Hinduism is the term used to describe the diverse forms of religious expression native to the Indian subcontinent. Despite their vast diversity, these spiritual traditions are linked by a number of similarities, including the recognition of many different gods, great value placed on becoming a sannyasi or rishi (holy ascetic living in the forest), meditation, complex rituals, and a belief in reincarnation. There are approximately one billion Hindus in the world, and the tradition is approximately three to four thousand years old.
According to scholar of religions Houston Smith, the central message of Hinduism might be: you can have what you want. The belief in reincarnation (that one can be reborn many different times) leads to a greater tolerance and flexibility within the religion. Hinduism accepts that people may live for pleasure (kama), or wealth (artha), or best of all, dharma (duty, righteousness, fate). Of course, Hinduism maintains that these goals must be pursued within reason, according to strict moral codes. But Hinduism also holds that after a great many lifetimes, one will tire of existence and eventually wish to seek unity with God and liberation (moksha) from existence. The religion has a long tradition of rishis, sannyasis, tapasvins, and other holy men and women who renounce the world and spend their time in meditation or reading holy texts.
The belief in reincarnation also extends to the gods, who can take on multiple forms: for example, Rama is a unique and historically situated man, but he is also the incarnation, or avatara, of the god Vishnu. Gods have the ability to take on human form but maintain some measure of their divine powers. Additionally, gods may be known under many aspects or names, each reflecting some facet of that god's personality.
Many Hindus (particularly those who focus their worship on the god Vishnu) view the Ramayana as a religious text, similar to the way in which Jews view the Torah or Christians the gospels. The Ramayana is a tale of good triumphing over evil; it is also the story of one of the incarnations of Vishnu.