A Guide to Hinduism for Beginners

Shiva Statue
Om, the sacred symbol of Hinduism, is pictured on the palm of a Shiva statue. Kelli Klymenko / Getty Images

Hinduism is the world's oldest extant religion with more than a billion followers, making it the world's third largest religion. Hinduism is a conglomeration of religious, philosophical, and cultural ideals and practices that originated in India thousands of years before the birth of Christ. It remains the dominant faith practiced in India and Nepal today.​

What is Hinduism?

Unlike other religions, Hindus view their faith as an all-encompassing way of life with a complex system of beliefs, traditions, an advanced system of ethics, meaningful rituals, philosophy, and theology.

Hinduism is characterized by the belief in reincarnation, called Samsara; one absolute being with multiple manifestations and related deities; the law of cause and effect, called Karma; a call to follow the path of righteousness by engaging in spiritual practices (yogas) and prayers (bhakti); and the desire for liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth. 

Origins

Unlike Islam or Christianity, Hinduism's origins cannot be traced to any one individual. The earliest of the Hindu scriptures, the Rig Veda, was composed well before 6,500 B.C., and the roots of the faith can be traced as far back as 10,000 B.C. The word "Hinduism" is not to be found anywhere in the scriptures, and the term "Hindu" was introduced by foreigners who referred to people living across the River Indus or Sindhu, in the north of India, around which the Vedic religion is believed to have originated. 

Basic Tenets

At its core, Hinduism teaches four Purusarthas, or goals of human life:

Of these beliefs, Dharma is most important in day-to-day life because it is what will lead to Moksha and the end. If Dharma is neglected in favor of the more material pursuits of Artha and Kama, then life will become chaotic and Moksha cannot be attained.

Key Scriptures

The basic scriptures of Hinduism, which are collectively referred to as Shastrasm are essentially a collection of spiritual laws discovered by different saints and sages at different points in its long history. The two types of sacred writings comprise the Hindu scriptures: Shruti (heard) and Smriti (memorized). They were passed on from generation to generation orally for centuries before they were written down, mostly in the Sanskrit language. The major and most popular Hindu texts include the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata

Major Deities

Hinduism believes that there is only one supreme Absolute, called Brahman. However, it does not advocate the worship of any one particular deity. The gods and goddesses of Hinduism number in the thousands or even millions, all representing the many aspects of Brahman. Therefore, this faith is characterized by the multiplicity of deities. The most fundamental of Hindu deities is the Holy Trinity of Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer). Hindus also worship spirits, trees, animals, and planets. 

Hindu Festivals

The Hindu calendar is lunisolar, based on the cycles of the sun and moon.

Like the Gregorian calendar, there are 12 months in the Hindu year, and there are a number of festivals and holidays associated with the faith throughout the year. Many of these holy days celebrate the many Hindu deities, such as Maha Shivaratri, which honors Shiva and the triumph of wisdom over ignorance. Other festivals celebrate aspects of life that are important to Hindus such as family bonds. One of the most auspicious events is Raksha Bandhan when brothers and sisters celebrate their relationship as siblings.

Practicing Hinduism

Unlike other religions like Christianity, which have elaborate rituals for joining the faith, Hinduism does not have any such prerequisites. Being a Hindu means practicing the tenets of the religion, following the Purusarthas and conducting one's life in accordance with the faith's philosophies through compassion, honesty, prayer, and self-restraint.