An insight into Hinduism

Om – Hindu sacred soundHinduism is the name given to the religion that originated in India. The word Hindu came about as a mispronunciation of the name of an ancient river in India called ‘Sindhu’. Hinduism is often misunderstood to be a polytheist religion. (I.e. believing in many almighty Gods and Goddesses). This is not true. Hinduism is in fact a ‘pluralistic’ religion that suggests that God (or Spirit) can be perceived and approached in a variety of ways. This teaching is central to Hinduism. It emphasises that as we are all different, the way we will think of and approach the ultimate reality (God or spirit) will necessarily be different.

Basic beliefs:

Dharma (from Sanskrit root dhar – which means to uphold)

The name given to religious pursuits is called Dharma. The word can mean ‘righteous living’; sometimes it is compared to the ‘cohesive force that holds society and civilisation together’. The deeper meaning of the word Dharma is to ’search for the innermost nature of everything both ‘external and internal’.

Founders: (Rishis from Sanksrit root ‘Drish’ meaning one who sees)

Hinduism claims many founders. They are called ‘Rishis’. The word ‘Rishi’ literally means one who has seen God. Hinduism claims that the message of spirituality is refreshed in all times and in different countries again and again by seers called ‘Rishis.’

Scriptures:(Two categories: Shruti – with authority & Smriti with less authority)

There is a vast range of scriptures. Some, like the Veda ~ Upanishads, relate the spiritual experiences of the Rishis and are considered to have a higher authority. Some, like the mythological stories, are called the Puranas and are considered to be secondary. The Bhagavad Gita is considered by most Hindus to be the most authoritative scripture in their religion. This text is a spiritual dialogue given by Krishna and explains the philosophy of Hinduism and how it can be made practical and adopted in daily life.

Law of Karma and Reincarnation

These are central tenets of Hinduism. The law of Karma is the law of action and its consequences on personal terms. The idea of reincarnation is also central to all Indian religions, including Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism. There is interesting research done on the theory of reincarnation at the University of Virginia by Professor Ian Stevenson. Please check the website to explore these ideas. Also view the book Called Childrens Past life Experiences – details at: http://www.childpastlives.org/

Concept of God: (Pluralism – many pathways and hence many religions but still pointing to the same God)

Hinduism being a pluralistic religion offers a vast variety of concepts of God.

Broadly these can be divided into two categories. (Take note: Hinduism does not say that any one approach is better than another is. The choice depends on the individual or any religious group).

God as a personality (sometimes with form and sometimes without form)

Hinduism suggests that as we are human one of the ways we can relate to the idea of God is to think of Him or Her as having a personality. Just like any personality He must have a character. For God, all religions, including Hinduism, like to give him qualities of truth, goodness, compassion, power, knowledge. The two main movements within Hinduism for those who like to think of God in this fashion are called the Arya Samaj and the Brahamo Samaj. One of the offshoots of Hinduism, Sikhism also likes to think of God as a personality but without giving Him any form. But many Hindus do not stop at thinking that God can be thought of as a personality. They are quite happy to think of Him with form. The form chosen is not the form of God but the form the devotee likes to use to think of God. This is a major difference with the Abrahamic faiths that do not like to give form to God. Note: when Hindus worship images of God (do not make the mistake of calling them idols as that is considered to be a demeaning word) the images are called Murtis. They are not worshipping stone or marble that the images are made from. They are worshipping the being that is represented by those images.

Concept of God as a principle that underpins everything (Brahman/Atman):

This approach to God is unusual. It says that the inner being we call our ’self’ is a manifestation of God. The same God is shining in the eyes of every living thing. Like lots of little puddles reflecting the same infinite sky. The essential nature of all living things is really God. When we help anyone we are helping God (or ourselves only). Hence reverence for all living things springs naturally from Hinduism. The definition of God as being our true self is called ‘Atman’. The self becomes manifested as ‘consciousness’. Consciousness defies all classifications. Hence this concept of God is called God beyond the form and the formless. One of the greetings used by Hindus is ‘Namaste’. This gesture literally means ‘reverence to God as your true self’.

How can both be true?

Hinduism accepts both these approaches to God:

  • As a personality and as a
  •  Formless principle.

How can both be true? The reconciliation is offered using the following metaphor.

Hindus claim that like ‘ice and water’ the same entity can be a personality with form and a formless principle – without form. It is the love of the devotee that freezes the formless God into the form of his or her desire. Hence there are many images of Gods and Goddesses in Hinduism. All these are various approaches adopted by Hindus to reach out to God. They represent tried and tested pathways to God. Therefore all these forms are revered. This is why you find so many different images of God.

Science and Religion

One of the greatest problems world religions face is the challenge from science and rationality. The Hindu contribution on the relationship between Science and Religion: –

The teachings of Hinduism suggest that all disciplined human endeavours including science will eventually lead to conclusions that are in line with the findings of spirituality. This seems to be coming true in the Science of today.

Diet

Many Hindus who come from Gujarat or from Tamil-Nadu may be vegetarian. This means that they do not eat meat, fish or eggs. However cakes or biscuits containing eggs are considered acceptable by most of these people. Nowadays quite a few Hindu families residing in the UK (including some families from Gujarat and Tamil Nadu) have adopted meat-eating habits. The only meat they will not consume is beef as the cow is considered to be the most sacred animal.

Sectarian movements

Hinduism is represented in the UK by many Sectarian bodies. There is a great difference in the way they perceive and approach God. This can be a cause for confusion. One of the main sectarian bodies in the UK are the Swaminarayan movement. This group believes in God with form and quality (as Lord Narayan or Vishnu). The majority of Hindus in the UK prefer to think of God with form and qualities; however there are some Hindu groups that like to think of God without form but with attributes like ‘Truth’ or even as our essential nature called ‘Atman’. The fact that Hinduism allows and encourages a variety of approaches to God means that all these sectarian bodies co-exist within Hinduism and are all considered to represent valid Hindu pathways to God.

Worship / Prayer

Hinduism teaches that it is the heartfelt love for God that counts more than any strict formal codes that may be adopted in any ritualistic practice. Hence the rules of worship or prayers can vary a great deal from family to family. The prayer that all Hindus consider to be central is called the ‘Gayatri’. The Gayatri translates as: “Let us meditate on the glorious effulgence of that Supreme Being who has created the universe; may She enlighten our hearts and direct our understanding.”

Yoga

The word yoga is often associated with postures and physical exercises. However it has a more esoteric meaning. It means ‘Pathway of communing with God through meditation’. Practising short periods of silence or contemplation is a good way to start the process.

Contemporary Spiritual Personalities

This is another extraordinary feature of Hinduism. Hinduism suggests that as spirituality is an empirical subject, the proponents of spirituality cannot be restricted to ancient times. It puts forward the idea that just as prophets of the past experienced God and offered spiritual teachings to mankind, prophets continue to be born in all ages and in all nations. They continue to refresh the message of spirituality. Many Hindu families will show affinity to some such contemporary figure. It is very tricky to decide which of these personalities to promote. It is left to the individual to decide for him or herself.

Philosophy:

Hindu philosophy is very ancient and is in agreement with the findings of modern sciences such as: Quantum Mechanics, Neuroscience, Cosmology and Evolution. These philosophies are also in agreement with the philosophic reasoning that God can neither be proved nor disproved through mental gymnastics, else He becomes a subset of our mental apparatus and loses his potency. God has to remain crucially invisible hence Hindus support the stand of a humble agnostic ~ God can neither be proved nor disproved.

Major misconceptions about Hinduism
  1.  Hinduism is not a polytheist religion. It is a pluralistic religion suggesting many pathways to the same God. This allows many religions to co-exist with dignity and without having to score points over each other.
  2. Hindus do not worship ‘objects or idols’. The images are tools used to focus on an infinite God. Every religion does it but some do it knowingly while others do it unknowingly.
  3.  Hindus do not worship the cow. They revere it as the best candidate in the animal kingdom to receive the thanks of mankind.
Teachings of Hinduism that can be relevant to our times
  1. ‘The Sanctity of life’. This principle of non-violence, called Ahimsa, is central in Hindu teachings. It teaches respect for living things extending into the animal and plant kingdoms. This teaching comes naturally from the philosophy of Hinduism.
  2.  Yoga practised experimenting to find our essential identity as the spirit and not the body and mind through which it makes it appearance.
  3. The importance of developing Interfaith ideals’ – The central message of religious pluralism of the Hindus is crucial ingredient that can make religions once again the cohesive force in our society.

The teachings of Hinduism suggest that all disciplined human endeavours including science will eventually lead to conclusions that are in line with the findings of spirituality. This seems to be coming true in the Science of today.

By Jay Lakhani, Education Director, Hindu Council UK