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Hinduism: An Overview

Author: Lena Santos

Hinduism is believed to be the oldest organized religion in the world. It ranks as the third largest religion in the world after Christianity and Islam. There is close to a billion adherents of Hinduism in the world and majority of them are from India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Hinduism is different from other monotheistic religions as it does not have an identified founder or a single holy scripture. It does not have a logical and specific theological system or a set of teachings or a single concept of deity or god. Hinduism has had a string of important figures who taught different philosophies and wrote varied holy books. This puts Hinduism in a different light and perspective where contemporary theologists often refer to Hinduism as a “family” of religions rather than a single religion.

What then is Hinduism? What is its core belief and teachings?

In truth, Hinduism is not as straightforward to explain. Some believe that one is born a “Hindu” but there are now believers of Hinduism who are not of Indian ancestry. Some believe that Hinduism is polytheistic in nature while others insist that it is monotheistic. There are Hindus who accept as true the four Vedas and their complementary supplements. Still there are others who base their traditional beliefs on Santana Dharma. Some scholars present Hinduism as a religion based on its caste system i.e. Brahmins, kshatriyas, vaihya and shudras. Hinduism cannot be defined as a religion based solely on reincarnation (karma and samsara) because other religions like Jainism and Buddhism also believe in the principle of karma.

In a nutshell it could be surmised that Hinduism has its beginnings in India. About 80% of Indians are Hindus. Their core belief is based on the Veda and they base their values on dharma, a common system of beliefs that literally sustain the universe and society. A greater percentage of Hindus believe in one supreme god that could be represented into different deities to suit the different needs of its believers. Hindus believe in the cycle of birth, death and rebirth as directed by karma. They believe that a man’s soul passes through a cycle of lives, deaths and incarnation and that the present life is always based on how that man “lived” his previous life.

Concepts of Hinduism

Atman literally means “eternal self”. It is the “real self”, the “soul”, the “spirit”. Hinduism reveals the “self” as eternal and identifiable with god. The eternal spirit is supported by the concept of reincarnation. In Hinduism the atman as a spiritual being has a human experience instead of a human being experiencing spiritual encounter.

Dharma

Dharma is virtue, duty or morality. It is the power which makes the universe and society revolve and evolve. It is the power that makes the sun rise and set. It is the power that makes the plants grow. It is the power that makes its believers act virtuously and morally. Though dharma is universal and all-encompassing, every person has his own dharma to act on according to the circumstance presented to him. What is right for a child does not necessarily mean the correct dharma for an adult.

Varna

Traditional Hinduism adheres to the belief of varnashrama-dharma where dharma points out to a Hindu’s responsibility on the subject of ashrama (stages of life) and Varna (class). The caste system plays an important role in the practice of Hinduism. The four castes are:


  • Brahmans or Brahmins – the priests and intellectuals who take care of religious rituals

  • Kshatriya – the nobles and warriors who are powerful and rich leaders

  • Vaishyas- the commoners and merchants who do trading or farming to earn money

  • Shudras – the workers e.g. laborers, musicians, artists, clerks and household helpers who serve the higher classes


It is noted that the three higher classes are referred to as “twice-born” as they were first born from the womb and then through traditional initiation of those in their caste. The “twice-born” could go through the four stages of life or ashramas:

  • Brahmacarya – where the male is a celibate student who studies the Veda

  • Grihastha – the “twice-born” can experience “life” while he gets married, acquire wealth and responsibilities

  • Vanaprastha – where the twice-born retires from his responsibilities but take up religious pilgrimages with his wife.

  • Samnyasa – the twice-born gives up all worldly pleasure, dons a saffron-colored robe and begs for his food. This fourth and final stage is the renunciation stage where the twice-born goal is to attain moksha or liberation from worldly existence.


Karma and Samsara

Karma means action and generally refers to the concept and rule that every action has an equal reaction. Good actions in accordance with dharma will have a positive reaction while bad actions against dharma will have a negative response.

The Hindus believe that all humans have the capacity to do good or bad deeds and suffer the consequences. The reward or punishment of the action could be reaped in the present lifetime or in future reincarnation or in a concept of heaven or hell where the “self” is “reborn” for a certain period of time. In Hinduism, karma spans not one lifetime but across lifetimes. Reincarnation is called samsara where the soul is reborn again and again according to the law or action and reaction. The process is a never-ending one as the Hindus believe that the soul of the departed is carried into a new physical body which could be an animal or a divinity. Moshka is the release of the soul from reincarnation.

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