Sanatan Dharma (सनातन धर्म ) (the eternal dharma), which is popularly known as Hinduism nowadays, is the oldest living religion in the world predating most major religions. It is one of the major Indian religions, others being Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, etc. To an outsider, Hinduism seems to be very diverse with a contradicting system of thoughts. But it derives its unity from the Vedas, that is why it is sometimes known as Vedic dharma.
Hinduism can not be categorized in the strict definition of Abrahamic religions with which we all are familiar. Hindus consider it more like a “way of living” rather than a religion per se.
Let’s define Hinduism first because there is a lot of confusion about Hinduism. People associate all sorts of things with Hinduism whether its holy texts sanction those things or not.
In reality, Hinduism is a conglomeration of denominations/sects with wide-ranging traditions. The thread that unites these separate traditions into Hinduism is Vedas. All those traditions which accept the Vedas as the source of all knowledge are included in Hinduism in a religious sense.
Similarities with Abrahamic Religions
Following are some of the similarities with Abrahamic religions (Islam, Christianity & Judaism)
- Hinduism also believes(postulates) about a supreme consciousness, which is the Nimitta Karana (efficient cause) but not Samavayi Karana (material cause) of the existence
- It is also a group/denomination of people who worship the above-mentioned consciousness
- There are certain sets of beliefs and worship methods
- Certain books are considered sacred
Dissimilarity with Abrahamic Religions
- It is not dogmatic
- God(Abrahamic) Vs Concept of Ishwar(Hinduism)
- Belief system(Abrahamic) Vs Knowledge system(Hinduism)
- There is no single founder of Hinduism
Hinduism’s origin lies in the Vedic religion. The majority of the sects of Hinduism regard Vedas as second to none be it Upanishads (which are commentaries on Vedas), Bhagavad Gita, or Puranas.
Who is the founder of Hinduism?
In this respect, Hinduism is unique. Unlike most other religions, it doesn’t have a single founder because it was not started as a sect. Instead, Vedic culture had a tradition of learning that produced unparalleled knowledge. So it includes thoughts of many rishis and individuals like Shri Ram, Krishna, etc. over at least 18000 years period.
Vedas and Sanskrit language is central to Hinduism as well as the culture of India. Indian religions fall into two categories, namely Astika & Nastika.
The usual meaning of astika is taken as “someone who believes in God and atman”. But in Vedic literature, astika means “something or someone which accepts Vedas as one of Pramanas” i.e. accepts Vedas as “sabd pramana”. All the denominations of India that falls under this category are categorized in Hinduism. In addition, the following darshans are considered astika
Nastika connotes “someone who doesn’t believe in God & atman (self)”. But in literature, it means “something or someone which doesn’t accept Vedas as Pramana”. Following are the Nastika philosophies
If you’d like to delve deeper, Vediconcepts is going to launch an Audio Visual course on “Introduction to Hinduism” on May 15, 2022.
Sanskrit: The language of civilization
Sanskrit’s literal meaning is “something that has been perfected”. Most Indian languages are the direct descendants of Sanskrit, while most European languages are a little further away from it. Sanskrit’s uniqueness lies in its Svara स्वर. If you’d like to know Hinduism, you must learn a few words of Sanskrit first.
- Dharma धर्म
Dharma is a Sanskrit non-translatable that has no equivalent in any other language. But it can be translated to “righteousness”, “duty”, “one’s responsibility in any situation” or “one’s conduct”.
- Karma कर्म
Its literal meaning is “action”. But what we refer to here is Karma and its consequences.
Types of Karma:
- Sanchit Karma
- Prarabdha Karma: are the part of sanchita karma, a collection of past karmas, which are ready to be experienced through the present body
- Agami Karma
- Atman आत्मा
Atman is the Jiva that takes different bodies. It is Sanatan i.e. it is ever existing just like Ishwar.
- Transmigration पुनर्जन्म
Who are the Hindus?
Hindu & Hinduism are words that are not native to Indian languages. In Hinduism’s scriptures like Ramayana & Mahabharata, the “Arya आर्य ” word is used which is the basis of the Aryan theory that was propounded by the British as Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) to legitimize their domination of the natives of India.
In the old Persian & Islamic literature, the “Hindu” word had a very negative connotation.
Origin & Aryan theory
The Aryan theory was first propounded when linguistic similarities between Sanskrit and the major European languages were discovered by European scholars during the colonial era. The theory hypothesizes that during around 1500 BC Aryans from Europe and central Asia invaded or migrated into the Indian subcontinent.
But this theory isn’t supported by either archaeological, literary, or DNA studies.
Indus Valley Civilization
It has been ascertained beyond doubt that the Indus valley civilization was a later stage Vedic civilization. Many seals depict Yoga postures and Pashupati.
What does Hinduism believe in?
Concept of God(Ishwar) ईश्वर का सिद्धांत
Contrary to the popular belief, Hinduism is not polytheistic. Hinduism has a concept of Devas/Devis and Ishwara, which is not understood well by most causing all sorts of distortions.
Supernatural concepts(2 Chetan (animate)+ 31 Jadd (inanimate) helps to maintain the balance of everything around us.
33 Koti(category) of devas or classification of devas:
- 12 Adityas: Months of the year
- 8 Vasu: elemental reality
- 11 Rudras
- Indra (Ishwar) or Supreme Consciousness
- Prajapati or Yajna
33 Koti has been widely misunderstood as 33 crore rather than 33 categories which it means.
The supreme consciousness is the origin of everything around us. According to Traitvada tradition, Ishwar, in addition to Prakriti and Jiva are the 3 ever-existing realities.
In Vedas, Ishwar has been given innumerable names, some of which we will discuss here. Shiva, Vishnu, Indra, Narayana, Ganesha, Brahma, Saraswati, Shakti, etc are some of the few names Ishwar has been called with.
Various Names of the Ishwar (God)
- Agni: That which is the life force for everything, worshipable, knowledge personified, all-knowing
- Hiranyagarbha: That whose laws have created all the stars and the cause of their sustenance
- Savita, Brahma, Shakti: That which has created or is capable of creating everything
- Shankar, Shiv: That which does or seeks welfare for everyone
- Mahadev: That which is the deva of devas, from which even the devas get their brilliance. From whose brilliance even sun shines
- Kala: That which does the counting of all material & Jiva (Atma)
- Mahakala: That which the kala of kala himself
- Vishnu: That which is omnipresent
- Shri: That whose knowledge everyone wants to have
- Saraswati: That which is knowledge itself and knows everything
- Lakshmi: That which is beautiful, beautifies everything, cause of beauty in everything. Also, that which is the target of Yogis, etc, and worthy to look at.
- Ganesha or Ganapati: That which is the cause of sustenance for Prakriti and all Jivas
- Surya: That which illuminates everything
- Shani: That which is the patience of patience
- Mangal: That which is the do-gooder of everything
- Acharya: That who is the guru of gurus, the ultimate guru
- Brihaspati: That who is bigger than the biggest
- Yama: That which gives the fruits of one’s actions/karma
- Vayu: That which is all-powerful
- Jal: That which creates and destroys everything
- Vasu: That which is the base of everything animate or inanimate, provides sustenance to everything
- Rudra: That which makes one cry for his bad actions/karma
- Indra: That which is brilliance in itself
- many more …
Some of the attributes of Ishwar (God):
Attributes or the qualities that can be associated with Ishwar(God) are formless, omniscient, unborn, endless, unchanging, beginning-less, unequaled, omnipresent, immortal, etc
Four Purusharthas पुरूषार्थ
The rishis(seers) have categorized a Hindu’s life goals into four categories. First, the desire (Kama) arises that leads to actions through Artha for the attainment of Dharma to reach one’s final destination of Moksha
- Dharma धर्म
Dharma can be loosely translated to righteous actions one undertakes for the betterment of all. It includes duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues, and the “right way of living”
- Artha अर्थ
Artha can be understood as material possessions that help you in performing your duties. It is a “tool” to do something. In other words, it is the “means of life” that helps you attain something. Literal meaning can be “meaning, sense, goal, purpose or essence” depending on the context. Artha includes wealth, prosperity, etc
- Kama काम
Kama is the desire for doing something whether good or bad. It generally connotes sensual pleasure but in reality, refers to any desire, wish, or longing for anything. The Kama is required to do anything and everything
- Moksha मोक्ष
Moksha is the state of being detached from all that exists or the desires one possesses. It is also sometimes understood as being free from the birth-death cycle.
Varnas वर्ण & Ashramas आश्रम
Varna and ashramas are so central to Hinduism that they are sometimes called Varna-ashram dharma. This is the infrastructure that runs Hinduism.
Four Varnas वर्ण
Varna’s system is widely misunderstood. It is based on one’s capability rather than his birth.
- Brahman ब्राह्मण
A learning class that works for the spread of Vedic and other knowledge and is involved in the process of imparting knowledge through Gurukuls.
- Kshatriya क्षत्रिय
A warrior class that is involved in the profession of protecting and administration like police, military, etc
- Vaisya वैश्य
A trading class that helps in running the economy of the state.
- Shudra शूद्र
A service-providing class that provides services. The literal meaning of shudra is “the one who has the least capability or eligibility to do something”.
4 ashramas(ashrams) of life
The life of a Hindu is thought to be divided into four ashramas roughly divided into 4 equal parts. But more often than not, it depends more on one’s situation.
- Brahmacharya ब्रह्मचर्य
Brahmacharya ashram is the foundation of a person’s life. While living with limited means, a brahmachari learns from the life of his acharya. This is the ashram in which a person gains knowledge while living with the acharya in his gurukul.
- Grihastha गृहस्थ
A brahmachari after completing his studies enters the grihastha ashram in which he tries to fulfill his duties by making a living and helping sustain the other three ashramas. This is the only ashram that is indulged in artha to sustain the other three ashrams. So daana(donation) is considered very important for Grihastha.
- Vanaprastha वानप्रस्थ
After completing all the grihastha ashram responsibilities, one enters into vanaprastha ashrama in which he renounces his home and moves to the forest while learning and sharing what he has learned. Most vanaprastha help in running and teach in gurukuls.
- Sannyasa संन्यास
This is the final stage where one is removed from all obligations except sharing the knowledge that he has attained. The spreading of Vedic knowledge and their life experiences is the main focus of this ashrama.
Religious texts or Scriptures
Hinduism has the most extensive library of knowledge among all of the religions in the world. Its sacred texts are divided into two categories
Shruti means “something that is heard”. Shruti is the ones that have been transmitted through oral traditions of guru-shishya parampara (tradition). Only Vedas are considered shruti. Shruti is considered Apaurusheya which means no person has created it. In other words, shruti is considered divine.
Some denominations consider only Samhita as the part of Vedas while others consider Samhita + Brahmanas + Aranyaka + Upanishads as Vedas
Smriti means “something that is remembered”. These texts are not considered divine in nature and evolves. All other texts besides Vedas fall under this category.
- Brahmanas: Earliest known commentaries on Vedas
- The Ramayana
- The Mahabharata
- Bhagavad Gita: Part of Bhishma Parva of Mahabharata, talks mainly about the concepts of Samkhya-Yoga darshan
- Dhanurveda: Its subject matter is “conflict management”. A great video by Project Shivoham, Dhanurvedam – A documentary on ancient Indian warfare
- Puranas: Tells the concepts discussed in Shruti through a story format.
- Agama Shastras
3 Vedic darshan pairs
There is six Vedic darshan that derives their thought process from the Vedas. These are studied in pairs depending on the subject matter they discuss.
- Yoga – Samkhya योग – सांख्य
- Nyaya – Vaisheshika
- Uttara Mimamsa & Purva Mimamsa
Yoga Darshan योग दर्शन
It is one of the most widely known aspects of Hinduism. But most people are aware of exercises that are being sold as Pranayama (breathing exercise) or asanas (body exercise). To your surprise, that is not Yoga at all. It is ashtanga (8 limbs/parts)
8 Limbs of Yoga:
- Yama: Don’ts
- Niyama: Dos
- Ishvara pranidhana
Rituals, also known as Karma-Kanda are the actions that are to be performed to either do Pooja(worship/respect) and Upasana
Sandhya also known as Sandhyopasana is a mandatory ritual for every Hindu. It should be performed daily at sandhya(sunrise/sunset). It is considered a path to attain salvation (moksha).
Yagya(Yajna) is a ritual done in front of sacred fire with the recitation of mantras. From dainik(daily) yagya to Ashwamedh yagya, yagyas come in various forms and size. For a layman, yagya is work that is done to achieve a certain outcome for example Dainik yagya to purify the surroundings,
Sanskaras are the rituals performed during the life of a person which mark the beginning or end of a stage in life. There are 16 sanskaras to be performed for every person during his/her lifetime.
- Garbhadhan(pregnancy) Sanskar
- Pumsavana (quickening the fetus)
- Simanatonnayana (parting of pregnant woman’s hair in 8th month)
- Jatakarman (rite celebrating the birth)
- Namakarana (naming the child)
- Nishkramana (first outing)
- Annaprashana (baby’s first feeding of solid food)
- Chudakarana (first haircut of the baby)
- Karnavedha (ear piercing)
- Upanayana (entry into gurukul)
- Vedarambha (initiation of knowledge)
- Samavartana (rite of passage in the ancient texts of Hinduism)
- Vivaha (marriage)
- Vanaprastha (retirement from worldly life)
- Sanyasa (renunciation of worldly life)
- Antyeshti (last rites)
Hinduism has been one of the major religions in Asia since ancient times. Hindu traditions have been followed in most of central Asia. Vedic religion was centered around South Asia but influenced most of Southeast Asia. You can easily see the influence of Vedic religion on the indigenous beliefs of people be it in Europe or Asia.
- South Asia
- Southeast Asia
- Central Asia
- Anatolia (modern-day Turkey)
Hindus consider the temple a place for worship and congregation. Various Devas’ murtis are installed inside the temple where Hindus worship. Temples have been a central part of Hinduism and Indian society since at least, around 300 – 400 CE. Temples and matha, as an institution acting as the patron of gurukuls(educational institutions), arts, etc
Swastika – A good luck charm made out of three lines symbolizing the trinity, namely Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, which also represents the yin-yang philosophy.
Om – It’s the holy Sanskrit syllable that has been associated with various spiritual traditions since prehistoric times around the Indian subcontinent and beyond. Om represents the universe or we can say, it is the name of the supreme consciousness. Om is often chanted or intoned in Hindu and Buddhist ceremonies, on sacred grounds, and by monks. A sound vibration of Om is said to transcend space and time, so the practice of chanting it in meditation may have been a ritual of asceticism and penance for thousands.
Yantra—It is the square/circle drawn over something else. Yantras are found in Hindu temples and are used to bring benefits.
If you want to read in detail about the symbols that are sacred to Hindus, please read our post on 8 symbols of Hindus.
In reality, Hinduism is a set of denominations with wide-ranging traditions. Denominations of Hinduism are not as separated as in other religions. It is normal to find people belonging to different traditions in the same family without knowing much about the difference. Some of the main ones are discussed here.
Vaishnavas worship the Vishnu form of the ultimate reality. This denomination is spread all over India and is one of the biggest denominations. ISKCON is one of its sub-denomination.
Shaivites worship Shiva form of the ultimate reality. It is probably the biggest and oldest denomination of Hinduism. They worship Shiva in the form of the lingam (symbol).
Worships are the Shakti form of the ultimate reality. This tradition is usually found in J&K and Bengal
Smarta traditions follow two path
Worships 5 deities mainly Shiva, Vishnu, Shakti, Ganesha, and Surya. This is to bring various sects together and create cohesion in Hinduism.
Saguna & Nirguna Brahman
Saguna Brahman: with attributes, Nirguna Brahman: without attributes and unchanging ultimate reality.
Advaita means “without-second” but is often mistranslated to “non-duality” which gives rise to the famous statement “Atman is not distinct from Brahman”.
Opposite to Advaita
Vishisht Advaita means “Advaita with the uniqueness or with qualifications”
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the core beliefs of Hinduism?
Hinduism has 4 Purusharthas(goals of life), 4 Varnas (a division of power in society), and 4 Ashramas(stages of life) which define its societal as well as individual behavior. There are many more but these are central to Hinduism.
Does Hinduism believe in the afterlife?
Hinduism has the concept of “punarjanam” or reincarnation. It can also be called transmigration. So there is no scope for the afterlife.
How to convert to Hinduism
You can either directly “start practicing” or “opt for formal conversion”. Please read our post on “How to convert to Hinduism”
Do Hindus believe in heaven or hell?
No, Hindus do not believe in heaven or hell. Instead, they believe in reincarnation.
What are the basic beliefs of Hinduism?
4 purusharthas: Dharma, Artha, Kaama, Moksha
What is Karma?
Karma is the consequence of actions that we knowingly or unknowingly do. Even not doing something is considered a particular type of action.
What is Dharma?
Dharma is the righteous way of living where you keep societal benefits above your own.
Do Hindus believe in reincarnation?
Yes, Hindus believe in reincarnation. Reincarnation means taking different bodies.
Do Hindus belong to different denominations? If so, can they intermarry?
Yes, there are different denominations of Hindus. But it is allowed to intermarry. It is more of a personal choice than a religious dictate.
Looking for more Frequently Asked Questions about Hinduism? or Have we missed something? Let us know in the comments below.