Understanding Hinduism, Part Two
- Friday, January 14, 2005
The size of the Hindu big tent echoes the vastness of time. Hinduism has room for thousands of religious sects and scriptures that have grown and developed in a continuous flow for several thousand years. The Vedas include over 100,000 verses, the Upanishads (books that emphasize the unity of the individual soul and the universal spirit or Brahman) over 200,000, and that’s just the beginning of Hindu knowledge. Hindus say their Brahmanas (books explaining how rituals should be performed), Aranyakas (mystical texts), and Samhitas (deity-praising mantras) are shruti, messages divinely revealed to early sages and passed by word of mouth from generation to generation.
The Issue of Scripture
Many Hindus show an ease about learning or even knowing their scriptures that is far different from the intense emphases of Jews and Christians. The Rig-Veda, the earliest Hindu scripture, may have originated before 1000 BC but was not written down until about AD 1400, so some question its overall validity. About 10 percent of the lines of the epic Mahabharata are in question. But many Hindus do not seem to care because with a vast number of scriptures to choose from, particular lines don’t seem all that important.
That vast corpus of Hindu lore places great authority in the hands of the gurus (gu means darkness and ru light, so a guru gives light that drives away spiritual darkness). Gurus have spent years reading many of the Hindu scriptures. (The Bible, containable in one volume, lends itself to what is sometimes called “the priesthood of all believers.” Laymen can readily read and study the whole volume so that while they look to ministers and commentators for help, they are not hopelessly outclassed in knowledge.
Priests are also in charge of an enormous number of rituals said to direct spiritual entities and forces of nature. Offerings, pilgrimages, wearing of a sacred thread, and so on are seen as vital to the development of higher thinking. Rural areas commonly have a variety of grama-devatas, village gods and goddesses; some are a male form of Shiva, but most are female. The patron goddess of a village is seen as in charge of fertility, so women wanting to be pregnant will pray to her and promise a gift—perhaps a sari or a chicken—when a child is born. All newborns are taken to the shrine of the local goddess to receive a blessing.
Freedom and Fear
With freedom to worship a chosen god also comes fear: Hindus know they have many gods (or aspects of god) to propitiate, but how do they know that they’ve chosen the right one?
In practice most Hindus simplify what would be otherwise maddening complexity: they go with the flow, doing what their clan or subcaste mandates. That may involve devotion to one of the major gods, like Vishnu or Shiva, and also local deities.
Many of Hinduism’s rituals exist as ways for individuals to protect themselves against the wrath of some god. For example, many Hindus believe that bathing in one of seven sacred rivers in India can win them karmic merit. Hindu rituals also include clockwise walking around shrines so that a shrine is always on the walker’s right side. Many Hindus believe that the right side of the body is spiritually purer than the left; the right hand is always used for eating, making religious offerings, and passing money to others.
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