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What Christians Need to Know about Hinduism

  • Marvin Olasky Editor in Chief, WORLD Magazine
  • 2005 14 Jan
What Christians Need to Know about Hinduism

Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion and the dominant one in India and Nepal; its 900 million adherents include many in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and other countries. Many Hindus call their faith Sanatana Dharma, “eternal religion,” and Vaidika Dharma, the truth of the Vedas. The name Hindu may be derived from the Persian word for Indian or the Persian word for the Indus river, sindhu.


Perhaps close to one million Hindus now live in the United States, so U.S. reporters recognize Hinduism’s significance both domestically and internationally. But it’s hard to make any generalizations at all about Hinduism since it consists of thousands of different groups that have developed over the past three thousand years. It has no single founder, consistent theological system, central religious organization, or single system of morality. It has colorful rituals and a huge variety of gods or subgods from which to choose.


That amorphous quality is one of Hinduism’s chief appeals: it appears as a laid-back faith, especially in relation to a tightly wound one like Judaism. Hinduism’s appeals today include its acceptance of other religions that do not challenge Hindu presuppositions and its lack of concern with scriptural precision.


Hinduism also offers a solution to the problem of why bad things happen to good people and good things to bad: it’s because we are to look at the motion picture of goodness or evil, that contains all past lives of the soul in question, and not just to the snapshot of this life. Hindus say all souls experience samsara or “transmigration of the soul,” a long-lasting cycle of births and rebirths. Cravings, attachments, and ignorance accumulate through these perpetual rebirths, resulting in greed, hatred, and violence.


The sum of good and bad deeds is called karma, and karma determines where the soul will be housed in its next life. Bad deeds can cause a person to be reborn at a lower level, or even as an animal. If a person is poor in brains, looks, or money, he is paying the price for actions in a previous life. When we fight our condition rather than accept it, we upset dharma, the righteous order of society, and make our next incarnation even worse.


So Hinduism in one sense is individualistic and choice-oriented: every Hindu family can have its own shrine, its own worship, and its own choice of gods. At the same time it is group oriented because the gods chosen to worship are normally those of the clan or subcaste; chapter 4 discusses the caste system. Hinduism offers a choice of paths to spiritual improvement. Of the three main ones, the Bhakti path is the most popular today: in it a devotee chooses a personal deity and prays to it with intense love and devotion, and that deity will offer benefits in return.


Other paths are available as well. The karma path emphasizes action, with good things happening to a person who keeps caste regulations, performs religious rites, and offers sacrifices. (Some modern temples say that the karma path also includes actions that lead to social improvements.) The Gyana path emphasizes knowledge, with those walking it gaining the understanding that will allow them to move closer to deity. Through pure acts, thoughts, or devotion, Hindus believe they can be reborn at a higher level, freed from ignorance and passion.


Relax, Hindus say, when a monotheist wonders about their apparently polytheistic penchant for worshipping numerous gods and goddesses. Hindus say that when they are worshipping those small gods they are actually bowing to Brahman, the supreme god, the impersonal ultimate reality, the world soul. They say the many gods merely represent various incarnations and manifestations of the supreme god and function in a way analogous to clothes: people wear different ones in different situations. Hindus argue that their numerous names for god signify not confusion but an intimate knowledge of divinity. A favorite analogy: Eskimos have forty-eight names for snow because they know snow intimately in its variations but still understand that all snow is essentially the same.


Hindus say the existence of multiple forms of god is a tribute to god’s kindness. Here’s the logic: The supreme being, they say, manifests himself in different ways constantly, and those manifestations are without starting point or end. To meditate on the supreme being, man has to use his finite capabilities to absorb infinite manifestations, which is impossible. Therefore, that which is infinite appears in billions of ways to help mankind visualize it. Think of billions of photos of the same person in different poses rather than billions of different people.


Since Hindus worship multiple forms of god, they can choose the form that works best in specific instances. For example, Hindus looking for tenderness and forgiveness worship a mother form of god—Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati, etc.—and say that in doing so they can more easily attribute those sentiments to the deity they envision.


Moreover, variety is the spice of Hinduism. Urban temples in India typically have many objects of worship. Loudspeaker-blaring music, drums, food and merchandise sellers, and a variety of booths provide the backdrop for making fruit and vegetable sacrifices to major gods, popular local deities, and even dancing cobras.


Hinduism can also be optimistic because if rituals are performed correctly, gods turn into genies, ready to help their devotees. Hindus often depict subgods such as Vishnu with multiple arms or heads that allow them more opportunity to protect people. Multiple arms indicate omnipotence, dominance in all directions; multiple heads suggest omniscience. Vishnu in particular is often said to have often come to earth in avatars—various forms—so as to save humans from tyranny or natural disasters. For instance, he came in the form of a boar to destroy one demon, in a half-man, half-lion form to defeat another, and as a dwarf to beat a demon king.


The subgods are also available to help humans in other ways. Vishnu’s avatars include the great hero Rama and the great dharma-establisher Krishna. Vishnu’s wife Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and is a favorite among businessmen. Brahma’s wife Saraswati is the goddess of learning and often the favorite deity of students in schools and colleges. Some Hindus also worship god families, such as Rama with his brother Lakshamana and wife Sita. Some Hindus worship the most powerful goddess, Gayatri, through recitation of the Gayatri Mantra, a chant about the light of the universe.


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.


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