Hinduism is a complex blend of polytheistic religion, a (belief in many gods, rather like the Greek and the Roman deities) and philosophy. It stemmed from Vedism, which dates back to the second millennium before Christ. It is not surprising therefore that numerous sects have developed or broken away from a faith of this age.
However, most of these sects read the one book, the Vedic writings known universally as the ‘Upanishads’, and their differences result from their individual interpretations of it. These texts describe the events of Shiva, the creator, preserver and destroyer of the universe and they are based on even more ancient writings such as the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and, less famous in the West, the Puaranas.
The Bhagavad Gita, the Lord’s Song, a part of the Mahabharata, relates a dialogue between Krishna (another incarnation of the god Vishnu) and the acolyte Prince Arjuna. This dialogue sheds light on the three paths to enlightenment or union with God.
This might sound dreary, but I can promise you that reading the Bhagavad Gita could easily change the manner in which you look upon life no matter which religion you believe in, if you have one.
The fundamentals of Hinduism are that individuals ought to try to connect their selves (Atman) with the Godhead (Brahman) and reincarnation (samsara). Just what people come back as is determined by how people have led their lives, that is, one’s actions (karma) and one’s duty (dharma).
This continuous reincarnation into a life of suffering can only be broken when one reaches the Godhead in a state of Atman-Brahman. Their are four paths to achieve this divine condition in Hinduism. These are: jnana yoga, which is based on knowledge; bhakti yoga, which is based on service to God; karma yoga, which is based on work for God (rather than oneself) and raja yoga, which is based on psychophysical exercise.
Raja yoga, or the ‘Royal Path’, is the kind of yoga that most Westerners will have heard of and seen. Raja yoga is more common in these West nowadays than at any other period in history.
Hinduism has three principal theistic traditions founded on anthropomorphic gods. Vishnu is a loving god incarnated as Krishna; Shiva is both protective and destructive and Brahma is the creator. Saktism is a form of worship dedicated to the female partners of Vishnu and Shiva. Hindu’s venerate all forms of life, but the most sacred animal to Hindus is the cow.
Hindu worship revolves around a person’s and a family’s devotion to a particular ‘favourite’ god or group of gods. The act of worship is carried out at a shrine, which can be at home or communally in public. There are several places of pilgrimage including the Ganges in northern India.
The three primary festivals are Dipavali – the ‘festival of lights’ – which sacred to Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity; Holi, a spring festival and Dashara, a harvest festival.
Hinduism is the oldest of the world’s prolific religions. It is most prevalent in India, which has outlawed the ancient caste system of Hinduism. This caste system used to segregate society into five main groups: brahmins were leaders, philosophers and artists; kshatriyas were princes, soldiers and administrators; vaishyas were merchants and landowners; shudras were labourers and the rest were outcasts or untouchables.