23.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

Hinduism is one of the ancient Hindustani religions that unites various religious traditions and philosophical schools that are connected, though do not necessarily have a common doctrine.

In Sanskrit, Hinduism is called “Sanātana Dharma”, that is, “eternal religion”, “eternal path” or “eternal law”.

The term originated from the Persian word “Hind”, meaning “the valley of the Indus River”, which was formed from the Indo-Aryan “Sindhu” (“ocean” or “river”).

Hinduism is a world religion that originated on the Indian subcontinent and spread beyond its borders in the second half of the 20th century. It is ranked third according to the number of worldwide adherents (around one billion people).

Characteristics, types and movements of Hinduism

Hinduism is not considered as a specific category into which this or that belief may easily fit. Rather, it is a family of religions and traditions without a single doctrine or a single founder. Yet Hinduism has unique characteristics that have allowed it to become one of the world’s foremost religions.

There are several types of Hinduism:

  • folk beliefs are the oldest form of primitive Hinduism, the followers of which worshipped local deities and deified forms
  • Vedic Hinduism, which is a system of beliefs based on the sacred texts of Hinduism, especially on the Vedic scriptures, the most important and oldest of which is the Rig Veda
  • Vedantic Hinduism, which is a teaching based on the Upanishads, which are religious and philosophical treatises summarizing the teachings of individual chapters of the four Vedas
  • Dharmic Hinduism which is the daily observance of certain moral principles and does not indicate belonging to a particular philosophical school or doctrine
  • Bhakti which is the path of love and devotion in serving God in one of its forms (avatars)
  • Yoga which is the direction presented in the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali

Scholars distinguish the following denominations:

  • Vaishnavism (or Vishnuism), a monotheistic tradition. The followers worship Vishnu and his main avatars: Krishna and Rama.
  • Shivaism (or Shaivism) is another Hindu denomination. Its adherents worship Shiva, who is the primary deity (alongside Brahma and Vishnu), included in the sacred triad of Trimurti.
  • Shaktism which is the doctrine of worshipping Shakti (Mother Goddess or Devi).
  • Smārta tradition, a doctrine whose adepts believe in the unity of the five deities of Shanmata, personifying the Almighty.

Other trends in Hinduism like Ganapatya (a cult of Ganesha), or Saura (worship of the sun god Surya) do not have many followers and are not as widespread. Some teachings do not belong to any of the Hindu schools at all. There is no concept of “heresy” in Hinduism.

Basic teachings

The essence of Hinduism is based on several spiritual categories:

  • Dharma, moral and ethical obligations
  • Saṃsāra, a cycle of birth and death, the reincarnation of the soul after death into gods, bodies of people or animals
  • Karma, belief in the relationship between the order of reincarnation and the consequences of one’s actions performed during life
  • Moksha, freedom from Samsara
  • Yoga, a combination of spiritual, physical and mental practices that help one to achieve an exalted mental and spiritual state by controlling the mental and physiological functions of the body

God in Hinduism is endowed with universal power. He exists in every living creature and can be approached in different ways. One may worship any form of God, since He is the Supreme Being: Shiva, Vishnu (even if he is incarnated in a form of a lion or a formless stone) or the beautiful Devi.

The Supreme Being manifests itself through sculptures in temples, or living gurus and saints. Most Hinduists believe that the universe has been created, is maintained, and will be destroyed by the divine powers. Some Hindu movements do not share this idea.


Hinduism is based on the dogmas of many theological systems:

  • Monotheism
  • Polytheism
  • Pantheism
  • Monism
  • Atheism

Sometimes Hinduism is associated with Henotheism, where the worship of a separate supreme and powerful God and other deities occurs. More often, Hinduism is characterized as a polytheistic direction, where God has both masculine and feminine origins.

Karma and saṃsāra

Karma is interpreted as “action”, “activity” or “work” and means “the law of action and retribution”. A person’s consciousness stores a lot of impressions (Samkar) from any actions performed by him/her on the physical and mental levels. A person perceives everything that happen in life through the prism of his/her own experience. Samkars are preserved and transferred from one life to another, determining the Karma of a person.

Karma is associated with the reincarnation of the soul, personal qualities of an individual and family. It unites the concepts of free will and fate. The cycle of actions and their consequences, as well as birth, death and re-birth is called Saṃsāra.

When the soul is free from the wheel of Saṃsāra through Moksha to nirvana, it becomes happy and peaceful forever. The soul achieves an awareness of unity with God and pure love for him, and the integrity of being comes alongside the liberation from material desires.

The main goals in the life of a Hindu

The classical philosophy of Hinduism describes two main life dharmas (duties) of a person:

  • Grihastha-dharma is the second stage (ashram) of life, which every pious Hindu must go through after studying the Vedas. It is one’s duty to get married and start a family.
  • Sannyasa-dharma means giving up the material life and dedicating oneself to the spiritual realm.

The first of these (the family man’s dharma) includes four main goals (Puruṣārthas):

  • Dharma (rightful deeds, performing the prescribed duty following the norms of the scriptures)
  • Artha (material well-being and success)
  • Kama (sensual pleasures)
  • Moksha (freedom from Saṃsāra)

Dharma and Moksha are of the greatest importance. Some Hindu sources say that Dharma boils down to the principles of non-violence (Ahimsa), truthfulness (Satya), refusal to steal (Asteya), purity (Shaucha) and curbing the senses (Indriya-nigraha).

Followers of different currents of Hinduism choose one way of life or another. For example, those who lead a detached lifestyle recognize Kama, Artha and Dharma, but do not follow them, paying all their attention to Moksha.

Sacred scriptures

According to one of the definitions, the foundation of Hinduism can be compared to a treasury of spiritual laws that have been established by many people throughout the generations. For centuries, Hindu scriptures have been transmitted orally in the form of verses that were quickly and easily memorized. Later, the texts were written down, and then improved and expanded upon with the participation of ancient Indian sages.

Most of the sacred texts are written in Sanskrit and fall into two categories.

  1. Shruti (literal translation “that which is heard”). Many Hindus believe that the Vedas are eternally divinely revealed (not created by humans) and given to people through the holy sages. Since the truths stated in the Vedas are eternal, their form and interpretation may change and improve. The oldest and most important of the Vedas is the Rig Veda.

The Vedas include Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyaks and Upanishads. Samhitas include sacred mantras and are considered to be the most important element of the Vedas. The remaining parts are collections of commentaries of a later period, compiled in prosaic form. The Vedas tell about ritual practices, and the Upanishads are about spiritual self-awareness and philosophy. Also, they discuss the nature of Brahman and reincarnation.

       2.    Smriti (literal translation “that which is remembered”). The most important are the epic poems Mahābhārata and Rāmāyana. The widely known and studied sacred text of Hinduism is Bhagavad Gita, dedicated to the philosophical instructions of Krishna to the warrior-prince Arjuna on the eve of the great Battle of Kuruksetra.

The category of Smritis also includes the Puranas that are texts that relate Hindu beliefs and philosophy in an easily accessible form. They contain many stories.

There are also separate scriptures that adhere to specific Hindu directions (for example, Devi Mahatmya, Tantras, Yoga Sutras, etc.).

Religious practices

The practices of the Hindus are aimed at strengthening the awareness of God and receiving blessings from heavenly beings (Devas). Regular practice is called Puja. This may be held either in the temple or at home. To perform it, you need an altar with a Murti (a statue of a god, or a deva). Through the Murti, one creates a deeper personal relationship with the deity.

There is no mandatory rule for Hindus to visit temples, so many people attend only during religious holidays.

Religious practices

Most Hindus perform the following religious ceremonies and rituals every day:

  • Puja which is performed at sunrise after bathing, or at the end of the day. It consists of offering the Murti a lighted lamp, incense and food, which becomes Prasada
  • reading the sacred scriptures together with others
  • Kirtan and Bhajan, which are rituals of singing prayers, mantras and religious songs
  • Meditation (for example, reciting mantras on Japamala beads which is called the Japa ritual)

Ritual repetition or singing mantras, both individually and within a group is important in Hinduism too. Through a certain way of repeating mantras and prayers, reflecting on their meaning and sound, the practitioner is able to tune in to his/her spiritual origin, and also express devotion to God or Devas.

In religious practices, purity and defilement are distinguished; therefore the believer should purify him/herself before commencing the ritual or in the process of performing it. Usually, the purification is performed with water. The rituals of fire sacrifices (“Yajna”) have become one of the most important elements in the ritual practice of Hinduism. This is used during weddings, funerals, initiations etc.

Hindus also believe that donations contribute to “good karma” (Punya), which requires charity and “good deeds”. Such actions accumulate throughout life and provide protection and well-being in the next reincarnation.

Hinduism is often referred to as a national rather than a world religion. Yet since Hindu communities are scattered almost all over the world, this makes it a global religion. At the end of the twentieth century, Hinduism had also become popular in Europe, as well as North and South America, Australia and Russia.