Understanding Hinduism, Part Two
- Marvin Olasky Editor in Chief, WORLD Magazine
- 2005 14 Jan
“Those hardest hit by the Dec. 26 tsunami were poor fishing communities whose inhabitants—mostly Hindus—are untutored in refined theological speculation on life and death. For them, all of life is controlled by the play of capricious deities,” wrote Newsweek’s Kenneth Woodward. So what do Hindu people believe? And what do Christians need to understand about this ancient faith? In his book, The Religions Next Door, Marvin Olasky sets out to explain the basic tenets of Hinduism, along with Buddhism, Islam and Judaism. Following is part two of Chapter 3, "Hinduism's Flow."
Pinning down what is Hindu belief, rather than respect for tradition, is difficult. Many Hindus express ease about doctrine, along with a willingness to believe in astounding spiritual activities; for example, many Hindus do not oppose the idea of resurrection because Hindus say a truly advanced Yogi could do that.
Hindus quote liberally from Jesus’ comments about love and peace; some say that “Christianity is modified Hinduism,” and state that between the ages of thirteen and thirty-one Jesus went to India. Hindus who write about Jesus, though, commonly leave out his tough-minded expressions of God’s holiness and are hostile to his claims that there is one way to God.
Hinduism, in short, says that there are many ways to God, and many people find them attractive. Furthermore, Hinduism is a visual faith, with many idols; temples in India do not shy away from calling their statues “idols,” giving devotees a tangible object for worship. Swami Vivekananda’s explanation is classic: “If a person wants to drink milk, he uses a cup as he cannot drink it directly.
For the quivering and unsteady mind, there should be a visible form or a symbol, the idol, so that it becomes a foundation for his adoration. The idol form of God is akin to a vessel which enables a man to drink the milk.” To use an American metaphor, we commonly expect small children to need training wheels as they learn to ride a bicycle. It does seem strange that for many Hindus who line up to feed idols, the training wheels stay on for life.
Christians and Jews tend to ask lots of questions about how life began; most Hindus do not. Hinduism proclaims no creation as such because the universe goes through endless cycles of creation and destruction. The base unit to compute the length of a cycle is the Mahayuga, which is 4.3 million earthly years. One day of Brahma (a cosmic day) consists of 1000 Mahayugas, as does a cosmic night, so each is 4.3 billion earthly years long. Some scientists who like long time spans in which evolution could work have harkened to Hindu chronology.
But there’s more: the standard Hindu explanation is that at the beginning of each cosmic day all embodied beings come into existence from undifferentiated god stuff; a soul is reborn many times during a cosmic day. At cosmic nightfall souls merge back into the cosmos. A cosmic year includes 12 cosmic months of 30 cosmic days, and the cosmos lasts for 100 of them; multiply out those figures and the life of the cosmos equals 311 trillion and 40 billion earth years. At the end of the cosmos, a new one emerges and lasts for another 100 cosmic years. This process goes on without end.
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.
Many types of ritual purifications are required during the day and especially before worship. Orthodox Hindus believe that impure thoughts lead to the formation of evil vapors in the mouth, leaving the mouth and its saliva unclean; uttering Vishnu’s name three times before sipping water helps. Food left over from a meal is ritually impure, as is food that has been touched or smelled by another human being.
Since there is no clear human/animal divide, Hindus also have animal deities. Airavat is the four-tusked king-god of elephants, who emerged out of water when gods churned the ocean. The bird-god Garuda has the head and wings of an eagle, often on a man’s body. Garuda is often depicted as carrying Vishnu on its back and is worshipped as a remover of obstacles. Shesh Neg, the serpent god, is the king over Patal, infernal regions. During intervals of creation Vishnu is said to sleep on its coils. Kamdhenu, the sacred cow god, also emerged from ocean-churning and is said to grant all wishes and desires; she is the mother of all cows. And so on.
Hindus have sacred cows for many reasons. Cow’s milk is revered as akin to mother’s milk, so Hindus compare the slaughter of a cow to matricide. Curds and ghee (clarified butter) are traditionally used in sacrifices, so ghee (and the cow from which it comes) is seen as the root of sacrifice. Gods like sacrifices, so cows are essential. Cows are seen as the “greatest givers on this earth today,” and they are a “complete ecology, a gentle creature and a symbol of abundance.” Many Hindus say that cows are sanctifying creatures who represent the highest energy in the universe and that a person who kills a cow or eats beef is said to rot in some form of hell for as many years as there are hairs on a cow.
Just as Hindus do not have a clear human-animal divide, so a lack of clear lines makes it difficult to define the extent of Hindu denominations. The largest one is probably Vaishnavism, with Vishnu regarded as the ultimate hero-god who comes to earth in one of his ten incarnations whenever dharma (eternal order and righteousness) is threatened. Followers of Shaivism, the second most popular belief, see Shiva as the leading manifestation of God: some call him the destroyer of evil, some just the destroyer, and some are particularly moved by the eroticism that is part of Shiva’s edgy charm.
Shiva has 1,008 names in all, as does his wife, Shakti. When the emphasis is on her tender kindness, Shakti goes by Parvati or Sati. When the emphasis is on terror and destruction, she goes by Durga or Kali (referred to in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). But whatever her name, Shaktas—those who worship Shakti as the supreme mother and creator/defender of the world—form the third largest group of Hindus. Other Hindus, as individuals or in clans, choose a particular god or goddess as their ishta-devata (personal deity) and offer it special prayers and worship, much as the ancient Greeks did.
This variety may leave individuals adrift; historically in Indian village life, individuals have worshipped whatever their subcaste and community put before them, but as India urbanizes and Hindus outside India have more choice of where to go and what to affirm, individual Hindus worry that they have chosen poorly. And yet the word individual itself suggests a sub-Hindu pattern of thought: the theological goal of many Hindus, if they think about their beliefs, is to lose their individuality and flow into the monistic ocean.
The Issue of Life
Unlike Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, which include concepts of personal immortality, Hindus are to seek supra-personal immortality, with individuals merged into “ultimate being.” That road to merger is a long and winding one, though, as a person may be reborn into a higher or lower life form, depending on karma.
Devout Hindus today still believe that a soul is reborn again and again until enlightened and liberated from rebirth, at which time what was an individual enters a state of ultimate bliss (moksha) and becomes one with the ultimate, but that does mean the extinguishing of personality.
Orthodox Hindus oppose abortion, believing that unborn humans deserve protection. Abortion is seen in Hindu scriptures as garha-batta (womb-killing) and bhroona hathya (killing the undeveloped soul). Abortion at any stage of fetal development has serious karmic consequences. A hymn in the Rig Veda pleads for protection of unborn children. The Kaushitaki Upanishad draws a parallel between abortion and killing parents. The Atharva Veda notes that the brunaghni (fetus slayer) is among the greatest of sinners. Gandhi said that in a good Indian state it’s “as clear as daylight that abortion would be a crime.”
Yet the concept of samsara (recycling of lives) leads to some devaluation of life. Katha Upanishad 2.19, written perhaps twenty-five hundred years ago, proclaimed, “If the slayer thinks he slays/ If the slain thinks he is slain,/ Both these do not understand:/ He slays not, is not slain.”
Click here to read Part One of this chapter.
Marvin Olasky is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and the editor-in-chief of World, the national weekly news magazine from a biblical perspective. Visit his website at www.olasy.com
To order a copy of Religions Next Door, visit Christianbook.com