Making sense of the world's belief systems.




Worldview category: polytheism, monotheism or pantheism (depending on one's point of view)

Major Beliefs - Origins - Place of Worship - Branches of Hinduism - Festivals and Holidays - Key Terms

Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion behind Christianity and Islam. There are approximately 800 million Hindus worldwide. The majority of Hindus live in India, in which 80% of the population is Hindu. Hinduism consists of many different beliefs and practices and is referred to by its adherents as Sanatana Dharma.

Major Beliefs

The most important beliefs of Hinduism are the concept of God, samsara, reincarnation, karma, the sacred texts, and the caste system.

Belief in God

It is difficult to categorize Hinduism into a single worldview category. Hindus believe in god, but it is important to understand the complex nature of the Hindu god.

The following excerpt from the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance web site presents a good explanation of Hinduism’s view of God. 

"Categorizing the religion of Hinduism is somewhat confusing:

·         Hinduism has commonly been viewed in the west as a polytheistic religion - one which worships multiple deities: gods and goddesses. Although a widespread belief, this is not particularly accurate.

·         Some have viewed it as a monotheistic religion, because it recognizes only one supreme God: the panentheistic principle of Brahman, that all reality is a unity. The entire universe is seen as one divine entity who is simultaneously at one with the universe and who transcends it as well. 

·         Some view Hinduism as Trinitarian because Brahman is simultaneously visualized as a triad -- one God with three persons:

o        Brahma the Creator who is continuing to create new realities

o        Vishnu, (Krishna) the Preserver, who preserves these new    creations. Whenever dharma (eternal order, righteousness, religion, law and duty) is threatened, Vishnu travels from heaven to earth in one of ten incarnations.

o        Shiva, the Destroyer, is at times compassionate, erotic and destructive.

·          Strictly speaking, most forms of Hinduism are henotheistic; they recognize a single deity, and recognize other gods and goddesses as facets, forms, manifestations, or aspects of that supreme God."1

Samsara and Reincarnation

The continual cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth is called samsara. This cycle applies to people as well as all living things.  Another word for rebirth is reincarnation. 

"Samsara is a belief in the transmigration, or continual passing, of a soul from one body to another. It can be described as follows. The soul of a person who dies does not pass into heaven, or hell, or elsewhere. It is reborn into another body, which may be of higher or lower order than one’s previous existence. Rebirth follows rebirth in an endless chain. Thus, a person of low status may be reborn as a priest, or a king, or an animal, or even a worm."2 


Karma is the concept that the deeds performed in this life determine the type of life that will be experienced in the next life. Goods deeds result in a good next life, whereas bad deeds result in a bad next life. 

The goal of a Hindu is to escape samsara and achieve moksha, which is release from this world. Moksha is an eternal unity or oneness with Brahman.

Sacred Texts

There are many sacred Hindu texts, which have been written over a long time span.

Vedas – The Vedas are the oldest Hindu texts, although exact dates for their composition are difficult to determine. The Vedas are an entire set of literature, written in Sanskrit and attributed to the Aryans, who settled in India thousands of years ago. They are considered to be divinely revealed.  "The Veda contains accounts of creation, information about ritual sacrifice, and prayers to the gods. The Rig Veda, the earliest of the Vedic text, is a collection of hymns to the gods."3

There are four collections within the Vedas:

  • Rig Veda
  • Sama Veda
  • Yajur Veda
  • Atharva Veda

Upanishads – The Upanishads, which were written between 700 and 500 BCE, are also considered to be divinely revealed. They consist primarily of dialogues between a teacher and his pupil. The concepts of karma, samsara and moksha are first found in the Upanishads. 

Hindu epics – There are two great Hindu epics – the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. They are stories about great warriors and were written between 500 and 100 BCE Krishna is the central figure in the Mahabharata and Rama is the central figure in the Ramayana. The Mahabharata includes the Bhagavad-gita, which is an epic story in which "Krishna teaches the warrior Arjuna about the importance of doing one’s duty and about how to achieve liberation from suffering and repeated rebirth."4

Brahmanas – The Brahmanas were written around 700 BCE and prescribe how fire sacrifices are to be conducted.

The Laws of Manu – A text written by a sage between 200 BCE and 200 CE that prescribes right behavior. The Laws of Manu have become the most accepted standard of behavior in Hindu society.

Puranas – The Puranas, which were written between 300 and 900 CE, contain stories about Hindu gods and goddesses. 

Sutras – A series of texts written by Brahmins that deal with moral teachings and ritual practices.

Caste System

Hindu society is made up of four classes of people, called castes or varnas.  The four classes, from highest to lowest, are:

  • Brahmins – priests
  • Shatriyas – nobles and warriors
  • Vaishyas – merchants and farmers
  • Shudras – servants

Along with these castes are a number of sub-castes, which are called jatis. The lowest sub-caste is the Untouchables, which is now called Dalits. If a Brahmin, Shatriya, or Vaishya marries a Shudra or a person of a different race, a child from that marriage is considered an untouchable. Dalits are considered lower than domestic animals. Karma does not apply to them, so there is no hope for changing their caste or status.


Hinduism began in the Indus River Valley of India around 1500 BCE Its origin is not tied to a specific person or event.

Place of Worship

The place for public worship is the temple. Many Hindus set up a shrine in their home where family members worship.

Branches of Hinduism

There are two primary branches of Hinduism:

  • Shivaism, where Shiva is worshipped as the supreme deity.
  • Vaishnavaism, where Vishnu is worshipped as the supreme deity.

There is no central leader or headquarters of Hinduism.

Hindu Festivals and Holidays

Divali – The festival of lights, which celebrates the New Year.  Divali takes place in October or November.

Ganesh Chaturthi – A monthly and annual festival that celebrates the birth of Ganesh, a god with the head of an elephant. Ganesh is considered the bringer of good luck and the remover of obstacles.

Holi – A celebration of the return of spring.

Key Terms

Avatar – The human form of a god.  For example, Krishna is an avatar of the god Vishnu.

Bindi – A dot on the forehead of Hindu women, which serves as a symbol of respect toward the Hindu gods.

Dharma – Moral duty.

Ganges River – A large river in India that is considered sacred. Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges washes away sins.

Krishna – The avatar of the god Vishnu.

Moksha – Release from the cycle of rebirth. The highest goal to be attained in Hinduism.

Sacred Cow

"In Hinduism, the cow (Sanskrit: go) is revered as the source of food and symbol of life and may never be killed. Hindus do not worship the cow, however, and cows do not have especially charmed lives in India. It is more accurate to say the cow is taboo in Hinduism, rather than sacred…Verses of the Rigveda refer to the cow as Devi (goddess), identified with Aditi (mother of the gods) herself…By the early centuries AD, the cow was designated as the appropriate gift to the Brahmans (high-caste priests) and it was soon said that to kill a cow is equal to killing a Brahman…The cow remains a protected animal in Hinduism today and Hindus do not eat beef."5

Samsara – The cycle of rebirth.

Sanskrit – The language of the Aryans and the language in which of the Vedas were written.

Sati – Also referred to as "widow-burning". Sati is a traditional Hindu practice whereby a woman burns herself on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband.

Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance,, 2008.
2Wangu, Madha Bazaz. Hinduism - World Religions, 1996, Facts on File, New York, p. 38.
3Knott, Kim. Hinduism – A very short introduction. 1998, Oxford University Press, New York, p. 16.
4Ibid, p. 17.
5Anonymous. "The Cow in Hinduism." ReligionFacts. 8 February 2007. [from "Hinduism"] Accessed 1 January 2009, < hinduism/things/cow.htm >.


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