Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Shreeya. Shreeya Wonders, “What is Hinduism?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Shreeya!

Can you name the oldest major religion in the world? It isn’t Christianity or Islam. It isn’t even Judaism or Buddhism. No, the world’s oldest religion dates back farther than any of these—to at least 5,000 years ago! It’s Hinduism.

It’s important to know that not everyone calls it Hinduism. That term was created by British explorers. Some people who practice this religion call it Vedic Religion or Sanatana Dharma (English: “eternal law”). Many also call it Hindu Dharma.

How many people practice Hinduism? About 900 million. In fact, it’s the third largest religion in the world. Most followers of Hinduism—95 percent—live in India.

There are many ways to practice Hinduism. However, most Hindus have some beliefs in common. For example, unity is very important in Hinduism. The religion has one God who takes many forms. They’re all unified by the same spirit, called Brahman. This spirit is also connected to all souls. 

In Hinduism, people may choose to worship or pray to one god form in particular. Still, they acknowledge all of the religion’s deities. One might focus on Vishnu, the god who protects the universe. Others might pray to Saraswati, the goddess of learning. There’s also Krishna, the god of compassion and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and purity. The Hindu God comes in millions of forms.

Two very important deities in Hinduism are Brahma, the creator, and Shiva, the destroyer. Hindus believe Brahma created everything in the universe. Every 2,160,000,000 years, Shiva destroys it. This begins a new cycle of creation and destruction.

This cyclical nature of time shows up in other Hindu beliefs as well. One example is reincarnation. This is the idea that a soul can live many lives after death. In each life, it may take on a different form, such as a plant or animal. This is determined by the soul’s karma—the accumulation of good and bad actions taken during life.

Traditional Hinduism also holds that people are born into different castes based on karma. Castes are similar to social classes. There are four of them: the Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors, kings), Vaishyas (farmers, traders), and Shudras (laborers). 

Each caste has its own dharma, or expected behaviors. Followers of Hinduism believe that following their dharma can build karma and influence reincarnation. The goal is to reach moksha. This is the point at which reincarnation stops. Instead of rebirth, the soul becomes one with the spirit of Brahman. 

The caste system in India was once very strict. People were unable to move from the caste they were born into. This has slowly started to change in recent decades. Leaders like Mahatma Gandhi have helped change people’s views on the castes.

Does Hinduism sound like other religions you know of? People around the world have very different beliefs. We should always view other religions with respect. When you look closely, you may even notice that these beliefs have many things in common!

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