In the absence of a set of instructions from a founder or a single book to follow, learning about Hinduism can be somewhat difficult for a novice. The main obstacle comes from its diversity, which later turns out to be its biggest strength. “Which book should I study?” and “What are Hinduism’s basic beliefs?” are two popular questions that a beginner usually asks. While “the Bhagavad Gita” can be a reliable answer to the first question and an explanation of some theories including karma, dharma, reincarnation, moksha, and atma can be a way to begin answering the second question, there is an essential principle that needs to be covered even before we begin learning about Hinduism.
This essential principle can be summarized as follows: Hinduism is too vast to be studied in its entirety. Accordingly, the philosophies from rishis, gurus, or saints that we come across at first should not limit us from respecting the alternate Hindu theories or paths to realization that are available. In the context of finding study material, we cannot pick up a recent book on Hinduism from a library and accept it as an authoritative text. Nor can we study the Vedas, Upanishads, Epics, Puranas, the various philosophical systems, literature by the Bhakti saints, and India’s cultural tradition – all at once. So one practical approach may be to inform ourselves (from introductory books and discussions) that Hinduism presents many spiritual choices, explore some of the popular ones, and then deeply study what interests us the most from this vast ocean of knowledge. At the same time, when we confidently realize that the same Brahman* (or Rama or Shiva) is being focused upon in every scripture, teaching, celebration, mantra, and ceremony, we no longer have to spend time in collecting more information in our area of interest. But the choice of when to stop collecting information and utilize what we have learned also rests with us.
Learning that Hinduism presents countless choices to a spiritual seeker is not only helpful to non-Hindus who want to learn about this religion (or way of life) but is necessary for Hindus as well, for many practicing Hindus are also vulnerable to limiting their religion to what they like the most.
*In fact, all Hindus are not required to believe in Brahman.