The faith of many religions is centred on a god or gods. Hindus believe in One God who takes many names and forms, for cultures are different, society is different, and the mind is shaped by culture and society. Thus do Hindus believe that different names and forms of the One reality to suit different society, cultures and nations.
The existence of God
There are three positions people can take on the question of the existence of God:
- Theist – someone who believes that God exists. Theists do not necessarily believe they can prove God’s existence. Sikhs are theists.
- Agnostic – someone who holds the view that it is impossible to know the truth about some things, such as God’s existence or the afterlife.
- Atheist – someone who holds the view that there is no God. Atheists do not necessarily believe they can prove atheism to be true.
There are many different kinds of truth:
- historical truth – truth based on evidence from documents or archaeology
- artistic truth – something which people read, see or hear which appears true through how things are or how people behave
- moral truth – people ‘know’ what is right or wrong without evidence to prove it
- scientific truth – established by experiments that can be repeated and always produce the same result
- absolute and relative truth – people may believe that some things are always true while others things may vary according to situation or circumstance
- religious truth – people follow a religion and so discover the ‘truth’ which comes from God and/or a sacred text
- Hinduism teaches that the universe rests on truth, meaning truth is the basis of the eternal order of the universe.
The nature of God
Many Hindus believe in Brahman as the ultimate reality – one ‘Supreme Spirit’ in many forms. Brahman is male, female and even animal.
Brahman is also commonly understood as the Trimurti – three gods with three key functions:
- Brahma – the source of all creation.
- Vishnu – responsible for keeping all good things on Earth and bringing harmony when needed.
- Shiva – assists in the creation of new things – some things have to end for others to begin.
Another way of looking at this might take the acronym, GOD: Generator, Organiser, Destructor:
- Generator: maker of all creation.
- Organiser – sustains life forms and maintains the integrity of all forms of created life.
- Destructor – the receiver of all things at the end of their time.
However many Hindus believe in Vishnu or Shiva as the one Supreme Deity.
The Soul is called Atman (or Atma). This is resident in all that exists. The atman of each of us also holds a ‘spark’ of Brahman.
The traditional Hindu greeting ‘Namaste‘, usually performed with joined palms and bowed head, may be translated as ‘I greet the Divinity within you’.
Shakti literally means ‘strength’ and symbolises feminine aspects of the divine, often referred to as Devi and Mata. Some of the many forms of Shakti include:
- Saraswati – inspires music, drama, science and poetry. Many pray to her for help in these areas.
- Lakshmi – many Hindus pray to her for a happy family life and financial security.
- Parvati – known to be caring for others and both patient and wise. The balance of female and male is often represented in Hinduism by images of Shiva and Parvati as halves of one person.
- Durga – a warrior goddess who symbolises the ‘hidden strength’ of women, and divine opposition to evil.
Other popular deities
Lord Krishna – one of the most popular gods and source of many legends.
Lord Rama and and his consort Sita – a beautiful love story and model for how people should live. They both demonstrate loyalty, bravery and disregard for material possessions.
Hanuman – a deity in the form of a monkey – thought to be an extinct race of intelligent monkeys known as vanaras. Hanuman is recognised for his bravery and loyalty. Many Hindus pray to Lord Hanuman for help in overcoming difficulties.
Lord Ganesh – commonly depicted with an elephant’s head, Ganesh represents wisdom and prosperity.
Incarnations and avatars
Many Hindus believe that Lord Vishnu has appeared on Earth in human or animal form, called incarnations or avatars. Examples of this include Rama and Krishna. Hindus believe they were sent to save the Earth to destroy evil and restore righteousness to the Earth. Buddha is also believed to be an avatar of Lord Vishnu.
Expressing beliefs about God – sacred texts
Veda means ‘wisdom’. Many Hindus believe that Rishis received these texts through divine inspiration and that this wisdom has been passed down through rote learning from generation to generation. These texts are sometimes referred to as Shruti, which means ‘to hear’.
The Vedas are made up of four compositions, and each Veda in turn has four parts:
- The Samhitas are the oldest of the Vedas and contain over 1,000 hymns of praise to God.
- The Brahmanas are rituals and prayers to guide the priests in their duties.
- The Aranyakas involve worship and meditation.
- The Upanishads consist of the mystical and philosophical teachings of Hinduism.
Many Hindus believe that sacred texts are accumulations of spiritual laws discovered by different people at different times.
The other main Hindu scriptures include Smriti texts, believed to be ‘remembered’ by Rishis and sages. Some of the most popular Smriti texts are:
- The Ramayana – an ‘epic poem’ detailing events related to Rama and Sita.
- The Mahabharata – probably the most popular sacred text used by Hindus in the UK today which contains guidance on how to live well and attain moksha, as well as events in the life of Lord Krishna.
- The Puranas – a collection of poems and stories about Lords Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and Krishna. The Puranas encourage adoration of the divine and worship through bhakti.
- The Bhagavad Gita, which is an instruction given by Lord Krishna to the warrior Arjuna, when he was disinclined to take up his duty.
How do Hindus use sacred texts?
Many Hindus read a portion of one of the sacred texts daily as part of worship or for spiritual guidance. Others may read texts related to a particular deity on special days associated with that deity. Scholars may also refer to sacred texts. Some of the most popular stories are printed in India in the form of comic books so that children can learn from them in a fun way. Stories from sacred texts are also often shown in films and on television.
Expressing beliefs about God – personal duty and family relationships
For most Hindus the aim of life encompasses four aspects:
- dharma – fulfilling moral duties and living life in accordance with right actions
- artha – gaining wealth in an honest manner and using it wisely
- kama – enjoying the pleasures and beauty of life
- moksha – the ultimate goal involving ending rebirth and being freed from the material and physical existence
There are also four different stages of life most Hindus recognise. These are referred to as ashrama.
Some Hindus undertake forms of yoga or meditation and help them to connect with the divine away from worldly distractions. The main types of yoga include:
- Jnana yoga – studies of scripture, to gain deeper knowledge.
- Bhakti yoga – worship and rituals, seen as the path of spiritual devotion.
- Raja yoga – meditating to gain a greater sense of reality and eventually enlightenment.
- Karma yoga – an attempt to serve the divine in everything you do – worship through actions.
Some Hindus use images to assist puja. Murti are statues of deities, which have been consecrated and must be treated with respect.
Features of puja
- Water, fruit, flowers and incense may be offered to the murti (statue of the deity).
- A bell is rung to ‘call’ the deities and arati (waving of flame) performed.
- Personal or communal prayers or devotional songs may be chanted.
Respect for life
Many Hindus believe that nature is sacred and they may place great value on the environment. They believe that Brahman is present in the environment and any damage caused by bad actions (bad karma) will result in personal discredit in the hereafter. Therefore, some Hindus actively work towards protecting ‘Mother Earth’.
Another important concept for many Hindus is ahimsa (non-violence). Mahatma Gandhi believed this to be the most important duty for a human being.
For many Hindus both animals and humans have souls – the spark of divinity within (Atma or atman) and should be treated with respect and protected. Many Hindus are vegetarian due to this belief, though it is generally due to commitment to the principle of ahimsa.
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