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“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 prefer the term “Sanatana Dharma” (the Eternal Religion) indicating belief in universal and everlasting truths. The tradition, therefore, has no clearly definable beginning, though scholars date it back more than five thousand years. Hinduism, we can say with certainty, has no single founder and no common set of beliefs and practices.
Nevertheless, there are a number of philosophical concepts that are widely accepted and are usually passed down by spiritual teachers (gurus) appearing in disciplic succession. Practically all Hindus believe in the doctrine of reincarnation, whereby the eternal soul (atman) transmigrates through different species, passing from one body to another. This operates according to a principle of action and reaction, known as ‘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 (Brahman).
It is here, in dealing with the Supreme and focuses of worship, that Hinduism demonstrates considerable diversity. Despite the acceptance of a multitude of higher beings, most Hindus believe that God is one, 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, of which three are principal, namely Vishnu, Shiva and Shakti (the goddess). Especially popular amongst British Hindus today are Rama and Krishna, whom most consider two of the incarnations (avatars) of Vishnu.
Worship regularly takes place at home as well as in the temple. Families usually have a shrine devoted to particular deities in a room set aside for puja (worship). Although home life and family structures are valued, a striking feature of Hinduism is its emphasis on celibacy and renunciation, especially in later life. The system of four stages in life (ashramas), together with four social classes according to occupation (varnas), is called Varnashrama Dharma and forms the basis of the Hindu social system.
In the U.K. today there are at least four hundred thousand Hindus, originating mainly from Gujarat and Punjab and often coming via East Africa. The many temples they’ve established throughout the country serve as social and community centres, as well as places of worship. With successive generations, social and religious trends are rapidly changing, and yet the Hindu community appears to be preserving its ancient heritage whilst applying its principles to life in modern Britain.