Although generally considered a religion, the third largest in the world, Hinduism, also known as Sanskrit, is more of a way of living, based on Vedic philosophy. Estimates place the number of Hindu practitioners at 950 million worldwide. It is the main religion of India and Nepal and among some of the peoples of Sri Lanka.
The oral traditions and texts which are the basis for Hindu philosophy date back, according to some estimates, to the years 2000-4000 BCE, and are some of the oldest philosophical texts and traditions in existence, predating Hebrew texts by at least 500 years. Although it is known and widely practiced worldwide, there are still a lot of myths and misapprehensions associated with what Hinduism is and what it means.
People in the West think of Hinduism as a polytheistic religion; that is, one in which its adherents worship many deities. In general, people who follow the dictates of Hinduism believe in one supreme creator who has many different facets or incarnations. Some adherents believe in a trinity of Gods: Brahma is the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. Many rural communities have also a goddess whose domain is over fertility and illness. In the earlier part of our Common Era, many different sects were developed, each with their own primary god, but the basic tenets of the religion remained. This is also around the time that the Vedas and other important texts of Hindu philosophy are believed to have been put down in written form.
The Vedas lay out the basis for the Hindu philosophy in the form of hymns, prayers and mantras. There are four Vedas: Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharvana Veda. Each Veda contains hymns and prayers to achieve a specific purpose. The Vedas are said to be of cosmic origin, are eternal and were handed down to the Brahmans, or priests, as a guide to life and worship.
Other important texts in Hindu philosophy are the Upinshads, which number in the thousands, and are part of the Vedas. These describe the means by which one should live in order to attain a state of Moksha. Another very important text is the Bhagavad Gita, which is an epic poem relating the ongoing dialogue between the soldier Arjuna and Lord Krishna on the nature of the soul in its relation to Brahman, the supreme creator.
The proper name for this philosophy is Vedic Dharma, derived from "Veda" meaning "knowledge," and "Dharma" meaning "that which is right." So, Hinduism basically means "Knowing that which is right," and its followers try to live their lives by that principle in order to free themselves from the endless cycle of rebirth and death. The final escape from this cycle is known as Moksha.
The other two principles of Hinduism are Artha, which stands for prosperity, and Kama, which stands for sensual pleasures. Hinduism is characterized by a belief in Karma and of reincarnation, which are intertwined. Life does not begin or end with birth and death, but is a continuous circle of learning and rebirth. The wheel of Karma is ever turning. A person's Karma is accumulated depending on his or her deeds in their lifetime, and the life that is lived in each succeeding incarnation is based on their Karma. The first incarnation of the person is seen as penance for willingly leaving God. Each life after is an effort to leave behind the concerns of the material world and to again attain perfection of the soul, or Atman, and return to God.
Although the Karmic wheel is a part of the Indian national flag, it is by no means a "state sponsored" religion. Hindu practitioners and the people of India are some of the most religiously tolerant. Their flag simply reflects the extent to which the principle of "Knowing that which is right" is ingrained into their day-to-day lives. The one attempt to establish Hinduism as a state religion was in 1998. The ruling party, Bharatiya Janata, in a misguided attempt at nationalism blurred the lines of church/state separation, leading to an onslaught of religious intolerance and violence, which ended with their removal from power.