I have some basic questions about Hinduism because I have virtually no experience with the religion. I was hoping you could tell me about some of the basic beliefs, the philosophy, the gods and goddesses, and some of the traditions and holidays.
- George K. Mae
You want me to condense 5,000 years of philosophy in the answer. Difficult though it is, I will give it a try.
First kindly know about the flexibility and freedom of belief in hinduism. Each hindu is entitled to hold his/her own opinion (Mata) in religious matters. Some hindus are atheists, some believe in a Supreme Soul of which all other Gods and Goddesses are forms and each living being is a part. Others believe in a multiplicity of Gods or Goddesses, one of whom they may choose as their personal God or Goddess. The Gods and Goddesses live in harmony respecting each other
The Supreme Soul is called as Brahman. The major Gods and their worshipers are Vishnu (Vaishnavas), Shiva (Shaivas), Mother Goddess Durga (Shaktas). The worshipers believe that their chosen deity, whoever he/she is, is the creator of the universe. Among Vaishnavas, creation is left to Brahma, whom Vishnu caused to exist. Those who believe in Brahman would say that the universe is only a reflection of Brahman ('maya', illusion).
The other major Gods and Goddesses are Lakshmi (Goddess of all kinds of wealth and the spouse of Vishnu), Parvati (the gentle mother and spouse of Shiva), Saraswati (Goddess of speech, intellect, all kinds of learning, art, music), Ganesha the elephant-headed (Son of Shiva and remover of obstacles), Kartikeya or Subramaniam (Son of Shiva and General of the army of lesser Gods). Vishnu is supposed to have had nine incarnations (as Matsya the Fish, Kurma the Tortoise, Varaha the Boar, Nri-Simha the Man-lion, Vamana the Dwarf, Parashurama the weilder of the hatchet, Rama with bow and arrows, and Krishna with flute, and Gautama the Buddha. Rama's devotee the monkey-faced Hanumana is also considered a God.
Then there are the lesser Gods, led by Indra, the God of rain, Fire, Sun, Moon, the God of death, Yama, Wind, etc. They are the Aryan Gods incorporated in hindu pantheon. Apart from these there are hundred of village Gods known as Bhairavas, the area protectors, who are considered the subordinates of Shiva. The various Goddesses are considered the forms of the Mother Goddess Durga.
So with this plethora of beliefs, Gods and Goddesses, what binds hinduism. That the the concept of one's duty and engaging in righteous action. That is known as 'dharma'. Whatever the belief of a person, whichever be his/her chosen deity, 'dharma' is the same. All humans, hindus or otherwise, are supposed to be judged on the 'dharma' scale by the God of death without any bias. Hindus get no bonus points. The action of any person is known as his/her 'karma'. For their good deeds, people get vacations in heaven for proportionate time, and for their bad deeds, they get punishment in hell. Then they are supposed to be sent back for any improvement. That is 're-incarnation'. Re-incarnation too, is based on deeds. People with good deeds are reborn as humans. Those with bad deeds may get reborn as insects.
This is in short hinduism. I would not be able to do justice to hindu philosophies in one communication, It is a vast subject. So I invite you to read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darshanas
Same for hindu traditions. With 1200 million people and many groups who came and settled in India, traditions also are numerous. Our main festivals are Holi (generally known as the festival of color when people colored water or powders on their friends), Janmashtami (Lord Krishna's birth), Rama Navami (Lord Rama's birth), Shivaratri (Lord Shiva's marriage), Navaratri (related with Goddess Durga's destruction of demons), Deepawali (generally known as the festival of lights when all hindu homes and establishments are illuminated for the return of Lord Rama to his capital after destruction of demons), and Kumbha, the six-yearly bathing in rivers, when their water is supposed to carry nectar (presently on and the largest religious gathering of the world, 10 million people taking bath at one place, Allahabad, on one day, apart from such bathing at other places). Apart from that we have festivals connected with crops and equinoxes and solstices.
Other individualities about hinduism is the concept of joint family (sons living with their parents even after marriage) and arranged marriage (not that love marriages are not accepted).
BBC hinduism and About.com hinduism also are good unbiased sites to know about hinduism. I hope this will be able to start you on hinduism. Feel free to put a question again if required. With best regards,