Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance list a number of areas in which Hinduism differs from other more monotheistic religions in that Hinduism does not have the following:
A single founder
A central religious authority
A singles concept of deity
A specific theological system
A single system of morality
The concept of a prophet
They further explain that Hinduism should not be considered a religion in the same way that Christianity is, that Hinduism is more correctly considered to be an all encompassing way of life, in much the same way as Native American spirituality (Hinduism, 2011).
Hinduism is generally considered to be the world's oldest organized religion, consisting of numerous different religious groups that evolved in India since around 1500 BCE. Hinduism ranks as the world's third largest religion, following Christianity and Islam. Hinduism followers make up approximately 14% of the world's population, or about 950 million as of 2004. It is the dominant religion in India, Nepal, and parts of Sri Lanka (Hinduism, 2011).
The early history of Hinduism is open to debate for several reasons. For one, Hinduism is not one single religion, but rather embraces many traditions. The sources of these traditions are very ancient, but in a strict sense, Hinduism did not exist before modern times. And while the traditions that make up Hinduism go back several thousand years, some practitioners understand the Hindu revelation to be eternal. The main historical periods of Hinduism consist of the following:
Before 200 BCE: the Indus Valley civilization
1500 -- 500 BCE: the Vedic period
500 BCE -- 500 CE: the Epic, Curanic, and Classical Age
500 CE -- 1500 CE: Medieval period
1500 -- 1757 CE: Pre-modern period
1757 -- 1947 CE: British period
1947 CE -- the present: Independent India (Hinduism, 2011).
Major Beliefs and Practices of Hinduism
Categorizing Hindu beliefs and practices is somewhat challenging. While Westerners have commonly viewed Hinduism as polytheistic, that is, a religion which worships multiple deities, that view is not accurate. Others view Hinduism as monotheistic, because it recognizes only one supreme God: the panentheistic principle of Brahman that all reality is a unity. Still others view Hinduism as Trinitarian because Brahman is simultaneously viewed as a triad, that is, one God with three persons, Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. In a stricter sense, most forms of Hinduism are henotheistic; they recognize a single deity, with other gods and goddesses seen as facets, forms, manifestations, or aspects of that supreme God (Hinduism, 2011).
There are two major divisions which most urban Hindus follow: Vaishnavaism, which recognizes Vishnu as the ultimate deity, and Shivaism, which recognizes Shiva as the ultimate deity. Hindus also believe in the repetitious transmigration of the soul, which involves the transfer of one's soul after death into another body. This transfer, called samsara, produces a continuing cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth through many lifetimes. Another basic Hindu belief is karma, the accumulated sum of one's good and bad deeds, which determines how one will live one's next life. As a consequence of pure acts, thoughts, and devotion, one can be reborn at a higher level, and eventually one can escape samsara and achieve enlightenment. On the other hand, bad deeds can cause a person to be reborn at a lower level, or even as an animal. Hinduism regards the unequal distribution of wealth, prestige, suffering etc. As the natural consequences for one's previous acts that occurred both in this life and in previous lives (Hinduism, 2011).
Hindus organize their lives around certain beliefs. The pravritti, those who are in the world, have three goals:
Dharma, or righteousness in one's religious life; this is the most important of the three
Artha, or success in one's economic life; material prosperity
Kama, or gratification of the senses, that is, pleasure; sensual, sexual, and mental enjoyment
The nivritti, those who renounce the world, seek liberation from samsara, considered to be the supreme goal of mankind (Hinduism, 2011).
Hindus frequently practice meditation, with yoga being the most common form. Other activities can include daily devotions, public rituals, and puja, a ceremonial dinner for a God (Hinduism, 2011).
Personal Appraisal of Hinduism
There are two aspects of Hinduism which I find compelling. The first is that Hinduism is widely considered to be highly tolerant of other religions. In a world that is full of strident and intolerant denunciations by religions of other religions, it is gratifying to encounter instances of tolerance. Hindus reflect this tolerance in a saying that is translated as follows: "The truth is One, but different Sages call it by Different Names" (Hinduism, 2011).
The other appealing aspect of Hinduism is the principle of transmigration of the soul. While I do not personally believe in the Hindu interpretation of karma, I find the progression through the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth to be a very organized and systematic explanation for the seemingly random occurrences of life.
Historical Context of Buddhism
For centuries, Buddhism has been known as the dominant religion of the Eastern world. Today it continues to be the predominant religion in China, Japan, Korea, and much of southeast Asia, and ranks as the world's fourth largest religion with 360 million adherents (Fast Facts, 2007).
Buddhism, founded by Siddhartha Gautama, had its beginnings as an offshoot of Hinduism in the country of India. It is challenging to provide an accurate historical account of the life of Gautama because no biography was recorded until hundreds of years after his death. Much of his life story is intertwined with myths and legends which arose after his death (Zukeran, 2009).
Siddhartha Gautama was born in northern India in approximately 560 B.C. His father Suddhodana ruled over a district near the Himalayas in what is today the country of Nepal. Suddhodana is reported to have sheltered his son from the outside world by confining him to the palace and surrounding him with wealth and pleasure. In spite of his father's efforts, Gautama saw four things that forever changed his life when he took a trip outside the palace walls: an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a beggar. Gautama was deeply distressed by the suffering he witnessed, and began a quest to find the answer to the problem of pain and human suffering (Zukeran, 2009).
Gautama left his family to travel the country seeking wisdom, eventually turning to a life of meditation. While he was deep in meditation under the Bohdi tree (tree of wisdom), Gautama experienced the highest degree of God-consciousness known as Nirvana. Thereafter Gautama was known as Buddha, the "enlightened one." Buddha believed he had found the answers to the questions of pain and suffering and thereafter worked to proclaim his message to the world (Zukeran, 2009).
Major Beliefs and Practices of Buddhism
The basic teachings of Buddhism focus on what Gautama believed to be the answers to the question of why there is pain and suffering, and how does one break the rebirth cycle? Basic tenets of Buddhism are found in the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path (Zukeran, 2009).
The First Noble Truth is that throughout life, all living things encounter suffering. The Second Noble Truth holds that the root cause of suffering is the craving for wealth, happiness and other forms of selfish enjoyment. The Third Noble Truth holds that all suffering will cease when a person can rid himself of all desires. The Fourth Noble Truth holds that the extinguishing of all desire is achieved by following the eight-fold path (Zukeran, 2009).
Gautama's eight-fold path consists of the following rules: