Main Beliefs and Practices of Hinduism
||Introduction || The Vedas || Multiple paths || Brahman, the Supreme God of gods || Atman, the individual Self ||Prakriti, Nature ||Many gods and goddesses || Sacrifice || Mantras ||Dharma ||The Purusharthas || Varnashramadharma ||Worship || Creation ||Complex Cosmology || Karma || Maya || Rebirth or Reincarnation || Moksha, liberation || Avatar, Incarnation || Charity ||Associated Beliefs
Hinduism does not truly fit into the western notion of a religion. It has many beliefs and practices, some of which date back to prehistoric times. It is a complex belief system with an amalgamation of numerous faiths, beliefs and practices. Hence, it defies a definition that can truly reflect its essence and character. Hinduism is also the oldest living tradition and contains in itself the beliefs and practices of numerous lost or forgotten traditions and belief systems, which makes it even more difficult for the historians to trace its origins. Since God is considered to be the main source of its knowledge, beliefs and practices, Hinduism is also known as Sanatana Dharma (Eternal Dharma).
Although Hinduism originated in the Indian subcontinent, many races, communities and ethnic groups contributed to its beliefs and practices and thereby to its development. Hence, it is considered a composite religion, consisting of several sects and schools of philosophy each with a long history of at least a few thousand years. It also has a close affinity with other religions of Indian origin, namely Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism and shares with them many common beliefs and practices.
Because of its long history, Hinduism has many unique beliefs and features, which make it appealing to a wide section of people. Today Hinduism is practiced all over the world. It is mostly predominant in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Fiji, Mauritius, the West Indies, and South Africa. In recent times, many Hindus migrated to Europe and North America, where Hinduism has gained popularity not only with people of Indian origin but also with many educated people from other cultures.
The following is a brief summary of the main beliefs and practices of Hinduism in a nutshell. Readers are requested to note that since Hinduism is a complex religion and this being a condensed presentation of its essential features, there can be exceptions to what you may find here in some sects, schools and sub sects.
In Hinduism the Vedas are considered inviolable and indisputable because they are the heard ones (shruti) and not man-made (apaurusheya). Veda means sacred knowledge which is believed to exist eternally in the world of Brahman and revealed at the beginning of each cycle of creation in the worlds of gods, humans, and demons by Brahma, their creator, to help them perform their Dharma, or duties and sacrifices. The Vedas were originally three, but subsequently the fourth one was added. The four Vedas in the order of their composition are the Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda. The Rigveda contains prayer chants (riks). The Samaveda contains, hymns (Samans), which can be sung loudly. The Yajurveda contains sacrificial formulas (yajus), and the Atharvaveda mostly contains charms to cast spells or achieve particular ends. The hymns of the Vedas are used in sacrificial rituals and ceremonies to invoke various Vedic gods and obtain their help for peace and prosperity or to overcome problems. The Vedas are very large texts containing thousands of hymns, and each hymn contains numerous verses. Each Veda is primarily divided into two parts, the Samhita and the Brahmana. The former contains hymns, and the latter verses in prose to deal with the ritual and philosophical aspects of various beliefs and practices of the faith. The second part is further divided into, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads. Each Veda contains one or more Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads. The Aranyakas deal with advanced ritual knowledge, while the Upanishads deal with various aspects of liberation, Brahman, Atman, creation, rebirth, realities, modes, aspects of Nature, and spiritual practice. In Hinduism the Vedas are used as the standard to validate philosophical truths and arguments. Any opinion, philosophy, or metaphysical assertion becomes vindicated if it finds an approval in the Vedas. However, although the Vedas are central to Hinduism, currently their importance is limited to the Upanishads and a few ritual and spiritual practices. The Upanishads are the heart of Hinduism. They form the basis of almost every Hindu sect, school of philosophy, and teacher tradition.
Hinduism differs from all other world religions because it is a pluralistic religion and accommodates divergent beliefs, paths and practices. Hindus firmly believe that the paths to God and liberation are numerous and all paths lead to him only. Some may be circuitous and take time, but their final destination is Brahman only. According to the Bhagavadgita, a person's faith is according to his nature. In whatever form he worships God or gods, in that form God stabilizes his faith. People worship God or gods for numerous reasons, to fulfill their worldly desires, resolve their suffering, out of sheer curiosity, or to achieve liberation. Because of ignorance or desires, some may not even consider their liberation a priority. A person's spiritual and material destiny are determined by his past karma, his essential nature, desires and attachments. Human beings are deluded by nature, and hence it is natural for them to lack discretion, make wrong decisions and remain bound to the mortal world. A wise teacher may take pity on them and teach them the right knowledge, but neither he nor anyone else should confuse them with the knowledge which they cannot understand. The Bhagavadgita states that one's dharma, however inferior may be, is better than the dharma of another, however superior it may be. It is imperative for the order and regularity of the world that each individual should stick to his or her set of duties and religious practices, and does not change them because they find them unpleasant, inferior or difficult. The two ideas seem contradictory. However, what it means is that you cannot abandon your moral duties and worldly obligations that come to you by birth, profession, gender or status, but you have the freedom to choose your path and methods of devotional worship for your liberation and spiritual wellbeing.
Critics of Hinduism try to undermine its importance by arguing that it is not a monotheistic religion. It is untrue because Hinduism recognizes a universal, supreme God as the source of all creation. Undoubtedly, it is the oldest of all the current religions, which worship a creator God. In Hinduism, the highest God is Brahman, who is also described variously as Supreme Self, Iswara, Purusha, Parameswara, Narayana, Mahadeva, etc. He is both existence and non-existence, being and nonbeing, visible and invisible, one and many, creator and the created. He is described in the scriptures as eternal, indestructible, immeasurable, infinite, supreme, pure, absolute, support of all, pervader of all, lord, enjoyer, witness, etc. According to the Vedas, he creates all the worlds and beings for his enjoyment and subjects them to the modifications of Nature, duality, diversity, objectivity, delusion, egoism, and ignorance of their own divine nature. For the order and regularity of the worlds, he also shares or delegates all his duties to the beings of different worlds according to their nature and responsibilities. Human beings are therefore expected to perform God's duties of creation, preservation and destruction to ensure the order and regularity of the worlds. According to the Vedas, the one God becomes many. He becomes 3, 33,333, 3333, and so on. His highest aspects are Isvara (God), Hiranyagarbha (Soul), and Viraj (the body or the objective reality). Another important manifestation of him is Time or Death (kala), the lord who rules the objective world and devours everything as his food. Isvara in turn manifests as Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, who are known as Trimurthis, to perform the duties of the creator, the preserver and the destroyer respectively. The entire creation of Brahman constitutes a little part (amsa) of his infinite dimensions and absolute reality.
Unlike Buddhism, Hinduism believes in the eternal Self as the inmost Self (atman) of all beings. The individual Self is a microcosmic aspect of Brahman only. It is described as eternal, indestructible, unchanging, blissful, alone, transcendental, pure, intelligence, consciousness, etc. It is unreachable by the mind or the senses, but because of it alone they work. The early Upanishads identified it with breath, and hence the name Atman really means the breathing one. Although the Self is pure and infinite, when it is embodied in the mortal beings, it remains covered by the realities (tattvas) and modes (gunas) of Nature and bound to the mind and the body. It is called the samasara, or bondage to the cycle of births and deaths, which continues until it achieves liberation. The Upanishads state that the Self resides in the body in three locations, the eyes, the heart, and the mind. It is also described as the enjoyer and the Witness consciousness. The school of non-dualism holds that the individual souls are mere projections and not real. Only Brahman is real. Hence, when a person is liberated, he ceases to exist both as a being and as a soul, and merges into Brahman. According to some schools of Hinduism, the souls are of three types, the bound ones, the liberated ones, and the forever free ones. The liberated souls and the forever free souls eternally exist in the world of Brahman and remain so even when the worlds are dissolved at the end of each creation cycle.
Some people mistakenly regard Hinduism as a naturalistic religion, or animism, which is not true. Hindus worship Nature as an aspect or force of God. In Hinduism, Nature represents the universal femininity. It is called Prakriti, the primordial Nature, who represents the materiality of all existence. The energy or shakti in her subtle form, she is both manifested and unmanifested. Acting as the dynamic force of God, she manifests his Will and creates the diversity that we find in the existence, using a set of realities that are known as tattvas and three universal qualities or modes called gunas. In Hinduism she goes by many names and has both pleasant and fierce forms, just as Nature has on earth. Everything that you touch, feel, and experience in you and in the objective world is Nature. She represents your very being, name and form. The whole body and mind of all beings are but aspects of Nature in the microcosm. As the primordial Nature, she is eternal and indestructible, while her forms and creations are destructible, changeable and divisible. The dynamism and the drama of the universe are caused by Nature only for the enjoyment of the Self, which remains passive. Thus, she responsible for the beingness of the beings, their desires, attachments, duality, delusion, confusion, modifications, suffering, attraction and aversion, and bondage to the cycle of births and deaths. However, she is also the transformative and purifying power on the path of liberation. She can be loving, uplifting, nurturing, supporting, caring, and purifying to those who worship her and seek her help and protection. Followers of Tantra and Shakti regard Prakriti as the highest and the ultimate reality, and worship her as the Supreme Being.
There is no religion in the world which is as colorful and vibrant as Hinduism, with its pantheon of gods and goddesses and the vision of a hierarchical universe, ruled by numerous deities who derive their power and authority from the highest, supreme Brahman. Hindus not only worship the Supreme Self and Shakti, but also numerous male and female deities, who are considered aspects of Purusha and Prakriti only. However, they are not mere functional aspects or symbolic concepts, but actual beings who play a vital role in ensuring the order and regularity of the worlds. They live in their own spheres, in the company of their associate gods and devotees, and participate in the creation, preservation and destruction of the worlds and beings as part of their obligatory duties. Since each has a specific role and duty and occupies a certain place of importance in the hierarchy of gods, the worlds cannot exist without them. Each deity is a combination of Purusha and Prakriti, and in their purest and supreme aspect is but Brahman only. Each god has one or more female deities acting as their consorts and providing him with dynamic force. Most of the male and female deities are worshipped not only in their individual aspects but also in their universal aspect as Brahman or Shakti or both. It is in this regard that Hinduism fundamentally differs from the western notions of polytheism. Hinduism accepts the diversity of creation as a fundamental reality of existence, and accepts a vast hierarchy of gods as part of that diversity. It is the same Purusha (Cosmic Being) manifesting numerously to enact the sacrifice of creation in which he is the worshipper, the offering and the one who is worshipped. The most popular gods of Hinduism include Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Saraswathi, Lakshmi, Parvathi, Durga, Kali, Rama, Krishna, Venkateswara, Ganesha, Hanuman, and Kumaraswami, and their local versions, aspects, emanations, and manifestations.
The idea of sacrifice is central to both Hindu ritual practices and spiritual philosophy. Sacrifice is the cause and the basis of life, and sacrifice is also the ultimate purpose of life. A person comes into existence because of a sacrifice in which a father pours his water into the female sexual organ as an offering, which results in the formation of an embryo in her womb as the fruit of that sacrifice. Once a person is born, his life become a continuous sacrifice in which his actions become the offering and karma its fruit. At the time of death, the person's body is again offered in a final sacrifice as the offering, and the fruit of that offering is the afterlife in the ancestral world or the immortal world. Thus, one of the distinguishing features of Hinduism is its emphasis upon sacrifice as the source of life, the way of life and the purpose of life. It recognizes rituals and sacrificial offerings as part of a human being's obligatory duty to maintain the order and regularity of the world. Creation also is envisaged in Hinduism as the sacrifice of God, in which he becomes both the sacrificer and the sacrificed. The outcome of that sacrifice is existence and manifestation of all worlds and beings. Meditation, austerities, yoga and other spiritual practices are considered internal sacrifices, in which the body is considered the sacrificial pit, breath is regarded as the offering, and liberation as the outcome. The worlds exist because of sacrifice. Each living being is a sacrificer in the sacrifice of life, in which the embodied self (jivatma) is the sacrificer, the body is the sacrificial pit, the actions and their consequences are the offering, and God is their final recipient. Since life is a sacrifice, you must be careful about what you claim as yours. If you enjoy the fruit of your sacrifice instead of offering it to God, you become responsible for them and suffer from their consequences. Thus, the model of sacrifice forms the basis of Hinduism and its essential concepts of karma, rebirth, and suffering. Devout Hindus are expected to perform daily sacrifices to nourish gods, ancestors, animals, spiritual people, etc. Apart from it, there are rituals that are performed on a weekly, fortnightly, monthly or annual basis. Some rituals and festival like Kumbh or Mahakumbh repeat once in several years or a century. The purpose of the rituals is to nourish gods, ancestors, and ascetic people who cannot make food for themselves and in return seek their blessings for the welfare of the world, peace and prosperity.
A mantra is a sacred prayer, hymn, or word from the sacred texts used in ritual and domestic worship to communicate or consecrate a deity, cast spells and charms, or seek protection against them. Literally, a mantra means that which you release with the power of your mind. Each mantra has a presiding deity, from which the mantra receives its potency and the power to manifest or fulfill the desires and wishes of the worshippers. A mantra's power depends upon how it is used, by whom it is used, and for what ends. For maximum efficacy, it must be used with utmost purity and chanted correctly with right intentions. Since mantras can be used for positive or negative purposes, they are meant to be revealed only to the qualified ones. The mantra tradition is very peculiar to Hinduism, with a history which is as old as the Vedas themselves. The Vedas are books of sacred hymns, mantras, spells, and incantations to propitiate gods for peace and prosperity. They rely upon the power of the sounds, speech, and mind to communicate with gods and obtain their help in return for the offerings made. Each mantra uttered during worship also becomes an offering to the deity. The Vedic tradition recognizes three types of mantras, namely the Riks, Yajus, and Samans. Riks are metrical mantras which are recited loudly during sacrificial ceremonies. Yajus are sacred formulas composed in prose, which are muttered in low tones. Samans are also metrical mantras, which are sung loudly due to their melodious quality. Mantras are used to infuse objects, such as water, an image, or a place with the sacred power of Brahman to purify it and use it as a protective shield or a sacred object to fulfill desires or cast spells. A person who is well versed in the knowledge of the Mantras and Vedas is known as a mantri. In the Vedic times kings used to employ them for consultation and counsel. It gave birth to the tradition of royal counsel and the council of ministers. The closest among them was called the mukhya mantri, or chief minister. Mantras are also used in healing and overcoming obstacles.
Hinduism should be rightly renamed as Dharma, because it forms the core of Hinduism. In Hinduism Dharma is synonymous with religion or faith. It is the basis of its moral, social, religious, spiritual and philosophical teachings and practice. The world is created for dharma, continues because of dharma, and becomes dissolved as part of dharma. Dharma means moral, sacred, and obligatory duties that directly arise from God which are vital to the creation, preservation, and destruction of the worlds and beings, and for the order and regularity of the worlds. God is the creator and upholder of Dharma. Every human being has to perform the triple functions of creation, preservation, and destruction for the continuation of the worlds and beings, and in so doing he must consider himself a mere servant, agent, or representative of God. In the performance of his duties, he must relinquish all notions of doership, ownership and desire for the fruit of his actions and offerings. Hinduism is also known as Sanatana Dharma because the duties of God that humans are expected to perform upon earth are considered eternal, constant and imperishable. The Bhagavadgita mainly teaches how to perform your duties, however unpleasant they may be, with detachment, renunciation and as a sacrificial offering to God for the welfare of the worlds as well as your own welfare. The Hindu law books (dharmashastras) are books of moral, personal, social, and family duties. They specify the duties that are specific to different categories of people according to their profession, status, and responsibilities. Life is a battle between dharma and adharma. Where dharma prevails, there peace, harmony, and happiness prevail, and where it is weak, chaos spread and evil grows. The Taitrriya Upanishad affirms that if you protect and uphold dharma, dharma will protect you and uphold you. Thus, the practice of Hinduism is synonymous with the practice of Dharma, or sacred duties.
Hinduism offers a very practical model of life for the humans to lead by suggesting four chief aims of human life known as purusharthas. They are based upon the four chief aims of God himself, or Purusha, in creating and upholding his creation. Since human beings embody the Purusha as their very selves and represent him upon earth as the upholders of his sacred duties (dharma), the aims of Purusha become their aims also. The four purusharthas are, dharma (duty), artha (wealth), kama (sexual desire), and moksha (liberation). The first and the last are of utmost importance in the life of an individual since they form the basis of his moral and spiritual conduct and the means to his liberation. They also serve as the basis for humans in pursuing the other two goals of wealth and sexual pleasure since people can become trapped in them and lose their way. However, the four aims are not obligatory for all Hindus. They are prescribed mainly for those who choose to become householders and go through the four phases of varnasharma dharma (brahmacharya, grihasta etc.), which are described in another section. Some may pursue only the twin aims of dharma and moksha by renouncing worldly life and following the ascetic path of liberation. Artha and kama constitute the worldly pursuit, and dharma and moksha the spiritual pursuit. Together they ensure that human beings lead holistic lives and do not ignore their main duties that are part of their dharma, such as supporting their families, gods, ancestors, seers and sages, protecting cattle and other animals, procreation, continuation of family lineage, and protection and preservation of the sacred knowledge of the Vedas through study, recitation and sacrifices. It is also important to pursue the four aims, with detachment and as an offering or a sacrifice to God, and with no desire for personal gain or enjoyment, so that one can avoid the consequences of karma that arise in their pursuit. In today's world, the purusharthas serve as an ideal. However, it is doubtful whether anyone strictly follows them in their real lives in the order of their importance or adhere to the lifestyle they prescribe.
The varnashrama dharma forms part of the Vedic tradition, which is not currently followed by a majority of Hindus. It is even doubtful whether anyone follows it at all because the current education system, householder lifestyles and living conditions have little in common with those of the Vedic times. However, from a theoretical and historical perspective, it still holds a value as an ideal, which people can pursue with suitable modifications to fit into their current lifestyles. According to the varnasharama dharma, human life is divided into four phases. In each phase people are expected to perform different duties as part of their obligation to God and to themselves. The four phases are brahmacharya, grihastha, vanaprastha, and sanyasa. Brahmacharya is the phase of celibacy, during which a child who has been initiated into the study of the Vedas should practice celibacy and complete his mastery of the scriptures. In the past this phase used to last until one reached the age of 30-35. In grihasta, a person has to lead the life of a householder and fulfill his obligations towards himself, his family, ancestors, gods, seers and sages, animals, other human beings, and the world in general. He has to live responsibly, pursuing the four chief aims of human life as described before. In Vanaprastha, a person has to take leave from his family and householder responsibilities, and live in a forest or a secluded place to pursue his study of the scripture, live in contemplation, and prepare himself liberation. In the final phase of sanyasa, he should entirely give up the use of fire, renounce all attachments, observe austerities and pursue the path of renunciation, with the sole aim to pursue liberation. Although it may be difficult to follow the traditional varanshrama dharma, a person can still model his life on the ideal, and divide his life into four phases to pursue both material and spiritual goals.
In Hinduism devotees worship God and their favorite deities in various ways to express their love and devotion or to fulfill their wishes. In the Bhagavadgita, Lord Krishna assures that in whatever from people worship God, in that form he manifests. Therefore, devotees have the freedom to choose any object, symbol, thought, world, or form, which is convenient to them and meditate upon it. They may also worship him physically and ritually or mentally and spiritually, at home, in a temple, a sacred place, or in a congregation, with the help of a priest or by themselves. However, with regard to certain rituals and complicated sacrificial ceremonies, which are highly structured and very complex, they invariably require the assistance of qualified priests to avoid any ill effects or unintended consequences that may arise from them. It is also important which deity you worship, because a person becomes what he worships. As the Bhagavadgita states, those who worship the gods go to the gods, those who worship the ancestors go to them, and those who worship the elements go to the elements, but those who worship Brahman, go to Brahman only. Worship is also of different kinds, daily, weekly, fortnightly, monthly, yearly, or on specific occasions according to tradition. Some rituals require prior preparation and utmost purity, while some can be performed spontaneously without any preparation. Devotees may also choose different methods of worship such as rituals, prayers, chants, sacrifices, repetition of names, meditation, and make different offerings according to the object and purpose of the worship. There are also right hand methods which follow the traditional Vedic beliefs and practices, and left hand methods as prescribed in the Tantras.
In Hinduism there are two divergent opinions about creation. According to one view which is found in certain schools of Hinduism, existence is eternal without any creator. Life manifests spontaneously due to the actions of Nature when it subjects the individual souls to its modes and modifications. However, the more popular opinion holds that Brahman, the Supreme Being, is the creator. He creates the worlds out of himself and subjects them to delusion and desires. Nature (Prakriti) acts as his agent to manifest his will and create diversity. Existence is either a projection, superimposition, or reflection of God in the field of Nature. Hence, it is not real, but a temporary creation or illusion which will last as long as God is actively present in it. When he withdraws from it, it will instantly disappear. There are also many theories of creation in Hinduism, some very detailed, some vague, and some symbolic. There are no clear explanations, although there are many theories and philosophies, why the worlds come into existence, and what might have existed before they were manifested. The Rigveda even expresses skepticism whether God has any knowledge of the state that existed prior to creation (since he remains in deep sleep). It is commonly believed that God creates the worlds for his enjoyment (lila). We also know from the scriptures that there is a definite pattern to his creation, which happens cyclically and repeatedly as he goes into the alternating modes of activity and rest. The world's manifest when he is active and it is the day for him, and they disappear when it is night for him and he is resting. In each cycle of creation deities such as Isvara, Hiranyagarbha, Brahma, Manu, the mind born sons of Brahma, and other gods, seers, and beings appear at regular intervals according to a predictable pattern. Each cycle of creation is also subject to definite divisions of time, and predictable phases of epochs, known as Satya yuga, Thretha yuga, Dvapara yuga, and Kaliyuga. Each of them is distinguished by specific events, characteristics, manifestations, duration, and the play of divine and demonic activity. Another important belief associated with the Hindu theories of creation is that it happens due to the union between God (Purusha) and Nature (Prakrithi). God represents the Self, which is pure consciousness, and Nature represents the body which is made of matter, energy, and materiality. Both are eternal and may be independent. However, Purusha is immutable while Nature is mutable. In creation, Purusha remains untouched by the modification of Nature, while Nature undergoes transformation to create or evolve names, forms, and beings. It is also true that there are many parallels between the Hindu theories of creation and the modern theory of Big Bang, in which elements, space, cosmic egg, energy and consciousness play an important part.
Hindu cosmology presents a multitier universe and a hierarchy of worlds and planes of existence which are inhabited by numerous beings, with varying degrees of purity and light, or impurity and darkness, or a mixture of both. The Vedic people believed in a four-tier world, namely the earth, the mid-region, the water-bearing world, and the heaven. In addition, they believed in three other worlds, the immortal word of Brahman in the sphere of the sun, the world of ancestors in the sphere of the moon, and the underworld beneath the earth ruled by Lord Yama. In the Puranas we find descriptions of seven upper worlds of light, and seven lower worlds of darkness, with the earth or the mortal world as the seventh from the top. Each of the worlds is given a specific name. According to some theories, these worlds exist in each of us as subtle planes which can be accessed through meditation. The lower worlds are the worlds of pain and suffering, unpleasant memories and dark, demonic, and disturbing images. The higher worlds are worlds of pleasure, enjoyment, positive memories and bright forms gods and celestial beings. In addition to the worlds described before, each of the triple deities (trimurthis) has his own world, the Brahmalok of Brahma, the Vaikuntha of Vishnu, and the Kailash of Shiva. Apart from them, we also find references to the world of serpents and mythical beings, with half human bodies, beneath the earth and in the oceans. The Puranas also describe the earth as part of a huge mountain called Meru which stretches high into the heavens, with gods living in its upper regions and other beings below, and surrounded by seven concentric circles of oceans, which are encircled by a huge wall of tall mountains. Beyond them is said to be the indeterminate existence, about which nothing is known. In this great hierarchy of worlds, the mortal world of humans has a great significance since only humans have the opportunity to achieve liberation and ascend to the highest heaven of Brahman. Some scriptures also suggest that our universe (brahmandam) is just one of the numerous universes manifested by numerous Brahmas in numerous spheres of existence under the watchful gaze of the Supreme Being, Narayana. The Vedas also speak of four planes of consciousness, the wakeful state, the dream state, the deep sleep state, and the transcendental state, and five sheaths in the body, the gross body, breath body, mind body, intelligence body, and bliss body. Each of them may have a corresponding plane in the macrocosm also.
One of the important features of Hinduism is the belief in karma, or the belief that beings in the mortal world are subject to the consequences of their desire-ridden actions, which may be mental, physical, expressed, unexpressed, direct, or indirect. Hindus do not believe that God punishes anyone for their actions. People punish themselves by indulging in desire-ridden actions that produce sinful karma as their fruit. Karma means any actions one performs with or without desires. Karma-phal is the fruit that arises from such actions. In general usage, however, the word karma is used to denote both the actions and their fruit or consequences. Karma is an effect of your thoughts and actions. It keeps accumulating in the life of an individual and becomes the basis of his future lives. At the time of death, it becomes attached to the soul as latent impressions (samskaras), and accompanies him to the next world as well as to the next birth. The scriptures distinguish different types of karma,, namely the karma that is accumulated from past lives, the karma that is accumulated in the current life, the karma that is currently being exhausted, the karma from the past lives that has been exhausted, and the karma that becomes transferred into future lives, etc. Each person's life and destiny are thus products of his or her past actions. No one can escape from karma because no one can remain without performing actions. Bodily functions such as breathing, seeing, eating, listening, and sleeping are karma only with positive or negative consequences. Even mutely witnessing evil actions of others or silently giving consent to them out of fear, selfishness, or self-interest can produce consequences. Liberation is not possible, until all karma is exhausted and the latent impressions in the subtle body are completely burnt. Hence, the Bhagavadgita prescribes karma-sanyasa yoga, according to which one should perform actions without desires and offer their fruit to God, acknowledging him as the source of all actions. The grace of God or of a spiritual person may also play an important role in neutralizing the effects of karma. In a philosophical sense, karma is a self-correcting and self-cleansing mechanism. Through karma a being gradually evolves and learns to discern the truth about himself and God, and his state of bondage and delusion. However, left to himself, it may take many births before a person reaches perfection in his knowledge and wisdom to come to that realization. Hence, the practice of yoga to hasten the process and arrest the ill effects of karma is prescribed in the scriptures.
Maya is another name of Prakriti. Maya also means illusion or delusion, or mistaking one thing for another. Maya also means magic. According to the Vedas, the asuras excel in magic and misleading their enemies. They wage wars with the help of magic, or use it to disrupt the worlds. Gods may also resort to magic, but it is for the good of the world. God himself is described in the Vedas as the greatest magician with the power to control, conceal and reveal. References to Maya are found in various schools of Hinduism, but it has a special significance in the Vedanta philosophy which is based upon the teachings of the Upanishads. According to it, the objective, everyday reality (vyavaharika) that we perceive with the senses is not true. What is true is the transcendental reality of Brahman which can be experienced only through self-realization. The Truth is hidden behind a veil of deception, whose source is God himself. He casts a spell upon the beings so that they cannot see him, but only his reflection, which they take for real. Hence, the world is not what it appears to be. It is partly a projection of your mind and partly a distorted version of your knowledge, perception, and understanding, filtered by the impurities of your mind and senses. We know today that the visible world is but a fraction of the invisible world, which remains hidden from our view and senses. The Vedic seers realized this truth long ago and cautioned people not to be misled by their perceptions and reasoning, but develop a deeper vision and understanding of the world to see it clearly and directly. The school of nondualism (advaita) holds that Brahman is the only reality. Everything else, including the world in which we live, is unreal, or an illusion because it is a projection of God in the field of Nature. It is like the dream of God, which lasts for the duration of creation. Since it lasts for billions of years, we do not know its illusory nature. Because of the activity of the senses and the mind, we take the it for real and ignore the reality that is hidden in it as its very soul. This illusion is created by Brahman with the help of the modes (gunas) of Nature by subjecting them to the impurities of egoism, attachments, ignorance, and delusion, whereby they take their minds and bodies for real and fail to recognize the soul which is present in them. The Svetasvatara Upanishad describes Brahman as a magician who casts the net of illusion upon his creation and subjects all beings to delusion. By removing the impurities that are present in the mind and body due to the activities of the triple gunas, and cultivating purity (sattva) one can overcome the delusion and achieve liberation.
Belief in rebirth or reincarnation of souls is common to all religions of Indian origin. It characterizes many aspects of Hinduism. According to the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita and every other Hindu scripture, the soul takes numerous births during its existence in the mortal world before it achieves liberation. As the Bhagavadgita states, in each life the soul wears a new body like a clothe and discards it at the time of death. Rebirth is inevitable for the embodied souls, who indulge in desire-ridden actions, and whose karma is not exhausted. At the time of death they go to the ancestral world and return from there after their karmas are exhausted to take another birth. In the ancestral world they wear a casual body according to their karmas and fall to the earth when those bodies are worn out. Those who perform meritorious actions and incur good karma take birth in pious families, whereas those who indulge in sinful and evil actions take birth through sinful wombs and suffer greatly. Beings who indulge in mortal sins fall down into the darker world and return to the world to take birth in the bodies of animals and lower life forms. The Mundaka Upanishad suggests that rebirth is inevitable for those who pursue ignorance (avidya), and perform desire-ridden actions and rituals (karma-kanda) but those who renounce worldly life, live in forests in contemplation of Brahman, attain the world of Brahman and never return.
Liberation (Moksha) in Hinduism means liberation from the cycle of births and deaths or from the soul's involvement with the materiality of Nature. In a limited sense it means freedom from suffering, delusion, ignorance, duality, impurity, and attachments. In an objective sense it means liberation from the burden of having an impure mind and body. The souls are caught in the cycle of births and deaths due to the modifications of Nature and desire-ridden actions. Desires are induced by the activity of the senses which are in turn influenced by the modes of Nature, namely sattva, rajas, and tamas. For the embodied soul the body is like a prison-house. It is not free until it is fully liberated from the hold of Nature and returns to its pristine state of pure consciousness. According to some schools of Hinduism, moksha means freedom from duality and delusion and dissolution of the (illusion of) individual soul into the Supreme Self, whereby it ceases to exist as an entity. According to other schools, liberation means self-realization or the realization that one is not the mind and body or the name and form but the eternal, indestructible, and infinite Self. Upon reaching that realization, souls travel by the path of gods (devayana) to the world of Brahman which is located in the sphere of the Sun and stay there, never to return. The scriptures are not unanimous with regard to state of the continuation of liberated souls in the world of Brahman, how they exist, what they do, and whether they remain active or passive. According to some sects, they remian blssful and in unision with the state of the Supreme Being, staying forever in the field of his direct gaze and infinite love. Some teacher traditions hold the belief that upon their departure from here, the liberated souls ascend to the higher worlds where they are assigned different tasks or asked to become the messengers of God. Accordingly, they may incarnate in other gross or subtle worlds to spread his word and spiritualize the beings there.
In Hinduism, the whole universe is sacred because it embodies God as its very soul. God is not separate from his creation just as the light that spreads from the sun is not separate from him. The world may be an illusion, but it is infused with his light and presence. God pervades it as its very soul and support. He manifests numerously as gods, beings, objects, wonders, worlds and planes of existence. However, he does not equally manifest his dynamic presence in all. Depending upon the situation, in the beings he may manifest his power fully, partially, or minutely, or remain fully hidden. Gods are his highest manifestations where his light, purity, and potency are the brightest, while the asuras are his lowest where it is as if he does not exist at all. In the darkest hells where the daithyas and rakshasas rule, his light and purity remain completely suppressed and enveloped by darkness. In the mortal world, his presence is mixed, according to the spiritual purity and progress of the beings. In most cases he remains a passive witness, and lets Nature rule their minds and bodies. However, from time to time, when the order and regularity of the world are disrupted by evil forces, in his aspect as Vishnu, the preserver, he may directly incarnates upon earth in a mortal body and resolve the problem. On such occasions he may choose to incarnate fully or partially. His full incarnations are limited to ten only, whereas his partial incarnations are said to be numerous. The purpose of each incarnation is to restore dharma by destroying the evil or spreading the knowledge of liberation and righteousness. An incarnation is different from a messenger, prophet, god, or teacher. It is God himself in mortal form, with a specific mission to save the world and restore order, without an intermediary. The scriptures suggest that nine incarnations of Vishnu have already taken place at different times in the present cycle of creation. The last one, that of Kalki, will happen in future at the end of Kaliyuga, when the world will be destroyed in a huge conflagration. The idea of incarnation is very predominant in Vaishnavism. Followers of Shiva do not believe that an incarnation is necessary for God to restore dharma. They believe that Shiva, the all knowing, ominpotent God, may directly intervene in the world in a particular asepct, form, or emnation or depute Shakti or his associate deities and ganas to deal with the problem.
Charity or dana is one of the most important aspects of ethical conduct and religious practice in Hinduism. According to the essential beliefs of Hinduism, Hindus are not supposed to live for themselves, but for the sake of God, in the service of God, and to server those whose existence is vital to the continuation of the worlds. Therefore, it is an obligatory duty of every Hindu householder to practice charity as part of his or her religious duty to ensure the order and regularity of the world. There are many people in the world who depend upon others for food, such as students who study the Vedas and practice celibacy, ascetics who take the vows to practice austerities and renounce cooking or the use of fire, people who are disabled or extremely poor, saints, seers, and wandering monks (shramanas) who cannot have permanent shelters, and gods who cannot make their own food. They depend upon the charitable nature of humans. It is also an obligatory duty for a householder to honor the visiting guests, and serve them with food and other comforts. They are also expected to make the five daily sacrificial offerings to gods, ancestors, humans, animals, etc. Giving charity is thus a very important part of Dharma (sacred duty) for people on earth. It is by giving and serving the humanity that they serve God and earn the merit. Truly speaking, sacrificial ceremonies and ritual worship are prescribed in Hinduism mainly to promote charitable activities. Since human beings are selfish by nature, it difficult for them to overcome their attachment to worldly possessions and share them with others. Charitable activities help them practice detachment and overcome their selfishness. According to a story in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, it is said that once upon a time Brahma assembled gods, demons and humans and gave them specific instructions to improve their conduct. He asked gods who were excessively drawn to pleasure seeking behavior to practice restraint (dama). To the demons he gave the advice to practice compassion (daya) because they were excessively prone to cruelty. When it came to the humans he asked them to practice charity (dana) because they were prone to selfishness. The story illustrates how important charity is for human beings to earn good merit or achieve liberation. Charity is not just about giving money or food, but sharing knowledge, healing others, giving blessings, and being generous in forgiving others.
The following are a few associated or derivative beliefs that are worth mentioning.
1. The belief in eternal life. Hindus believe that the souls are immutable and live eternally.
2. The belief in the living images of God. Hindus believe that the images in the temples and at home which they worship are incarnations (arcas) of God and should be treated with reverence and respect.
3. The belief in the evolution of life. Hindus believe that being evolve both physically and mentally through rebirth, karma, self-purification, and spiritual practice.
4. The belief in the social order. Hindus believe that due to karma people are naturally predisposed to perform certain tasks, professions and skills. This led to the formation of caste system, which presently divides the Hindu community into caste based groups and affliations.
5. The belief in the spiritual basis of marriage. Hindus believe that marriages are made in heaven and in married life both husband and wife have to perform specific duties to uphold dharma and preserve their families.
6. The belief in the spiritual significance of India, Bharat. For Hindus India is the sacred land of the Vedas, the land where the Bharatas ruled, the land of gods, goddesses, and enlightened humans, where knowledge flows, where God incarnates, where sacred rivers like the Ganga flow, where gods breathe in the bodies of seers and saints, where the Buddha and the Thirthankars were born, where wisdom prevails, and where souls take birth to improve their spiritual destinies and cleanse their karmas.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- What is Hinduism?
- Polytheism and Monotheism in Hinduism
- Hinduism in a Nutshell For the Beginners
- Essential Hinduism in a Nutshell
- An Essay on Hinduism As Way of Life
- Three Myths about Hinduism
- Books On Varioius Aspects of Hinduism
- Introduction to Hinduism - A Book (Pay)
- The Origin and Definition of the Name Hindu
- Ten Distinguishing Features Of Hinduism
- The Future of Hinduism
- Aspects, Emanations, Incarnations and Forms of God Vishnu
- Origin and History of Hinduism and Hinduism Related Words
- Science and the Future of Hinduism
- Hinduism - The Faith Eternal
- The Meaning and Significance of Heart in Hinduism
- The importance of food in Hindu Worship
- What is Maya in Hinduism?
- The History, Antiquity and Chronology of Hinduism
- Hinduism and Buddhism
- Hinduism and Caste System
- Moksha or Liberation in Hinduism
- God and Soul, Atma and Paramatma, in Hinduism
- Brahman, The Highest God Of Hinduism
- New Facts About the History and Antiquity of Hinduism
- Literary Evidence in The Construction of Indian History
- Hinduism and Religious Tolerance
- Hinduism and Diversity
- Scriptures of Hinduism
- Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism
- Significance of Death in Hinduism
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