The goal of spiritual evolution is to break away from the repetitious birth-death cycle. This is to be achieved through right action and spiritual effort. Such liberation is known as moksha or nirvana.
The ethical and juridical component of Hinduism rests on the concept of dharma: it is sometimes defined as that which "holds in unity all the creatures of the world." Dharma is the ethical framework that keeps one at peace with oneself and with the world around. There are 10 components of dharma. Three are for the development of spiritual potential: temperance, purity of body and mind, and control over one's senses. Three are for intellectual life: adherence to reason, pursuit of knowledge, and commitment to truth. Three relate to our impact on others: forgiveness, being without anger, and not coveting what belongs to others. The 10th item is perseverance.
Some behavior and values must change with place and time. What might have been conducive for a stable society at one time could be inappropriate at another time. What is polite in one society, such as hugging as a form of greeting, could be unacceptable in another. We need to modify dharma with time and place to maintain harmony. This leads to the notion of yugadharma, i.e., the dharma of the age, or adyatanadharma (today's dharma). However, eternal values like caring, compassion, performance of prescribed duties, and respect for others are part of sanatanadharma: the invariable and unchanging elements of dharma.
THE EPIC FOUNDATIONS
Hindu civilization rests on two grand epics that are reckoned among the masterpieces of world literature. They are called the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Unsurpassed in length and in their influence on a dynamic civilization, they are part of Hindu sacred history. They are also treasure chests of classical Hindu values and worldviews. In addition to numerous fascinating and colorful episodes, these epics inculcate the principles of justice, obedience to elders, sacredness of promise, the perennial struggle between the righteous and the wrong, and the ultimate victory of truth. This last principle is expressed in an ancient Sanskrit maxim satyemva jayate (truth alone triumphs) dating back several millennia. It is taught to children at an early stage, for they are told that those who adhere to what is morally right will triumph sooner or later. This is modern India's motto.
Consider pools, ponds, and bottles of water everywhere in the world. Though located in different places in different containers, they all contain water as the oceans contain water. Likewise, in the Hindu view, Brahman, the substratum of the universe is like a spiritual ocean, and we are all like little bottles that contain a bit of that cosmic spirit. Every life in the world is a transitory manifestation of Brahman. Life is thus a conscious flicker that has the potential for realizing the link between this fleeting experience and the timeless, undifferentiated Brahman. Spiritual illumination involves the indescribable experience of the bond between the temporal and the eternal.
There is intrinsic respect in the Hindu world for anyone and any system that accepts the spiritual component of life and the world. According to the Hindu worldview, the Divine is not someone or something to be accepted simply because it is so stated in some holy books. Rather, the Divine is a nonmaterial dimension of the universe that is to be apprehended by direct effort and personal experience. Apprehension of this dimension is the goal of meditation, yoga, and other spiritual exercises.
The Caste System
Hinduism is as much a complex culture as an ancient religion. It has changed in many significant ways over the centuries, some of its features lingering much longer than others. One of these is known as varnashrama or institution of social categories.
Translated into English as the caste system, this is a hereditary profession-based classification of people into the priest class (Brahmins), administrating class (kshatriyas), mercantile class (vaishyas), laboring class (shudras), and those outside of this categorization (avarnas). In this matter Hindu society was not much different from similar stratification elsewhere in the world in premodern times. However, at some point this degenerated into a rigid system where endogamy (marriage of people belonging to the same group), class immobility (one cannot change one's caste), and noncommensality (one is not allowed to eat with people of a different caste) meant social inequality and marginalization of the lower classes. In spite of appeals from many sages and saints of the tradition, the caste system has persisted in the Hindu world for too many centuries. In recent years, with the rising of consciousness on human rights and equality, the system is beginning to break down, at least in urban centers. The constitution of modern India makes caste discrimination illegal.
Four Goals and Four Stages
Life is not mere existence; we do not live just to eat and drink every day, and eventually die. In the course of life we pass from stage to stage. In the Hindu framework, human life should be devoted to the attainment of four goals: righteous conduct (dharma), material resources (artha), enjoyment (kama), and spiritual realization (moksha). No one goal is more or less important than another. A life without attaining all these would be incomplete because it is believed that for the full experience of life one must have a moral framework (dharma), economic independence to furnish our practical needs (artha), have family and friends to enjoy relationships (kama), and also strive to attain spiritual fulfillment (moksha).