Hindu devotees bathe during what is believed to be the world's largest religious gathering.
Hindu devotees bathe during what is believed to be the world's largest religious gathering.

Hinduism, the world’s third largest religion, is unlike some other major faiths because it doesn’t follow a singular system of beliefs and wasn't founded by one person. Instead, Hinduism consists of multiple viewpoints that have evolved for over 3,500 years. Its practitioners generally choose from a variety of beliefs, selecting elements that they personally prefer or that reflect their age, sex, social background and other affiliations. The most common elements of the Hindu faith, however, include a sacred collection of texts called the Vedas, a belief in a Supreme deity, dharma and a cycle of reincarnation governed by karma.

The Vedas

The Vedas, a collection of Sanskrit texts that evolved over hundreds of years, are cornerstone of Hindu beliefs. Hindus commonly believe that the Vedas were given to scholars directly from God. The Vedas comprise four books -— the Rig Veda (hymns), the Sama Veda (psalms), the Yajur Veda (rituals) and the Atharva Veda (incantations).

Supreme Being

Although it’s often said that there are 330 million gods in Hinduism, most Hindus believe in a single supreme being, which is represented in unlimited forms and expressions by a seemingly infinite number of deities. Some of the most prominent deities in current Hinduism include Ganesha, Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti, all of which embody different transcendent powers of the supreme being. Each Hindu commonly adopts a personal deity (ishta devata) as their own spiritual guide throughout life. It isn’t out of the ordinary for a Hindu to adopt different gods during their lifetime.

Dharma

One of the most important concepts to Hindus is dharma, which is defined as the power that maintains the universe and society. Along with morality and virtue, dharma is loosely translated as “law” in English. Hindus believe that dharma guides everything from moral laws to the planet’s orbit around the sun. They also believe that acting in accordance with dharma allows humans to achieve happiness and avoid suffering: Therefore, to follow dharma is to become closer to God. Living life in accordance with dharma doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing for each person. For example, one woman’s personal dharma, or sva-dharma, may be different from her neighbor’s.

Reincarnation

Hindus don't believe that life ends with death. Instead, they believe that the soul is reincarnated, passing from one body to the next in a cycle of birth, death and rebirth known as samsara. They believe that the soul may be reborn in human and non-human forms, such as animals. The samsara cycle is governed by karma, a law that says every action has an equal reaction. For example, virtuous actions result in good reactions while evil leads to bad reactions. Therefore, Hindus believe that virtuous actions in one life will result in happiness in a next life. The main goal, however, is to be released from the samsara cycle. The release, known as moksha, is achieved by not only virtuous actions, but inner discipline, spiritual enlightenment and disengagement from the world’s affairs.