Unlike the other major world religions, Hinduism has no set starting point. It developed over several centuries, the conglomeration of numerous cultural traditions and native beliefs from India. As such, Hinduism is full of variety in traditions and beliefs. The religion originally had the name Sanathana Dharma, which means “righteousness forever” . Its present name, Hinduism, evolved from the name for the Indus River.
Many mistakenly call Hinduism a polytheistic religion. Some statistics state that Hindus believe in over 300 million gods. In fact, Hinduism acknowledges one god, a supreme spirit called Brahman. The other “god” beings in Hinduism are devas, deities, and are best explained as being manifestations of Brahman. Brahman is a genderless, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent force of absolute reality.
According to Hindusim, humans have four goals, or puruṣārtha (पुरुषार्थ): dharma, which aims for righteous living; artha, which aims to obtain the wealth, physical and spiritual, needed for life; kama, which aims to experience the pleasures of life; and moksha, which aims to free the spirit from samsara, the cycle of birth and death.
The concept of karma, which means “actions”, balances dharma and artha. Karma refers to the causality of action and result; good deeds yield beneficial results, and bad deeds yield detrimental results.
In samsara, a person’s body may die, but the soul may rebirth in a person, plant, or animal. To achieve samsara, one must pass through one of three paths – Karma Yoga (works), Bhakti Yoga (devotion to a deity), or Nyan Yoga (knowledge).
Given the diversity of Hinduism, many scripts could classify as Hindu scripture, though many not all Hindu traditions recognize. Generally, the following are considered “universal” Hindu holy books:
- The Vedas (“knowledge”): These are ancient texts with roots in Vedism, an early religion of northern India and a precursor to modern Hinduism. The four Vedas – Rigveda (ऋग्वेद, “praise knowledge”), Samaveda (सामवे, “song knowledge”), Yajuveda (“prose mantra knowledge”, यजुर्वेद) and Atharvaveda (अथर्ववेद,)- contain instructions for worship and everyday life. Each book has four sections: the Samhitas, containing hymns and mantras; the Brahmanas, containing Vedic commentaries and instructions for rituals; the Aranyakas, containing mysticism and philosophy; and the Upanishads, containing sacred treatises on content of the Vedas.
- The Vedangas and Upavedas: These texts (six Vedanagas and four Upavedas) supplement the Vedas. The former discusses the language and science of the Vedas; the latter, arts and sciences.
Hinduism divides into four main denominations according to differing beliefs in the name of the Supreme Being:
- In Saivism, the compassionate god Shiva is supreme. A counterbalance to Brahma in the Hindu triumvirate, Lord Shiva destroys while Brahma creates.
- In Shaktism, the Divine Mother Shakti is supreme. Shakti, whose name means “energy”, personifies the cosmic energy that permeates the universe.
- In Vaishnavism, Lord Vishnu is supreme. Vishu protects humans and restores order, working between the other two gods of the Hindu triumvirate, Brahma and Shiva.
- In Smartism, the Supreme God exists in one of six forms, including Shiva, Shakti, and Vishnu.
In addition to differences in recognition of a Supreme Being, Hindus in each of the four major sects worship with different philosophies. Unlike other religions, where followers gather in a communal place like a church, Hindus most often worship individually. Families erect shrines for favorite personal deities, called ishta devata.
The term puja describes ceremonial worship in Hinduism. Prayers, songs, and rituals demonstrate devotion to a deity. To perform puja, the worshiper must create a connection with the image through eye contact, offering material sacrifices, and eating the blessed food at the end.
Although a primarily individual act, Hindus may also gather in temples. Sanskrit scripture governs the construction of these temples. Over several days, priests perform kumbhabhishekam, the consecration of a newly-constructed temple. Through offerings, libations, mantras, and prayers, the people imbue the sacredness of Brahman into the temple.
The breadth of belief in Hinduism, a religion that believes that many paths exist that lead to God and truth, results in a long list of celebrations that vary by region, denomination, and personal conviction. Nevertheless, certain festivals have significance for most, if not all, Hindus.
- Diwali: Like Christmas in the West, Diwali is the biggest, most anticipated festival of Hinduism. Other religions, including Jainism, also recognize this holiday. Diwali, also called the Festival of Lights, lasts five days in Ashwin, a month in the Hindu year the corresponds to October and November, and symbolizes the vaniquishment of the darkness of ignorance by the light of knowledge.
- Holi: Holi, the Festival of Colors, marks the arrival of spring and triumph of good over evil. It falls in Phalguna, or between February and March by the Gregorian calendar. Celebrations cover an evening, called Chhoti Holi, and a day, called Rangwali Holi. A well-known tradition of Holi is the splashing of gulal, a colored powder, on fellow celebrators.
- Navratri: Observed over nine nights and ten days, Navratri is a sacred time dedicated to the goddess Durga. Durga, “the invincible”, the wife of Shiva, and one of the main forms of Shakti, manifests in nine divine forms, called Navadurga.
- Some festivals celebrate the births, accomplishments, or honorableness of certain deities. For example, Ganesha Chaturthi celebrates the birth of Lord Shiva’s son Ganesha, the Lord of Good Fortune and one of Hinduism’s most worshiped deities. Maha Shivratri honors Lord Shiva himself.
Boasting over 1.1 billion adherents worldwide, Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion, following Christianity and Islam. It has come a long way from the ancient days of Vedism and the disconnected traditions of Indian localities. Today, one may find many evidences of the Hindu faith in the statues, engraving, and images in museums and art galleries.
Hindus strive, as adherents of other religions, for truth and peace. To achieve this, life does not necessarily end with death, but may repeat, cycling in a circle until moksha breaks the pattern and the soul releases to Brahmaloka, where the creator, Lord Brahma, resides.
More posts in “World Religions”
 Hinduism FAQs
 God in Hinduism
 Performing puja
 About Nivratri
Disclaimer: I am not a religious scholar or theologian, but only a young woman trying to better understand the beliefs of those around me. I do not claim infallibility in my analysis of religion, and apologize for any errors.