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Hinduism: Introduction

World Faith

Hinduism: Key facts

Information: This section contains a brief summary of the history and key teachings of Hinduism. A version of this article was originally published on the website www.faithnet.org.uk.

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The term 'Hinduism' is used to define a family of religious teachings and practices common to Hindus (or Indians). Although there are common 'Hindu' beliefs, the faith itself is diverse and difficult to pin-down in any definitive sense.

Many Hindus believe their religion has been around since the beginning of time. Modern Hinduism began when the Aryan people from Central Asia began to settle in the Indus Valley in Northwest India, around 1750 BCE.

The word 'Hindu' literally means 'person of India'. It is now commonly accepted by those who study religion that the name 'Hinduism' was invented by Christian missionaries in India, to describe what they saw as essentially non-Christian religious practices.

Hindus usually believe in reincarnation, which is the idea that the human soul is reborn into a new body on earth after death. The continuous cycle of birth, growth, death and rebirth is called samsara.

There are over three hundred million gods in Hinduism, and each of them are considered to be ways of understanding the Supreme Being Brahman, or God.

The most popular deities are Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver) and Shiva (destroyer), and together as the trimurti they not only help people understand Brahman, but also the cycle of life. It is also from these three that other gods have come down to Earth, such as Krishna who is said to be a manifestation of Vishnu.

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The aim of life for Hindus is to achieve 'liberation' (moksha) from samsara. This is achieved through gradually accepting over a series of lifetimes that one's soul (atman) is not one's own, but actually a part of Brahman.

Another part of liberation is doing good actions which will remove negative karma. Karma is the idea that your actions have consequences not only in this life, but also in the next. If you do not accumulate good karma, then you cannot begin to move towards moksha.

Although no longer officially recognised by the Indian government, the idea of a caste system is still influential in many forms of Hinduism. It was originally developed to explain why people are different, and set out how they should relate to each other. Hindus believe there are four 'classes' varnas, which people typically fall into. These are Brahmins (priests), warriors, merchants and traders (skilled workers) and those who serve these three groups (shudras). It is within the four varnas that a person's caste is determined, as seen by the different types of jobs/roles they have.

The caste you are born into depends on the residue of karma you bring with you from your previous life. Those with good karma have obviously lived well, and as such will progress up the caste system, whilst those with bad karma (those who have done much harm for instance) will move down, and could even be reborn as an animal.

It is a belief in many forms of Hinduism that the human soul will continue to be reincarnated until it is finally absorbed into (or dwells in the presence of) the Divine, and no longer returns to earth.

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