What Is Hinduism?

What Is Hinduism?

Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world. Learn more from this comprehensive overview.

With nearly a billion adherents worldwide, Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion after Christianity and Islam.1 Hindus often focus on individual disciplines such as meditation, yoga, chants, and the burning of incense to deities. Many of these practices have been popularized in recent years through the Transcendental Meditation Society, Hare Krishna, and New Age groups in the West.

But Hinduism is largely an Eastern religion. About 90 percent of all Hindus live in India. Hinduism emerged in South Asia around 2000 BCE, thousands of years before Jesus or Muhammad lived. And unlike the religious movements those men started, Hinduism claims no single founder or triggering event.

The Hindu Worldview

Hinduism is extremely diverse. Each adherent may follow a unique philosophy and worship different gods.2 Nevertheless, in Hinduism, karma is a unifying concept.

Hindus believe that karma is the foundation of life. It unites all living things and is the defining energy in the universe’s cycle of cause and effect. Karma has been described as the sum or essence of an individual derived from past and present thoughts and actions. It is what you have earned, and therefore it determines your future.

“Bad karma” leads to negative consequences in this life or the next. On the flip side, “good karma” brings rewards. This way of thinking in Hinduism means that what one does—which produces good or bad karma—is much more important than what one believes.

Hindus also view life as cyclical rather than linear. Each individual’s existence involves a continuous cycle of birth, death, and rebirth known as reincarnation.

In this cycle, people are not reincarnated as only people. A person’s soul may take the form of an animal in the next life. Because of this, most Hindus are vegetarians, refusing to eat animals as they, too, have souls that are reaping the results of their karma.

I am a Hindu because it is Hinduism which makes the world worth living. I am a Hindu hence I love not only human beings, but all living beings.Mahatma Gandhi3

Hindus look at the world around them as an illusion (maya). Their goal is to free their souls from this illusory world and this cycle of rebirth. People can liberate themselves through ever-increasing good karma until they escape the illusory world and reach a state known as moksha.

This state has been described as becoming one with the ultimate, eternal, transcendent reality called Brahman. Brahman is the all-pervading source from which all things emerge, much as a wave might emerge from the ocean.

Hindu Gods and Worship

In light of this understanding of reality, it is difficult to define the role of deities in Hinduism. Religious scholars have portrayed Hindus as monotheistic (believing in one god), henotheistic (devoted to one god among many), monistic (believing in one eternal reality and all else coming from it), or polytheistic (believing in many gods—some recognize as many as 330 million Hindu gods).

Brahman is the transcendent spiritual reality that is sometimes depicted as divinity. However, most Hindus believe that Brahman is revealed through three gods: Brahma (the creator god), Vishnu (the preserver god), and Shiva (the destroyer god).

Moreover, these gods are said to appear on earth occasionally as avatars—that is, earthly incarnations of the deities. For example, Rama and Krishna are believed to be the seventh and eighth avatars of Vishnu. Hindu tradition holds that Jesus was an avatar, as are many modern Hindu gurus. Many Hindus also believe in countless lesser-known deities.4

Worship of these gods takes place at various temples and in home shrines. In each temple, images or statues of these gods, called murtis, do more than simply represent them—in a real sense, they contain them.

While deities are not limited by the physical elements of a statue, it is believed that they reside in the idol itself. This is why devotees care for, wash, clothe, feed, and worship these images. This is also why there are so many ornate temples for different gods on virtually every street corner in India.

Pathways to Brahman

In summary, Hindus believe in reincarnation and seek to escape this cycle to achieve moksha and union with Brahman. One trusted pathway for reaching this state is karma, the way of good works and acts of service toward others. This also includes regular observance of legal and ritual requirements as governed by the Hindu priesthood.

Another pathway involves focusing and clearing the mind through yogic meditation. Yet another path seeks to conquer ignorance of oneself and ultimate reality through rational inquiry. Finally, the pathway of devotion emphasizes the worship of and service to specific gods.

The literature governing these beliefs, pathways, and practices is massive. The Vedas (“knowledge”) are a collection of four works dating from as early as 1500 BCE. They contain hymns, mantras, incantations, and chants that guide ritualistic practices. The Upanishads are considered commentaries on the Vedas that discuss meditation and philosophy.

The most well-known of Hindu Scriptures is the Bhagavad Gita, known as the “Song of God.” It is considered by many to be the most succinct and approachable summation of Hindu beliefs and practices.

Hinduism in India and America

Today in India, the caste system that once characterized Hinduism has less impact on how people live, except in the smaller cities and villages. The castes represent different classes into which people are born. They also determine the kinds of occupations people hold. For the most part, individuals are not allowed to switch castes or marry outside of them.

There are four main castes, though the lower castes have been subdivided into numerous sub-castes.5 Some of the lowest members of society in the past were shunned as “untouchables.” It was believed that they were reaping the consequences of their bad karma. While some reforms of the caste system have taken place, this distinction between people has fostered crises of poverty, malnutrition, and unemployment in modern India.

In America, the caste system among Hindus is even less prominent, and naturally, there are fewer Hindu temples in the United States. However, families still gather together in informal worship settings where possible.

Overall, Hindus are typically tolerant of other religions because they often see them as other pathways to Brahman.6 This viewpoint promotes acceptance and peacefulness, which is indeed an admirable characteristic of Hinduism.

  1. “Hinduism: The World's Third Largest Religion," Religious Tolerance, http://www.religioustolerance.org/hinduism.htm.
  2. The diversity found in Hindu religion makes it difficult to describe a single worldview. The current description is more in line with the Brahmanic tradition. See Mary Pat Fisher, A Brief Introduction to Living Religions, 3rd ed., (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2012).
  3. Young India, January 12, 1926.
  4. For more on Hindu deities and worship, see Swami Bhaskarananda, The Essentials of Hinduism: A Comprehensive Overview of the World’s Oldest Religion (Seattle: Viveka Press, 2002), 65-78, 137-144.
  5. For more on the caste system, or what religious scholar Huston Smith calls “the stations of life,” see Huston Smith, The Illustrated World’s Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions (San Francisco: Harper, 1994), 43-46.
  6. On the spirit of tolerance in Hinduism, note how the Indian Supreme Court defines Hinduism in “The DNA of Dharma,” Hinduism Today (1990), 33.
  7. Photo Credit: Stephane Bidouze / Shutterstock.com.