implies that Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism is a religion based on the endless path of the soul. Those in India who practice Hinduism find their belief in Dharma so embedded in their culture that the two are not separate.
Dharma is the moral law that upholds the universe you are a part of, and it instills ethical value and create a strong foundation for Hinduism. Dharma is the right way of living your life according to your duty, moral obligations, righteous acts, and service to others. It not only describes how you should behave ethically but also how to take actions in your life and make them more meaningful through rituals, such as naming a child or burying a close relative.
Following your Dharma is different for everyone since everyone is on a different path and leads a different life. Things all Hindus may consider to ensure they are following their Dharma when determining ethical choices are the impact it will have on others, the financial aspect, and universal laws.
The eternal soul is called Atman in Hinduism; it can’t be created or destroyed. Atman will always be just as it is and has always been hence, the name eternal soul. Atman is your eternal self, your spirit, and the consciousness of who you are.
It is believed the soul transmigrates from one life to another; this process is called reincarnation. As the Atman journeys from one body to another body, it will reap the consequences for its actions, whether in it’s current life or next.
The life the eternal soul inhabits depends on the karma accumulated in past lives based upon its actions. Karma is the universal law of cause and effect; you can have good karma and bad karma. Hindus believe karma governs all conscious life and is a core concept in their beliefs.
Your karma affects the circumstances of your future lives and can’t be escaped, even through death. Dharma is the moral code and Karma is the effect of following that code or denying it.
Although death is a crucial aspect in the cycle of life, it is never the death of someone’s atman unless death leads to Moksha. Moksha is the fourth and ultimate step in the soul’s cycle of life, which results in it transcending every step in the cycle of life. You reach Moksha by following your Dharma, accumulating good karma, and overcoming all worldly desires, including the desire to achieve Moksha itself.
Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) is a divine spiritual phenomenon that is ancient and deeply rooted in Indian culture, so to learn more about how to follow Hindu traditions and faith, you’ll begin by researching more Indian traditions, customs, and rituals.
Hinduism contains a vast amount of mythology, which is found in the Vedas and other sacred texts. To begin learning more about Hindu gods, Hindu history and spiritual philosophies read the Vedas, Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Agamas.
Remember that there are many ways to interpret Hinduism that are acceptable. The religion itself has four sects that hold entirely different views on the Supreme being, but one thing all Hindus has in common is the belief in the importance of one’s eternal soul.
If you are following your moral code and choosing your actions wisely, then you are following your Dharma and acquiring good karma. Leading a wholesome and ethical life will bring you good fortune and spiritual freedom, whether in this life or the next. This is the essence of Hinduism, so if that seems to align with your belief system, Hinduism may be right for you.