Hinduism is one of the most ancient religious systems of humankind. It does not have a historical beginning. Its origins are shrouded in the mists of antiquity. Scholars have connected it to the Indus civilization unearthed by archeology. Its founders were ancient sages, called rshis, who achieved enlightenment of spiritual truths, which they expressed in Sanskrit hymns known as the Vedas. Many Hindu insights and patterns of rituals are traced to these sacred texts of the tradition.
The doctrinal framework of Hinduism is in the Upanishads, which are elaborations and extrapolations of Vedic visions. Upanishadic rishis did not simply speculate about heaven, earth, and life. They penetrated into the core of human consciousness by spiritual exercises (dhyana). For them, spirituality is not a metaphysical system but a recognition to be achieved by pursuing the path of the aspirant. Vedic utterances and Upanishadic aphorisms are the nuggets of a perennial worldview called sanatana dharma: eternal code. Much of the metaphysical, moral, and spiritual framework of Hinduism is embodied in the Bhagavad Gita (Divine Song), which is regarded with reverence by many Hindus.
AFFILIATION AND MULTIPLE PATHS
Hinduism is a complex system of beliefs, ideals and practices. Affiliation does not result from proclamations of faith, but by birth. Hinduism does not recommend change of faith or conversion from one religion to another. It regards God and Truth as one, and leaves open the possibility that all people may call it by different names. The quest and effort to connect with the divine is what matters, not the paths and practices adopted for this. This insight that no approach can be considered best, implies an intrinsic respect for different religious modes. In this respect, Hinduism differs radically from religions whose goal is to convert others to their own visions of godhead and afterlife. Hindu doctrinal tolerance enables its practitioners to go into a mosque, church, or synagogue, and pray there in silence to their own vision of the divine principle.
A born Hindu may repudiate some doctrines but cannot be excommunicated. So there are atheist and agnostic Hindus as well as those who pray to personalized Gods and mystics who worship no god in temples. This unique feature of Hinduism stems from the principle that religious commitment should arise from the heart and that religious vision is an awakening.
THE HINDU PANTHEON
Divinity is conceived in the Hindu framework in complex metaphysical ways. The key idea here is one of a triple principle referred to as Trimurti (pronounced trimoorthi). The Trimurti is a Hindu concept that stands for birth, existence, and dissolution of the cosmic cycle in grand time spans called yugas. These universal principles have also been deified in the mythopoesy of the tradition as Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The elusive godhead is given form and substance here. In traditional Hinduism, the metaphysical attributes of Shiva and Vishnu gave rise to two major branches of Hinduism, known as the Shaiva and the Vaishnava sects. A third branch, known as the Shakta, is dedicated to the worship of Shakti or the Female Principle governing the cosmos.
There are also other representations of the divine in Hinduism that serve to concretize the abstract divinity. These representations include Ganesha (the elephantfaced deity) and Murugan: the chief of the Tamil deities; Sarasvati, Parvati, and Lakshmi-the goddesses associated with the Trimurti-and Rama and Krishna-incarnations of Vishnu, whose sagas are narrated in grand epics. Many in the Hindu fold also pay reverential homage to certain plants and animals. In Hinduism, the Divine is not only omnipresent and omnipotent, but also omnimorphic, i.e., taking on many forms. Hindu visions of God embody color and charm and have given rise to great art and poetry.
Esoteric meanings are associated with the forms and faces of the gods worshipped in Hindu temples, and there is symbolism in the genesis and doings of these gods. In the tales and epic allusions of the tradition we are reminded that Divinity transcends the constraints of space and time, of causality and conservation, even of ethical categories. In the vision of Hinduism, as narrated in its mythopoesy, gods may be good and bad, beautiful and ugly, merciful and cruel, majestically grand and dwarfishly small, handsome as a hero or plain as a tortoise. (A parallel worldview may be found in the lore of ancient Greece.) Hindu sages taught that compatibilities arise from narrow perspectives. In the cosmic grandeur they all dissolve. For example, the same vast sky can be pitch black at night and gloriously bright at noon. So it is with divinity.
Such were the inspirations behind the pantheon in the Hindu world. In our own times, physics teaches us that the same electron can be both particle and wave. These two seem to be contradictory but are, in fact, complementary. Similarly, the Hindu insight says that the world results not from contradictions but from complementarities. Our descriptions depend on our reference system. Life and Divinity are too complex to be reduced to a true or false answer.
Atman and Brahman
The Hindu view is that associated with every conscious being is an atman (pronounced aathman): the self. Atman infuses matter with life and consciousness. The atman experiences and preserves its own identity. Every atman is regarded as a spark from the Supreme Being known as Brahman. Brahman is the spiritual undercurrent of the universe. Embodied atman is often unaware that its separateness from Brahman is temporary and illusory. Hinduism says that one purpose of religion is to enable us to experience this cosmic connection. It says in an Upanishad: tat tvam asi-Thou art That.
Thus, the Hindu spiritual vision regards individual consciousness from a cosmic perspective. It recognizes our transience as separate entities, yet incorporates us into the infinity surrounding us. There could be other manifestations of Brahman elsewhere in the universe. Most importantly, in the Hindu view, there is a subtle spirit at the core of everything. From this perspective, the religious expressions of humanity are echoes of the Universal Spirit, just as volcanic outbursts remind us of submerged forces of far greater magnitude.
Samsara and Karma
Reincarnation and karma are two key concepts associated with Hinduism. According to the Hindu view, physical death is the disembodiment of the Atman, which then encases itself in another body. This is the idea of the cycle of birth and death. This cycle is called samsara (pronounced samsaara) or reincarnation. Each of us is experiencing but one incarnation (embodied existence) in a series through which every atman goes. A related doctrine is the law of karma. Karma is consequential action. The law states that our current experiences, good and bad, are the fruits of what we did before in a past incarnation and that our current actions will result in new experiences in this or in a future incarnation.