Common to virtually all Hindus are certain beliefs, including, but not limited to, the following:
  • a belief in many gods, which are seen as manifestations of a single unity. These deities are linked to universal and natural processes.
  • a preference for one deity while not excluding or disbelieving others
  • a belief in the universal law of cause and effect (karma) and reincarnation
  • a belief in the possibility of liberation and release (moksha) by which the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara) can be resolved
The Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu combined as Harihara, 600-700. Central India. Sandstone. Museum purchase, (Asian Art Museum, B70S1).
The Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu combined as Harihara, 600–700. Central India. Sandstone. Courtesy of the__Asian Art Museum, Museum purchase, B70S1.
Hinduism is bound to the hierarchical structure of the caste system, a categorization of members of society into defined social classes. An individual’s position in the caste system is thought to be a reflection of accumulated merit in past lives (karma).
Observance of the dharma, or behavior consistent with one’s caste and status, is discussed in many early philosophical texts. Not every religious practice can be undertaken by all members of society. Similarly, different activities are considered appropriate for different stages of life, with study and raising families necessary for early stages, and reflection and renunciation goals of later years. A religious life need not be spiritual to the exclusion of worldly pleasures or rewards, such as the pursuit of material success and (legitimate) pleasure, depending on one’s position in life. Hindus believe in the importance of the observation of appropriate behavior, including numerous rituals, and the ultimate goal of moksha, the release or liberation from the endless cycle of birth.
Moksha is the ultimate spiritual goal of Hinduism. How does one pursue moksha? The goal is to reach a point where you detach yourself from the feelings and perceptions that tie you to the world, leading to the realization of the ultimate unity of things—the soul (atman) connected with the universal (Brahman). To get to this point, one can pursue various paths: the way of knowledge, the way of appropriate actions or works, or the way of devotion to God.