A Basic Guide to Help Understand
Hinduism and its Gods

I am attempting to condense a great amount of information about Hinduism and their gods and goddesses into a short but understandable form. I will be the first to admit this is a new and unknown path for me and I have attempted to put it into a short, yet understandable, summary. My only purpose is to give the reader sufficient information to better understand the cultural significance of the stories we heard and the architecture we saw during a recent trip to Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia in January, 2010. I may not be able to give you the best description of Hinduism, all I can attempt is to give the reader some concepts to think about and maybe even see how they may relate to his own life.

In Maple Grove, MN, a suburb of Plymouth where I live, is the largest Hindu Temple in the United States. I visited the temple in June, 2011, and confirmed in my mind that my explanations and stories are accurate with perhaps a few errors but close enough for this author.


Hinduism is more philosophy than religion. There is no authoritative hierarchy of clergy; it is highly decentralized with multiple sects, perfectly acceptable to Hinduism (in contrast to the divisions within Christianity). The Hindus claim that there are different paths for each person.

The essence of the Hindu vision of reality lies in the tension between dharma (social duty or righteousness) and moksha (release from the material world, final liberation from the endless cycles of birth, life, suffering, death, and rebirth). Both these perspectives, the world-supporting and the world-denying, are necessary to fulfill human destiny.

Some important terms:

  • Avatar - The descent of a deity to the earth in an incarnate (human) form or some manifest shape; the incarnation of a god; embodiment. The gods take birth on earth in human form to correct or battle an evil event.

  • Consort - wife or partner.

  • Karma - moral law of cause and effect - deeds of past lives determine your present life.

  • Moksha - release from the material world, final liberation from the endless cycles of rebirth. As in Buddhism, Hindus believe in reincarnation. What you do and how you behave in this life determines how you will be reborn in the next. The goal is live the perfect life so you become one with the gods and thus reach nirvana and become one with the gods.

  • Dharma - means fulfilling one's duty in one's station in life, which is determined by birth not merit. If one peforms his duty in this life he has hope of being reborn to a higher caste. Thus dharma focuses on maintaining social and cosmic stability.

  • Caste - one's stage in life and social status. Each person is born into a distinct caste, depending on the karma from the past lives. There is no crossing over or intermingling from one caste to another, as this would disrupt the social order. Dharma and Brahmins are the highest caste because they have faithfully executed their duty in a previous life; lower castes must have served society poorly to be born into their caste, but if they perform their duty in this life, they have hope of being reborn to a higher caste.

  • Samsara - rebirth according to the nature of a person's karma; what we are now is the sum of all we have done in the past.

Basic Background about Hinduism

Hinduism is a spiritual path which is tied to the culture, history, tradition, art, and life of the believer that Westerners find it very difficult to relate to them. It is not exactly a religion. Hinduism can best be defined as a way of life based on the teachings of ancient sages and scriptures and effectively means any path of spiritual discipline which leads to God.

It is emphasized that Hinduism doesn't fit comfortably into the same box as Western religions like Christianity. Hindus do not separate religion from other aspects of life. For Hindus in India, it is an inextricable part of their existence, a complete approach to life that includes things Westerners view as religious. These are not religious belief systems, but universal ways of spiritual knowledge.

Religion speaks of the ultimate issues of life and death and should orient us to the Eternal and the Universal. In this respect, Hinduism does not divide humanity into believers and non-believers. The Hindu tradition does not require that you have a religious affiliation to Hinduism, but only that you live a truthful life. It is not an exclusive religious belief that cuts one off from other points of view.

The best way I can explain it is to say that Hinduism attempts to show the way to give meaning to your life.

Hindu Gods and Goddesses

Each of the Hindu gods or goddesses represents some aspect of our humanity, and when the believer invokes their names, he is invoking the qualities they represent. Thus, Ganesha, the elephant headed god, is a well known favorite to call upon when you need to have some obstacles removed or wish success in a new enterprise. In Hinduism the essence of the deities are represented by different images which may have multiple names or forms. It may be easier to understand if we think of the different gods and goddesses of Hinduism representing various functions of the One Supreme Divinity, and not as separate gods.

Throughout history humans have formulated many different names and forms for the Divine or Eternal. Judism has several names for God and He has angels which He uses to communicate with humans - e.g. several angels were sent to Sodom to save Lot and his family. The supreme god for the Greeks was Zeus while the Romans called him Jupiter and these gods were always taking human form and interacting with mankind. In Christianity we learn about the holy trinity - God the Father, Jesus and Son and the Holy Ghost. Catholicism has many saints to whom the faithful pay to intercede in their behalf with God - e.g. Saint Christopher is called upon to protect travelers, St. Valentine helps lovers, etc. Even in Islam God used the angel Gabriel to communicate with Mohammed. It seems that the common thread of all religions is to recognize a superior universal creator who uses such other heavenly helpers to intercede with humans as necessary.

The Western world prides itself in monotheism; the idea that there is only One God. Hinduism practices go back a thousand years before Christ. Buddhism, also from India, goes back to five hundred years before Christ. According to Hinduism there is only One Reality, but it accepts all formulations of truth. It is not limited to a particular name or form. It is an inclusive, not an exclusive Oneness - a spiritual reality of Being - Consciousness - Bliss, which could be called God but which transcends all names.

The Hindu Temple of Minnesota

The Hindu Temple of Minnesota, 10530 Troy Lane North, Maple Grove, MN 55311, (763-425-9449), is a great place to visit. It is the largest Hindu Temple in the United states and designed to provide a Temple (place of worship) forthe Hindu community. The Temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Within the main temple hall are 21 mini temples or shrines of worship which are the identical replicas of several famous temples from all regions of India. The brochure provided by the Temple provides the following explanation of Hinduism.

Hindus in reality believe in only one Supreme Reality. Brahman is known by many names and is shown in various forms throughout India and the rest of the Hindu World. The devotee finds one or more favorite images of the same single Brahaman and establishes communion with God through the murtis (icons) in the temples. Hindu beliefs:

1. One's spiritual path may be found through either devotion, austerity, meditation, scriptural studies, self service or through a combination of any of them.

2. The Law of Karma: Law of cause and effect by which each individual, through one's desires, thoughts, words and actions creates your own destiny.

3. Reincarnation: The soul ("Atman" that arises directly from Brahman or GOD witht he same attributes and potentials) is immortal and reincarnates till all our Karmas are resolved and our inner inherent divinity is realized by the individual. There is no eternal Hell or damnation in Hinduism.

Key Hindu Values:

Truth and Non-violence.
Love and Compassion
Tolerance & Forgiveness
Purity both ceremonial and in real life
Education and pursuit of knowledge
Humility and Simplicity
Honesty and Forthrightness
Detachment and Self control
Unconditional surrender to God
Unselfish Service to Society

God is One
Wise Call it by Different Names
Take me from Untruth to Truth
Take me [from] Darkness to Light
Take me from Death to Immortality
Peace, Peace, Peace unto us All

The Supreme Cosmic Spirit and Being

BRAHMAN is not the same as the creator god Lord Brahma, nor should it be confused with the highest caste of Brahmins. The essence of BRAHMAN, the supreme being, has been described in many ways.

  • BRAHMAN is the unchanging, infinite, and transcendent reality which is the Divine Ground of all matter, energy, time, space, being, and everything beyond in this Universe. The nature of BRAHAM is described as transpersonal, personal and impersonal by different philosophical schools.

  • BRAHMAN is the Absolute Godhead; Absolute Reality or universal substrate. It is said to be eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and ultimately indescribable in human language. Brahman is regarded as the source and essence of the material universe.

  • BRAHMAN, is the one true reality; is the spiritual essence underlying all reality, is the only reality. All gods and the world are only aspects of BRAHMAN, only an illusion in comparison to the one reality. There is an ultimate unity in the multiplicity of gods and all life.

  • BRAHMAN is one, limitless, impersonal, indefinable, without qualities, eternal, unchanging, inactive (complete in itself thus no need to act).

  • BRAHMAN is present in all people in the form of the soul. We must realize that BRAHMAN and the soul are one; that our essential self transcends our individuality, our limitations, even our death; this realization brings release (moksha) from illusion.

In the back of my memory I seem to recall one version of the Bible that started with, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God..." Is the "Word" a fitting description of BRAHMAN? Something that is not material but rather a spiritual essence? I'm searching.....

The Hindu Trinity
Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva

Hindus have a multitude of gods and goddesses that symbolize the one abstract Supreme Being or Brahman. The most fundamental of Hindu deities are the Trinity of Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the sustainer and Shiva, the destroyer. But many other gods and goddesses such as Ganesha, Krishna, Rama, Hanuman, and Kali.

(Editor's note, May 3, 2010: I am still struggling with this new concept of being and thus the page is still being construction so come back again.
If you have any insights - constructive comments - you wish to share please do so.)

Wikipedia - Hinduism

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