Hinduism is the world’s third largest ‘religious’ community of between 750 to 900 million followers, living mainly in India. The term Hindu was coined by Persians for the people who lived on the other side of the river Sindhu, as opposed to their faith.
Instead the religion or way of life’s correct name is Sanātana Dharma – The Eternal Law. As it is made up of seven main philosophical systems it is impossible to specify what a ‘Hindu’ believes as it depends on which philosophical strand one follows. For instance some Hindus believe in a personal, creator God whilst others believe in an Impersonal, non-creator Divine Being. (N.B. For ease of reference the term ‘Hindu’ is used in the following to be synonymous with Sanatana Dharma).
Most Hindus believe in one God – Brahman. His various powers are represented by multiple forms with multiple names. This is why many Westerners wrongly believe there are many gods and goddesses in Hinduism. Krishna, believed to be an incarnation of the Supreme Being, explains the concept in a famous verse in the Bhagavad Gītā, “Howsoever men think of Me, I appear to them in that form, for the path that men take from every side is Mine”.
Hindus also believe that Divinity is present in every living form, and the aim of every life form is to realise that he/she/it is one with God – Tat Tvam Asi – You Are That.
All the Hindu philosophies believe in reincarnation – that the Soul, Ātman, is eternal and goes through many cycles of birth and rebirth (samsāra). All lives are governed by the rules of Karma – action and reaction, or cause and effect. Put simply, actions in this life will have a reaction both in this life and the next. The aim of one’s life is to free the soul from the bond of both good and bad karma, and achieve Moksha – liberation from the cycle of rebirth and unity with God, when the Ātman becomes Paramātman. The different philosophies represent the different ways in which Hindus believe this is possible.