Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion and the dominant one in India and Nepal; its 900 million adherents include many in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and other countries. Many Hindus call their faith Sanatana Dharma, “eternal religion,” and Vaidika Dharma, the truth of the Vedas. The name Hindu may be derived from the Persian word for Indian or the Persian word for the Indus river, sindhu.


Perhaps close to one million Hindus now live in the United States, so U.S. reporters recognize Hinduism’s significance both domestically and internationally. But it’s hard to make any generalizations at all about Hinduism since it consists of thousands of different groups that have developed over the past three thousand years. It has no single founder, consistent theological system, central religious organization, or single system of morality. It has colorful rituals and a huge variety of gods or subgods from which to choose.


That amorphous quality is one of Hinduism’s chief appeals: it appears as a laid-back faith, especially in relation to a tightly wound one like Judaism. Hinduism’s appeals today include its acceptance of other religions that do not challenge Hindu presuppositions and its lack of concern with scriptural precision.


Hinduism also offers a solution to the problem of why bad things happen to good people and good things to bad: it’s because we are to look at the motion picture of goodness or evil, that contains all past lives of the soul in question, and not just to the snapshot of this life. Hindus say all souls experience samsara or “transmigration of the soul,” a long-lasting cycle of births and rebirths. Cravings, attachments, and ignorance accumulate through these perpetual rebirths, resulting in greed, hatred, and violence.


The sum of good and bad deeds is called karma, and karma determines where the soul will be housed in its next life. Bad deeds can cause a person to be reborn at a lower level, or even as an animal. If a person is poor in brains, looks, or money, he is paying the price for actions in a previous life. When we fight our condition rather than accept it, we upset dharma, the righteous order of society, and make our next incarnation even worse.


So Hinduism in one sense is individualistic and choice-oriented: every Hindu family can have its own shrine, its own worship, and its own choice of gods. At the same time it is group oriented because the gods chosen to worship are normally those of the clan or subcaste; chapter 4 discusses the caste system. Hinduism offers a choice of paths to spiritual improvement. Of the three main ones, the Bhakti path is the most popular today: in it a devotee chooses a personal deity and prays to it with intense love and devotion, and that deity will offer benefits in return.


Other paths are available as well. The karma path emphasizes action, with good things happening to a person who keeps caste regulations, performs religious rites, and offers sacrifices. (Some modern temples say that the karma path also includes actions that lead to social improvements.) The Gyana path emphasizes knowledge, with those walking it gaining the understanding that will allow them to move closer to deity. Through pure acts, thoughts, or devotion, Hindus believe they can be reborn at a higher level, freed from ignorance and passion.