We’re all pretty familiar with Christianity and Islam, but Hinduism is a complex topic which a lot of us in the ‘West’ don’t understand very well. After being an admin on atheist pages for a little while now, I’ve run into a variety of people who identify as “Hindu” or former Hindus, as well as Hindu apologetics. I decided to learn more about Hinduism both for my own education and to have the ability to accurately address Hindu apologetics.
So I recently began trying to learn about Hinduism through books, videos, websites, and most importantly: speaking with Hindus and former Hindus. And at this point I wanted to present an introduction to some of the basic information about Hinduism that I have learned. This info is from my own learning so don’t take it as the end-all-be-all absolute fact. It’s my current understanding and it’s a jumping off point for anyone interested in learning more.
As a basic introduction to understanding Hinduism I’ve laid out a list of some things that I think are most important to having a general understanding of it:
Hinduism isn’t one religion
“Hindu” isn’t even an Indian word. It was a word given by foreign nations like the Persians and Greeks to the people living on the other side of the Indus River. Some “Hindus” do use the word Hindu though. However apparently the closest term for what we call Hinduism would be “Sanatana Dharma” which means sacred/eternal duties.
So Hinduism actually refers to a variety of different cultural beliefs and practices related to India and their sacred texts. Hindus in one part of India will have different beliefs from another part, although many will share some common beliefs like the truth of certain texts and belief in reincarnation.
They have a ton of sacred texts and none are authoritative for everyone
The number and length of all the Hindu texts combined is quite staggering. They are classified into different groups based on their origins such as the Vedas, Puranas, etc. But none of these can be considered comparable to the Bible or Quran since none of them are required to be held as absolute truth or divine for one to be a “Hindu”. This is because it is a collection of different views about everything, not a Abrahamic-style religion defined by devotion to a specific god and prophet’s word with subgroups of only that specific belief.
Hinduism is monotheistic
Hindus who do believe in literal gods usually believe in ONE god, while all other gods are just incarnations of that one deity (and apparently some of these incarnations have their own incarnations). Different Hindu belief systems espouse different views on which god is the supreme godhead. Most seem to believe the supreme god is nameless and unknowable (referred to as Brahman which is different from Brahma, the creator avatar) and has many avatars including Vishhnu, etc; while some believe Vishnu is the supreme god, others believe Krishna is the supreme god while others say he is just an avatar of Vishnu, others believe Shiva is supreme, and others believe that Durga is the supreme goddess whose avatar is Kali, etc.
The usual goal in Hinduism is to attain “moksha”
Not all Hindu traditions are the same but there are some widespread beliefs seemingly held by the majority. One of them is the continuous flow of “samsara” (reincarnation) and “moksha”. According to such beliefs, when a person dies their soul is reincarnated in another living thing (a less desirable form for those with ‘bad karma’). This continues forever until the person achieves moksha. This is when a person is enlightened by the realization that they are also part of the supreme deity and that so is everyone else. This results in the person rejoining with the supreme god and thus being liberated from the cycle of rebirth. This liberation is called “moksha”.
A cyclic universe
This is something I’m trying to understand better since Hindu creation ideas are not as straightforward and simple as the Abrahamic idea. The Hindu texts describe a single universe being created as an explosion by Brahma, the creator avatar, and existing for just over 4 billion years. Then it is destroyed and Brahma rests for the same period of time (4 billion years). Then he repeats this process over and over. This continues for 311 trillion human years, after which Brahma dies and there is no universe. Then after another 311 trillion years, Brahma is reborn and the cycle continues.
There is a lot more detail in Hindu cosmology including what comes before Brahma, the roles of other gods/avatars, and sub-cycles within each creation, and so on. But this gives a simple introduction.
The ‘Om’ symbol
‘Om’ (also written ‘Aum’) is the symbol of the “energy” of the supreme God that flows through all existence and of which everything is part. As a result it is a sacred symbol and represents God and the power of creation, and it is used as the symbol for Hinduism in the way that the Star of David symbolizes Judaism.
The word ‘Om’ itself is sacred and it is believed to be the sound that was spoken which brought the universe into existence. It is also considered by some Hindus to be able to bring spiritual knowledge because the vibrations that resonate within you from reciting that sound in meditation connects you with God, the “supreme reality” underlying everything.
Some Hindu sects are atheistic
Some sects were agnostic, or believed in magical spirits and reincarnation but no creator. Because of the way most self-identified Hindus define “Hinduism” under a broad cultural umbrella, they consider Buddhism and Jainism to be part of Hindu tradition, despite there being some pretty fundamental points of difference between them on matters such as gods, social classes, enlightenment, and treatment of animals. One Hindu sect (Carvaka) was even completely atheistic, denied the divinity of the scriptures, rejected the existence of a ‘soul’ and reincarnation, etc. Yet they are still considered Hindu. This should give some perspective on what Hinduism is and how the term is only useful when used very generally.
One of the best and most often cited examples of agnosticism in Hindu religious texts is from the Rig-Veda text, and was quoted by Carl Sagan in Cosmos:
“Who knows for certain, who shall here declare it?
Whence was it born? Whence came creation?
The gods are later than this world.
Who then, can know whence it first came into being?
He, the first of this creation, whether he has made it all or has made it not, who surveys it from the highest skies, surely he knows, or perhaps he knows not.”
You would never see that in Abrahamic religion.
This covers some of the interesting basics of Hinduism. I hope you found it informative, but again, I am still learning so remember this post might contain some mistakes (although I have tried to give no more detail than I currently feel I understand). I will revise and update this post as I learn more or need to correct any errors.