This week more than a billion Hindus across the globe are celebrating Diwali. The five-day religious observance, which is also celebrated by followers of Sikh and Jain faiths, is the biggest holiday of the year in India, the country with the largest population of Hindus.
Here are nine things you should know about Hinduism.
1. Although Hinduism is often treated as a single religion, it is more accurate to describe it as a family of religions that share common beliefs and characteristics. Some scholars claim that early Hinduism originated around 5500 BC, making it one of the world’s oldest religions. The term Hindu was first used by the Persians, dating back to the 6th century BC, to describe the people living beyond the Indus River. For more than a thousand years the label had no specific religious connotation. In the early 19th century, though, the term Hinduism was coined by British writers to refer to the family of Vedic religious traditions. Some modern Hindus prefer the name “Vedic religion” or sanatana dharma (“eternal law”) rather than the label Hinduism.
2. Most variations of Hinduism are henotheistic, meaning they worship a single deity yet do not necessarily disbelieve in the existence of other gods. Hindus tend to view individual gods and goddesses as personifications of an immense unifying force that governs all existence and which cannot be completely known by humanity. The three main deities, known as the trimurti, are Brahma the creator of the universe, Vishnu the preserver of the universe, and Shiva the destroyer of the universe. Some Hindus would even say Jesus was a manifestation of one of their gods.
3. Rather than a single holy book (such as the Bible or Qur’an), Hinduism has numerous sacred writings. The text known as the Vedas (composed around 1500 BC) is a collection of verses and hymns written in Sanskrit that contains revelations received by ancient sages. The Upanishads is the text that provides the basic source for many important topics of Indian philosophy, such as karma and dharma. Other sacred texts include the Bhagavad Gita (which is part of the epic poem, Mahabharata), the 18 Puranas (which contain 400,000 verses), and the Ramayana, another epic poem.
4. Hindus believe we have four goals in life, known as puruṣārtha (“object of human pursuit”): dharma (conducting ourselves in a way conducive to spiritual advancement), artha (the pursuit of material prosperity), kama (enjoyment of the material world), and moksha (liberation from the attachments caused by dependence on the material world and from the cycle of birth and rebirth). In general, Hindus consider dharma more important than artha or kama, while moksha is considered the ultimate ideal of human life.
5. The sacred texts of Hinduism outline four primary, though not mutually exclusive, paths to experience Brahman, or ultimate reality, and obtain Moksha: Karma Yoga (performing one’s duties selflessly), Bhakti Yoga (loving Brahman through devotion and service), Jnana Yoga (study and contemplating sacred texts), and Raja Yoga (physically preparing the body and mind to allow deep meditation and introspection, so as to overcome suffering caused by material attachments). The postural yoga often used as a form of exercise in the West is derived from raja yoga.
6. Hinduism has no concept of sin, though Hindus believe human beings can create good or bad consequences for their actions. This idea is known as karma (from the Sanskrit word whose literal meaning is “action”), and refers to the law that every action has an equal reaction either immediately or at some point in the future. Good or virtuous actions, actions in harmony with dharma (i.e., conducive with spiritual advancement), will have good reactions or responses and bad actions; actions against dharma, will have the opposite effect.
7. Hindus believe that the soul, atman, is eternal, and that when the physical body dies the soul is reborn in another body—whether of an insect, animal, or human. This continuous cycle of life, death, and rebirth is commonly called reincarnation but in Hinduism is known as samsara. Karma can carry over into a future human rebirth or affect the form the body takes. When a person achieves moksha, they are liberated from the cycle of death and rebirth.
8. With more than 1 billon followers, Hinduism is the third-largest religion behind Christianity and Islam. The vast majority of Hindus (98 percent) live in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Hindus are among the least educated of the world’s major religious groups, with Hindus ages 25 and older having an average of 5.5 years of formal schooling in India, 4.6 years in Bangladesh, and 3.9 years in Nepal. Those who live in Europe and North America, though, tend to be highly educated. In the United States, Hindu adults have an average of 15.7 years of formal schooling, and 96 percent of Hindu adults have post-secondary degrees.
9. Since Hindus tend to have a fascination for sacred scripture, many Christian apologists recommend directly turning to the Bible—rather than relying on argumentation—when evangelizing Hindus. Some recommended passages to walk through with Hindus, missionary and church planter J. Brennan says, are the story of creation (Gen. 1–2), the fall of humankind (Gen. 3), God’s law (Ex. 20:1–21), true uncleanness (Mark 7:14–23), the healing of the lame man (Mark 2:1–12), Jesus defeats Satan (Luke 4:1–13), Jesus’s death (Mark 15), Christ’s resurrection (Matt. 28), the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), the Pharisee and the sinful woman (Luke 7:36–50), Peter’s hearers repent (Acts 2:37–41), counting the cost of belief in Jesus (Matt. 10:26–39), and salvation through faith (Eph. 2:1–10).