Hinduism consists of the religious beliefs and rituals indigenous to India which are not Buddhism or Jainism, and are followed and practiced by more than a billion people today. Given Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world one might expect, at some point, to encounter its beliefs and practices, hence highlighting the importance of possessing a basic familiarity with some of its tenets. Below are 18 important Hindu religious and spiritual concepts worth becoming familiar with.
Apauruṣeya – This term applies to the Vedas, the sacred texts of the Hindu religion. It means “not of a man,” “superhuman,” and/or “beyond human imagination.” For Hindus, the Vedas reveal fundamental and unassailable truths.
Atman – According to Hindu belief, Atman refers to the “eternal self” that underlies human existence. It is also often referred to as the soul or spirit, and denotes the spiritual essence of creatures. The concept of Atman is an ancient one that has evolved throughout time. It first appeared in the Rig Veda dating to roughly 1500 BC, as well as in the Upanishads. In the Upanishads there is divergence in that several of the texts state that Atman is part of Brahman but not the same as Brahman whereas others suggest Atman is identical to Brahman.
Avatar – This refers to the physical and material appearance of a god on Earth. Many Hindus believe that Krishna was the avatar of the principle god Vishnu. Alongside Krishna other popular avatars include Vasudeva, Rama, and Narayana. One reason a god might take human form is because of cosmic disorder brought on by evil in the world. An avatar appears to destroy this evil as a means to restore cosmic order.
Bhakti – Bhakti is a concept found in several eastern religions. In Hinduism it has enjoyed a long history and development, and denotes a committed engagement and devotion to numerous important subjects including a god, avatar, human relationships, and/or guru. This devotion can take several forms including singing, dancing, and temple worship. Hindu’s believe that bhakti is a crucial path should one wish to obtain liberation (see moksha below). The bhakti concept transitioned into the Bhakti Movement during the Hinduism of the 8th century AD, and brought a flurry of devotional and poetic literature in India for several hundred years.
Brahman – Brahman is believed to be the Ultimate Reality and Supreme Cosmic Spirit in the universe. It is an important concept within the Vedas and the early Upanishads. It is found in the oldest layer of the Vedas, the Vedic Samhitas dated to the 2nd millennium BC while many other Vedas mention Brahman. These present numerous views of Brahman as opposed to one single view. A number of attributes have been ascribed to Brahman including eternal truth, infinite, conscious, unchanging, genderless, transcendent, and the binding unity behind all diversity within the universe. Brahman is also thought to be beyond human comprehension and cannot be exactly defined.
Brahmin – The Brahmin is the priest in the highest class of the varnas (see varnas below).
Dharma – Dharma is a philosophical concept found across numerous eastern religions, and is one widely addressed in the Hindu literature such as Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Epics (the Ramayana and Mahabharata). For Hindus it applies across many parts of life, including in a person’s moments of solitude, in their engagements with other human beings as well as with nature. Integral to dharma is a notion of the interconnectedness of life, ethics, ethical practice, and religious rituals.
Dhyana – Also presented in many ancient Hindu texts, such as the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, and Sutras, it simply denotes meditation and it is employed in yoga exercises as a means to gain self-knowledge.
God/god, views of – Hindus possess numerous views of god. These include kathenotheism (the belief that many gods exist but only one is to be worshiped at a time), panentheism (the belief that an Ultimate Being is both immanent in and dependent on the world yet also transcendent to it), henotheism (the belief that many gods exist but that only one is selected to be worshiped), and monolatrism (the belief that many gods exist but that only one is worthy to be worshipped and this worship is consistent).
Guru – A guru is a personal spiritual teacher, guide, and counselor who is viewed to possess superior authority. In ancient India, gurus would orally transmit the teachings and wisdom found in the Vedic texts to their pupils. They would also assist fellow Hindus to achieve liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth (see Reincarnation below).
Karma – This is spiritual and ethical concept familiar to many eastern religions. It is also one, in Hinduism, that is associated with action and the notion of rebirth (reincarnation). Karma, in its most simple form, means that good actions create good karma and that bad actions create bad karma. Causality is also a feature of karma in that for every action there is an effect, and that every action is factor for how a person will be reborn in the next life.
Mantra – Mantras, frequently employed by practicing Hindus in ceremonies, are spoken words, sentences, and verses believed to have mystical or spiritual efficacy.
Marga – Marga is most commonly associated with Buddhist literature and tradition although for Hindus it refers to paths constituting the journey to reaching release or moksha. Hindus identify several paths as stipulated in the Bhagavad Gita such as the path of duties, the path of knowledge, and path of devotion (see bhakti above).
Moksha – This denotes the liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. It is an important concept that has evolved over time in the Vedas and the Upanishads, and is viewed differently by Hindu religious groups and schools in terms of the paths for attaining it and whether or not it can take place in life or only after death.
Prasada – Meaning “favour” or “grace,” Prasada is a gift, such as food, water, flowers, or fruits, that is offered by Hindus during time of worship. The offering can be given to a god or to an avatar.
Reincarnation – This is also referred to as rebirth, and is the idea that all life forms go through a cycle of reincarnation (a series of births and rebirths). Different religions possess different views of how one’s rebirth could take shape whether that be in the form of a human, animal, or is spiritual. For Hindus, the process of birth and rebirth is endless until moksha is achieved to end the process.
Satya – Meaning “truth” in Sanskrit, satya is a concept embedded within a diverse range of Hindu texts, which includes speaking the truth and is believed to be an essential component for harmony within the universe.
Varna – This is a social structure in the form of a class system within traditional Hindu societies. There are typically four classes: priestly (brahmin), warrior and rulers (kshatriya), farmers and merchants (vaisya), and the labourers and servants (sudra). Not all in society fall within these four classes, which has led some to propose a 5th class, namely the classless outcasts or untouchables (chandalas or dalits). The varna class system is hierarchical are deemed to be natural distinctions that are divinely inspired.