What is Hinduism?

Understanding one of the world’s largest religions can be a challenge

It is a difficult task to answer the question “what is Hinduism?” One of the best and most useful metaphors to use in a description of Hinduism is that of the Banyan tree. This is a tree which sends down shoots from its branches that take root in the ground and form new trunks. This polycentric tree, which can grow into a veritable forest, is a perfect example of how the various traditions of Hinduism relate to each other. There are many “centers” within Hinduism, each with their own unique spiritual background. However, just as the Banyan’s many trunks are part of the same tree, there are four key concepts that underlie Hindu traditions and beliefs. They are dharma, karma, samsara, and moksha.
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Dharma can be conceived of as a “law” or “teaching” that is eternal and available to all beings. Dharma is particularly important in Hinduism for the role it plays in a social context. Individuals have their own dharmic duties to fulfill which are usually based on the class they are born into. The four traditional classes are the Brahmins (priests), Ksatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vaishyas (mercantile class), and Shudras (laborers). Dharma based on these birth stations has traditionally determined how a person acts, who they marry, and what kind of occupation they can take.

Dharma also depends on a person’s stage in life. These stages, of which there are four, are called ashrams. The first stage is called brahmacharya, the student stage. The second stage is grihastha, the householder stage. The third stage is Vanaprastha, the retirement stage. The very last stage is sannayasa. Sannayasa is a reclusive stage in life where a man cuts all ties to the world and enters a stage of renunciation and meditation. The last two stages are open only to men, though most men never move past the householder stage.

Karma And Samsara

Karma and Samsara are two concepts that really cannot be separated. Karma means to act or to make. Karma is the absolute law of justice. It ensures that for every action there is a result. Karma is that which keeps us trapped in samsara. Samsara is the endless cycle of rebirth or reincarnation. This is why there really is no such thing as “good” karma. Karma might bring you joy, prosperity, or a better rebirth, but because it keeps your stuck in samsara it is ultimately undesirable within the beliefs of Hinduism.

Just as human life consists of death and rebirth, the universe goes through periods of coming in and out of existence. Each cycle of existence goes through four yugas, or ages. These ages are the Krita Yuga, the Treta Yuga, the Dvapara Yuga, and the Kali Yuga. It is thought that dharma and morality decays with each passing age, being at its worst in the Kali Yuga. Unluckily for us, Hindus currently believe we are in the Kali Yuga cycle. The entire universe with its cycles and ages emanates from Brahman, the Hindu conception of God or the Universe, the ultimate reality. Karma and Samsara are two of the more important and common beliefs typical to Hindu beliefs.

Moksha: The Ultimate Enlightenment

The discussion of samsara naturally leads into the discussion of moksha. Moksha means “release.” It is to escape and be liberated from the endless cycle of samsara. Upon achieving moksha it is as if you have “woken up” to your true nature. There is much debate within Hinduism about the nature of moksha. Some Hindus believe that it is a state which can be achieved only once one has died. Others say that Moksha can be achieved while one is still living. It is universally agreed upon with Hinduism that achieving moksha means not being reborn again, though whether this birth-less state lasts forever or only for the current cycle of creation is another debate.

There are three ways in which moksha can be achieved. The first way is the path of karma. This entails acting without any regard for the fruits of your actions. This is referred to as “desireless action.” It is a way in which one can perform actions and fulfill their duty without accruing any karmic residue. The second path to moksha is jnana, or knowledge. On this path the believer strives to gain direct understanding of non-duality. Through study and meditation one can come to the realization that the atman (soul) is identical to Brahman.

These two paths of achieving moksha are very difficult, and so many Hindus turn to the practice of bhakti. Bhakti means loving devotion. It is the path championed by the great Indian epic the “Mahabharata,” where the god Krishna teaches that believers should devote their thoughts and actions entirely to him. Krishna in turn ensures that all such devotion will be free of karmic residue. Bhakti is practiced by Hindus to many other deities as well, because all gods are seen as different manifestations of Brahman.

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The term “Hinduism” encompasses an astoundingly diverse array of people with equally diverse views, philosophies, traditions, and practices. It is often said that if something is considered true within Hinduism, its opposite is also true. In every sense of the word, Hinduism is polycentric. Hindus worship many different gods or deities in many different ways. Local customs in one area of India may bear no resemblance to customs only a few cities, towns, or villages away. Despite this there is a remarkable similarity in how Hindus view duty, karma, death, rebirth/reincarnation, and ultimate liberation.

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Hopefully, this quick article on ‘What is Hinduism’ has provided some insights into one of the world’s largest and most interesting religions (and the unique spirituality surrounding the people of India and Hindus world wide).