Understanding Hinduism

I spent a year living in India in 1981 so today I want to introduce you to the religion of Hinduism in a simple and easy to understand way. So here we go…

The Origins of Hinduism

The 1 billion Hindu people of northern India are part of the Indo-European language family, so we share common ancestors. In fact Sanskrit is a sister language to ancient Greek. Some Hindi words are now in the English language, such as bangle, bungalow and bandanna

Hinduism grew out of the natural cycle of seasons and agriculture as it spread from Iraq across to the north India plain. It is like being at a party. Everyone is doing their own thing but they are all at one spot with the same attitude. It is the worship of a multitude of gods who are representations of the spirit/soul of the universe called Brahmin.

The word itself is a British construct to describe the people (Indians) and religion (Induism) of the vast Indus valley in northern India. The correct name for Hinduism is “Sanatana Dharma” or “The Eternal Law”

It is a very old religion, as old as Judaism, but it has no founder or known origin. It is largely centred around the performance of rituals and duties that are pleasing to ones favourite gods and the caste.

It is the most accommodating of all religions. It caters for a multitude of beliefs as long as they are perceived to be expressions of Brahmin.

The vast majority of Hindus are vegetarians

Where do Hindu’s Live?

The vast majority of Hindus live in India. Some 85% of the Indian population is Hindu which is about 900 million people. Nepal is the only country in the world which has made Hinduism its national religion. India has a strictly secular government. The number of Hindus in Pakistan used to number in the tens of millions but since the partition of India in 1948 the number has dwindled to a handful. Indonesia used to be Hindu until it was overtaken by the Islamic faith. Bali is the only remaining Hindu island.

The religion of Buddhism is a product of the Hindu worldview, it shares some beliefs (karma) but has rejected others. The growing New Age movement in western countries is also a product of Hinduism. So Hindu ideas can now be said to be directly or indirectly affecting some 2 billion people through various expressions and beliefs.

Who are the Hindus?

There are four types of Hindu’s in India: The intellectual Hindu, the folk Hindu, the tribal Hindu and the secular Hindu.

  1. The intellectual Hindu, mainly light skinned Brahmin caste elites have read the Hindu scriptures, understand the faith and can explain it. They are usually very nationalistic, patriotic and high caste. These are the minority.
  2. The folk Hindu is usually illiterate or semi-literate and lower caste. They put their entire trust in the priestly class to teach them the traditions and rituals. For the folk Hindu the religion is all about duty and rituals to please the gods. Ganesh is the favourite as he is the god of prosperity
  3. The tribal people do not fall within the Hindu caste system and live mainly in the east of India. They are loosely called Hindus but their main religious activity centres more around animism.
  4. Secular Hindus form a small but growing minority. They are university educated western leaning intellectuals who are atheistic in world view but adhere to the cultural traditions of Hinduism.

Outside India, and outside Hinduism proper, there is another expression of Hindu belief and that is the New Age Movement. This multifaceted belief system has taken many of the supernatural aspects of Hinduism such as meditation, astro-travel, the use of fetishes, curses, charms, fortune tellers and astrologers.

What do Hindu’s believe?

In Hinduism there is no universally accepted religious text and no uniform code of conduct. This makes it hard for a westerner to understand Hinduism. Hindus highly revere and devoutly worship statues, images, pictures, relics and other objects that represent their god which is their favourite expression of Brahmin.

Many temples have statues of these gods. The daily ritual at the temple will involve waking, bathing, feeding and putting to bed of this statue. Wealthy homes will have their own temple room for the same purpose. The gods are seen as having many human attributes: they marry, argue, have children and birthdays. They share many attributes of the Greek gods.

Astrology plays a big role in Hinduism. Star signs are used to help make personal, career and business decisions by the vast majority of the people. For example, people will only marry a person with a compatible star sign.

Respect and worship of the dead is expected and maintained by most Hindus. Hindus believe in karma and reincarnation. They believe we repeat the cycle of life and return as a form of life that reflects how well we have lived in the previous life.

The only escape from this cycle is Nirvana (salvation). This is where we are extinguished and re-join Brahmin to be one with the universe. Hindus believe all living things, plants, people, animals have a binding soul kinship through reincarnation and because Brahmin is the soul of everything.

Hinduism has millions of gods, all expressions of Brahmin. Trees, flowers, rocks, people, fire, death, cows, plants and a multitude of others things and concepts can therefore we legitimately worshiped.

Because of this worship of anything, Hinduism is heavily involved in the occult. Spirit beings are worshipped, astro-travel is common. Fetishes, curses, talking to the dead, charms, fortune tellers, astrologers, black magic, sorcery, witchcraft and gurus are all part of this mix. This is where the New Age has taken its cue.

Hindus are socially governed by the caste system. At the top is the Brahmin or priestly caste, then the warrior caste, the business and agricultural castes then the servant caste and finally the untouchables. The caste system is an expression of belief in reincarnation.

Hindus are therefore tolerant of an incredibly wide range of beliefs and practices, as long as they acknowledge Brahmin as the soul and creator of the universe. Even Jesus is accepted…as an expression of Brahmin! This tolerance and flexibility has enabled Hindus to adopt and adapt to new cultures, technologies and ideas anywhere they go around the world.

What are the key Hindu scriptures?

The basic scriptures of Hinduism, which is collectively referred to as “Shastras”, are essentially a collection of spiritual laws discovered by different saints and sages at different points in its long history.

The Two types of sacred writings comprise the Hindu scriptures: “Shruti” (heard) and “Smriti” (memorized). They were passed on from generation to generation orally for centuries before they were written down mostly in the Sanskrit language. The major and most popular Hindu texts include the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Different ways Hinduism is followed

There are many different ways Hinduism can be practiced. Here are six that I know of:

1. Philosophic Hinduism:

This form of Hinduism is dominated by the authority of the Vedas and Upanishads

2. Religious Hinduism:

There is a strong belief in avatars (incarnations of gods). Their theology is syncretistic. Man is at liberty to choose his own god from among a pantheon of 330 million gods, and to worship any number of gods. Salvation may be attained in one of three ways:

– Gnanamarga (way of knowledge)

– Bhaktimarga (way of devotion)

– Karmamarga (way of good deeds)

The goal which all the Vedas declare, which all austerities aim at, and which men desire when they lead the life of continence … is Om. This syllable Om is indeed Brahman. Whosoever knows this syllable obtains all that he desires. This is the best support; this is the highest support. Whosoever knows this support is adored in the world of Brahma.”

3. Popular Hinduism:

The followers of this form are influenced by ancestral tradition, animal worship, temple cults, magic, exorcism, etc. They are indifferent to the authority of the Vedas and are concerned only about a god who protects them, blesses them, and makes them prosperous. The majority of Hindus adhere to this form.

4. Mystic Hinduism:

Gurus with mysterious personal experiences draw many to themselves. The claims of these gurus are sensational, often asserting that they are avatars and that they have supernatural gifts of healing, ability to perform miracles

5. Tribal Hinduism:

This type is very much influenced by animism, spiritism, the occult, necromancy, and animal worship. The fear of the unknown exercises its instinctive dread over followers’ minds.

6. Secular Hinduism:

Those who belong to this group are generally nominal in their beliefs and indifferent to religious practices. Even the few religious customs that they follow are motivated by materialistic tendencies.

The Hindu View of Jesus

In contrast to some of the more recent religions, such as Islam and Baha’i, Hinduism does not refer to Jesus in its scriptures, and he plays no role in any of the classical Hindu mythology. Nevertheless, due to the contact with Christianity over the last few centuries, some Hindu thinkers have found a place for Jesus in their view. These considerations have taken the form of two particularly noteworthy ideas.

The first one is that Jesus was one of the incarnations (avatars) of God (Brahma). Most Hindus believe that God, specifically Vishnu, took on human or animal forms at various times in order to perform certain feats that would preserve true Hindu teaching (the dharma). In this context, then, it has been argued that Jesus, along with Rama, Krishna, and others, was just one more divine self-embodiment. Whereas Christians generally believe that Jesus was the one and only incarnation of God, this view would hold that he was an incarnation, just not the only one.

The second way of trying to incorporate Jesus into Hinduism, not necessarily incompatible with the first, is to claim that Jesus learned the teachings which he later proclaimed in India. According to this notion, Jesus spent his so-called “silent years” between ages twelve and thirty at the feet of Hindu masters in India, and it is their teaching that he then proclaimed during his ministry. You will find many books on this topic in India.

I trust this helps you navigate to a better understanding of this ancient and influential worldview.