Hinduism, known as Sanātana Dharma, (सनातन धर्म) and Vaidika-Dharma by most Hindus, is a worldwide religious tradition rooted in Indian culture and based on teachings of the Vedas. Hinduism is the third largest religion, with a following of approximately one billion people, encompassing many diverse beliefs and schools. The scholarly estimates of Hinduism's origin vary from 3102 B.C.E. to 1300 B.C.E., although Hindu estimates are considerably longer, given that they see the religion as expressing timeless truths. Ninety-eight percent of Hinduism's practitioners can be found on the Indian subcontinent, chiefly in Bharat (India).

Some Hindus dislike the name “Hinduism,” although many now use the term. It is an English term, probably first used in the 1829 Oxford English Dictionary and derived from the Persian language for the people who lived beyond the Indus River. It has been argued that Hinduism as described in many textbooks and as taught at universities results from the work of the theosophist, Annie Besant (1847 - 1933), who designed a syllabus for teaching the sanatana dharma at her Hindu Central College (founded 1898). She systematized the religion into the four classes, four stages of life, four aims, four ages. Some criticize this Western tendency to elevate an abstract, classical, 'Great Tradition' above the myriad 'small' (or local) traditions that inform the lives of most Hindus.

Some argue that there is no singular or unitary religion of India at all. They regard Hinduism as an umbrella term for a multitude of related beliefs and practices, known as margas. Hinduism has close family ties with Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism and is considered to be a cultural sphere in its own right. One definition of a Hindu is anyone who reveres the Vedas. Another says that a Hindu is someone who other Hindus recognize as Hindu, regardless of how different their belief or practice.1 There are Hindu minorities in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, South Africa, and a substantial diaspora presence in Europe and in North America. The relatively small Himalayan kingdom of Nepal is the only nation in the modern world with Hinduism as its state religion. Many Princely states in India had Hinduism as their state religion prior to the creation of the modern Indian state in 1947.

Many non-Hindus see a great amount of ancient wisdom in Hinduism's foundational texts, the Vedas and Upanishads, which Hindus believe were “breathed out” by the gods and represent knowledge. Many people believe that God was revealing God's-self through the ancient laws and ethical principles contained in Hindu scriptures, which speak of a cosmic struggle between order (dharma) and chaos (adharma). Hinduism has helped billions of people to make sense of life, and to live orderly lives centered on belief in the existence of universal moral principles for thousands of years. Julius Lipner has pointed out that for “well over 3,000 years” Hinduism, or the “plural reality named as such,” has “regularly produced men and women down the ages who have made outstanding contributions across the range of the civilized human endeavor.”2 The world would be much the poorer if Hinduism, however defined, was absent from human experience. Hinduism represents one of the great civilization streams that have helped to unify humanity and to engender respect for creation and recognition that the physical and material aspects of life are not the only or even the ultimate reality. Many non-Hindus have adopted elements of Hindu belief and practice while identifying with a different religion, or with no organized religion at all.

The Vedic Heritage

Main article: vedasPage of Max Müller's Rigveda-samhitā, the Sacred Hymns of the Brahmans (London, 1974 reprint), two verses of the Purusha sukta with Sayana's commentary.

The overwhelming majority of Hindu sacred texts are composed in the Sanskrit language. Indeed, much of the morphology and linguistic philosophy inherent in the learning of Sanskrit is sometimes claimed to be inextricably linked to study of the Vedas and of relevant Hindu texts. The Vedas (literally Knowledge) are considered as shruti (revelation) by Hindus. They were breathed out by the gods and thus have no beginning in time. While the overwhelming majority of Hindus may never read the Vedas, there prevails in them a reverence for this abstract notion of eternal knowledge. The four Vedas (the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda) were preserved by various shakhas or schools. Depending on the school, various commentaries and instructions are associated with each Veda. The oldest of these are the Brahmanas (priests). The Shrautasutras and Grhyasutras form a younger stratum dealing with domestic ritual. This founding layer of Hinduism does establish the four classes (varnas: brahmins, ksatriya, Vaishya, sudra) as a social system that distributed tasks and responsibilities, and seems to privilege the highest varna, the priests, although this has never translated into economic privilege. Members of the second highest class, the warrior-class, are often wealthier, while the merchant Vaishya class may be even wealthier than the warrior-class. Even Sudras, the servants, could rise up the economic scale, and in practice, class was never as rigid as has been suggested. In a Rig Veda hymn (Ch. 10, Verse 90), these classes emerge from the head, shoulders, thighs, and feet of the sacrificial primordial, cosmic Purusha (man) (Embree 1998: 18). The main Vedic deities include Varuna (sky), Mitra (sun), Indra (war), Agni (fire), and Yama (death).

The Vedas contain many different types of material. There are stories of the gods and demons, of the rishis (neither quite gods nor human), and creation narratives. Creation may not be the best translation, because one characteristic of these narratives is that the cosmos emanates from, and is therefore an aspect of, the Unfathomable One that stands behind all. The gods, it is implied in the Rig Veda, do not really know how the world began because they are on “this side,” but an unknown, unnamed One “breathed without wind through its independent power… . There was nothing other than it” (Embree 1998: 21). The Vedas contain numerous sacrificial formulas, and pit adharma (chaos) against the need for cosmic order (dharma). Dharma is also a god and the term refers both to the sacrificial and other rituals of the Brahmins (properly, Brahman but rendered Brahmin to distinguish from Brahman as ultimate reality) and to that moral conduct that is appropriate to a person's gender, class, and stage in life. Originally, Brahman appears to have denoted the prayers of the priests, but was eventually adopted to designate the priests themselves. Soma (an intoxicating wine and also a god) and agni (fire, also a god) are essential to the sacrificial system. Medical knowledge is also contained in the Vedas, which continues to inform the practice of what is sometimes referred to as “alternative medicine” in India, that is, alternative to Western medicine. It is also known as Ayurvedic medicine, said to be the oldest system in the world. According to Hindu thought, it was revealed by Brahma to the sage, Atreya. Dance and music were similarly revealed.

The idea of appeasing the gods is not absent from the Vedas, but the real purpose of the sacrifices is to maintain cosmic balance. In the Brahmanas (priests' manuals) that were written to accompany the Vedas, Vac (speech, which is feminine) is also said to have created the Vedas. The Brahmins also maintain rigorous purity rules that separate them socially from other classes but especially from the Sudras and from those who are considered to be outside the class system.

The Vedantic Literature: the philosophical strand

The Aranyakas and the Upanishads (which are known as Vedantic, or the end of the Vedas) were originally esoteric, mystical teachings related in secrecy. The Upanishads (usually dated about form 900 or 800 B.C.E.) set Hindu philosophy apart with its embrace of a single transcendent and yet immanent force that is native to each person's soul, seen by some as an identification of micro- and macrocosm as One. It can be said that while early Hinduism was most reliant on the four Vedas, classical Hinduism was molded around the Upanishads, which represent the “end of the Vedas.” This literature was also “revealed.” Sometimes, the Upanishads seem to scoff at those who place their faith in sacrifices performed by someone else: “Regarding sacrifice and merit as most important, the deluded ones do not know of any other higher spiritual good” (Munkara Upanishad, Embree: 31). Instead of a physical sacrifice, an inner, spiritual sacrifice is enjoined; “sacrifice in knowledge is better than sacrifice with material objects” (Gita, 4:33, Miller 1986: 53). The object of religious observance is no longer primarily the maintenance of cosmic order but liberation (moksha) from the endless cycle (samsara) of existences, of multiple births, deaths, and rebirths. In the Upanishads, sat (truth or essence) or Brahman, is the All-in-All, Tat Tvam Asi (Thou Art That) or the Universal Soul from which the many emanates: "Being thought to itself: 'May I be many, may I procreate'” (Chandogya Upanishad, Embree: 37). Although the word srshti is here translated as “procreate,” a better rendering is “the projection of that which already is.”

Brahman is ultimate bliss (ananda). Only Brahman is non-contingent. The many gods, Vedic and post-Vedic, are usually said to be various manifestations of the attributes or qualities of the single and ultimately transcendent reality. For some, that reality is non-personal, without attributes (nirguna), but at a lower level manifests its attributes in the form of a personal god (Isvara) which take over some of the function of Brahman in relation to the universe and to the atman (soul, or spark) within sentient beings. As a spark of Brahman, the atman is also eternal and uncreated. Ananda (joy, or bliss) results when people realize their oneness with Brahman, which is the condition of samadhi (absorption) and its fruit is moksa (or moksha), liberation from rebirth. Meanwhile, karma (action) good or bad determines status, punishment, and rewards in future existences. While Brahmanism, or the priestly strand, did not leave non-Brahmins very much to do religiously, except to behave ethically, Vedanta opened up the possibility of philosophical speculation (sankhya) and of yogic practice for almost anyone, except shudras (the lowest varna or caste), who were forbidden from reading the sacred texts. Yoga aims to achieve samadhi. Two great thinkers, Shankara (788 - 820 C.E.) and Ramanuja (1017 - 1137 C.E.) contributed significantly to the development of Vendanta. Shankara taught that plurality is an illusion (maya) and that moksa results from realization (cit, awareness) of absolute identification of atman with Brahman. Brahman is beyond space and time. When the knowledge that “everything is indeed the absolute” (sarvan khalu ilam brahman) is achieved by deep meditation and mental discipline (yoga), the atman is freed of ignorance (avidya) and is forever liberated from samsara. Shankara taught that worship of an Isvara (or personal savior) represented a low level of religious practice. Ramanuja disagreed. For him, Brahman is both the self without and the self within, the essence of the universe and a personal deity. Plurality is real, not an illusion; the many really exist but only exist fully when aware of their absolute dependence on Brahman. The realized self participates in God's being, yet is not to be confused with the totality of God. For Ramanuja, it is God's dominant characteristic of love that enables people to gain true knowledge of God. God remains the only self-illuminated being; one can only enter a true relationship with God with the aid of divine grace (prasada). Individuality (ahamkara), for Shankara, must perish; for Ramanuja, it continues but in communion with all other selves. Vedanta's primary concern is in right knowledge (jnana), although right action is always important.

The Puranas and the Devotional Strand (Bhakti)

The Trimurti, sculpture in Elephanta Island Caves

Around 300 B.C.E., the great epics known as the Puranas, which include the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were “remembered” (smriti). These stories are more familiar to the vast majority of Hindus than the contents of the Vedic and Vedantic literature. The Mahabharata is also a story of origins, a sacred history of India. The strand of religious practice represented by the Puranas is devotion, devotion to a “personal God” chosen by each individual, who, in return for worship and service, will aid the individual in their quest for moksha. This is known as the bhakti tradition, or way (marga). By the time that the Puranas were written, the main deities of the Vedas had been supplanted in popular devotion by a pantheon of three: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, respectively creator, preserver, and destroyer (then a new cycle of existence begins). The image of the trimurti (three forms of God) is very popular in India, which represents the unity of the three aspects of God. Each has a consort: Saraswati (associated with education and speech); Lakshmi (prosperity); and Parvati (creativity, the arts). The qualities of fame, fortune, memory, speech, intelligence, and resolve are all listed as feminine (Gita, 10:34). Each of the three has their own Puranas, and in these texts there is a tendency to regard the subject as the most important deity, assuming the functions of all three. In popular Hinduism, Brahma is less important that Vishnu and Shiva. As preserver, Vishnu manifests or appears in human form whenever humanity is in peril. These manifestations, or Avatars include Ram and Krishna, whose stories are told in the Ramayana and Mahabharata respectively. One of the most widely read and important Hindu scriptures, the Bhagavad-Gita, is actually chapter 11 of the Mahabharata. Although part of a Purana, it is widely considered to be Vedantic. In this text, which is said to summarize Vedanta, Krishna reveals himself to his charioteer, Arjuna. While technically the Gita is considered Smriti, it has singularly achieved nearly unquestioned status as Shruti, or revealed, and is thus the most definitive single Hindu text. Unlike the Vedas that are more esoteric and intricate, the Gita is read by many practicing Hindus on a daily basis. Krishna reveals that He is all-in-all. He is the sacred syllable, Om (associated with the act of creation), He is Shiva and Brahma. He is Vyasa among the sages (Vyasa is the rishi who narrates the Mahabharata). He creates and destroys, thus making both Brahma and Shiva redundant. According to the Bhagavad-Gita, whoever worship God in any form, be they women or men high born or low born with love and sincerity, really worship Krishna, who will gracefully accept their worship as if it were direct at Himself (Gita 7:21-22).

O Arjuna, even those devotees who worship other lesser deities (Devas, for example) with faith, they also worship Me, but in an improper way because I am the Supreme Being. I alone am the enjoyer of all sacrificial services (Seva, Yajna) and Lord of the universe (Gita 9:23).

The Vishnu tradition is often referred to as Vaishnavism.

Shiva's Purana also depicts Him as the all-in-all. Shiva is both the God of ascetic practice and of sexual prowess. His consort, too, has two forms-benign and beautiful (to lure him away from his meditation) and powerful and destructive of evil to protect Shiva when he is unaware of danger. Their son, Ganesh (the elephant-headed god) is also a popular deity. Known as the remover of obstacles, his temples are often found on street corners. Tantric Hinduism uses sex and sexual energy to release inert powers that can help us to overcome duality by embracing what is dark and forbidden. The Bhakti tradition, which focuses on personal devotion to one's chosen Isvara, tends to disregard gender and class. It is not uncommon, in a bhakti temple in India, to see a non-Brahmin women dressing the murti (image) of the deity, and placing this in the inner-chamber, a task that Brahmanism reserves for male priests. Bhakti services are often informal, consisting of singing led by whoever is gifted musically, sometimes with spontaneous homilies and devotional prayers. Bhakti Hindus may not see themselves as in need of Brahmins, but this does not mean that they do not respect the Brahmin's way of life. Images (murtis) of the deities are believed to contain the “presence” of the gods, but they are not objects of worship for Hindus, who worship the reality behind the symbol. Hinduism was often taken to be a form of idolatry by Westerners. The cave images at Elephanta Island were damaged by the Portuguese for this reason.

Another accusation was that Hindus were polytheists, but most Hindus believe in one ultimate reality, which manifests itself plurally. Although Western fascination for sexual aspects of Hinduism has been criticized, temple images do depict gods and goddesses sensually and seem to celebrate rather than shy away from sex as a legitimate and enjoyable part of life, within the bond of marriage. Indeed, the fourth century C.E. text, the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, which celebrates sexual pleasure, has become popular in the West. The Shiva tradition is often referred to as Shaivism, and devotees of Vishnu or Shiva can be identified by distinctive tilaka markings.

Core Concepts

The Eternal Way

"The Eternal Way" (in Sanskrit सनातन धर्म, Sanātana Dharma), or the "Perennial Philosophy/Harmony/Faith," its traditional name, speaks to the idea that certain spiritual principles hold eternally true, transcending man-made constructs, representing a pure science of consciousness. This consciousness is not merely that of the body or mind and intellect, but of a supramental soul-state that exists within and beyond our existence, the unsullied Self of all. Religion to the Hindu is the eternal search for the divine Brahman, the search to find the One truth that in actuality never was lost, only hidden.

Hinduism's aspiration is best expressed in the following sutra (thread, or verse of scripture):

OM Asato ma sad gamaya, tamaso ma jyotir gamaya, mrityor ma aamritaam gamaya. Shanti, shanti, shanti
"OM Lead me from ignorance to truth, from darkness to light, from death to immortality. Peace, Peace, Peace" (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (1/3/28)).Hinduism continues to grow, as evidenced by the modern Neasden Temple in London.

Basic beliefs

What can be said to be common to all Hindus is belief in Dharma (natural principles), Reincarnation (rebirth), Karma (cause and effect relationship), and Moksha (liberation from earthly matters) of every soul through a variety of moral, action-based, and meditative yogas. Reincarnation or the soul's transmigration through a cycle of birth and death, until it attains Moksha, is governed by Karma. The philosophy of Karma lays forth the results of free-willed actions, which leave their imprint on the atman (soul-spiritual self). These actions affect the course of life and the form and life path sought by the soul in its next cycle of life. Virtuous actions take the soul closer to the divine supreme and lead to a birth with higher-consciousness. Evil actions hinder this recognition of the divine supreme and mislead the soul to seek knowledge through material experiences in various forms of worldly life. All existence, per Hinduism, from vegetation to mankind, are subjects and objects of the eternal Dharma, which is the natural harmony or law of the entity. Liberation from this material existence and cycle of birth and death, to join or reach the Universal spirit or God (depending on belief), is known as Moksha, which is the ultimate goal of Hindus.

Still, more fundamental principles include the guru/chela (teacher-pupil) dynamic, the Divinity of Word of Aum or OM and the power of mantras (religious word or phrase), love of Truth in many manifestations as gods and goddesses, and an understanding that the essential spark of the Divine (Atman/Brahman) is in every living being. It allows for many spiritual paths leading to the One Unitary Truth. Gurus may function, for their devotees or followers, as channels of communication between God and often mystical or miraculous gifts and abilities are associated with them. For example, they may heal the sick, lie on burning coals, become invisible, or levitate above the ground. Some may also be regarded as Avatars. Millions venerate Satya Sai Baba as the embodiment of all aspects of the godhead. Sophisticated organization often surrounds Gurus, such as the Swaminarayan Sampraday, founded by Swaminarayan (1781 - 1830) believed to be a manifestation of Vishnu. He taught that individual lives (jivas) do not merge with the Ultimate but exist to offer praise and devotion to God. The movement is led by Acharyas, who represent the Guru on earth, but who are not regarded as possessing any special powers or authority. They are really administrators. The Swaminarayan Temple in Neasden, UK, was built according to traditional design, with many segments being carved in India and exported for assembly.

Traditionally, high caste Hindus were reluctant to travel outside India because they believed they would lose ritual purity. Also, the very soil of India is so sacred for Hindus that many felt they could not be content with life elsewhere. In fact, however, Hinduism reached what is now Indonesia between 400 and 600 C.E., where a distinct form of Hinduism arose. In 2005, approximately 93 percent of the island of Bali was Hindu. In Balinese Hinduism, two Vedic texts are used, the Catur and the Veda Cirah. Eventually, certain places where Hindus settled outside India acquired their own sanctity. Some temples in the Western diaspora are now also recognized as especially sacred.


Varanasi, one of the oldest holy cities in the world. It is considered as one of the most sacred places of pilgrimage for Hindus irrespective of denomination.

Many Hindus practice rituals (Samskaras) based on their ancient texts marking the cycle of life events, including birth, marriage, death, and for the twice-born classes (which excludes Shudras) the sacred thread ceremony (Upanayana). On their marriage day, all Hindus represent the ideal couple, Ram and his consort, Sita. Marriage repays debts to one's ancestors. Bride and groom circle the sacred fire and knot their clothes together as a symbol of unity. Death ritual, traditionally led by the eldest son or nearest male relative, involves the cremation of the deceased on a funeral pyre. Ashes are usually scattered in a sacred river, especially the Ganges.

Murtis (images) of the deities are washed, bathed, and treated with great reverence. They are housed in the inner sanctuary of Mandirs, or temples, although most Hindu homes have domestic shrines, where the images are also venerated and treated in the same way. Mandirs are regarded as sacred places.

There are many ancient temples in India. The basic design follows the pattern of a mandala, which leads the devotees from the temporal sphere into eternity. Temples are entered through porches, which face the east, that is, the rising sun. Several halls or Mandapas may lead off the porch, but the main route through the temple, from east to west, leads towards the inner sanctuary, or womb (garbgriha), over which towers the gopuram, often ornately carved with images of the deities. In addition to ancient temples, rivers (such as the Ganges) and places, such as Varanasi, are also sacred. The Ganges (or Ganga as it is known in India) is said to flow from Shiva's matted hair. Nature is herself holy, a reminder that the whole world emanates from the divine. Puja (worship), popularly often consisting of singing and sometimes dance, are offered in temples, but many Hindus visit the temple primarily to “see” the deity (known as darshan). Most major temples are constructed per the agama shastras, scriptures detailing how they should be built.

Hindu festivals are popular forms of devotion in which many Hindus participate, regardless of class. Holi is the spring and harvest festival. People cover each other in paint at this festival, which symbolizes the equality of all people. Diwali, often called the festival of lights, celebrates among other events the triumphant homecoming to Ayodhia of the ideal couple, Ram and Sita, after Sita's rescue from the clutches of the evil demon-king, Ravana. Raksha Bandhan is a ceremony in which brothers, who are symbolically tied to their sister, pledge to protect them.

Practice (Sadhana)

Hinduism is practiced through a variety of spiritual exercises, primarily loving devotion (Bhakti Yoga), selfless service (Karma Yoga), knowledge and meditation (Jnana or Raja Yoga). These are described in the two principal texts of Hindu Yoga: the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras. The Upanishads are also important as a philosophical foundation for this rational spiritualism. The yoga sutras provide a sort of taxonomy of paths (or faiths) that links together various Hindu beliefs and can also be used to categorize non-Hindu beliefs that are seen as paths from margas to moksha, or nirvana.

The four goals of life

Another major aspect of Hindu religion that is common to practically all Hindus is that of purushartha, the "four goals of life." They are kama, artha, dharma, and moksha. It is said that all humans seek kama (pleasure, physical or emotional) and artha (power, fame, and wealth), but soon, with maturity, learn to govern these legitimate desires within a higher, pragmatic framework of dharma, or moral harmony in all. The only goal that is truly infinite, whose attainment results in absolute happiness, is moksha (liberation), (a.k.a. Mukti, Samadhi, Nirvana, etc.) from Samsara, the material existence.

The four stages of life

Ideally, the human life is divided into four Asramas ("phases" or "stages," literally refuges). They are Brahmacharya, Grihasthya, Vanaprastha, and Sanyasa. The first quarter of one's life, Brahmacharya (literally "grazing in Brahma") is spent in celibate, controlled, sober, and pure contemplation of life's secrets under a Guru, building up body and mind for the responsibilities of life. Grihastya is the householder's stage in which one marries and satisfies kama and artha within a married life and professional career. Vanaprastha is gradual detachment from the material world, ostensibly giving over duties to one's children, spending more time in contemplation of the truth, and making holy pilgrimages. Finally, in Sanyasa, the individual goes into seclusion, often envisioned as the forest, to find God through Yogic meditation and peacefully shed the body for the next life. The sacred texts set out duties appropriate for one's stage of life, gender, and class.

Every Hindu does not expect to be able to complete all four stages during every birth-cycle but many aim to do so or to complete as much as possible, for example, reaching the retirement stage. Ideally, as merit accrues, one will be reborn into circumstances that enable one to complete all four cycles and to achieve moksha during the fourth stage.

Nature of God

The Upanishads depict the monad Brahman as the one source or God, with all other deities emanating from there. Brahman (not to be confused with Brahma) is seen as the universal spirit. Brahman is the ultimate, both transcendent and immanent. Brahman is the absolute infinite existence, the sum total of all that ever is, was, or ever shall be. Additionally, like Abrahamic religions, which believe in angels, Hindus also believe in more powerful entities, emanating from Brahman, such as devas.

Brahman is viewed as without personal attributes (Nirguna Brahman) or with attributes (Saguna Brahman). In the Hindu sects of Vaishnavism and Shaivism (Saguna Brahman) God is viewed as mostly male, as in Vishnu or Shiva. God's power (or energy) is personified as female or Shakti. However, God and God's energy are indivisible, unitary, and the same. The analogy is that fire represents God and the actual heat represents Shakti. According to other Hindu views, God can be with form, Saguna Brahman, and with whatever attributes (e.g., a female God) a devotee conceives.

Though all the different paths of Moksha (salvation, liberation) are, to various extents, acknowledged by all denominations, the actual conception of Brahman is what differentiates them.

Paths (Margas) and Sects (Sampradyas)

Each of Hinduism's four primary sects share rituals, beliefs, traditions, and personal deities with one another, but each has a different philosophy on how to achieve life's ultimate goal (moksa, liberation) and on their conception of God (Brahman). However, each sect respects the others, and conflict of any kind is rare although rivalry between these sects has occurred at various times. There is no centralized authority or organization in Hinduism.

The four major sects or orders of Hinduism (known as sampradyas) are: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, and Smartism. Just as Jews, Christians, and Muslims all believe in one God but differ in their conceptions of God, Hindus also all believe in one God but differ in their conceptions. The two primary forms of differences are between the two monotheistic religions of Vaishnavism, which conceives God as Vishnu, and Shaivism, which conceives God as Shiva. Shaktism worships the goddess Devi as Brahman or alternatively (where it is viewed as a sub-sect of Shaivism) as the energy of Shiva, the impersonal Brahman. Smartism, in contrast, believes in all paths being true and leading to one God or source, whatever one chooses to call the Ultimate Truth. The Trimurti concept (also called the Hindu trinity) of Smartism denotes the three aspects of God in God's forms as Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer.

The majority of Hindus identify with what is known as Smarta, which is said to be the most inclusive viewpoint.

The Smarta perspective dominates the view of Hinduism in the West. Smarta monists, seeing in multiple manifestations the one God or source of being, are often confused by non-Hindus as being polytheists. It is seen as one unity, with the personal gods being different aspects of only one Supreme Being, like a single beam of light separated into colors by a prism. Some of the Hindu aspects of God include Devi, Vishnu, Ganesh, and Siva. Smarta Hindus believe that God, in whatever form they prefer, (or as monists prefer to call, "Ishta Devata," the preferred form of God) can grant worshipers grace to bring them closer to Moksha, the end of the cycle of rebirth. The Hindu saint, Ramakrishna (1836 - 1886), a monist, was a promin