Hinduism is the world's oldest religion. It started in Northern India about 5000 years ago, too early for us to trace it to a particular founder. Since that time, all Hindus believe that there is one god, Brahman. This super-power manifests itself at different times in the form of different gods and goddesses.
The three gods that are the most important to Hindus are the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma is the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. Vishnu is worshipped in many forms because Hindus believe he came to earth nine times, each time to save the earth from crisis. Characters in Hindu mythology such as Rama and Krishna are both forms of Vishnu. In the female form, Shakti represents Mother Nature. She also takes the form of Durga and Kali, two commonly worshipped goddesses.
Hindus believe in the cycle of birth and rebirth. They believe that the 'atman' or soul leaves the a new one. This cycle continues until the soul is pure and free from evil when the soul joins Brahman. Each rebirth depends on what one does in one's previous lives. Thus one could be born in successive lives as a flower, a flea, a dog, a man and finally a saint. Hindus believe that one can break free from the cycle of birth and rebirth by:
- Meditation: cleansing one's mind of greed, ignorance and jealousy. It also helps connect the mind to Brahman.
- Selfless service: doing good for all, especially the weak and the poor. Besides money (alms), this can also be done by spending time with them.
Within each person's life, Hindus believe that there are four different stages: that of a student, a householder, a retiree, and finally a saint who renounces the world. The first is a student, the second a house holder, the third retirement and the fourth a world renouncer. As a student, the person must study and go to school. They must also respect their religion. As a householder, the person should get a job and perform their family responsibilities. In the third stage, around the age of 50, the person leaves their family and friends, preparing to leave the body. In the final stage, the person gives up all their belongings, and devotes himself or herself fully to Brahman. Hindus always cremate their dead, so that the soul can move on in peace.
Some of the most important rituals in a Hindu's life are:
- Birth: A baby is welcomed into the world by putting a small amount of honey on its tongue
- Naming: A priest decides the child's name
- Sacred thread ceremony: A thread is put over the boy's shoulder and it goes down to his hip. From then on, the boy is considered a Hindu. Today, the thread ceremony is limited to boys of certain castes.
Unlike the Sikhs or Muslims, Hindus do not have a single holy book. Their holy books include the Vedas, Upanishads, and stories of particular gods and goddesses. Such stories include the famous 'Ramayana,' the story of prince Rama rescuing his kidnapped wife, Sita, from a demon, and the Mahabharata, the story of a great war between good and evil kings. With over 100,000 verses, the two are among the longest poems in the world.
Hindus worship in temples. Each temple has one or more priests, who perform services and prayers, and look after the upkeep of the temple. Different temples may emphasize different gods. For example, there might one temple for Vishnu and Shiva, and another for just Shakti, the female goddess.
Hinduism is a good example of religious tolerance, and has co-existed peacefully with Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, and Christianity over the last two millennia. Hindus do not proselytize, i.e. they do not encourage others to leave their own religion to embrace Hinduism. Most Hindus are born to Hindu parents; only a handful of people have converted to Hinduism from other faiths. The number of people practicing Hinduism today is estimated at 900 million, many of whom live on the Indian sub-continent.