Hinduism, although the third largest religion in the world at present, with 930 million followers, is not an organized religion like Judaism or Christianity and thus has no single, systematic approach to teaching its core beliefs and value system. Hindus do not have a simple set of rules to follow like the Ten Commandments, but rather have many texts, the oldest of which date back as far as 3,000 BC
Local, regional, caste, and communal 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 (known as Brahman) and adherence to certain concepts such as Truth, dharma, and karma. 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 from one tradition to another.
Within Hinduism today there are 4 major denominations but all Hindus share some basic beliefs:
• Truth is eternal.
Hindus pursue knowledge and understanding of the Truth, the very essence of the universe. 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 a real entity that encompasses everything (seen and unseen) in the universe.
• The Vedas are the ultimate authority.
The Vedas are scriptures that contain revelations received by ancient saints and sages. Hindus believe that the Vedas are without beginning and without end and 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.
Dharma can be described as "right conduct", "righteousness", "moral law", and "duty". Anyone who makes dharma central to their life strives to do the right thing, according to their duty and abilities, at all times.
• Individual souls are immortal.
A Hindu believes that the individual "true self" (atman, a concept slightly different to western ideas of a soul) is neither created nor destroyed; it has been, it is, and it will always be. Actions of the atman while residing in a body require that it receive the consequences of those actions (karma) in the next life — the same atman in a different body.
• The goal of the individual is moksha.
Moksha is liberation: the atman's release from the cycle of death and rebirth. It occurs when the atman unites with Brahman by realizing the true nature of itself and all existence. Several paths can lead to this realization and unity: the path of duty, the path of knowledge, and the path of devotion. This concept is similar to that of the Buddhist "Nirvana" and highlights the many similarities between the traditions.
One aspect of Hinduism that many people brought up in other traditions struggle with is the large number of gods (devas) and goddesses (devis). To find out more about this fascinating subject, and hopefully clarify things a little, please click here to see our guide to some of the most important members of the Hindu pantheon.
Click here to read about some of the most important Hindu festivals.