It is difficult to assign a dogmatic
orthodoxy to Hinduism. Many variations have developed
from Hinduism over the years, and many non-Hindu cults and
religious movements gained their inspiration from
Hinduism. Even in India today, the most orthodox
divisions of Hinduism have changed significantly over the
last three thousand years.
One of the oldest aspects of Hinduism
is as much social as religious, and that is the caste
system. It is important to understand the caste system
before delving into Hindu religious beliefs. According to
Hindu teaching, there are four basic castes, or social
classes. Each caste has its own rules and obligation for
living. The elite caste is the Brahman, or priest caste.
Second are the Kshatriyas, or warriors and rulers. Third
are the Vaisyas, or merchants and farmers. Finally, the
fourth caste is the Shudras, or laborers. Outside the
caste system are the untouchables. The untouchables are
the outcasts of Hindu society. Though outlawed in India
in the 1940s, the untouchables are still a very real part
of Indian society. One does not get decide his or her
caste – that matter is decided when one is born into a
As previously stated, there is not a
strict orthodoxy in Hinduism. There are however, several
principles that share a commonality among the various
sects. Virtually all Hindus believe in:
- The three-in-one god known as
“Brahman,” which is composed of: Brahma (the creator),
Vishnu (the Preserver), and Shiva (the Destroyer).
- The Caste System.
- Karma. The law that good begets
good, and bad begets bad. Every action, thought, or
decision one makes has consequences – good or bad – that
will return to each person in the present life, or in
one yet to come.
- Reincarnation. Also known as
“transmigration of souls,” or “samsara.” This is a
journey on the “circle of life,” where each person
experiences as series of physical births, deaths, and
rebirths. With good karma, a person can be reborn into
a higher caste, or even to godhood. Bad karma can
relegate one to a lower caste, or even to life as an
animal in their next life.
- Nirvana. This is the goal of the
Hindu. Nirvana is the release of the soul from the
seemingly endless cycle of rebirths.
Hinduism is both polytheistic, and
pantheistic. There are three gods that compose Brahman –
Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Hindus also worship the
“wives” of Shiva, such as Kali, or one of Vishnu’s ten
incarnations (avatars). This is only the beginning.
There are literally millions of Hindu gods and goddesses –
by some counts, as many as 330 million!
At the same time, Hinduism teaches
that all living things are Brahman in their core. In
other words, all living things are Brahman, or god.
Enlightenment is attained by becoming tuned in to the
Brahman within. Only then can one reach Nirvana. The
release from the wheel of life that allows access to
Nirvana is known as “moksha.”
Hindus recognize three possible paths
to moksha, or salvation. The first is the way of works or
karma yoga. This is a very popular way of
salvation and lays emphasis on the idea that liberation
may be obtained by fulfilling one’s familial and social
duties thereby overcoming the weight of bad karma one has
The second way of salvation is the
way of knowledge, or jnana yoga. The basic premise
of the way of knowledge is that the cause of our bondage
to the cycle of rebirths in this world is ignorance.
According to the predominant view among those committed to
this way, our ignorance consists of the mistaken belief
that we are individual selves, and not one with the
ultimate divine reality – Brahman. It is this same
ignorance that gives rise to our bad actions, which result
in bad karma. Salvation is achieved through attaining a
state of consciousness in which we realize our identity
with Brahman. This is achieved through deep meditation,
often as a part of the discipline of yoga.
The third way of salvation is the way of devotion, or
bhakti yoga. This is the way most favored by the
common people of India. It satisfies the longing for a
more emotional and personal approach to religion. It
involves the self-surrender to one of the many personal
gods and goddesses of Hinduism. Such devotion is
expressed through acts of worship, temple rituals, and
pilgrimages. Some Hindus conceive of ultimate salvation
as absorption into the one divine reality, with all loss
of individual existence. Others conceive of it as
heavenly existence in adoration of the personal God.