Hinduism is perhaps the oldest surviving religious tradition, dating back to 1700BCE or earlier and evolving from thousands of years of separate practices from the Indian subcontinent. Because it lacks a historic founder and a single concept of god, Hinduism isn’t one “religion,” but an incredibly varied collective of traditions and beliefs.
Varied though it may be, there are some common concepts most Hindus share. Samsara is the cycle of birth and rebirth all living creatures endure. One is reborn as a lesser or greater creature according to karma, the collective good or bad deeds over one’s lifetimes. One can establish better karma through following dharma: personal obligation and duty. By living well, one can achieve moksha, liberation from the cycle of rebirth and it’s inherent suffering. One achieves moksha by reconciling atman (the personal self) with Brahman (the supreme, divine spirit), and realizing that all things and people are continuous with this divine entity.
Hindus draw these beliefs and others from several religious texts. The oldest are the Vedas, but the Upanishads, Puranas, and several epics are also key. The importance of each text varies across Hinduism. Some Hindus called yogis practice yoga: several schools of philosophy, meditation, and physical discipline designed to perfect one’s mind toward moksha.
Hindu gods or devas (literally “shining ones”) are popularly depicted with many arms and colorful complexions. Certain denominations recognize the various devas as facets of an Ishvara: one specific, personal form of the Supreme Being. In Vaishnavism, Vishnu sustains and preserves the universe as the all-pervading Ishvara. The concept of the avatar – a god come to earth to redirect humanity towards dharma – is especially important in Vaishnavism; Vishnu’s avatars Rama and Krishna are highly revered, and Krishna is worshipped by some as Ishvara.
Shaivism centers on Shiva as the divine creator, sustainer, and destroyer of all creation. Many Shaivites use the lingam – a phallic statue symbolic of male creative energy – in worship. Conversely, Shaktism reveres female creative force in the form of Devi (the Supreme Goddess). Different sects of Shaktism focus on different goddesses: examples include Lakshmi (goddess of wealth, fortune, and fertility); Parvati (gentle universal mother); and Kali (goddess of destruction and eternal energy). Though these sects choose one deva as Ishvara, Smartism recognizes all major devas as equal forms of the one Brahman.
There is an ongoing debate on how to define Hinduism’s conception of the divine; scholars disagree whether Hinduism is monotheistic, polytheistic, or pantheistic. Much like calling Hinduism a “religion,” these categories might help in making sense of an unfamiliar tradition, but they just don’t really fit. I guess sometimes – to truly appreciate something new – you have to understand it using it’s own terms, instead of the terms you already have.