Understanding Hinduism – A Misunderstood Worldview Part 2
As mentioned in Part 1 of this blog, Hinduism is really more accurately described as Hinduisms. It is a collection of many religions, schools of thoughts/philosophies and belief systems that may even seem contradictory but are somehow held together as a mysterious whole.
One way to think about Hinduism is “diversity, diversity, diversity.” How can 1 billion people with multiple languages, traditions and no central doctrine possibly be defined under one religious label?
1) Who is a Hindu and why do they believe in so many gods?
Most Hindus agree or believe that there is one divine consciousness or God. However, that does not mean that they believe in that one entity or reality in the same way Abrahamic religions (such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam) do. Hinduism accepts multiple paths to truth or divinity. Some Hindus do not accept the finality of any incarnation(s) of God and believe that at different times/eras of the Universe, God can sends different incarnations to bring justice and peace in the world. Whereas, there are other Hindu groups that claim that the incarnated deity (such as Krishna, Ram or Shiv) they have come to believe is undoubtedly the final incarnation of God. Others only tend to devote their lives in the worship of goddess, which falls under the Shakti tradition.
Theism (belief in god or gods in a general sense) is part of the Hindu spectrum of belief, but not an exclusive monotheism. It exists along with many other approaches that are personal and impersonal, form-based or formless, extending to art, philosophy and science. Hinduism has elements of what a western theological framework would call monism, henotheism, polytheism, pantheism and panentheism. It is held together as part of many sided, multi-leveled approach to the sacred. Throughout the centuries many have tried to make one of the above approaches THE approach but only succeeded to do so in certain locations and among specific people-groups.
Consequently, a Hindu could be a person who may believe any number of things or the absence thereof, and still identify as a Hindu, as long as he/she is born in a Hindu family and has its heritage and cultural traditions.
Sounds confusing? It is. Yet, that is the diversity of Hinduism.
2) What books do Hindus hold sacred?
There are literally dozens upon dozens of religious books from various eras and sources that constitute Hindu thought, practices and rituals. Most Hindus do not read these books as part of their daily devotions, as is encouraged by Abrahamic religions like Islam, Christianity and Judaism. For many Hindus, it is more important to embrace the traditions that are passed down in one’s family than hold true to any given text.
But we will talk about some of the influential ones.
The Vedas (completed in 1200 BC) are considered by many to be the central body of books covering rituals, hymns and philosophies mainly designed for priests. However, many Hindu traditions do not give prominence to this claim. The Vedas have been crucial in influencing culture through the highest caste (Brahmins) who have been the keepers of religious ritualism and ceremonial sanctity for the past several thousand years. However, many resent the Brahminical influence and cast off the influence of the Vedas in their lives.
Another set of writings, the Upanishads, are commentaries on the Vedas but focus more on existential philosophy.
The Bhagavad Gita has become one of the more popular books of Hinduism and has become popular in the West in recent decades because of the Hare Krishna movement. It is written in a conversational style between Krishna and his disciple Arjun, with simple instructions on life, duty and morality. This makes it an easy book to grasp for many readers, hence it has become one of the most well known Hindu texts. Most people know the story of Krishna as a larger part of the epic the “Mahabharat.”
There are many more important books which shape the Hindu worldview, but these are a few that we wanted to highlight.
3) What is the caste system? Does it still exist?
Textbooks categorize Hindu caste system in four different Varnas (class/type), which are Brahmins (Priest), Kshatriyas (Warrior), Vaishyas (Traders) Shudras (Laborers). Fifth Varna is sometimes added as Dalits or outcastes or untouchables (latrine cleaners, street sweepers, etc)
However, no one functions in the society with the above classifications. For all practical, government and legal purposes there are thousands of castes (Jatis) and subcastes that people identify themselves under that are in turn grouped into 3-4 separate umbrellas. Forward caste (FC), Other Backward Caste (OBC) and Scheduled Caste/Schedules Tribe (SC/ST). OBCs comprise the largest caste cluster of India.
Having a caste associated with a person/family is not illegal, but discrimination based on caste is. That being said, the discrimination is still rampant, including violence against Dalit women in rural areas. There is a form of affirmative action, where people from so called untouchable castes are given reservations or quotas in schools and for government jobs. Caste politics are quite common in elections and in how campaigns are organized. Marriage is usually only arranged or accepted within one’s caste but the inter-caste marriages are on the rise in India, especially in more urban areas.
Many people from the Dalit/untouchables/outcaste castes have turned towards Buddhism, Christianity and other religions to be “liberated” from their plight. This trend has affected the mindset of what Christianity means in India, as just a way to reorganize and escape the caste system rather than becoming a true disciple of Jesus.
By: Worker, Serving in Asia
We know we haven’t even begun to uncover the vastness of Hinduism as lengthy discourse on each of the above topics is called for if one wants to provide an exhaustive treatment on these topics. We acknowledge our limitations here.