Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion. One of its most characteristic features is its rich variety of opinions and practices. But underlying this diversity is a harmonious philosophy and belief system that encourages individual freedom of thought and religious practice.
Hinduism is difficult to define because the word Hindu wasn’t created by the followers of the religion to describe themselves. It was imposed by outsiders. The word Hindu originated with the ancient Persians. They used it to describe the location south of the Indus river in Northern India. Ancient Persian inscriptions refer to Hindu as a geographical name, not a religious designation.
Much later, during the British occupation of India, the word Hindu was used to divide the native inhabitants into religious designations and distinguish them from Muslims and Christians. So the word Hindu has come to refer to the multitudes of religious and cultural beliefs and practices of people living on the Indian subcontinent.
Because of the origin of the word, many people think of Hindu as a cultural identity rather than a religious designation. If we asked Hindu’s what term would best name their religion, they would probably say sanatana dharma. Sanatana dharma means the eternal religion, or the eternal way of life.
As a religion Hinduism has no single founder. But we can distinguish it from other religions which originated in India like Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism on the basis of its scriptural texts. A common definition of a follower of Hinduism is anyone who accepts the authority of the Vedic scripture.
The scriptural canon of Hinduism is called the Veda. Veda is a Sanskrit word which means knowledge. The Veda consists of a vast collection of writings which are divided into shruti (that which is heard) and smriti (that which is remembered). The shruti is said to be not of human origin. The truths it contains are not created by humans, but truths about reality which humans discover. In the same way we understand Newton didn’t create the law of gravity but only discovered knowledge about the nature of reality; Hindus understand the Veda as the collection of knowledge sages have discovered about the nature of reality.
Hinduism isn’t a monolithic tradition, there is room for a variety of opinions and no central authority to define matters of faith. There are any number of schools of thought, called sampradayas, and these have many different guru-disciple lineages. While the Vedas are accepted by all denominations, each lineage defines which particular texts are regarded as central and authoritative for its followers.
The authority on spiritual matters is found not with some central power but with the sages, or rishis (seers). An Indian philosophy is traditionally referred to as a darshan. Darshan literally means to see. Hindus accept that humans can gain a cognitive and perceptual sighting of metaphysical truths.
While rational argument and intellectual debate are important within Hinduism, so are practical disciplines. It is by personal practice and experience that we can develop skills that expand our perceptual abilities. Many look on this kind of mystical knowledge as something magical, but to the Hindu it is a practical skill that anyone can develop. It is considered no more mysterious than learning to play a musical instrument, a skill that requires a combination of intellectual understanding and practical knowledge.
It is this feature of personal control over one’s spiritual destiny that also encourages free and open thought. Followers are encouraged to enquire and investigate, to explore worship and meditative disciplines to personally experience the divine. This feature is also the reason for Hinduism’s famous religious tolerance. The Hindu accepts that the path one takes is an expression of an individual’s personal faith, their stage of religious development. The method is the path taken and it must be a natural expression of our individual nature. If this faith is to be authentic, it cannot be artificially imposed from outside by a rule of law.
It is this variety and freedom of worship that can give an outsider the impression Hinduism is polytheistic. But to the Hindu, the variety of gods are all aspects of the one Supreme Being. While there is a lot of diversity in Hinduism, there is also an underlying commonality. The various Hindu traditions share a belief in the all-pervasive Brahman as the fundamental substance of reality; an eternally persisting soul, called the atman; the doctrine of karma and reincarnation; and dharma as the way to gain moksha, or liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
Brahman is a Sanskrit word which means to grow, to expand. This gives us the idea of the quintessential nature of reality as a dynamic conscious substance. It not only describes the spiritual nature of God, but also the individual soul. Brahman is composed of eternal, conscious bliss (sat, chit, ananda). This is the true nature of the soul and at present we are under the illusion (maya) of thinking we are the physical body. And because of this illusion or ignorance, instead of bliss we are experiencing suffering and death.
The word karma means action. According to our actions or deeds we are reincarnating into new bodies. The Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita describes the process — “The embodied soul continuously passes in this body from childhood to youth to old age. Similarly, at the time of death, the soul passes into another body. The wise are not disturbed by these changes”.
Our destiny then, is to gain liberation (moksha) from this cycle of birth and death and regain our eternal and blissful nature. This can be done by following one’s dharma or right conduct. Dharma is seen as the foundation of human culture and spirituality. It is ethical conduct, duty and obligation.
When we act in accordance with dharma, we are following the order inherent in reality, the laws of nature, the essence and foundation of culture and prosperity. Dharma is right conduct, our ethical and social duties, the way of life conducive to prosperity and spiritual advancement. Dharma then, not only instructs us how to live in this world but leads us to the next.
As to what goal we should aim for in this life or the next, Hinduism allows for free choice here as well. The practice we adopt depends on our goal. Our goal depends on our individual preferences, and it is this which determines out destination in the spiritual world. Some Hindus strive to merge their individual identity into the all-pervading Brahman. Others worship Shiva, or Vishnu or Krishna so they can attain a personal relationship with their chosen deity in the spiritual world.
It is this recognition of the diversity of spiritual knowledge and goals that contribute to Hinduism being recognized as a tolerant and inclusive religion. It’s underlying philosophical understanding teaches that the inherent nature of reality is spiritual or conscious, and it is up to the individual to choose how to align his consciousness with that. An outward diversity emerges from an underlying dynamic harmony.