Many Hindus describe their religion as monistic, meaning that they believe there is no essential difference between God, man, and animals. Advaitic—“without dualism”—Hindus believe that everything and everyone is part of god: the universe is one unitary, organic whole, with no creator/creation separation. For reasons that are unclear, all creatures at some point split off from god, and we even think that split is natural, but we will find no true, lasting happiness until we lose our individuality by becoming reabsorbed into the cosmic whole from which we came.


Other Hindus, though, subscribe to a theistic sensibility, and one group of Hindu-Christian syncretists believes that the knowledge of Christ brought to India by the apostle Thomas two decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus underlies the worship of Vishnu and Shiva that began around that time. That’s an intriguing but unproven theory that adds to the difficulty of trying to put a label on Hinduism. Perhaps it should merely be called a henotheistic religion, one stressing worship of a supreme cosmic force while recognizing other gods and goddesses as facets or aspects of that supreme force.


What most Hindus agree on is the need to transcend the process of transmigration that they believe affects all living beings. They hope to be liberated from cycles of rebirth and then in some manner be united with the universal spirit, Brahman. To move toward that goal a Hindu can do good works and live as those of his caste should. He can go on pilgrimages to the holy places in India and learn through meditation, yoga, and the help of a master. Especially when he is old, he should lead an ascetic lifestyle.


Large Hindu temples do not have such sacrifices, yet they are such big business that the government has taken them over, paying the salaries of both gurus and guards and collecting rents from the shops inside and outside the temple. Priests hold onto some concessions, so someone who offers fun for the whole family can do well. At one of India’s largest temples, the famous Menakshi in the old pilgrimage city of Madurai, children and adults can pay two rupees (about four cents) to throw balls of butter at statues of two angry gods, Shiva and his wife Shakti, thus cooling them down.


Another Madurai-area temple has been at the same site for three hundred years but only three years ago made the big investment of putting up kid-friendly, colorfully painted giant figures linking the temple to a popular god, Ayannar. The temple priest, Ayyaavu, acknowledged frankly that “Ayannar doesn’t belong here—the temple has its own mother goddesses—but, even though it’s not our tradition, we wanted to have another public figure.” The temple had the money to set up the statues because its village has been prosperous in recent years.


Hinduism’s diversity encourages such entrepreneurial activity, but at the same time makes god-figures of choice part of the family. At the biggest Kali temple in Chennai, India, temple executive S. Bhattuchaji provided the daily feeding schedule of the temple’s four-foot-tall statue of Kali, whom he called “Mother”: “At 5:45 a.m. we wake Mother, wash her face, and give her a little food. At 8 we give her fruit and at 11:45 a full meal, including rice and fried vegetables, milk, honey, coconut, and curd mixed up together. You see what a good mood she is in now. She will rest, and at 4 we will wake Mother and give her a glass of coconut water along with fruit and sweets. At 6:45 we will bring more food to Mother, ring the bell, and have a big ceremony, and at 8 p.m. Mother will go to sleep.”


Meanwhile villages commonly have small shrines near their boundaries dedicated to spirits of disease and illness. These spirits need to be appeased by prayers and offerings, such as food or pieces of red cloth. Other spirits that demand propitiation include poison deities, tiger deities, and snake deities. Some spirits are seen as living in old trees or at crossroads; deities known as kshetrapalas guard crops.

Stop back for Part Two tomorrow.


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 (and the fourth most-read newsweekly in the United States). He has been a UT professor since 1983 and a World editor since 1992.