Hindus believe that the underpinning to this world is essentially the spirit defined as Brahman. Hindus believe that this spirit manifests itself as the universe and becomes more visible as living things. The most transparent manifestation of the spirit is men and women. Our essential nature as the spirit is defined as Atman. Religion or Dharma in the Hindu tradition is an enterprise searching for that which holds everything together. Dharma is not a search for God but a search for unity in diversity and that is discovered as the spirit. The idea of ahimsa or the principle of non-violence springs up naturally through this Hindu discovery of unity in diversity because it the same spirit that manifests itself as people and other living things, hence hurting others amounts to hurting ourselves. That is forbidden by the injunction of ahimsa. Hindus also believe in samsara or reincarnation, the cycle of rebirth. This cycle only ends when an individual discovers his or her essential nature as the spirit. This is called moksha, literally meaning destruction of delusion about our true nature. Another key belief inextricably linked to the theory of reincarnation is the law of karma which is the law of causation on personal terms. It simply states that what people set into motion has a habit of catching up with them. People have to bear the consequences of what they do if not in this life then in the next life.
Spiritual knowledge was acquired through meditation. Those individuals who succeeded and came face to face with spiritual truths were called rishis (a Sanskrit term derived from the root ‘drish’ meaning to see or experience). For perhaps a few thousand years these teachings were passed on orally. This material was written down about three thousand years ago and became the scriptures of authority of the Hindus. These texts are classed as shrutis, or books of spiritual knowledge and are called the Vedas from the root Vid which means to know.
Dharma is practised by manifesting the divinity that lies within through work (karma), worship (bhakti), psychic control (yoga) or knowledge (jnana). This has to be achieved by mastering nature both internal and external. Living righteously, going to temples, worshipping or carrying out rituals, all such activities are seen as valid activities for manifesting the divine in daily life.
The Rig Veda declares: Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti. “The same ultimate perceived and approached differently by different prophets.” This is a declaration of pluralism. It is not a statement of showing respect for other religions but accepting that there can be many ways of perceiving and manifesting spirituality. Mature Hinduism is at ease with teachings of other religions both theistic as well as non-theistic. It also acknowledges that spiritual progress can be made in a non-religious mode through other human pursuits like arts and sciences.
Almost all Hindu movements embrace the idea of pluralism. Different sectarian movements are seen as different pathways promoted by different spiritual figureheads for making spiritual progress. These movements co-exist in a spirit of harmony. The three broad sectarian movements are Vaishnavites, those who relate to the idea of God as Vishnu or his incarnations Rama and Krishna. Shaivites who think of God-head as Shiva and Shaktas, those Hindus who believe in the ultimate reality as mother goddess called Shakti.
Spirituality as underpinning to everything including ourselves is promoted mainly in a theistic mode. Hence building relationship with God is seen as the central aim of the Hindu religion. This relationship is mostly developed through work (karma) and worship (puja). Selfless work or living for the benefit of others in the family and the rest of society becomes a way of acknowledging and manifesting the divinity within all. Devotion to a personal God is seen as a powerful tool for relating to the spirit within. Family values fostered through the spirit of living for others produces cohesion in families and societies. Religious pluralism holds the key to fostering genuine harmony between people of different or no-faith backgrounds.