Hinduism, a major world religion, has over 900 million followers, with the majority concentrated in India and Nepal. If not the largest religion in terms of the number of followers, Hinduism is one of the world's oldest religions. Highly complex, it can be described as a cosmology and way of life rather than a systematic doctrine of beliefs. Unlike major world religions like Christianity or Islam, Hinduism does not have a founder and is not defined by a single scripture.
Broadly, Hindus believe in a common set of concepts that define their perspectives and cosmology. Atman, meaning the "eternal self," is a person's soul, which exists beyond the physical body.The term is related to karma, which is the notion that each action leads to a specific set of consequences. A person's karma is intimately tied to reincarnation or samsara, a continuous rebirth of the soul into a human or nonhuman form; a person's goal is to reach moksha or full liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. Another important Hindu concept is dharma, which refers to the balance of powers that rule the universe. Brahman is a transcendent, universal power that upholds the universe and defines everything.
The most significant scripture for Hindus is the Veda, which is composed of the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads. The Samhitas is the oldest part of the Vedas and is divided into the Rig Veda, the Yagur Veda, the Sama Veda and the Atharva Veda. The Rig Veda is made up of hymns dedicated to Hindu deities; the Yagur Veda contains mantras and ritual instructions; the Sama Veda comprises adaptions of specific mantras from the Rig Veda, which are to be sung by priests during ritual sacrifices; and the Atharva Veda contains magical rites and spells. The Brahmanas are rituals and prayers for priests, while the Aranyakas are for meditation and worship. The Upanishads are philosophical works. Other integral Hindu scriptures include the Bhagavad Gita, the world's longest poem, which tells the story of prince Arjuna and Krishna, and the Ramayana, the story of Prince Rama and the abduction of his wife, Sita.
For Hindus, daily worship is primarily individual and private and does not involve mass congregations, such as in Christianity or Islam. Worship takes place in the home, the temple and along roadside shrines. At the home, a series of rites or nitya rituals may take place each day. Most Hindus also keep a household shrine such as a statue of Krishna. Daily puja also involves worship at a local temple, where money, flowers and food are offered.
Other types of rituals include the naimittika, which take place at important celebrations and festivals. Kamya are optional rituals such as pilgrimages. For example, millions of Hindus partake in the Kumbha Mela, a religious festival that takes place once every 12 years at the confluence of the Ganges and Jumna rivers.
Although Hinduism includes many different deities, its most important gods make up the Hindu triumvirate: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma is the creator of the universe, but is not worshiped widely as Hindus perceive that his time as creator is over. Vishnu, the second god of the triumvirate, is the protector of the world whose job is to restore the balance of good and evil. Shiva is the god of destruction.
Yoga, which for Hindus is a pathway to reach a better life or to be released from reincarnation, is also an important component of Hinduism. The term does not refer to what the West generally refers to as yoga -- a form of physical exercise -- but rather the four pathways that impact the spirit. This includes janana yoga, which is a form of yoga that leads to understanding reality through knowledge; bhakti yoga, which is a pathway defined by devotion for a god; karma yoga, which goes to reverse the workings of karma through detachment; and raja yoga, which is defined essentially by meditation.
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