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Beliefs and Practices

Fundamental Concepts

Beginning with the Vedic writings, a number of key concepts have come to characterize Hinduism. These concepts make up Hinduism's world view and belief system.


A. An Ordered Society: The Caste System

As you have probably observed, a recurring theme in Hinduism is the idea that society has been divinely ordered. Traditionally, the ordering system in Hinduism is known as the caste system.According to Hinduism, the caste system is a reflection of sacred reality. One of the hymns of the Rig Veda describes how the gods created the world through the sacrifice of a primeval giant called Purusha. From the body of Purusha the gods fashioned the world and the various castes: 

When they divided Purusha, how many ways did they apportion him? What was his mouth? What were his arms? What were his thighs, his feet declared to be? His mouth was the Brahman [priestly caste], his arms were the Rajanaya [Ksatriya, warrior caste], his thighs the Vaisya [artisan caste]; from his feet the Shudra [servant caste] was born. 

--- --- Rig Veda

The caste system is thus a reflection of sacred reality. It is inherent in the structure of creation and reflects the will of the gods. 


According to Hindu beliefs, there are four castes (social groups or classes):

Caste Members
Brahmin priests and philosophers
Kshatriyas nobility and warriors
Vaishyas farmers and merchants
Shudras manual laborers

Another group known as the "untouchables" is virtually outside the caste system altogether.

These castes are hereditary; there is no way to move from one caste to another, nor can on marry outside of one's caste. Within each of these four groups there are thousands of subgroups.The castes are much more than social or economic classes. Since there are specific duties and responsibilities associated with each caste, the caste determines what its member should do. These social responsibilities are detailed in the Code of Manu which was compiled around 100 CE. One's moral and ethical duty (dharma) is  to be content with one's situation and to fulfill the responsibilities associated with one's caste. This theme is reiterated in the Bhagavad-Gita and the Ramayana.

It should be noted, that originally the caste system seemed to be more flexible that what is described in the preceding paragraph. In earliest times, the castes may have been based on ability rather than birth; moreover, the Mahabharata contains more than one example of marriages between members of different castes. After about 700 CE the system started becoming more rigid as well as more complex.  In fact, after 700 CE more than 3,000 distinct castes emerged in India.


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B. The Profound Unity of the Cosmos

As we have seen, the Upanishads are the latest, most philosophical part of the Vedas. One of the main concerns of the Upanishads is the nature of the individual's soul and its relation to the universe.  Basically, the Upanishads demonstrate that the individual soul (the atman) is essentially identical with the universal soul, the Brahman. Although stopping short of claiming absolute unity, the Upanishads argue the the atman emanates from the Brahman, and thus the two share the same nature. Consequently, one may look within in order to discover the great soul of the universe.

Be Careful! 

A number of philosophical systems arose that further developed the idea of the unity of the individual with the transcendent. Of the six systems of thought that are recognized by Hinduism, two are most relevant to the question of the unity.

This first system is known as Samkhya. This system of thought argues that there are two states of reality: On the one hand, there is the reality known as Purusha. In this context, Purusha refers not to the cosmic giant of the Rig Veda, but to the Self that is eternally wise, pure, and beyond change. In Western thought we might identify Purusha with spirit or the soul, although the Hindu concept is much broader. In contrast, the second state of reality is known as Prakriti or matter. According to Samkhya, suffering stems from confusing the two states of reality. Humans tend to forget that their true Self is unlimited, eternal, and pure; instead they identify themselves with matter which is finite and changing.

Samkhya is thus a dualistic philosophy in that it maintains that all things fit into one of two categories. How can a dualistic philosophy also argue for the profound unity of the cosmos? The answer is that Samkhya argues that there is a unity between the individual human being and the eternal. The Self is identified with the Eternal.

A second system of Hindu thought is known as Advaita Vedanta. Advaita literally means "non-dualistic" and vedanta means "end of the Vedas" (i.e. the Upanishads). This system is more closely related to the thought of the Upanishads, and it is primarily associated with the philosophyer Shankara (lived in the 7th Century CE). Advaita Vedanta carries the ideas suggested in the Upanishads to a conclusion that even more closely unites Brahman and atman. While the Upanishads seem to suggest that the individual soul emanates from Brahman and the two share the same nature, Advaita Vedanta concludes that atman and Brahman are actually one. Just as the waves are not distinct from the ocean, atman is not distinct from Brahman. This system of thought is thus monistic: "Monism is the view that all reality is one unified divine reality" (Ludwig, p 13). In other words, Brahman (the world Soul or simply the divine) is all things, and all things are Brahman. By implication, this means that even the gods in Hinduism are all manifestations of the one reality known as Brahman.

While Samkhya argues that there is a material world that is finite, Advaita Vedanta argues that there really is no material world that is separate from Brahman. In fact, material life (i.e. changing and finite life) is nothing more than an illusion that prevents us from truly seeing the unity of all things with the divine. This illusion is created by a power known as Maya. It should be noted that Advaita Vedanta does not argue that the material world does not exist; rather it argues that our view of it as finite is an illusion. In reality, even what we consider imperfect and finite is nothing less than a manifestation of Brahman.


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C. Reincarnation, samsara and moksha.

As we have seen, the earliest writings of Hinduism were not overly-concerned with what happens after death. By the time of the Upanishads, however, three interrelated concepts had come to characterize the understanding of life and death: reincarnation, samsara, and karma.

Karma is the universal law of cause and effect: every human action plants a seed that sooner or later will grow into a positive or negative result, depending upon the intention of the individual when the action was committed. It is the simple rule that one reaps what one sows. In addition, the term "karma" is used not only to designate the universal law, but also to describe the results of one's actions.  Thus, we often refer to good deeds producing "good karma" while bad deeds produce "bad karma."

An important point in the previous paragraph is contained in the phrase "sooner or later." It may take time for the results of karma to manifest themselves; in fact, it may take several lifetimes. A major doctrine of Hinduism is the belief in reincarnation. Reincarnation is the belief that after death, one's soul is reborn into a new body. The soul may be reincarnated into an individual of a different caste. What determines the status of one's rebirth is the law of karma. If one has "good karma" one may be reborn into a higher caste and better situation in life. On the other hand, negative karma may result in a birth of lower status. As you can see, the caste system thus reflects not only a divinely-ordered society; it also reflects the concept of karma. Consequently, it was reasoned that people of lower castes were born into their state because of negative karma they had accumulated in previous lives; people in the upper castes were reaping the benefits of good karma from previous lives.

It should also be noted that the doctrines of reincarnation and karma include the possibility of rebirth into a non-human form. Since only human beings can create good or bad karma, the non-human form could be considered to be a type of punishment that one had to endure to "burn off" negative karma. Eventually, one would be reborn as a human and have the opportunity to produce good karma so that subsequent rebirths might be better.

This ongoing cycle of birth-death-rebirth has no end and no beginning. In fact, the cosmos itself is thought to go through a series of deaths and rebirths. The ongoing cycle of life-death-rebirth is called samsara. Samsara literally means "swirling" or "wandering." It seems to refer to the state of the soul as it wanders from one life to the next.


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D. Moksha

In Western thought, the idea of being reborn sounds positive: it is another chance to enjoy a good life. In Hindu thought, however, the idea of being reborn is not so positive. The concept of reincarnation came to fruition at a time when life was hard. Moreover, given the nature of human beings to make mistakes or do bad things, it was considered probable that most people were creating negative karma. By the time of the Upanishads, the problem of existence and the negative view of samsara was well-defined:

In this body, which is afflicted with desire, anger, covetousness, delusions, fear, despondency, hunger thirst, senility, death, disease, sorrow, and the like, what is the good enjoyment of desires?...In this sort of cycle of existence (samsara) what is the good of enjoyment of desires, when after a man has fed on them there is seen repeatedly his return here to earth? Bl pleased to deliver me. In this cycle of existence I am like a frog in a waterless well.

--- --- (Maitri Upanishad 1.3-4)

The goal of Hinduism therefore is to attain moksha. Moksha is liberation from the ongoing cycle of birth-life-death and rebirth. Through the accumulation of enough good karma (through a variety of means) the individual is absorbed into the eternal (Brahman) and freed from rebirth.


In our next section, we will see how various religious practices are intended to lead to the goal of moksha.