You should approach this article with skepticism.
As we have said, while beliefs are an important component of religion, they are not the most important part about being a Hindu. A Hindu can reject nearly all the usual teachings of Hinduism and still confidently call herself a Hindu if she belongs to a Hindu community and performs the normal behaviors.
So, what do Hindus believe?
Hindu beliefs can be extremely diverse. Since Hinduism was formed as an amalgamation of several belief systems and not from one common source, it is very hard to identify some universal beliefs that apply to most Hindus.
So, you should cautiously approach anyone who says, “This is what Hindus believe.”
Instead of trying to give a full systematic theology for Hinduism (which doesn’t exist), I’ve pulled out five things that most Hindus will incorporate into their belief systems, as well as how they talk and act.
Five things Most Hindus Would Agree With
1. There is authority in the Vedas
The Vedas are a set of ancient scriptures that focus on the proper way to perform certain rites. The oldest of them was written around 1000 BC. The Vedas are more concerned with behaviors and practices than outlining a belief system. So while there are similarities with the Quran, Torah, and Bible, they are not the same thing.
They hold an authoritative position in Hinduism because they are so ancient. Modern Hindus still ascribe a lot of value to something being “Vedic”. An extremely rough comparison is to the phrase “constitutional” for US Americans. Very few people have read or understood either the Vedas or the US Constitution, and many of the ideas are carried much farther than perhaps were originally intended. But both of them remain the standard for claiming authority and legitimacy in their respective cultures.
2. There is one God
This one might surprise you. You thought Hinduism was polytheistic, right?
It is true there are thousands (if not millions) of gods within Hinduism. But nearly every Hindu will claim that in the end, God is one. Hindus disagree on the name for that one God and what form he/she takes, but they will agree that God is the spiritual, all-powerful creator of the universe.
If you are speaking in an Indian language, you will hear a wide diversity of terms used for “God”. However, nearly all of them translate into English as “God”. Therefore, when you are discussing “God” with your Hindu friends in English, you may feel they sound very similar to how Christians use the same term or how Muslims talk about Allah, yet the differences might be profound.
One unique point within Hindu beliefs is the strong connection between atman and God. Atman is sometimes translated as “soul” or “true self”. Most Hindus believe there is a part of the universal “God” living in each soul.
3. The universe has some control over our lives
Across economic, educational, social, and regional sections of India, most Hindus believe in the power of the universe to control the events of our lives. This is most often expressed in a deep interest and respect for astrology.
Swami Dayanand Bharati says, “From birth to death nothing is more dominant among Hindus than astrology”. All major life events, business dealings, and even political campaigns are subject to astrological assessment. If a certain planet is in an “inauspicious” place, a contract will be delayed, a potential spouse will be rejected, or a caesarean section delivery will be preponed.
This belief in the power of the universe’s ability to interfere with life is one of the most practical beliefs of Hindus and affects someone’s daily life as much as any other belief.
4. The four aims of life are pleasure, prosperity, dharma, and liberation
The Sanskrit terminology is kama, artha, dharma, and moksha. I mention these here not because Hindus grow up repeating these four things, but because of how you see them reflected in their practical lives.
In theory, these four things make up a hierarchy. Pleasure is an aim of life and not condemned, but most would say there is something better. Prosperity is celebrated and desired at all levels of society. While renunciation is also a theme in Hinduism, seeking and obtaining material comforts has always been accepted as a valid aim in life.
Dharma and moksha are supposed to be more elevated aims and guide the first two. We’ve discussed the importance and centrality of dharma elsewhere, but it determines to what extent pleasure and prosperity are pursued. Moksha refers to being released from the cycles of rebirth. While most Hindus would agree with its importance, it is usually too abstract of a concept to affect day-to-day lives.
5. Bhakti is the way to God
Hinduism has presented several paths to reach God, but none has been so popular in the last few centuries as bhakti, best translated as “devotion”. Bhakti offers a path to liberation through showing complete devotion to one particular god. All worship and praise should be offered to that one god, and other gods are seen only as manifestations of the true god.
Usually there is a family god (kula devata) that people will worship, but individuals are also permitted to take on a personal god (ishta devata) as well.
Bhakti often involves special songs, functions, and meditative chants directed at that god.
There are other common beliefs beyond these five, such as renunciation, ahimsa, reincarnation, karma, and others. However, there is either some debate on how universal these beliefs are, or they simply do not make it into the consciousness of practical life very often in my opinion.
Looking at a Hindu’s beliefs is a great step towards building more understanding in living and working with them. These five beliefs are a part of the core of the worldview of most Hindus. If you start with these, you will be able to have a better foundation for a relationship with the Hindus in your life.
Image Credit: Prabhu Doss on Flickr