The vedas are the oldest Hindu scriptures and,as with most Hindu scriptures, are written in sanskrit,the word veda means knowledge.
The Vedas are divided into four books, each section dealing with different aspects of knowledge. They are, Rig-veda, Yajur-veda, Sama-veda, and Atharva-veda.
The Vedas were codified into sutras (aphorisms) in a scripture known as Vedanta-sutra. Much of Hindu philosophical writing stems from this and develops the ideas in Vedanta-sutra according to time, place, and circumstance.
As well as the Vedas other classes of scriptures include:
- Itihasas: Histories, such as Mahabharata and Ramayana
- Brahmanas: Instructions for ritual worship
- Puranas: Epic texts explaining Vedic teaching through historical and allegorical narrations
- Upanishads: Philosophical texts, such as Bhagavad-gita
Of all these scriptures, Bhagavad-gita is probably the best known and most widely taught.
One of the main teachings of Hindu scriptures (sastra), is that the living entity is caught in a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth; this cycle is called samsara. The soul, as eternal spirit, is caught in a world of temporary matter. This is an unnatural position, and escape means return to the spiritual world.
According to all Hindu traditions, one’s next birth is decided by one’s karma (work) and one’s consciousness at the time of death. Karma is a principle of universal justice. Whatever action is performed, good or bad, there is a subsequent reaction, if not in this life then in the next. But ultimately the aim is to become free from repeated birth (and subsequent old age, disease and death) by engaging in spiritual activities.
According to Bhagavad-gita there are three paths a Hindu can follow in order to break the cycle of birth and death:
- Work (karma yoga): The performance of meritorious religious deeds including rituals, giving in charity, and performing pilgrimages.
- Knowledge (jnana-yoga): Realisation of the true nature of matter and spirit.
- Devotion (bhakti-yoga): Devoting one’s life to developing a loving relationship with God.
One of the fundamental differences of opinion within Hinduism is the identity of God. Some schools teach that God is impersonal, that he has no form or identity, and other schools teach that God is personal, that He is the supreme person. And within each of these schools are further sub-schools with different understandings of the nature and personality of God. These differences of understanding are the reason that Hinduism cannot really be viewed as one religion. Although these theological disputes exist, there is a tradition within Hinduism of accepting all valid religious traditions, Hindu or non-Hindu, as part of God’s plan to teach people according to their abilities and inclinations.
The three main branches of Hinduism are Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Shaktism. The Vaishnavas worship Lord Vishnu as God, specifically in His forms of Krishna, Rama, and Narayana. Shaivites worship Lord Shiva and Shaktas worship Durga-devi, the Goddess in charge of the material energy. Worship of the deity form (murti) of the Lord is considered to be an integral part of worship because all aspects of God — His name, forms (including the deity form), pastimes, and words — are considered to be equally part of God and equally worshipable.
As well as these main deities are the numerous demigods. These personalities, while not God, are of a higher level than humans and have specific roles to play within the functioning of the universe.
A central figure in Hinduism is that of the guru. The teacher who passes on the teachings of his or her lineage, without changing the essence but with consideration of changes in society. The lineage of the guru is known as parampara (disciplic succession) and orthodox Hindus will generally see their place in Hinduism in terms of their particular parampara.