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I have observed that many Hindus today put a strong focus on liturgy (rituals, cracking coconuts, offering flowers, lighting diyas etc) and narratives (Hindu mythological stories,Puranas, Ramayana,Mahabharat etc). Whilst these aspects of Hinduism may be important, can they be said to be essence of Hinduism?

There is a rich spiritual philosophy within the Vedas, Upanishads, and the Gita. However I have seen that many Hindus today have little interest or knowledge on these topics.

I understand that Hinduism is very diverse and pluralistic and every person will choose a path suitable for them. But having said this what is the true goal of Hinduism?

If you say it is moksha, or self realization then why does there appear to be so little focus on this? Why is there so much attention to the more superficial aspects of Hinduism? What are today's Hindus trying to achieve by being Hindu?

Is Hinduism really 'just a way of life' with no real purpose or meaning?

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    This question seems way too broad to me. The one concretely answerable thing in your question, namely what is the ultimate goal of Hinduism, has an answer you're already aware of (attainment of Moksha). Apart from that, the rest of your question, concerning what's the purpose of diverse Hindu customs, rituals, scriptures, and stories is simply too broad for a single question. – Keshav Srinivasan Jan 6 '15 at 16:17
  • Purpose of life is to live, no religion has any purpose or meaning. We named it as religion. All religions are just way of living but hinduism is a bit advanced. – Avis Jan 6 '15 at 16:47
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    great question! the thing is, like any religion or science or anything, being happy is the ultimate goal of everyone! everyone says their goal is X. but that is because they feel X can make them happy. Moksha is just a fancy word for that happiness that never ends! obviously your question is not 'what is moksha', it's 'why so many people don't try to get moksha'. The answer is everyone IS trying for moksha. That is everyone wants to be eternally happy. Just they pursue it in different ways. This world is like a GYM, where people come and make themselves stronger by lifting weights. – Sai Jan 6 '15 at 16:57
  • so when you are in second standard, what good will it do to learn Trigonometry? similarly if you are an engineer, what good will it do to learn cricket (except for fun ofcourse!)? Similarly all jivas have different interest, different tastes, different aptitudes. Thus each jiva takes birth on Earth to practice one aspect of its interest. Therefore one Hindu performs rigorous rituals, another one studies Vedas, the evolved one loves God, the wise one remains in Bliss, etc. But all of them are pursuing THAT happiness. That is the ultimate goal. once one reach it, one HELP others to do so! – Sai Jan 6 '15 at 18:30
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    Hinduism IS just a WAY of LIVING life. That is, how do you LIVE your life now, that you may live happily always, that is the goal and crux of Hinduism (in fact goal of every religion!). What living happily means? Living happily could mean being free of sadness (Jnana-go beyond the Mind), living happily could mean getting what you want always (Karma-remove attachment to fruits), living happily could mean having someone to Love you no matter what (Bhakti-Love God), these are all valid definitions and all these are the subject of Hinduism schools like Bhakti, Jnana, Karma, Yoga, Vedanta, etc. – Sai Jan 6 '15 at 18:40
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To be frank, there is no single ultimate goal of Hinduism. Why? Because, Hinduism has different philosophical systems and even within different systems there are different schools of thought. Every school of thought has its own ultimate goal or objective defined for life which contradict to one another. Hence, there is no single ultimate goal that is shared by all Hindus. So the true goal of Hinduism is determined and dependent upon the school of thought one follows.

Many would say the four purusarthas (dharma, artha, kama and moksha) are the objective of Hinduism. Well, while that's mostly true, when we come to the bhkati school of thought, they are rejected outright from the beginning. Take Shrimad Bhagavatam for example:

dharmaḥ projjhita-kaitavḥ — Completely rejecting all religious activities (dharma, artha, kama, moksha) which are materially motivated, this Bhāgavata Purāṇa propounds the highest truth, which is understandable by those devotees who are fully pure in heart. [SB - 1.1.2]

Let's consider the Vedas, upon which Hinduism is mostly based. The Vedas itself consist of mutually opposing sections. The Karma Kanda suggests methods and ways to perform sacrifice etc. to attain heaven and other higher planes but the Jnana Kanda suggests to go beyond all these rituals and realize the true Self. So what will one chose? It simply depends upon the nature of the people:

Thus, due to the great variety of desires and natures among human beings, there are many different theistic philosophies of life, which are handed down through tradition, custom and disciplic succession. There are other teachers who directly support atheistic viewpoints. [SB - 11.14.8]

Hinduism is the natural religion. It is because it takes into account the real nature of people (categorises them into satva, rajas, tamas) and instead of imposing one single way for all, it suggests different ways for people of different nature and different needs. Hence, some people worship gods, perform rituals etc. to accumulate punya and go to heaven, while some others gain knowledge, realize the true Self or worship the Supreme either with or without a form:

Men in the mode of goodness worship the demigods; those in the mode of passion worship the demons; and those in the mode of ignorance worship ghosts and spirits. [BG - 17.4]

Reason behind rituals

Hinduism is not only a religion of hereafter, but also a religion focused on the present which you can say as a way of life. So apart from different philosophies that preach the absolute truth, there are also branches of knowledge in it like Jyotisha, Yoga, etc. which deal with removing obstacles, pain, etc. in this life. So many people although are not interested in the ultimate objective of life, are certainly interested in living a happy life here with all material comforts. So they perform many small and big rituals for that purpose which are supposed to bring auspiciousness, increase wealth, remove obstacles, etc. and thus make one happy. Due to maya or ignorance people do not know where the true happiness is. Hence, they focus on the superficial aspect of Hinduism:

O best among men, the intelligence of human beings is bewildered by My illusory potency, and thus, according to their own activities and whims, they speak in innumerable ways about what is actually good for people. [SB - 11.14.9]

Some say that people will be happy by performing pious religious activities. Others say that happiness is attained through fame, sense gratification, truthfulness, self-control, peace, self-interest, political influence, opulence, renunciation, consumption, sacrifice, penance, charity, vows, regulated duties or strict disciplinary regulation. Each process has its proponents. [SB - 11.14.10]

Reason behind narrating stories

Apart from people who are only interested in the materialistic mode of life, there are also people who are interested in God and the higher goods. But they may not be spiritually advanced. For such people the activity and pastimes of God and His many incarnations as described in Ramayana, Mahabharat, etc. provide faith, belief and interest. By hearing God's activity and pastimes through stories they obtain devotion through hearing which is known as shravana bhakati Hence, many scriptures describe the benefit of at least hearing or reading God's activities in it if one is not able to do anything else spiritual. As hearing stories is easy and doesn't require much effort, many persons narrate them and give pravachan etc. which others listen. But this is not the essence of Hinduism. Neither by giving pravachan (discourses) nor by listening to stories God or the Self is achieved:

The Self is neither obtained through discourses, nor through much hearing and not even through knowledge and intelligence. [Katha. Up. - 1.2.23]

Narrating and hearing stories is only good in the sense that something is better than nothing.

Is Hinduism really 'just a way of life'?

No, it's not. It's way more than that. How? Because when we say just a way of life we mean life on earth alone, or any other higher material plane. But Hinduism is not just limited to that. Not only it shows the ways up, but also it preaches the real blissful nature of our true Self and motivates us to attain that supreme goal going where one will never have to come back here again. So it's not just a system that shows how to live life here, but also states the value of human life and urges us to make the best use of it:

uttiṣṭhata jāgrata prāpya varānnibodhata [Kath. Up - 3.14]
— Arise awake and understand the boon (of human life) you have attained.

The doors of liberation are opened wide to one who has achieved human life. But if a human being simply devotes himself to family life like the foolish bird in this story, then he is to be considered as one who has climbed to a high place only to trip and fall down. [SB - 11.7.74]

To sum it up philosophically

Philosophically, to sum it up, most systems in Hinduism (Nyaya, Samkhya, Yoga.. .the five) consider dukha nivritti (avoiding suffering) as the goal of life and so they invent and preach various ways for this. But the Vedanta school of thought preaches ananda prapti (attaining bliss) is the ultimate goal of life as by attaining bliss suffering will itself cease. And it shows attaining God, who Himself is always blissful, as the only way of attaining such ever lasting bliss. But then as God is both with and without form and qualities, there are different methods and schools of thought regarding this.

To sum it up in one line, attaining eternal happiness or bliss, which is synonymous with God, moksha, liberation, etc. is the ultimate objective that every one shares, but the definition of God, moksha, etc. drastically changes by the school of though one follows.

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    My understanding is that the Karma Kanda (ritual portion) and Upasana Kanda (worship portion) of the Vedas is to prepare the mind for the Jnana Kanda. The Karma Kanda helps in removing the impurities from the mind (lust, anger, likes, dislikes, passion, etc). The Upasana Kanda is meant to help us in focusing of the mind. Once these 2 stages are mastered a person is ready for the highest knowledge (Jnana). – Dharmendar Kumar 'DK' Sep 10 '15 at 19:42
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This is a good question. The aim of human life is union with God. What this union means depends upon what one's view of God is. All views of God are true. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa said "God is both dualistic and non-dualistic..and many more things also." Regardless of your view of God, only a few souls attain to this. It says that out of a lakh of people maybe a thousand strive for liberation, and out of a thousand that strive, only a few gain it. But Krishna says in the Gita that no effort in this direction is ever lost.

Most people are engrossed in the world and the religion they practice is for worldly gain or rewards in the heavens of the gods. Krishna says (Gita II. 42-44)

O Partha, no resolute and unwavering thought is formed in the minds of those who are deeply attached to pleasure and power; who allow their discrimination to be stolen away by the flowery words of the unwise; who permit their souls to be ridden with desires; who regard the attainment of heaven as the highest goal; and who take great delight in quoting the panegyric [ritualistic] texts of the Vedas and declare that besides these there is nothing. These texts promise rebirths as the reward of their action and lay down specific rites for the attainment of pleasure and power.

and in verse 45 -

The Vedas deal with the three gunas. Be free, O Arjuna, from the three gunas...

The vast majority of people that go to temples or do rituals do so for the reasons stated by Lord Krishna himself. They go there as beggars, for their own gain, not out of love for God.

The vast majority of the adherents of any religion are worldly people who give lip service to religious practices for their own worldly gain. The adherents today are no different than those of the past. Every age looks on previous ages as golden ages, but they were no different.

Swami Vivekananda said (Complete Works VIII., p 34) -

...we need to free ourselves from the superstition of believing because "it is in the books". To try to make everything--science, religion, philosophy, and all--conform to what any book says, is a most horrible tyranny. Book-worship is the worst kind of idolatry...We hear the 'bugle sound' of the laws laid down in the books, habits and old superstitions lay hold of us; and before we know it, we are fast bound and forget our real nature which is freedom.

The essence of Hinduism is to realize God--while living--and that God dwells in the heart of every person. No other religion teaches that God can be realized in this very lifetime. Swami Vivekananda says (Complete Works I. p 257) -

The aim is to get rid of nature's control over us. That is the goal of all religions. Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within, by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy--by one or more or all of these--and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.

Realize God. Escape the rat-hole of endless births...

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The ultimate goal of Hinduism is to attain Paramathma (supreme soul), eternity. All Athma (soul) will be born in different forms until it attains or reaches the birthless state(merging with the supreme soul) i.e attaining Paramathma.

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