Hinduism Basics

The Essence | Schools of Thought | Scriptures | Contributions

Oneness and Pluralism: The Essence of Hinduism

Hinduism, or Sanatana Dharma (Eternal Way), is the world’s oldest living religion. It is a richly diverse family of philosophies, traditions, and practices that have been followed primarily throughout Asia for thousands of years. Today, Hinduism is a global religion with adherents living on every continent, and comprising majorities in three countries: India, Nepal, and Mauritius.

Most traditions within Hinduism share certain distinctive, core beliefs despite the absence of an identifiable beginning in history, single founder, central religious establishment, or sole authoritative scripture. Two of these core beliefs are that of the oneness of existence and pluralism.

All beings, from the smallest organism to man, are considered manifestations of the Divine or reflections of the Divine’s qualities, depending upon the school of thought. Because of this shared divinity, Hinduism views the universe as a family or, in Sanskrit, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. Hinduism also advances the concept of the equality of all mankind, as expressed in the ancient hymn:

Ajyesthaso akanishthaso ete sambhrataro vahaduhu saubhagaya
No one is superior, none inferior. All are brothers marching forward to prosperity.

Mankind, in turn, carries a special responsibility to honor the underlying equality of people and unity of existence because it is believed to be the most spiritually evolved. The popularly recited Hindu invocation demonstrates this concern for universal kinship and well-being:

Om sarve bhavantu sukhinah. Sarve santu niraamayaah.
Sarve bhadraani pashyantu. Maa kaschid dukhbhaag bhavet.

May all beings be happy. May all beings be healthy.
May all beings experience prosperity. May none in the world suffer.

Against the backdrop of this understanding of equality and unity, the Hindu world has been able to embrace the reality of diversity through its philosophy of pluralism. Every being, with their varying likes and dislikes, their unique personalities, and their different cultures, not only connect with one another in their own unique ways, but connect with the Divine in their own individual ways.

As such, Hindus believe that the Divine:

  • Manifests in different forms
  • Can be worshipped by various means
  • Speaks to each individual in different ways to enable them to not only believe in God, but know God

This embrace of pluralism has contributed to the incredible spiritual and religious freedom one witnesses within Hinduism -- in its many deity traditions, paths or yogas, schools of thoughts, saint traditions, ways of worship, etc.

The worldview of pluralism is not just applicable to Hindus, but to all members of this universal family. Accordingly, Hinduism acknowledges not just the possibility, but also the existence of more than one path (religion) or way of relating to Truth (God). This true, unadulterated pluralism is captured in the ancient Sanskrit hymn:

Ekam sat vipraha bahudha vadanti
Truth is one, the wise call it by many names.

In relating to other religions, Hinduism asserts that it is not only harmful, but inherently flawed to insist that one’s own path towards God is the only true and meaningful path. Based on this firm pluralistic belief, Hinduism has never sanctioned proselytization. Further, over their vast history, Hindus have never invaded another land in the name of religion. It is also clear that, for centuries in Southeast Asia, it has been this Hindu brand of absolute pluralism, which has provided the ideal environment for peaceful coexistence and prosperity for at least eight major religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism and Zoroastrian.

Six Major Schools of Thought in Hinduism

Over the ages, various schools of theology developed in Hinduism through a dynamic tradition of philosophical inquiry and debate. From timeless and universal questions such as the purpose of life to the relationship between humans and the Divine emerged many schools of thoughts or darshanas. Darshana literally means "seeing" and relates to the different ways of "seeing" the Divine and attaining moksha or liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth. Six darshanas are recognized as the most influential:

  • Vaisheshika
  • Nyaya
  • Sankhya
  • Mimamsa or Purva Mimamsa
  • Yoga
  • Vedanta, including Advaita, Dvaita, and Vishishtadvaita

For a more detailed explanation of the six darshanas, see our Q&A Booklet on Hinduism: Short Answers to Real Questions.

Key Hindu Scriptures

Hinduism is rich in scripture and includes an extensive collection of ancient religious writings. These sacred texts are classified broadly into two categories: Shruti and Smriti. The word Shruti literally means “heard” and consists of what Hindus believe to be eternal truths akin to natural law. These texts are revered as “revealed” or divine in origin and are believed to contain the foundational truths of Hinduism.

The second category of scripture is Smriti, which literally means “memory,” and is distinguished from Shruti in terms of its origin. Teachings in Smriti texts are meant to be remind adherents the eternal truths of Shruti, and read and interpreted in light of changing circumstances over kala (time), desha (land), and guna (personality).

Some of the most well known texts include:

Shruti

► Vedas: The word Veda means “knowledge”. There are four Vedas: Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva, of which the Rig Veda is the oldest.

► Upanishads: These texts, numbering over 100, contain an extensive exploration of the methods of understanding the self, God, and the nature of the world.

Smriti

► Upavedas: The Upavedas consist of four main texts, including:

  • Ayurveda - science of health and life
  • Dhanurveda - science of warfare
  • Gandharvaveda - the study of aesthetics, and delineates art forms
  • Arthashastra - guidance on public administration, governance, economy, and politics

► Puranas: Stories in the Puranas translate the meanings of the ancient Shruti scriptures and teach them to the masses by explaining the teachings of the Vedas and Upanishads through stories and parables. There are 18 major Puranas (Mahapuranas) and many minor ones (upapuranas).

► Ramayana: This popular epic tells the life story the noble prince named Rama, whom Hindus believe to be an incarnation of the Divine. Prince Rama suffers year of exile and many hardships while destroying powerful demons before returning to rule his kingdom. There are numerous versions of the Ramayana, of which the most well-known are those by the original author Sage Valmiki and the poet-saint Tulsidas.

► Mahabharata: With over 100,000 verses, the Mahabharata is a historical epic, and is the longest poem the world has known. Based on an extended conflict between two branches of the Kaurava family, the Mahabharata is a trove of stories and discourses on the practice of Dharma, including the importance of truth, justice, self sacrifice, and the upholding of Dharma, the need for complete devotion to God, and the ultimate futility of war

► Bhagavad Gita: The Bhagavad Gita is a primary scripture for Hindus. Although it is a tiny part of the Mahabharata and technically classed as a Smriti text, it is traditionally accorded the rank of an Upanishad. It is meant to help one understand that upholding dharma can be challenging, especially in situations where there is not a clear right or wrong.

► Agama Shastras: Ancient and numerous, including many that have been lost over the centuries, these texts deal with practical aspects of devotion and worship, including personal and temple rituals and practices.

For more information on Hindu scriptures, click here to visit our Hinduism 101 Teacher's Training Primer.

Hinduism as an Inspiration for Innovation and Discovery:
Hindu Contributions from Antiquity

Contrary to popular perceptions that Hinduism is a mystical religion exclusively concerned with transcendental concepts of spiritual practice, Hinduism has been a wellspring for vast contributions to global civilization spanning more than five millennia. As a religious practice aspiring to understand the eternal mysteries of existence, Hinduism has never been a regressive or closed dogma satisfied with historicentric interpretations of one holy book. Indeed, Hindus have explored the mysteries of science, mathematics and astronomy to revel in the glory of Creation. Epochal advances in metallurgy, medicine, grammar, music and dance, among other disciplines, came from early practitioners of Hinduism and its scripture is replete with practical and esoteric observations. Some perennial contributions of Hinduism:

Education The first university in Takshashila in 700 B.C.E.
Mathematics The concept of zero (200 A.D.). The modern numerical and decimal system (300 B.C.E). The value of pi (?) (497 A.D.). Area of a triangle (476 A.D.). Quadratic Equation (991 A.D.). Trigonometry.
Astronomy Concept of planets in the solar system circling the sun (500 A.D.). Earth as round, rotating on axis and gravity as a force of attraction by the earth (500 A.D.). Concept of Time as 365 days in a year.
Metallurgy Steel, iron, gold discovered in archaeological excavations dating to 3000 B.C.E.

Medicine

Ayurveda, a system of allopathic and holistic medicine and now a subject of rediscovery, originated 1000 B.C.E. Detailed text called the Charaka Samhita includes anatomy, physiology and various treatments using various plants, fruits and herbs.
Surgery The Sushruta Samhita (600 B.C.E.) is considered the first detailed text with seminal descriptions of surgical procedures and instruments that, with modifications, are conceptually used today.
Literature Sanskrit developed as the most ancient systematic language in the world. The Ramayan (before 3000 B.C.E) and the 100,000 verses Mahabharata (300 B.C.E.) are venerable epics that continue to inspire Hindus today.
Arts Highly sophisticated Indian classical music finds its origins in the Sama Veda, one of the four original Vedas. The four classical dance forms of India find their origins and inspirations in Hindu religious tradition.
Yoga and Meditation These are, perhaps, the most widely-recognized spiritual contributions of Hinduism to humanity. Hatha Yoga, the widely practiced system of cleansing exercises, is only one of the Yoga disciplines that encourage spiritual, physical and intellectual advancement. Meditation, a process that calms and focuses the psyche, is integral to yogic practice and recognized with yoga for its salutary effects on personal well-being.

As continuous invasions rocked the Indian subcontinent—from Alexander the Great and the Islamic conquests to British colonial rule—the last two millennia saw the nadir of Hindu innovation. Yet the 20th and 21st century are marking a resurgence as Hindus in the diaspora, especially in the United States, strengthen their adopted lands with contributions in technology, medicine, engineering, fashion and the arts among many other disciplines.

Influence of Hinduism on Famous Americans

President John Adams, Letter to Thomas Jefferson on Christmas Day, 1813 Joseph Priestly’s A Comparison of the Institutions of Moses with those of the Hindoos and other Ancient Nations:

“Pythagoras passed twenty years in his travels in India, in Egypt, in Chaldea, perhaps in Sodom and Gomorrah, Tyre and Sidon. He [Priestly] ought to have told us, that in India he conversed with the Brahmins, and read the Shasta [sic shastra], five thousand years old, written in the language of the sacred Sanscrit, with the elegance and sentiments of Plato. Where is to be found theology more orthodox, or philosophy more profound, than in the introduction to the Shasta [sic Shatra]? "God is one, creator of all, universal sphere, without beginning, without end. God governs all the creation by a general providence, resulting from his eternal designs. Search not the essence and the nature of the Eternal, who is one; your research will be vain and presumptuous. It is enough, that, day by day and night by night, you adore his power, his wisdom, and his goodness, in his works. The Eternal willed, in the fulness of time, to communicate of his essence and of his splendor, to beings capable of perceiving it. They as yet existed not. The Eternal willed, and they were. He created Birma [sic Brahma], Vitsnow [sic Vishnu], and Sib [sic Shiva]." These doctrines, sublime, if ever there were any sublime, Pythagoras learned in India, and taught them to Zaleucus and his other disciples.”

Mark Twain, Author

"India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great-grandmother of tradition. Our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only."

Henry David Thoreau, Essayist

“Whenever I have read any part of the Vedas, I have felt that some unearthly and unknown light illuminated me. In the great teaching of the Vedas, there is no touch of sectarianism. It is of all ages, climbs, and nationalities and is the royal road for the attainment of the Great Knowledge. When I read it, I feel that I am under the spangled heavens of a summer night.”

“I would say to the readers of the Scriptures, if they wish for a good book, read the Bhagavad-Gita...It deserves to be read with reverence even by Yankees.”

“In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essayist

“In the great books of India, an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence, which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the questions that exercise us."

William James, Psychologist and Philosopher

"From the Vedas, we learn a practical art of surgery, medicine, music, house building under which mechanized art is included. They are encyclopedia of every aspect of life, culture, religion, science, ethics, law, cosmology and meteorology."

Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Author

"India—The land of Vedas, the remarkable works contain not only religious ideas for a perfect life but also facts which science has proved true. Electricity, radium, electronics, airship, all were known to the seers who founded the Vedas."

Will Durant, Writer

"India was the motherland of our race, and Sanskrit the mother of Europe's languages: she was the mother of our philosophy; mother, through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics; mother, through the Buddha, of the ideals embodied in Christianity; mother, through the village community, of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all.”

"India will teach us the tolerance and gentleness of mature mind, understanding spirit and a unifying, pacifying love for all human beings."

"It is true that even across the Himalayan barrier India has sent to the west, such gifts as grammar and logic, philosophy and fables, hypnotism and chess, and above all numerals and the decimal system."

Carl Sagan, Astronomer 

“The Hindu religion is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths.”

Peter Johnstone, Mathematician

"Gravitation was known to the Hindus (Indians) before the birth of Newton. The system of blood circulation was discovered by them centuries before Harvey was heard of."