“My government will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of their choice without coercion or undue influence. My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly.” These remarks on religious tolerance were made by the Indian Prime Minister in February 2015. Hinduism is said to be tolerant to other religions because it holds that there are many ways which lead towards salvation (or spiritual liberation) and Hindus can select their deity from the wide pantheon of gods and goddesses conceived since time immemorial.
It is estimated that about 16% of the world’s population is Hindu. This increases to about 80% in India, Nepal and Bali (in Indonesia) and about 50% in Mauritius. The Hindu faith is polytheistic, although it is claimed that one supreme reality (Brahman) is manifested in many gods and goddesses. In this way Hinduism is different to Islam, Judaism and Christianity. But is Hinduism consistent with the message of the Bible? Is it one of the ways to salvation and spiritual liberation?
True or false?
The Bible contains three clear tests for determining whether a belief, teaching or philosophy is true or false. To be true it must pass each of the three tests.
The Jesus test
This test states that, “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist … This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood” (1 Jn. 4:2-3, 6 NIV). The question to be answered in this test is: What does it say about Jesus Christ? Is it consistent with Christ’s unique birth, divine and human nature, sinless life, sacrificial death, resurrection, and second coming (1 Jn. 4:1-3)?
The gospel test
The Bible warns about those promoting a different gospel, “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” (Gal.1:9). The question to be answered in this test is: What is its gospel? In other words: what is the core belief or hope? The Bible says that the root cause of all our problems is that everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s requirements—resulting in death. The only means of rescue is salvation by repentance of sin and faith in the work of Christ. ‘Different gospels’ are those that differ from this. They either add to it or take away from it. There is a warning against adding to or taking away from the words of the Bible (Rev. 22:18-19).
The fruit test
Jesus Christ warned, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them” (Mt. 7:15-20). The question to be answered in this test is: What kind of fruit is evident? In other words, what type of attitudes and behavior does it encourage? Is the divine nature or the sinful nature most evident (Gal. 5:19-23)?
I have previously summarized Hinduism. These tests will now be used to assess the Hindu faith.
Testing the Hindu faith
The Jesus test
Hindus believe in one supreme god (Brahman) who created the universe. He is impersonal and all-pervasive. And he created many gods to be his helpers. There are thousands (and maybe millions) of Hindu gods that are considered to be different manifestations of Brahman. These gods and goddesses of Hinduism represent the many aspects of Brahman. So, Hinduism is neither only monotheistic nor only polytheistic, but has elements of both.
Brahman is not the same as the monotheistic personal God of Christianity, who is personal and is separate from His creation (Rom. 1:25). In Hinduism, God, the universe, human beings and all else is essentially one thing and everything is connected as part of the divine being. This means that Hindus worship literally everything and god is thought to be in every human being as Atman, the eternal Self. This is pantheism.
Because Hinduism involves image (idol) worship, it is included in those described by Paul as: “Yes, they knew God (through creation; v.19-20), but they wouldn’t worship Him as God or even give Him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. … They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created (idols) instead of the Creator Himself” (Rom. 1:21-25NLT).
Hinduism is also unlike the Christian trinity of one God in three persons. God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ) and God the Holy Spirit have similar attributes whereas there is greater distinction among the Hindu deities, which have different mythologies and personalities.
Jesus isn’t mentioned in any of the numerous Hindu scriptures (as most were written before His time) and none of the legion of Hindu gods is like Jesus. So, the Hindu religion says nothing directly about Jesus Christ. But Hindus may think that Jesus was a holy man, a guru (teacher) or a god. However, they wouldn’t see Jesus as the only way to God. At best, He would be one god amongst the many gods that they worship.
Hindus believe that Krishna was the eighth “avatar” (incarnation) of the god Vishnu. Could Jesus also be an avatar? In Hinduism, an avatar is the bodily incarnation of a deity on earth. But Jesus was not an avatar because He is fully human and fully God. Hindus could also consider Jesus to be a great teacher like Lord Krishna and Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. But Jesus wasn’t the reincarnation of Krishna because after His death, He was resurrected, not reincarnated.
What does the Hindu religion imply about Jesus Christ? By worshipping many other gods instead of Christ, the implication is that these gods are greater than Christ. Like Hinduism, people in the Greek and Roman empires worshipped many Gods. What does the New Testament say about this? When the Thessalonians became followers of Christ, they “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us (believers) from the coming wrath” (1 Th. 1:9-10). The God who was living and true is contrasted against idols that were dead and false gods. They had learnt that God “doesn’t live in man-made temples, and human hands can’t serve His needs—for He has no needs” (Acts 17:24-25NLT). The Corinthians were told to separate from idol worship (2 Cor. 6:16-17). John repeats this message that Christians should “keep yourselves from idols” (1 Jn. 5:21). The true God is said to be God the Father or God the Son (Jesus), while idols are false gods.
Paul described the state of the Corinthians before they became Christians as “you were led astray and swept along in worshiping speechless idols” (1 Cor. 12:2NLT). Their idols were lifeless! But how were they being “led astray and swept along”? The Bible says that idolatry is associated with demon worship (Rev. 9:20). And it’s the work of Satan (2 Cor. 6:15-16). So they were being led astray and swept along by Satan and his demons! That’s why Paul was “was greatly distressed to see that the city (of Athens) was full of idols” (Acts 17:16).
Because the Hindu faith is polytheistic it can be associated with the idea that all paths lead to God and that there are many paths which lead towards salvation or spiritual liberation. Hinduism emphasizes that everyone actually worships the same God, whether one knows it or not. This is pluralism (all worldviews are equally valid and there are many paths to salvation), which can help tolerance of other beliefs. But the Bible teaches that we can only know God through Jesus Christ (Jn. 14:6; Acts 4:12). This means that the idea that multiple religions are true or equally valid (religious pluralism) is false.
Except in matters of ethics and moral conduct, there is very little in common between the teachings of Jesus and the main teachings of Hinduism. So, Hinduism clearly fails the Jesus test. Hindus don’t believe that Jesus is the unique Son of God whose sacrificial death (crucifixion) and resurrection solved the problem of humanity’s sinfulness. They don’t believe that Jesus came to the earth as a substitute to take the punishment that we all deserve.
The gospel test
The ultimate goal of Hindu religious life is liberation from the cycle of birth and death (reincarnation) and to escape from the recurring pattern of existence. This is the Hindu core belief or hope. There are two problems with this goal: the problem being addressed and the solution that is offered.
The problem being addressed in Hinduism is the seemingly endless cycle of birth and death (reincarnation). The Bible shows that humanity is the special creation of God, created in God’s image with both a material body and an immaterial soul and spirit. People are distinct and unique from all other creatures—angels and the animal kingdom. The Bible teaches that at death, while a person’s body is mortal (it decays and returns to dust) their soul and spirit continue to either a place of torment for those who reject Christ or paradise (heaven) in God’s presence for those who have trusted in the Savior. Both categories of people will be resurrected, one to eternal judgment and the other to eternal life with a glorified body (Jn. 5:25-29). The Bible says, “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27). This makes it clear that humanity only dies once and is then judged on the life they have lived. One is not born again in an endless cycle of death and rebirth, and its opportunities to improve one’s karma. The Bible never mentions people having a second chance at life or coming back as different people or animals. As Larry Norman sang, “you live once and you die once, with no re-incarnate episodes”.
We have seen that the idea of reincarnation is a false teaching. But this is the main problem addressed by the Hindu faith! Their core belief or hope is the product of human imagination! On the other hand, the Christian faith addresses the problem of sin (rejection of God’s revelation in creation and in Jesus Christ) and its consequences. We will now look at the solution being offered.
Because the Hindu social division and hierarchy is believed to be based on rebirth and karma, good works and striving to please God play an important role in a Hindu’s way of life. A Hindu may seek to earn salvation and liberation through good works and a good life. Other ways that Hindus seek salvation are True Knowledge (scholarly study), devotion to a god, or meditation. These are also things that people can do to attain union with the Brahman (god). Yes, good works do please God, but only the good works and the good and sinless life of Jesus. The Bible says that it was Jesus’ good work (sacrifice) on the cross that will get us salvation and liberation!
Ways that Hindus can overcome sin and impurity include: fines and punishments, confession (but this is not mandatory), penances, fasting, virtuous conduct, self-control, celibacy, nonviolence, truthfulness, austere living, practice of silence, concentration, rituals, sacrifices, prayers, mantras, recitation of sacred texts, rituals, pilgrimages to holy places, bathing in sacred rivers, yoga, meditation, meeting Hindu saints and gurus, virtuous conduct, and charity. Once again, these are all good works.
Our good works are not good enough. Larry Norman also sang, “you can’t hitchhike to heaven or get there by just being good”. The Bible says that most of the work of salvation is done by God and not by us, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast (Eph. 2:8-9).
Because one’s past karma determines our current life, the idea of incarnation and karma leads to fatalism. This means that the accumulated good or bad in our past lives defines the conditions of our current life. The only hope is that one’s good works will lead to salvation in the next life. This is different to Christianity where through God’s grace we can have our sins forgiven and the hope of heaven.
The Christian gospel may be summarized as: “Because of His infinite mercy, God sent His Son (Jesus) to earth to save people so they could live right. He was the sacrifice which would permit God to blot out all our sins, and enable us to be clean so that we could dwell eternally with our holy God. Jesus died for the sins of humanity”. But Hinduism is a religion of salvation by works.
A Hindu’s salvation is never guaranteed; they don’t know how much meditation or yoga they need to do or how many lives they will live before reaching moksha (Hindu heaven). By contrast, the Christian’s salvation is sure and confident. God’s promises are never broken, and we can rely on scripture when it declares that faith in Jesus saves (Acts 16:31) and we can rest confidently in this assurance (1 Jn. 5:13). Our forgiveness and salvation are completely based on the work of Christ on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24) and not on any of our deeds because we have a sinful nature (Rom. 7:18).
So, Hinduism fails the gospel test.
The fruit test
Hinduism is often said to be a tolerant religion. But India is included in the Open Doors 2017 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian. Following an increase in religiously motivated (Hindu) nationalism, India has climbed to its highest ever ranking of 15. It was ranked between Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan. This is equivalent to a “very high” level of persecution. Most of the countries where it is more difficult to live as a Christian than in India (except North Korea) are Islamic.
Open Doors reports that since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came into power in 2014, radical Hinduism has increased steadily. Some of those who have left Hinduism to follow Jesus have been attacked and even killed by their own parents. On average, more than 15 Christians were physically attacked every week in India in 2016. Some of these attacks have come from Hindu extremists. They particularly target believers who have converted from Hinduism; these believers face daily harassment and have been beaten, hospitalized and even killed. Protestant Christian communities are the second main target because of their involvement in outreach activities and conversions.
Christians are also facing increasing pressure on a national level. Several states have implemented anti-conversion laws to prevent people from leaving Hinduism and the ruling BJP desire to make these laws nation-wide. Such laws are often used as an excuse to disrupt church services and harass Christians. With the Indian government refusing to speak out against the atrocities being carried out against Christians and other minorities, the situation is expected to get worse. Hindus that convert to Christianity are rejected by their family. Their family is affected as well by suffering shame in their Hindu society.
In February 2017, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a report on “Constitutional and Legal Challenges Faced by Religious Minorities in India”. They note:
– “Anti-conversion laws” in seven Indian states, and discrimination based upon caste and religion.
– Since 2014, when the BJP took power, hate crimes, social boycotts, assaults, and forced conversion (to Hinduism) have escalated dramatically.
– Although discrimination due to caste is prohibited in the constitution, the caste system, which is discriminatory at its root, remains a fundamental part of Hinduism. Under this system, the “untouchables”, or Dalits, have faced unique discrimination, the only parallel of which was apartheid in South Africa. Many Dalits are Christians. In fact, Dalits account for two-thirds of India’s Christian population, who number more than 80 million, or 7% of India’s total population.
– Religious minorities and Dalits face discrimination and persecution due to a combination of overly broad or ill-defined laws, an inefficient criminal justice system, and a lack of judicial consistency.
– Religious freedom in India will never be achieved unless the country is willing to make substantial amendments to its constitution and legal framework.
The findings of this report were rejected by the Indian external affairs ministry.
In April 2017, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom issued its annual report which noted:
– Hindu nationalist groups and their sympathizers perpetrated numerous incidents of intimidation, harassment, and violence against religious minority communities and Hindu Dalits. These violations were most “frequent and severe” in 10 of India’s 29 States. National and State laws that restrict religious conversion, cow slaughter, and the foreign funding of non-governmental organizations helped create the conditions enabling these violations.
– While the Prime Minister spoke publicly about the importance of communal tolerance and religious freedom, members of the ruling party have ties to Hindu nationalist groups implicated in religious freedom violations, and used religiously divisive language to inflame tensions.
– Police and judicial bias and inadequacies have created a pervasive climate of impunity in which religious minorities feel increasingly insecure and have no recourse when religiously motivated crimes occur.
Although it’s difficult to assess attitudes and behavior objectively, these three separate reports mention persecution of religious minorities and a lack of religious freedom in India. And there is even discrimination against low-caste Hindus.
What type of attitudes and behavior do you think the Hindu faith encourages?
Results of the tests
We have seen that the Hindu faith fails the Jesus Test and the Gospel Test and the results of the Fruit Test are debatable. This means it’s a false teaching, which isn’t consistent with the overall message of the Bible.
In a previous post it was noted that Hinduism is both polytheistic and pantheistic (P&P). This is not surprising because most of the Hindu scriptures were written between 1500BC and 500BC. During this period, the deities of the following nations were also polytheistic and pantheistic (P&P): Egypt, Phoenicia (Canaan), Babylon, and Greece. In fact, this was probably a characteristic of all the Gentile nations at that time. It was also characteristic of previous nations (such as Mesopotamia) and following nations (such as the Roman Empire). By the way, pantheistic religions are probably polytheistic, but are polytheistic religions pantheistic?
What does the Bible say about such P&P religions?
– About 2000BC Abraham left the P&P religion in Ur of the Chaldeans (in Mesopotamia) to live in the land of Canaan and to follow the monotheistic God who created the universe.
– About 1750BC when Jacob left Paddan Aram (in upper Mesopotamia), his wife Rachael stole her father’s P&P household gods (Gen. 31:19, 30, 32, 35). When he arrived back in Canaan, Jacob buried all their foreign P&P gods (Gen. 35:2-4).
– About 1450BC when the Israelites left Egypt in the exodus, God told them to stop practicing the P&P religion of the Egyptians and gave them commands on how to follow the true monotheistic God.
– About 1500BC when the Israelites conquered and settled in Canaan, God warned them not to follow the P&P religion of the Canaanites and the surrounding nations.
– Between 1380BC and 1050BC the Israelites forsook the God that brought them out of Egypt and followed the P&P religion of the peoples around them (Jud. 2:10-13). They intermarried with these peoples and served their P&P gods (Jud. 3:5-6). Consequently, the Israelites were punished by God and brought back to serving the true monotheistic God by a series of judges.
– Between 930BC and 722BC Israel was divided into two kingdoms and the northern kingdom followed the P&P religion of the peoples around them. Prophets such as Elijah and Elisha warned them of the consequences of following these false religions. They were punished by God when they were conquered by the Assyrian Empire.
– Between 700BC and 586BC, the southern kingdom of Israel (Judah) often followed the P&P religion of the peoples around them. Prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah warned them of the consequences of following these false religions. They were punished by God when they were conquered by the Babylonian Empire.
– the 70-year exile in Babylon decimated the nation of Israel and seemed to cure those who returned to Judah from following P&P religions. But it took over 900 years for them to learn this lesson!
– In the 1st century AD, the New Testament apostles, such as Peter and Paul, preached against the P&P religion of the Roman Empire.
Note the similarities between Hinduism and the P&P religions mentioned in the Bible. Hindus have household P&P gods like Laban. Since 2000BC God has distinguished Himself from P&P religions. By reading the Bible we can see repeated warnings against P&P religions. These warnings were given over a period of more than 1,500 years. Why not check this for yourself by reading the Bible?
Paul said that P&P gods are not real gods (Acts 19:26). He knew that they “cannot see or hear or eat or smell” (Dt. 4:28; Dan. 5:23; Rev. 9:20). And that they are the work of Satan and his demons (2 Cor. 6:15-16; Rev. 9:20).
The clearest biblical arguments against pantheism are the numerous commands against idolatry. The Bible forbids the worship of idols, angels, celestial objects, and items in nature. If pantheism were true, it would not be wrong to worship such an object, because that object would, in fact, be divine. If pantheism were true, worshipping a rock or an animal would have just as much validity as worshipping God as an invisible and spiritual being. The Bible’s clear and consistent denunciation of idolatry is a conclusive argument against pantheism. So, Hinduism, which is based on pantheism, is a false religion.
Hinduism regards itself as an ancient religion. However, this is not a good attribute because such ancient P&P religions were soundly denounced many years ago by the Bible. In this sense, Hinduism is a retrograde religion. It’s like the religions that were denounced by the prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New Testament.
Some Hindus are zealous and devout, but salvation is dependent on the object of one’s zeal and devotion and not on the zeal itself. Their focus/object is Hindu teachings, which we have shown to be false. Like Judah in Jeremiah’s time, Hindus are “trusting in deceptive words that are worthless” (Jer. 7:8). In Judah’s case, the deceptive words spoken by the false prophets were that God wouldn’t destroy Jerusalem because He wouldn’t allow the Jewish temple to be destroyed. This superstitious belief was stated repetitively, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (Jer. 7:4), which reminds me of the repetitive nature of Hindu meditation. But repetition doesn’t increase the truthfulness of a statement! In Hinduisms case, the deceptive words come from Hindu teachings which are false. Because of false prophets, Judah followed “other gods” (Jer. 7:9) apart from the real God, while because of Hindu teachings, Hindus follow many “other gods”.
We have tested Hinduism against three tests from the Bible. It clearly failed two tests (about Jesus and the gospel) and the results of the third test are debatable. This means it’s a false teaching, which is the product of human imagination, and which isn’t consistent with the message of the Bible. So Hindus don’t worship the same God as Christians.
Written, August 2017
“We meditate on the transcendental glory of the Deity Supreme, who is inside the heart of the Earth, inside the life of the sky and inside the soul of the heaven”. This was the beginning of the US Senate’s morning prayer, on 12 July 2007. It was the first time the prayer had been made by a Hindu.
The main Indian religion is Hinduism, which includes concepts such as karma, reincarnation and nirvana. Hinduism is also the major religion in Nepal, Mauritius and Bali (in Indonesia). This post is one in a series on major religions. To minimize bias, the following content has been mainly drawn from Hindu websites.
The word “Hindu” is derived from the name of the Sindhu (Indus) River. Apparently, those who lived south of the river were known as Hindus. The Persians used the term Hindu in this way in the 6th century BC. Over time the term changed from denoting the people of a geographic area to a religious group. However, this explanation is debated by some scholars.
Hinduism has a broad range of beliefs, philosophies and traditions that are linked by shared concepts, rituals, cosmology, religious texts, a caste system and pilgrimage to sacred sites. And it is usually polytheistic. Everyone who is born in a Hindu family is considered a Hindu.
The most ancient Hindu scriptures are the four Vedas. These spiritual laws were compiled before ~800BC and are considered by Hindus to have divine origin. The word Veda means knowledge. The Vedas are books of mantras that have hidden meanings and symbolic significance. The philosophical conclusions of the Vedas are called the Upanishads. Most of these were written between 800BC and 400BC, with additions up to AD1400. And there are many other Hindu scriptural texts including the Ramayana, the Mahabharata (including the Bhagavad Gita), and the Puranas.
Hinduism developed gradually over about four thousand years. The origins and authors of its sacred texts are largely unknown.
About 2000BC there is evidence of ritual bathing, sacrifice, and goddess worship. It is thought that the Vedas were composed between 1500BC and 500BC. During this period, food was offered to various gods in a sacrificial fire. These gods occupied the earth, or the atmosphere. The ritual sacrifice was offered to receive the favor of the gods such as wealth, sons, protection, and abundant crops. Later Hindus renounced the material and social world, and focused instead on asceticism and meditation. They believed that the material world is not “real,” but only an illusion (not what it appears to be) that is created by ignorance (lack of knowledge). What is real is an abstract divine principle, Brahman. So they focused on how to free oneself from the bonds of material attachments, and attain a state of oneness with Brahman. Later the concepts of karma, reincarnation and moksha (release from reincarnation) arose.
Temple worship developed between 500BC and 500AD. During this period, the Vedic fire sacrifice tended to be replaced by the worship of images of deities in temples. Between 500AD and 1500AD, large temples were constructed to deities such as Vishnu, Shiva and Devi (goddesses). And key thinkers and teachers (gurus) formulated new theologies. Between 1500AD and 1757AD Islam affected northern India and devotion to a personal god (bhakti), meditation and yoga were prevalent.
From 1575AD to 1947AD India was part of the British Empire. During this period, India came under Western influence and nationalism arose. In 1947 India gained independence from Great Britain and was separated from the newly-created Muslim state of Pakistan. After this, immigration lead to Hindu impact elsewhere including Transcendental Meditation, the Hare Krishna movement, Yoga and New Age beliefs.
What are the basic beliefs that one must have to be considered a true Hindu? Although there is a wide range of beliefs, there are six major beliefs.
Six major beliefs
Some of the basic beliefs of Hinduism are summarized below.
Polytheism. Hindus have the freedom to choose their own personal god or goddess. They often believe that one supreme reality (Brahman) is manifested in many gods and goddesses. These can be spirits, trees, animals, rivers, mountains, natural things that are useful for a human being, and even planets. They have the largest pantheon of gods and goddesses who are believed to actively influence the world and to interact with humans. Most Hindus worship god in the form of an image (idol). The most fundamental of Hindu deities are the trinity of Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer). But many other gods such as Ganesha, Krishna, Rama, Hanuman, and goddesses like Lakshmi, Durga, Kali and Saraswati are worshipped.
Pantheism. The Upanishads describe a single, eternal, impersonal divine force that animates and permeates the entire cosmos—Brahman. “Everything is Brahman”. Brahman is the universe and everything in it. They claim that one’s relationships, or appearance, or even thoughts, are not real but illusions. They advocate an ascetic path. If one wishes to realize the ultimate (moksha), then one must detach oneself from these unreal things. One must go off and meditate on the reality of Brahman, which begins with meditation on the self (the atman), which is in essence the same as Brahman. So the Hindu divine being is throughout all existence.
Reincarnation (samsara). Another basic tenet of Hinduism is the belief in reincarnation. This is a continuing cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. It’s a cycle of perpetual rebirth and suffering from one lifetime to the next. Reincarnation is based on karma. In the short-term a good karma will lead to reincarnation in more fortunate circumstances, or in a higher caste. The soul reincarnates until all karmas have been resolved, and moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirth) is attained. According to Hinduism, this current life is merely one link in a chain of lives that extends far into the past and projects far into the future. Hindus also believe that the universe undergoes endless cycles of creation, preservation and dissolution.
Dharma. This is a set of rules for the “right way of living” (ethics). It is the duty of a Hindu to follow the path of righteousness. But acting virtuously does not mean precisely the same for everyone; different people have different obligations and duties according to their age, gender, and social position. Dharma is universal but it is also particular. Each person has their own dharma known as sva-dharma. What is correct for a woman might not be for a man or what is correct for an adult might not be for a child. Correct action in accordance with dharma is also understood as service to humanity and to God. To achieve good karma it is important to live life according to dharma, what is right. This involves doing what is right for the individual, the family, the class or caste and for the universe. Dharma is like a cosmic norm and if one goes against the norm it can result in bad karma. So, dharma affects the future according to the karma accumulated. Therefore, one’s dharmic path in the next life is the one necessary to bring to fruition all the results of past karma. Hinduism has sought to recognize principles and practices that would lead any individual to become a better human being and understand and live in harmony with dharma.
Kama. Hindus believe in karma, the law of cause and effect by which each person creates their own destiny by their thoughts, words and deeds. This is the belief that one’s current situation has been brought about by previous actions and decisions, and that future circumstances will be the natural outcome of the decisions and actions you make in this moment. What you have done determines what you are, and what you do now determines what you will be. One’s current situation and future outcome is the result of action and consequence. Our present condition in life is the consequence of the actions of our previous lives. The tally of a person’s life is their karma (action). This is the total of the good works or sacred practices which have been carried out. The merit gained through good works can reduce sufferings in the next life. In the short-term a good karma will lead to reincarnation in more fortunate circumstances, or in a higher caste. Eventually it may make possible the ideal, which is moksha (release from this earth and from the cycle of rebirth).
Moksha (freedom, liberation, salvation, nirvana). Liberation from the cycle of birth and death (reincarnation) is the ultimate goal of Hindu religious life. The ultimate purpose of any devout Hindu is to escape from the recurring pattern of existence. This involves the realization of one’s relationship with God (union with the Brahman), the achievement of mental peace and detachment from worldly concerns. This union can be achieved through True Knowledge (scholarly study), devotion to a god, meditation, or karma (right work).
Nine major practices
Hinduism embraces many practices and traditions. Some Hindu religious practices are summarized below.
Worship of images. This devotion consists of a range of ritual offerings and prayers before an image of a deity in temples and home shrines. Reverence toward sacred images is very important; they are treated as kings in their temples and honored guests in people’s homes. Worship of images, icons, and statues of the gods is a feature of both home and temple devotions. The deity is considered present in the image and is an honored guest. Worship has traditionally been done individually rather than in groups. The worshipper acknowledges that they are inferior to and dependent upon the divine. They offer what they think the god (or goddess) likes (such as flowers, water, fruit, special foods, grains, coconuts, oils or incense) and receive blessings and protection in return. If the offering is made in a temple, a portion of it is kept for use by the temple, and the rest is returned, now blessed by the deity. Offerings made in the household shrine are later divided among family members.
Hindus are theoretically obliged to perform five daily sacrifices. These are offerings to the gods, ancestors, animals, humans (by offering hospitality to members of one’s caste) and reciting the Vedic verses as worship to Brahman.
In Hinduism, there are many rituals that may be practiced at each stage of life, and in a variety of circumstances, both in routine practice at home and in formal celebrations. Devout Hindus perform daily rituals, such as worshiping at dawn after bathing. Vedic rituals and chanting of Vedic hymns are observed on special occasions, such as a Hindu wedding. Other major life-stage events, such as rituals after death, include the yajña (sacrifice) and chanting of Vedic mantras.
Ritual purification. Purity and its opposite, pollution, are vitally important for Hindus. Ritual purification, usually with water, is a typical feature of most religious observance. The bathing of the body in rivers considered holy such as the Ganges is valued highly. For example, during the Pitcher Festival, millions of Hindus plunge into the Ganges river to wash away their sins. Bathing in the Ganges even once is supposed to ensure salvation. Avoidance of the impure (such as taking animal life, eating flesh, associating with dead things, or body fluids) is another feature of Hindu ritual and is important for repressing pollution.
Ceremonies Hindus have many of ceremonies. There are family ceremonies, caste ceremonies. and village ceremonies. Many ceremonies incorporate fire. Hindus believe that fires are sacred.
Gurus. Guru is a Sanskrit term for someone who is a “teacher, guide, expert, or master” of certain knowledge or field. In Hinduism, a guru is a spiritual guide on the Hindu religion. Gurus are ancient and central figures in the traditions of Hinduism. They are an essential part of knowing god.
Yoga. Yoga is a system of physical and spiritual techniques for achieving balance and harmony within yourself, the environment, and with others. It is one of the paths to achieve union with Brahman. In the Vedic scriptures there are five major yogas:
– Bhakti yoga or yoga of love to God.
– Raja yoga or contemplation about God.
– Jñana yoga or yoga of wisdom and knowledge about God.
– Karma yoga or selfless service to God and humanity.
– Hatha yoga or prostrations and other postures to God.
Hatha yoga attempts to balance mind and body via physical postures and exercises (asanas), controlled breathing, and the calming of the mind through relaxation and meditation. Asanas teach poise, balance and strength and are practiced to improve the body’s physical health and clear the mind in preparation for meditation in the pursuit of enlightenment. The purpose of Hatha Yoga is to locate and activate the chakras (centers of energy), thereby raising the kundalini (dominant spiritual power). This in turn is believed to help remove blockages (disease) in the mind and body.
Meditation More philosophically-minded Hindus seek realization of the self through intense meditation. Types of meditation include:
– Mantra meditation, where a syllable or word, usually without any particular meaning, is repeated to focus the mind.
– Transcendental meditation is a mantra meditation that repeats Tantric names of Hindu deities.
– Yoga meditation, such as focusing the attention on the “spot between the eyebrows”, or focusing on particular sounds.
Mantras A mantra is sacred sound in the form of a syllable, word, prayer, phrase or hymn, (usually in Sanskrit) that is chanted, usually repetitively, as part of Hindu practice. It’s believed to have a special spiritual power. And it’s a kind of meditation. The earliest Hindu mantras are at least 3000 years old.
Mantras are sound symbols. What they symbolize and how they function depends on the context, and the mind of the person repeating them. The earliest mantras were used to cope with the uncertainties and dilemmas of daily life. Later they were used to cope with the human condition as a whole, such as to escape from the cycle of reincarnation, forgiveness for bad karma, and experiencing a spiritual connection with a god.
The simplest mantra is the word “Om”. While some mantras may invoke individual gods or principles, fundamental mantras, like the ‘Shanti Mantra’ (Om! Let the studies that we together undertake be effulgent; Let there be no animosity amongst us; Om! Peace, Peace, Peace), the ‘Gayatri Mantra’ (Let us meditate on that excellent glory of the divine Light. May he stimulate our understandings) and others all ultimately focus on the One reality (Brahman). Also, a very common mantra is formed by taking a deity’s name. For example, “Om I bow to Lord Shiva”.
The Hare Krishna mantra is well-known:
“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna
Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama
Rama, Rama, Hare, Hare”.
It means, “Glory to Krishna, Glory to Rama”. It’s dedicated to the glory of Krishna and Rama, who both are considered avatars (embodiments) of great god Vishnu in a human form. One of the best ways to perform bhakti-yoga is to chant this mantra. The benefits of chanting this mantra are said to include:
– Peace of mind
– Knowledge of the self
– Real happiness
– Liberation from karma
– Freedom from the cycle of reincarnation
– Love of God
Initiation into many Hindu sects involves the whispering of a secret mantra into the ear of the initiate by the guru (spiritual teacher). Transcendental meditation is a specific form of silent mantra meditation which involves the use of a mantra for 15–20 minutes twice per day while sitting with eyes closed.
Vegetarianism Hinduism does not require a vegetarian diet, but many Hindus avoid eating meat because of their belief that it minimizes hurting other life forms. Because Hinduism teaches that all of nature is divine (pantheism), Hindus believe that god manifests in the various forms that are found in nature, including animals, rivers, mountains and earth. Hindus are called to respect and honor the divine in all forms (so all life is considered to be sacred), and to follow the principle of ahimsa (to do no harm). Vegetarianism is a simple way to practice ahimsa through what they eat. The cow is the animal that is most revered (considered sacred) by Hindus. It’s a source of food, a symbol of life and may never be killed.
Reincarnation is one of the basic beliefs in Hinduism. Souls can move not only among different levels of human society, but also into other animals – hence the vegetarianism of many Hindus.
Bindi A bindi is an ornamental mark (often a red dot) between the eyebrows of Hindu women. It’s a religious symbol that identifies a person’s “third eye”, or what Hindus believe is the center of a person’s nervous system, the area in which a person can see spiritual truths. In meditation, this spot between the eyebrows is where one focuses their sight. The third-eye chakra is a center of energy, believed to be located between the eyebrows. A bindi placed at this position is said to retain and enhance this energy, strengthening one’s concentration.
India’s caste system splits up Hindus into different societal groups according to their work and birth. It’s a hierarchical social system. In this system, Hindus are divided up into four classes: the Brahmins (the priestly class – teachers and intellectuals); the Kshatriyas (the ruling, administrative and warrior class); the Vaishyas (the class of artisans, tradesmen, farmers and merchants); and the Shudras (manual workers). Some people fall outside this system, including tribal people and the Dalits (previously known as “untouchables”).
For centuries, caste dictated almost every aspect of Hindu religious and social life, with each group occupying a specific place in this complex hierarchy. It determined the type of occupations a person could pursue and the social interactions that they could have. The higher the person’s caste, the more the person was blessed with the benefits and luxuries of life. Although originally caste depended upon a person’s work, it soon became hereditary. Each person was born into an unalterable social status. The three key areas of life dominated by caste were marriage, meals and religious worship.
People who violated social norms could be punished by being made “untouchables.” This was not the lowest caste – they and their descendants were completely outside of the caste system. Untouchables were considered so impure that any contact with them would cause contamination and the person would have to bathe and wash their clothing immediately. Untouchables could not even eat in the same room as caste members. The untouchables did work that no-one else would do, like scavenging animal carcasses, leather-work, or killing rats and other pests. And they could not be cremated when they died.
Reincarnation is one of the basic beliefs in Hinduism. After each life, a soul is reborn into a new material form which depends upon the virtuousness of its previous behavior. Thus, a truly virtuous person from the Shudra caste could be rewarded with rebirth as a Brahmin in their next life. Within a life cycle, people had little social mobility. They had to strive for virtue during their present lives to attain a higher status the next time around.
After India attained independence in 1947, the country introduced laws to make discrimination against lower castes illegal and to improve their socioeconomic positions. In recent decades, with the spread of secular education and growing urbanization, the influence of caste has declined, especially in cities where different castes live side-by-side and inter-caste marriages are becoming more common. For example, in June 2017, Ram Nath Kovind (from the marginalized Dalit community) was elected India’s new president. However, despite laws that aim to create equality, the caste system in India continues to have a strong impact on society
This post has summarized aspects of the history, major beliefs, major practices and culture of the Hindu faith. These practices and culture impact everyday life in India, which is predicted to become the world’s most populous country in 2022.
Written, August 2017