Unlike most religions which ask their practitioners to prescribe to a designated set of behaviors wherein they shall all behave uniformly, Hinduism bears the motto that "People are different." Most religions begin from a dogma which is a written interpretation of what the creators of that religion state their God or Gods want from the followers of that religion. Because of this, the religions are slow to evolve and more or less stagnant. According to J.N. Nanda, "Hinduism is not limited by the view of a single founder, a single holy man or a single holy book" (106). That is to say, those that practice Hinduism understand that there is no one type of person. Individuality, by its very definition states that people will have singular ideas and singular personalities. There is no one type of person living in the world, just as there is no one type of person who believes in Hinduism. Everyone is unique and therefore the rules of the religion have to be modified for the individual in question. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all proclaim that there were humans endowed with special gifts from a singular higher power who gave the world, through these divine characters, rules for how they should behave while on this Earth should they want to transcend this life and move on to a higher plane of existence. Instead of rigorous dogma, says Nanda, "Hinduism preaches rational acquisition and enjoyment of one's possessions along with care of the needy and respect for all life" (107). Hinduism is characterized by a system of castes, a delineation of stages of life, goals of life, types of yoga, and devotion to a plethora of gods. This matter of having choices within their religion allows all individuals to find the religious pathway that is required in order to find Nirvana.
Theologians argue the Hinduism is unlike any other religion on the Earth. Rather than trying to coerce the practitioners into one system of beliefs, Hinduism continues to expand to encompass a wider and wider group of individuals. According to Axel Michaels, "Hinduism is not a homogenous religion at all, but is rather a potpourri of religions, doctrines and attitudes towards life, rites and cults, moral and social norms" (3). As this is the case, there is no one way to practice the religion since there are many forms of that religion. Those who choose to practice Hinduism can embrace certain components of the traditions and yet ignore other customs as they see fit.
The system of castes in Hinduism is designed to classify individuals into smaller groups (Ketkar 14). This caste system defines people, usually by their socioeconomic standing in the community. There are four castes as defined in Hindu culture, those who are so drastically socioeconomically disadvantaged that they cannot belong in one of the castes are called outcastes, also known as untouchables (Van Voorst 42). Those individuals who are from lower income areas or who are in professions which require less education and are not as well paid will find themselves in a lower caste than those in higher socioeconomic positions. It is similar to the class system in many other parts of the world, such as the United States, except there is no potential chance for upward mobility. People who are born into a low caste have little if any opportunity to place themselves into a higher caste despite personal characteristics and work ethic. The only time the sociological structure of the castes changes is when the caste as a group seeks upward or downward mobility (Lipner 114). In India and other Hindi nations, the caste of a given group was used to discriminate against an entire population. Even though all Hindi people practice Hinduism, they used their socioeconomic position as a classifier which was deemed more important than their equality within their religion.
There are four stages of life according to the Hindu religion. A human life is divided up into his or her four stages of development. Each stage is relatively universal in that everyone experiences them, just as everyone will have a childhood, teen years, adulthood, and then seniority. The stages are Brahmacharya, Grihastaashrama, Vanaprasta Ashrama, and Sannyasa Ashrama. Robert Van Voorst explains the stages this way:
The first stage of Hindu life is that of the student, who lives and studies with his guru (private teacher). The second stage is that of the householder, when the young man, his studies complete, must marry and father children. Here the rules form whom to marry are presented: The third stage is that of retirement to the forest…the fourth stage is that of the ascetic who renounces all typical life to find release from rebirth (36).
Although each man and woman is individual, it is believed that every human being somehow follows this path. As young people, men and women learn the behavior that is expected of them in their lives; this education is imbued in them by some adult authority, whether that is official schooling or more street-wise education of the home front. Not everyone will marry, but as adults people will feel at least compelled by some faction of society to wed and populate. This adulthood and contribution to the future of society need not be a genetic addition to the world; anyone who has contributed to the community through the responsibilities that they take on in adulthood is living within this second stage. As man or woman gets older, he or she retires from the working world and prepares themselves for their impending death. Many Hindus believe that after death, being are reincarnated, their souls go on into another physical form whether that be a plant or an animal. Some people do not make it into their older age and are thus prohibited from living through all four stages of life. Excepting this type of person, it can be assumed that all humans go through some similar form of development.
Yoga in the modern sensibility is an exercise regimen that is a series of stretches designed to teach the practice how to relax and become more centered in all things. The actual purpose of yoga was to create within the individual a sense of peace and harmony. Yogis teach traditional physical, mental, and spiritual disciplines (Yogani 52). It is intended to create peace within the single person doing the actions and allowing them to reach a calm center wherein they can achieve balance with the rest of the world at large (Van Voorst 49). All of the stretches were designed to balance the soul and to connect both physical and metaphysical body with the rest of the universe. Hindu persons who practice yoga are taught to create peaceful energy and use it against all the negative things that are a part of their existence. Practicing yoga is meant to build a ladder within the self through eight stages: "self-control, religious observance, postures, regulation of the breath, restraint of the senses, steadying of the mind, meditation, and profound contemplation" (Yogani 53). Yoga is actually but one of six school of Hindu philosophy. Again, the system of choice inherent in the religion is designed so that every individual person can create the religious support system that he or she needs in order to achieve happiness.
Hinduism, unlike other world religions, is polytheistic. Each person chooses the deity or deities who they desire to worship. Some refrain from choosing a god to devote themselves to at all. In Conflicts and Co-Existence, India, author J.N. Nada writes:
In Hinduism devotion and faith in some saint / Guru is considered of worth but the choice is left entirely to the intellectual and devotional evolution of the individual. This has kept the doors open to all including animists, tribals, snake worshippers, agnostics, even atheists, etc. The great majority believe in one supreme god manifest in many forms or unmanifest in any form. They define God as truth, consciousness and bliss to which even the atheists might agree as the definition of ultimate reality (107).
In creating a religious system, where the individual is allowed to choose which aspects of the heritage that he or she wishes to accept, the Hindu religion opens itself to the people who are atheistic or agnostic as well as those who believe in all the gods of the Hindi people. Whereas most religions demand that all components of the dogma be accepted with blind face despite individual interpretation or question, Hinduism allows and even encourages its believers to take on only the parts they need to better their own lives and enrich their own pursuits of happiness. In addition, the Hindus also embrace the icons of the other world religions. In many Hindu temples, iconography of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam can be found. The only thing that Hindu leaders are concerned with is that practitioners somehow find their way to a God or some power higher than themselves (Keene 78). This belief will inevitably lead the individual…