Hinduism in a Nutshell For the Beginners
Summary: Find here a brief summary of the essential beliefs and practices of Hinduism in a nutshell, for the beginners and novices who want to known what Hinduism is and what it represents.
Hinduism is a complex religion, with a wide range of beliefs and practices, sects, schools of philosophy, ascetic groups, and teacher traditions. Since it developed over a long time it has many schools of thought, and ritual and spiritual practices which are difficult to understand unless you are a practising Hinduism. The complexity and diversity of Hinduism is not a weakness, but a strength since it offers freedom and choice to people to mold their faith according to their essential nature, preferences and lifestyles.
It is true that in Hinduism there is a great diversity of thought, and one can choose from many paths and philosophies. It is also true that Hinduism caters to the spiritual needs and aspirations of educated as well as illiterate followers. Because of its complex nature, beginners find it difficult to understand Hinduism and what it represents. In the following discussion, we present the most important beliefs and practices of Hinduism for the beginners and novice who want to known Hinduism. Because of the limited scope of the essay, there may be some exception to the beliefs and practices which we have discussed here.
Those who practice Hinduism are known as Hindus. The word Hindu was originally a secular word, derived from the root word Sindhu, which was the name of the river Sindhu, which flows in the North Western part of the Indian subcontinent. It was used by Persians and Greeks to refer to all the people of the Indian subcontinent. Subsequently, it became associated with their faith. Thus, Hindu was originally a geographical name, used by foreigners to denote all the people who lived in the subcontinent. Today. only those who practice Hinduism are known as Hindus. Currently, Hinduism includes all the religious traditions that originated in India except Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.
Brahman, the Supreme Being
The highest God of Hinduism is known as the Supreme Self or Brahman. He is both known and unknown, manifested and unmanifested, being and Non-being, with form and without form, infinite, universal, blissful and the highest goal. In his dynmanic aspect, he is also the creator and the lord of the universe (Isvara). Although he is One without a second, eternal, indestructible, and indivisible he appears as many in creation. He has five functions, creation, preservation, concealment, revelation, and destruction. He pervades and envelops the whole creation and resides in all.
Atman, the Individual Soul
The Individual Self is known as Atman, the breathing one. He is either an aspect of Brahman or Brahman himself. Like Brahman, Atman is also eternal, infinite, invisible, formless, and beyond the mind and senses. In beings, Atman remains enveloped by Nature and remains bound to the mind and body and the cycle of births and deaths.
Prakriti is Nature. She is the dynamic force of God. She is also known as Mother Goddess, Maya, and Shakti. Like Brahman, she is eternal but dependent on him. She is indestructible but divisible, who executes the Will of God and manifests all the objects and beings with the help of her triple modes (gunas) and 23 (or 36) realities (tattvas).
Gods and goddesses
Hindus worship several gods and goddesses, who are considered to be aspects of Brahman and Shakti. The principal and popular deities are a few such as Shiva, and Vishnu, but the total number is in thousands. The deities have their specific duties, functions, and significance in creation, but considered the Supreme Being in their highest aspect.
Trimurthis, the Trinity
The three highest gods of Hinduism, next to Brahman in the hierarchy, are known as the triple forms or Trimurthis. They are Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva who represent the three principal functions of God namely, creation, preservation and destruction, and the triple gunas of Shakti namely rajas, sattva and tamas respectively. The three are considered different aspects of the same Brahman and Brahman himself in their essential nature.
According to Hinduism, God is the creator and the source of all. At the beginning of each cycle of creation he projects the worlds and beings with the help of Prakriti for his own enjoyment. In the end he dissolves them and withdraws them all. Each cycle of creation lasts for billions of years. According to some scriptures, Brahman creates not one but numerous universes (Brahmandas).
Hindu cosmology recognizes Time as an aspect of God and one of the first entities to manifest during creation. Since Time is cyclical, creation is also cyclical. Each cycle of creation consists of four great epochs or yugas, namely the Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dwapara Yuga and Kali Yuga each with a span of 1.728, 1.296, 0.864, and 0.432 million human years. We are currently in the fourth epoch, after which the worlds will be dissolved and new a cycle of creation will begin after an interval.
Brahmanda, the Universe
The Puranas describe that the universe (Brahmandas) is divided into seven concentric islands, with seven concentric oceans separating them, each twice the size of the previous one. Of the seven continents, Jambudvipa is the innermost concentric island, where the land of the Vedas is situated. Each of the seven oceans is filled with a specific liquid namely salt-water, sugarcane juice, wine, ghee, curd, milk and water respectively.
Rta, Order and Regularity
Like the biorhythm of the body, the universe has its own pulse, rhythm, order and regularity, which is known as Rta. It is inherent in God’s creation and manifests as the orderly progression of natural events such as days and nights, birth and death, seasons, divisions of time, the course of the sun and moon and so on. If Rta is disturbed, the worlds will become unstable.
Dharma, Obligatory Moral Duty
The set of laws and duties which God upholds during creation for the order and regularity of the words are collectively known as Dharma. It manifests in beings as instincts, natural propensity or property, virtue, mortality, religiosity, and obligatory duty. Human beings have an obligation to uphold God’s eternal law and abide by it. Else, they will incur sin.
The deluding power of Shakti or Prakriti is known as Maya. Nature casts her spell of Maya on the entire world and keeps the beings deluded and ignorant so that they remain bound. Because of Maya they lose discernment and mistake the real for unreal and the unreal for real. Thus, Maya is a binding and deluding mechanism.
Guna, Natural Modes
A guna is a mode of Nature, which is responsible for all the diversity and movements in creation. The gunas are three in number, sattva, rajas and tamas. Sattva imparts purity. Rajas imparts selfishness and vitality, and tamas imparts grossness, ignorance, and indolence. The predominance of gunas determines the nature and behavior of the beings.
Tattvas, Finite Realities
The divisions, parts or aspects of Nature manifest in creation as finite realities (tattvas). Nature uses them as building blocks and mixes them with the gunas in various permutations and combinations to manifest beings and objects. The tattvas are 23 in number namely five sense organs, five organs of action, five subtle senses, five elements, the mind, ego, and intelligence. They are dependent realities and destructible. Some are causes, some are effects and some are both.
The fruit of desire-ridden actions manifest as karma. Virtuous actions produce merit, while evil actions produce sin. Both keep the beings bound to the mortal world. Thus, Karma is a system of reward and punishment, which serves as a correcting mechanism, and as an arm of Dharma to ensure that beings remain within their bounds or face consequences. Since karma is cumulative, beings cannot achieve liberation unless they are completely free from it.
The cycle of births and deaths to which beings remain bound is known as Samsara. They cannot escape from it until they exhaust their karmas, purify themselves, suppress all modifications caused by the gunas, and achieve liberation. Since beings here are subject to death and rebirth, this world is also known as samsara. Crossing the Samasara to reach the other end is the purpose of any religious and spiritual practice.
The Vedas, Divine Knowledge
The Vedas are the sacred texts of Hinduism and constitute the core of its principles, beliefs, practices and philosophy. They are considered to be revelations or heard ones (sruti) and therefore, inviolable. The Vedas are four, Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda. They contain hymns which are chanted during Vedic ceremonies to invoke gods. They are also considered verbal testimony to ascertain metaphysical truths.
Puranas, Ancient Histories
Puranas are large and voluminous texts, originally composed in Sanskrit, which are considered sacred by Hindus. They contain legends, ancient histories, creation theories, and heroic exploits and battles of Hindu deities. Hindu tradition recognizes 18 main Puranas and 18 ancillary Puranas, most of which are sectarian and belong to the principal sects of Hinduism. Apart from Puranas, the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata are also popular as historic texts (itihasa).
One of the unique features of Hinduism is the concept of avatar or the reincarnation of God. Hindus believe that whenever dharma declines and evil powers gain ascendance, Lord Vishnu, who is the upholder of dharma, reincarnates upon earth as a living being (human, animal, or a mythical being) and destroys the evil. According to the Puranas he had already incarnated several times. His last reincarnation will be at the end of Kaliyuga as Kalki. Apart from them, Vishnu has several partial manifestations and aspects.
Image worship, Murthy Puja
Hindus worship God in numerous ways. Image worship and worship of symbols is one of them. The image or symbol may be either physical, diagrammatic, or mental. Physical images may be made of clay, stone, or any other suitable material. In most cases they are ritually installed (prana-Pratishta) before worship. In Vaishnavism the images are considered living embodiment (arca) of God. Their power increases in proportion to the offerings and prayers they receive.
In Hinduism a temple (devalayam) is the abode of God where priests offer daily worship in the presence of devotees. Each temple is designed and built according to strict geometric calculations and specifications to resemble the model of the universe. They may however represent different architectural styles and construction methods. Some of them are very ancient. The chief deity is housed in the inner sanctum and treated like a living god, with daily services from morning until evening or midnight. A temple may also house other deities, saints and associate gods, to whom devotees may offer regular worship.
The Vedic sacrificial ceremonies are called Yajnas. They are fire-rituals in which ritual offerings of food are made to gods. They are elaborate and complex ceremonies, which require the assistance of trained and qualified priests to perform them. Some Yajnas may last for days or even weeks, and some like the Agnichayana are performed in stages, which may last for months. Some Yajnas are performed in public by groups of people, and some in private by family members.
Puja, Domestic Worship
The Hindu domestic worship is known as puja, which is performed every day or on specific occasions during which householders make offerings to deities to express their love, respect and devotion. In formal ceremonies, each deity is treated like a divine guest and made symbolic offerings of a seat, a bath, clothing, drinks, perfume, incense, light, prayers and food. In informal worship, devotees may light a lamp or an incense stick and offer prayers and food (naivedyam). At the end of the puja, devotees share the food offered to the deity.
Hindus celebrate several festivals, some of which are local or regional, and some universal. They are celebrated to commemorate a historic event, a great victory, the manifestation of a deity, or the birth of a great saint or incarnation. The most popular festivals of Hindus are Makar Sankranti, Maha Shivaratri, Pongal, Holi, Navarathri, Holi, Sri Ram Navami, Krishna Janmastami, Ganesh Chaturthi, Dussera, Durga Puja, Diwali Gudi Padwa, Ugadi, Guru Purnima, Raksha Bandhan, Onam, etc.
Purusharthas, Chief Aims
The chief aims of human life are known as Purusharthas or the purpose (artha) of a human being (Purusha) upon earth. They are meant for householders to fulfill their obligatory duties and earn merit for a good life in the next birth. The chief aims are four which they should pursue, namely obligatory moral duties (dharma), wealth (artha), sexual pleasure (kama), and liberation (moksha). They ensure that human beings lead a holistic life and fulfill both their material and spiritual obligations.
Varnashrama, Duty Bound Division of Life
Hindu law books suggest that householders should live their lives in four stages as designed by God himself, for the welfare and the order and regularity of the world. They are the life of celibacy (brahmacharya) as a student, life as a householder (grihasta) after marriage, life as a forest dweller (vanaprastha) upon retirement, and life as a renunciant (sanyasa) in the old age. The law books prescribe a specific set of duties for each stage according to a person's caste or profession.
The act of giving up anything for the sake of God or liberation is known as sanyasa. Householders are advised to renounce doership in actions and the desire for the fruit of their actions to avoid the accumulation of karma. Ascetics are advised to renounce worldly pleasures and possessions as part of their vows to practice yoga, austerities, and self-discipline to purify themselves and experience oneness with God.
Guru, Spiritual Teacher
Hindu spiritual teachers and adepts who teach the knowledge of the scriptures, the secrets of liberation, or lead the initiates on the path of liberation are known as gurus. Literally speaking, a guru is one who removes darkness from the minds and hearts of their students by shining the light of God upon them. The tradition holds that they are equal to God, and those who aspire for liberation should seek their help and treat them with utmost respect.
The concept of Yoga has a great significance in Hinduism. For Hindus, yoga means a state or condition (such as happiness or sorrow), a school of philosophy, and a specific set of spiritual practices to get rid of impurities, neutralize karma and achieve liberation. Karma yoga, jnana yoga, sanyasa yoga, atma samyama yoga, ashtanga yoga, kriya yoga, bhakti yoga, raja yoga, hatha yoga are a few important and popular yogas of Hinduism.
Tantra, Ritual Knowledge
The spiritual discipline which follows the texts known as Tantras instead of Vedas is known as Tantra. Followers of Tantra practice magical and mystical rituals and formulas for the worship of the deities, usually the fierce and pleasant forms of Shiva and Shakti, to attain supernatural powers (siddhis) or achieve liberation. Their methods are known as left hand practices (vamachara), which are unconventional and shocking to a conservative mind. Some practices involve the use of sex.
A Darshana is a system or school of philosophy, a view point, doctrine, or theory. Hinduism recognizes six Darshanas, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Purva Mimansa, and Uttara Mimansa or Vedanta. Some of the schools do not acknowledge God, but acknowledge souls as eternal and indestructible. Apart from the six schools, there are others which are part of the sects of Hinduism or the sub-systems of the six, which make Hinduism complex.
Moksha means liberation from the cycle of births and deaths. Hinduism considers the liberation of the embodied souls as the highest and ultimate purpose of human life. Upon attaining liberation, the liberated souls travel to the world of Brahman and stay there forever. Hinduism prescribes numerous methods and approaches to attain liberation. Of them, devotion is considered the most supreme.
Hindu scriptures suggest that upon death, beings may go to three worlds, according to their karma. Those who achieve liberation go to the immortal world of Brahman, never to return. However, those who do not achieve liberation but earn merit for their good deeds go to the world of ancestors and return after exhausting their karmas to take rebirth. The rest go to the underworld of Yama and suffer from numerous punishments for their sins.
Hinduism is a loosely organized religion with sects, teacher traditions, folk traditions, customs and practices, which can be grouped as the sub sects of Shaivism, Vaishnavism, and Shaktism respectively. Historically the three sects are also the most popular. Even now they enjoy a large following. Each sect regards their principle deity as the highest Supreme Brahman and lord of the universe.
Hindus believe that all living beings upon earth are born with a certain fate or destiny known as Vidhi, which is determined by lord Brahma at the time of their birth according to their karma and the destiny of the world and which he imprints on their foreheads. No one can escape fate, except through expiation or through divine intervention. However, Hinduism is not fatalistic since fate is determined by karma or the actions of beings and not by God.
Caste system, Kula
Birth based caste system is one of the distinguishing features of Hinduism, which is also one of its chief weakness because of the social and economic distinctions and divisions it creates. The original castes were four, but currently there are many due to the intermixture of original castes and admission of several new people into the Vedic fold. A person’s caste is determined by birth, especially the father’s caste.
Hinduism is not a dogmatic religion. Believers enjoy a lot of freedom in choosing their deities and methods of worship. The tradition explicitly prohibits coercive methods, suggesting that one should not try to unsettle the faith of another and one should give instructions in scriptural knowledge or religious practice only to those who are eager to know, who are qualified and who are ready.
Hinduism is also not a missionary religion. People are admitted into Hinduism by birth, through family, by marriage or by initiation. Conversions are allowed. However, they are not explicitly encouraged. The tradition encourages debates and discussions with the followers of other faith, but not forceful conversions or conversions under inducement.
Hinduism is an artificial amalgamation of numerous, divergent traditions, beliefs, and practices that originated in India. For millenniums, India had been home to multiple faiths and diverse racial and ethnic groups. People speak numerous languages, worship numerous gods and follow many spiritual paths. Since it emerged out of the medley of that ancient world, it cannot strictly be called a religion in the western sense. It has no founder, no specific doctrine, and no specific institution that represents all.
Indeed, you can find the predominant beliefs, practices and philosophies of all world religions in Hinduism. Hence, you cannot even equate Hinduism with any of them. It stands above them as a basket of religions from which you can choose whatever you like to practice or follow. Truly speaking everyone in this world is a Hindu, whether he believes in God or not, whether he is a Hindu or a Buddhist or of some other faith.
A Hindu means any person who embodied the individual soul, who has been separated from God or from his own divinity, and who lives under the illusion of duality. Someday, each disconnected soul has to find his way back and return to its pure, eternal state. Therefore, no one needs to force anyone to become a Hindu in the physical sense, because karmically all human beings eventually evolve and become aware of the need for liberation. It will bring them either directly or indirectly to Hinduism and the paths and solutions it offers.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- Essential Hinduism in a Nutshell
- The Origin and Definition of the Name Hindu
- The History, Antiquity and Chronology of Hinduism
- Main Beliefs and Practices of Hinduism
- Hinduism and Caste System
- What is Hinduism?
- Moksha or Liberation in Hinduism
- What is Karma in Hinduism?
- God and Soul, Atma and Paramatma, in Hinduism
- Hinduism - The Faith Eternal
- Hinduism and Religious Tolerance
- Hinduism and Diversity
- Scriptures of Hinduism
- Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism
- Significance of Death in Hinduism
- Significance of Happiness in Hinduism
- Theism and Atheism in Hinduism
- Origin, Definition and Introduction to Hinduism
- The Definition of Hindu and Hinduism
- The Hindu Way Of Life, Living According To Hindu Dharma For Self Realization