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Overview of Hinduism

Hinduism: a brief overview

Hinduism rests on the spiritual bedrock of the Vedas, hence Veda Dharma, and their mystic issue, the Upanishads, as well as the teachings of many great Hindu gurus through the ages. Many streams of thought flow from the six Vedic/Hindu schools, Bhakti sects and Tantra Agamic schools into the one ocean of Hinduism, the first of the Dharma religions. See Schools of Hinduism.

The great debate between followers among the major Hindu philosophical school, Vedanta, from followers of Advaita philosophy on one hand and the strict theistic schools such as those of Ramanuja and Madhva on the other, focused on the true nature of Brahman, on whether Brahman was essentially attributeless or with attributes, i.e., a personal Supreme Being.

The Eternal Way

"The Eternal Way", or the "Perennial Philosophy/Harmony/Faith", is the one name that has represented Hinduism for many thousands of years. According to Hindus, it speaks to the idea that certain spiritual principles hold eternally true, transcending man-made constructs, representing a pure science of consciousness. But this consciousness is not merely that of the body or mind and intellect, but of a supramental soul-state that exists within and beyond our existence, the unsullied Self of all. Religion to the Hindu is the native search for the divine within the Self, the search to find the One truth that in actuality never was lost. Truth sought with faith shall yield itself in blissful luminescence no matter the race or creed professed. Indeed, all existence, from vegetation and beasts to mankind, are subjects and objects of the eternal Dharma. This inherent faith, therefore, is also known as Arya/Noble Dharma, Veda/Knowledge Dharma, Yoga/Union Dharma, Hindu Dharma or, simply, the Dharma.

What can be said to be common to all Hindus is belief in Dharma, reincarnation, karma, and moksha (liberation) of every soul through a variety of moral, action-based, and meditative yogas. Still more fundamental principles include ahimsa (non-violence), the primacy of the Guru, the Divine Word of Aum and the power of mantras, love of Truth in many manifestations as Gods and Goddessess, and an understanding that the essential spark of the Divine (Atman/Brahman) is in every human and living being, thus allowing for many spiritual paths leading to the One Unitary Truth. An example of the pervasiveness of this paramount truth-seeking spirituality in daily life is the bindi (seen left), which is a common marker for Hindu women. It symbolizes the need to cultivate supramental consciousness, which is achieved by opening the mystic "third eye." Hindus across the board stress meditative insight, an intuition beyond the mind and body, a trait that is often associated with the ascetic god Shiva. Men, too, will bear on their foreheads the equivalent tilak mark, usually on religious occasions, its shape often representing particular devotion to a certain main deity: a 'U' shape stands for Vishnu, a group of three horizantal lines for Shiva. It is not uncommon for some to meld both in an amalgam marker signifying Hari-Hara (Vishnu-Shiva indissoluble).

Yoga Dharma

Hinduism is practiced through a variety of Yogas (spiritual practices), primarily bhakti (loving devotion), Karma Yoga (selfless service), Raja Yoga (meditational Yoga) and Jnana Yoga (Yoga of discrimination). These are described in the two principal texts of Hindu Yoga: The Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras. The Upanishads are also important as a philosophical foundation for this rational spiritualism.

The four goals of life

Another major aspect of Hindu dharma that is common to practically all Hindus is that of purushartha, the "four goals of life". They are kama, artha, dharma and moksha. It is said that all humans seek kama (pleasure, physical or emotional) and artha (power, fame and wealth), but soon, with maturity, learn to govern these legitimate desires within a higher, pragmatic framework of dharma, or moral harmony in all. Of course, the only goal that is truly infinite, whose attainment results in absolute happiness, is moksha, or liberation, (a.k.a. Mukti, Samadhi, Nirvana, etc.) from Samsara, the cycle of life, death, and existential duality.

The four stages of life

The human life is also seen as four Ashramas ("phases" or "stages"). They are Brahmacharya, Grihasthya, Vanaprastha and Sanyasa. The first quarter of one's life, brahmacharya (literally "grazing in Brahma") is spent in celibate, sober and pure contemplation of life's secrets under a Guru, building up body and mind for the responsibilities of life. Grihastya is the householder's stage, alternatively known as samsara, in which one marries and satisfies kama and artha within a married life and professional career. Vanaprastha is gradual detachment from the material world, ostensibly giving over duties to one's sons and daughters, spending more time in contemplation of the truth, and making holy pilgrimages. Finally, in sanyasa, the individual goes off into seclusion, often envisioned as the forest, to find God through Yogic meditation and peacefully shed the body for the next life.

Views of God

Within Sanatana Dharma, or Hinduism (as it is commonly called), a variety of lesser gods are seen as aspects of the one impersonal divine ground, Brahman (not Brahma). Brahman is the ultimate, both transcendent and immanent the absolute infinite existence, the sum total of all that ever is, was, or ever shall be. Brahman is not a God in the monotheistic sense, as it is not imbued with any limiting characteristics, not even those of being and non-being, and this is reflected in the fact that in Sanskrit, the word brahman is of neuter (as opposed to masculine or feminine) gender.

Vedanta is a branch of Hindu philosophy which gives this matter a greater focus. Yoga is the primary focus in many ways of a Hindu's religious activities, being somewhere between meditation, prayer and healthful exercise.

Some of Hinduism's adherents are monists, seeing in multiple manifestations of the one God or source of being, which is often confused by non-Hindus as being polytheism. It is seen as one unity, with the personal Gods differents aspects of only one Supreme Being, like a single beam of light separated into colours by a prism, and are valid to worship. Some of the Hindu aspects of God include Devi, Vishnu, Ganesh, and Siva. Hindus believe that God, in whatever form they prefer, (or as monists prefer to call, "Ishta Devata,", i.e., the preferred form of God) can grant worshippers grace to bring them closer to Moksha, end of the cycle of rebirth. The great Hindu saint, Ramakrishna, a monist, was a prominent advocate of this traditional Hindu view. He had experienced many other religions besides Hinduism, such as Christianity and Islam and came to the same conclusion as said by the Vedas, "Truth is one, the wise call by different names."

The Four Major Sects of Hinduism

Contemporary Hinduism is traditionally divided into four major divisions:
Saivism, Shaktism, Vaishnavism, and Smartism.

Hinduism is a very rich and complex religion. Each of its four sects shares rituals, beliefs, traditions and gods with one another, but each sect has a different philosophy on how to achieve life's ultimate goal (moksa, liberation) and on their views of the Gods. Each sect fundamentally believes in different methods of self-realization and in different aspects of the One Supreme God. However, each sect respects and accepts all others, and conflict of any kind is rare.

Some sects of Hinduism believe in a monotheistic ideal of Vishnu (often as Krishna), Siva, or Devi; this view does not exclude other gods, as they are understood to be aspects of the chosen ideal (e.g., to many devotees of Krishna, Shiva is seen as having sprung from Krishna's creative force). Often, the monad Brahman is seen as the one source, with all other gods emanating therefrom. Thus, with all Hindus, there is a strong belief in all paths being true religions that lead to one God or source, whatever one chooses to call the ultimate truth.


Also known as Saivism, Shaivism is a branch of Hinduism that worships Siva as the Supreme God. Followers of Saivism are called Saivites.

Saivism is a monotheistic faith. Saivites believe that there is only one God, who simultaneously permeates all creation and exists beyond it, being both immanent and transcendent. The concept is in contrast with many Semitic religious traditions, where God is seen as transcendent only. As all other Hindu denominations, Saivism acknowledges the existence of many lower Gods under the Supreme One. These Gods are encompassed by Him, seen as either as manifestations of the Supreme Being or as powerful entities who are permeated by Him, as is all Creation. This type of Monotheism is called Panentheism or Monistic Theism.

Saivism is a very deep, devotional and mystical sect of Hinduism. It is considered the oldest of the Hindu denominations, with a long lineage of sages and saints who have outlaid practices and paths aimed at self-realization and the ultimate goal of moksha, liberation. As a very broad religion, Saivism encompasses philosophical systems, devotional rituals, legends, mysticism and varied yogic practices. It has both monistic and dualistic traditions.

Saivites believe God transcends form, and devotees often worship Siva in the form of a lingam, symbolizing all universe. God Siva is also revered in Saivism as the anthropomorphic manifestation of Siva Nataraja.

Originated in India, Saivism has appeal all over India and is particularly strong in South India (especially, Tamil Nadu) and the island of Sri Lanka. Some traditions credit the spreading of Saivism into southern India by the great sage, Agastya, who is said to brought Vedic traditions as well as the Tamil language.

There can be found almost innumerable Saivite temples and shrines, with many shrines accompanied as well by murtis dedicated to Ganesa, Lord of the Ganas, followers of Siva, and son of Siva and Sakti.

Benares is considered the holiest city of all Hindus and Saivites. A very revered Saivite temple is the ancient Chidambaram, in South India.

One of the most famous hymns to Siva in the Vedas is Shri Rudram. The foremost Saivite Vedic Mantra is Aum Namah Sivaya.

Major theological schools of Saivism include Kashmir Shaivism, Saiva Siddhanta and Virasaivism.


Shaktism is a denomination of Hinduism that worships Shakti, the Divine Mother, in all of her forms whilst not rejecting the importance of masculine and neuter divinity.

Shaktism as we know it today developed between the 4th and the 7th centuries CE in India. It was during this development that the many religious texts, known as the Tantras, were written.

One may consider themselves a Shakta (a devotee of Shakti), a Shaiva (a devotee of Shiva), and a Vaishnava (a devotee of Vishnu) all at the same time.

This form of Hinduism, known as is strongly associated with Vedanta, Samkhya and Tantra Hindu philosophies and is ultimately monist, though there is a rich tradition of Bhakti yoga associated with it. The feminine energy (Shakti) is considered to be the motive force behind all action and existence in the phenomenal cosmos in Hinduism. The cosmos itself is Brahman, the concept of the unchanging, infinite, immanent and transcendent reality that is the Divine Ground of all being, the "world soul". Masculine potentiality is actualized by feminine dynamism, embodied in multitudinous goddesses who are ultimately reconciled in one.

The keystone text is the Devi Mahatmya which combines earlier Vedic theologies, emergent Upanishadic philosophies and developing tantric cultures in a laudatory exegesis of Shakti religion. Demons of ego, ignorance and desire bind the soul in maya (illusion) (also alternately ethereal or embodied) and it is Mother Maya, shakti, herself, who can free the bonded individual. The immanent Mother, Devi, is for this reason focused on with intensity, love, and self-dissolving concentration in an effort to focus the shakta (as a Shakti worshipper is sometimes known) on the true reality underlying time, space and causation, thus freeing one from karmic cyclism. A common hymn describing the 1000 names of Devi is the Lalitha sahasranama.


Vaishnavism is the branch of Hinduism in which Vishnu or one of his avatars (i.e., incarnations) is worshipped as the supreme God and is a monotheistic faith.

Major branches of Vaishnavism include Srivaishnavism, (espoused by Ramanuja) who advocated Vishishtadvaita, Dvaita (espoused by Shri Madhvacharya) and Gaudiya Vaishnavism (espoused by Shri Caitanya Mahaprabhu adhered by ISKCON).

The distinction between this branch and others is made by those who study religion. However it may not always be clear to practising Hindus who often take freely from the practices of the different branches. It is likely that a majority (75-80%) of today's Hindus would consider themselves Vaishnava, if pressed to make a distinction. Of the remainder, most would probably consider themselves Saivites.

Vishnu and Shiva are sometimes visualized as a single divinity named Harihara.


Smartism is a denomination of the religion of Hinduism and is closely affiliated with the Advaita tradition. Smartism is monist in theological belief.

Smartas (followers of Smartism) accept and worship all major forms of God, (Ganesha, Siva, Sakti, Vishnu, Surya and Skanda). Following a meditative, philosophical path, the denomination is generally considered to be liberal and non-sectarian.

In Smartism, devotees pray to whatever form of God a devotee prefers, (or as monists prefer to call, Ishta Devata, i.e., the preferred form of God) and ask for God's grace in order to achieve Moksha, end of the cycle of rebirth.

Notably, Shakti is worshipped to reach Shiva, whom for Shaktas is the impersonal Absolute. Additionally, Shaivites and Vaishnavites often regard Surya as an aspect of Shiva and Vishnu, respectively. For example, the sun is called Surya Narayana by Vaishnavites. In Saivite theology, the sun is said to be one of eight forms of Siva, the Astamurti. Additionally, Ganesh and Skanda for them, would be aspects of Shiva and Shakti. Hence, it appears to be the case that most Hindus worship Saguna Brahman as Vishnu or Shiva.

External Hinduism Links

Description of Smartism among the four major divisions of Hinduism

Facts about Hinduism that features a good overview of the four divisions of Hinduism and 9 core Hindu beliefs.

Oneness of God. See chapter 10 as well.

Oneness of God, through the six forms.)

Overview of the three major divisions
From the book, Hindu Dharma

Overview of the six schools

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