Hinduism is considered the world’s oldest religion, dating back 3,000 years. It does not have a central creed, founder, text, set of practices, or deity.
Hinduism began in the Indus Valley region, having emerged from a blend of Indo-European religions. The Indus Valley civilization was remarkably sophisticated, rivaling the later Roman Empire.
The Aryans—the Indo-Europeans who migrated to northwest India—brought their culture with them, including the caste system dominated by the Brahmins, or priests and scriptural teachers.
Meaning knowledge, the Vedas are considered the eternal scripture and essential reference point for all forms of Hinduism. The sruti (that which is heard) were said to be direct revelation to Hindu seers and then transmitted orally for generations until they were written down.
The Vedas consist of four collections, or books: Rig-Veda, Yajur-Veda, Sama-Veda, and Atharva-Veda.
- The Rig-Veda consists of hymns or chants of praise or invocation of the gods.
- The Yajur-Veda consists of treatises on and how-to instructions for rituals.
- The Sama-Veda consists of “forest treatises” for those seeking a reclusive religious life.
- The Atharva-Veda consists of the Upanishads, which are philosophical and religious speculations.
Among the main concepts in the Vedas are
- Samsara (one’s repeating cycle of deaths and rebirths);
- Atman (one’s soul or self)
- Karma (the universal principle that governs characteristics of each rebirth)
- Brahman (the impersonal, all-pervading spirit)
After the Vedas
The smriti are human-authored scriptures. Wide-ranging and voluminous, they consist mainly of epics (Mahabharata and Ramayana), myths and legends (Puranas), and legal and moral codes (Laws of Manu). Perhaps the most famous of the smriti is the seven-hundred-verse Bhagavad Gita.
There are four main schools (darshana) of philosophical reflection:
- Vedanta, based on the last part of the Vedas. Maintaining a thoroughgoing monism, the Vedanta holds that the Brahmin is the only real entity.
- Nyaya is focused on epistemology and a system of logical proof.
- Samkhya holds a dualistic view of the universe: matter and spirit. It is also atheistic.
- Yoga accepts the philosophical outlook of Samkhya but emphasizes meditation and physical techniques for blinding the spirit to Brahman.
Buddhism is now the fourth-largest religious tradition in the world. But it’s not restricted to religious doctrine. It is also a philosophical tradition.
Because there are few core beliefs in the tradition, there is no single set of authorized practices, common compilation of doctrines, or universal statement on articles of faith. Moreover, from the Western standpoint, the lack of a creator god that rules the universe or has any features familiar to the Western traditions is peculiar. Human beings, for example, work out their own salvation through self-discipline and self-transformation. Nevertheless, Buddhism offers a powerful set of ideas and ideals with universal appeal.
The Buddha’s Teachings
The dharma is the heart of the Four Noble Truths, which tell us about the nature of reality and how to live in accordance with it:
- Life is suffering (dukkha).
- Suffering is caused by desires.
- To banish suffering, banish desires.
- Banish desires and end suffering by following the Noble Eightfold Path.
The impermanence of life (anicca) is a fundamental element of suffering. Another element is the impermanence of the self—or more precisely, no-self or no-soul (anatta).
The Noble Eightfold Path is a middle way that completes life:
- Right understanding
- Right thought
- Right speech
- Right action (includes ahimsa, or the non-harm view)
- Right livelihood
- Right effort
- Right mindfulness
- Right concentration
Also called Taoism, Daoism gets its name from the indefinable Dao. Often translated as “The Way,” the Dao can be loosely described as the mysterious first principle of the universe; the eternal source of all that is real and the underpinning of the world.
A central principle of Daoism is wu-wei, but scholars disagree over its meaning and application. Some claim it’s a rejection of worldly pleasures and society and its values. Others claim that it’s a way of acting effortlessly, of living in harmony with the Dao.
Along with Daoism, Confucianism arose in ancient China and has had an enormous impact on Chinese and East Asian culture and government. The ideas promulgated by Confucius were part of life before he came on the scene—he even said that he was simply transmitting the wisdom of the ancients to a new generation—but it was Confucius who combined a number of features of rituals, ethics, and religious traditions into a coherent whole (in the Analects) aimed at a harmonious social and political order.
This harmony is generated through the practice of li and ren. Li focuses on the individual’s conduct in ritual, etiquette, principle, and propriety; conscientious behavior and right action. Ren focuses on the social aspects of the essential Confucian virtues, including benevolence, sympathy, kindness, generosity, respect for others, and human-heartedness.