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
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.