The most widely worshipped Hindu gods are Vishnu, the Preserver; Shiva, the Destroyer; and Shakti, the female divine, who is believed to be ruthless against evil. Each can take many forms, human or animal, to represent the various aspects of Brahman with which he or she is associated.
Over many hundreds of years, Hindu teachings were recorded in the sacred texts of the Vedas. The Upanishads (oo PAN ih shadz) are a section of the Vedas that address mystical questions related to Hinduism. These sacred texts use vivid images to examine complex ideas about the human soul and the connectedness of all life. In addition, literary works such as the Bhagavad-Gita were also revered for their representations of Hindu beliefs.
To Hindus, every person has an essential self, or atman (AHT mah). Some view it as being the same as Brahman, and others as being of the same nature as Brahman, but still different from Brahman. The ultimate goal of existence, Hindus believe, is achieving moksha (MOHK shuh), or union with Brahman.
To do that, many Hindus believe they must love and serve God unconditionally while others believe they must free themselves from selfish desires that separate them from Brahman. Most people cannot achieve moksha in one lifetime, but Hindus believe in reincarnation, or the rebirth of the soul in another bodily form. Reincarnation allows people to continue working toward moksha through several lifetimes.
A statue of the wheel of dharma, a Hindu symbol of life, death, and rebirth. In Hinduism, how does one escape the wheel of fate?
In each existence, Hindus believe, a person can come closer to achieving moksha by obeying the law of karma. Karma refers to both action and result. Thus, someone's good and moral actions leads to good results either in this lifetime or the next. A life filled with misdeeds will lead to hardship and suffering in either this life or the next.
Hindus believe that all existence is within Brahman. Thus animals, plants, and objects like rocks or water are treated with great respect and even venerated.
To Hindus, all of existence is ranked by levels of consciousness—the higher one's consciousness, the greater the chance of understanding one's relationship to Brahman and the ultimate goal in life, moksha.
People who live virtuously earn good karma and are reborn with a higher level of consciousness. Those who do evil acquire bad karma and are reborn into a lower level of consciousness and a life of suffering. In Indian art, this cycle of death and rebirth is symbolized by the image of the wheel.
To escape the cycle of birth and rebirth, Hinduism stresses the importance of dharma (DAHR muh), the religious and moral duties of an individual. These duties include concepts such as truthfulness, and living in moderation. Dharma may also vary according to one's role in society, gender, and age.
Another key moral principle of Hinduism is ahimsa (uh HIM sah), or nonviolence. To Hindus, all people and things are aspects of Brahman and therefore deserve to be respected. Many Hindus try to follow the path of ahimsa.
About 500 B.C., the teacher Mahavira (mah hah VEE ruh) founded the Jain community, Jainism (JY niz um), a religion that began in eastern India, is still practiced today.
Mahavira rejected the idea that Brahmin priests alone could perform certain sacred rites. Jain teachings emphasize meditation, self-denial, and an extreme form of ahimsa. To avoid accidentally killing a living thing, even an insect, Jain monks carry brooms to sweep the ground in front of their feet. Jains often put the value of ahimsa into practice in different ways, including through vegetarianism—as many Hindus do.
How do the Hindu gods relate to the concept of Brahman?