Hinduism 101: What do Hindus Believe?

I’ve been perusing through Yahoo answers and it seems like every page or so someone is asking “What do Hindus believe?” Quite an enormous question!

I tried to find a post of mine to direct the questioners to, but found nothing. It seems I have not done a broad overview post for those entirely unfamiliar with Hinduism.

So here it is: the big overview… 

What is Hinduism and What Do Hindus Believe

First of all, Hinduism is a word that is used to refer to a vast variety of people and beliefs. Many say that the word originated as a way for the British to classify the practices of the people they met when they invaded India. In fact, many Hindus today prefer the term Sanatana Dharma, which means the Eternal Balance/Way/Truth/Path and is the original word for the religion.

Hinduism is based on the beliefs and behaviors of people and not on one particular book or person. It is a collection of ways of understanding universal Truth. There are several distinct branches in Hindu thought (See: The Branches of Hinduism).

Not everyone would even agree that Hinduism is a religion. I’ve heard it said many times that Hinduism is more a way of life. It’s not just the thoughts that come up when you start thinking about life and death, but also the traditions and rituals of every day moments. When you are a Hindu, it is part of your life in every aspect and in every moment.

So how do we know who is a Hindu? Pretty much if they self-identify as one. But things they are likely to have in common are:

* Belief that the Vedas contain important spiritual information

* Belief that living a dharmic (ethically good and balanced) life is important

* Belief in reincarnation (See more information on reincarnation)

* Belief that cultivating the inner self is important for spiritual progress

* Belief that the goal of life is for the soul to merge with God

FAQs

Who founded Hinduism?

No one. Hinduism has existed for thousands of years. Some say it is the result of the merging of ideas between native peoples and ancient invaders.

What are the holy books?

There are several ancient manuscripts that most Hindus hold in reverence. The Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and sometimes various Puranas (stories). The Gita is probably the easiest text for beginners to start learning Hinduism from. It is a section of the longest story ever told in the world: The Mahabharata and it contains the conversation between Lord Krishna and the warrior Arjuna (we’re going to be starting a reading study group on it here on the blog soon!)

Click image for more info

Another good overview is here. Gurus such as Adi Shankara of the first century AD have written extensive commentary on these scriptures.

What are its tenants?

There are four goals for a typical Hindu life (this is what is expected of a “house holder” not a monk or priest): Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha

Dharma is right action. This is the moral code and ethics, fulfilling the duties of your position. Artha is the gathering of wealth. Wealth should be gathered in order to help others and to remove barriers to dharmic living. Kama is the joy of sexual desire and is to be celebrated (within marriage, of course!)

Because energy is never created or destroyed, Hindus believe that the human soul travels through different lifetimes, purifying and growing until it is ready to merge with the Infinite God from which it came. Liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth (Moksha) is the ultimate goal of Hindu life.

If one is not an ascetic, it is expected that you will fully live and appreciate all life has to offer (in a measured way), always remembering that it is not the ultimate reality but here for our enjoyment and for love.

Many Hindus believe that we are all part of the same divinity and so one treats others as one’s self because they ARE yourself!

The Himalayan Academy, a Shivite Organization, offers these Nine Basic Beliefs of Hinduism.

What’s with all the Gods?

Many Hindus see the variety of Gods as metaphorical representations of aspects of One Divinity. God is so huge that we cannot comprehend him/her/it from our limited perspective in human embodiment and so we have all the different Gods to show different sides and aspects of the One.

Others see the pantheon of lower Gods as a sort of heavenly council that go through lifetimes the way we do, living long lives and eventually dying, all answering to one highest supreme God (different sects will say different Gods are the supreme one).

Some believe that in truth all matter and energy in the universe is part of the same One God. That includes all of us as human beings and everything in the world. It is said that God wanted to experience the variety of life and so he split himself into many parts and our experience of the world is but a play that God is enjoying.

How do people practice?

There typically aren’t services like you’d see at a church. People come to the temple (mandir) whenever they like and visit all the Gods. Usually a temple will have four or five different shrines around the room (or more) and each will house a murti (statue of a God that has been consecrated in a special ceremony). There are times during the day when priests will perform rituals to these murtis and people gather to watch and receive blessings (often blessed food is given out, called prasad, much like in communion). People may prostrate in front of the murti, they may also walk in a clockwise circle around it, or meditate in front of it.

Most Hindus also have a shrine at home, either in its own room or in a small cabinet built for that purpose. Murtis of the family Gods would be there and everyone has at least one Ganesha! It is typical for a home puja (worship ceremony) to be conducted in the morning and evening each day.

It is for this reason that one would remove one’s shoes when entering a Hindu home. Shoes are always removed at temples and holy sites as a sign of respect.

What are the holidays?

There are lots of holidays! Hindus believe in joy and celebrate the Gods whenever they can. Often Hindus will happily celebrate the festivals and holidays of other religions as well. There is a Hindu holiday just about once a month with more major holidays happening between August (Krishna’s birthday) and November (Diwali, the new year). Overview of Hindu Holidays.

Do Hindus worship cows?

Usually not, though Hindus have a very deep respect and reverence for the cow. She represents a gentle and selfless nature. She provides so much for us from milk to cheese to yogurt to dung (which has been used from ancient times for fire and home insulation). Hindus do not harm cows and they can often be found wandering the streets of India stopping traffic until they move along!

Are Hindus vegetarian?

Some are and some aren’t. The default for many Hindus is vegetarianism and so it is not hard to find pure veg meals when traveling in India. While some Hindus do still eat chicken, lamb, etc., it would be highly unusual for one to eat beef (see above).

Why the dot on the forehead?

There are many different kinds of markings that Hindus may make on their foreheads. It is said that the center of focus for the mind is in the space between the eyebrows, and so various things are applied there. Most often you will see a simple round bindi. In some parts of India a red bindi may indicate a married woman. In some parts a bindi indicates the religion of the woman wearing it (like one might wear a star of David necklace if Jewish). Men also have forehead markings, sometimes a bit of ash, turmeric, or kumkum from a religious ritual. Markings worn by Hindu priests will vary by sect, region, and lineage.

Forehead markings can also indicate what branch of Hinduism one follows:

Typical Shivite Marking

Typical Vaishnava Marking

Some sample tilak markings

 More information at this blog: Hindu Rituals and Global Security

What are castes?

In ancient society castes helped organize the people into groups so they would know their duties, much like a type of job. Though it was corrupted over time to connect with people’s birth, it likely started out to classify people based on what they did more than on who their parents were. Caste is something that is slowly being purged out because it has too often been used for hurt.

Key Concepts:

Karma —> An easily misunderstood concept that has come into English as a similar but not quite the same idea as the Hindu concept of karma. Please follow the link for more detailed information about karma.

Gurus —> Gurus are teachers of a particular Hindu lineage and philosophy. Unlike Christian priests, who might all teach the dogma from their source, each guru creates his own school of thought (or continues one from his own guru). A guru might not be necessary, but it is recommended for most people, as your guru will help you to interpret and understand the thousands of years of Hindu history and beliefs. (I do think you reach a certain point where a guru is no longer needed, see Is A Guru Necessary)

Did You Know?

* There is a trinity in Hinduism: three Gods who are also one, the Creator, Sustainer, and Destroyer (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva).

* The Indian greeting “Namaste” literally means “I bow to you.”

* India is a huge country with different cultures in the different regions (just like America!)

* Many Hindus believe that any religion practiced with authenticity and true belief will lead to samadhi (the ultimate goal)

* There is no such thing as heaven and hell in Hinduism and no one is damned for all time

 

Why I Am A Hindu

Whew, that’s a lot of info! It’s hard to choose what’s most important and give just a broad overview when I’m brimming with details. Please let me know if anything is unclear or if you have different questions about Hinduism!

More Resources:

Hindu Primer

About.com Basic Rites and Rituals


Stay in touch! Like Patheos Hindu on Facebook:

Is it still patience if you have no choice?
No Holi For Me This Year
For New Readers
Yoga In Schools: Asking the Wrong People
About Ambaa Choate

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.

  • kapil

    I saw your name is Ambaa. Why did u change. As per my understanding, Hinduism doesn’t require name change (say unlike Islam).

    • Ambaa

      No, it doesn’t require a name change (unless you ask the folks at Himalayan Academy, who do believe one should change one’s name). My legal name and the name I go by in everyday life is Carolyn,w hich my parents gave me. I came to be known as Ambaa because when I first started this blog in 2010, I did it anonymously and I needed a name. Ambaa is the name my Sanskrit teacher gave me when I was 13. I am tempted sometimes to legally change it just because people have a hard time believing a Hindu could be named Carolyn!

      • kapil

        Gr8

  • http://www.deafdrummer.org Stephanie Ellison

    I have NO IDEA where to start, as there is such a large gap of “standing,” as in “I stand here alone, and over there I see something similar; wait a minute, wow, that’s a long walk over there! I don’t know if I can make it by nightfall!”

    I sometimes wonder as the more I read your articles, the more I’m led to realize that I must forge my own path, albeit one indirectly connected to Sanatana Dharma in some way, such as similarities like the sacredness of ALL animals, being vegan, reincarnation, etc.

    Let me give you my perspective on the phenomenon called creation of this world we live in. I do have a feeling that the reason that our world was created, our bodies were created is because as spiritual beings, we became bored, as we had learned everything and experienced everything during our eternal life as spirits. Perhaps we experienced this very early on and realized soon that we needed to do something to entertain ourselves. What better way is there to experience EVERYTHING once again, afresh, going in with no memories, so that we can experience wonder, awe, joy at learning, excitement at encountering people who draw us to them. And do this endlessly, life after life… Perhaps the reason we have limited perception is because it was designed to be that way, to suppress our spiritual memories in our “ex-mortal” state (when we are living in a spiritual state in between lives) through some kind of memory-damping structures in the brain, otherwise, what is the point of living if we know what life is like and what tends to happen based on experiences of previous lives?

    What do you think about this?

    • http://www.deafdrummer.org Stephanie Ellison

      Wow, I had forgotten that I replied here, and I didn’t save a copy of the scriptures image! This time, I put it in my PDF library for future reference! I have started to read some of the books, and I’m seeing more and more that the above suspicion about my not being fully Sanaatana Dharma is becoming confirmed, unless I see something that fits me fully.

  • Jennifer

    I have a homework question that i camt find anywhere so i would like someone to help me here!:) Does Hinduism believes that the Earth was created by someone or it was here by chance? I will like this answer soom! Thanx!:)

    • Ambaa

      Tell you what, I’ll post this question on the FB page and you’ll get lots of responses. Come read them at http://www.facebook.com/thewhitehindu

      • Jennifer

        Thank you for helping me!:)

  • Jaskaran Dhaliwal

    “Do Hindus worship cows?
    Usually not, though Hindus have a very deep respect and reverence for the cow. She represents a gentle and selfless nature.”

    What about kAmadhenu???

  • Jainesh

    “Some say it is the result of the merging of ideas between native peoples and ancient invaders.”
    Perhaps it doesn’t sound egregious to you but that whole statement which is a fabrication carries a lot of negative baggage within it for the followers of Sanatan Dharma residing in Aryavrata.
    It is a false statement.There were no “invasions” or “invaders”.
    Please remove that statement.
    The more appropriate answer to Who founded Hinduism is – Nobody founded it,it’s Sanatan Dharma,which means eternal and universal and the seers through intense meditation realized aspects of it and expounded upon it.
    The concept which here needs clarity is Dharma.
    What is Dharma?Maybe that is what you should have begun this blog with instead of beginning it with what Hindus believe in.
    I feel that you still view Dharma through an abrahamic lens,even though subconsciously.
    The outwardly trappings of rituals are not the essence of Sanatan Dharma but rather overtures of expression of philosophies.

  • aman

    Please read this article completely for the historical knowledge of India and Hinduism

    http://www.stephen-knapp.com/death_of_the_aryan_invasion_theory.htm

  • A.R.

    Heaven and hell are there are in Hinduism for some Hindus. Madhvacharya, for example, believed in heaven and hell. At the end of the Mahabharata, the Pandavas see heaven and hell. The Bhagavad Gita mentions heaven and hell (see Bhagavad Gita 14.18 and 16.16). Ultimately, however, these are temporary stops before reincarnation.

  • Vashist

    well 1 thing is not true we do have hell we do have heaven we do have reincarnation we have all 3 i can say with honesty that this article contains very much false information

    heres an article accuratly about our hell or hells

    Naraka in Vedas, is a place where souls are sent for the expiation of their sins. It is mentioned especially in dharmaśāstras, itihāsas and Purāṇas but also in Vedic samhitas,[1][2] Aranyakas[3] and Upaniṣads.[4][5][6][7] Some Upanisads speak of ‘darkness’ instead of hell.[8] A summary of Upaniṣads, Bhagavad Gita, mentions hell several times.[9] Even Adi Sankara mentions it in his commentary on Vedanta sutra.[10] Still, some people like members ofArya Samaj don’t accept the existence of Naraka or consider it metaphorical.

    In Puranas like Bhagavata Purana, Garuda Purana and Vishnu Purana there are elaborate descriptions of many hells. They are situated above Garbhodaka ocean.[11]

    Yama, Lord of Justice, puts living beings after death for appropriate punishment, for example, in boiling oil. Nitya-samsarins (forever transmigrating ones) can experience Naraka for expiation.[12] After the period of punishment is complete, they are reborn on earth[13] in human or animal bodies.[14] Therefore neither naraka nor svarga[15] are permanent abodes.

    Yama Loka is the abode of Lord Yama. Yama is Dharmaraja or Dharma king; Yama Loka is a temporary purgatorium for sinners (papi). According to Hindu scriptures, Yama’s divine assistant Lord Chitragupta maintains a record of the individual deeds of every living being in the world, and based on the complete audit of his deeds, dispatches the soul of the deceased either to Svarga (Heaven) or to the various Narakas according to the nature of their sins. The scriptures describe that even people who have done a majority of good deeds could come to Yama Loka for redemption from the small sins they have committed, and once the punishments have been served for those sins they could be sent for rebirth to earth or to heaven. In the epic of Mahabharata, even the Pandavas (who represent righteousness and virtuousness) spent a brief time in hell for their small sins.

    At the time of death, sinful souls are vulnerable for capture by Yamadutas, servants of Yama (who comes personally only in special cases). Yama ordered his servants to leave Vaishnavas alone.[16][17] Sri Vaishnavas are taken by Vishnudutas to Vaikuntha and Gaudiya Vaishnavas to Goloka.[citation needed]

    • Ambaa

      I think you may be making the common mistake of thinking that the way that you practice Hinduism is the only possible way. I have been fairly general here but what I say is true for most or many Hindus. It is probably impossible to make any statement of “all Hindus believe this.”

      There is certainly more detail to be gotten into which is why this is a blog and not a single article. The concept of heaven and hell in Hinduism is complex and not easy for someone from a western background to grasp.

      I’m very confused by what you’re saying about cows. In one comment you say that you definitely do worship cows and they are sacred. In the next comment you say that cows are taboo rather than sacred. You then repeat what I’ve said about the aspects of cows that have caused them to become revered in Hinduism while telling me that I’m wrong even though we appear to be saying the same thing.

  • Vashist

    Attaining heaven is not the final pursuit in Hinduism as heaven itself is ephemeral and related to physical body. Only being tied by the bhoot-tatvas, heaven cannot be perfect either and is just another name for pleasurable and mundane material life. According toHindu cosmology, above the earthly plane, are other planes: (1) Bhuva Loka, (2) Swarga Loka, meaning Good Kingdom, is the general name for heaven in Hinduism, a heavenly paradise of pleasure, where most of the Hindu Devatas (Deva) reside along with the king of Devas, Indra, and beatified mortals. Some other planes are Mahar Loka, Jana Loka, Tapa Loka and Satya Loka. Since heavenly abodes are also tied to the cycle of birth and death, any dweller of heaven or hell will again be recycled to a different plane and in a different form as per the karma and “maya” i.e. the illusion of Samsara. This cycle is broken only by self-realization by the Jivatma. This self-realization is Moksha (Turiya, Kaivalya).

    The concept of moksha is unique to Hinduism and is unparalleled. Moksha stands for liberation from the cycle of birth and death and final communion with Brahman. With moksha, a liberated soul attains the stature and oneness with Brahman or Pramatma. Different schools such as Vedanta, Mimansa, Sankhya, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, and Yoga offer subtle differences in the concept of Brahman, obvious Universe, its genesis and regular destruction, Jivatma, Nature (Prakriti) and also the right way in attaining perfect bliss or moksha.

    In the Vaishnava traditions the highest heaven is Vaikuntha, which exists above the six heavenly lokas and outside of the mahat-tattva or mundane world. It’s where eternally liberated souls who have attained moksha reside in eternal sublime beauty with Lakshmiand Narayana (a manifestation of Vishnu).

    In the Nasadiya Sukta, the heavens/sky Vyoman is mentioned as a place from which an overseeing entity surveys what has been created. However, the Nasadiya Sukta questions the omniscience of this overseer.

  • Vashist

    Reincarnation – known as Punarjanma – it is one of the core beliefs of Hinduism that is generally accepted by many of its practitioners.[92]

    Reincarnation is the natural process of birth, death and rebirth. Hindus believe that the Jiva or Atman (soul) is intrinsically pure. However, because of the layers of I-ness and My-ness, the jiva goes through transmigration in the cycle of births and deaths. Death destroys the physical body, but not the jiva. The jiva is eternal. It takes on another body[93] with respect to its karmas. Every karma produces a result which must be experienced either in this or some future life. As long as the jiva is enveloped in ignorance, it remains attached to material desires and subject to the cycles of births and deaths (Samsara).

    There is no permanent heaven or hell in Hinduism. After services in the afterlife, the jiva enters the karma and rebirth system, reborn as an animal, a human or a divinity. This reincarnation continues until mokṣa, the final release, is gained.[94]According to the Hindu sage Adi Shankaracharya, the world – as we ordinarily understand it – is like a dream: fleeting and illusory. To be trapped in samsara (the cycle of birth and death) is a result of ignorance of the true nature of our existence. It is ignorance (avidya) of one’s true self that leads to ego-consciousness, grounding one in desire and a perpetual chain of reincarnation. The idea is intricately linked to action (karma), a concept first recorded in the Upanishads. Every action has a reaction and the force determines one’s next incarnation. One is reborn through desire: a person desires to be born because he or she wants to enjoy a body,[96] which can never bring deep, lasting happiness or peace (ānanda). After many births every person becomes dissatisfied and begins to seek higher forms of happiness through spiritual experience. When, after spiritual practice (sādhanā), a person realizes that the true “self” is the immortal soul rather than the body or the ego all desires for the pleasures of the world will vanish since they will seem insipid compared to spiritual ānanda. When all desire has vanished the person will not be born again.[97] When the cycle of rebirth thus comes to an end, a person is said to have attained liberation (moksha).[98] All schools agree this implies the cessation of worldly desires and freedom from the cycle of birth and death, though the exact definition differs. Followers of the Advaita Vedanta school believe they will spend eternity absorbed in the perfect peace and happiness of the realization that all existence is OneBrahman of which the soul is part. Dvaita schools perform worship with the goal of spending eternity in a spiritual world or heaven (loka) in the blessed company of the Supreme Being.[99]

    Reasons for Reincarnation[edit]

    Hindus provide several reasons why the jiva takes on various physical bodies:[100]

    To experience the fruits of one’s karmas: This is the main reason for rebirth. Sattvika (good or righteous) karmas reward one with the pleasures of Svarga. Rajas (pleasure-seeking) karmas reward one with mrutyuloka (mortal realm or earth). And Tamas karmas (actions related to inertia, laziness and evil) condemn one to patala-loka.

    To satisfy one’s desires: When a person indulges in material pleasures, he or she subsequently develops a stronger desire to enjoy more of it (Vāsanā). This unending craving to satisfy one’s desires causes the jiva to assume new physical bodies.

    To complete one’s unfinished sadhana: When an aspirant making spiritual efforts for liberation from maya dies without attaining his or her goal, the jiva gets as a natural cause-effect another human body to complete its sadhana.

    To fulfil a debt: When a jiva is indebted to another jiva, it gets a human birth to fulfil its debt and receive what is owed to it. The jiva comes in the form of a relative, friend or an enemy.

    To undergo sufferings because of a great soul’s curse: A person’s grave error or sin may incur the wrath or displeasure of God or a Rishi. This results in the jiva of that person getting another birth, not necessarily into a human body.

    To attain moksha: By the grace and compassion of God or a God-realized guru, a jiva gets a human body to purge itself of the layers of base instincts.[101]

  • Vashist

    so there you go reincarnation hell and heaven we have all 3

  • Vashist

    Why is the cow important to Hindus?

    In Hinduism, the cow is revered as the source of food and symbol of life and may never be killed. However, many non-Hindus interpret these beliefs to mean that Hindus worship cows. This is not true. It is more accurate to say the cow is taboo in the Hindu religion, rather than sacred. This is just one example of the misunderstandings people have about the Hindu faith.

    Furthermore, cows do not have an especially charmed life in India. Sometimes people around the world see images of India in print or on television, or they travel there, and see cows in public places, unfenced and unrestrained. From such scenes, they conclude that Indians consider cows gods, but this is a false idea and below you will find clarification on this subject.

    History of the “Sacred” Cow

    In ancient India, oxen and bulls were sacrificed to the gods and their meat was eaten. But even then the slaughter of milk-producing cows was prohibited. Verses of the Rigveda refer to the cow as Devi (goddess), identified with Aditi (mother of the gods) herself.

    Even when meat-eating was permitted, the ancient Vedic scriptures encouraged vegetarianism. One scripture says, “There is no sin in eating meat… but abstention brings great rewards.” (The Laws of Man, V/56). (Go here to learn about The Vedas.)

    Later, in the spiritually fertile period that produced Jainism and Buddhism, Hindus stopped eating beef. This was mostly like for practical reasons as well as spiritual. It was expensive to slaughter an animal for religious rituals or for a guest, and the cow provided an abundance of important products, including milk, browned butter for lamps, and fuel from dried dung.

    Some scholars believe the tradition came to Hinduism through the influence of strictly vegetarian Jainism. But the cow continued to be especially revered and protected among the animals of India.

    By the early centuries AD, the cow was designated as the appropriate gift to the brahmans (high-caste priests) and it was soon said that to kill a cow is equal to killing a brahman. The importance of the pastoral element in the Krishna stories, particularly from the 10th century onward, further reinforced the sanctity of the cow.

    Cow-Related Practices

    The cow remains a protected animal in Hinduism today and Hindus do not eat beef. Most rural Indian families have at least one dairy cow, a gentle spirit who is often treated as a member of the family.

    The five products (pancagavya) of the cow — milk, curds, ghee butter, urine and dung — are all used in puja (worship) as well as in rites of extreme penance. The milk of the family cow nourishes children as they grow up, and cow dung (gobar) is a major source of energy for households throughout India. Cow dung is sometimes among the materials used for a tilak – a ritual mark on the forehead. Most Indians do not share the western revulsion at cow excrement, but instead consider it an earthy and useful natural product.

    Despite their sacred status, cows don’t seem very appreciated in India. Visitors are often surprised to see them walking neglected around city streets, living on garbage from the gutters. But the cow is honored at least once a year, on Gopastami. On this “Cow Holiday,” cows are washed and decorated in the temple and given offerings in the hope that her gifts of life will continue.

  • Vashist

    btw we do worship cows and they ARE holy to us

  • Vashist

    many mistakes im hindu and i say it

    • Ambaa

      Therefore it must be true. Thank goodness we have the definitive Hindu here with all the answers we’ve all been waiting for.

  • Vashist

    pls dont take this as an conclusion that hindus belive this

  • Vashist

    He is a fool that practises truth without knowing the difference between truth and falsehood.
    — Krishna to Arjuna


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