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Idol of Ganesha, the Lord of Good Fortune.
A millennium before Europeans were willing to divest themselves of the Biblical idea that the world was a few thousand years old, the Mayans were thinking of millions and the Hindus billions.
Carl Sagan[1]
Hindu polytheism isn't really polytheism but monotheism in disguise.
Richard Dawkins.[2]
Thank my various Gods!
Icon om.svg

Hinduism (not to be confused with Hindutva) is one of the world's most prolific religions, and the largest religion on the sub-subcontinent, followed by Islam. Some Hindus refer to the religion as Sanātana Dharma, "the eternal way," as a means of regarding it as beyond human history.[3] Hinduism consists of many diverse traditions; it has no single founder. It is regarded as the world's oldest extant religion.[4] It is split into sects and schools. The three major sects are Shaivism, Shaktism and Vaishnavism. These three major sects focus on a single god: Shiva, Shakti, and Vishnu, respectively. Usually, the Adevanta Tradition, which focuses on anecdotes and reverence towards all major deities, is discussed in relation to Hinduism as a religion.[5]

What can make Hinduism difficult to conceptualize for Westerners is the fact that it isn't clearly monotheistic or polytheistic. There is a massive pantheon of Hindu gods and reams of text to mythologize them, but Hindus also believe in a single Supreme Reality, or the One, called Brahman.[6] They consider Brahman to essentially be the universe, and they worship a variety of gods as different aspects of Brahman.[6] Hindus use polytheism as a means of honoring the diverse manifestations of their one true God.[7] They also honor idols and perform rituals because they believe that a physical representation of the god in question helps them focus on their worship.[8]

Of course, this is all just a generalization, and it certainly doesn't apply to all of the very diverse schools of Hinduism. If all of this seems very confusing to you, you're not alone. Hinduism is very poorly understood in the West.[9][8]

Defining Hinduism[edit]

A Hindu monk, called a Sadhu.

Hinduism, like many Eastern spiritual schools of thought, does not fit into the Western concept of religion. Hinduism is not characterized by rigid beliefs in the same way that Christianity and Islam are. In fact, Hinduism does "not have a unified belief encoded in the declaration of faith or a creed".[10] It is an umbrella term denoting the plurality of spiritual phenomena based on Vedic traditions. There are many Hindus who revere the sacred literary works including the Vedas, Bhavagad-Gita and Upanishads. Yet, there are many Hindus unfamiliar with those works. The majority of Hindus subscribe to a belief in God responsible for the creation, substenance and destruction of the universe and manifested in various gods and goddesses. However, there are atheistic heterodox Hindu schools of thought as well; like the fatalist ĀjīvikaWikipedia who rejected Karma as a fallacy and postulated a metaphysics of atoms, as well as the allegedly hedonistic CārvākaWikipedia. Like the lost writings of the Greek philosophers DiogenesWikipedia or LeucippusWikipedia, these atheist philosophies are remembered mostly by the records of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist critics.

Some academics suggest that Hinduism can be seen as a category with "fuzzy edges", rather than as a well-defined and rigid entity. Some forms of religious expression are central to Hinduism, while others are not as central but still remain within the category.[11] Vedism of Hinduism is believed to have been partly derived from the Proto-Indo-European religions.[12]

Hinduism as a concept came into existence in the 19th century. According to Pankaj Mishra, a contributor to the New York Review of Books, "the British invented the holdall category in the early nineteenth century, and made India seem the home of a 'world religion' as organised and theologically coherent as Christianity and Islam". However, as mentioned in the first paragraph, Eastern religions were not categorized according to rigid definitions the way Western/Mid-east religions are. The word "Hindu" was derived from the Sanskrit word "Sindhu", and was first used by the Persians to refer to people living beyond the Indus River, regardless of spiritual beliefs.[13]

Although there are many schools of thought within Hinduism, there are a number of prominent concepts common to most of them.



Brahman is the name given to the Hindu concept of supreme existence or absolute reality.[14] This is one of the aspects of Hinduism that those familiar with Western religions might find it difficult to understand. Brahman, like the Abrahamic God, is all-knowing and omnipotent. Unlike god, Brahman doesn't give a shit about you as an individual. Instead, Brahman is an all-pervasive universal consciousness that is eternal and unchanging.[15]


Atman refers to a person's individuality, or perhaps their soul.[16] There are, generally speaking, two views on the concept of atman, and these views also help distinguish Hinduism from Western religions. Some Hindus believe that the atman is simply a part of Brahman, and that the atman itself is an illusion.[17] Other Hindus consider the atman as being joined to the separate and superior Brahman.[17] Either way, Hinduism is distinct from the more individualistic Western religions.

Samsara and Karma[edit]

Sanskrit text from the Rigveda, a significant text of Hinduism.

Samsara is the word Hindus use to refer to what they perceive as an eternal cycle of life and death.[18] Samsara is also tied to the concept of karma; Hindus believe that all humans accrue karma based on whether they do good things or bad things.[19] One's karma influences when, where, and how they reincarnate.

There is also a form of afterlife in this system, with three paths. The primary two of them are for good souls that have not achieved moksha and for souls that committed evil acts. Those who have achieved moksha ascend to be one with Brahman. Good souls are brought by their good karma into a so-called "ancestral world" where they stay until their good karma burns away and they reincarnate.[20] Evil souls fall into a subterranean hell where they suffer until their bad karma burns away and they are reincarnated as an insect or some kind of low life form.[20]


The primary goal of Hinduism is to escape from the endless cycle of reincarnation. This liberation is called moksha, and it is only achieved by self-realization. For non-dualists, moksha is the realization that one's atman is simply a part of Brahman.[21] For dualists, moksha is the result of achieving a loving union with Brahman, which is often considered to be manifested as one of the Hindu gods.[21] Either way, moksha means detaching oneself from the material world and becoming one with Brahman.[22]


See the main article on this topic: Sanskrit

Sanskrit is one of the oldest known languages in the world, and it is the oldest known Indo-European language.[23] Hindus consider Sanskrit to be the language of the gods, and all of their holy texts are written in this language.[24] Certain phrases or sounds in Sanskrit are called mantras, and many Hindus believe that chanting these mantras can have psychic or spiritual effects.[25] The greatest of all these mantras is the syllable om or aum, which is thought to embody the essence of the universe.[26]

Concept(s) of God(s)[edit]

Large statue of Shiva in India.

There are atheistic and theistic schools of thought within Hinduism. The Rig Veda (10.129.7), the oldest sacred literary work, takes an agnostic view of creation by saying:

Who really knows?
Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation?
The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?

For many Hindus, Brahman is a Supreme Being possessing a personality, worshiped in the forms of Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva, or Shakti. The Supreme Being is worshiped as the Trimurti, consisting of the Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver) and Shiva (destroyer).[27] These forms of the Supreme Being represent the phases of the universe: Creation, Preservation and Destruction.

A prominent aspect of Hindu Theism is the prevalence of devas and avatars. The devas are the manifestations of the Supreme Being, usually personifying a certain ideal for the worshiper. For example, Saraswathi is a devi (goddess) representing the ideal of wisdom. Avatars are the incarnations of the Supreme Beings on Earth. According to Hindus, there are ten avatars of Vishnu, including Krishna and Rama.

Significant deities in Hinduism[edit]


Brahma, not to be confused with Brahman, is the Hindu Creator God. Despite this, Brahma is no longer very important to modern Hinduism. He never featured in very many Hindu myths due to his elevated status and abstract nature.[28] His primary importance came from his daughter/wife Sarasvati, who created the four holy books of Hinduism, the Vedas.[28]

No sect focuses on the worship of Brahma, and few temples are dedicated to him.[29] He does, however, often appear alongside other members of the Big Three.



Vishnu is perhaps the most important of the Hindu Big Three, and Brahma is often considered to have been born out of a lotus flower in Vishnu's belly button.[30] If that seems weird to you, then look at some Greek mythology. Vishnu had three wives: Lakshmi (goddess of good fortune), Sarawati (goddess of wisdom) and Ganga (the personification of the River Ganges).

Hindus see Vishnu as the preserver of the universal order. To this end, Vishnu is essentially an amalgamation of many ancient Indian heroes. In Hindu myths, whenever the world is approaching doom, Vishnu takes a mortal disguise called an avatar and sets things right.[31] Some of these avatars were not overtly benevolent; Parashurama and Krishna caused a lot of innocent people to die, and Buddha is believed to have swayed the weak-willed away from Hinduism and into Buddhism.[31] In this way, Vishnu is very similar to Jesus.[32] It is prophesied that Vishnu's tenth avatar Kalki will arrive to end this cycle of ages. One Vedic scholar wrote a book in 1960 hypothesizing that Prophet Muhammad was actually the Kakli Avatar.[33]


Shiva is a morally complex god, as he can serve as a protector but also leads the forces of evil.[34] Shiva is the husband of Parvati and the father of Ganesha. His primary role is that of the destroyer. Hindus believe that the universe has a cycle and that Shiva destroys the universe at the end of the cycle.[34] This allows for a new creation and for the cycle to begin again.


Ganesha is not one of the Big Three, and yet he is one of the most iconic and widely-worshiped gods in the Hindu pantheon. He is worshiped before significant undertakings, and he's the patron of bankers, authors, and intellectuals.[35] Hindus honor him with a ten-day festival in fall called Ganesh Chaturthi.[36]

Unlike the other gods, Ganesha notably has an elephant head. Naturally, Hindus have a myth to explain why. Parvati, the wife of Shiva, decided she wanted a son, and she went behind her husband's back to create Ganesha by molding dirt.[37] Shiva came back and was outraged to find a strange boy in his wife's house, and he beheaded Ganesha. After realizing that he had essentially murdered his own son, Shiva brought Ganesha back to life by replacing his lost head with that of an elephant.[37]


Holy shit, Kali.

Shiva's wife, Parvati, is the goddess of womanhood. Since that's a broad area of influence, Parvati takes on different forms whenever needed. Probably her most famous form is Kali, the goddess of sexuality, violence, and motherly love.[38] The name Kali appropriately comes from the Sanskrit phrase "she who is death." Parvati can also take the form of Durga, the goddess of war and protection who rides on a freakin' tiger.[39] Many stories say that Kali was created when Durga got way too pissed off during battle with a demon named Raktabija. Other well-known forms Parvati takes include Kamakshi, a love goddess, and Annapurna, the goddess of abundance.

Caste Systems, Holy Cows and other misconceptions[edit]

A happy cow with a happy holy man.

The caste rules currently practiced today were proposed during British colonial rule, and some of them were inspired by the scripture Manusmṛti which was written 2000 years ago,[40] although Hinduism has been around for much longer. The caste rules not only apply to Hindus but they are observed by Christians as well. In fact, Dalit Christians are forced to worship in different churches from non-Dalit Christians, and Dalit Christian clergymen face discrimination from their upper-caste counterparts.[41] Therefore, the caste system, although promoted by the Brahmins for many centuries, is prominently a socioeconomic system.

Cows are not worshipped by Hindus. However, they are held in high esteem. The reason has to do with the cow's agricultural uses. Hindus relied heavily on it for dairy products and for tilling the fields, and on cow dung as a source of fuel and fertilizer. Thus, the cow’s status as a 'caretaker' led to identifying it as an almost maternal figure. In fact, one goddess is usually shown as a cow: Bhoomi (भूमि). She represents the Earth. Somewhat ironically, Terence Mckenna, Occam's Razor notwithstanding, claimed that religious reverence for the cow is a result of early humankind's association of psilocybin mushroom with it, this association having developed as a result of the discovery of said mushrooms in the animal's excrement.[42]


Sati is an obsolete tradition in which a widow would climb on to her husband's funeral pyre and immolate herself. Sometimes a widow could be forced onto the pyre by relatives and sometimes a woman would self-immolate before the death of husband if the city was conquered by the enemy.[43] Sati started out in its destructive form during the Muslim invasions that ushered in the Mughal and Slave Dynasty period as widows were considered a bad omen and sati also assured that widows would not convert to Islam to remarry Muslims.[44]


  1. Sagan's Cosmos, p. 213-214
  2. Hinduism. Wikiquote.
  3. Knott, Kim (1998), Hinduism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780191606458 p. 5
  4. Jeaneane D. Fowler (1997), Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices, Sussex Academic Press
  5. See the Wikipedia article on Hinduism.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Hindu Gods & Goddesses. Religion Facts.
  7. Hinduism and the Belief in one God. Hindu Website.
  8. 8.0 8.1 9 myths about Hinduism — debunked. CNN.
  9. Hinduism Poorly Understood in America, Survey Shows. Harvard University: Pluralism Project.
  10. Flood 2001
  11. Koller, J. M. (1984), "JSTOR: Philosophy East and West, Vol. 34, No. 2 (April, 1984 ), pp. 234-236", Philosophy East and West ( 34 (2): 234–236,
  12. See the Wikipedia article on Historical Vedic religion.
  13. Pankaj Mishra. "The invention of the Hindu".
  14. Brahman. Britannica.
  15. Brahman. Georgetown University.
  16. Atman. Britannica.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Atman. Georgetown University.
  18. Samsara (Hinduism). Georgetown University.
  19. How Reincarnation Works. How Stuff Works.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Concept of Death, Hell and Afterlife in Hinduism.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Moksha. Georgetown University.
  22. See Theistic Explanations of Karma, pg. 146 of Causation and Divine Intervention by BR Reichenbach, citing Uddyotakara, Nyaayavaarttika, IV, 1, 21.
  23. See the Wikipedia article on Sanskrit.
  24. Sanskrit. Ancient History Encyclopedia.
  25. Mantra. Britannica.
  26. Om. Britannica.
  27. Trimurti. Britannica.
  28. 28.0 28.1 Brahma. Ancient History Encyclopedia.
  29. Brahma. Britannica.
  30. Vishnu. Ancient History Encyclopedia.
  31. 31.0 31.1 Vishnu. Britannica.
  32. Jesus in Hinduism. BBC.
  34. 34.0 34.1 Shiva. Ancient History Encyclopedia.
  35. Ganesha. Britannica.
  36. Ganesh Chaturthi. Britannica.
  37. 37.0 37.1 Ganesha. Ancient History Encyclopedia.
  38. Kali. Ancient History Encylopedia.
  39. Meet Parvati, the Hindu Goddess of Love, Power, and Renewal. Vice.
  40. The Logic of Affirmative Action: Caste, Class and Quotas in India
  41. Struggle for Justice to Dalit Christians by Brojendra Nath Banerjee. New Age International, p. 42. ISBN 8122410820.
  42. McKenna, Terence (1992). Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge. Bantam Books. pp. 100-116.
  43. Forsaken Females: The Global Brutalization of Women by Andrea Parrot & Nina Cummings p. 163
  44. The Danger of Gender: Caste, Class and Gender in Contemporary Indian Women's Writing, (2003), Clara Nubile, p. 9