Hinduism does not have one single text that all practitioners follow, or a central figure all believers recognize. Many Hindus hold vastly different beliefs and practices. Because the religion is so expansive, practiced by some 900 million people throughout the world, but concentrated mostly in India and Nepal, not every follower agrees on standard Hindu ideas. Some practitioners describe Hinduism as a way of life instead of a religion.
Atman, Karma and Samsara
The concept of atman refers to an eternal self everyone possesses, which is similar to other religions' ideas of the soul or spirit. Hindus believe the atman is immortal, but resides in various temporary bodies. When the temporary body dies, the self will go through a process of rebirth known as samsara, in which the atman moves to a plane of heaven or hell. Karma, derived from a Sanskrit word meaning "action," suggests every action a human engages in has an equal reaction, which occurs either immediately or in the next life. Karma determines how the atman will be reborn in the next life. A Hindu's ultimate goal is to transcend the constant death and rebirth cycle, and reach moksha, or liberation.
Dharma refers to a righteous way of living. The idea describes the duties people have in life; however, it also refers to how the universe works. What makes the world and universe function directly relates to how humans fulfill their responsibilities in it. Duties vary by station and gender; children have different dharmas than adults, males different than females and people in different social classes have different responsibilities. The idea is known as sva-dharma. Other facets of dharma include sanatana-dharma, the idea that God resides within people. Dharma that refers to social class is referred to as varna, which many Hindus believe establishes the caste system, or belief that people cannot ascend into higher stations in life until the next life. Dharma also prohibits causing harm to other living things.
The Vedas are sacred scriptures to many Hindus, though not all Hindus recognize them as such. The Vedas are a series of hymns many believe to be God's words. They also define dharmas, though they typically use the term rita for the concept. The Vedas are the most ancient religious texts for Hindus, and they began as an oral tradition. Scholars estimate they acquired their current written form around 1200 to 200 B.C. Some Hindus believe God gave these texts directly to scholars. The four parts of the Vedas include the Samhitas, a collection of hymns to God; the Brahmanas, a prayer guide for priests; the Aranyakas, which concern meditation practices; and the Upanishads, which espouse Hindu philosophy.
Brahman and God
Hindus believe in Brahman, which refers to a power throughout the universe. The power upholds all parts of the universe, but Hindus do not worship the concept.
Though many perceive Hinduism as a polytheistic religion, its philosophy is much more nuanced. Hindus believe in one supreme god, however, they believe God can manifest in many different forms. While some may worship Krishna and others may worship Shiva, they are all part of the same supreme being. Because God is unlimited, the number of forms God may take are unlimited as well.
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images