Understanding Hinduism

What is Hinduism?

Unlike a religion in the Western sense, Hinduism is a way of life based on the teachings of ancient sages and scriptures such as the Vedas and the Upanishads. Without a founder or a core scriptural doctrine, Hinduism is defined by a rich variety of ideas and practices from various religious and cultural groups throughout India. Because of this diversity, Hinduism is a continuously evolving religious tradition with contributions from many individuals.

Composed of layers of complexity, Hinduism incorporates a basic mindset that all beings have divine and immortal souls working through the cycles of birth and death to reach ultimate spiritual growth. Each individual, however, is free to choose his or her own path to reach a state of bliss and union with God.

Sanatana Dharma
Sanatana Dharma, meaning everlasting or eternal truth, is the common term practitioners use for Hinduism. The path of Sanatana Dharma, involves three major divisions in the road to spiritual growth:

Contemplation (Gyan), devotion (Bhakti), and service (Karma Yoga).
Through these paths, the human life has four major goals:

Following duty (Dharma), earning living through honest work (Artha), having joy (Kama), and uniting with God (Moksha).

The practice of Santana Dharma can be summarized as the following:

  • Speak truth
  • Follow noble path (Dharma)
  • Honor your parents
  • Respect your teacher
  • Respect your guests and neighbors
  • Keep your mind open and learn
  • Share your wealth with your community

"Who sees his/her Lord Within every creature Deathlessly dwelling amidst the mortal That man sees truly….. Who sees the separate Lives of all creatures United in Brahman Brought forth from Brahman, Himself finds Brahman."
                                                   - Bhagavad-Gita 

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Come join us on this journey as we live our lives based on the teachings of ancient sages and the scriptures.

Questions about Hinduism

  Hindus believe in multiple gods?
Hindus believe in One God entity, known by different names to people of different times and places. All paths of worship, however, lead to one true God. Ancient Hindu sages (Rishi/ Muni) realized that it was difficult to comprehend an infinite God, they therefore created symbols that manifested various forms of God with certain attributes, among them; Brahma, the god of creation, Vishnu, the god of preservation, and Shiva, the god of dissolution. 

Vedic dharma believed in only ONE God: Brahman.

This is Nirguna, an ultimate consciousness described as Satchidanand. All other gods are multiple manifestations of this infinite, eternal formless reality. For convenience, a devotee may select one form (Istadevata). This chosen god is like a “window” through which one is trying to see the whole universe outside. Three main deities are Vishnu – God who sustains life, Brahman – God who created the universe, and Shiva – God of death and cosmic recreation. These three gods are divine energy of ONE supreme God. This is called “Hindu trinity”. They are not viewed as separate gods. On certain occasions, selected qualities of God are worshipped with different symbols:
 Ganesh: God of beginning
Laxmi: Goddess of prosperity
Durga: Goddess of strength
Hanuman: God of devotion
Shri Krishna: Vishnu’s incarnation and god of love Shri Ram: God of noble virtues and incarnation of Vishnu. Ancient people of India (Aryans) had great respect for nature. Their praises for sun, moon, river, trees etc. were not “Worships”, just songs of adoration. In later years they became objects of worship invented by Brahmins.

Does Hinduism have a holy book like the Bible or the Qur’an?
While Hinduism has many religious books that are considered sacred, there is no de facto book that can be considered the credo of Hinduism. Among the respected books are the four Vedas, eleven Upanishads, and eighteen Puranas. Two great epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata are very popular among masses. Mahabharata, with 100,000 verses is the longest epic in world literature. The Vedas are the most ancient of the Hindu scriptures and are composed of the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sam Veda, and the Adharva Veda. The Upanishads, which contribute most to the core of philosophy, were written approximately 2500 years ago by scholars and gurus. However, all of these books are considered guides or references for Hindus. In spite of many scriptures, most Hindus have a special reverence for the Bhagavad-Gita (The Song of the Celestial); therefore, the Gita is frequently called a "Hindu Bible”.

It is said in one of the Hindu scriptures that if the Upanishads can be considered as cows, the Bhagavad Gita can be considered as milk collected from many cows. Truly, the Bhagavad Gita is the essence of the Vedas. The very first English translation was done by Charles Wilkins in 1785, with an introduction by Warren Hastings, the British Governor-General of India. But the most popular English translation was done by Sir Edwin Arnold, under the title The Song Celestial. Throughout the Bhagavad Gita, in its seven hundred couplets, you will not come across even one line starting with “Thou shalt not.” It teaches the different ways to control the mind and the senses. All the great teachings of Jesus Christ regarding devotion and oneness with God you can see in the Bhagavad Gita. Most intellectuals go through the Bhagavad Gita at least once in their lifetime. Aldous Huxley wrote, “The Bhagavad Gita is perhaps the most systematic scriptural statement of the perennial philosophy”. Robert Oppenheimer, the first chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, shocked the world when he quoted a couplet from the Gita after witnessing the very first atomic explosion test in the state of New Mexico: “Light of thousand sons shining all at one time”. Later, in a congressional hearing, he said that nuclear bombs reminded him of the Hindu god Lord Vishnu who said “I am the God of Death, ready to devour all.” Gita has been written as a lively conversation between the greatest archer of the world, Prince Arjuna, and the greatest teacher of the world, Lord Krishna. Therefore this dialogue becomes very interesting and quite inspiring.

Do Hindus attempt to convert others to their religion and can you convert?
Conversion is not a part of Hinduism at all. Most modern Hindus view conversion as a subtle insult. Since tolerance to other religions is such an integral part of Hinduism and because Hindus essentially believe that all religious faiths lead to the same God, there is no desire to convert other religions. While a non-Hindu may readily adopt the principles and practices of Hinduism, there is no ready conversion method. Hinduism is a very tolerant religion. Orthodox Hindus did not crucify Buddha or many others who opposed Hindu practices. Today millions of Muslims live in India. Their forefathers were Hindus. Islam forcefully converted millions of Hindus (1200 AD) during the Moghul Empire. Modern Hindus think that preslytization is an insult to Hindu tolerance. In a spiritual sense, it is a form of violence. Respecting other’s views is considered a noble virtue in Indian tradition. 

Why do Hindus worship idols?

Symbols and idols (Murthi) are ways for the Hindu to "see" God through a chosen window. While the items themselves are not worshipped, the believer invokes God into the object and thus strengthens his or her overall worship. God's presence is not, however, limited to the statue or objects and can be readily replaced. Hindus do not worship a stone or metal “idol” as God. We worship god through the image. We invoke the presence of God from the higher unseen worlds, into the image so that we can commune with Him and receive His blessings.

What does the symbol Aum imply? 

The Aum symbol is sacred for its use in the early scriptures. Its sound invokes a sense of union with everything around the person. It is often used before meditation to clear the mind of all other thoughts. Aum represents the first sound. It also represents Brahman and the three levels of consciousness: stage of sleep, stage of wakefulness, and divine awareness.

Is there a Day of Judgment in Hinduism?
There is no final day of judgment in Hinduism; all actions are accounted for in the present journey through life. We believe in “theory of karma”. Individuals are responsible for their own actions. Divine grace helps in handling our karma and provides strength to sustain the consequences.

What do Hindus believe?
Hindus believe in:
One, all pervasive Supreme Being
The evolution of soul toward union with God leading to Moksha
Spiritual knowledge and liberation from the cycle of rebirth
Karma, the law of cause and effect by which each individual molds its own future
Reincarnation; that the soul has not merely one birth on earth but many through which it matures and evolves until all karmas are resolved
Guidance offered by enlightened masters and mystics (Gurus), and that the awakened Sat Guru can lead the soul to God-Realization
All life is sacred, to be loved and revered, and therefore practice Ahimsa (non-violence)
Truth is one, paths are many
Cremation of the body upon death
The importance of personal purification, devotional practices, and meditation

Do Hindus believe in Reincarnation?
Yes. The soul continues its journey. Death is a transition from one body to the other. One takes some of the Karma and characters with the soul (jiva) into the next life. This cycle continues until one reaches Moksha: a stage of God realization.

Why do Hindus believe in the caste system?
Approximately 2000 years ago, King Manu divided the society into four groups according to their vocation and interests. Brahmins were teachers and performers of rituals. Kshatriya became administrators and warriors. Vaishya were merchants and farmers. Shudra were labor class people who served the three upper classes. In the beginning the caste system was based on vocation or as a division of labor. In later years, it became the caste (Varna) by birth. Subsequently, it deteriorated to the point that the lower caste was exploited by the upper class. In modern India, most scholars and the Government of India have denounced any exploitation based on caste system.

Do all Hindus believe in God? Do they have to?
No. However, most Hindus believe in God. One may choose his or her own form or preferred deity (Istadevta). Some Hindu scholars believe in universe as one entity. They need not believe in God as an external force. For scholars of non-dualism, God and Universe are one. Adi Shankara proclaims “True self is divine”.

How do Hindus perform Murthi Puja (Image Worship)?
A selected idol or statue is placed on the altar.
Then the devotee goes through sixteen steps to exercise his/her devotion:
1 - self-purification    
2 - invocation    
3 - declaration of intent, Sankalpa   
4 - identifying of self, Gotropchara
5 - offering of seat    
6 - lighting a candle    
7- washing of God's feet   
8- offering of flowers
9 - offering of bath    
10- offering of clothes    
11- offering of food    
12- presenting music and devotional songs
13- Aarti    
14- Pradakshina    
15- asking of forgiveness    
16- Visarjan pertains to requesting God to return to the original formless state (permanent deities are requested to remain in the statue).

Image worship is an exercise. Except in established temples, the images are discarded in a river or placed back in a cupboard for storage.

Is Murthi Puja the only way to worship?
No. In ancient times, Yagna Puja was more popular. Fire worship is still performed on special occasions. Meditation, chanting mantras and recitation of the holy name are other methods. Idol worship is considered a rudimentary method. Recitation and meditation are considered more appropriate methods of communicating with the divine.

Is Temple worship essential?
No. Most Hindus have a "shrine" in their own homes. Temple visit is for special occasions or festivals. Some like to visit a temple daily, others visit temples rarely. Both groups are fine.

What does Namaste mean?
Most people in India greet each other by saying Namaste. The phrase means "I honor the divine within you." Putting the hands together means combining "I" and "we." In a way, it is seeing the god both inside and outside the individual.

How does Hinduism differ from other religions?
There is no founder. It is not a book-based religion. It is very tolerant and accepts other religions as valid options. Even though it is the oldest religion, Hinduism considers religious conversion unnecessary or a finer form of violence. Hinduism is the “mother” of all of the eastern religions and there is hardly anything “new” in any religion that philosophically is not discussed in Vedic text. Hinduism has no central body to govern the organization. It has no founder and no book has final authority. A seeker is free to ask questions and explore his own path.

What are the misconceptions about Hinduism?
Common misconceptions about Hinduism include idol worship and the caste system. The caste system is more a tradition than religion. It was started as a division of labor based on vocation. It later became Caste by birth. The Government of India and most scholars of Hinduism deplore discrimination based on caste of a person as illegal and immoral. Images that Hindus place in their temples are misunderstood as idol worship. This is not true. Hindus use images to develop spirituality. Hindus do not believe in devil worship. In fact, Hindus believe in one and only one God. Tolerance and practice of non-violence are frequently misunderstood as weaknesses. Swastika, a symbol that Hindus draw during religious services has nothing to do with Hitler or his anti-Jewish propaganda. Swastica means auspiciousness.

Why do Hindus worship the cow?
Hindus do not worship cows. We respect, honor and adore the cow. By honoring this gentle animal, who gives more than she takes, we honor all creatures.

Why do many Hindus wear a dot near the middle of their forehead?
The dot worn on the forehead is a religious symbol. It represents a divine sight and shows that one is a Hindu. A red dot on a female’s forehead generally signifies that the woman is married. The dot also signifies an attempt to raise consciousness because the frontal lobe of the brain is close to the forehead. In some sects, men also use a dot on the forehead. Frequently, the dot is used as a makeup to match the rest of the regalia.

What is Yoga?
Yoga is a Sanskrit word which literally means “to unite”. In Hath Yoga, one performs various physical exercises to train the body. In Dhyana Yoga (meditation), one tries to control the mind through slowing the thought process. Control of breathing activity includes training inspiration and expiration: Pranayam. Yoga practices are known to improve the health of mind, body and spirit.

What are some of the Hindu festivals?
There is no shortage of celebrations in India. Diwali, the "Festival of Lights" is a very popular holiday. At night, homes are decorated with oil lamps. Children enjoy fireworks, while sweets, warm greetings, new clothes, and a Luxmi Puja make this a joyful day. Diwali is immediately followed by the Hindu New Year, which falls in mid-October. Holi, a holiday to welcome spring, is a festival of colors. People sprinkle water and colors to express their joy. At night, there is a large bonfire to reenact the burning of Holika, which reemphasizes various Hindu moral traditions. Ram Navami falls on the first or second week of April. According to the Hindu calendar, this is the ninth day of Chaitra. On this day, Lord Vishnu, in his various incarnations, took the form of Prince Ram. Ugadi, more popular in the southern regions of India, is New Year according to the lunar calendar. Celebration includes tasting something bitter followed by sweets and prayers. Krishna Jayanti, held in August, is a celebration of Krishna's birth in the jail of the evil king Kansa. KumbhMela comes once every twelve years. Millions of Hindus take a holy dip in the intersection of the sacred rivers Ganges and Yamuna. This is the largest religious gathering in the world.

What is Maya?
Maya is illusion. False knowledge creates separation between human perception and the reality. When you are in sleep and dreaming, your dream may look real to you. Once you are awake the idea of reality changes. If one reaches a higher state of being, this Samsara may look like a dream. Once you reach the highest state of consciousness, the Maya disappears.

How do Hindus view Jesus Christ?
We consider Jesus as one of the incarnations of God. Lord Vishnu takes incarnations from time to time to protect the Dharma. Gautama Buddha was born in Hindu family. He opposed many Hindu rituals and started a new religion. Hindu priests did not crucify him. Later on Buddha was accepted as one of the divine incarnations.

What are some of the symbols in Hinduism?
Every Image has certain significance. For example, image of Lord Vishnu is symbolic. Chakra in Lord Vishnu’s hand is a disc that is a powerful weapon to kill the evil. However it suggests the cycle of time that is capable of destroying anybody. His hand is in Abhaya Mudra: “do not fear” He says. This symbol then means God will destroy the evil and the devotee should remain free from fear. Conch or Shankha is used during pooja. The sound produced by the conch is Pranav. First sound like A-U-M. This is also known as Nada Brahman Lotus is a flower that grows from muddy water and still remains clean. Also, psychic power from the kundalini is pictured like lotus. Lotus also means unfolding of the brain power. Kalash- water jug- represents the universe and the water within, is the force of life. Coconut is a fruit with hard cover. This is ego. We submit at the end of each worship and sacrifice in Yagna. Bull- Nandi- represents animal like instincts in man. Jive looks towards Shiva for grace. Seated bull is a state of calm submission. Standing bull signifies Dharma with four legs. Tulsi leaf is used in pooja. Tulsi is called Vrinda means Bhakti- devotion. There are many such symbols in Hinduism.

What are some of the challenges of modern Hinduism?
There are more than one billion people in India. Population, this big is a problem. India has many religions and 15 official languages. There are 150 million Muslims. Hindus are in majority but they are not united. Hinduism is divided in many sects. There is no central structure. Many traditions are old and need reform. Caste system is improving but Hindu attitude of equality requires a reform. Many poor people do not understand Hinduism and convert to other religions. Service to human suffering has low priority in Hindu minds. Treatment of widows and woman in general needs improvement. There are 10 million Hindus living in foreign countries. They need to adopt to new land. Hindu children born in U.S.A need to learn their ancestor’s culture and philosophy. While there are many new temples in America, very few take up these challenges.

Is there an easy way to remember all this?
Yes. Remember the number Four!
Four Vedas:
Rig Veda-most ancient,
Yajur Veda,
Sam Veda and
Adharva Veda    

 Four Stages of Life (Ashrams):
Brahamcharya: 1 to 24 years,
Girihastha: 25 to 50 years,
Vanprastha: 51 to 74 years, and
Sanyasa: 75 to 100 years

 Four castes:
Brahmins: Teachers and Scholars,
Kshatriya:    Warriors and Administrators.
Vaishya: Trade, Merchants and Farmers AND
Shudra: Blue collar workers, Labor force

 Four goals of life:
Dharma:    the path of truth
Artha: earn living, get prosperity
Kama: satisfy your desire
Moksha: seek salvation

Four Pillars of Dharma:
Satya: Truth
Tap: Hard Work
Bhakti: Devotion
Dan and Daya: Charity and Kindness

Four Yuga
Puranik period of time (each Yuga is more than 250,000 years)
Satya Yuga: on four legs (stable period)
Treta Yuga: on three legs
Dwapar Yuga: on two legs
Kali Yuga: only one leg (Devotion)
Kaliyuga is the shortest period of time cycle and equals,432,000 human years.

 Four Sacraments, Rites and Rituals:
Nam Karan Samskaar: Naming Ceremony
Yagnopavit Samskaar: Thread Ceremony
Vivah Samskaar: Marriage Ceremony
Antim Samskaar: Last Rites

Four popular methods of worship:
Murthi Puja: Idol Worship
Yagna Puja: Fire Worship
Bhajan: Music, Dance, Reading and Recitation
Manas Puja: Meditation

 Four Major Sects:
Vaishinavites: Lord Vishnu
Shaivaites: Lord Shiva
SHAKTAS: (mother goddess) Kali, Durga
Guru followers: Respective Gurus 


Suggested Reading

Bhagavad-Gita As It is

 Bhagavad-Gita As It is, translated by Swami Prabhupada.

Buy it here

Bhagavad-Gita: The Song of God

 Bhagavad-Gita: The Song of God, translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood with an introduction by Aldous Huxley. 

Buy it here

Primer of Hinduism

 Primer of Hinduism, by D.S. Sarma. 

Buy it here

The World's Religions

 The World's Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions by Huston Smith 

Buy it here

Am I a Hindu?

 Am I a Hindu? By Ed Viswanathan 

Buy it here

Compiled by Dr. Jay Mehta

Our special thanks to Dr. Jay Mehta who provides untold guidance and shares his wealth of knowledge on an ongoing basis.