Hinduism is a way of life; a philosophy and outlook towards fellow beings; a religious and ethical code of discharging one’s duties; a path to seek the Divine through good conduct and self-improvement; and the guiding light towards attaining heightened consciousness of the mind. Hinduism embraces universal religious principles and upholds the belief that “Truth is One, but the wise express it in a variety of ways.” Hinduism is a moral and social discipline founded on respect, tolerance, compassion and liberalism.
The substance of Hinduism is enshrined in the following four tenets:
1) The One Truth: Hindus believe that Brahma Gyan is the ultimate Truth and the existence and sublime power of Brahman (the soul of the cosmic universe), the only reality. The realization of God is through achieving oneness with Brahman.
2) The Doctrine of Samsara and Moksha: An underlying theme of Hinduism is the indestructible nature of the soul and its transmigration from one body to another. Freedom from samskara (the cycle of birth and rebirth) is achieved when one attains Moksha, the revelation of one’s true identity with respect to the Brahman.
3) The Theory of Karma and the Practice of Dharma: The theory of Karma is the universal law of cause and effect and fundamentally holds that one’s actions (by mind, body, and thought) directly determine one’s present and future lives. Rebirth is the continuation of one’s previous life and the result of our past karma. In order to accumulate good karma, it is important to live life in accordance with the dharmic principles of truth, honesty, righteousness, compassion, non-violence, contentment, austerity, purity, and penance.
4) The Descent of Avatars: Hindus believe that whenever the spread of evil, ignorance and suffering goes unchecked and exceeds all limits putting dharma in peril, Lord Vishnu will incarnate Himself in a physical form and appear on earth to restore morality and order and protect the virtuous. While nine avatars of Lord Vishnu have already descended on earth, his tenth avatar is predicted to appear in the near future. Aum or Om (ॐ) is one of the most sacred symbols in Hinduism. Hindus consider Aum to be the universal name of the Lord and that it encompasses all of creation.
One may understand Hinduism as the oldest surviving religion since it is ageless and timeless. Because the early history of Hinduism is unclear, most scholars rely on sacred texts and teachings to research its origin and transformation. Hinduism is deeply rooted in the sacred scriptures of Vedas and Upanishads that preserve the spiritual wisdom and knowledge revealed to humanity through ancient Hindu sages and scholars. Practitioners of Hindu dharma often refer to it as the Sanatan dharma, meaning that which is eternal and all pervading.
Customs and People
Customs vary from region to region although some are common among all Hindus. Hindus exchange greetings by bringing their palms together to say “Namaste” and touching the feet of elders to seek blessings. They have a small shrine or picture of their chosen God at home and apply “tilak” or “teeka” on their forehead after prayers. They follow sixteen Sanskaras (karmic tendency of shaping one’s life) starting from pregnancy to death including naming ceremony, hair offering, wedding, etc. and invoke Lord Ganesha before undertaking any new venture. They usually do not wear footwear inside homes and holy places, go on pilgrimages, prefer a vegetarian diet and believe in cremation after death to ensure that the empty shell of their body, no longer inhabited by the soul, merges with the five elements of nature.
Vedic laws and rituals dictate all social, religious and domestic aspects of Hindus present today. There is no central religious authority to establish orthodoxy in Hinduism. Hindus are free to practice dharma in their own way based on their interpretation of the maxims stated in the holy scriptures, comprising of 4 Vedas, 108 Upanishads, 18 Puranas, epics- Mahabharata (which embodies the Bhagavad Gita) and Ramayana, and other allied texts (Brahma Sutra, Yoga Sutra etc.). Hindus often follow the teachings of a spiritual master or Guru, who is said to have realized his oneness with the Supreme and steers others on the same path. Hindu Priests, known as “pandits”, are highly respected because of their extended knowledge of religious scriptures and ability to perform puja, rituals, and traditional ceremonies.
Major festivals include Diwali, Dushera, Holi, Krishna Janmashtami, Ganesh Chaturthi, Raksha Bandhan, Ramnavami, Durga Puja, Makar Sankranti, Shivaratri, etc. Each festival has a background story that connects emotionally with people and carries the bigger message of the triumph of: good over evil, truth over deceit, knowledge over ignorance.
According to Hinduism there is only one supreme Absolute, the “Para Brahman.” While some Hindus deify it as a formless, omniscient and omnipresent God, others worship it in different forms representing different aspects of the Brahman. Some Hindus worship only their chosen God while others may worship several Gods, demigods, and forces of nature. The Hindu house of worship is known as the “Mandir”, which consists of a big prayer hall with no seats or benches. It has a central shrine with the idol of the main deity, may have other smaller shrines, pictures of deities and gurus, and an altar. Services are conducted daily by a priest and are held at specific times, or at the request of the worshippers. The services consist of chanting of Sanskrit verses from the Vedas and may include offerings of fruits, flowers and sweets.