June 2, 2013

A Brief Explanation of Hinduism {Part 1}. ~ Drew Cauthorn

When people think of Hinduism, their mind is often drawn to images of idol worship, red dots on foreheads, spicy food—the Taj Mahal and yoga.

While most of these accoutrements do have their rightful place in Hinduism, the context in which the average Westerner predicates his or her own prejudices is often misinformed and misappropriated solipsism.

This cultural idiosyncrasy—the belief that our own society is superior to that of another, suggests not only arrogance, but also an unwillingness to understand the world around one’s self. Such a limitation of one’s view (the inability to understand others) only breeds more arrogance, racism and bigotry.

Through scholarly research, dialogue and intrigue—I have laid out important facets of Hinduism: the history behind the religion, basic tenets of the faith, important literature and symbols and finally—why Hinduism is important to understand. My hope is that by understanding different cultures (their people and practices) a more global unanimity can be attained.


Hinduism is, by and large, the world’s oldest major religion. It is native to India and has roughly one billion followers.

Although India as a country is officially secular, most of Hinduism’s followers reside within India’s borders. In fact, the only official Hindu state in the world is Nepal (Mullangi, sec. Hinduism). Despite the enormous population following this ancient tradition, Hinduism has no single founder.

Instead, scholars attribute the growth of Hinduism to have come about through differing tribes and villages between seven and 10,000 years ago.

This gradual evolution of the Hindu belief system results in no particular set of dogmas, or set practices. Rather, Hindus have many modes of worship, from large festivals of over 40 million people, to an everyday darshan (prayer shrines within the home). Similarly, Hinduism does not believe in teaching god as having one finite form—but instead god exists as a power or entity of the universe.

More specifically, Hinduism promotes the idea that practicing religion is only one of the many pathways to god.

One cannot discuss Hindu god(s) however, without a mention of Brahman.

Brahman confers more value to Hindu principles than Jesus to Christians. Not only did Brahman create the universe, Brahman is the universe.

According to Hindu texts (which will become clearer later) only Brahman is real; everything else in the universe is more akin to a dream (Smith, 60). But Brahman is not god. Brahman is a philosopher’s more abstract association of a god-without-attributes (Smith, 59).

The most popular form(s) of god-with­-attributes include: Brahman—who creates; Vishnu—who preserves; and Shiva—who destroys. Each of which are an independent form of Brahman, the god-without-attributes (Smith, 27, 59, 61).

Basic Tenets:

Among the numerous practices and philosophies, laws and spiritual doctrines, Hinduism at its most basic confers a belief in daily morality—namely karma and dharma.

The word karma serves as the concept of action and deed, cause and effect (Smith, 25). The word dharma gives meaning and order, spiritually and physically, in the universe; perhaps more aptly described as the pillars or foundation in the cosmos (Smith, 25). This notion of cause and effect, of guidance and support is cyclical. This cycle is known as samsara—the continuous flow of death and rebirth.

Samsara is not karma and dharma—it is the resulting effect of one’s accrued karma and dharma.

This concept of samsara points towards an important fact—Hindus confer belief in reincarnation.

Reincarnation—the concept of cyclical rebirth, is one of the most important facets to understanding Hinduism. It’s believed that everything living has a soul.

Therefore, how one behaves in one life will affect their next life: will I be reincarnated as a fly, cow, or human? Similarly, it will affect the quality of life to which I am reincarnated: will I be a wealthy merchant or a lowly peasant?

In plain terms, you are rewarded for good deeds and punished for bad deeds. These deeds transcend lifetimes and so a bad deed from a previous lifetime can still come back and effect you in your present lifetime.

Delving further into this cycle of samsara (the notion of death and rebirth) one would soon discover the purpose of life, as Hindus understand it: purusartha.

There are generally considered four purusarthas as Huston Smith claims, “if we were to take Hinduism as a whole—it’s vast literature, its complicated rituals, […] its opulent art—and compress it into a single affirmation, we would find it saying […] people want four things” (Smith, 13).

These four purusarthas are: Dharma—religious, social, and moral righteousness; Artha—wealth, fame, and power exclusively; Kama—pleasure (both physical and emotional); and finally, Moksha—spiritual liberation (Smith, 17-28).

The notion of purusarthas is important to understanding the whole of Hinduism.

To understand the people, you must have an intimate connection with their beliefs.

That is to say, Hindus believe that every human seeks, whether knowingly or unknowingly, these four principals throughout their lifetime.



A Brief Explanation of Hinduism {Part 2}.


Works Cited:

1.) King, Richard (1995), Early Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism, Suny Press

2.) Smith, Huston (1991), The World’s Religions, Harper One

3.) Mullangi, Samyukta (2005) Hinduismi


Drew received his degree in East Asian History and Religion from Trinity University. He is an avid reader, writer, debater and contrarian. Apart from writing, Drew is a yoga instructor and swimmer, cyclist, runner and climber. He believes in furthering the global conscience, through scientific, philosophic, and historical literacy. Drew’s inspiration for writing comes from individuals such as Carl Sagan, Richard Feynmann, Christopher Hitchens, C.S. Lewis, Alan Watts, Joseph Campbell, and a number of other philosophers, scientists and free thinkers. “Humanity gazes out, from the promontory, into a new darkness we have never before faced:” says Drew, “My aim has been to provide, through the limits of writing, a terse and succinct light in that darkness.” Drew believes that only by recalling the deeper philosophies of our old world view, can we hope to gain the understanding necessary to deal with our present dilemmas.

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Assistant Ed: Dusty Ranft/Ed: Bryonie Wise

{Picture: Jennifer Harrison via Kali on Pinterest}



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