If you ask a Hindu what it means to be one, or what Hinduism is, you will get many answers. Some will say it is a way of life and not a religion. Some will say that it is a conglomeration of various belief systems. Some will say it is a religion. Some will say there is no such thing as Hinduism but it is sanatana dharma. And some will have no clue.
There is no straightforward answer. It is at once utterly simple and extremely complicated. That’s the paradox of defining something so fundamental, so natural.
There is no specific god or prophet or holy book or theology or ritual in Hinduism. And yet there is a common thread binding what it means to be Hindu. Here is a list of nine fundamentals of Hinduism. This could well be the fundamentals of Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Taoism, and other Eastern systems with only the slightest variation. After all, at its core, Hinduism is nothing but the principles of nature recorded in human language.
1. ब्रह्मन् – The supreme spirit of the universe
Hinduism has several gods but only one supreme spirit – brahman. It is without beginning and beyond destruction. The contention is that if we know brahman, we become brahman (Mundaka Upanishad 3.2.9). Thus, a Hindu has the flexibility to worship the brahman in the form of a god (like Krishna, Sarasvati, Hanuman), in form of nature (the sun, the moon, the wind), in the form of a symbol (like Om), or as a formless spirit pervading the universe. Thus, a Hindu could be a theist, a ritualist, a non-formalist, or even an agnostic.
2. समन्वय – The interconnectedness of everything
When discussing how the universe came into being, the Vedas often say that the whole of creation came from a single source (Rigveda Samhita 10.129, 10.90, etc.) We are all children of the same ancestor. This instills a deep sense of harmony and unity with not just fellow humans but all aspects of nature – animals, plants, rivers, forests, mountains, etc.
When we observe nature closely we find that diversity of form and expression is in the very DNA of the universe. Without multiple perspectives, there would be no existence. Hinduism is therefore pluralistic and tolerant towards different viewpoints. Everyone is free to practice it and in whatever form they deem appropriate, as long as the larger samanvaya is maintained.
3. धर्म – The sustenance principle
Dharma is the principle that sustains everything. It is the harmony in the universe that maintains natural goodness. It includes principles like courage, forbearance, self-control, integrity, and cleanliness (Manusmriti 7.92). Not adhering to dharma is like chopping the branches of a tree under which one is taking shade.
In the universal context, we adhere to dharma by aligning ourselves with rta, the cosmic order of the universe. At a social realm, we adhere to dharma by speaking the truth (satya) and following the law of the land. At a personal level, we adhere to dharma by being ourselves.
4. ऋण – The ultimate debt
When we realize the grandeur of the universe and understand the interconnectedness of everything, we naturally become humbled. We cease to cause harm to anyone because that would mean causing harm to ourselves.
To partake of a single meal or learn a single lesson takes the effort of the whole of creation. The gratitude that comes out of this awareness is the feeling of rna or indebtedness. The way in which we repay this ultimate debt is by adhering to dharma at all times.
5. धैर्य – The internal fortitude
While the universe toils for our sustenance, the onus is always on us to improve our quality of life. We should neither degrade ourselves nor be pretentious. We should elevate ourselves by our own efforts (Bhagavad-Gita 6.5) and only then can we enable the dreams of others.
In the last tale of the Simhasana Dvatrimsika (the 32 tales of the throne of King Vikramaditya), Vikrama loses everything in the end, but he does not let go of his courage. As long as his heart beats, courage is firmly lodged there – without that internal strength, he says that there is no meaning to living. A life bereft of dhairya is no life at all.
6. कर्म – The tireless striving
Even the gods love those who work hard and detest the lazy ones (Rigveda Samhita 8.2.18). Everyone has to work for achieving their goals and a failure to do that is a wasted life. The word tapas is often used in connection with karma. It involves concentration, single-minded focus, and finally, dedicating our work to the supreme spirit. This helps us detach from the results of the action. One may, at best, have pure intentions, but consequences can’t be predicted.
7. अध्यात्म – The inner world
Ultimately, the universe is what we perceive it to be. The inner world of adhyatma is far more fundamental than the external one of adhibhuta. Hinduism encourages introspection and prefers an intuitive approach to learning. It values personal experience much more than theoretical knowledge. It strongly recommends that each of us stay true to ourselves and follow our inner voice. After all, true happiness lies within and not in the outer world.
8. आनन्द – The transcendental happiness
If the greatest experience of art is rasa or aesthetic joy, the greatest experience of life is ananda or supreme bliss. Hinduism celebrates life as joy and hails all of creation as children of immortal bliss (Rigveda Samhita 10.13.1). The highest goal of earthly life is ananda and it is everyone’s duty to seek personal happiness. But this happiness should not be at the cost of another’s sorrow; rather it should be the happiness of everyone.
9. मोक्ष – The final frontier
Hinduism believes that we all go through an eternal cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Getting out of this cycle is called moksha or release. By dissolving dualities and becoming one with brahman, we attain moksha. One can attain this final frontier in many ways – by selfless work, by wisdom, by devotion, by meditation, or by letting go. Moksha is basically a state of permanent ananda.
Like with the other questions, you will find many responses for what people think are the fundamentals of Hinduism. This is just my list. Indeed, it is for everyone to draw up their own conclusions and worldviews from what they understand of Hinduism in the light of their own experiences – however varied or eclectic their practices and rituals may be. After all, an ancient tradition like sanatana dharma doesn't hang by the thread of Form but rests on the bedrock of Content.
An earlier version of this article was published in Daily O as part of my column Commonsense Karma.