An Introduction to Hinduism

Aum symbol in red

Aum symbol in red (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before we begin discussing the various foibles and quibbles about Hinduism, the religion of the Indian sub-continent and of most Indians, it is prudent that we begin with an introduction. For some, this will be nothing new from what they have heard before, whereas for others (learning for the first time) this is unusual stuff. So let’s try getting to the nitty-gritty:

Hinduism has no one founder, no one scripture, no one doctrine, no one leader as the ‘head of the faith’, no one spiritual headquarters as a place for pilgrimages, and perhaps most importantly, not even one God.

We can discuss these claims in more detail:

1 – Hinduism has no one founder – Unlike Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism (traditionally said to be founded by Jesus Christ, Muhummad, Abraham/Moses, Buddha, Guru Nanak respectively), there is no one figure who could properly be said to be a ‘founder’ of Hinduism. The various creation myths that abound in Hinduism are of little help as they concentrate more on the dynamics of creation rather than giving shape to a religious belief system. If we borrow a Jewish idea and define a ‘lawgiver’ as a founder (as in the case of Moses), one might then cite the influence of Manu (the presumed author of the Manu-smriti, the ‘Laws of Manu’). However, since Hinduism has several ‘lawbooks’ other than Manu’s, it is difficult to credit Manu with being a founder. There are also several Manus, but we won’t go into that just yet.

2 – Hinduism has no one scripture – This single feature is simultaneously the most productive and restrictive quality of Hinduism. There is the tendency to refer to the Vedas and the Upanishads as the most ancient Hindu scriptures (conservatively dated c. 1000-500 BCE). However, there are four main Vedas and twelve major Upanishads (of a total of 108 Upanishads). Aside from these, there are also the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Samhitas, and Sutras counting towards the corpus of Vedic literature. Post-Vedic scriptures includes more popular and accessible works such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata (which contains the famous Bhagavad-Gita within it), Puranas, Vedangas, Parisistas, Upavedas, and Pancaratras. It is thus difficult to say with any certainty which scripture could count as as a single cover-all, but with the passage of time many people appear to have settled on the Gita as a first point of reference.

It is probably worth noting here that, aside from those who have engaged in actual scriptural study, obviously, many Hindus curiously express an embarrassing lack of knowledge of the scriptures or of basic theological concepts.

3 – Hinduism has no one doctrine – This can be complicated to explain and will be outlined further in future articles, though it is sufficient to say here that there are multiple interpretations and flavours of various key doctrines. The barest minimum one can muster up for Hinduism is belief in a supreme Deity, the existence of the soul (atma, our real self), and the works (karma) by which the soul attains it’s destination. Given that the proliferation of different scriptures mentioned in the above point often encourage and advocate the worship of a particular deity above all others, many myths and interpretations thus abound as to the nature and activities of that deity in relation to the creation, the relationship between that deity and their theistic followers, and the ways by which a worshipper attains beautitude in pursuit of certain goals. Hinduism as a living religion thus has no unitive belief as to the identity of a superior deity and the ways in which to interact with them, as the religion consists of many different traditions that each  – for various reasons – advocate the worship of their particular chosen deity.

This, of course, differs from what you may have read in your average Hinduism textbook; for instance, that Brahman is the formless and qualityless supreme spirit on whom everything rests, the source of all other deities, the creation, the origin and destruction of all that exists, and much more besides. This is precisely the sort of thing that will be explained here in future.

Hinduism thus, on account of it’s multiplicity of scriptures highlighting different ways to divinity, different shades of doctrines and so forth, on the whole is rightly said to be an amorphous set of beliefs that can be stretched to fit any particular or personal view. As a living religion, one often finds in Hinduism many adherents espousing particular beliefs that are based on tenuous scriptural support, if at all. This has led to many (hugely popular) misconceptions about Hinduism, such as that it is a tolerant religion that embraces contradictory views within it and sythesises them, that it contains and tolerates even atheistic schools of philosophy, that it allows religious freedom of choice of which deity to worship and path to follow. This naturally and eventually leads to the ridiculous extremes such as that Hinduism is the greatest religion, that it has survived for as long as it has on account of easygoing nature, that it will one day spread and take over, and more besides.

4 – Hinduism has no one leader as the ‘head of the faith’ – Unlike Christianity and it’s papacy or archbishops, Islam and it’s Ayatollahs or Imams, Hinduism has no one representative to speak on behalf of Hindu interests or concerns. This is due, in large part as stated above, to the multiplicity of scriptures that exist in Hinduism’s corpus of sacred literature and also to the multifarious paths and traditions that they advocate. Hinduism does have innumerable gurus (teachers), however, and their respective status can be anything on the spectrum from a family priest carrying out religious rituals to the supreme head of a particular tradition. As an example, the leaders in the Advaita Vedanta tradition are known as Shankaracharyas and are probably the closest thing Hinduism has to a Pope. Other major Hindu sects have their ‘Popes’ too, though the Shankaracharyas are accompanied with a fair amount of pomp and show. Other popular Hindu gurus may achieve status through clever media management and other public-friendly tactics.

5 – Hinduism has no one spiritual headquarters as a place for pilgrimages – As Islam has Mecca and Christianity has Jerusalem or Bethlehem, Hinduism has no one ‘spiritual centre’ by which Hindus can congregate in order to meet other pilgrims, offer devotionals or other activities associated with pilgrimages. Once again, due to the various advocacies in favour of particular deities, different pilgrimage centres exist in India in honour of those deities that vary in terms of antiquity and importance. Prominent holy destinations include Haridwar, Mathura, Varanasi (Benares), Badrinath, Kedarnath, Jagannatha Puri, Madurai, etc. Various prominent rivers such as the Ganges and Yamuna also have pre-eminent holy status, and there are of course innumerable temples throughout India.

6 – Hinduism has no one God – Perhaps this is better explained as ‘Hindus cannot agree on which deity is the supreme’. While many may be nonplussed at this point, it is indeed an issue that has vexed the minds of the best theologians of the various traditions India and Hinduism has produced, and is the subject of reams of scriptural manuscripts that even go to the extent of enumerating and expanding on the numerous qualities of particular deities in order to show their supremacy. The followers of Vishnu are known largely as Vaishnavas, the followers of Shiva, Shaivas, and of Shakti (the mother goddess), Shaktas; it can be largely said that most Hindus fall into one of these categories even if you account for the different manifestations and forms that each deity assumes. For example, among Vaishnavas there may be sects devoted to Rama and Krishna, two of Vishnu’s incarnations, but as a general group they would all be considered Vaishnavas. It goes without saying, as stated above, that this is the main area in which each tradition’s claims to superiority reach their zenith in the glorification of their particular deity.

While interested observers may find the arguments passionate and alluring, other (and often embarrassed) Hindus try to invent a semblance of normalcy by harkening back to the Upanishads and equally cryptic texts that elucidate the idea of Brahman, the unique supreme spirit upon which all things and persons rest, and fits very well with conceptions of monotheism, singular origins, supreme control etc. in order to avoid both sectarian fighting and infighting. At this point I consider the Brahman construct as a device upon which rests the modern ‘doctrine’ of “Hinduism” that is associated with the various pretentious claims of tolerance, civility and synthesis.

Well, that’s it for now. Hopefully there’ll be many chances to expand upon these points in future articles.

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