Hinduism is not a creed but a way of life, a philosophy more than a religion, which has developed over 5000 years.

Important characteristics of Hinduism are:

  • A belief in a caste system
  • The worship of a plurality of deities
  • The belief in the cow as a sacred animal
  • A belief in rebirth
  • The belief that certain rivers and temple waters are holy
  • A belief in karma: every act has its consequence in a future existence; in other words: a man's status in life depends on his actions in a previous life
  • No belief in a day of judgment
  • An end goal as being Nirvana, or heavenly bliss, which means the Hindu achieves the infinite, he becomes one with the Supreme Being.

The four Vedas and the Upanishads, a holistic collection of texts discussing knowledge, philosophy and ethics, form the basis of Hinduism.

Hinduism has 3 basic practices:

  1. puja or worship
  2. cremation of the dead
  3. the rules and regulations of the caste system

The caste system is a social system, which has 4 castes or varnas; these are:

  1. Brahmins: ascetics, priests and learned men
  2. Kshatrayas: fighters, warriors, governors
  3. Vaisyas: traders, merchants and farmers
  4. Sudras: laborers, menials, craftspeople

According to a Vedic hymn, when primeval man was sacrificed, the Brahmin rose from his head, the Kshatraya from his arms, the Vaisya from his thighs and the Sudra from his feet

Then there are the "untouchables" or Harijans as Mahatma Gandhi called them (the children of God) who are outside the caste system. 'Hindu Society' considers them untouchable in matters of food and worship.

Caste traditionally defines marriage, food and occupation

The Hindu Gods:

Hindus regard all their countless deities as merely manifestations of the all pervading divine energy, known as Brahman. Brahman is represented by the sound OM, the symbol of original sound.

Brahman is the ultimate or absolute; the origin, the cause and the basis of all existence. Brahman is the unknowable one, so it was natural for people to see the different attributes of Brahman manifested in a larger number of forms. The diverse names of these gods may be countless, but they are all understood as expressions of Brahman. The different gods are simply ways of approaching the ultimate. There is one omnipresent god who has three physical representations (the Trimurti, or "three arms"). Each and every god stands for a particular function or attribute of the supreme.

The TRIMURTI: The Hindu trinity is Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, representing God in his 3-fold aspect as creator, preserver and destroyer. The three-fold activity of the Trimurti corresponds to the rhythm of the world. This is seen as a first emerging from Brahman; next as reaching its full embodiment; then as being reabsorbed either into Brahman or into the period that precedes the next age. Creation, like history, is understood in cyclical terms. There is no beginning or end. The beginning is an end and the end a new beginning.

BRAHMA the creator. Brahma "brings diversity into unity". He is a mediator between Vishnu and Shiva, who represent opposites. He is depicted as bearded with 4 faces turned towards the 4 points of the compass with which he controls all quarters of the world. He is sometimes depicted on a lotus that emerges from Vishnu's naval, a reference to his being 'born of a lotus' Often he has 4 hands holding the 4 Vedas.

His consort is SARASWATI, the goddess of learning and music who rides on a swan. She is usually shown playing the Veena, a stringed musical instrument. She is often also shown sitting on a lotus with a garland of white flowers around her neck: in this way she embodies purity and the rising of intellect above beauty.

VISHNU: the protector of righteousness (dharma) and the guardian of humanity. He fights on the side of good and comes down to earth to help humankind. He is seen as the preserver. Hindus believe he will come to earth to preserve the world in ten different incarnations, or avatars, nine of which have already occurred.

His avatars in order of appearance are:

  1. a fish
  2. a tortoise
  3. a boar
  4. a man-lion, who rescues the world from a terrible demon
  5. a dwarf
  6. Parashurama with an axe
  7. Rama
  8. Krishna
  9. Buddha
  10. Kalki who has not appeared yet but will appear in the future on a white horse.

Vishnu's attributes, which are often shown in his hands, are:

  • The Chakra (a wheel or disk, the symbol of the endless cycle of life and death; the chakra can be seen in the middle of the Indian flag)
  • The Shankha or conch shell (the symbol of the ocean, the source of life, and of chaos)
  • The Lotus, symbol of grace and of purity, a flower surrounded by and rising from the dirty water.

Vishnu's consort is LAKSHMI, the beautiful goddess of wealth and prosperity, honor and faith who came from the sea.

His vehicle is GARUDA, half man half eagle, a firm do-gooder with a deep dislike of snakes.

Vishnu's two most popular incarnations are Rama (7th) and Krishna (8th). Their stories are told in the two great Indian epic poems, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

The Ramayana has 24000 couplets and tells the story of RAMA (the 7th avatar or reincarnation of Vishnu) and celebrates Rama's sense of honor and duty. Rama represents the ideal man. His loyal and devoted wife was SITA whose rescue by Rama and whose honor are the main theme in the Ramayana.

His faithful servant was HANUMAN the monkey god, who stands for Bhakti or honor and devotion. He is prayed to for strength and courage.

The Mahabharata has 100000 couplets (probably the longest poem in the world) and tells the story of a war between two dynasties with as its hero KRISHNA. Krishna is the lover and the tactician. With his flute playing he is the seducer of the gopis (milkmaids) of which his favorite was RADHA. This epic poem contains the famous book the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna is usually portrayed as blue, playing the flute. He is also often pictured as a baby eating sweets (laddoos).

SHIVA: the destroyer and recreator. Shiva is the embodiment of cosmic energy. Shiva lives on a mountain called Kailash. De Ganges flows from his hair, from the mouth of the Goddess Ganga. Shiva is the deity in which all opposites meet and become resolved in a fundamental unity. He is the destroyer of life and yet also its recreator. He is the source of both good and evil, life and death. He represents both a contemplative and an expressive side, extrovert and introvert. Shiva is also called 'the auspicious one', simultaneously the destroyer and creator. He is the Lord of Yoga, worshipped as the lingum (phallus), whose dance, to the beat of his own drum, is said to be the rhythm of the universe. Shiva spends much time smoking dope and has a 3rd eye in the middle of his forehead. In his four arms he holds his consort Parvati, his trident (the hero emblem), a rosary (the ascetic emblem) and the lingum (the productive emblem). His vehicle is the NANDI, or bull, which stands for virility. The nandi can always be found in Shiva temples.

His consort is PARVATI, goddess of sublime beauty and sweetness, who symbolizes marital harmony. She is an incarnation of DEVI, the mother goddess and has many forms besides that of Parvati. She is also seen as DURGA, the angry aspect of Parvati.

Durga the terrible who has ten hands holding weapons to destroy evil and who rides a tiger. She also occurs as KALI.

Kali the fierce, cruel and blood thirsty. She grants peace to her followers by overcoming their fears. She wears a garland of sculls and demands sacrifices. She handles the destructive side of Shiva's personality. The act of destruction can be interpreted as the abolishing of ignorance and impurity, in order that the soul may come to knowledge and the heart may become pure.

The eldest son of Shiva and Parvati is GANESHA, also known as Ganpati. Ganesha is the remover of all obstacles and the Lord of new beginnings, of new openings. He is therefore prayed to at weddings, the New Year, the beginning of worship, when a new project is planned, and his picture is put over the entrance to temples, homes and businesses.

He has the head of an elephant, which symbolizes sagacity and wisdom. The most common account of Ganesha's birth is that while Parvati was washing herself, she took some dirt and unguent from her leg to form a model of a man. She then gave life to the figure, instructing him to guard the door while she bathed. Her husband Shiva returned to find a strange man-god in his house, and when he tried to pass through the door, Ganesha denied him entry. Furious, Shiva cut off the intruder's head only to find that he had killed Parvati's own son. Shiva dispatched his ganas (attendant demons and dwarfs) to bring back the head of the first creature they met. They returned with the head of an elephant. Shiva placed this on Ganesha's shoulders and brought him back to life. Ganesha was welcomed into the divine family and honored with the title Ganesha, Lord of Shiva's ganas: GANA + ISA (= governor, leader).

All sacrifices and religious ceremonies, all serious compositions in writing and all worldly affairs of importance are begun by pious Hindus with an invocation to Ganesh: opening a business auspiciously by a prayer to him; books begin with "salutation to Ganesh"; he is first evoked by Brahmins when performing ceremonies; when building a house his image is sprinkled with oil and adorned with flowers every day. People of all ranks may invoke him before they undertake any business and travelers worship him before they proceed on a journey.

He is playful and fearless. He is also known for his trickery and light-hearted cunning. He is vehicle is a rat. He is always depicted as being very fat. His size and weight represent gravity. At the same time he is often shown dancing and laughing, representing lightness and elegance. His big ears can always hear your prayers. His picture or image is seen over the doors of most shopkeepers. He is the Hindu god of Prudence and Policy.

He is the benign remover and overcomer of obstacles. This is symbolized by both the elephant -which overcomes obstacles through strength and weight and bulk, and by his vehicle the rat -which overcomes obstacles through cunning and endurance (a rat will get into any grain storage however well locked). He is the giver of victory, invincible. He is the bestower of earthly prosperity and well-being. "Success and disappointment shall spring from thee" is a well known prayer to Ganesh. Ganesha must be worshipped first, before all other Gods on all occasions.

One tusk was broken off to write part of the Mahabharata. When the Mahabharata was dictated to Ganesh by Vyasa and Ganesha's pen stopped working, he broke off one of his tusks so he could continue writing. Very often he is depicted holding his tusk in one of his (many) hands. He is therefore also the god of writers and scribes.