Hinduism (commonly called Sanātana Dharma, roughly translated as 'Perennial Faith') is characterized by a diverse array of belief systems, practices and scriptures. It has its origin in the ancient Indo-Aryan Vedic culture and is called by Time Almanac "the oldest religion". It is the third largest religion with approximately 940 million followers worldwide, 96% of whom live in the Indian subcontinent. In the US alone, 3 million people follow some form of Hinduism.
Perhaps the Hindu spirit of unity in diversity is best captured in a line from the ancient Rig Veda:
"Truth is One, though the Sages know it as Many."
— The Rig Veda (Book I, Hymn CLXIV, Verse 46)
Essentially, any kind of spiritual practice followed with faith, love and persistence will lead to the same ultimate state of self-realization. Thus, Hindu thought distinguishes itself by strongly encouraging tolerance for different beliefs since temporal systems cannot claim sole understanding of the one transcendental Truth.
To the Hindu, this idea has been an active force in defining the 'Eternal Dharma.' It has been for Hinduism what the infinite Divine Self of Advaita is to existence, remaining forever unchanged and self-luminous, central and pervasive, in spite of all the chaos and flux around it. In general, Hindu views are broad and range from monism, dualism, qualified non-dualism, pantheism, panentheism (alternatively called monistic theism by some scholars), strict monotheism, polytheism, and atheism.
Hindu monists, i.e., Smartas, who follow Advaita philsosophy, see one unity, with the personal Gods, different aspects of only One Supreme Being, like a single beam of light separated into colours by a prism, and are valid to worship. Some of the Hindu aspects of God include Devi, Vishnu, Ganesh, and Shiva. One of the most prominent Hindu monists is the saint Ramakrishna, whose preferred form of God is Devi and who reiterated traditional Hindu beliefs that aver devotees can invoke God in whatever form a devotee prefers (termed Ishta Devata, i.e., the preferred form of God) and ask for God's grace in order to attain Moksha, the end of the cycle of rebirth and death.
Although Hinduism is very diverse, one of the possible things that unites all hindus is the quest for enlightenment and to free oneself from the cycle of rebirth. Another major concept is the concept of Ahimsa, which means "non-violence". Through this concept, strict movements of vegetarianism and tolerance grew. Hindus believe that everything in the world is part of the universal spirit, and therefore everything needs to be respected, preserved and protected.
Contemporary Hinduism, specifically, Smartism, is most widely accepted to consist of a Holy Trinity. This is comprised of Brahma (the Creator of worlds), Vishnu (the Preserver of worlds) and Shiva (the Destroyer of worlds).
The most popular avatars in the Hindu religion are the avatars of Vishnu. The ten avatars of Vishnu are The Fish (Matsya), The Tortoise (Kurma), The Boar (Varaha), The Man-Lion (Narasimha), The Dwarf (Vamana), Rama with the Axe (Parashurama), Rama (Ramayana), the Prince of Ayodhya, Krishna (Mahabharata), Buddha, and Kalkin.
In Hinduism views are broad and range from monism, dualism, pantheism, panentheism, alternatively called monistic theism by some scholars, and strict monotheism, but are not polytheistic as outsiders perceive the religion to be. Hinduism has often been confused to be polytheistic as many of Hinduism's adherents, i.e., Smartas, who follow Advaita philsophy, are monists, and view multiple manifestations of the one God or source of being. Hindu monists see one unity, with the personal Gods, different aspects of only One Supreme Being, like a single beam of light separated into colours by a prism, and are valid to worship. Some of the Hindu aspects of God include Devi, Vishnu, Ganesh, and Siva. It is the Smarta view that dominates the view of Hinduism in the West. After all, Swami Vivekananda, a follower of Ramakrishna, along with many others, who brought Hindu beliefs to the West, were all Smarta in belief. Other denominations of Hinduism, as described later, don't hold this belief strictly and more closely adhere to a Western perception of what a monotheistic faith is. Additionally, like Judaeo-Christian religions which believe in angels, Hindus also believe in less powerful entities, such as devas.
Contemporary Hinduism is now divided into four major divisions, Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, and Smartism. Just as Jews, Christians, and Muslims all believe in one God but differ in their conceptions of him, Hindus all believe in one God but differ in their conceptions. The two primary form of differences are between the two monotheistic religions of Vaishnavism which conceives God as Vishnu and Shaivism, which conceives God as Shiva. Other aspects of God are in fact aspects of Vishnu or Shiva; see Smartism for more information. Only a Smartist would have no problem worshiping Shiva or Vishnu together as he views the different aspects of God as leading to the same One God. It is the Smarta view that predominates the view of Hinduism in the West. By contrast, a Vaishnavite considers Vishnu as the one true God, worthy of worship and other forms as subordinate. See for example, an illustration of the Vaishnavite view of Vishnu as the one true God, at this link. Accordingly, many Vaishnavites, for example, believe that only Vishnu can grant the ultimate aim for mankind, moksha. Similarly, many Shaivites also hold similar beliefs, as illustrated at at this link and at this link.
However, even Vaisnavites, like other Hindus, have tolerance for other beliefs because Lord Krishna, avatar of Vishnu, said so in the Gita. Few views illustrate this view of tolerance: Krishna said: "Whatever deity or form a devotee worships, I make his faith steady. However, their wishes are only granted by Me." (Gita: 7:21-22) Another quote in the Gita states: "O Arjuna, even those devotees who worship other lesser deities (e.g., Devas, for example) with faith, they also worship Me, but in an improper way because I am the Supreme Being. I alone am the enjoyer of all sacrificial services (Seva, Yajna) and Lord of the universe." (Gita: 9:23) Even a Vedic verse illustrates this theme of tolerance. The Vedas are revered in Hinduism, regardless of denomination. For example, a well-known Rig Vedic hymn stemming from Hinduism states that "Truth is One, though the sages know it variously." This is in contrast with some beliefs of other religious traditions, where one must believe in God being one aspect and to totally reject or disdain other beliefs.
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