Hinduism beliefs symbols and quotes

Hinduism 101: Origin, Beliefs, Practices, & Symbols

Hinduism has always been a fascination of mine. It’s the oldest religion still practiced today and is currently the third largest religion, just behind Christianity and Islam. Hinduism has a unique origin and is a compilation of many beliefs, practices and philosophies practiced for over 4000 years.

The Origin of Hinduism

Most scholars believe Hinduism started between 2300 B.C. and 1500 B.C. in the Indus Valley, near modern-day Pakistan. But Hindus will argue that their faith is timeless and has always existed.

The Founder of Hinduism

Unlike other religions, Hinduism doesn’t have founder but is instead a fusion of various beliefs. Scholars today will debate who exactly influenced who during this time but we can be sure Hinduism was founded before 1500 B.C. in the Indus Valley.

Before 1500 B.C., the Indo-Aryan people migrated to the Indus Valley, and blended with the indigenous people living in the region and many people believe that together their language and beliefs came together to found hinduism.

The Vedas

The period when the Vedas were created became known as the “Vedic Period” and lasted from about 1500 B.C. to 500 B.C. Rituals, such as sacrifices and chanting, were common in the Vedic Period.

Expanding Beliefs

The Epic, Puranic and Classic Periods took place between 500 B.C. and 500 A.D. During this time, Hindus began to emphasize the worship of deities, especially Vishnu, Shiva and Devi.

The concept of dharma was introduced in new texts, and along other faiths, such as Buddhism and Jainism, influencing the newer beliefs of .

Modern Hinduism Beliefs

Modern hinduism embraces many ideas and is sometimes referred to as a “family of religions,” as opposed to a single, organized religion and is closely related to other Indian religions, including Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism.

Most forms of Hinduism worship a single deity, known as “Brahman,” but still recognize other gods and goddesses. Followers believe there are multiple paths to reaching their god.

One of the key thoughts of Hinduism is “atman,” or the belief that all living creatures have a soul and they’re all part of the supreme soul. The goal is to achieve “moksha,” or salvation, which ends the cycle of rebirths to become part of the absolute soul.

Hindus revere all living creatures and consider the cow a sacred animal. Food is an important part of life for Hindus. Most don’t eat beef or pork, and many are vegetarians.

Another fundamental belief of the religion is the idea that people’s actions and thoughts directly determine their current life and future lives.

Purusharthas

Purusharthas refers to the objectives of human life. Classical Hindu thought accepts four proper goals or aims of human life, known as Puruṣārthas:

  • Dharma
  • Artha
  • Kama
  • Moksha

Dharma

Dharma is considered the foremost goal of a human being in Hinduism. The concept of dharma includes behaviors that are considered to be in accord with rta, the order that makes life and universe possible, and includes duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues and “right way of living”. 

Hindu dharma includes the religious duties, moral rights and duties of each individual, as well as behaviors that enable social order, right conduct, and those that are virtuous. 

Dharma, according to Van Buitenen, is that which all existing beings must accept and respect to sustain harmony and order in the world. It is the pursuit and execution of one’s nature and true calling, thus playing one’s role in cosmic harmony. 

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad states:

Nothing is higher than Dharma. The weak overcomes the stronger by Dharma, as over a king. Truly that Dharma is the Truth (Satya); Therefore, when a man speaks the Truth, they say, “He speaks the Dharma”; and if he speaks Dharma, they say, “He speaks the Truth!” For both are one.— Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 1.4.xiv

In the Mahabharata, Krishna defines dharma as upholding both this-worldly and other-worldly affairs. The word Sanātana means eternalperennial, or forever; thus, Sanātana Dharma signifies that it is the dharma that has neither beginning nor end.

Ashrama

As one part of dharma, the ashrama system is that is divided into four asramas, or phases of life, traditionally aimed at providing a Hindu with a fulfilling life and spiritual liberation. 

The four ashramas are: 

  • Brahmacharya / Student
  • Grihastha / Householder
  • Vanaprastha / Retired
  • Sannyasa / Renunciation
Brahmacharya

Brahmacharya represents the bachelor or student stage of life.

Grihastha

Grihastha phase starts when a Hindu is married and during the phase one has the duties of maintaining a household, raising a family, educating thier children, and leading a family-centred and a dharmic social life. 

This stage is considered the most important as Hindus in this stage not only pursue a virtuous life, but they also produce food and wealth that sustain the people in their life.

Vanaprastha

Vanaprastha is the retirement phase, where a person is resposible for handing over household responsibilities to the next generation, taking an advisory role and gradually withdrawing from the world.

Sannyasa

Sannyasa is the renunciation phase and is a state of disinterest and detachment from material life, generally without any meaningful property or home; focusing simply on Moksha, peace and simple spiritual life. 

While these stages are typically sequential, any person can enter the Sannyasa phase at any time after the Brahmacharya phase. Sannyasa is not required in Hinduism and elderly people are typically allowed to live how they wish.

Artha

Artha is objective and virtuous pursuit of wealth for livelihood, obligations, and economic prosperity. It is inclusive of political life, diplomacy, and material well-being. The artha concept includes all “means of life”, activities and resources that enables one to be in a state one wants to be in, wealth, career and financial security. The proper pursuit of artha is considered an important aim of human life in Hinduism.

Kama

Kāma means desire, wish, passion, longing, pleasure of the senses, the aesthetic enjoyment of life, affection, or love, with or without sexual connotations. In Hinduism, kama is considered an essential and healthy goal of human life when pursued without sacrificing dharma, artha and moksha.

Moksa

Moksha, or mukti, is the ultimate, most important goal in Hinduism. In one sense, moksha is a concept associated with liberation from sorrow, suffering and saṃsāra (birth-rebirth cycle). A release from this eschatological cycle, in after life, particularly in theistic schools of Hinduism is called moksha.

The meaning of moksha differs among the various Hindu schools of thought. For example, Advaita Vedanta holds that after attaining moksha a person knows their essence, Self as pure consciousness or the witness-consciousness and identifies it as identical to Brahman. 

The followers of Dvaita (dualistic) schools, in moksha state, identify individual essence as distinct from Brahman but infinitesimally close, and after attaining moksha expect to spend eternity in a loka (heaven).

To theistic schools of Hinduism, moksha is liberation from saṃsāra, while for other schools such as the monistic school, moksha is possible in current life and is a psychological concept. 

Some believe moksha is transcendental consciousness, the perfect state of being, of self-realization, of freedom and of “realizing the whole universe as the Self”. Moksha in these schools of Hinduism implies a setting free of hitherto fettered faculties, a removing of obstacles to an unrestricted life, permitting a person to be more truly a person in the full sense.

Karma

Karma translates literally as actionwork, or deed, and also refers to a Vedic theory of “moral law of cause and effect”. The theory is a combination of (1) causality that may be ethical or non-ethical; (2) ethicization, that is good or bad actions have consequences; and (3) rebirth. 

Karma theory is interpreted as explaining the present circumstances of an individual with reference to his or her actions in the past. These actions and their consequences may be in a person’s current life, or, according to some schools of Hinduism, in past lives.

Samsara

The cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth is called saṃsāra. Liberation from saṃsāra through moksha is believed to ensure lasting happiness and peace. Hindu scriptures teach that the future is both a function of current human effort derived from free will and past human actions that set the circumstances.

Hinduism Holy Books & Scriptures

Hindus value many sacred writings as opposed to one holy book.

The primary sacred texts, known as the Vedas, were composed around 1500 B.C. This collection of verses and hymns was written in Sanskrit and contains revelations received by ancient saints and sages.

The Vedas are made up of:

  • The Rig Veda
  • The Samaveda
  • Yajurveda
  • Atharvaveda

Hindus believe that the Vedas transcend all time and don’t have a beginning or an end.

The Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, 18 Puranas, Ramayana and Mahabharata are also considered important texts in Hinduism.

Hinduism Gods

Hindus worship many gods and goddesses in addition to Brahman, who is believed to be the supreme God force present in all things.

Some of the most prominent deities include:

  • Brahma: the god responsible for the creation of the world and all living things
  • Vishnu: the god that preserves and protects the universe
  • Shiva: the god that destroys the universe in order to recreate it
  • Devi: the goddess that fights to restore dharma
  • Krishna: the god of compassion, tenderness and love
  • Lakshmi: the goddess of wealth and purity
  • Saraswati: the goddess of learning

Hindu Caste System

The caste system is a social hierarchy in India that divides Hindus based on their karma and dharma. Many scholars believe the system dates back more than 3,000 years.

The four main castes (in order of prominence) include:

  1. Brahmin: the intellectual and spiritual leaders
  2. Kshatriyas: the protectors and public servants of society
  3. Vaisyas: the skillful producers
  4. Shudras: the unskilled laborers

Many subcategories also exist within each caste. The “Untouchables” are a class of citizens that are outside the caste system and considered to be in the lowest level of the social hierarchy.

For centuries, the caste system determined every aspect of a person’s social, professional and religious status in India.

When India became an independent nation, its constitution banned discrimination based on caste.

Today, the caste system still exists in India but is loosely followed. Many of the old customs are overlooked, but some traditions, such as only marrying within a specific caste, are still embraced.

Hinduism Sects

Hinduism has many sects, and is sometimes divided into the following:

  • Shaivism (followers of Shiva)
  • Vaishnava (followers of Vishnu)
  • Shaktism (followers of Devi)
  • Smarta (followers of Brahman and all major deities)

Some Hindus elevate the Hindu trinity, which consists of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Others believe that all the deities are a manifestation of one.

Hinduism vs Buddhism

Hinduism and Buddhism have many similarities. Buddhism, in fact, arose out of Hinduism, and both believe in reincarnation, karma and that a life of devotion and honor is a path to salvation and enlightenment. 

But some key differences exist between the two religions: Buddhism rejects the caste system of Hinduism, and does away with the rituals, the priesthood and the gods that are integral to the Hindu faith. 

Hinduism Rituals & Practices

Most Hindus observe religious rituals at home. The rituals vary greatly among regions, villages, and individuals. They are not mandatory in Hinduism. The nature and place of rituals is an individual’s choice. Some devout Hindus perform daily rituals such as worshiping at dawn after bathing (usually at a family shrine, and typically includes lighting a lamp and offering foodstuffs before the images of deities), recitation from religious scripts, singing bhajans (devotional hymns), yoga, meditation, chanting mantras and others.

Vedic rituals of fire-oblation (yajna) and chanting of Vedic hymns are observed on special occasions, such as a Hindu wedding. Other major life-stage events, such as rituals after death, include the yajña and chanting of Vedic mantras.

The words of the mantras are “themselves sacred,” and “do not constitute linguistic utterances.” Instead, as Klostermaier notes, in their application in Vedic rituals they become magical sounds, “means to an end.” In the Brahmanical perspective, the sounds have their own meaning, mantras are considered “primordial rhythms of creation”, preceding the forms to which they refer. By reciting them the cosmos is regenerated, “by enlivening and nourishing the forms of creation at their base. As long as the purity of the sounds is preserved, the recitation of the mantras will be efficacious, irrespective of whether their discursive meaning is understood by human beings.”

Rites of Passage Ceremonies

Major life stage milestones are celebrated as sanskara (saṃskāra, rites of passage) in Hinduism. The rites of passage are not mandatory, and vary in details by gender, community and regionally.

Gautama Dharmasutras composed in about the middle of 1st millennium BCE lists 48 sanskaras, while Gryhasutra and other texts composed centuries later list between 12 and 16 sanskaras.

Major traditional rites of passage in Hinduism include:

  • Garbhadhana (pregnancy), 
  • Pumsavana (rite before the fetus begins moving and kicking in womb), 
  • Simantonnayana (parting of pregnant woman’s hair, baby shower),
  •  Jatakarman (rite celebrating the new born baby), 
  • Namakarana (naming the child), 
  • Nishkramana (baby’s first outing from home into the world), 
  • Annaprashana (baby’s first feeding of solid food), 
  • Chudakarana (baby’s first haircut, tonsure), 
  • Karnavedha (ear piercing), 
  • Vidyarambha (baby’s start with knowledge), 
  • Upanayana (entry into a school rite),
  • Keshanta and Ritusuddhi (first shave for boys, menarche for girls), 
  • Samavartana (graduation ceremony),
  • Vivaha (wedding), 
  • Vratas (fasting, spiritual studies)
  • Antyeshti (cremation for an adult, burial for a child).

In contemporary times, there is regional variation among Hindus as to which of these sanskaras are observed; in some cases, additional regional rites of passage such as Śrāddha (ritual of feeding people after cremation) are practiced.

Hindu Worship (Bhakti)

Bhakti refers to devotion, participation in and the love of a personal god or a representational god by a devotee. Bhakti-marga is considered in Hinduism to be one of many possible paths of spirituality and alternative means to moksha. The other paths, left to the choice of a Hindu, are Jnana-marga (path of knowledge), Karma-marga (path of works), Rāja-marga (path of contemplation and meditation).

Bhakti is practiced in a number of ways, ranging from reciting mantras, japas (incantations), to individual private prayers in one’s home shrine, or in a temple before a murti or sacred image of a deity. Hindu temples and domestic altars, are important elements of worship in contemporary theistic Hinduism. While many visit a temple on special occasions, most offer daily prayers at a domestic altar, typically a dedicated part of the home that includes sacred images of deities or gurus.

One form of daily worship is aarti, or “supplication,” a ritual in which a flame is offered and “accompanied by a song of praise.” Notable aartis include Om Jai Jagdish Hare, a prayer to Vishnu, Sukhakarta Dukhaharta, a prayer to Ganesha. Aarti can be used to make offerings to entities ranging from deities to “human exemplar[s].” For instance, Aarti is offered to Hanuman, a devotee of God, in many temples, including Balaji temples, where the primary deity is an incarnation of Vishnu. In Swaminarayan temples and home shrines, aarti is offered to Swaminarayan, considered by followers to be supreme God.

Other personal and community practices include puja as well as aarti, kirtan, or bhajan, where devotional verses and hymns are read or poems are sung by a group of devotees. While the choice of the deity is at the discretion of the Hindu, the most observed traditions of Hindu devotion include Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Shaktism. A Hindu may worship multiple deities, all as henotheistic manifestations of the same ultimate reality, cosmic spirit and absolute spiritual concept called Brahman. Bhakti-marga, states Pechelis, is more than ritual devotionalism, it includes practices and spiritual activities aimed at refining one’s state of mind, knowing god, participating in god, and internalizing god. While bhakti practices are popular and easily observable aspect of Hinduism, not all Hindus practice bhakti, or believe in god-with-attributes (saguna Brahman). Concurrent Hindu practices include a belief in god-without-attributes, and god within oneself.

Hindu Pilgrimages

Many adherents undertake pilgrimages, which have historically been an important part of Hinduism and remain so today. Pilgrimage sites are called TirthaKshetraGopitha or Mahalaya.

Hindu Festivals

Hindu festivals (Sanskrit: Utsava; literally: “to lift higher”) are ceremonies that weave individual and social life to dharma. Hinduism has many festivals throughout the year, where the dates are set by the lunisolar Hindu calendar, many coinciding with either the full moon (Holi) or the new moon (Diwali), often with seasonal changes. Some festivals are found only regionally and they celebrate local traditions, while a few such as Holi and Diwali are pan-Hindu. The festivals typically celebrate events from Hinduism, connoting spiritual themes and celebrating aspects of human relationships such as the Sister-Brother bond over the Raksha Bandhan (or Bhai Dooj) festival. The same festival sometimes marks different stories depending on the Hindu denomination, and the celebrations incorporate regional themes, traditional agriculture, local arts, family get togethers, Puja rituals and feasts.

Some major regional or pan-Hindu festivals include:

  • Makar Sankranti
  • Pongal
  • Thaipusam
  • Vasant Panchami
  • Maha Shivaratri
  • Shigmo
  • Holi
  • Gudi Padwa
  • Ugadi
  • Bihu
  • Vishu
  • Ram Navami
  • Kartik Purnima
  • Raksha Bandhan
  • Krishna Janmastami
  • Gowri Habba
  • Ganesh Chaturthi
  • Onam
  • Navaratri
  • Dussehra
  • Durga Puja
  • Diwali or Tihar or Deepawali
  • Chhath
  • Bonalu
  • Rath Yatra
  • Dashain

Hinduism Symbols

There are two main symbols associated with Hinduism, the om and the swastika.

Hindu Swastika

The word swastika means “good fortune” or “being happy” in Sanskrit, and the symbol represents good luck. (A diagonal version of the swastika later became associated with Germany’s Nazi Party when they made it their symbol in 1920.)

Om Symbol

The om symbol is composed of three Sanskrit letters and represents three sounds (a, u and m), which when combined are considered a sacred sound. The om symbol is often found at family shrines and in Hindu temples.

Hindu Temples

A Hindu temple is a house of god(s). It is a space and structure designed to bring human beings and gods together, infused with symbolism to express the ideas and beliefs of Hinduism. A temple incorporates all elements of Hindu cosmology, the highest spire or dome representing Mount Meru – reminder of the abode of Brahma and the center of spiritual universe, the carvings and iconography symbolically presenting dharma, kama, artha, moksha and karma. The layout, the motifs, the plan and the building process recite ancient rituals, geometric symbolisms, and reflect beliefs and values innate within various schools of Hinduism. Hindu temples are spiritual destinations for many Hindus (not all), as well as landmarks for arts, annual festivals, rite of passage rituals, and community celebrations.

Hindu temples come in many styles, diverse locations, deploy different construction methods and are adapted to different deities and regional beliefs. Two major styles of Hindu temples include the Gopuram style found in south India, and Nagara style found in north India. Other styles include cave, forest and mountain temples. Yet, despite their differences, almost all Hindu temples share certain common architectural principles, core ideas, symbolism and themes. Many temples feature one or more idols (murtis). The idol and Grabhgriya in the Brahma-pada (the center of the temple), under the main spire, serves as a focal point (darsana, a sight) in a Hindu temple. In larger temples, the central space typically is surrounded by an ambulatory for the devotee to walk around and ritually circumambulate the Purusa (Brahman), the universal essence.

Hinduism Quotes

Sources & Further Reading

History of Hinduism, BBC.
Hinduism Fast Facts, CNN.
What are the Basic Beliefs of Hinduism, Smithsonian Institution.
Hinduism: The World’s Third Largest Religion, Religioustolerance.org.
Samsara: Hinduism, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

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