Hinduism, one of the world's oldest religions, is difficult to define. The religion has both monotheistic and polytheistic components. It has many deities, but these deities are a manifestation of Brahman. Hinduism's most treasured gods -- the Hindu triumvirate of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva -- are givers of creation and life as well as of destruction. Although its complex cosmology is layered, it does encourage four universal goals, or purusharthas, that shape the meanings of life: dharma, artha, kama and moksha.
Karma and Samsara
For Hindus, life's meanings are defined by four goals that play a role in shaping one's karma and samsara. Karma is the belief that every action has a consequence, and a person's karma strives to create a balance between these actions. Karma shapes reincarnation -- the rebirth of one's soul into another physical form -- as a person's actions decide the circumstances of his or her next life. This cycle of rebirth is called samsara. The ultimate goal in life is to achieve moksha or enlightenment, which ends this cycle of rebirth.
Dharma -- meaning virtue, morality or duty -- is one of the four concepts that give meaning to life for a Hindu. Dharma is different for each person, as a Hindu's obligations are wholly dependent on a number of factors, including social position or caste, age and gender. In that sense, dharma aptly represents the complex nature of Hinduism: Although it is a universal concept for Hindus, dharma operates differently for each person, shaped by particular circumstances.
Artha means success. In addition to leading a virtuous life that meets specific social and personal obligations, a Hindu should strive for success in any given activity. Artha encourages the gaining of wealth through lawful means.
Hindus should also seek out kama, or pleasure. Kama refers to a range of pleasures, from aesthetic -- enjoying the arts, music, writing and dance -- to sexual pleasure. Perhaps one of the better-known publications underlying the principle of kama (in the West) is the “Kama Sutra,” which is a guide to love, family life, sexual activity and pleasure.
One of the most important concepts within Hinduism is moksha, the final goal that a Hindu should strive for in his or her lifetime. As reincarnation is a fundamental aspect of the religion, the cycle of rebirth ends with moksha. A Hindu who overcomes desires and therefore gains enlightenment can achieve moksha.
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