So you want to know about Hinduism? You say you don't know a thing? Well, we'll just see about that. Most people find that when they hear a little about Hinduism it all begins to sound a little familiar. Ever tell someone that doing something unpleasant is bad karma? That's Hinduism. Ever hear about the Hare Krishnas? They practice a form of Hinduism. Ever hear about a friend reading the Bhagavad Gita? That's a Hindu text. Hinduism is an extremely varied religion. Practitioners of Hinduism refer to it more as a way of life, rather than a religion because the religion allows for so many ways to reach its common goal, moksha. But more about that later.
Hinduism comes from an area in India known as the Indus Valley. Is it just me, or do the words Indus and Hindu sound the same? Well, it isn't just me; the words really are related. The Indus Valley has a river that runs through it called the Indus River. This same river was known in Sanskrit as the Sindhu River. Starting to sound even more familiar? Well, get this, the Persians who came to India a whole lot later, referred to the Sindhu River and Valley as the Hindu River and Valley. So there you go, the word Hindu was initially meant to describe anyone who came from the Indus Valley.
While the people of the Indus Valley are not all Hindu, and weren't even way back in 2000 BCE (that's Before the Common Era to all you non history buffs), the Indus Valley is where Hinduism seems to have originated. Hinduism began to be formed when the Aryans invaded the Dravidians in 2000 BCE. The Dravidians were peace loving, happy folk while the Aryans were brutes who would stop at nothing to get more land. No, sorry, we have no proof that was how it played out. What we do know is that the Dravidians were farmers and their gods were gods of the earth. Yup, they were polytheistic. The Aryans were also polytheistic and their gods were of the sky. Can you guess why? They were nomads who came out of Cush and into the Indus Valley. However, there is no evidence that there was a hostile takeover of the Dravidians. The Aryans seem to have just decided to settle down with the Dravidians. With them came the idea that cows were sacred. Sound familiar?
So with the incorporation of these two cultures, a new religion was formed, now known as Hinduism. One of the most fundamental ideas of Hinduism is the idea of karma. Karma is the concept that actions have repercussions. Sounds like what everyone believes, right? However, Hinduism goes on to state that this karma keeps a person in a vast cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation. Hindus believe that when someone dies with mostly bad karma, they get reborn in a bad life (like poor and starving). They also believe that when someone dies with an excess of good karma, they're reborn in a good life (like rich or holy). So Hindus believe that you get repaid for whatever you do in life. For more information on the Law of Karma check out this website: http://www.hindubooks.org/bansi_pandit/hindu_dharma/ch06.htm
Although the roots of Hinduism were polytheistic, Hindus are not polytheists. It’s true that Hindus themselves refer to “330 million gods” but a Hindu does not worship all of them. Most Hindus believe that there is only one god and that god goes by many different names. For Hindus that believe in many gods, there are three main ones: Brahman, Vishnu, and Shiva. Brahman is the creator god, Vishnu is the protector god, and Shiva is the destroyer god. Vishnu tends to be the most popular god and he has many incarnations, one of which is Krishna (remember the Hare Krishnas?).
Although Hindus might disagree about the number of gods, they all agree on the purpose of their religion and the goal of life. Hindus believe that existence in the world is samsara and the goal of life is to escape samsara. Samsara is the world we know; it is full of pain and infused with karma. Check out this nice little explanation of samsara: http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/GLOSSARY/SAMSARA.HTM. When you have completely balanced your karma, you achieve moksha, the escape from samsara. The same site has a nice definition of moksha: http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/GLOSSARY/MOKSHA.HTM.
Although Hindus agree on this basic point, they disagree on the method one should use to achieve moksha (they don't agree much, do they?). There are three ways embraced by Hinduism to achieve moksha: jnana, bhakti, and karma. The jnana way, or Jnana Marga, is the way to achieve moksha through knowledge and study. Sri Swami Sivananda explains jnana at http://www.sivanandadlshq.org/teachings/jnanayoga.htm. The bhakti way or Bhakti Marga (see a pattern?), is the way to achieve moksha through devotion to a single god. People who follow this way have altars, chant their god's name, and place their hands entirely in their god's hands. http://www.talamasca.org/avatar/yoga1.html is a good site for a definition of bhakti. The karma way, or, you guessed it, Karma Marga, is the way to achieve moksha through good deeds and tending only to one's duty in life. The same site above also has a link to a definition of the Karma Marga: http://www.talamasca.org/avatar/yoga3.html.
So, has this all confused you yet? Let's sum up. Hinduism is based on the law of karma, it has many gods but it's not polytheistic, and it attempts to release the practitioner from samsara and into moksha by three paths. That's not so confusing, is it? Wait, there's more. There are still the Hindu texts to deal with. There are two really basic Hindu texts that most every Hindu knows. One is the Vedas. The Vedas count as one text because they're all grouped together. There are four Vedic texts: the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda. To get a more in-depth discussion of the Vedas, got to http://www.spiritweb.org/Spirit/vedas.html. Most of the Vedas express a Karma Marga as the way to moksha but the Upanishads (these are the little end bits to each of the four Vedas) discuss Jnana Marga as the way to go. An excellent account of the Upanishads is at http://www.hindunet.org/upanishads/.
The Mahabarata, or more specifically the Bhagavad Gita, is the other really important text. The Bhagavad Gita is a chapter in the Mahabarata, an epic poem. The Gita, as it is sometimes called, is the story of a guy, Arjuna, who finds himself on a battlefield about to fight people who are members of his extended family. At first he does not want to fight them but he speaks with Krishna himself who reassures him that s warrior, it is his duty to go to war. Krishna tells Arjuna that by following his duty he is following a divine plan. For more information, and a version of the Bhagavad Gita go to http://www.san.beck.org/Gita.html.
So there you go, Hinduism in a hand basket. Now that you understand a bit about the religion, you can impress all you friends and relatives. If you would like more general knowledge of Hinduism and Hinduism in America, there are some great sites out there:
and then Harvard has established their Pluralism Project which lists a bunch of links from their web site. The site with the links is http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~pluralsm/html/links.html - Hinduism.
For answers to other general questions about Hinduism, check out our section on Frequently Asked Questions--Answered.