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Basic Beliefs Of Hindus

Hindus hold to a cyclical view of human life. All sentient beings (human beings and members of the animal world) have an atman (the true self, or loosely translated as soul), which reincarnates by undergoing a number of births and rebirths. This notion of reincarnation is called samsara. An atman can reincarnate as an animal or human being, and rebirth as a human being is considered superior to an animal form of life. The bodily form an atman assumes in the next life is determined by the totality of one's karma (deeds or actions) of the present life. If, as a human being, a person lives a life in which good deeds outnumber bad deeds, then the atman reincarnates into a human being with a purer spiritual nature, which enables the possibility of further superior rebirths. The opposite is true if one's bad deeds outnumber one's good deeds. The goal of all human beings is to attain moksha—liberation from the endless cycle of births and rebirths. When a person attains moksha, he or she is believed to enter into a state where one's atman becomes one with Brahman. Brahman is the impersonal term referring to the eternal, universal, infinite, spiritual reality, and essence that humanity personally refers to as God (Brahman is often confused with the priestly group in Hinduism called Brahmans. However, to distinguish between the two, the latter is spelled either as Brahmin or without a capital "b").

In Hinduism, there are three margas (paths) through which a person can attain moksha. The first path is jnana-marga. Jnana can be translated as awareness or insight. When a person becomes aware that he or she is simply a drop in the ocean of Brahman and begins to detach him or herself from worldly statuses and possessions, he or she can begin to move towards moksha through jnana-marga. The second path is karma-marga, which entails faithful participation in ritual sacrifices that are often dictated and presided over by a Brahmin (priest). The third path is bhakti-marga. Bhakti refers to a selfless devotion and commitment to a personal deity.

Most Hindu homes have a shrine or altar. After bathing in the morning, family members devote time to a brief ritual and prayers (puja) in front of the altar before they begin their daily tasks.DAVID H. WELLS/CORBIS

The two most commonly worshipped deities in Hinduism are Vishnu and Shiva. Vishnu is the deity who preserves life, and is also worshipped as Krishna or Rama, who are believed to be two of Vishnu's nine earthly incarnations (avataras). Vishnu will incarnate for the tenth time when our present age morally deteriorates into injustice and chaos. Unlike Vishnu, Shiva does not incarnate into human form. Shiva is worshipped based on the variety of attributes he manifests. Shiva shows benevolence towards devotees who appeal to him for assistance. Shiva is also feared as the deity who takes away human life and destroys the cosmos, and yet, he is also believed to be the one who recreates a new cosmos after destroying the previous one. As the god of death, Shiva is believed to frequent cremation grounds. Shiva is also the model of an ascetic since he is believed to be sitting in calm meditation in the Himalayan Mountains. Reverence and worship of the female counterparts of Vishnu and Shiva are equally significant. Lakshmi is the divine consort of Vishnu. Parvati is that of Shiva when she is imaged as a benevolent mother; in her fierce forms, Parvati is manifested as the goddesses Kali and Durga. Devotion to Durga and Kali is referred to as the Shakti tradition. Shakti (often translated as energy) is the active dimension of the passive ascetic Shiva. Apart from these main deities, almost each village in India has its own local grama-devatas (village deities). Nevertheless, when a Hindu is questioned about the complexity of multiple deities, the common response is, "there are many names, but God is One."

The oldest scriptures in Hinduism are the Vedas, but the three most popular Hindu scriptures are the two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and the Bhagavad-Gita, which is a philosophical section in the Mahabharata. The Puranas are a collection of stories of the Hindu gods and goddesses, and the lives of the great heroes and heroines of the Hindu faith.

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