Basic Beliefs of Hinduism: Karma, Yoga, and Reincarnation

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Autobiography of a Yogi" by Paramahansa Yogananda. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Curious to learn about the basic beliefs of Hinduism? How does Hinduism define a virtuous person?

In Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda explores some of the basic beliefs of Hinduism, including reincarnation and karma. He explains the importance of yoga to Hinduism and how it helps believers to achieve ultimate liberation from the cycle of reincarnation.

Read on to learn about the basic beliefs of Hinduism, according to Paramahansa Yogananda.

Understanding the Basic Beliefs of Hinduism

In Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, one of the world’s most famous yoga practitioners and teachers, provides practical lessons about yoga, spirituality, and how to live a good life. He also explains the basic beliefs of Hinduism in the book to help the reader better understand yoga and its origins. Yogananda is best known for bringing kriya yoga to the US, thereby creating a spiritual connection between the West and his homeland of India. He also founded the Self-Realization Fellowship, a spiritual organization that now has over 500 locations globally.

Here, we’ll explain some of the basic beliefs of Hinduism, according to Yogananda’s book Autobiography of a Yogi.


According to Yogananda, one of the basic beliefs of Hinduism is reincarnation: After death, your soul is reborn into another body. However, because Hindus also believe that the physical world is illusory, this really means that people are all trapped in a collective delusion—even death doesn’t free you from maya, because you come back as another being who’s also trapped in it. Therefore, Hindus seek to escape from this delusion.

(Shortform note: This freedom from the physical world, and from the cycle of reincarnation, is called moksha. In ceasing to exist as an individual and rejoining with the universe—with God, as Yogananda would say—you experience eternal happiness and peace. A Hindu attaining moksha can be roughly equated to a Christian reaching Heaven.)


Another basic belief of Hinduism, and one that Yogananda talks about frequently, is karma. Karma is a cosmic stockpile of good and bad deeds from all of your lifetimes. Your karma determines how blessed or cursed your reincarnations will be; past good deeds will lead to better lives in the future, while past bad deeds will lead to worse lives in the future. 

For example, Hinduism teaches that a virtuous person might be reborn into an important and respected family; a wicked person might be born into an impoverished servant family or even be reborn as an animal. 

(Shortform note: Western culture has borrowed the word karma and given it a more informal definition: that doing good deeds will cause good things to happen to you and doing bad deeds will cause bad things to happen to you. The key difference between this definition and karma’s formal definition is that in the latter case, karma works through reincarnation; you do good deeds so that your next life will be better, not so that good things will happen to you right now.) 

In addition, Yogananda notes, karma (both good and bad) binds you to the cycle of reincarnation—after you die, some of your karma gets used up to give you another life, like withdrawing from a cosmic bank account. Normally, to break free of the cycle, you must expend your karma across many different lifetimes. In fact, Yogananda taught that this process normally takes a million years. 

However, Hinduism also teaches the basic belief that God can free you from your karma. Therefore, worshiping God through yoga allows you to escape from reincarnation much more quickly than usual. 

(Shortform note: In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains how it’s possible to expend all of your karma when, by definition, anything you do should accrue more of it. The key is to act selflessly—not in the sense of “generously,” but literally with no sense of self. To have no sense of self is to understand you’re a vessel through which God acts. This is why breaking the illusion that you have an individual self is so crucial to practicing yoga; karma binds that illusion of “you” to the cycle of reincarnation, so if you have no sense of “you,” there’s nothing for karma to take hold of. Therefore, by worshiping God, you’re freed from your past karma, and by acting selflessly, you ensure that you don’t accumulate any new karma.)  

Basic Beliefs of Hinduism: Karma, Yoga, and Reincarnation

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Here's what you'll find in our full Autobiography of a Yogi summary:

  • The memoir of Paramahansa Yogananda, a famous yoga practitioner and teacher
  • Practical lessons about yoga, spirituality, and how to live a good life
  • An explanation of the Eightfold Path of Yoga

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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