Hinduism is a Western term that refers to the diverse religious and cultural traditions stemming from the Vedas, the ancient Sanskrit writings of India. Followers themselves often refer to the term ‘Sanatan Dharma’, thus indicating belief in universal and everlasting truths. The tradition, therefore, has no clearly definable beginning, although scholars date it back further than 4,000 years. Hinduism, we can state with certainty, has no single founder or single creed.
Nevertheless, there are a number of beliefs and concepts which are widely accepted. Practically all Hindus believe in the doctrine of reincarnation, whereby the eternal soul (atman) transmigrates through different species, from one body to another. This operates according to the law of action and reaction, commonly called ‘the law of Karma’. The aim of human life, for most Hindus, is liberation from the cycle of birth and death through union with the Supreme (Brahaman).
Hindus believe that God is one, depicted either as the all-pervading world soul or as the Supreme Person. The Supreme, however conceived, is worshipped in (or through) a variety of forms, but principally three: Vishnu, Shiva and Shaki (the goodess). Especially popular amongst British Hindus today are Rama and Krishna, two of the incarnations (avatars) of Vishnu.
Worship regularly takes place in the home as well as in the Mandir (temple). Families usually have a shrine devoted to particular deities in a room set aside for puja. Strong family structures are valued, although a feature of Hinduism is its emphasis on celibacy and asceticism, especially in later life. The system of four stages of life, together with four social classes by occupation, is called Varnashrama Dharma – the basis of the Hindu social system.
In the United Kingdom today there are at least 400,000 Hindus, originating mainly from Gujarat and Punjab and often coming via East Africa. The many Mandirs throughout the country serve as social and community centres, as well as places of worship. Although social and religious trends are changing with successive generations, the Hindu community is preserving its ancient heritage while applying its values to life in modern Britain.