There are an unlimited number of concepts that make up all the major religions. For Hindus, this is also true. The religion that is practiced and influences the lives of nearly a billion people has a number of important concepts that guide their world view and way of life. Below is a review of just a few of the key concepts that make up the Hindu worldview. There are many more concepts that could be mentioned that are also important but will be left to the deeper investigator who will need to look beyond this site for more information. See the bibliography for some great sources that can help with this initiative.
It is impossible to discuss Hindu understanding of life without referring to the term dharma. However, even though that term is so recognized as important, it is not a term that is easily translated and understood. Indeed, many scholars argue that it is impossible to define this important term in English. Even so we can help the reader to understand it using several different terms that in English describe different things, but which dharma describes in a term. Often, the Indians referred to their religion as sanatana dharma or eternal dharma. Some have used the term "religion" as a substitute for dharma, but this seems insufficient. Dharma is more often compared to "duty," but in a broader sense than it used to be when used in English. In the Hindu worldview, each person is born in a certain jat or varna, usually translated by caste. Certain duties are expected. Dharma is a duty you were born to perform. The Bhagavad Gita discusses dharma in relation to duty and is one of the best examples of comparison between duty and dharma. Another way of explaining dharma is to refer to it as the laws that govern the universe. It is the invisible force that guides the universe as we know it. These are just examples of ways in which dharma can be superficially understood, but the reality is that this is a Sanskrit term that is very difficult to translate.
Karma is a term that has found widespread use in places far beyond the borders of India. It has become common for English speakers to use this term to describe events that happened in their lives. This is also a key concept in the Hindu worldview. Karma are the achievements in the life of someone who decides how a person will be reborn in a future reincarnation. In the Hindu world view, it is believed that people are born repeatedly until, after many rebirths, moksha or liberation from rebirth is attained. If one was born as a Brahmin, for example, this is a result of the positive karma of a previous life. Many of the rites and practices performed at the time of a person's death are performed to improve the karma of the deceased and thus help him to have a better rebirth. Much of the activity of the Hindus has a direct or indirect connection to the belief in karma. Much of life is spent trying to improve a person's karma by performing puja or by making pilgrimages to sacred sites. This concept reinforces the Hindu worldview that embraces a circular understanding of time. This is very different from the Western understanding of history as linear and with a starting point; for the Hindu there is no starting point for history, instead it continues to repeat itself from era to era. Therefore, there is a recognition that each person is in a position of life based on the karma of an earlier life. The belief is that individuals are not aware of the details of their past life nor are they able to know in what position they will be reborn after they die.
At the center of much of the Hindu ritual is bhakti - loving devotion to a deity. During the history of India, there are several instances where large groups of people, in rejection of the excessively formalized and philosophical religion around them, have turned to loving devotion as a way of following divinity. Bhakti can be manifested in innumerable rituals, pilgrimages or other acts of worship and devotion. It can be performed at home or between crowds at times of festivals. One can devote the goddess Kali, Lord Krishna, or Shiva just to name a few deities, everyone can receive bhakti. There are many sects that have developed highly emotional and ecstatic forms of bhakti in South Asia and the South Asian diaspora. It has been noticed that if nothing unites the different Hindu sects and schools, bhakti does it. While people can have a wide variety of manners and objects of affection, most Hindus show tremendous devotion, somehow, as the greatest outward demonstration of their beliefs. It would be almost impossible to really understand the Hindu worldview without understanding the importance of bhakti.
Popularized by the recent film of the same name, the term avatar, as karma, is commonly used in English. The roots of this term are Hindu in nature, and it still plays a very important role in the Hindu worldview. It is difficult to find an English equivalent for this term, some use incarnation. The problem with this term, however, is that it brings with it a lot of Christian understanding that does not accurately convey the concept of avatar. It is true that avatar is used to describe the action of a god or goddess who comes to Earth generally in human form, though not limited to the human form. The most famous deity to come to earth repeatedly in various forms is Vishnu. In total she came as an avatar at least ten different times as ten different avatara. Some of these ten were like animals while the rest like humans. The best-known avatars of Vishnu are Krishna and Rama. In such cases, Vishnu came to Earth because evil was becoming very powerful and gaining advantage. Through the avatara Krishna and Rama, Vishnu is able to defeat many demons and other evil beings. They also teach human beings the ways of dharma and exemplify dharma for them. Other deities also came as avatara, but are less known when compared to Vishnu's avatara.
While sacred texts are important to many Hindus, there are also many who have little or no knowledge of the sacred texts. Astrology, on the other hand, is recognized by a vast majority of Hindus as being very important to everyday life. The position of the stars or the movement of the planets, for example, are fundamental in deciding who to marry and on what date the marriage should occur. The naming of children is also often associated with experts in astrology. Everything from how to build a house up to fasting days is decided with the help of a pujari who is familiar with the astrological almanacs that are so prevalent among Hindus. It can be said that astrology plays one of the most important roles in determining the daily life of Hindus in general. It has become an important decision-making mechanism to be consulted regularly. Many Hindus believe that the daily events in their lives are ordered by astrological rules.
Varna, or as it is commonly translated in English, "caste" is another well-known, but often misunderstood, Hindu concept. The origin of the caste system as seen in India today is ancient. Scholars argue as to the true origin, without consensus to this day. Many Hindus believe that varna or the division of humanity was a God-given system and the vestiges of it can be found in the Vedas. Many other sacred texts refer to it, or apply directly to certain castes. Varna is divided into four castes, Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra, with a fifth group being deprived. These have adopted the term Dalit, which is more encouraging. Brahmins are traditionally the priestly caste. Historically, they were more schooled, especially in the area of religious studies and were expected to guide people. Kshatriya was the warrior caste, many of the ancient kings were of this caste. Vaishya is the merchant caste, consisting mainly of business people. The Shudra were the lowest, journalists and other minor jobs, performing tasks along with outcasts, which others considered impure, such as touching and burying corpses. The first three castes mentioned above are known as those that were born twice and participate in certain initiation rites that other castes do not. A sacred text says that Brahmin was created from the head of God, Kshatriya from his shoulders, Vaishya from his thighs, and finally Shudra from his feet. Many scholars, however, believe that the system was developed on the basis of occupational divisions, so that eventually the caste into which you were born was the responsibility of the person to help maintain society in a balanced manner. There are numerous sub-castes within the comprehensive caste system described above. Although there have been many attempts throughout the history of reforming the caste system, it remains intact to this day, and is understood to be very important to many Hindus. This can be easily seen when families organize their children's marriage, it is still the common practice of most to marry only their own caste. It is also common to find many people of higher castes who refuse to eat anything cooked by someone from an inferior caste or to eat with someone from an inferior caste as well. It is believed that this would bring impurities to people of the high castes. The caste system has played an important role in the Indian subcontinent for centuries and is likely to continue - despite some changes in urban areas - in the near future.
How Many Gods?
It is common for non-Hindus to assume and even spread the false realization that all Hindus are polytheists. The truth is that there are a number of understandings about god / gods within the Hindu worldview. In fact, if you ask most Hindus, they will say that, behind all deities and representations of God, there is ultimately only One Force or Ultimate Reality. This has been called "Brahma" by many, while others have not given a name. From this idea of God many other beliefs and understandings arise. One can not deny that there are a multitude of deities that are found all over South Asia, in temples, road sanctuaries and within Hindu homes in the form of images or pictures of deities. Many Hindu families have a particular deity to which the family engages, which is usually handed down from generation to generation. There are some deities like Ganesa, who transcend sectarian groups and are revered and worshiped by almost all Hindus. Other more philosophical Hindus adhere to what is known as the Vedanta understanding of reality. In this philosophy, the supreme is not a personal god, but is found within the person and is the immortal soul. This can only be understood through strict adherence to meditation and other forms of yoga. The follower of Vedanta is often opposed to the worship of idols and believes that all the paths of faith lead to the same ultimate goal. There is a significant minority that fits into this group of Hindu traditions, often schooled and therefore influential in government and education. In the thousands of villages, there is much more emphasis on the worship of the deities and in many places the villages still have a goddess that has its own temple and festival. Many Hindus turn to the deities in times of need, bringing offerings to the temple in order to receive blessings from the deity.