| Understanding and Reaching Hindus
Lesson 1: Hinduism – A Brief Historical Sketch, Scriptures, and Birth of a Religion.
India is home for Hinduism. It is the official religion in Nepal and the primary religion in India. A substantial number of Hindus live in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Adherents of Hinduism are found all over the world, wherever there are Indian migrants. In particular, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Fiji, Mauritius, West Indies, and some African countries have Hindu communities. In recent decades, the United Kingdom, other European countries, and the United States and Canada have received a large number of Hindu migrants from the Indian subcontinent.
Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world after Christianity and Islam, with 764 million persons professing it. India has nearly 700 million Hindus, 82 percent of the total Indian population. According to the available figures, 13.5 percent of the world’s population is Hindu.
Hindus practice idol worship, as well as worship of other animate and inanimate objects. The vast majority of Hindus are animists. A Hindu may also be a pantheist, a polytheist, a monotheist, an agnostic, or even an atheist. Hinduism is not a single religion. It may be described accurately as a confederation of like-minded religions and precepts. Naturally, then, Hindus always claim that their religion is the most accommodative of all religions! Hindus are always proud to claim their religion to be sanatana dharma, an eternal religion, with no beginning, no end, and no founder.
Who is a Hindu? Because Hinduism traditionally includes within itself a wide range of “religions” ranging from animism to atheism, the Hindu Family law passed by the Indian Parliament defines a Hindu as an Indian who is not a Muslim, Christian, Parsi, or Jew.
Hinduism has a wide variety of sects, and its practices and rituals vary from one people group to another, and from one region to another in India. Hindus generally accept three basic beliefs: a universal obligation to abide by the rules and rituals of their caste, acceptance of karma, and belief in samsara. We define and illustrate these concepts in another lesson.
Hindus are a deeply divided society on caste lines. The Hindu religion known to and practiced by the upper castes in the social hierarchy and by educated persons of all castes is different from the one practiced by lower castes. Practices that the upper castes initiated deliberately into Hindu theology are quite different from the religious practices followed in lower castes. Although the former, the elitist Hindu religion, has some links with the latter, the folk religion, they proceed on parallel tracks. Most of the lower castes do not know even the names of the sacred texts of Hinduism. And the members of the lower castes were banned from having any access to the sacred texts in the past.
The roots of Hinduism:
The arrival of the white skinned Aryan peoples from Europe to India with their gods before 1500 BC in the midst of the dark-skinned Dravidians, who already had settled ways of life and perhaps a fertility cult, marks the beginning of Hinduism. The religion of the Aryans, with their oral tradition and ritual practices, further developed and mixed with the Dravidian ways.
Most of the original Aryan religion is preserved in four ancient sacred texts called veda which means “sacred knowledge.” These texts are also termed shruti meaning “that which is directly heard and revealed,” since these texts were handed down only as a body of oral literature. These texts are believed to have no human author. The four veda texts are Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda. These are not treatises by single authors. Each Veda has compositions by various authors. And these compositions were made at different times by different authors, added on, and expanded over the centuries.
Rigveda is the earliest of the four, and it contains praise hymns. Yajurveda is a prose composition, and contains dedications, prayers and litanies. Samaveda is a collection of rhythmic chants for the use of the singing priests at sacrifices. Atharvaveda is a collection of charms, incantations, and spells of antiquity (old times). It abounds in magic blessings and curses. Here is an example of a charm used for the growth of hair in Atharvaveda:
As a goddess upon the goddess earth thou wast born, O plant! We dig thee up, O nitatni, that thou mayest strengthen the growth of the hair.
Strengthen the old hair, beget the new! That which has come forth render more luxurious.
That hair of thine which does drop off, and that which is broken root and all, upon it do I sprinkle here the all-healing herb.
Each Veda consists of four parts:
1. The Original text.
2. Brahmanas, which deal with proper ritual use of hymns and prayers.
3. Aranyakas, which explain the performance of ritual sacrifices by those who left the community and went into the forest to pursue secluded religious life and meditation.
4. Upanishads, which are in the form of dialogues and discussions between a teacher and his disciples on the theme ultimate wisdom.
The last three parts were added to the original text over centuries. The last component, the Upanishads, were written and composed between 800 and 600 BC. More than any other part of the four Vedas, the Upanishads continue to have the greatest impact on the Hindu educated classes in modern times. Often, the educated Hindus draw comfort and inspiration from the Upanishads in times of crisis; and they seek an identity of their wisdom and understanding with those of the Upanishads.
While the Vedas are considered to be shruti (the heard, orally transmitted wisdom), another important part of Hindu texts is called smriti (that which is remembered, and handed down by tradition). These include sutras and shastras (intellectual formulations and rules of behavior), epics and puranas (mythologies, and tantras - magical formulas).
The early Aryan settlers in India did not have temples. They worshipped their gods in altars in the open air, with fires. Around the altar of fire, which were pits into which melted butter was poured to keep the fire going, a seat was kept vacant for the unseen guest gods. There were melted butter, grain, and a goat, sheep, cow, or horse as sacrifices.
During Vedic times, there were only a few gods worshipped by the Hindus. These included Indra, the ruler of gods; Rudra, the mountain god; Vayu, the wind god; Yama, god of the dead or death god; Varuna, the god of the clouds, rain, and nature; Mithra, god of loyalty and friendship; Agni, god of fire and destruction; Soma, god of soma juice (alcoholic drink, perhaps made with rhubarb); and Brahmanaspati, god of power of the saved word. There were very few goddesses. However, over time the numbers grew until at present tradition holds that there are 330 million gods in Hinduism!
Most gods of early Vedic times are not worshipped now and they do not have much value now. Most of these are sidelined, and sometimes even ridiculed. Indra was once the ruler of all gods, much feared and worshipped. He receives hardly any notice in Hindu worship now. He continues to be remembered as the ruler of gods, but not the Supreme Being. In fact, like the humans, the gods created by the humans in Hinduism undergo many changes in terms of their prestige and power.
The Vedas speak of propitiation of Gods, and expiation of sins. Beginning from the Veda, Hinduism has ended in taking something from all religions, and in presenting phases suited to all minds. It is all-tolerant, all-compliant, all-comprehensive, all-absorbing. It has its spiritual and its material aspect, its esoteric and exoteric, its subjective and objective, its rational and irrational, and its pure and its impure aspects.
It has one side for the practical, another for the severely moral, another for the devotional and imaginative, another for the sensuous and sensual, and another for the philosophical and speculative. Those who like ceremonial observances find it to be full of ceremonies and rituals; those who deny the power of works, and depend on faith, need not go anywhere else; those who love sensual living may have their tastes gratified; those who delight in meditating on the nature of God and man, the relation of matter and spirit, the mystery of separate existence, and the origin of evil, may here indulge their love of speculation. And this ability to include all things and expand continually, creates sectarian divisions even among the followers of the Hindu religion.
It is possible that the original faith of the Hindus was monotheistic. There are several verses in the Rigveda which speak of one God above all gods. There are also verses in the Rigveda, which speak of one principle or idea that created and maintains everything.
However, there are other verses in which pantheism reigns supreme. So, we can see, Hinduism as practiced in Vedic times was speculative, but it did have the seeds of Hinduism as practiced today - an all-embracing religion:
What god shall we adore with sacrifice?
Him let us praise, the golden child that rose
In the beginning, who was born the lord—
The one sole lord of all that is – who made
The earth and formed the sky, who giveth life,
Whose hiding-place is immortality,
Whose shadow, death; who by his might is king
Of all the breathing, sleeping, waking world.
………And generating fire, there he arose
Who is the breath and life of all the gods,
Whose mighty glance looks round the vast expanse
Of watery vapor – source of energy,
Cause of the sacrifice – the only God
Above the gods. (Monier-Williams 1911:27-28).
Many Hindus from the upper classes, as well as the educated persons from the lower castes, believe that the Vedas ‘contain all that is good, great, and divine.’ However, a serious look at the contents of these Vedas will lead us to conclude that all these hymns will be found to be filled with puerile ideas than in deep thoughts and lofty precepts. The Vedas reveal the germs of the present day caste system, which places persons in ranks based on birth, and has led to exploitation and social discrimination of people of lower ranks. The Vedas clearly show that the early Aryan settlers killed animals for sacrifices and that they were in the habit of eating animal food, and did eat the flesh of cows.
It is important that we have some knowledge of the structure and function of the Vedas if we wish to evangelize the upper castes. Conversations with an educated Hindu always turn to the Vedas. These castes hold the Vedas in high esteem and, as stated above, think that the Vedas hold all that is good, great, and divine. Because Hindu society as a general rule values continuity highly, and because change takes place in small steps in Hinduism, there is a continuity of great pride in Hindus about their Vedas.
Modern political and religious movements among the Hindus have often depended on their understanding of the contents of the Vedas. A person well versed in “vedic ideals” is often a tolerant universalist, while accepting the caste divisions mentioned in the Vedas, and insisting on the protection of the cow and strongly against cow slaughter, although meat- eating and cow sacrifice were common in Vedic times!
Upanishads inaugurated a change in the direction of Hinduism. From the Vedic focus on sacrifices to the gods to keep them happy and benevolent, a trend towards asceticism was established in Upanishads. People were encouraged to give up their worldly activities and to look inward in mind and spirit. Thus, in place of ritualism, intellectualism came to the fore as a fruitful religious activity. The body was seen to be an obstacle to spiritual life, and it was thought that the ascetic life would lead one to salvation.
Upanishads established the idea that every man is a part of God. These compositions, by and large, held the view that there is one Being in the universe, which Being also includes the universe. Pantheism became the anchor of Hinduism and Hindu thought through Upanishads. Read the following from the Upanishads which clearly presents the religion of pantheism, identifying God with the universe.
Whate’er exists within this universe……
There is one only Being who exists
Unmoved, yet moving swifter than the mind;
Who far outstrips the senses, though as gods
They strive to reach him; who himself at rest
Transcends like the fleetest flight of other beings;
Who, like the air, supports all vital action.
He moves, yet moves not; he is far, yet near;
He is within this universe……….
All living creatures as in him and him –
The universal Spirit – as in all,…….
Upanishads were composed by all classes of people, not just by the members of the priestly class. These are dialogues between a teacher and his pupils on ultimate wisdom. The goal of these dialogues was abandoning the body and freeing the soul.
The Upanishads taught that all are part of an eternal, all-inclusive Being or Reality. Separation from the Being is wrong. We should seek union with the eternal being, which is moksha, salvation or liberation. The goal is to attain a complete identity with the Universal Soul. To attain this, we must keep away from action of every kind, good or bad. We must stay free from liking as from disliking, as from loving as from hating. We must not even show any indifference.
Who is a Hindu?:
This is a difficult question that defies any precise answer for scholars and laypeople alike. Christians in the West find it difficult to understand Hinduism because they do not see any central or essential creed that underlies the entire faith; and they do not see a founder or founders of Hinduism. There is no single universally accepted religious text, and there is no uniform code of conduct.
There are also no universally followed outward markers that distinguish a Hindu man from a non-Hindu. An observant Jew has a skullcap, and an observant Muslim sports a beard, but many Hindu men who work in public places no longer have the traditional markers on their foreheads or bodies. This is actually changing within India. Many men are now wearing the marks – white ash lines and patches and red color dots and designs on the forehead that plainly tell people they are Hindus. This has become increasingly popular with the new revivalism that the fanatic Hindus are pushing for.
Hindu women do continue to wear red dots on their foreheads, and as revivalism goes on they are wearing more red marks – one on the spot of parting the hair, and in between eyebrows, (and Roman Catholic women also follow the practice of a single red mark on the forehead in India). These red marks are wiped off the foreheads in a ceremony once the Hindu women become widows. The red dots show that the woman is single or married.
Many believe that all Hindus are vegetarians and practitioners of yoga, but the vast majority of Hindus are non-vegetarians, and most never practice yoga. Many also think that Hindus do not eat beef because of the "sacred cow," but millions of Hindus from the so-called lower social strata are beefeaters. Westerners may tend to dismiss Hinduism as nothing but animism, a form of primitive religion propelled by the fear of natural phenomena. But some of the best expressions of human thought and philosophy are embraced and represented in Hinduism. For example, Saivism (the sect that worships Shiva as the primary god) and Vaishnavism (the sect that worships Vishnu as the primary god) place great stress on the grace of the Supreme Being. Intellectual Hinduism is known for its philosophical search for God and His grace.
The Hindu View of Hinduism
It's not only the outsider who finds it difficult to define a Hindu; the Hindus themselves acknowledge that they are so different from one another that it is almost impossible for them to define who they are. However, they also know that there is no need to define themselves for the benefit of others because they claim that they know what they are. They marvel at the variety of religious practices and beliefs that their "religion" or their "way" tolerates, encourages, and accepts. They are amazed at the variety of gods they worship, at the audacity (bold, outspokenness) of their materialist philosophers and their followers who deny the existence of gods and yet are part of their religion. They admire the tenacity (strength) of their religion to survive; and they feel proud that despite being ruled by people of other religions for a thousand years, their faith continues. They know that their "strength" lies in toleration of all faiths; it lies in accepting the beliefs and gods that suit their genius, temper, and convenience, by including all under the Hindu sun. They acknowledge that their social stratification is perhaps out of place in the 21st century. But they insist that it has existed with the "willing" participation of all, including the most oppressed, and has been slowly changing. They know that there may be some truth in every idea they encounter: take what suits them best and leave the rest as it is.
Some Characteristics of Hindus
Let us identify some of the essential common characteristics of Hindus. Remember that any attempt to fully characterize Hindus will always be an oversimplification.
(1) Hindus are primarily from India. Nepal is the only country that declares Hinduism to be its official religion. Also, there are Hindus of native stock in the Indonesian islands--these adopted Hinduism over a thousand years ago through the political and religious activities of Hindus from India. The Hindu religion lives through the Buddhist faith and rituals in almost every Southeast Asian country, and there are many Hindus in various areas around the world.
The Hindus from British India who migrated to other lands were often small-time traders, service providers, or indentured laborers, and were less educated and poor. However, the recent immigrants are mostly from the educated classes with interests in business, medical, engineering, and other lucrative careers. The newest generation has taken to information technology like fish to water, and many Hindus are going to many western countries.
The immigrants from British India took with them the folk religious beliefs and practices and only a vague idea of intellectual Hinduism. Recent immigrants are relatively better informed about classical text-based Hinduism. They are also a product of a free and intensely independent nation, socio-politically knowledgeable and articulate. They are ready for debate. Conversion to Hinduism is not widespread, but we do hear of some people converting from primal religions in various parts of India as well as from secular groups. We also sometimes hear of re-conversions from Islam and Christianity to Hinduism, publicized widely by Hindu political groups. When such deliberate conversions are introduced, people adopt a mixture of folk beliefs and rituals of classical Hindu religion. Converts from the West usually are initiated into text-based Hindu religion, with a dose of the everyday rituals generally practiced by upper-caste Hindus.
(2) Hindus worship idols, images, pictures, relics, and other objects. There may be groups of people among Hindus who refrain from worshiping idols, but none could be considered iconoclastic (completely against idols). Even if they do not worship such objects, their reverence for the idols, images, pictures, relics, and other objects is very strong and often distinguishes Hindus clearly from other religious groups. Hindu temples follow a daily routine of rituals that may include waking up, bathing, feeding, garlanding, and putting to bed the idols or images. There are other rituals that reflect the eras of life of the gods, such as marriage ceremonies between gods and goddesses, birthday celebrations, and sacrifices. There are also ceremonies that are performed according to the seasons of the Hindu calendar and other astronomical calculations; for example, certain new-moon days are considered to be very important. Hindu respect for elders, living saints (gurus), dead relatives, and leaders can easily evolve (become) into worship.
(3) Hindus believe in rebirth and karma. All living organisms--humans, animals, and plants--are said to constitute a binding soul-kinship. A human being who dies today will be reborn until he reaches the stage of total liberation from the continuing cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
(4) Hindus are pantheistic, polytheistic, and animistic practitioners of religion. Hindus may see their Supreme Being in every object; the entire creation, including humans, animals, and plants, is all part of the Supreme Being. Generally speaking, salvation for a Hindu is seeking union with this Supreme Being, liberated from the clutches of the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. He generally sees his body to be a burden in this pursuit.
The Supreme Being is identified with nature, the creation; the distinction between creator and creation is blurred in Hinduism, as finite objects are identified with the infinite God. Hindus worship gods of different creeds, cults, or peoples, and in this way, they tolerate the worship of all gods. The universe as a whole becomes god.
Hindus are also polytheistic, believing in the pantheon of gods. Most Christians notice that Hindus present a contradictory picture of seeming to believe in both monotheism (one God) and polytheism (many gods) at the same time. Hindus do recognize the existence of one Supreme Being, but they also believe that this one Supreme Being may appear to humans in different forms, and an individual Hindu may choose to worship one god or another.
Hindus believe that there are countless gods; traditional sayings or estimates put the number in the millions. However, there are also Hindu sects and individuals that focus on the worship of only one god, while acknowledging the existence and possibility of worshiping more than one god simultaneously.
Hindus are likewise animistic, believing in, depending on, and worshiping spirit beings, sacred animals, birds, and humans; they also worship the spirits of dead relatives through offerings. Charms, talismans, and fetishes are used; Hindus flock to the shamans, fortune-tellers, astrologers, gurus, and priests to receive information about their future, to be rid of their suffering. Hindus fear the dead and conciliate them for the welfare of the living.
Magic and divination are an integral part of folk Hindu practices, and ordeal is an accepted form of worship of the family deity. Telepathy, witchcraft, and sorcery are all employed; note, however, that not all Hindus indulge in these practices.
(5) Hindus are usually governed by the social system of caste. The Code of Manu, written perhaps in the fifth century B.C., classifies Hindu society as consisting of four social divisions in the following descending order of rank: Brahman, the priestly class; Kshatriya, the military class; Vaisya, the agriculturist and business class; and Sudra, the servant class. A fifth class of people was created over the centuries, consisting of the so-called untouchables, the lowest position in Hindu society.
(6) Hindus are known for their tolerance and acceptance of a wide variety of theological beliefs from within their religion. As an extreme example, atheism is viewed as a religious-philosophical belief, and pursuit of atheism is acceptable within Hinduism. And denying the power and importance of gods not of one's own sect is quite common. Sometimes it is also held that the very same god or Supreme Being is found in every sect in different forms. But one may negate the existence of god or Supreme Being and still be considered a Hindu.