What Christians should know about Hinduism: Origin, Symbols, and Beliefs
- Marvin Olasky Editor in Chief, WORLD Magazine
- 2005 20 Jan
What is Hinduism and Its Appeal?
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.
Karma in Hinduism
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.
The Hindu Gods
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.
Theology of Hinduism
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.
Beliefs of Hinduism
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.
Animal Deities in Hinduism
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.”
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.
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
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