Although Hinduism actually includes many beliefs, most Hindus understand God to be “Brahman,” or the Absolute. Hindus can believe a variety of things about God, the universe and the path to liberation. A specific belief about a God or gods is not considered essential in Hinduism. This is a major difference between Hinduism and monotheistic religions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Sikhism.
Brahman is believed to be ever-present, all-powerful, and beyond understanding. Brahman is neither male nor female, but is capable of having both masculine and feminine qualities. From Brahman comes various manifestations to which Hindus offer prayers and devotion. Some examples of different manifestations include Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu, the Preserver; and Shiva, the Destroyer. These three are often times seen as a trinity that sustain the universe. Shakti, the female form of energy, is understood to be an essential half of Brahman, and manifests in the form of Goddesses such as Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth; Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge; and Parvati, the Goddess of Strength.
These deities allow Hindu worshippers to focus on different aspects of the divine. Other Gods include Ganesh, the Remover of Obstacles, and Hanuman, the Embodiment of Strength and Perfect Devotion. Most Hindus are devoted followers of one of the principal gods Shiva, Vishnu or Shakti, and others, which are all regarded as manifestations of a single Reality.
Everything in the material world is also seen as a manifestation of Brahman. This understanding of the one God, which expresses itself in various manifestations is called monism.
Because Hinduism reveres the Divine in all things, animals are commonly depicted in representations of Brahman. For example, Ganesha is presented with an elephant head, while Hanuman is depicted as a monkey. Plants and rivers are also given Divine status in Hinduism, like the Ashwattha (Ficus religiosa), tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum), and the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. In Hinduism, the cow is revered as the source of food and symbol of life and may never be killed.
Hindus believe that God can also take a human form. The Absolute is understood to have taken human form on earth as Rama, the paragon of virtue, or as Krishna, a kingmaker, to eradicate evil from the world at different times in history. Hindus may also pray to local deities, some of whom were once real people, both men and women, who are believed to have attained such a high level of enlightenment that they are seen as pure expressions of the divine.
Hinduism promotes tolerance and respect for other religions, and acknowledges that they may contain truth. This philosophy leads to pluralism within and outside of Hinduism. Accordingly, most Hindus see the variety of religions and philosophies as different paths to God.