Hinduism is a diverse system of thought characterized by a range of philosophies and shared concepts, rituals, cosmological systems, pilgrimage sites, and textual sources that discuss theology, metaphysics, mythology, Vedic study, yoga, rituals, and temple building. Hindu beliefs encompass several prominent themes, including the four Purusarthas, which are the proper goals or aims of human life: dharma (ethics and duties), artha (prosperity and work), kama (desires and passions), and moksha (liberation and freedom from the passions and the cycle of death and rebirth). Additionally, Hindu beliefs include concepts such as karma (action, intent, and consequences) and samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth). [Source: Wikipedia +]

Hindus believe in four “purushartha” (aims of the living, or instrumental and ultimate goals): 1) “artha” (material prosperity); 2) “kama” (satisfaction of legitimate desires); 3) “dharma” (moral conduct and duties associated with one’s station in life); and 4) “moksha” (obtaining release from the cycle of deaths and rebirths). These aims are thought to apply to everyone, regardless of caste, from Brahmin to Untouchables.

Hindu beliefs encompass several prominent themes, including Dharma (ethics and duties), samsara (the continuing cycle of entanglement in passions and the resulting birth, life, death, and rebirth), Karma (action, intent, and consequences), moksha (liberation from attachment and samsara), and the various yogas (paths or practices). Most Hindus believe in a Supreme God, whose qualities and forms are represented by the multitude of deities which emanate from him. They also believe that existence is a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, governed by Karma, which includes the idea that the soul passes through a cycle of successive lives and its next incarnation is always dependent on how the previous life was lived. It is important to recognize that not all of these themes are present in every system of Hindu beliefs. Certain Hindu beliefs do not include beliefs in moksha or samsara. Early forms of Hinduism believed in an afterlife, which is still evident in various Hindu beliefs, such as Sraddha. Ancestor worship was once an integral part of Hindu beliefs and remains an important element in various Folk Hindu streams. [Source: BBC, +]

Hindu practices include worship (puja), fire rituals (homa/havan), devotion (bhakti), fasting (vrata), and chanting (japa). Hinduism embraces numerous ritualist of practices such as meditation (dhyana), sacrifice (yajña), selfless service (seva), recitation and exposition of scriptures (pravacana), annual festivals, and occasional pilgrimages (yatra). Additionally, some Hindus pursue lifelong Sannyasa (monasticism) as a means to achieve moksha. (Nirvana) +

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today ; India Divine ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ; Hindu Website ; Hindu Gallery ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press

Hindu Philosophy

According to the “advaita” philosophy the world and everything in it is an illusion and is one. There is only one divine principle in Hinduism and all the different gods are manifestations of this cosmic unity. Hindus often say, "We believe God is everywhere...We believe God is you, too." The only essential truth and desire is the one that is possessed within. Other things found in life are generally distortions and untruths. Many Hindus view life, existence and cosmology as too complicated to be followed a simple creed. It is therefore up to an individual or group to pick the aspects of the religion that they feel applies to them.

Hindu philosophy recognizes the Absolute (Brahma) as eternal, unbounded by time, space, and causality and consisting of pure existence, consciousness, and bliss. The highest goal is release (moksha) from the cycle of birth and rebirth and the union of the individualized soul (atman) with Brahma. To attain this goal, a person may follow one of several methods or paths of discipline depending on his or her own temperament or capacity. The first of these paths is known as the way of works (karma marga). Followed by most Hindus, it calls for disinterested right action — the performance of one's caste duties and service to others — without personal involvement in the consequences of action. The way of knowledge (jnana marga) stresses union by eliminating ignorance; mental error rather than moral transgression is considered the root of human misery and evil. The way of devotion (bhakti marga) advocates union by love; its essence is a complete and passionate faith in a personal deity.[Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989]

Impermanence, Vedanta and Hindu Goals in Life

A highly diverse and complex religion, Hinduism embraces six philosophical doctrines (darshanas). From these doctrines, individuals select one that is congenial, or conduct their worship simply on a convenient level of morality and observance. Religious practices differ from group to group. The average Hindu does not need any systematic formal creed in order to practice his or her religion Hindus only to comply with the customs of their family and social groups. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

Hindus talk about the impermanence of relationships in the material world. In the Bhagavad Gita it is written that “the company of people who don’t believe in seeking eternal truth is bad company.” According to the Hindu view, there are four goals of life on earth, and each human being should aspire to all four. Everyone should aim: 1) for dharma, or righteous living; 2) artha, or wealth acquired through the pursuit of a profession; 3) kama, or human and sexual love; and, 4) finally, moksha, or spiritual salvation. Tripura Rahasya, 18: 89 reads: “Second-hand knowledge of the self gathered from books or gurus can never emancipate a man until its truth is rightly investigated and applied; only direct realisation will do that. Realise yourself, turning the mind inward.” [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Vedanta, the basis of Hinduism, states that the individual human soul (atman) originates and merges with the Brahman (the all-in-one 'impersonal' God and the universal soul) . There are three different philosophies on this concept. 1) Advaita (non-duality), which implies that there is an identity of Brahman and atman; 2) Dvaita (duality), which maintains that Brahman and Jatman are united; and 3) Visistadvaita (qualified non-duality), which maintains Brahman and Jatman are fundamental united but have crucial differentiations. These view were were promoted by Sri Adi Shankara, Sri Ramanuja and Sri Madhva. Among other concepts which are not as widely embraced but still followed by some Hindus are dvaitadvaita (dual-non-dual doctrine), suddhadvaita (pure non-dualism), and acinntyaa bhedabheda (oneness and difference). These were promulgated by Nimbarka, Vallabha and Vidyabhusana. All the above philosophers have written commentaries on the prasthana-traya (triple canon) of the vedanta, which are the Upanishads, Brahma Sutra and Bhagavad Gita.

Diversity, Flexibility and Eclecticism of Hindu Thought

Vishnu surrounded by his avatars

Many Hindus view life, existence and cosmology as too complicated to be followed a simple creed. It is therefore up to an individual or group to pick the aspects of the religion that they feel applies to them. According to the “advaita” philosophy the world and everything in it is an illusion and is one. There is only one divine principle in Hinduism and all the different gods are manifestations of this cosmic unity. Hindus often say, "We believe God is everywhere...We believe God is you, too." The only essential truth and desire is the one that is possessed within. Other things found in life are generally distortions and untruths.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “From its beginnings, Hinduism has possessed a remarkable ability to assimilate rather than reject new ideas. It has developed complex overlays of beliefs, cults, gods, and forms of worship. Hindus recognize no single founder or prophet. There is no single holy book similar to the Bible or Qur’an; the religion is not supervised and interpreted by a hierarchy of priests, and its great texts were not inscribed but handed down as an oral tradition. Hindu worship is based on a one-to-one relationship between devotee and god rather than being congregational. This practice intensified beginning in the seventh century with the popularity of bhakti, passionate personal devotion to an individual god or goddess. Over the centuries, a number of important poets and musician-saints emerged from the bhakti tradition whose works, such as the Gita Govinda, became classics of Indian culture.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Hindu beliefs and scriptures are less monolithic and more diverse than Islam and Christianity and often yield contradictory arguments. On the issue of when life begins, Pankaj Mishra wrote in the New York Times, “The ancient system of Indian medicine known as Ayurveda assumes that fetuses are alive and conscious when it prescribes a particular mental and spiritual regimen to pregnant women. This same assumption is implicit in "The Mahabharata," the Hindu epic about a fratricidal war apparently fought in the first millennium B.C. In one of its famous stories, the warrior Arjuna describes to his pregnant wife a seven-stage military strategy. His yet-to-born son Abhimanyu is listening, too. But as Arjuna describes the seventh and last stage, his wife falls asleep, presumably out of boredom. Years later, while fighting his father's cousins, the hundred Kaurava brothers, Abhimanyu uses well the military training he has learned in his mother's womb, until the seventh stage, where he falters and is killed.” However, Early in "The Mahabharata," there is a story about how the hundred Kaurava brothers came into being. Their mother had produced a mass of flesh after two years of pregnancy. But then a sage divided the flesh into 100 parts, which were treated with herbs and ghee, and kept in pots for two years -- from which the Kaurava brothers emerged.” [Source: Pankaj Mishra, New York Times, August 21, 2005]


One basic concept in Hinduism is that of dharma, natural law and the social and religious obligations it imposes. It holds that individuals should play their proper role in society as determined or prescribed by their dharma. The caste system, although not essential to philosophical Hinduism, has become an integral part of its social or dharmic expression. Under this system, each person is born into a particular caste, whose traditional occupation — although members do not necessarily practice it — is graded according to the degree of purity and impurity inherent in it. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

Hinduism prescribes duties such as honesty, refraining from injuring living beings (ahimsa), patience, forbearance, self-restraint, virtue, and compassion. Hinduism encompasses a variety of humanistic practices, including charity (dana), selfless service (seva), learning and knowledge (jñana), homage to one's ancestors (Sraddha), and family-oriented rites of passage. Other fundamental ideas common to all Hindus concern the nature and destiny of the soul, and the basic forces of the universe. The souls of human beings are seen as separated portions of an allembracing world soul (brahma); man's ultimate goal is reunion with this absolute.* [Source: Wikipedia]

Ashrama: Hindu Stages of Life

Hindus believe in four stages of life ( “ashrama”): 1) “brahmacarin” (life of student); 2) “grhastha” (becoming a householder, which includes marriage, having children and working); 3) “vanaprastha” (retiring to the forest to become a hermit and meditate); and 4) “sannyasi” (becoming a mendicant that renounces worldly possessions and wanders the countryside begging).

According to the BBC: "The ashrama system is as follows: 1) Brahmacarya - 'celibate student' stage in which males learned the Veda; 2) grihastha - 'householder' in which the twice born male can experience the human purposes (purushartha) of responsibility, wealth, and sexual pleasure; 3) Vanaprastha - 'hermit' or 'wilderness dweller' in which the twice born male retires from life in the world to take up pilgrimage and religious observances along with his wife; and 4) Samnyasa - 'renunciation' in which the twice born gives up the world, takes on a saffron robe or, in some sects, goes naked, with a bowl and a staff to seek moksha (liberation) or develop devotion." [Source: BBC]

These apply mostly to men. Inherent to the stage of the householder is the belief that the pursuit of money, power, fame and glory are all legitimate pursuits as long as they don’t harm others. The pursuit of religious enlightenment is something that takes place after one’s family is provided for. The last two stages place an emphasis on gaining merit before death to improve one’s karma and gain a better position through reincarnation.

Hindu Philosophical Concepts

sadhu, one of the
Hindu stages of life
Hinduism also has a deeply philosophical side. Many scholars suggest that philosophical inquiry and speculation began in India before its did anywhere else, even ancient Greece. The Hindu philosophy of the Upanishad period is particularly rich. Perhaps one reason this is so is that Hinduism has traditionally been tolerant of and absorbed so many different — and sometimes conflicting — ideas and beliefs and organized them into elastic networks that allows these ideas to coexist and have a vehicle for expression.

The primary theme of much of Hindu philosophy is rising above the cycle of reincarnation and getting close to the Supreme Being. Before the Christian era Six “Darshanas” (schools of thought) were created to offer different methods to address these themes: 1) “Nyaya” (logic and analysis); 2) “Vaishenshika” (nature consisting of atoms distinct from the soul); 3) “Sankya” (the reality and duality of matter and soul): 4) “yoga” (moral control through physical postures); 5) “mimmsa” (sacrificialism); and 6) “Vedanta” (the idea that the world is an illusion that detracts from gaining absolute knowledge). The latter is alive and well. The other five are largely extinct.

See Life and Existence, Hindu Concept of Self

The most famous Hindu thinker is Sankara, an A.D. 9th century Brahmin from Kerala who was able to harmonize and provide a framework for Hindu thought and make sense of its apparent contradictions. He argued that salivation was in the hands of the individual and emphasized meditation as a way of achieving it. Ramanuju, a 12th century Tamil Brahmin thinker, is also regarded a great Hindu theistic philosopher. He argued that devotion was the best path to eternal bliss and that salvation was awarded by the grace of God. Ramananda, who taught in Varanasi in the 15th century, and his student Kabir, were opposed to the caste system and tried ro reform Hinduism.


Professor Flood of Oxford University wrote: “Hinduism developed a doctrine that life has different goals according to a person's stage of life and position. These goals became codified in the 'goals of a person' or 'human goals', the purusharthas, especially in sacred texts about dharma called 'dharma shastras' of which the 'Laws of Manu' is the most famous. In these texts three goals of life are expressed, namely virtuous living or dharma, profit or worldly success, and pleasure, especially sexual pleasure as a married householder and more broadly aesthetic pleasure. A fourth goal of liberation (moksha) was added at a later date. The purusharthas express an understanding of human nature, that people have different desires and purposes which are all legitimate in their context. [Source: Prof. Gavin Flood, BBC |::|]

“Over the centuries there has been discussion about which goal was most important. Towards the end of the Mahabharata (Shantiparvan 12.167) there is a discussion about the relative importance of the three goals of dharma, profit and pleasure between the Pandava brothers and the wise sage Vidura. Vidura claims that dharma is most important because through it the sages enter the absolute reality, on dharma the universe rests, and through dharma wealth is acquired. One of the brothers, Arjuna, disagrees, claiming that dharma and pleasure rest on profit. Another brother, Bhima, argues for pleasure or desire being the most important goal, as only through desire have the sages attained liberation. This discussion recognises the complexity and varied nature of human purposes and meanings in life.” |::|

Hinduism, Reincarnation and Transmigration

Hierarchy of Beings according to Jain Thought
but also applicable to Hindu, Buddhist Thought
Reincarnation is the transmigration of the soul from one life form to another. It doesn’t just apply to humans but to all creatures and some non-living things too. Transmigration of the soul can take place from a human or creature into another human or creature up or down a scale based on good and evil deeds (See Karma Below). If a person has lived a virtuous life he moves up the scale, say, from a low caste to a high caste. If a person has lived an unworthy life he moves down the scale, say, from a low caste to a rat.

The Hindu concept of reincarnation first appeared in the Upanishads and is believed to have originated in the Ganges Plain and was absorbed b the Aryan-centered Hinduism as the Aryans moved into the Ganges Plain. Beliefs in reincarnation are not just found in India and Asia but are found in tribal cultures all over the world and were held by the ancient Greeks, Vikings and other groups in the West. Ideas about reincarnation are probably very old and were held by people who lived in Neolithic times.

Reincarnation is viewed as a never-ending set of cycles ( “yugas” and “ kalpas” ). One may be reincarnated millions of times. The doctrine that the soul repeatedly dies and is reborn is called “samsara” (Sanskrit for migration). “Karma” determines what a person is reincarnated as. Escape from the weary cycle of reincarnation can be achieved through escape into “an unchanging anonymous Absolute" and attaining “moksha” , the Hindu equivalent or “nirvana” . For More on These Ideas See Below.


Vishnu avatars

Karma is the means in which a person controls his or her destiny through good or evil deeds. Defined by some scholars as “the whole ethical consequences of one’s actions,” it is a moral force that survives death, determines one’s existence in future lives and has defined existence in past lives.

Karma is a Sanskrit word that means "work" or "action” and the “result of a work or action.” It describes a "reap what you sow" and the “cause and effect” doctrine in which good actions will be rewarded and bad actions will be punished on both universal and individual levels and influence one’s reincarnation. The emphasis in karma beliefs is not based on punishment for bad deeds but rather on improving one's karma by learning from one's mistakes and performing pure deeds, praying, mediating and taking actions to purify oneself.

The concepts of reincarnation, caste and karma are linked, with karma being carried over from one life to the next, determining the life or caste of a person in their next life. Based on whether their karma is generally good or bad, people are reborn in higher or lower castes. Some sinners come back as animals that befits their crimes. A meat stealer may come back as a jackal, a grain thief as a rat. The worst sinners are condemned to the lowest hells where they are eaten by birds or cooked in pots.

Hindu Gods

Hinduism is polytheistic. It incorporates many gods and goddesses with different functions and powers; but in the most important and widely held doctrine, the Vedanta (end of the Vedas), gods and goddesses are considered merely different manifestations or aspects of a single underlying divinity. This single divinity is expressed as a Hindu triad comprising the religion's three major gods: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, personifying creation, preservation, and destruction, respectively. Vishnu and Shiva, or some of their numerous avatars (incarnations), are most widely followed. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

According to Hindu scriptures there are 330 million “devas” (Hindu Gods). These gods come in many forms and types. Some well-known ones are featured in well-known Hindu myths. Some local ones are worshiped in only a few villages or even by a few villagers. Some are associated with animals, plants (all living things are regarded as divine) as well as natural objects and forces. Others are deified ancestors or historical figures. Many deities are associated with particular places or specialized powers or seasons.

Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, is regarded as the ninth avatar of Vishnu. Some Hindus identify Christ as the tenth avatar; others regard Kalki as the final avatar who is yet to come. These avatars are believed to descend upon earth to restore peace, order, and justice, or to save humanity from injustice.

Hinduism and Miracles

Hindus have traditionally regarded miracles as forms of play used by the Gods to amuse themselves. Kenneth Woodward wrote in Newsweek: “For more than three millenniums, India has been a land of living saints. It is also a land of nearly countless local gods and goddesses — some 3 million of them, by one recent estimate. All gods, however, are but different forms of a single Absolute (Brahman) which is also the ground (Atman) of everyone who exists. Just as Hindu gods can descend in human form, so the Hindu saint can achieve god-like consciousness. Thus, through rigorous meditation and other yogic practices, the practitioner can decant his bottled divinity. Given this view, the line between human and divine is not as distinct as in the West. [Source: Kenneth Woodward, Newsweek, April 30, 2000]

“Maharaj Krishna Rasgotra, a retired foreign secretary of India, remembers the precise day almost 30 years ago when he became a devotee of Saty Sai Baba, India's most celebrated living saint. Over the years, the government official often witnessed Baba work his signature miracle — producing out of air mounds of vibhuti, sacred ash that his devotees credit with healing properties. But it was in 1986 that Rasgotra experienced Baba's power firsthand. After suffering a heart attack, Rasgotra lay in a hospital recovery room. Among the hovering doctors and nurses he saw Baba, though the saint was a thousand miles away. When physicians told him he needed bypass surgery to avoid a fatal attack, Rasgotra consulted Baba in person, who told him he didn't need it. Rasgotra skipped surgery and today, at 75, he plays 18 holes of golf regularly. "I have total faith in Baba," says Rasgotra. "Whatever he says comes about. Whenever you are with him you feel you're shedding something and acquiring a new kind of life.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Indian History Sourcebook “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); . National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications

Last updated December 2023

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