ARTICLE : What are the Hindu Beliefs? Hinduism Today
>From Hinduism Today, December Edition,
first in our new color magazine format.
copyright 1996 Himalayan Academy
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The DNA of Dharma
Though Hindus are doggedly nondogmatic,
They do hold common beliefs which, like a mental molecular structure,
Determine who they are
Few people today ponder the significance of belief. Nevertheless,
convictions constitute the foundation for every action. Webster's
defines belief as a "confidence in the truth or existence of something
not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof." But ask a Hindu what
his all-important beliefs are, and the answer may well elude him. He
is not accustomed to thinking of his religion as a clearly defined
system, distinct and different from others, for it encompasses all of
Hinduism is so vast, so generously tolerant of conflicting concepts
that to condense a brief list of basic beliefs might seem a vain
enterprise. Some would assert that Hinduism could never be limited by
such an ideological inventory-and they would be right. Still, an
answer is required. Inside India, a clear answer prevents the erosion
of "Hindu" into a mere geographical concept no different from
"Indian;" elsewhere, it provides the necessary demarcation from other
faiths in a pluralistic setting. The need for a precise list arises
with the cognition that beliefs forge our attitudes, which determine
our overall state of mind and the feelings we are predisposed to, and
that these, in turn, directly determine our actions. Strong religious
beliefs induce actions that weave uplifting patterns of daily conduct,
furthering our unfoldment. In India, the definition of who is a Hindu
is critical in legal deliberations, and belief is the keystone of such
determinations. Therefore, it is meaningful to catalog the convictions
that all Hindus hold in common.
In 1926, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan eloquently elaborated the nature of
Hindu belief in a series of lectures in Oxford, later published as The
Hindu View of Life. "Hinduism is more a way of life than a form of
thought. While it gives absolute liberty in the world of thought, it
enjoins a strict code of practice. While fixed intellectual beliefs
mark off one religion from another, Hinduism sets itself no such
limits. Intellect is subordinated to intuition, dogma to experience,
outer expression to inward realization. Religion is not the acceptance
of academic abstractions or the celebration of ceremonies, but a kind
of life or experience of reality." By emphasizing conduct,
Radhakrishnan did not deny belief. In fact, he provided one of the
best extensive lists [see page 33]. His emphasis is on the absolute
freedom of belief allowed within Hinduism-where the questioning mind
is known as the seeking mind, rather than the errant mind.
The following definitions of Hinduism's shared central beliefs were
garnered from prominent Hindu organizations and individuals of the
20th century-evidence that the imperative to formalize conviction is a
recent phenomenon. Overall, the lists and descriptions are
surprisingly similar, echoing certain key concepts-generally, that it
is conduct, based upon belief in dharma, karma and reincarnation,
which makes one a Hindu. Some of the beliefs listed are not shared by
all Hindus-most prominently the concept of avatar, divine incarnation,
which is a distinctive Vaishnava belief. We shall now cite what has
been collected from distinguished scholars and saints.
Bal Ghangadhar Tilak, scholar, mathematician, philosopher and Indian
nationalist, named "the father of the Indian Revolution" by Jawaharlal
Nehru, summarized Hindu beliefs in his Gitarahasya: "Acceptance of the
Vedas with reverence; recognition of the fact that the means or ways
to salvation are diverse; and realization of the truth that the number
of Gods to be worshiped is large, that indeed is the distinguishing
feature of the Hindu religion." This oft-quoted statement, so
compelling concise, is considered authoritative by Bharat's courts of
Sri K. Navaratnam, esteemed Sri Lankan religious scholar, enumerated a
more extensive set of basic beliefs in his book, Studies in Hinduism,
reflecting the Southern Saiva Agamic tradition. 1) A belief in the
existence of God. 2) A belief in the existence of a soul separate from
the body. 3) A belief in the existence of the finitizing principle
known as avidya or maya. 4) A belief in the principle of
matter-prakriti or maya. 5) A belief in the theory of karma and
reincarnation. 6) A belief in the indispensable guidance of a guru to
guide the spiritual aspirant towards God Realization. 7) A belief in
moksha, or liberation, as the goal of human existence. 8) A belief in
the indispensable necessity of temple worship in religious life. 9) A
belief in graded forms of religious practices, both internal and
external, until one realizes God. 10) A belief in ahimsa as the
greatest dharma or virtue. 11) A belief in mental and physical purity
as indispensable factors for spiritual progress.
Mahatma Mohandas K. Gandhi: "I call myself a Sanatani Hindu because I
believe in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas and all that goes by
the name of Hindu scriptures, and therefore in avatars and rebirth.
Above all, I call myself a Sanatani Hindu, so long as the Hindu
society in general accepts me as such. In a concrete manner he is a
Hindu who believes in God, immortality of the soul, transmigration,
the law of karma and moksha, and who tries to practice truth and
ahimsa in daily life, and therefore practices cow protection in its
widest sense and understands and tries to act according to the law of
Sri Pramukh Swami Maharaj of the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam
Sanstha (Swaminarayan Faith) propounds: 1) Parabrahman, one supreme
all-powerful God: He is the Creator, has a divine form, is immanent,
transcendent and the giver of moksha. 2) Avatarvad, manifestation of
God on Earth: God Himself incarnates on Earth in various forms to
revive dharma and grant liberation. 3) Karmavad, law of action: the
soul reaps fruits, good or bad, according to its past and present
actions, which are experienced either in this life or future lives. 4)
Punarjanma, reincarnation: the mortal soul is continuously born and
reborn in one of the 8,400,000 species until it attains liberation. 5)
Moksha, ultimate liberation: the goal of human life. It is the
liberation of the soul from the cycle of births and deaths to remain
eternally in the service of God. 6) Guru-shishya sambandh,
master-disciple relationship: guidance and grace of a spiritually
perfect master, revered as the embodiment of God, is essential for an
aspirant seeking liberation. 7) Dharma, that which sustains the
universe: an all-encompassing term representing divine law, law of
being, path of righteousness, religion, duty, responsibility, virtue,
justice, goodness and truth. 8) Ved pramana, scriptural authority of
the Vedas: all Hindu faiths are based on the teachings of the Vedas.
9) Murti-puja, sacred image worship: consecrated images represent the
presence of God which is worshiped. The sacred image is a medium to
help devotees offer their devotion to God.
Sri Swami Vivekananda, speaking in America, said: "All Vedantists
believe in God. Vedantists also believe the Vedas to be the revealed
word of God-an expression of the knowledge of God-and as God is
eternal, so are the Vedas eternal. Another common ground of belief is
that of creation in cycles, that the whole of creation appears and
disappears. They postulate the existence of a material, which they
call akasha, which is something like the ether of the scientists, and
a power which they call prana."
Sri Jayendra Sarasvati: 69th Shankaracharya of the Kamakoti Peetham,
Kanchipuram, defines in his writings the basic features of Hinduism as
follows. 1) The concept of idol worship and the worship of God in His
nirguna as well as saguna form. 2) The wearing of sacred marks on the
forehead. 3) Belief in the theory of past and future births in
accordance with the theory of karma. 4) Cremation of ordinary men and
burial of great men.
Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, renowned philosopher and president of India from
1962 to 1967, states in The Hindu View of Life: "The Hindu recognizes
one Supreme Spirit, though different names are given to it. God is in
the world, though not as the world. He does not merely intervene to
create life or consciousness, but is working continuously. There is no
dualism of the natural and the supernatural. Evil, error and ugliness
are not ultimate. No view is so utterly erroneous, no man is so
absolutely evil as to deserve complete castigation. There is no Hell,
for that means there is a place where God is not, and there are sins
which exceed His love. The law of karma tells us that the individual
life is not a term, but a series. Heaven and Hell are higher and lower
stages in one continuous movement. Every type has its own nature which
should be followed. We should do our duty in that state of life to
which we happen to be called. Hinduism affirms that the theological
expressions of religious experience are bound to be varied, accepts
all forms of belief and guides each along his path to the common goal.
These are some of the central principles of Hinduism. If Hinduism
lives today, it is due to them."
The Vishva Hindu Parishad declared its definition in a Memorandum of
Association, Rules and Regulations in 1966: "Hindu means a person
believing in, following or respecting the eternal values of life,
ethical and spiritual, which have sprung up in Bharatkhand [India] and
includes any person calling himself a Hindu."
The Indian Supreme Court, in 1966, formalized a judicial definition of
Hindu beliefs to legally distinguish Hindu denominations from other
religions in India. This list was affirmed by the Court as recently as
1995 in judging cases regarding religious identity. 1) Acceptance of
the Vedas with reverence as the highest authority in religious and
philosophic matters and acceptance with reverence of Vedas by Hindu
thinkers and philosophers as the sole foundation of Hindu philosophy.
2) Spirit of tolerance and willingness to understand and appreciate
the opponent's point of view based on the realization that truth is
many-sided. 3) Acceptance of great world rhythm-vast periods of
creation, maintenance and dissolution follow each other in endless
succession-by all six systems of Hindu philosophy. 4) Acceptance by
all systems of Hindu philosophy of the belief in rebirth and
pre-existence. 5) Recognition of the fact that the means or ways to
salvation are many. 6) Realization of the truth that numbers of Gods
to be worshiped may be large, yet there being Hindus who do not
believe in the worshiping of idols. 7) Unlike other religions, or
religious creeds, Hindu religion's not being tied down to any definite
set of philosophic concepts, as such.
The historic intermingling of myriad races, cultures and religions has
exposed us to a kaleidoscopic array of beliefs and practices; yet
threads of sameness and agreement bind them together. Taken as a
whole, the definitions above, emphasizing the Vedas, dharma, karma and
rebirth, can help us gain clarity and insight into our inmost
convictions, offering the opportunity to freely and ably choose the
same as our progenitors-or not. That "or not" may be the greatest
freedom a seeker ever had or could ever hope for.
A Contrast of Convictions:
Hinduism Today and Christianity Today craft a point-counterpoint
Back in 1993, our editors were contacted by christianity today
magazine to be interviewed for a major story called Hindus in America.
Thus began a series of dialogs that added to their article crucial and
often corrective insights to dispel common myths and misinformation
about the world's oldest religion. Perhaps most significantly, they
agreed to publish our own nine fundamental Hindu beliefs. The editors
of Christianity Today counter-composed nine parallel Christian
convictions, written just before press time in a series of grueling
sessions by the best theologians they could assemble. The resulting
point-counterpoint-whose brevity is both its strength and its
weakness-summarizes the cosmic perspective of two of the world's
1. Hindus believe in the divinity of the vedas, the world's most
ancient scripture, and venerate the Agamas as equally revealed. These
primordial hymns are God's word and the bedrock of Sanatana Dharma,
the eternal religion which has neither beginning nor end.
1. Christians believe that the bible is the uniquely inspired and
fully trustworthy word of God. It is the final authority for
Christians in matters of belief and practice, and though it was
written long ago, it continues to speak to believers today.
2. Hindus believe in a one, all-pervasive supreme being who is both
immanent and transcendent, both Creator and Unmanifest Reality.
2. Christians believe in one god in three persons. He is distinct from
his creation, yet intimately involved with it as its sustainer and
3. Hindus believe that the universe undergoes endless cycles of
creation, preservation and dissolution.
3. Christians believe that the world was created once by the divine
will, was corrupted by sin, yet under God's providence moves toward
4. Hindus believe in karma, the law of cause and effect by which each
individual creates his own destiny by his thoughts, words and deeds.
4. Christians believe that, through god's grace and favor, lost
sinners are rescued from the guilt, power and eternal consequences of
their evil thoughts, words and deeds.
5. Hindus believe that the soul reincarnates, evolving through many
births until all karmas have been resolved, and moksha, spiritual
knowledge and liberation from the cycle of rebirth, is attained. Not a
single soul will be eternally deprived of this destiny.
5. Christians believe that it is appointed for human beings to die
once and after that face judgment. In Adam's sin, the human race was
spiritually alienated from God, and that those who are called by God
and respond to his grace will have eternal life. Those who persist in
rebellion will be lost eternally.
6. Hindus believe that divine beings exist in unseen worlds and that
temple worship, rituals, sacraments as well as personal devotionals
create a communion with these devas and Gods.
6. Christians believe that spirit beings inhabit the universe, some
good and some evil, but worship is due to God alone.
7. Hindus believe that a spiritually awakened master, or satguru, is
essential to know the Transcendent Absolute, as are personal
discipline, good conduct, purification, pilgrimage, self-inquiry and
7. Christians believe that god has given us a clear revelation of
Himself in Jesus and the sacred Scriptures. He has empowered by his
Spirit prophets, apostles, evangelists, and pastors who are teachers
charged to guide us into faith and holiness in accordance with his
8. Hindus believe that all life is sacred, to be loved and revered,
and therefore practice ahimsa, "noninjury."
8. Christians believe that life is to be highly esteemed but that it
must be subordinated in the service of Biblical love and justice.
9. Hindus believe that no particular religion teaches the only way to
salvation above all others, but that all genuine religious paths are
facets of God's Pure Love and Light, deserving tolerance and
9. Christians believe that jesus is god incarnate and, therefore, the
only sure path to salvation. Many religions may offer ethical and
spiritual insights, but only Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life.