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The oldest religion in the world that is still practiced, Hinduism is unique in that it was not founded by a single person or entity; rather, its guiding principles are derived from a huge body of scriptures, which exist in a heirarchy of importance or spiritual authority. It is also the third largest existing religion, following Christianity and Islam, with approximately one billion adherents, about 90% of whom live in India and Nepal.
Hinduism is an extremely diverse religion, such that scholars have been unable to discern any doctrines that are wholly accepted by all denominations. However, there are several prominent themes in Hinduism, which include Dharma (moral duties and ethics), Samsāra (the continuing cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth [reincarnation]), Karma (actions one takes and the subsequent reactions), Moksha (liberation from Samsāra), and the diverse set of Yogas (life practices and paths). These scriptures are divided into Sruti (revealed) and Smriti (remembered). The most ancient and authoritative are the Vedas and the Upanishads; other important writings include the Tantras, Agamas, Purānas, and the epics Mahābhārata and Rāmāyana. The Bhagavad Gītā, an important treatise abstracted from the Mahābhārata, is said to summarize the spiritual teachings of the Vedas.
The diversity of Hinduism extends to its various concepts of a supreme being, as well, with various denominations encompassing monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, monism, and even atheism. Virtually all Hindus believe that the true essence of a person - the spirit, or soul, called the Atman - is eternal. Several Hindu theologies believe that the Atman is ultimately indistinct from the Brahman, or supreme spirit. According to the Advaita school, the goal of one's existence on earth is to recognize that one's Atman is identical to Brahman, and that once someone recognizes and fully accepts their identity with Brahman, they reach Moksha (defined above as the release from the cycle of reincarnation). Dualistic denominations envision Brahman as a monolithic entity, of either gender, with a personality who is worshipped directly. These supreme beings are known by many names, such as Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva or Shakti, depending on the sect (Shiva is shown as the statue on the left).
Other spiritual beings form an important part of Hindu culture, art, and architecture; these celestial beings are known as Devas, which translates as "the shining ones", or, in English, as "gods" or "heavenly beings". Also, there are several episodes in Hindu literature describing the temporary descent of God to Earth in corporeal form, in order to guide humans in Dharma, reaching Moksha, and the like. These beings are known as Avatars. Some very prominent avatars include those of Vishnu, Rama, and Krishna (Krishna is portrayed in the illustration to the right).
Hinduism is based on "the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times." For many centuries, the texts were passed down the generations orally. Due to the inherent inaccuracies of such a method, the scriptures are not taken literally; more importance is attached to the ethics and metaphorical meanings derived from them (isn't that a refreshing attitude?).
The ongoing cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth is called samsara, and is a central tenet of Hindu thought. Samsara provides a number of ephemeral pleasures, making individuals desire rebirth, so as to enjoy the pleasures of a perishable body. However, escaping the cycle of samsara by attaining Moksha is thought to ensure lasting happiness and peace. Thus, the ultimate goal of life - moksha, samadhi, or nirvana - is understood in several different ways, depending on the denomination: the realization of one's union with God; the realization of one's eternal relationship with God; realization of the unity of all existence; perfect unselfishness and knowledge of the Self; attainment of perfect mental peace; or as detachment from worldly desires. Regardless, attainment of the ultimate goal liberates one from samsara and the cycle of rebirth and reincarnation. The precise conceptualization of moksha depends on the exact school of thought in Hinduism, but the generalization is the same for all.
Hinduism is much concerned with the goals of life. In fact, classical Hinduism recognizes two life-long dharmas: Grihastha Dharma and Sannyasin Dharma. The Grihastha Dharma posits four goals known as the purushārthas:
However a Hindu defines the goals of life, there are many ways to achieve them (yogas), which have been taught by sages over the centuries. A practitioner of yoga is called a yogi. There are many Hindu texts dedicated to yoga, and include the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and, as their philosophical and historical basis, the Upanishads.
A Hindu may practice one path exclusively or more than one, depending on the person's inclination and understanding.
The Sruti comprise the Vedas, which are the oldest of the Hindu scriptures, and are thought of as the laws of the spiritual world, which would exist even if they hadn't been revealed to the early sages. In fact, since they are eternal, they are thought to be constantly revealed in different ways to Hindus. The Vedas are the most important and spiritually authoritative of the Hindu scriptures, and they are gathered into four distinct groups, bearing the prefixes Ṛg-, Sāma- Yajus- and Atharva-. The text shown to the right is the earliest known version of the Rigveda.
Texts other than the Sruti are known collectively as the Smriti (remembered); the most important of these are the epics, known as the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa. The Bhagavad Gītā is an integral part of the Mahabharata and one of the most popular sacred texts of Hinduism. It contains philosophical teachings from Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, told to the prince Arjuna on the eve of a great war. The Bhagavad Gītā is considered to represent the essence of the Vedas. The Smriti also include the Purānas, which illustrate Hindu ideas with vivid narratives. There are also a variety of sectarian Hindu texts including Devī Mahātmya, the Tantras, the Yoga Sutras, Tirumantiram, Shiva Sutras and the Hindu Āgamas.
As with many religious people, Hindus have developed a number of practices to remind them of God during their days. They often engage in pūjā (worship or veneration), either at home or a temple. Most Hindus prefer to do their devotions at home, where they usually have constructed a shrine with icons (murtis) dedicated to their own personal conception of God. Devotion at temples is not obligatory; in fact, many Hindus attend their temple only during religious celebrations. The icons in their home shrines are not seen as symbols of God, but as actual manifestations of theirDivinity, since God is everywhere.
Mantras are invocations and prayers, that through their chanting style and sound help focus the worshipper's mind on holy thoughts or to express devotion to the dieties. Many devotees perform morning ablutions at the bank of a sacred river, while chanting the Gayatri Mantra or Mahamrityunjaya mantras.
The majority of Hindus perform religious rituals on a daily basis; these are usually done at home. The style and intensity of rituals varies between villages, families, and individuals. Most Hindus perform their devotions after bathing, at their household shrine. These rituals might include chanting special mantras, offering food, lighting lamps and/or incense, reciting scriptures, etc. The variety of such rituals is as diverse as the entire religion.
Since Hinduism is not derived from any single source, there is no central doctrinal authority, and many Hindus claim not to belong to any particular denomination. Nevertheless, Hinduism is divided by academicians into four major denominations: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism and Smartism. The major difference in these subgroups is the God they worship and the traditions and rituals that accompany such worship. Vaishnavas worship Vishnu as the Supreme Being, Shaivites identify Shiva (portrayed to the left) as their God, Shaktas worship Shakti as represented as a female entity, and Smartists believe that the five dieties Shanmata, coalesced into a single entity, is the Supreme Being.
Hindus advocate the practice of ahimsā (non-violence) and respect for all life; this is because the Supreme Being, or divinity, permeates all things, including plants and non-human animals. In fact, the term ahimsā appears throughout Hindu religious scripture. Although vegetarianism is not a requirement, it is highly recommended to maintain a satvic (purifying) lifestyle. The food habits, including the rigor of the vegetarianism, varies widely with the community and region. For instance, costal inhabitants eat more seafood, while inland Hindus eat more vegetables. Some Hindus avoid onion and garlic, which are regarded as rajasic (hot, dry, pungent, burning, causing discomfort, depression, and illness) foods. Hindus who do eat meat, though, almost always abstain from beef. They rely on the cow for dairy products and for fertilizer and tilling of fields. The slaughter of cows, in fact, is illegal in virtually all states of India.
The three approaches to realization outlined above are formally recognized as three paths (margas): bhaktimarga (the path of devotion), jnanamarga (the path of knowledge or philosophy), and karmamarga (the path of works and action). Similarly, the Hindu Trinity represents the three manifestations of the Supreme Reality: Brahma (creation), Vishnu (preservation), and Shiva (destruction).