It is difficult to assign a dogmatic orthodoxy to Hinduism. Many variations have developed from Hinduism over the years, and many non-Hindu cults and religious movements gained their inspiration from Hinduism. Even in India today, the most orthodox divisions of Hinduism have changed significantly over the last three thousand years.
One of the oldest aspects of Hinduism is as much social as religious, and that is the caste system. It is important to understand the caste system before delving into Hindu religious beliefs. According to Hindu teaching, there are four basic castes, or social classes. Each caste has its own rules and obligation for living. The elite caste is the Brahman, or priest caste. Second are the Kshatriyas, or warriors and rulers. Third are the Vaisyas, or merchants and farmers. Finally, the fourth caste is the Shudras, or laborers. Outside the caste system are the untouchables. The untouchables are the outcasts of Hindu society. Though outlawed in India in the 1940s, the untouchables are still a very real part of Indian society. One does not get decide his or her caste – that matter is decided when one is born into a particular caste.
As previously stated, there is not a strict orthodoxy in Hinduism. There are however, several principles that share a commonality among the various sects. Virtually all Hindus believe in:
- The three-in-one god known as “Brahman,” which is composed of: Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the Preserver), and Shiva (the Destroyer).
- The Caste System.
- Karma. The law that good begets good, and bad begets bad. Every action, thought, or decision one makes has consequences – good or bad – that will return to each person in the present life, or in one yet to come.
- Reincarnation. Also known as “transmigration of souls,” or “samsara.” This is a journey on the “circle of life,” where each person experiences as series of physical births, deaths, and rebirths. With good karma, a person can be reborn into a higher caste, or even to godhood. Bad karma can relegate one to a lower caste, or even to life as an animal in their next life.
- Nirvana. This is the goal of the Hindu. Nirvana is the release of the soul from the seemingly endless cycle of rebirths.
At the same time, Hinduism teaches that all living things are Brahman in their core. In other words, all living things are Brahman, or god. Enlightenment is attained by becoming tuned in to the Brahman within. Only then can one reach Nirvana. The release from the wheel of life that allows access to Nirvana is known as “moksha.”
Hindus recognize three possible paths to moksha, or salvation. The first is the way of works or karma yoga. This is a very popular way of salvation and lays emphasis on the idea that liberation may be obtained by fulfilling one’s familial and social duties thereby overcoming the weight of bad karma one has accrued.
The second way of salvation is the way of knowledge, or jnana yoga. The basic premise of the way of knowledge is that the cause of our bondage to the cycle of rebirths in this world is ignorance. According to the predominant view among those committed to this way, our ignorance consists of the mistaken belief that we are individual selves, and not one with the ultimate divine reality – Brahman. It is this same ignorance that gives rise to our bad actions, which result in bad karma. Salvation is achieved through attaining a state of consciousness in which we realize our identity with Brahman. This is achieved through deep meditation, often as a part of the discipline of yoga.
The third way of salvation is the way of devotion, or bhakti yoga. This is the way most favored by the common people of India. It satisfies the longing for a more emotional and personal approach to religion. It involves the self-surrender to one of the many personal gods and goddesses of Hinduism. Such devotion is expressed through acts of worship, temple rituals, and pilgrimages. Some Hindus conceive of ultimate salvation as absorption into the one divine reality, with all loss of individual existence. Others conceive of it as heavenly existence in adoration of the personal God.