What are the beliefs of Hinduism?


03/24/11
edited by Luke Wayne

Hinduism does not have an official set of beliefs.  There is no formal creed one must accept to be Hindu.  Instead, Hinduism is a quite diverse set of various religious beliefs and practices.  Scholars do not typically define Hindusim in terms of common doctrine, but rather by loosely shared rituals, traditions, and religious inclinations.  Nevertheless, in an attempt to make sense of the broadness of Hinduism, it is worth noting some beliefs that are common to a large number of Hindus, even if they are not required by all. Many Hindus would accept the following basic notions as a part of their tradition:

A Summary of Some Beliefs in Hinduism

Brahman: There is one supreme, impersonal reality called Brahman.  Brahman is the source of all things, but is not a personal creator. Brahman is, rather, the divine essence of all that exists. Brahman is impersonal, eternal, and beyond all human comprehension.

The Atman/Brahman Unity: Most adherents of Hinduism believe that, in their true selves (atman), they are extended from and one with Brahman.  Hindus explain their notion of unity with Brahman with the analogy of air inside a jar.  Just as the air inside the jar is identical to the air outside the jar, so our essence is identical to that of Brahman.  This is explained in the phrase Tat tvam asi, “That thou art.”

Scripture: Hindus believe the four Vedas are holy and sacred texts, but this does not mean that a Hindu must regard them as literally true or practice everything taught within them.1 Many of them also accept the Upanishads, The Ramayana, The Mahabharata (from which comes The Bhagavad Gita) and other Hindu writings as sources of sacred truth.

Cyclical View of Time: Hindus do not understand time as a progression from a definite past toward a distinct future. Instead, Hindus see reality as a recurring cycle which happens again and again. "Hindus believe that the universe undergoes endless cycles of creation, preservation, and dissolution."2 Brahman is manifested as the universe, then returns to a perfect unity, then manifests as the universe again. This is one of the bedrock differences between Hinduism and Western modes of thinking. In the west, most of us view time as linear, which is consistent with a Judeo-Christian view of the world.

Karma: According to Hinduism, our primary problem is that we are ignorant of our own divine nature. We have forgotten that we extentions from Brahman, and we have attached ourselves to the desires of our separate selves, or egos.3  As a result of the ego’s attachments to its desires and individualistic existence, humans have been subject to the law of karma.  The law of karma is essentially the moral equivalent of a natural law of cause and effect.  It basically says that we reap what we sow.  However, our actions not only affect us in the present life but on into future lives, which is why there is reincarnation. Any act of personal will is karma, and its effects keep us bound in the endless cycle of reincarnation. So long as we act on personal desires, good or bad, we remain in teh suffering of samsara.

Samsara: Samsara is the perpetual cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that an individual endures until the balance of their karma is removed. Rebirth is not desirable in Hinduism, and the cycle is considered to be the source of all suffering. Any deliberate action of the will, whether good or bad, is Karma and will lead to a future life. in many forms of Hinduism, the ultimate goal is not to have "good karma" rather than "bad karma." Instead, it is to have no karma at all and thus to escape samsara entirely. To accomplish this, one must live without acting on any personal desire or ambition, even noble ambition, and thus endure the consequences of one's past karmic debt without accruing any new karmic debt. Disconnected from desire and free from remaining karma, one can transcend samsara into moksha.

Moksha: Moksha is liberation from samsara and true enlightenment. In many forms of Hinduism, it means the realization of one's union with the universal essence of Brahman and thus one's complete union with all things. Atman (the divine essence of the individual) is one with Brahman (the divine essence of all things), and the individual is no longer reborn in the world of distinct objects and beings. There are a wide variety of Hindu views of moksha and how to attain it.  Many Hindus believe that all will eventually achieve moksha.

Gods and Goddesses: Many Hindus worship various gods and goddesses. They often believe that these beings can be appeased or appealed to through rituals and offerings in a temple, at a home shrine, by a sacred river, or in other places. Hindu scholars often explain that the millions of local and household gods and even the major Hindu gods such as Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva are all expressions of the one divine essence, so that all Hindus are, in a sense, worshiping the same divinity. Nevertheless, to many Hindus worshiping gods and goddesses, these deities are considered quite real.

Enlightened Masters: Many Hindus accept various enlightened masters, avatars, or other wise persons who can serve as guides to faithful Hindus.  These individuals serve as examples and provide direction for those who want to achieve moksha or enlightenment from the suffering of Samsara.

Ahimsa: Ahimsa means nonviolence to life. Hindus have great respect for all life forms and seek to cause the least amount of harm possible. This applies not just to humans, but also to animals.

No One True Religion: Hindus believe that there are many paths to God. There is not one true religion or one right way to find Brahman.

The Caste System: Historically, Hindu societies have operated within a strict form of Caste system in which one was born into a specific class that would determine one's career and place in society. Members were expected to marry within their caste and work the trades of their caste. This system tied directly to karma. One was born into a specific caste based on karma from previous lives. Ambition to break out of one's given role would bring on a karmic debt and perpetuate samsara. While Buddhism and Jainism have much in common with Hinduism, they denounced the caste system and were not considered Hindu. The Caste System has since been legally disbanded in India, and many Hindu scholars today say that what the caste system had become was a corruption of the pure, ancient Hindu teaching. Nevertheless, many of the ideas of the Caste System are socially ingrained and have proven difficult to remove.

  • 1. Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 189.
  • 2. http://www.hinduismtoday.com/modules/wfchannel/index.php?wfc_cid=19
  • 3. Dean C. Halverson, "Hinduism" in The Compact Guide to World Religions (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1996), 89.