Hinduism is the third-largest religion in the world after Christianity and Islam, as well as the world's oldest religion. Approximately 15.1% percent of the world's population is Hindu, including 79.8% of the population of India. By contrast, only 0.7% of adults in the United States practice Hinduism.
Unlike other major world religions, Hinduism does not have a single founding text or individual. Instead Hinduism is regarded by historians as a synthesis of many philosophical and religious traditions originating in India. This means that followers of Hinduism ascribe to a variety of religious doctrines and practices. Hindus generally consider these different doctrines and practices to be means to a common end.
The earliest mentions of Hinduism by historians take place between 1300 and 1500 B.C., when the first advanced civilization developed in the Indus Valley, in what is now India and Pakistan. The religious and cultural beliefs that contributed to Hindu's core tenants continued to develop in the Indus Valley region until the beginning of the 19th century. By the middle of the 19th century, Hindu, along with Islam, was considered to be a major religion in India and Tibet.
Those who follow Hinduism believe in a cycle of birth and rebirth called samsara as well as in karma, the idea that an individual's actions in one life, good or bad, directly influence the outcome of both their current and future lives. Hindus believe that an individual can improve their current and future lives by doing good works in the present. Similarly, Hindus believe that bad acts will create suffering for an individual in the next life.
Additionally, Hinduism teaches that there are four major goals, or Purusarthas, of each individual's life. The first is Dharma, which represents an individual's duties and ethical obligations. Artha, the second, has to do with an individual's work, career, and level of prosperity throughout their life. The third is Kama, which represents an individual's passions and desires. The last, Moksha, represents freedom from the cycle of samsara. Of these goals, Moksha is seen as the ultimate goal, and is often understood to be pursued through multiple lifetimes. Successful completion of Moksha is aided by success in the first three goals, especially Dharma.
Traditions and Customs
Practicing Hinduism differs from practicing other major religions such as Christianity or Islam in that there are no prescribed initiation rituals. Instead, following Hinduism consists of believing in and ascribing to the core Hindu beliefs, attempting to live according to the Hindu principles through prayer, compassion for others, and self-restraint, and working towards the four Purusarthas. Some modern-day traditions of Hinduism include regular traditional prayer at home, personal traditions created by individual families, and reading traditional Hindu literature.
The Three Margas
Many Hindus recognize three different paths, known as margas, that devotees choose to follow in order to achieve spiritual liberation. The first path, called bhaktimarga, is focused on devotion to one or several of the gods of Hindu, such as Brahman, Vishnu, Shiva, or Shakti. Individuals who are devoted to the gods often perform shrine rituals in their homes that demonstrate their devotion. The second path, jnanamarga, focuses on intense meditation, while the third path, karmamarga, centers around doing good works and fulfilling the individual's moral responsibilities. Each of these paths is considered to be equally valid by Hindus.