Essentials of Hinduism

Essentials of Hinduism
By Swami Samarpanananda
Ramakrishna Mission: Vivekananda Education and Research Institute
Belur Math, Howrah, W. Bengal
YouTube Channel: Indian Spiritual Heritage

[This work is a shorter but complete version of the book, "The Hindu Way" brought out by M/S Pan Macmillan]


Hinduism is based on the spiritual principles and realisations of the sages, which over the length of time got recorded in the books called the Vedas. Unlike other religions, it has no human founder, and hence its date of origin can never be fixed; it has existed since the dawn of spiritual thoughts in the world. Although the term "Hindu" is of relatively late origin, it has been accepted to signify the religion of the ethnic Indians and their spread wherever in the world.

Hinduism does not claim any exclusive right over the spiritual truths it preaches, and it believes that a person can reach the spiritual goal through any path. This makes it accept every faith and religion with respect. Inclusiveness and universal acceptance, both as spiritual and social truth are the characteristic of Hinduism.

Who is a Hindu?

Being an ultimate inclusive religion, it is difficult to define Hinduism the way Islam or Christianity can be. However, for the sake of convenience, a Hindu is expected to have these core convictions:
1. Acceptance of the spiritual truths as preached in the Vedas, and elaborated in any of the sacred books of the Hindus.
2. The belief in the transmigratory nature of the individual soul till it attains mukti. This is the state of freedom from every kind of duality like birth and death, good and bad.
3. Acceptance of different paths of religions as ways to perfection.

In matters of religious and social practices, Hindus go by what the elders of the society practise.

a. Sacred Books

The Fountainhead of Hinduism: The Vedas

Hinduism is based on the teachings of the Vedas. These sacred books are the most ancient preserved literature of the world, and it is difficult to say when exactly these works were composed. According to educated guess, these are more than seven to eight thousand years old.

The contents of these books are the records of the spiritual realisation of the sages of that period. Some of the mantras of the Vedas, including the Gaytri mantra are quite popular and are recited regularly by millions.

The Vedas are also called Shruti (lit. heard), since they were passed down from the teacher to the disciple orally, and were considered too sacred to be written down. These are four in number: Rigveda, Samveda, Yajurveda, Atharva Veda. This division is based on poetic metres: Rigveda is in rik metre (a particular Vedic metre), Samaveda can be sung, Yajurveda is in Yajus metre (used as mantras during yajna), and Atharva Veda has composition both in prose and poetry.

Everything of Hinduism can be traced back to the Vedas. They contain spiritual truths, philosophy, devotion, mythology, rituals, code of conduct, ethics, poetry etc. Sages and philosophers of later ages elaborated the ideas expressed in the Vedas to enrich various class of literature.

The religious and social practices of the Hindus keep changing with time, but the eternal spiritual principles, as recorded in the Vedas, continue to be the same. This unique style of dynamic equilibrium gives Hinduism an orthodox core, but a flexible external.

Other Sacred Books

For thousands of years Hindus have been discussing and explaining various aspects of religion which has resulted in a huge mass of religious literature. The more important of these books are:

Upanishads: These are the last sections of the Vedas, but because of their special philosophical nature and importance, these are treated separately. These books contain the philosophical truths realised by the sages, which now form the philosophical base of Hinduism. The most important of these truths is the Oneness of everything -- sarvam khalu idam Brahma, and that the individual is one with the universal -- aham Brahma asmi.

It is believed that there are one hundred and eight Upanishads, but ten of them are more famous.

Epics: Ramayana and Mahabharata: These are the two sacred epics that have served as the hope, ideal and inspiration of the Hindus. Of these, Ramayana centres the life of Sri Rama, while Mahabharata is woven around the story of Kaurava-Pandava clan in which Sri Krishna plays an important role. Through narration, these sacred books highlight the struggle of an individual in holding on to religious principles in good times and also during crisis. In addition, these contain most other issues concerning religious life.

Many classics have been composed in every Indian and many South East Asian languages based on these two sacred epics.

The Gita is the most popular Hindu sacred book that can be treated as the handbook of Hinduism. Composed in mere seven hundred verses, it is a small part of the Mahabharata, but it stands in its own majesty of poetry, philosophy and spirituality. Devout Hindus recite it daily as a source of inspiration, and also chant it when someone dies.

The Puranas are eighteen in number and form the mythological base of the Hindus. These have around 5.5 lakh verses through which the popular stories of gods and goddesses are described. The most popular of these books is Srimad Bhagavata Purana which deals mainly with the story of Sri Krishna. Shiva Maha Purana is another popular work centring Lord Shiva.

The Puranas were composed to suit the needs of the masses for an easy understanding of the spiritual truths. Despite their mythological nature, they discuss philosophy, ethics and rituals of the Hindus in detail.

The Smritis are the law books of the Hindus which prescribe the personal and social code. The rules laid down in these books cover practically everything -- starting from the most trivial daily acts of an individual, through the duties of a king, to the highest philosophical wisdom that one may require to lead a good life. The aim of these books is to take a person to the highest spiritual realisation.

Unlike the codes of other religions, Smritis are not the dictates of God, or any divine personality, and hence they do not have the same veneration as the scriptures, or as the codes as practised in other religions. Sages like Manu took the more prevalent practices of the society and then gave them a religious orientation so that people identify themselves not only with goodness, but with religiosity too. The sages made sure to keep their respective Smritis in tune with the principles of the Vedas, even though these were written for a particular period of time.

There are innumerable Smritis of which the most famous is Manu Smriti, written around the second century B.C.E. The sages knew that a society ruled by archaic laws becomes stagnant. So, new Smritis were codified from time to time according to the need of the age. Unfortunately, no new Smriti has been written in the last thousand years or so.

The Tantras are mostly about Mother Worship through the ritualistic aspect of religion. Some of these books are devoted to Lord Shiva, and the rest are devoted to Shakti, the female principle of God. These books discuss ways and means to please Shakti so that one can attain the desired in life. However, some of the practices of Tantra do not meet social approval, and hence these are not as popular as other sacred books.

Most Hindu rituals are derived either from the Puranas or from Tantra traditions.

In addition to these, there are thousands of books which serve as the basis for various sampradaya (religious sects) of the Hindus.

b. Principles of Hinduism

Aim of Hinduism

The fundamental principle of Hinduism has been to lead a person towards mukti (freedom). But because not everyone is capable of taking up this great idea, Hinduism helps people improve their quality of life by having an ideal. There are four of these, popularly known as Purusartha (goals of life).
a. Dharma, Righteous living that results in a more meaningful life.
b. Artha, Acquisition of wealth through rightful means.
c. Kama, Enjoyment without transgressing the social and religious norms.
d. Moksha, Liberation from the cycle of birth and death.

The first of these three are for the householders, and the fourth one, spirituality, is for the tyagi (renunciates). It is expected that every Hindu would give up worldly attachments at some point of time to devote themselves fully to spirituality.


The supreme Reality in Hinduism is known as Sat-Chit-Ananda (Existence, Consciousness and Bliss), which carries two ideas -- the impersonal, and the personal. The Impersonal God is ever present and everywhere present God for whom no adjective can be employed. He is infinite, ever free, without a form, and beyond the grasp of the human mind. This aspect of God is also known as nirguna nirakara Brahman (without any qualifying traits and form). This aspect of God can be experienced only in the highest non-dual state of meditation.

When this same Reality is perceived through mind, keeping one’s individuality intact but pure, It is known as Saguna Sakara Brahman (God with form and qualities, or simply God), who is merciful, powerful, and with innumerable noble qualities. He is the omnipresent creator, preserver, and destroyer of everything.

In essence, both these aspects of God are same, but people want to perceive them differently according to their mental makeup.

The Divinities

The Personal aspect of God is worshipped by the Hindus in His different forms. Of these, Brahma is accepted as the Creator, Vishnu as the sustainer, and Shiva as the destroyer of the universe, although in essence they are same. Vishnu is also known as Narayana who is described as having incarnated many times in various forms. Two of His popular human incarnations are Rama and Krishna. The present day Hinduism worships mainly four forms of God: Vishnu, Shiva, Rama, and Krishna.

The creative principle of God is known as Shakti, the power of God. Also known as Mother, this aspect of God is worshipped variously as Durga, Kali, Lakshmi and others. Independent of these, Saraswati is universally worshipped as the goddess of learning.

In addition to these, there are millions of gods and goddesses who represent the various aspects of divinity. According to some, there are in total thirty three crore (three hundred and thirty million) of them, which allows a Hindu to choose a God of his liking.


Why and how God creates this universe, is a problem that has baffled philosophers since ancient times. For Hindus also, Creation is a mystery of God that cannot be satisfactorily explained. Different philosophers offer different theories, but the most popular of them is the theory of Maya, according to which, God creates the Universe with the help of His own inscrutable Maya (the great divine power), which by its very nature cannot be described.

Maya is the Divine Ignorance which exists both at individual and cosmic level. Maya is responsible for the wrong perception that people have regarding the presence or absence of a thing. Also, the continuance of the universe is due to Maya; and time, space, events, name and form are all products of Maya.

Maya exists only till one does not realise the Spiritual Truth. Thus, it exists and yet it does not exist. It can be compared with the darkness of night that makes objects invisible, or makes them appear differently. When one wants to see this darkness with the help of the darkness, it cannot be seen; and when one wants to see it with the help of light, it vanishes. Just like that, maya cannot be seen through maya, and it ceases to exist when the divine light of knowledge dawns upon a person.

The existence of maya as real, unreal, or part real is accepted by most Hindu philosophers, but they differ about its exact nature. This gives rise to many schools of thoughts in Vedanta.


Hindus believe that life is eternal, and that it did not spring out of nothing at some point of time, as science and many religions will have us believe.

The most popular theory of creation is that it comes into existence by the will of God through Maya, and what we call Creation, is in reality projection. Nature (called variously as maya, Prakriti, and Shakti) is without beginning and without end. At some point of time this gross universe goes back to its finer state, remains there for a certain period, and then once again gets projected to manifest all that is there in the nature. This cyclic creation-dissolution has continued since eternity, and would continue eternally.

Two theories are advanced to explain the process of Creation. According to one, the will of God creates Brahma, who gets down to the job of creation by meditating on the principles and process of Creation that was there in the previous cycle. With time, the creation blooms in all its majesty.

The second popular theory with the philosophers is that there is Prakriti, the Universal Mother Nature, which is composed of inertness (tamas), activity (rajas), and purity (sattva) in balance. For a divine mysterious reason, whenever an imbalance takes place in the triad of these qualities, they start combining with each other to give birth to more and more gross objects till the subtle aspects of earth, fire, water, space, and air are produced. These five are not the physical objects that one sees, but are finer, and are at the root of everything that is there in the universe. The final creation of the objects of this universe proceeds from the combination of these five elements in a set order, and every object of the universe, including the mind, contains these five elements in varying proportion.


God is beyond Creation and causation, but He expresses Himself in various forms, including human beings to give a push to spiritual evolution through His divine powers. This is known as avatara. Whenever God incarnates, He gives the knowledge of spiritual path best suited for that age. It is then that people with devotional inclination feel the warmth of Lord's love, compassion, majesty etc., and then turn towards Him with intensity.

God would continue to incarnate till there is creation and created beings.


Vedanta, the founding philosophy of the Hindus, is developed on the texts of Upanishads, Gita, and Brahmasutras, according to which, the supreme Reality, known as Brahman, alone exists -- Sarvam khalvidam Brahma. At the micro level, Brahman is known as Atman, the conscious principle present in every living being, and so by its very nature Atman can neither be created, nor destroyed. It has all powers, purity, omnipresence, and is full of all knowledge. But due to maya, Atman mistakenly identifies itself with the body, mind and senses. It is then that it becomes transmigratory, and is known as jivatman, which is equivalent to the popular idea of the soul.

The jivatman identifies itself with various kinds of action and their results, and thus goes on creating karma -- good and bad. These karma cloud the pure nature of Atman, and make him forgetful of its true nature, making it enjoys and suffer in the world. However, since the atman is infinite and eternal, it passes and evolves through various bodies and finally attains perfection and freedom.

There are three major approaches in Vedanta philosophy that discuss the nature of Atman. According to Advaita Vedantins, Atman is identical with the Supreme Reality, Brahman; and the multiplicity that is seen everywhere is not real, but is imaginary due to Maya. For many other sages, Atman is related to God in the same way as a leaf is connected with a tree. This view is called Visishta Advaita, which was popularised by Ramanujacharya. According to some others, Atman and God are two eternally separate beings and they have the relationship as between a servant and his master. This is called Dvaita, popularised by Madhvacharya.

Hinduism accepts that the true individuality of a person does not lie with his body or the mind, but with Atman; and the real consciousness does not belong to the mind, but to the Atman. It is the reflected consciousness of the Atman in the mind (which serves like a mirror) that makes one perceive and know the objects of the world. When one's mind is cleansed through sadhana, it serves as a perfect reflector of the spiritual reality.


The most profound doctrine of the Hindus is the Law of Karma, according to which 'one gets what one earns', and, what one thinks is as important as what one does in shaping one's future.

This law implies that the disparity in the world amongst people is not an act of God, but is due to one's own doing. One thus has the freedom to change one's situation by performing right action, and thinking right thoughts. So, ideas like destiny, predestination and fate have no place in Hinduism. The grace of God, like the widespread rains, is everywhere, and one only has to make use of it through one's actions and thoughts to reap the benefit.

There is no historical point when the karma of an individual became operative; it is without beginning as maya and soul are. Like a flowing river, one may not know its source of origin, but one can go across it through spiritual practices.


One important fall out of the Law of Karma is the continuation of life in some form to work out one's karma. At the time of death, the individual Atman (jiva) leaves the body, along with the mind to take up a new body. Depending on one's actions and attitude, one may be born in any of the visible or invisible forms, but the best way to work out one's karma is through a human body.

The cycle of birth and death continues till one realises one’s true nature as Atman. This knowledge is popularly known as Self realisation. The ultimate goal of Hindu religion is to take every person to that state of knowledge when one realises his nature and goes beyond the cycle of birth and death.

Heaven and Hell

Heaven and hell are places of temporary residence where the soul (which takes up a body suitable for the place to enjoy or suffer) lands in its journey towards mukti -- the final liberation from the law of karma. Since no one knows how these places look, the poets of the Puranas gave a free flight to their imagination to construct various heavens and hells, even though they do not have any significance in true spirituality.


The goal of every soul is freedom from every kind of bondage. The ignorance, inherent in every mind about one's true nature (the eternally pure, conscious, and free atman), gives birth to identification with the non-eternal. This gives rise to desires to acquire the pleasurable, and run away from the unpleasant. This results in an individual's compulsion to act and work, which in turn causes more ignorance, more desires and more bondage. The cycle goes on.

The aim of Hinduism is to make a person conscious of this vicious cycle of ignorance-desire-action, which ultimately binds one to the law of karma and makes him suffer and enjoy variously. So, the spiritual practices in Hinduism are aimed at taking one beyond selfish action, and in making him absolutely unselfish. It is only then that one becomes fit for self realisation, which leads to mukti.


The greatest contribution of Hinduism has been the idea that a person can attain the highest state of realisation and go beyond pleasure and pain, sorrow and hope, heaven and hell, good and bad even while living. In that state one realises oneself to be one with the supreme Reality -- Aham Brahma Asmi – "I am the Supreme Reality". This is known as Jivanmukti – free while alive.

If not for anything else, the Hindu race must be preserved and respected for possessing this highest spiritual truth. The echo of this truth has been heard many a times in other religions too, but it has never entered the mainstream of any other religious thought.


Hindu ethics is mostly elaborated in Smriti class of literature and deal with every possible issue that a person may come across in life. These codes of conduct are not based on what one sage said or did, but on the realistic ground of the ultimate spiritual truth of becoming all inclusive. The guiding principle behind these ethics and moral code is unselfishness. The goal of Indian spirituality is oneness, which implies that a person who is established in this knowledge, or wants to acquire this state, can never have emotions like jealousy, greed, ambition, hatred, etc., which are the signs of exclusiveness.


Sin, as a theological principle, does not play any role in Hinduism. The general term for it is adharma, to indulge in which implies transgression of certain code of conduct. Since these codes are not permanent in nature, transgressions can never be sin against God, as the term is generally understood. Sin is more like a mistake that can be corrected through penance and right action.

c. Practices


Philosophy is known as darshan (lit. to see) in Hindu religion. Speculative philosophy and word play is a strict no-no in it. A philosophy to be acceptable in Hinduism has to be based on the Vedas, and has to be preached by a sage. There are six such Vedic philosophies – Samkhya by Kapil, Yoga by Patanjali, Nyaya by Gautama, Vaiseshika by Kanada, Mimamsa by Jaimini, and Vedanta by Vyasa. Of these, Vedanta has three major and some minor schools of thoughts, and it has come to be the chief philosophy of the Hindus.

Other than these Vedic philosophies, there is the Charvaka philosophy of the materialists, and some schools based on Shiva and Shakti .


Hinduism accepts inequality as a fact of existence. No two objects are identical, and no two minds can ever be same. So, the needs and aspirations of people can never be the same. Add to that a high number of sacred books, and a higher number of Divinities, and the result would be a very high number of paths of spirituality. In fact, as many persons, so many paths, is the approach of Hinduism. This results in a very higher number of sects in Hinduism as compared to other religions. Each of these sects has its own spiritual ideal, scripture, and practices. However, the ideals and scriptures of all these sects are based on the spiritual truths of the Vedas only.

Rituals and customs

Although many consider Hinduism to be a ritualistic religion, the fact is that rituals are a non essential thing in it. Rituals depend heavily on the local customs, and also on the sects to which one belongs. They are also dynamic in nature, and hence they cannot be universalised.

The general practice of a Hindu in religious matters is to follow the elders of the family or the society. Some Hindus outgrow these traditions and take up the practices of their Guru whom they choose as the spiritual guide.

In spite of all this variety, there are some practices which most Hindus adhere to. Respecting Ganga, repeating Aum, and performing Samskara (purificatory rites), and certain daily rituals, are some of the more popular practices.

Amongst the daily rituals, the most important is the performance of panch mahayajna (the five great daily sacrifices): Worship and meditation, offering to forefathers, serving the society¸ caring for animals and birds, and study of scriptures.


Aum, written in Sanskrit, is the universal sacred symbol of Hinduism. It is the nearest equivalent of God, and through its three letters of composition, A, U, M, signifies everything that is there in the universe. It is believed that japam (mental repetition) of this symbol, and a meditation on it can get a person everything that he wants in this world, and this can also take a person to the highest spiritual realisation.


A common mind can identify itself with the great only through a concrete object. It is due to this that visiting sacred places and performing some form of worship or adoration is popular in every religion.

Hindus believe that God is present everywhere, and yet they worship anything that appeals to their mind. The object of worship ranges from rocks through trees to images. This sense of identifying God with external objects is not due to ignorance, but due to a strong feeling of seeing the manifestation of the Divine even in objects and images.

Ganesh, Vishnu, Shiva, Sun and Durga are known as Pancha devata and their worship is mandatory at the time of ritualistic worship.


There are thousands of festivals in India to celebrate various occasions. But unlike in other religions, Hinduism does not have a set of universally fixed festivals for all. Different festivals are important to different people depending on the sect or the region to which they belong. However, Holi (the festival of colours), and Diwali (the festival of lights) have universal appeal amongst the Hindus. Shivaratri, Sri Krishna Janmashtami, and Ramanavami are also treated as festival days by most Hindus.

There are also sacred days like Ekadashi (eleventh day of the lunar fortnight), lunar and solar eclipse etc. on which special rituals are observed.


Hindus have been quite fussy about the rightness of food over the ages, but the choice of food is local in nature. However, most Hindus (at least till now) avoid taking uchhistha (food already taken by someone).


Since ancient times, Hindu religion has been wrongly tagged with the caste system. Caste is essentially a socio-economical system which was taken up by religion to detail svadharma (the duties of a person) for a smooth spiritual journey. The goal was to take the lowest in the social hierarchy slowly towards the highest spiritual ideals. But the plot was lost somewhere. Today caste system stands as the great blunder of the Hindu society that chose to neglect its masses.