Center for Faith and Vocation


Religious History/Beliefs

Hindu Main

The earliest of Hindu texts are The Vedas, which were composed around 1500 B.C.E. There are four main collections of Vedic literature: the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda, and the Atharva Veda. The Vedas contain, among other things, liturgical material and stories of creation.

The Upanishads, a second kind of Hindu literature, were written beginning around 500 B.C.E. The Upanishads speculate about the nature of existence, cosmic beginnings, and what (if anything) animates and directs the universe. The Upanishads are diverse and Hindus themselves argue over their meaning. But the basic worldview of the Upanishads is that humans are stuck in an endless round of births and deaths-what westerners often call reincarnation, but what Hindus themselves call samsara. Beings are propelled from one life to another by karma, that is the fruit of their previous actions (in this life and previous lives). It is the nature of one's karma (good or bad) that determines the pleasant or unpleasant state into which one will be reborn in the next life. Ultimately, the goal is to achieve liberation (moksha, or mukti) from samsara, to get off the round of rebirths. One does this, according to the most popular of the Upanishadic views, by seeing through this world of distinctions, which is ultimately illusory (maya) to a state without distinction, where one's individual self (atman) is non-distinct from the fundamental ground of being, which is called Brahman. In order to reach this goal, there are three main paths: karma yoga, or the path of action, jnana yoga or the path of spiritual knowledge, and bhakti yoga, or the path of devotion to a particular god or goddess as a manifestation of this Brahman.

The Epics are another very important genre of literature to Hindus. The Epics comprise two long poems, The Mahabharata and The Ramayana, both of which narrate the exploits of legendary princely heroes and their associates. The Bhagavad-Gita, arguably the most popular of Hindu texts, is a small section of The Mahabharata. The Bhagavad-Gita tells the story of Prince Arjuna, one of the heroes of The Mahabharata, who hesitates on the brink of a justifiable battle because he sees beloved kinsmen and respected teachers in the opposing army, and wishes not to kill them. His charioteer, Krishna, who later reveals himself to be divine, persuades Arjuna that he must fight because it is his cosmic duty (dharma) as a member of a warrior (kshatriya) caste, to fight for his kingdom. Krishna also teaches him that the atman can neither kill nor be killed. Arjuna should therefore fight and thereby perform his duty without attention to the consequences.

Hindus today generally speak of belief in one divine being who takes many different forms. The most popular of these forms are the gods Shiva and Vishnu and the goddess Devi. Shiva, Vishnu, and Devi all manifest themselves in a variety of forms, and are called by many different names.

Sources: Molloy, Michael. Experiencing The World Religions. McGraw-Hill. New York: 2008.

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