Mankind's search for God: Chapter 5- Hinduism, a search for liberation
Hinduism—A Search for Liberation
“In Hindu society, it is the religious custom, first thing in the morning, to bathe in a nearby river or at home if no river or stream is at hand. People believe that it makes them holy. Then, still without having eaten, they go to the local temple and make offerings of flowers and food to the local god. Some will wash the idol and decorate it with red and yellow powder.
“Nearly every home has a corner or even a room for worship of the family’s favorite god. A popular god in some localities is Ganesa, the elephant god. People will especially pray to him for good fortune, as he is known as a remover of obstacles. In other places Krishna, Rama, Siva, Durga, or some other deity might take first place in devotion.”—Tara C., Kathmandu, Nepal.
WHAT is Hinduism? Is it just the oversimplified Western concept of venerating animals, bathing in the Ganges, and being divided by castes? Or is there more to it? The answer: There is much more. Hinduism is a different way of understanding life, to which Western values are totally alien. Westerners tend to see life as a chronological line of events in history. Hindus see life as a self-repeating cycle in which human history is of little importance.
2 It is no easy task to define Hinduism, since it has no definite creed, priestly hierarchy, or governing agency. However, it does have swamis (teachers) and gurus (spiritual guides). A broad definition of Hinduism given by one history book states that it is “the whole complex of beliefs and institutions that have appeared from the time when their ancient (and most sacred) scriptures, the Vedas, were composed until now.” Another one states: “We might say that Hinduism is adherence to or worship of the gods Vishnu, or Shiva [Siva], or the goddess Shakti, or their incarnations, aspects, spouses, or progeny.” That serves to include the cults of Rama and Krishna (incarnations of Vishnu), Durga, Skanda, and Ganesa (respectively the wife and sons of Siva). It is claimed that Hinduism has 330 million gods, yet it is said that Hinduism is not polytheistic. How can that be?
3 Indian writer A. Parthasarathy explains: “The Hindus are not polytheistic. Hinduism speaks of one God . . . The different gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon are mere representatives of the powers and functions of the one supreme God in the manifested world.”
4 Hindus often refer to their faith as sanatana dharma, which means eternal law or order. Hinduism is really a loose term that describes a host of religions and sects (sampradayas) that have developed and flourished over the millenniums under the umbrella of the complex ancient Hindu mythology. So intricate is that mythology that the New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology states: “Indian mythology is an inextricable jungle of luxuriant growths. When you enter it you lose the light of day and all clear sense of direction.” Nevertheless, this chapter will cover some of the features and teachings of that faith.
Hinduism’s Ancient Roots
5 While Hinduism may not be as widespread as some other major religions, nevertheless, it commanded the loyalty of nearly 700 million followers by 1990, or about 1 in 8 (13%) of the world’s population. However, most of these are found in India. So it is logical to ask, How and why did Hinduism become concentrated in India?
6 Some historians say that Hinduism had its roots over 3,500 years ago in a wave of migration that brought a pale-skinned, Aryan people down from the northwest into the Indus Valley, now located mainly in Pakistan and India. From there they spread into the Ganges River plains and across India. Some experts say that the religious ideas of the migrants were based on ancient Iranian and Babylonian teachings. One thread common to many cultures and also found in Hinduism is a flood legend.—See box, page 120.
7 But what form of religion was practiced in the Indus Valley before the Aryans arrived? One archaeologist, Sir John Marshall, speaks of “‘The Great Mother Goddess’, some representations being pregnant female figurines, the majority being nude female figures with high collars and headdresses. . . . Next comes ‘The Male God’, ‘recognisable at once as a prototype of the historic Siva’, seated with the soles of his feet touching (a yoga posture), ithyphallic (recalling the lingam [phallus] cult), surrounded by animals (depicting Shiva’s epithet, ‘Lord of Beasts’). Stone representations of phallus and vulva abound, . . . which point to the cult of the lingam and yoni of Shiva and his spouse.” (World Religions—From Ancient History to the Present) To this day Siva is revered as the god of fertility, the god of the phallus, or lingam. The bull Nandi is his bearer.
8 Hindu scholar Swami Sankarananda disagrees with Marshall’s interpretation, stating that originally the venerated stones, some known as Sivalinga, were symbols of “the fire of the sky or the sun and the fire of the sun, the rays.” (The Rigvedic Culture of the Pre-Historic Indus) He reasons that “the sex cult . . . did not originate as a religious cult. It is an after-product. It is a degeneration of the original. It is the people who bring down the ideal, which is too high for them to comprehend, to their own levels.” As a counterargument to Western criticism of Hinduism, he says that, based on Christian veneration of the cross, a pagan phallic symbol, “Christians . . . are the votaries of a sex cult.”
9 In the course of time, the beliefs, myths, and legends of India were put into writing, and today they form the holy writings of Hinduism. Although these sacred works are extensive, they do not attempt to propose a unified Hindu doctrine.
Hinduism’s Holy Writings
10 The oldest writings are the Vedas, a collection of prayers and hymns known as the Rig-Veda, the Sama-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, and the Atharva-Veda. They were composed during several centuries and were completed about 900 B.C.E. The Vedas were later supplemented by other writings, including the Brahmanas and the Upanishads.
11 The Brahmanas specify how rituals and sacrifices, both domestic and public, are to be performed and go into great detail on their deep meaning. They were put into writing from about 300 B.C.E. or later. The Upanishads (literally, “sittings near a teacher”), also known as the Vedanta and written about 600-300 B.C.E., are treatises that set out the reason for all thought and action, according to Hindu philosophy. The doctrines of samsara (transmigration of the soul) and Karma (the belief that the deeds of a former existence are the cause of one’s present state in life) were expressed in these writings.
12 Another set of writings are the Puranas, or long allegorical stories containing many Hindu myths about gods and goddesses as well as Hindu heroes. This extensive Hindu library also includes the epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The first is the story of “Lord Rama . . . the most glorious of all characters found in scriptural literature,” according to A. Parthasarathy. The Ramayana is one of the most popular writings for Hindus, dating from about the fourth century B.C.E. It is the story of the hero Rama, or Ramachandra, viewed by Hindus as a model son, brother, and husband. He is considered to be the seventh avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu, and his name is often invoked as a greeting.
13 According to Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, “Bhagavad-gītā [part of the Mahabharata] is the supreme instruction of morality. The instructions of Bhagavad-gītā constitute the supreme process of religion and the supreme process of morality. . . . The last instruction of the Gītā is the last word of all morality and religion: surrender unto Kṛṣṇa [Krishna].”—BG.
14 The Bhagavad Gita (Celestial Song), viewed by some as “the jewel of India’s spiritual wisdom,” is a battlefield conversation “between Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa [Krishna], the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and Arjuna, His intimate friend and devotee, whom He instructs in the science of self-realization.” However, the Bhagavad Gita is only one part of the extensive Hindu holy library. Some of these writings (Vedas, Brahmanas, and the Upanishads) are viewed as Sruti, or “heard,” and are therefore considered to be directly revealed sacred writ. Others, such as the epics and the Puranas, are Smriti, or “remembered,” and thus composed by human authors, although derived from revelation. One example is the Manu Smriti, which sets out Hindu religious and social law, in addition to explaining the basis for the caste system. What are some of the beliefs that have arisen from these Hindu writings?
Teachings and Conduct—Ahimsa and Varna
15 In Hinduism, as in other religions, there are certain basic concepts that influence thinking and daily conduct. An outstanding one is that of ahimsa (Sanskrit, ahinsa), or nonviolence, for which Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948), known as the Mahatma, was so famous. (See box, page 113.) On the basis of this philosophy, Hindus are not supposed to kill or do violence to other creatures, which is one of the reasons why they venerate some animals, such as cows, snakes, and monkeys. The strictest exponents of this teaching of ahimsa and respect for life are the followers of Jainism (founded in the sixth century B.C.E.), who go barefoot and even wear a mask so as not to swallow accidentally any insect. (See box, page 104, and photo, page 108.) In contrast, the Sikhs are known for their warrior tradition, and Singh, a common last name among them, means lion.—See box, pages 100-101.
16 A universally known aspect of Hinduism is varna, or the caste system, which divides society into rigid classes. (See box, page 113.) One cannot help noticing that Hindu society is still stratified by this system, although it is rejected by Buddhists and Jains. However, just as racial discrimination persists in the United States and elsewhere, so likewise the caste system is deeply embedded in the Indian psyche. In a way it is a form of class consciousness that, in a parallel way, can still be found today to a lesser degree in British society and in other lands. (James 2:1-9) Thus, in India a person is born into a rigid caste system, and there is almost no way out. Furthermore, the average Hindu does not seek a way out. He views it as his predetermined, inescapable lot in life, the result of his deeds in a prior existence, or Karma. But how did the caste system originate? Once again we have to turn to Hindu mythology.
17 According to Hindu mythology, there were originally four major castes based on the body parts of Purusha, mankind’s original father-figure. The hymns of the Rig-Veda state:
“When they divided Purusha how many portions did they make?
What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?
The Brahman [the highest caste] was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya made.
His thighs became the Vaisya, from his feet the Sudra was produced.”—The Bible of the World.
18 Thus, the priestly Brahmans, the highest caste, were supposed to have originated from Purusha’s mouth, his highest part. The governing, or warrior, class (Kshatriya or Rajanya) came from his arms. The merchant and farmer class, called the Vaisya, or Vaishya, originated from his thighs. A lower caste, the Sudra, or Shudra, or laborer class, resulted from the lowest part of the body, his feet.
19 Over the centuries even lower castes came into existence, the outcastes and the Untouchables, or as Mahatma Gandhi called them more kindly, the Harijans, or “persons belonging to the god Vishnu.” Although untouchability has been illegal in India since 1948, the Untouchables still have a very hard existence.
20 In the course of time, the castes multiplied to match just about every profession and artisanship in Indian society. This ancient caste system, which keeps everyone in his or her social place, is in reality also racial and “includes distinct racial types varying from what is known as the [light-skinned] Aryan to the [darker-skinned] pre-Dravidian stocks.” Varna, or caste, means “color.” “The first three castes were Aryans, the fairest people; the fourth caste, that comprising the dark-skinned aborigines, was non-Aryan.” (Myths and Legends Series—India, by Donald A. Mackenzie) It is a fact of India’s life that the caste system, fortified by the religious teaching of Karma, has millions of people locked into perpetual poverty and injustice.
The Frustrating Cycle of Existence
21 Another basic belief that affects Hindu ethics and conduct, and one of the most vital, is the teaching of Karma. This is the principle that every action has its consequences, positive or negative; it determines each existence of the transmigrated or reincarnated soul. As the Garuda Purana explains:
“A man is the creator of his own fate, and even in his fœtal life he is affected by the dynamics of the works of his prior existence. Whether confined in a mountain fastness or lulling on the bosom of a sea, whether secure in his mother’s lap or held high above her head, a man cannot fly from the effects of his own prior deeds. . . . Whatever is to befall a man on any particular age or time will surely overtake him then and on that date.”
The Garuda Purana continues:
“Knowledge acquired by a man in his prior birth, wealth given away in charity in his prior existence, and works done by him in a previous incarnation, go ahead of his soul in its sojourn.”
22 On what does this belief hinge? The immortal soul is essential to the teaching of Karma, and Karma is what makes the Hindu view of the soul differ from that of Christendom. The Hindu believes that each personal soul, jīva or prān, passes through many reincarnations and possibly “hell.” It must strive to unite with the “Supreme Reality,” also called Brahman, or Brahm (not to be confused with the Hindu god Brahma). On the other hand, Christendom’s doctrines offer the soul the options of heaven, hell, purgatory, or Limbo, depending on the religious persuasion.—Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6, 10; Psalm 146:4.
23 As a consequence of Karma, Hindus tend to be fatalistic. They believe that one’s present status and condition is the result of a previous existence and is therefore deserved, whether good or bad. The Hindu can try to establish a better record so that the next existence might be more bearable. Thus, he more readily accepts his lot in life than does a Westerner. The Hindu sees it all as the outworking of the law of cause and effect in relation to his prior existence. It is the principle of reaping what you have sown in a supposed former existence. All of this, of course, is based on the premise that man has an immortal soul that passes on to another life, whether that be as a human, an animal, or a vegetable.
24 So, what is the ultimate aim in the Hindu faith? To achieve moksha, which means liberation, or release, from the grinding wheel of rebirths and different existences. Therefore, it is an escape from embodied existence, not for the body, but for the “soul.” “Since moksha, or release from the long series of incarnations, is the goal of every Hindu, the biggest event in his life is really his death,” states one commentator. Moksha can be achieved by following the different margas, or ways. (See box, page 110.) Oh, how much of this religious teaching hangs on the ancient Babylonian concept of the immortal soul!
25 Yet, according to the Bible, this despising and disdaining of the material life is diametrically opposed to Jehovah God’s original purpose for mankind. When he created the first human pair, he assigned them to a happy, joyful earthly existence. The Bible account tells us:
“And God proceeded to create the man in his image, in God’s image he created him; male and female he created them. Further, God blessed them and God said to them: ‘Be fruitful and become many and fill the earth and subdue it, and have in subjection the fish of the sea and the flying creatures of the heavens and every living creature that is moving upon the earth.’ . . . After that God saw everything he had made and, look! it was very good.” (Genesis 1:27-31)
The Bible prophesies an imminent era of peace and justice for the earth, an era in which each family will have its own decent dwelling, and perfect health and life will be mankind’s everlasting lot.—Isaiah 65:17-25; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1-4.
26 The next question to answer is, Who are the gods a Hindu must please in order to achieve good Karma?
The Pantheon of Hindu Gods
27 While Hinduism may lay claim to millions of gods, in actual practice there are certain favorite gods that have become the focal point for various sects within Hinduism. Three of the most prominent gods are included in what Hindus call Trimurti, a trinity, or triad of gods.—For other Hindu gods, see box, pages 116-17.
28 The triad consists of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Siva the Destroyer, and each has at least one wife or consort. Brahma is wedded to Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge. Vishnu’s wife is Lakshmi, while Siva’s first wife was Sati, who committed suicide. She was the first woman to enter sacrificial fire, and thus she became the first suttee. Following her mythological example, thousands of Hindu widows over the centuries have sacrificed themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre, although this practice is now illegal. Siva also has another wife known by several names and titles. In her benign form, she is Parvati and Uma, as well as Gauri, the Golden One. As Durga or Kali, she is a terrifying goddess.
29 Brahma, although central to Hindu mythology, does not occupy a place of importance in the worship of the average Hindu. In fact very few temples are dedicated to him, even though he is called Brahma the Creator. However, Hindu mythology attributes the assignment of creating the material universe to a supreme being, source, or essence—Brahman, or Brahm, identified with the sacred syllable OM or AUM. All three members of the triad are considered part of that “Being,” and all other gods are viewed as different manifestations. Whichever god is then worshiped as supreme, that deity is thought to be all-embracing. So while Hindus openly venerate millions of gods, most acknowledge only one true God, who can take many forms: male, female, or even animal. Therefore, Hindu scholars are quick to point out that Hinduism is actually monotheistic, not polytheistic. Later Vedic thinking, however, discards the concept of a supreme being, replacing it with an impersonal divine principle or reality.
30 Vishnu, a benevolent solar and cosmic deity, is the center of worship for the followers of Vaishnavism. He appears under ten avatars, or incarnations, including Rama, Krishna, and the Buddha. Another avatar is Vishnu Narayana, “represented in human form asleep on the coiled serpent Shesha or Ananta, floating on the cosmic waters with his wife, the goddess Lakshmi, seated at his feet while the god Brahma arises from a lotus growing out of Vishnu’s navel.”—The Encyclopedia of World Faiths.
31 Siva, also commonly called Mahesha (Supreme Lord) and Mahadeva (Great God), is Hinduism’s second-greatest god, and the worship rendered to him is called Saivism. He is described as “the great ascetic, the master yogin who sits wrapped in meditation on the slopes of the Himalayas, his body smeared with ashes and his head covered in matted hair.” He is also noted “for his eroticism, as the bringer of fertility and the supreme lord of creation, Mahadeva.” (The Encyclopedia of World Faiths) Worship is rendered to Siva by means of the lingam, or phallic representation.—See photos, page 99.
32 Like many other world religions, Hinduism has its supreme goddess, who can be attractive or terrifying. In her more pleasant form, she is known as Parvati and Uma. Her fearsome character is displayed as Durga or Kali, a bloodthirsty goddess who delights in blood sacrifices. As the Mother Goddess, Kali Ma (Black Earth-Mother), she is the chief deity for the Shakti sect. She is depicted as naked to the hips and wearing adornments of corpses, snakes, and skulls. In times past, strangled human victims were offered to her by believers known as thugi, from which came the English word “thug.”
Hinduism and the River Ganges
33 We cannot speak of Hinduism’s pantheon of gods without mentioning its most sacred river—the Ganges. Much of Hindu mythology is directly related to the river Ganges, or Ganga Ma (Mother Ganga), as devout Hindus call it. (See map, page 123.) They recite a prayer that includes 108 different names for the river. Why is the Ganges so revered by sincere Hindus? Because it is so closely associated with their daily survival and with their ancient mythology. They believe that it formerly existed in the heavens as the Milky Way. Then how did it come to be a river?
34 With some variations most Hindus would explain it like this: Maharajah Sagara had 60,000 sons who were killed by the fire of Kapila, a manifestation of Vishnu. Their souls were condemned to hell unless the goddess Ganga would come down from heaven to cleanse them and release them from the curse. Bhagīratha, a great-grandson of Sagara, interceded with Brahma to allow the sacred Ganga to come down to the earth. One account continues: “Ganga replied. ‘I am so mighty a torrent I would shatter the earth’s foundations.’ So [Bhagīratha], after doing penance for a thousand years, went to the god Shiva, the greatest of all ascetics, and persuaded him to stand high above the earth amidst the rock and ice of the Himalayas. Shiva had matted hair piled on his head, and he allowed Ganga to thunder down from the skies into his locks, which absorbed gently the earth-threatening shock. Ganga then trickled softly out on to the earth and flowed down from the mountains and across the plains, bringing water and therefore life to the dry earth.”—From the Ocean to the Sky, by Sir Edmund Hillary.
35 The followers of Vishnu have a somewhat different version of how the Ganges was started. According to an ancient text, the Vishnu Purana, their version is:
“From this region [the holy seat of Vishnu] proceeds the river Ganges, that removes all sins . . . She issues from the nail of the great toe of Vishnu’s left foot.”
Or as Vishnu’s followers say in Sanskrit: “Visnu-padabja-sambhuta,” which means “Born of the lotus-like foot of Vishnu.”
36 Hindus believe that the Ganges has the power to release, purify, cleanse, and cure believers. The Vishnu Purana states:
“Saints, who are purified by bathing in the waters of this river, and whose minds are devoted to Kesava [Vishnu], obtain final liberation. The sacred river, when heard of, desired, seen, touched, bathed in, or hymned, day by day purifies all beings. And those who living even at a distance . . . exclaim ‘Ganga and Ganga’ are relieved of the sins committed during the three previous existences.”
The Brahmandapurana states:
“Those who bathe devoutly once in the pure currents of the Ganga, their tribes are protected by Her from hundreds of thousands of dangers. Evils accumulated through generations are destroyed. Just by bathing in the Ganga one gets immediately purified.”
37 Indians flock to the river to perform puja, or worship, by offering flowers, chanting prayers, and receiving from a priest the tilak, the spot of red or yellow paste on the forehead. Then they wade into the waters to bathe. Many will also drink the water, even though it is heavily polluted by sewage, chemicals, and cadavers. Yet such is the spiritual attraction of the Ganges that it is the ambition of millions of Indians to bathe at least once in their ‘holy river,’ polluted or not.
38 Others bring the bodies of their loved ones to be burned on pyres by the riverside, and then the ashes may be strewn in the river. They believe that this guarantees eternal bliss for the departed soul. Those too poor to pay for a funeral pyre just push the shrouded body off into the river, where it is attacked by scavenger birds or just decomposes. This brings us to the question, In addition to what we have considered already, what does Hinduism teach about life after death?
Hinduism and the Soul
39 The Bhagavad Gita gives an answer when it says:
“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth, and then to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death.”—Chapter 2, text 13.
40 One Hindu comment on this text states: “Since every living entity is an individual soul, each is changing his body at every moment, manifesting sometimes as a child, sometimes as a youth, and sometimes as an old man—although the same spirit soul is there and does not undergo any change. This individual soul finally changes the body itself, in transmigrating from one to another, and since it is sure to have another body in the next birth—either material or spiritual—there was no cause for lamentation by Arjuna on account of death.”
41 Notice that the commentary states that “every living entity is an individual soul.” Now that statement agrees with what the Bible says at Genesis 2:7:
“And Jehovah God proceeded to form the man out of dust from the ground and to blow into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man came to be a living soul.”
But an important distinction has to be made: Is man constituted a living soul with all his functions and faculties, or does he have a soul apart from his bodily functions? Is man a soul, or does he have a soul? The following quotation clarifies the Hindu concept.
42 Chapter 2, text 17, of the Bhagavad Gita states:
“That which pervades the entire body is indestructible. No one is able to destroy the imperishable soul.”
This text is then explained:
“Each and every body contains an individual soul, and the symptom of the soul’s presence is perceived as individual consciousness.”
Therefore, while the Bible states that man is a soul, Hindu teaching states that he has a soul. And there is a world of difference here that deeply affects the teachings that are a consequence of these viewpoints.—Leviticus 24:17, 18.
43 The teaching of the immortal soul is ultimately drawn from ancient Babylon’s stagnant pool of religious knowledge. It logically leads into the ‘life after death’ consequences that are featured in the teachings of so many religions—reincarnation, heaven, hell, purgatory, Limbo, and so forth. For the Hindu, heaven and hell are intermediate waiting places before the soul gets its next reincarnation. Of special interest is the Hindu concept of hell.
Hindu Teaching of Hell
44 One text from the Bhagavad Gita states:
“O Kṛṣṇa [Krishna], maintainer of the people, I have heard by authorities that those who destroy family traditions dwell . . . in hell.”—Chapter 1, text 43.
A commentary says: “Those who are very sinful in their earthly life have to undergo different kinds of punishment on hellish planets.” However, there is one shade of difference with Christendom’s eternal hellfire torment: “This punishment . . . is not eternal.” Then, what exactly is the Hindu hell?
45 The following is a description of the fate of a sinner, taken from the Markandeya Purana:
“Then the emissaries of Yama [god of the dead] quickly bind him with dreadful nooses and drag him to the south, trembling with the stroke of the rod. Then he is dragged by the emissaries of Yama, sending out dreadful, inauspicious yells through grounds rough with [the plant] Kusa, thorns, ant-hills, pins and stones, glowing with flames at places, covered with pits, blazing with the heat of the sun and burning with its rays. Dragged by the dreadful emissaries and eaten by hundreds of jackals, the sinful person goes to Yama’s house through a fearful passage. . . .
“When his body is burnt he experiences a great burning sensation; and when his body is beaten or cut he feels great pain.
“His body being thus destroyed, a creature, although walking into another body, suffers eternal misery on account of his own adverse actions. . . .
“Then to have his sins washed off he is taken to another such hell. After having gone through all the hells the sinner takes upon a beastly life. Then going through the lives of worms, insects, and flies, beasts of prey, gnats, elephants, trees, horses, cows, and through diverse other sinful and miserable lives, he, coming to the race of men, is born as a hunchback, or an ugly person or a dwarf or a Chandala Pukkasa.”
46 Compare that with what the Bible says about the dead:
“For the living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all, neither do they anymore have wages, because the remembrance of them has been forgotten. Also, their love and their hate and their jealousy have already perished, and they have no portion anymore to time indefinite in anything that has to be done under the sun. All that your hand finds to do, do with your very power, for there is no work nor devising nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol, the place to which you are going.”—Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6, 10.
47 Of course, if as the Bible says, man does not have a soul but is a soul, then there is no conscious existence after death. There is no bliss, and there is no suffering. All the illogical complications of the “hereafter” disappear.
48 This necessarily brief review of Hinduism has shown that it is a religion of polytheism based on monotheism—belief in Brahman, the Supreme Being, source, or essence, symbolized by the syllable OM or AUM, and with many facets or manifestations. It is also a religion that teaches tolerance and encourages kindness toward animals.
49 On the other hand, some elements of Hindu teaching, such as Karma and the injustices of the caste system, together with the idolatry and the conflicts in the myths, have made some thinking people question the validity of that faith. One such doubter arose in northeastern India about the year 560 B.C.E. He was Siddhārtha Gautama. He established a new faith that failed to prosper in India yet flourished elsewhere, as our next chapter will explain. That new faith was Buddhism.
The name Hinduism is a European invention.
In Sanskrit, “soul” is often translated from ātma, or ātman, but “spirit” is a more accurate translation.—See A Dictionary of Hinduism—Its Mythology, Folklore and Development 1500 B.C.–A.D. 1500, page 31, and the booklet Victory Over Death—Is It Possible for You? published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., in 1986.
A tenth and future avatar is that of Kalki Avatara “depicted as a magnificent youth riding a great white horse with a meteor-like sword raining death and destruction on all sides.” “His coming will re-establish righteousness on earth, and the return of an age of purity and innocence.”—Religions of India; A Dictionary of Hinduism.—Compare Revelation 19:11-16.
The Bible teaching of a resurrection of the dead has no relationship to the immortal soul doctrine. See Chapter 10.
Sikhism—A Reform Religion
Sikhism, symbolized by three swords and a circle, is the religion of over 17 million people. Most live in the Punjab. The Sikh Golden Temple, set in the midst of an artificial lake, is located in Amritsar, the Sikh holy city. Sikh men are easily recognized by their blue, white, or black turbans, the wearing of which is an essential part of their religious practice, as is their letting their hair grow long.
The Hindi word sikh means “disciple.” Sikhs are disciples of their founder, Guru Nānak, and followers of the teachings of the ten gurus (Nānak and nine successors) whose writings are in the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. The religion got its start in the early 16th century when Guru Nānak wanted to take the best of Hinduism and Islām and form a united religion.
Nānak’s mission can be stated in one sentence: “As there is only one God, and He is our Father; therefore, we must all be brothers.” Like the Muslims, the Sikhs believe in one God and forbid the use of idols. (Psalm 115:4-9; Matthew 23:8, 9) They follow the Hindu tradition of believing in an immortal soul, reincarnation, and Karma. The Sikh place of worship is called a gurdwara.—Compare Psalm 103:12, 13; Acts 24:15.
One of Guru Nānak’s great commandments was: “Always remember God, repeat His name.” God is spoken of as the “True One,” but no name is given. (Psalm 83:16-18) Another commandment was “Share what you earn with the less fortunate.” In line with this, there is a langar, or free kitchen, in every Sikh temple, where people of all kinds may freely eat. There are even free rooms where travelers may spend the night.—James 2:14-17.
The last Guru, Gobind Singh (1666-1708), established a brotherhood of Sikhs called the Khalsa, who follow what are known as the five K’s, which are: kesh, uncut hair, symbolizing spirituality; kangha, a comb in the hair, symbolizing order and discipline; kirpan, a sword, signifying dignity, courage, and self-sacrifice; kara, a steel bracelet, symbolizing unity with God; kachh, shorts as underwear, implying modesty and worn to symbolize moral restraint.—See The Encyclopedia of World Faiths, page 269
Jainism—Self-Denial and Nonviolence
This religion, with its ancient Indian swastika symbol, was founded in the sixth century B.C.E. by the wealthy Indian prince Nataputta Vardhamāna, better known as Vardhamana Mahāvīra (a title meaning “Great Man” or “Great Hero”). He turned to a life of self-denial and asceticism. He set out naked in search of knowledge “through the villages and plains of central India in quest of release from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.” (Man’s Religions, by John B. Noss) He believed that the salvation of the soul could be achieved only through extreme self-denial and self-discipline and a rigid application of ahimsa, nonviolence to all creatures. He took ahimsa to the extreme of carrying a soft broom with which he could gently sweep away any insects that might be in his path. His respect for life was also to protect the purity and integrity of his own soul.
His followers today, in an effort to improve their Karma, lead a similar life of self-denial and respect for all other creatures. Again we see the powerful effect on human lives of the belief in the immortality of the human soul.
Today there are fewer than four million believers of this faith, and most are in the Bombay and Gujarat areas of India.
Simple Guide to Hindu Terms
ahimsa (Sanskrit, ahinsa)—nonviolence; not hurting or killing anything. Basis for Hindu vegetarianism and respect for animals
ashram—a shrine or place where a guru (spiritual guide) teaches
ātman—spirit; associated with that which is deathless. Often mistakenly translated soul. See jīva
avatar—a manifestation or an incarnation of a Hindu deity
bhakti—devotion to a deity that leads to salvation
bindi—a red spot that married women wear on the forehead
Brahman—the priestly and highest level of the caste system; also the Ultimate Reality. See page 116
dharma—the ultimate law of all things; that which determines the rightness or wrongness of acts
ghat—stairway or platform by a river
guru—teacher or spiritual guide
Harijan—member of the Untouchable caste; means “people of God,” compassionate name given them by Mahatma Gandhi
japa—worship of God by repetition of one of his names; a mala, or rosary of 108 beads, is used to keep count
jīva (or prān, prāni)—the personal soul or being
Karma—the principle that every action has its positive or negative consequences for the next life of the transmigrated soul
Kshatriya—the professional, governing, and warrior class and the second level of the caste system
mahant—holy man or teacher
mahatma—Hindu saint, from maha, high or great, and ātman, spirit
mantra—a sacred formula, believed to have magical power, used in initiation into a sect and repeated in prayers and incantations
maya—the world as an illusion
moksha, or mukti—release from the cycle of rebirth; the end of the soul’s journey. Also known as Nirvana, the union of the individual with the Supreme Entity, Brahman
OM, AUM—a word symbol representing Brahman used for meditation; sound considered to be the mystic vibration; used as a sacred mantra
paramatman—the World-Spirit, the universal ātman, or Brahman
sadhu—a holy man; an ascetic or yogi
samsara—transmigration of an eternal, imperishable soul
Shakti—the female power or the wife of a god, especially Siva’s consort
sraddha—important rites conducted to honor ancestors and assist departed souls in attaining moksha
Sudra—laborer, the lowest of the four main castes
swami—teacher or higher level of spiritual guide
tilak—a mark on the forehead that symbolizes the retention of the memory of the Lord in all his activities
Trimurti—Hindi triad of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva
Upanishads—early sacred poetic writings of Hinduism. Also known as Vedanta, the end of the Vedas
Vaisya—class of merchants and farmers; third group in the caste system
Vedas—earliest sacred poetic writings of Hinduism
Yama—the god of death; he keeps track of each one’s Karma to determine the quality of the next life
Yoga—from the root yuj, meaning to join or yoke; involves the joining of the individual to the universal divine being. Popularly known as the discipline of meditation involving posture and breath control. Hinduism recognizes at least four main Yogas, or paths. See page 110
Four Ways to Moksha
The Hindu faith offers at least four ways to achieve moksha, or liberation of the soul. These are known as yogas or margas, paths to moksha.
1. Karma Yoga—“The way of action, or karma yoga, the discipline of action. Basically, karma marga means performing one’s dharma according to one’s place in life. Certain duties are required of all people, such as ahimsa and abstention from alcohol and meat, but the specific dharma of each individual depends on that person’s caste and stage in life.”—Great Asian Religions.
This Karma is performed strictly within caste limitations. Purity of caste is maintained by neither marrying nor eating outside of one’s caste, which was determined by one’s Karma in a previous existence. Therefore one’s caste is not viewed as an injustice but as a legacy from a previous incarnation. In Hindu philosophy men and women are not all equal. They are divided by caste and by sex and, in effect, by color. Usually the lighter the skin, the higher the caste.
2. Jnana Yoga—“The way of knowledge, or jnana yoga, the discipline of knowledge. In contrast to the way of action, karma marga, with its prescribed duties for every occasion in life, jnana marga provides a philosophical and psychological way of knowing the self and the universe. Being, not doing, is the key to jnana marga. [Italics ours.] Most importantly, this way makes moksha possible in this life for its practitioners.” (Great Asian Religions) It involves introspective yoga and withdrawal from the world and the practice of austerities. It is the expression of self-control and self-denial.
3. Bhakti Yoga—“The most popular form of the Hindu tradition today. This is the way of devotion, bhakti marga. In contrast to karma marga . . . this path is easier, more spontaneous, and may be followed by persons of any caste, sex, or age. . . . [It] allows human emotions and desires to flow freely rather than to be overcome by Yogic asceticism . . . [It] consists exclusively of devotion to divine beings.” And there are traditionally 330 million to venerate. According to this tradition, to know is to love. In fact, bhakti means “emotional attachment to one’s chosen god.”—Great Asian Religions.
4. Raja Yoga—A method of “special postures, methods of breathing, and rhythmical repetition of the proper thought-formulas.” (Man’s Religions) It has eight steps.
Mahatma Gandhi and the Caste System
“Nonviolence is the first article of my faith. It is also the last article of my creed.”—Mahatma Gandhi, March 23, 1922.
Mahatma Gandhi, famous for his nonviolent leadership in helping to achieve India’s independence from Britain (granted in 1947), also campaigned to improve the lot of millions of fellow Hindus. As Indian Professor M. P. Rege explains: “He proclaimed ahimsa (nonviolence) as the fundamental moral value, which he interpreted as concern for the dignity and well-being of every person. He denied the authority of the Hindu scriptures when their teaching was contrary to ahimsa, strove valiantly for the eradication of untouchability and the hierarchical caste system, and promoted the equality of women in all spheres of life.”
What was Gandhi’s view of the lot of the Untouchables? In a letter to Jawaharlal Nehru, dated May 2, 1933, he wrote: “The Harijan movement is too big for mere intellectual effort. There is nothing so bad in the world. And yet I cannot leave religion and therefore Hinduism. My life would be a burden to me if Hinduism failed me. I love Christianity, Islam and many other faiths through Hinduism. . . . But then I cannot tolerate it with untouchability.”—The Essential Gandhi.
Hinduism—Some Gods and Goddesses
Aditi—mother of the gods; sky-goddess; the Infinite
Agni—god of fire
Brahma—the Creator God, the principle of creation in the universe. One of the gods of the Trimurti (triad)
Brahman, or Brahm—the Supreme, all-pervasive entity of the universe, represented by the sound OM or AUM. (See symbol above.) Also referred to as Atman. Some Hindus view Brahman as an impersonal Divine Principle or Ultimate Reality
Buddha—Gautama, founder of Buddhism; Hindus view him as an incarnation (avatar) of Vishnu
Durga—wife or Shakti of Siva and identified with Kali
Ganesa (Ganesha)—Siva’s elephant-headed son-god, Lord of Obstacles, god of good fortune. Also called Ganapati and Gajanana
Ganga—goddess, one of Siva’s wives and personification of the river Ganges
Hanuman—monkey god and devoted follower of Rama
Himalaya—abode of snow, father of Parvati
Kali—Siva’s black consort (Shakti) and bloodthirsty goddess of destruction. Often portrayed with large red tongue hanging out
Krishna—the playful eighth incarnation of Vishnu and the deity of the Bhagavad Gita. His lovers were the gopis, or milkmaids
Lakshmi—goddess of beauty and good fortune; Vishnu’s consort
Manasa—goddess of snakes
Manu—ancestor of the human race; saved from the flood’s destruction by a great fish
Mitra—god of light. Known as Mithras to the Romans
Nandi—the bull, Siva’s vehicle or mode of transport
Nataraja—Siva in dance posture encompassed by a ring of flames
Parvati or Uma—goddess consort of Siva. Also takes the form of goddess Durga or Kali
Prajapati—Creator of the universe, Lord of Creatures, father of gods, demons, and all other creatures. Later known as Brahma
Purusha—cosmic man. The four main castes were made from his body
Radha—consort of Krishna
Rama, Ramachandra—the seventh incarnation of the god Vishnu. The epic narrative Ramayana relates the story of Rama and his wife Sita
Saraswati—goddess of knowledge and consort of Brahma the Creator
Shashti—goddess who protects women and children in childbirth
Siva—god of fertility, death, and destruction; a member of the Trimurti. Symbolized by the trident and the phallus
Soma—both a god and a drug; the elixir of life
Vishnu—god the preserver of life; third member of the Trimurti
(Based on listing in Mythology—An Illustrated Encyclopedia)
Hindu Legend of the Flood
“In the morning they brought to Manu [mankind’s ancestor and first lawgiver] water for washing . . . When he was washing himself, a fish [Vishnu in his incarnation as Matsya] came into his hands.
“It spoke to him the word, ‘Rear me, I will save thee!’ ‘Wherefrom wilt thou save me?’ ‘A flood will carry away all these creatures: from that I will save thee!’ ‘How am I to rear thee?’”
The fish instructed Manu on how to care for him. “Thereupon it said, ‘In such and such a year that flood will come. Thou shalt then attend to me (to my advice) by preparing a ship; and when the flood has risen thou shalt enter into the ship, and I will save thee from it.’”
Manu followed the fish’s instructions, and during the flood the fish pulled the ship to a “northern mountain. It then said, ‘I have saved thee. Fasten the ship to a tree; but let not the water cut thee off, whilst thou art on the mountain. As the water subsides, thou mayest gradually descend!’”—Satapatha-Brahmana; compare Genesis 6:9–8:22.