Hinduism, existing in India for some 5,000 years, has influenced many other religions, and has itself absorbed an enormous variety of beliefs and practices. These shape and colour every aspect of its very intricate metaphysics. Today, Hindus show more uniformity in their behaviour than in their beliefs; however, very few practices are universal to all.
The principal Hindu textual authorities are the three Vedas (the Rig-veda, whose content reaches back to the birth of Hinduism, the Yajur-veda, and the Sama-veda). These books are considered to be revelations about the Supreme Being (Brahman, who is said to be the source and ultimate reality of everything) and are not to be altered in any manner. A fourth veda, the Atharva-veda, is of lesser importance. There are many other Hindu sources of information, particularly the Brahmanas (rituals and myths) and the Upanishads (mystical meditations on the universe and meaning in life), however these authorities are too erudite for most Hindus to comprehend. Practical Hinduism is found in the Smriti (which is allowed to be modified, and which includes epics), many Puranas, and textbooks on sacred law.
Hindu beliefs include the notions that the universe contains many concentric heavens and hells (with India positioned at the centre), that time is both degenerative and cyclical, and that the universe is being intermittently destroyed and reborn. Many Hindus believe the soul leaves the body after death, to be reborn as another person, animal, vegetable, or other entity, with the “level” of rebirth being determined by past actions. Only continuously striving to improve both body and soul and the renunciation of all worldly desires can merit release from this endless recycling. Few Hindus actively seek this ideal. However, the pursuit of this goal has produced two distinct metaphysical and social systems.
“Worldly” Hindus live within an intricate, hierarchical, caste system that binds society and gives each person an identity and purpose. Born into a particular caste, each person is destined to perform certain appropriate duties—to marry within their caste, to raise a son, and to eat traditional food, for instance. Thus, for worldly Hindus, the key concepts of their philosophies are relationships, harmony and detachment or peace—not religion or a concern related to their god’s requirements for them. “Non-worldly” Hindus (who renounce the world) attempt to unite their individual soul with that of Brahman, the universal soul. Many of their practices (such as vegetarianism) have been incorporated into worldly Hinduism.
Each Hindu community is responsible for erecting and supporting a temple which it then manages. Most Hindus worship one of the male gods, Shiva or Vishnu, or the goddess Devi. However, they may just as readily worship any of hundreds of minor gods, some of whom can be particular to just one village or family.
Social ceremonial occasions include birth, the first time rice is eaten, first male haircut, purification after first menstruation, marriage, pregnancy blessings, cremation, sprinkling funeral ashes in a holy river, and annual ancestral offerings. Less-public daily ceremonials include chanting a hymn to the sun at dawn, and making offerings to the household shrine, or to special garden or village objects. Temples vary from small stone boxes to complex temple cities. Priests offer prayers at sunrise, attend their god, give food remnants to those worshipping, and perform sunset rituals. Processions are normally held each year to carry the god image around the temple, and goats may be sacrificed on special occasions. Numerous colourful and vibrant festivals are held annually, with some allowing all castes to mingle freely. Periodically, individuals (usually male) and, less commonly, entire families make pilgrimages to holy places, often walking hundreds of kilometres en masse to fulfill vows, to seek blessings or give thanks for those received, and to collect water for the household shrine.
Despite its multiple gods, variety in religious expression, diversity and apparent contradictions, the Hindu society flourishes and continues to attract converts, perhaps, in part, because central to its teachings is the universal desire to satisfy the human striving for Shanti, or peace of mind.