Hinduism is the oldest living world religion. It is also the most difficult to understand as Hindus may be atheists, monotheists or polytheists, depending on their interpretation of Hinduism’s diverse scriptures, written between 1500 B.C.-A.D. 250.
There is no equivalent of the Christian Bible or Muslim Quran in Hinduism. Hindu scriptures include the Vedas, Brahmanas, Upanishads, Epics and the Puranas. These scriptures fill several feet on a library shelf.
Hinduism has no single creed and recognizes no final truth or universal revelation.
Hindu mythology is incredibly complex. Hindu scriptures claim there are 330 million gods. They include Mitra, the sun god; Varuna, the sky god; Agni, the fire god; and a host of other deities.
Beyond these deities is Brahman or Brahman-Atman, the one impersonal, unknowable, Absolute Reality. Everything that exists is part of Brahman who expanded to become the universe. Hindus do not believe a person is “created in the image of God,” but is God, or divine. Brahman is not “up there” or “out there,” but is within everything that exists.
Since a God is impossible to know, sectarian Hinduism personalizes Brahman as the trimurti: Brahma (Creator), Vishnu (Sustainer) and Shiva (Destroyer). Many Hindus worship Krishna, one of the nine incarnations of Vishnu. A 10th incarnation or avatar, Kalki, will appear at the end of this age. The elephant-headed god, Ganesha, the god of good luck, is also very popular.
The soul, or atman, of man is a manifestation or “spark” of Brahman mysteriously trapped in the physical body. Repeated lives or reincarnations are required before the soul can be liberated from the body.
Hindus believe their present lives were determined by good or bad actions performed in previous lifetimes, a concept known as karma. Everything done in a lifetime—in thought, word or deed—ordains a person’s destiny in future lifetimes. A life spent doing evil will bring judgment in the next life through poverty, handicap or even birth in a lower life form.
Hindus have no concept of rebellion against a holy God. Ignorance of one’s personal divinity and violation of caste rules are humanity’s problems. Knowledge of one’s divinity is essential for liberation from the cycles of reincarnation. The caste system, while not as strong as in the past, still divides Hindu society into four levels or castes. Outcastes form a fifth level.
Salvation is not a good term to describe the Hindu idea of liberation from the physical body or the cycles of reincarnation. Liberation requires following a complicated discipline taught by gurus or religious teachers.
While all religious practices, including Christianity, are accepted as valid paths for liberation, Hindus usually choose the way of works or duties (karma yoga), the way of knowledge (jnana yoga), or the way of love or devotion (bhakti yoga). Yoga is a Sanskrit term meaning to yoke or reunite one’s soul with Brahman.
Most Hindus live in fear of good and evil spirits and deities. Spirits and deities must be offered sacrifices to prevent disaster or guarantee security and success. While Hindus adopt a single god or goddess, they generally honor other gods or goddesses. Veneration of animals, such as monkeys, snakes, rats and cows, is common in Hinduism.
In temples, deities are awakened and bathed each morning before prayers, garlands, food and water are offered. Incense is burned and mantras, or religious sayings, are chanted. The deities are put to bed at night, which again involves specific rituals.
Each Hindu has a home shrine for his or her chosen deity, where the deity is treated as an honored guest. A ritual similar to the one in the temple is performed in the home. Community worship is not required in Hinduism, so home shrines are important avenues of devotion to the deities.
Hundreds of religious festivals fill the Hindu’s calendar. Festivals may be held in honor of deities, rivers, ancestors, spirits, or dedicated to eclipses, solstices and the stars. Festivals may involve fasting, bathing, lighting fires, or offering gifts to Hindu priests.
Christian missionaries and merchant seamen first brought reports of India to the United States. American Transcendentalists Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson popularized Hinduism in magazines and speeches. Several Hindus attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893, including Swami Vivekananda.
Many Hindus and their religious leaders came to the United States after 1965 when the Asian Exclusion Act was repealed. Several “Christian” sects have accepted Hindu ideas, including the Church of Christ, Scientist or Christian Science, and the Unity School of Christianity.
Hindu sects make their home in the United States, including the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishnas) and Transcendental Meditation. The New Age Movement is thoroughly Hindu in its worldview.
Hinduism has impacted the United States in ways far beyond the number of adherents who live here.
Gary Leazer is the founder and president of the Center for Interfaith Studies, Inc.