Hinduism: a Question of Karma

As we have been thinking about the religious traditions of those among whom we live in light of the question once asked of Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-29, see entries below), we have encountered the question once asked by Jesus, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew16:13-15). As our conversations progressed, we added to these questions another asked of Jesus, by Pilate, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38a) and then one asked by Thomas, “How can we know the way?” (John 14:5b).

As we consider Hinduism, estimated to have 900 million adherents worldwide, we note that although the huge majority of Hindus live in India, there are approximately 1 million practicing Hindus living in the US and another 2 million living in Great Britain, with its strong historic ties to India. The origins of Hinduism are traced back to approximately 2500 BC to the people living in the Indus River valley (hence the name “Hindus”, from the name of the river) in the west of modern-day India. The term “Hinduism”, used to describe the religious tradition that originated among this people group is a relatively new label, stemming from 19th century usage. The term that practitioners used to describe their faith tradition is Sanatan Dharm:

• Sanatan – eternal
• Dharm – thoughts, actions, etc. that promote wholeness and realization of God

There is considerable diversity in Hinduism, and it would be an error to think of it as one monolithic faith group. Hinduism differs from the Abrahamic faith traditions in several key ways:

• No founding figure (c.f. Abraham, Jesus, Mohammad)
• No central creed or doctrine
• No central Scripture comparable to the Tanakh, Bible or Qur’an

The sacred writings of Hinduism are extensive and can be considered in two classes:

• Shruti – “Heard” (eternal truth)
• Smriti – “Remembered” (truth via tradition)

Central to the written tradition are the Vedas:

• Sanskrit for “knowledge”
• Oldest sacred texts of Hinduism
• Four main divisions
• Mantra and prose
• No “author”
• Shruti

The concept of God in Hinduism is captured in the ancient Sanskrit hymn [Rig Veda I.64.46], “Truth is one; the wise call it by many names”:

• One supreme being
• Manifest in many forms (gods)
• Central to the pantheon is the Trimurti (three forms, trinity):
Brahma (Creator)
Vishnu (Preserver)
Shiva (Destroyer)

The Trimurti is often represented as a figure with one body and three heads to capture the oneness and threenesss inherent in this conception of God.

Thus, Hindus may be described as:

• Monotheistic – One supreme being
• Henotheistic – Any one form of God can be worshipped without denying the existence of other forms

As Hindus conceive of many forms of God, the tradition includes the notion of praying to specific manifestations in certain situations, for example:

• To avoid obstacles – pray to Ganesha
• For wealth – pray to Lakshmi
• For learning – pray to Saraswathi

Hindus revere God’s “energy” (Shakti) through personification in a Goddess, “The Divine Mother”

The essence of Hinduism is captured in the concepts of Karma , Samsara and Moshka:

• Karma -“Cause-and-effect”
• Samsara – Immortal soul (atman) reincarnated upon death in a life/death cycle
Freedom from attachments: “Therefore, without attachment, perform always the work that has to be done. For man attains to the highest by doing work without attachment” [Bhagavad Gita II, 19]
• Moshka – The atman seeks union with the universal soul (paraman)

Dharma is the mode of conduct conducive to spiritual growth and is envisaged in three ways:

• Sanatana Dharma – eternal law (laws of nature)
• Samanya Dharma – duty, forgiveness, self-restraint, purity, etc.
• Vishesha Dharma – special duties within society

Hindu life is seen as a series of steps, or stages:

The four Ashramas:

• Brahmacharin – Student stage
• Grihastha – Householder stage
• Vanaprastha – Retiring / retreating from society
• Sannyasin – Holy man (no ties with society)

The sixteen Sanskaras (the rites of passage from the law books of Manu) celebrate the stages of Hindu life; e.g. conception … birth … ear piercing … marriage … death.

The Hindu commitment to the sanctity of life leads to Hindus being typically vegetarian, seeing the cow as sacred (also monkey and rat in some branches).

The caste system is under considerable revision – perhaps even elimination – in India. The histories castes are:

• Brahmins – the priests and intelligentsia
• Kshatriyas – the administrators and military
• Vaishyas – shop keepers, traders, farmers
• Sudras – labourers and service workers

In comparing Hinduism and Christianity, we see the following:

• Shared belief: One God
• Overlapping belief: One God manifested in Trinity
• Divergent beliefs:
God is “incarnate” in many forms or one form?
Salvation is by good works or by faith?
Reincarnation or one life on earth?
And …….

Being good neighbors calls for:

• Resisting stereotyping: Not all Indians are Hindus and not all Hindus are Indian

• Being culturally aware: The American Hindu Anti-Defamation Coalition has protested (i) a Chicago strip club that put Hindu deity masks on its dancers, (ii) retailers who put images of Hindu deities on underwear and the soles of shoes, (iii) Sanskrit chanting during an orgy scene in the 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut (this was cut from the movie).

We can be good neighbors by realizing that Navaratri, The Nine Divine Nights, begins shortly:

• Observed twice a year
• Invokes and celebrates the Divine Mother (Shakti)
• Begins this year on October 12th (many schools in India begin on this date)

We can reach out to our Hindu neighbors as they celebrate and show that we have taken the time and trouble to learn at least a little about who they are and what they believe.

Thanks for visiting!