Hinduism: Religion Profile
Hinduism is the world's oldest religion. It is practiced by almost one billion people worldwide and is the majority religion of India. Hinduism is unique in that it has no founder. Its origins are thousands of years old. A strong oral culture existed in the Indus Valley around 1500 BC and this oral history was eventually recorded into the four sacred books of the Hindus known as the Vedas. The Aryan conquerors of the Indus valley brought with them the societal system known as the caste structure. These castes were known as the Brahmin who were priests and scholars; the Kshatriya who were kings, nobles and warriors; and the Vaisya who were the merchants and workers. The lowest fourth caste was known as the Sudras or untouchables. They were the indigenous conquered people who did the menial labor. The caste system was therefore not a religious creation of Hinduism but a societal practice that was supported by Hindu culture.
The Vedas are the heart of Hinduism. The Vedic poems of the people preserved a great oral tradition that had begun centuries earlier. Other sacred writings joined the Vedas. The most important of these are the Upanishads and the epics known as the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Together these books comprise the key texts in a massive body of spiritual and devotional literature.
Hinduism is a way of life as well as a religion and the faith involves a number of beliefs and practices. Hindus believe in one Supreme Spirit or God known as Brahman. From infinite Brahman was born Brahma, the creator and with him were Vishnu, the preserver and Shiva, the destroyer. Together these three gods carried the cycles of life and death and inhaled and exhaled universal life. This breath of universal life was the vibration of existence called Om or Aum. Vishnu had forms called avatars in which the god came to dwell on earth. The two most important avatars of Vishnu are Rama and Krishna. God's energy called shakti can also be expressed in female forms.
Hinduism values the personal experience of divine truth along with scripture. Many Hindus have a guru or teacher to guide them on the path to spiritual enlightenment. Hindus also believe in the reincarnation of the eternal soul known as atman. The soul passes through cycles of death and rebirth and evolves based upon the laws of karma, the universal law of cause and effect. The goal of the soul is to achieve moksha or liberation from these cycles and know its divine origin. A person's duty or path of conduct is known as dharma. Dharma helps one advance on the spiritual path aided by the practice of a particular yoga.