Hinduism is a combination of beliefs and traditions primarily from what is known today as Northern India and Pakistan. Its origins date we past 1000 BC and synthesized from a number of related cultures and beliefs. Various forms of Hinduism are related to local, regional, caste and community-driven practices, which influence the interpretation and practice of, believes throughout the Hindu world. In a general sense, Hinduism became distilled into a more singularly identifiable religion and spiritual path near 500 BC. It has been called the oldest religion in the world.
The common threads to the various forms of Hinduism include the belief in a Supreme Being and adherence to certain concepts such as Truth, Dharma and Karma. At the most fundamental level, the Supreme Being is “One without a second” the absolute, formless and only true reality known as Brahman, the supreme, Universal Soul. Brahman has no form and no limits; it is Reality and Truth. In this regard, God is the Universe. However, the religion includes a number of Gods and Goddesses who personify aspects of the one true God
Sacred Scriptures known as Vedas, serve to a large extent, the actual definition of Hinduism although there are a number of different interpretations.
Common among them is the use of Mantras where a phrase is repeated many times. These developed over time to include an expression of devotion and means of transcending an earthly consciousness and affirm a connection with God. In many ways, this celebrates the intention and expression of Oneness. Kirtan is a gathering of people who sing Mantras with music at gatherings, often associated with Yoga groups and organizations. People of various faiths often attend Kirtan to express devotion to eh Supreme Being as they have come to define it.
Mantra Japa is a practice of repeating the same mantra a number of times, aloud or most effectively, silently to ones self. Generally a string of 108 beads is held with fingers moving from one to the next with each repetition. The Catholic faith uses a similar method with Rosary Beads. Any number of repetitions can be employed in Mantra Japa.
- Truth is eternal.
Hindus pursue knowledge and understanding of the Truth: the very essence of the universe and the only Reality. According to the Vedas, Truth is One, but the wise express it in a variety of ways.
- Brahman is Truth and Reality.
Hindus believe in Brahman as the one true God who is formless, limitless, all-inclusive, and eternal. Brahman is not an abstract concept; it is a real entity that encompasses everything (seen and unseen) in the universe.
- The Vedas are the ultimate authority.
The Vedas are Hindu scriptures that contain revelations received by ancient saints and sages. Hindus believe that the Vedas are without beginning and without end; when everything else in the universe is destroyed (at the end of a cycle of time), the Vedas remain.
- Everyone should strive to achieve dharma.
Understanding the concept of dharma helps you understand the Hindu faith. Unfortunately, no single English word adequately covers its meaning. Dharma can be described as right conduct, righteousness, moral law, and duty. Anyone who makes dharma central to one’s life strives to do the right thing, according to one’s duty and abilities, at all times.
- Individual souls are immortal.
A Hindu believes that the individual soul (atman) is neither created nor destroyed; it has been, it is, and it will be. Actions of the soul while residing in a body require that it reap the consequences of those actions in the next life — the same soul in a different body.
The process of movement of the atman from one body to another is known as transmigration. The kind of body the soul inhabits next is determined by karma (actions accumulated in previous lives).
- The goal of the individual soul is moksha.
Moksha is liberation: the soul’s release from the cycle of death and rebirth. It occurs when the soul unites with Brahman by realizing its true nature. Several paths can lead to this realization and unity: the path of duty, the path of knowledge, and the path of devotion (unconditional surrender to God).
Some of the Gods and Goddesses who personify aspects of the one true God:
- Brahma, the Creator
Brahma is the first member of the Hindu Trinity and is “the Creator” because he periodically creates everything in the universe. (The word periodically here refers to the Hindu belief that time is cyclical; everything in the universe — except for Brahman and certain Hindu scriptures — is created, maintained for a certain amount of time, and then destroyed in order to be renewed in ideal form again.)
- Vishnu, the Preserver
Vishnu is the second member of the Hindu Trinity. He maintains the order and harmony of the universe, which is periodically created by Brahma and periodically destroyed by Shiva to prepare for the next creation.
Vishnu is worshipped in many forms and in several avatars (incarnations). Vishnu is an important, somewhat mysterious god. Less visible than nature gods that preside over elements (such as fire and rain), Vishnu is the pervader — the divine essence that pervades the universe. He is usually worshipped in the form of an avatar (see below).
- Shiva, the Destroyer
Shiva is the third member of the Hindu Trinity, tasked with destroying the universe in order to prepare for its renewal at the end of each cycle of time. Shiva’s destructive power is regenerative: It’s the necessary step that makes renewal possible.
Hindus customarily invoke Shiva before the beginning of any religious or spiritual endeavor; they believe that any bad vibrations in the immediate vicinity of worship are eliminated by the mere utterance of his praise or name.
- Ganapati, the Remover of Obstacles
Ganapati, also known as Ganesha, is Shiva’s first son. Lord Ganapati, who has an elephant head, occupies a very special place in the hearts of Hindus because they consider him the Remover of Obstacles. Most Hindu households have a picture or statue of this godhead, and it’s not uncommon to see small replicas of Ganapati hanging from rearview mirrors of cars and trucks!
- Avatars of Vishnu
The literal meaning of the word avatar is “descent,” and it’s usually understood to mean divine descent. Avatars are savior forms of a god that descend to earth to intervene whenever help is needed to restore dharma (moral order) and peace. Two of Vishnu’s ten avatars are Rama and Krishna.
Rama is one of the most beloved Hindu gods and is the hero of the Hindu epic called the Ramayana. He is portrayed as an ideal son, brother, husband, and king and as a strict adherent to dharma. Millions of Hindus derive satisfaction from reading and recalling Rama’s trials and tribulations as a young prince who was exiled from his kingdom for 14 years.
If one Hindu god’s name is known and recognized throughout the world, it is Krishna. Hindus identify Krishna as the teacher of the sacred scripture called the Bhagavad Gita and as the friend and mentor of prince Arjuna in the epic the Mahabharata.
For his devotees, Krishna is a delight, full of playful pranks. But most of all, Lord Krishna’s promise to humanity that he will manifest himself and descend to earth whenever dharma declines has sustained Hindu belief in the Supreme Being over thousands of years.
- Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning
Saraswati is the consort of Brahma the Creator and is worshipped as the goddess of learning, wisdom, speech, and music. Hindus offer prayer to Saraswati before beginning any intellectual pursuit, and Hindu students are encouraged to offer prayers to her during the school/college term and especially before and during examinations.
Lakshmi is the goddess of good fortune, wealth, and well being. As the consort of Vishnu, she plays a role in every incarnation. (She is Sita, wife of Rama; Rukmini, wife of Krishna; and Dharani, wife of Parashu Rama, another avatar of Vishnu.)
- Durga Devi
Durga Devi is a powerful, even frightening goddess who fights fiercely in order to restore dharma (moral order). Yet, while Durga is terrifying to her adversaries, she is full of compassion and love for her devotees.