5 things you may not know about Hinduism

An Indian artist works on a clay statue of Kali -- the Hindu goddess of power

There are about one billion Hindus in the world, making them about 15 per cent of the world’s population. Hinduism’s roots can be traced to the Asia-Pacific region, where a majority of devotees reside. There is less than one per cent of Hindus who live outside of Asia-Pacific. A majority of Hindus live in India, with the largest population outside it being in Nepal and Bangladesh. Its concepts and history are also closely associated with other Indian religions such as Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism.

Here are five things you may not know about this religion.

Hinduism is not a single religion

Hinduism is preferably referred to as “a way of life” or “a family of religions” instead of a single religion because it embraces many traditions.

Its extensive history consists of many key figures teaching different philosophies and writing a number of holy books. As such, there is no single founder, no single scripture, and no commonly agreed set of teachings, unlike most other religions.

This may be so because the history of Hinduism is debatable, as it has no definite starting point. Some would argue that the traditions of Hinduism go back several thousand years, and others claim that the Hindu revelation has no start time, making it eternal.

Concepts in Hinduism

As Hinduism is diverse, there is no single set of beliefs. Even so, the basic concepts of Hinduism are shared by different schools of thought and accepted by most traditions.

At the root of Hinduism, the religion begins by differentiating between matter and spirit. Spirit is then separated into two main categories, which are the individual self, or soul, called the atman, and the supreme self, or God, known as the paramatman.

These three main thoughts are then expanded into 12 concepts. The 12 key concepts and its key questions are listed below:

1.     The Atman (Soul): Who are we? What is the real self?
2.     Reincarnation and Samsara: What happens after death, before birth?
3.     The Law of Karma: Why is there suffering?
4.     Prakriti (Matter) and Guna: How does the world work?
5.     Maya (Illusion): Why do we face difficulty in this world?
6.     Moksha (Liberation): What is the goal of life?
7.     God (Brahman/Ishvara): Is there a God? If so, what is He/She like?
8.     Dharma (meaning “duty”, “morality” or “religion”): What is the right way to act?
9.     One Goal, Different Paths: How do we explain the diversity of Hindu?
10. Scripture and Guru (Authority): How are the teachings preserved?
11. Time: When did it all start and when will it end?
12. Creation: How and why was this world created?

Existence of karma and reincarnation

Karma is a Sanskrit word, meaning “action”. It refers to the law that every action has an equal reaction either immediately or at some point in the future.

Positive actions, or actions in harmony with dharma will have positive reactions, while negative actions, or actions against dharma, will have the opposite effect.

In Hinduism, the effects of karma extend not only in this lifetime, but across lifetimes. This means that the results of an action may only be experienced after this present life and in a new one.

As such, the Hindus believe in the process of reincarnation known as samsara, where the soul is reborn over and over again according to the law of action and reaction in a continuous cycle.

Thus, Hindus believe that, at the end of a human being’s life, the soul is carried into a new physical body that may be a human, or non-human form, like an animal, or divine being. The goal of liberation (moksha) is to free the self from this cycle.

Religious text

The Vedas are the most ancient religious texts defining truth for the Hindus. It is believed that scholars received the texts directly from God, and that they are passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth.

The Vedas are made up of four compositions, which are sub-divided into four parts:

1.     The Samhitas: The most ancient part of the Vedas, consisting of hymns of praise to God.
2.     The Brahmanas: Consists of rituals and prayers that guide the priests in their duties.
3.     The Aranyakas: For worship and meditation.
4.     The Upanishads: The mystical and philosophical teachings of Hinduism.

Holy animal

Hinduism’s sacred animal is the cow, and to millions of Hindus, it is a holy animal that cannot be harmed.

Hindu’s reverence for cows can be found in the religion’s major texts, where some trace the cow’s sacredness back to Lord Krishna, who is one of the most important figures of the faith. Lord Krishna is said to have appeared 5,000 years ago as a cowherd. He is often described as bala-gopala, which means, “the child who protects the cow”. There are also scriptures that identify the cow as the “mother” of all civilisation, nurturing the world with its milk.

To the Hindus, the cow represents life and the sustenance of life. In the Vedas (Hindu scripture), it says, in the Rig Veda (4.28.1;6), “The cows have come and have brought us good fortune. In our stalls, contented, may they stay! May they bring forth calves for us, many-coloured, giving milk for Indra each day. You make, O cows, the thin man sleek; to the unlovely you bring beauty. Rejoice our homestead with pleasant lowing. In our assemblies we laud your vigour.”