The above symbol for the sound Aum or Om is one of the most sacred in Hinduism. Hindus consider Aum to be the universal name of the Lord and that it surrounds all of creation. The sound emerging from the vocal cords starts from the base of the throat as “A.” With the coming together of the lips, “U” is formed and when the lips are closed, all sounds end in “M.” And then there is the silence from which it arises and to which it returns.
In some ways it is silly to try to summarize a 2500 year old religion in one page. But a reader asked, so I thought I’d try. However, for the best and most readable discussion of Hinduism I highly recommend Chapter 1 of Huston Smith’s classic The World’s Religions.
Part One: The main practical elements of Hinduism
A. You Can Have What You Want
We begin by wanting pleasure. This is natural, but it doesn’t satisfy our total nature. We also want worldly success, especially wealth, fame, and power. This is a worthy goal, but people whose development is not arrested will outgrow these desires too. Hinduism doesn’t say that everyone will outgrow worldly desires, but at some point in their reincarnations people will renounce ego desires. This is the first great step for those interested in being truly religious. In the end all worldly rewards prove insufficient, and in some reincarnation we turn to the Path of Renunciation of worldly things. This is the moment Hinduism has been waiting for.
B. What People Really Want
People really want infinite being, infinite awareness, and infinite joy. This satisfies their total being. There are four paths to the realization of our total being, and people should focus on the one that best suits them while still practicing all of them to some extent.
a. The Way to God (enlightenment) through Knowledge (Jnana Yoga) – This path is intended for those who have a strong reflected, intellectual bent.
b. The Way to God (enlightenment) through Love (Bhakti Yoga) – This path is the most popular of the four, and best for those with a more emotional bent.
c. The Way to God (enlightenment) through Work (Karma Yoga) – The third path is intended for persons of a more active bent.
d. The Way to God (enlightenment) through Psychophysical Exercises (Raja Yoga) – This yoga is designed for people who are of scientific, meditative bent.
Part Two: The main theoretical ideas of Hinduism
A. The Concept of God (Brahman)
Hinduism encourages devotees to think of Brahman as either personal or transpersonal, depending on which carries the most exalted meaning for the mind in question.
The process by which an individual soul passes through a sequence of bodies is known as reincarnation. In a human body, the soul has self-consciousness, freedom, and responsibility. Each thought and deed sculpts one’s destiny. Everybody gets exactly what is deserved (the law of karma.)
C. The Atman
The soul is called the Atman, the Brahman within. Some say the individual soul is identical with Brahman (“Atman is Brahman”). Others say that there is some slight differentiation between the soul and Brahman that will always remain.
D. The World
We live in: a) a physical and temporal world of galaxies and time; b) a moral world operating according to the law of karma; c) a world that is maya, deceptively passing off its multiplicity and materiality as real; d) a world where people can develop their capacities; e) a world that is lila, the play of the divine in its cosmic dance—untiring, unending, resistless, yet ultimately beneficent with a grace born of infinite vitality.
E. Many Paths to the Same Summit
That Hinduism has shared her land for centuries with Jains, Buddhists, Parsees, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians may explain her conviction that the various major religions are alternate paths to the same goal. To claim salvation as the monopoly of any one religion is like claiming that God can be found in this room but not the next, in this attire but not another. As the Rig Veda says,
“Truth is one; sages call it by various names”