Hinduism For Dummies
The Hindu religion originated in India thousands of years ago. To people raised in other faiths, Hinduism may seem very complex, but the core beliefs of Hinduism are actually quite simple to understand. For example, Hindus believe there is only one Supreme Being, Brahman; they pursue knowledge of Truth and Reality; they strive for moral order and right action; and they promote tolerance. Many Westerners also know that Hindus worship a variety of gods and goddesses who personify aspects of Brahman; take pilgrimages to holy sites; celebrate festivals throughout the year; and believe that time is cyclical. These aspects of the religion introduce some of the complexities that are fascinating to study.
The Caste System in India
All societies have some sort of social class system in which people are classified based on education, culture, and income levels. In ancient India, such a system was inspired by Hindu scriptures and implemented as a way to create a society in which all essential functions were addressed and all people assumed vital roles based on their abilities.
Centuries later, the classification was dubbed the caste system. While the caste system in practice became seriously flawed, its concept was based on this ideal division:
Brahmin: The priestly/intellectual class
The ideal brahmin has qualities of serenity, self-restraint, purity, forgiveness, uprightness, knowledge, realization, and belief in God. The associated job description includes
Serving as a gatekeeper of knowledge of Brahman
Providing intellectual advice to governing bodies
Offering priestly services and religious leadership
Grappling with fundamental questions of life
Kshatriyas: The warrior class
The requisite talents for kshatriyas are physical prowess, courage, splendor, firmness, dexterity, stalwartness in battle, generosity, and lordliness. The associated functions include
Defending the country from external aggression or internal strife
Specializing in the science of arms, ammunition, strategies, and tactics of warfare
Vaishyas: The trade/commerce class
The vaishyas specialize in trade and commerce in order to procure goods and services so that the society as a whole can lead a life of plenty. Modern vaishyas are primarily traders and entrepreneurs. No specific qualities are prescribed in the Hindu scriptures for this and the next caste.
Shudras: The agricultural/labor class
The shudras do manual labor such as tilling the land, working in the fields, and raising cattle and crops. In practice, this caste came to include everyone not belonging to the other three castes, except for the untouchables: people performing the most menial labor, such as sweeping streets and tanning leather.
Note that the creation of a group called untouchables was a manmade perversion of the caste concept set forth in Hindu scripture — a perversion fought by modern Indian leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi.
Hindu Gods and Goddesses
Hindus acknowledge that, at the most fundamental level, God is the One without a second — the absolute, formless, and only Reality known as Brahman, the Supreme, Universal Soul. Brahman is the universe and everything in it. Brahman has no form and no limits; it is Reality and Truth.
Thus Hinduism is a pantheistic religion: It equates God with the universe. Yet Hindu religion is also polytheistic: populated with myriad gods and goddesses who personify aspects of the one true God, allowing individuals an infinite number of ways to worship based on family tradition, community and regional practices, and other considerations.
Here are just some of the many Hindu gods and goddesses:
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 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.
Indra, the King of Heaven and lord of the gods
Indra wields a thunderbolt and is a protector and provider of rain.
Surya, the sun
Surya (or Soorya) is a golden warrior arriving on a chariot pulled by seven white horses.
Agni, the fire god
Agni holds a special place in Hindu fire ritual to this day as the sacrificer (the priest who performs the ceremony); the sacrifice (the ritual fire and the offerings made into it); and the witness to all rites.
Hanuman, the monkey king and devoted servant
Hanuman is featured in the great Hindu epic the Ramayana. He earned his path to deification by performing feats of strength, devotion, and courage while helping Rama (an avatar of Vishnu) in countless exciting incidents.
Core Beliefs of Hindus
Hinduism is not an organized religion and has no single, systematic approach to teaching its value system. Nor do Hindus have a simple set of rules to follow like the Ten Commandments. Local, regional, caste, and community-driven practices influence the interpretation and practice of beliefs throughout the Hindu world.
Yet a common thread among all these variations is belief in a Supreme Being and adherence to certain concepts such as Truth, dharma, and karma. And belief in the authority of the Vedas (sacred scriptures) serves, to a large extent, as the very definition of a Hindu, even though how the Vedas are interpreted may vary greatly.
Here are some of the key beliefs shared among Hindus:
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).