Hinduism is not just one thing. It is a word that is used to capture the practices of a billion people, some of them living in cities, some in villages, some very well educated, others never going to school at all. To most people who practice it, Hinduism is not a religion, it's not something you do, it's a way of life, it's something that is just a part of you.
The Indian word for it is Sanatana Dharma. It is usually translated as "The Eternal Truth." Dharma is a complicated word. It means much more than Truth. It also means justice, balance, the perfect order.
There are four major branches of Hinduism, but all four share some characteristics. According to Hinduism Today's magazine special "What is Hinduism?", the following are the parts that all branches have in common:
"All Hindus worship one Supreme Reality, though they call it by many names...Hindus believe that there is no eternal hell, no damnation. They concur that there is no intrinsic evil. All is good. All is God...a Supreme Being who both is form and pervades form, who creates, sustains and destroys the universe only to recreate it again in unending cycles. Hindus accept all genuine spiritual paths. Each soul is free to find his own way...Hinduism explains that the soul reincarnates until all karmas are resolved and God Realization is attained."
Another time I will go into the concept of good and evil in Hinduism. Also, I will explain the "idol worship." For now, the part that I think may stand out to people not familiar with the religion is the worship of one God.
There are hundreds, maybe thousands of Gods in Hinduism. However, they are viewed one of two ways. Some believe that the myths and stories and different Gods are a way to comprehend a God who is too vast for the human mind to grasp. Each different God represents a quality of the God who is all things. Others view the Gods like angels (in fact I would argue that the translation of the word into "god" is not necessarily accurate). These people see the Gods as a form of life somewhere above us but below the Supreme Reality, as Hinduism Today calls it. "Above us" might not be an accurate way to say it. Being a God is a lifetime like any other and it comes to an end at some point.
Tradition holds that only humans can realize the truth and become enlightened. All other embodiments are there to teach our souls something to help us progress toward that goal, but only a human has the conscious awareness to realize himself.
So, in Hinduism the answer to the philosophical question, "Why am I here?" is that every soul is living life in order to remember who he truly is, that he is God. God is all things. The story goes that God wanted to experience all emotions and all things, so he broke himself into many parts and created the drama of the world. Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage and men and women merely players, they have their entrances and their exits..." becomes literal truth. The world is a play and we all have parts, but in the end we will take off our costumes and go back to the reality of Oneness. (I have always analogized this by thinking of molecules. Every piece of matter in the universe is made of essentially exactly the same building blocks.)
I have no doubt that in some remote villages, the people do practice polytheism, but in the scriptures and all the sayings of the holy men and women, Hinduism is monotheistic.
There is so much to say about this vast and ancient religion that I could go on forever, but I've promised an overview of the major branches. Again, quoted from the founders of Hinduism Today:
Saivite Hindus worship the Supreme God as Siva, the Compassionate One. Saivites esteem self discipline and philosophy and follow a satguru. They worship in the temple and practice yoga, striving to be one with Siva within.
Shaktas worship the Supreme as the Divine Mother, Shakti or Devi. She has many forms. Some are gentle, some are fierce. Shaktas use chants, real magic, holy diagrams, yoga and rituals to call forth cosmic forces and awaken the great kundalini power within the spine.
Vaishnavites worship the Supreme as Lord Vishnu and His incarnations, especially Krishna and Rama. Vaishnavites are mainly dualistic. They are deeply devotional. Their religion is rich in saints, temples and scriptures.
Smartas worship the Supreme in one of six forms: Ganesha, Siva, Sakti, Vishnu, Surya and Skanda. Because they accept all the major Hindu Gods, they are known as liberal or nonsectarian. They follow a philosophical, meditative path, emphasizing man's oneness with God through understanding."
My branch, Advaita Vedanta, is a form of Smartism. It is less about devotion and worship, and more about study and learning. It's principles are based almost entirely on the teachings of Shankar, an Indian philosopher from the 9th century. He wrote commentaries on all of the major Hindu texts. There are now four "Shankaracharyas" in India, meaning teachers of Shankar. It is from one of these teachers that my organization growing up got its teachings. My parents also follow one of these teachers and have been to India to meet him. The word "Advaita" means "Non-duality" and that was the main focus of Shankara's teachings. (The word "vedanta" means "philosophy.")
The other day I was driving somewhere and got a little lost. I used to get lost all the time, but now I have a GPS, so I only get slightly lost! I drove right by a Hari Krishna center.
Now there is a group of Hindus that do practice conversion and are, I believe, mostly white. If only I could fit in there!
But their branch is vaishnavism, which, as stated above, is more dualistic than other branches of Hinduism. They are, in my view, much closer to Christians. They see God as something outside themselves, something to be worshiped and adored. This belief does not fit with my beliefs at all, so sadly, there is no place for me there.
On a completely different note, it is so clear to me where I get my worry about offending people. I live under a cloud of it because every time I do anything, my mother convinces me that I'm upsetting someone. Yesterday it was about a doll that I knit.
On the knitting website Ravelry I am in a group for South Asian Knitters. Someone there suggested the pattern for this doll as a project that we all do. I started first because I loved the pattern so much and I couldn't wait to make it. I shared it with the group and lots of people told me how cute it was.
My dad showed my mom a picture of it from flickr and she called to tell me that if any Indians saw it, they would be offended by her skin color.
I swear, I can't make a single move without my mom calling to tell me that I'm offending people.
Oh, and by the way, the book "The Everything Hinduism Book" (as in from the series of books called "The Everything..."), is a really good one. It has the history of Hinduism, major figures, the religions that broke off of it (like Buddhism, for example), as well as the philosophical teachings. I was really impressed by how much information it has in it.