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

About Ambaa

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.

  • HARRY

    Slow clapping. :)

    Certain things can be expended differently, but, we will leave that for next time, but mean while you blew me away with your knowledge sisterji. On that note my one thousand Pranam. :)

    • Ambaa

      Thank you!

      Like I said at the end, it was really hard to hold back and keep it basic! This is the tip of the iceberg of what I could talk about :)

  • myownashram

    I always find these lists interesting. It is what makes a Vedic Hindu, someone more on the orthodox and right hand path, a Hindu. I always chafed – whether reading blogs or academic texts. These lists do not apply entirely to the left hand path or to some of the more Tantric traditions within HInduism. You know, to completely confuse matters even more. ;)

    • Ambaa

      True! There really is stunning variety and the only thing linking Hindus that I could find is the self-identification as a Hindu! I tried to represent a few different potential viewpoints, but there are innumerable variations :)

  • TruthSeeker

    Thanks for putting in such a nice way.

  • John Nikson

    There are several mistakes in this article,,
    first of all,, “hindu” is not given by british,, its given by arabians,, in pronunciation of sindhu becomes hindu in a way.
    second is there are no ancient invaders to bharat,,,, this theory of falsehood is created by Max Muller n followed by european ppl,, and there is no evidence for their theories. same time,, some European historians n philosophers condemned theories of Max Mulller …
    etc etc,,,,,,so ooon

    seems this article is not matured enough,, lot to correct ,,,,,,,,

    • HARRY

      @ John

      What you said in your post reply is a common knowledge for those whom were born in Hindustan like my self, so I know what you mean, but those are minor errors. I don’t correct my typos and spelling mistake either and if the words are not seen in sentence, I don’t use them when I write either. You are also right about the history of Bharat, but this is only a blog written by somebody who is nice and means well. So lets leave at that bud. Nobody knows everything.

      • John Nikson

        Weather minor or major,, mistakes are mistakes always,, its better to notify always,, if you leave like that you never correct itself,, everyone learns all life,,

        • http://amarchotoprithibi.blogspot.com/ Andrea

          Commas cannot be used for ellipses, and ellipses are used to indicate unfinished thoughts. So you do not want to use them at the end of sentences when you are sure of what you are saying. Also, it’s “whether,” not “weather” in this context.

          I don’t know much about Hindu history mistakes but I do know about grammar mistakes, and since you’re asking, I thought it best to deliver. :)

          • John Nikson

            lol, English is not my interest of learning. understanding words are mains between ppl, instead of commas, ellipses or else grammar, its also called Globish now a days. so wake up.

          • http://amarchotoprithibi.blogspot.com/ Andrea

            I don’t understand what that means.

        • Ambaa

          I don’t believe these things pointed out are mistakes. I said that some people believe this and others believe that. That is true. People do indeed believe the things that I said they believe.

    • Ambaa

      I’ve heard different people argue for different view points on both these things, which is why I said “SOME PEOPLE BELIEVE” for both those statements. Not everyone agrees that that is how it happens. I know that.

  • Ansh Mishra

    This article is literally interesting,the way it captures one’s mind is amazing, The way in which you have defined Sanatan Dharma is awesome,defining Sanatan dharma has never been easy especially for the non-hindus….you did have some mistakes as others say but for me it was flawless as you described almost everything in so less words….so…you are just doing fine and pls keep up this job :) …JAI SHRI RAM!

  • Madisyn Leigh Pina

    Ambaa,
    Thanks for this post. I have become increasingly interested in educating myself of Hinduism for I feel like it may be the right religious fit for me. Can you recommend scriptures or books to begin this journey?

    • Ambaa

      Welcome! I’m so glad that you’re here. I’m working on a book myself that will be a real baby steps intro into living as a Hindu, a kind of toolbox for new Hindus. But that’s not out yet! So in the meantime, The Himalayan Academy has wonderful books. I highly recommend How To Become a Hindu and Dancing with Shiva. For scripture, I would start with Eknath Easwaran’s translations of the Bhagavad Gita and the principle Upanishads.

  • Doug

    Please don’t compare prasadam to Communion. It isn’t just food offered to a god like prasad, the fact that they’re both consumed is literally as far as the similarities go. Protestants see is as just a symbol but Catholics revere the Eucharist as the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ Himself. It is the center, source, and summit of our faith. It is an intimate encounter with the Divine as Heaven and Earth collide on the altar and God’s Body dwells within us and His Blood flows through ours. We even have a form of prayer called Eucharistic Adoration where we simply behold and adore our God in the exposed Host of the Blessed Sacrament. It is a mystery, perfection, love incarnate. Clearly we do not hold the Eucharist in the same regard as Hindus hold prasad so please don’t compare the two or claim that “prasad is much like communion”

    • HARRY

      LOL,This is same as you saying that your car is made from steel and somebody elses is made from paper.

      Don’t forget this blog brings in loads of newcomers and they may not understand what prasad is, so the only way it can be explained is to bring in comparison that they can understand. To a Hindu prasad holds just as much important meaning as communion is to a Catholic. It’s not only blessed food as you may think it is, because it’s not. If we had same ignorance as you, we might as well call the communion wafer and wine, but we don’t do that.

      I’m stunned that you think that our religious belief is somewhat lesser then yours is, and I find this offensive. It’s this kind of behaviour others and hindus find it offensive, not your religion, because you seem to see others faith nothing. It was this kind of thinking that has created problems in the world. On that note don’t forget this is a Hindu blog.

      • Doug

        The point of my comment wasn’t to say my beliefs are better than yours or to offend, it was to point out that prasad and the Eucharist are not a fair comparison. I specifically worded my comment to make it clear that the Eucharist IN CATHOLICISM is held at a much higher regard than prasad IN HINDUISM. You cannot show me a Hindu that believes that prasad is God Himself or thecenter of his/her faith. You cannot find a Hindu that holds prasad to such a high regard that he or she will not recieve if they feel they are not right with God. You cannot show me poems, songs, and/or miracles that people have written or witnessed through prasad. You cannot find Hindus who are willing to die for the sake of prasad. “Blessed food” was Ambaa’s description, I called it “food offered to gods”, if you see it as something more please let me know. And plenty of non Catholics, including Hindus absolutely do call it a mere wafer and wine, if they don’t it’s simply because they don’t KNOW what we believe about it. Educate yourself and actually READ what I say before you begin name dropping and hating. Excuse me now while I go attend Mass and recieve the Eucharist I just ranted about! (That really is what I’m doing right now!) :)

    • Ambaa

      I’m sorry, I didn’t think of how that would come across to you.

      I’ve always thought of it that way. When I was a kid getting communion (non-Catholic variety), I had the same feelings as I have now as an adult receiving prasad. I see them as similar in the way that they are both blessed in front of God and then consumed as a way to bring the spirit of God into our very blood stream.

      My experience of communion is very liberal Protestant, so it is not quite the same as the Catholic communion.

  • Ambaa

    I would say that absolutely we respect and honor cows, but isn’t that a little different from worshiping? One doesn’t usually put a cow on the altar in one’s home mandir, right?

    • http://amarchotoprithibi.blogspot.com/ Andrea

      Our temple has a cow murti along with many other murtis…

      • Ambaa

        Really? Okay, I stand corrected on that one. I’ve never seen that.


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