Hinduism is one of the oldest religions in the world, originating in the Indus Valley (currently Pakistan) over 3000 years ago. It is the third largest religion in the world after Christianity and Islam with around 950 million followers (according to religioustolerance.org). There are around 1 million Hindus in the United States, and India has the most.
Hindu society tends to follow a caste system, though it was officially outlawed in India in 1949. The caste system still has an effect on society due to beliefs about reincarnation. Briefly, the castes are Brahmin (priests), Kshatriyas (soldiers/nobility), Vaishyas (merchant), Sudras (laborers), and the Untouchables (called Harijans by Ghandi). Being in a higher caste is a sign of blessing.
Hindus believe in Brahman, the ultimate reality, who contains everything and is in everything. Because of this, they see all creation as gods and able to be deified. They are accepting of all religions because they believe all paths lead to God.
Hinduism has five major texts related to the religion.
1) The Vedas – four books of knowledge, chants, and collected hymns
2) The Upanishads – works that lay out the theological basis of Brahman and reality
3) Ramayana – one of the epics about one incarnation of Vishnu and ideal relationships
4) Mahabharata – other great epic that includes the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most popular stores
5) Puranas – the myth, lore, and legends about the gods
Brahman is the ultimate reality, but is separated into three different gods. Brahma is the creator, Vishnu is the preserver, and Shiva is the destroyer. Two other major gods are Krishna and Rama, both incarnations of Vishnu. However, because all of creation has the potential to be deified, Hinduism can have 330 million gods in its pantheon.
Samsara is the cycle of reincarnation. Hindus believe that after death you are reborn into someone or something else depending on your actions in life. If your life is categorized by selflessness and devotion, you enter a higher caste. If, however, you lived a life of wrongdoing, you would be reborn into a lower caste.
Life is about reaching a state of oneness with Brahman. Hinduism states that what we see as everyday life is an illusion. Once you accept that fact, you are detached from your self and are released from the cycle of reincarnation. There are three ways you can overcome attachment to your self.
1) Way of Knowledge – reach a higher consciousness through meditation, yoga, and studying or writing about philosophies
2) Way of Works – a common method involving taking part in social and religious obligations
3) Way of Devotion – offering prayers, sacrifices, and rituals to worship the gods
Further notes on Hinduism
Hindus accept Jesus as an incarnation of one of their many gods, but not as a unique or one and only God.
There is no belief in heaven or hell and no concept of sin. Suffering is in the world because people act on selfish desires. The ultimate goal is reaching oneness with Brahma, which has been compared to becoming a drop in the ocean. The only punishment offered is continual reincarnation into undesirable situations.
Karma to Grace may be a useful resource.