Hinduism, the oldest Dharmic religion, originated from the ancient Vedic traditions and other indigenous beliefs of Central Asia, which date as far back as 8000 BCE. Collectively these beliefs have been incorporated together into a popular, yet still diverse, religion. Many Hindus do not claim to belong to any particular denomination; however, theologians categorize modern Hinduism into four major denominations: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, and Smartism depending on their deity(s) and the traditions that accompany their beliefs. Despite their differences, all of the denominations share the prominent themes of Dharma, Samsāra (rebirth), Karma (right action), and Moksha (liberation from the cycle of samsara). Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism also share traits with Hinduism, because they originated in Central Asia, as well, and focus on self-improvement with the general aim of attaining personal (first hand) spiritual experiences. They, along with the various Hindu sects, are collectively known as Dharmic religions. (Wikipedia, 2007)
Hindus primarily believe in the Dharma, which translates to "religion", but its real meaning encompasses matters of duty, natural law, social welfare, ethics, health, and transcendental realization. Dharma is thus a holistic approach to social coherence and the good of all, corresponding to order in the cosmos. (Fisher, 2002) Hindu social structure is broken down into groups called varnas, or castes. The castes, which are typically based on lineage, can roughly be defined in the following order: priests (Brahmans), warriors, businessmen (landowners, merchants, herders, etc), commoners (servants & peasants), and the untouchables. The Upanishads, Vedas, Smritis, Puranas, and the Tantras are the basic scriptures, codes, and teachings of Hinduism. Hindus, primarily, believe in one supreme god called Brahman, although this is a gross over-simplification. Most forms of Hinduism are henotheistic... [continues]
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