HINDU RELIGION IS FLUID AND EVOLVING
The Hindu religion developed in India gradually over thousands of years. It doesn’t have any single person (like Jesus or Muhammad) or any single book (like the Bible or the Qur’an) to serve as a source of its doctrines.
Throughout the ancient world, it was common for the head of the family to offer animal sacrifices to please God. As Abraham (see Topic 12) was offering animal sacrifices in Arabia, Aryan priests were burning sacrifices on altars in India. As part of their sacrifice rituals, they chanted hymns referring to God by various names such as The Sun, The Heavenly One, The Storm, etc. Originally, the names merely represented different facets of a single Almighty God, but over the centuries the names of God became increasingly personified, and by bc 1000 the ‘Eastern’ religions had become polytheistic.
Then, as the next step, Hindus began saying that these gods are not different from things in the universe, but rather that God is everything, and everything is God.
Hindus are often syncretic (picking and choosing from many schools of religious thought to formulate uniquely personal beliefs and compromises). For example, the famous Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi, said that he was a Hindu, Christian, Muslim and Jew – all at the same time, despite the obvious contradictions. It’s the essence of Hinduism to believe that there are many different ways of looking at something, none of which will give the whole view, but each of which is entirely valid in its own right.
KEY HINDU BELIEF: MAN IS PART OF GOD
Atman = Brahman (the soul of man is God) is the famous Hindu equation. This is regarded as the succinct formulation of the profound and ultimate truth about man and the universe. Man is not outside, but part of Brahman. Hindus rebel against the Jewish, Christian and Muslim view that God is external to the world.
The Hindu scriptures, written between bc 1400 and ad 500, are so voluminous that no one can know and comprehend them all. They include vedas (books of wisdom), upanishads (speculative treatises), puranas (stories illustrating desirable virtues), and the Ramayana and Mahabharata (epic tales of India). They’re a mixture of prayers, hymns, poems, rituals, philosophy, social law, and stories involving Hindu gods and goddesses. Hindus believe they contain sacred religious truth.
The best known and most read Hindu book is the Bhagavad Gita, a poetic narrative added to the Mahabharata in the first century AD. It’s a dialogue between Sri Krishna (the great God-spirit Vishnu on his 8th visit to earth, in bodily form as a chariot driver) and the warrior Arjuna. Hindus apply the concepts Sri Krishna told Arjuna to their own situations, thoughts and actions today.
Hindus have many deities, and every person can choose the ones he wants to worship. Even though deities appear in separate forms, most Hindus believe they’re part of one universal spirit called Brahman, the eternal Trimutri (three-in-one) God consisting of Brahma (creator of the universe), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer). These three sub-deities have hundreds of their own sub-deities, which are regarded as different expressions of the same High God or Ultimate Reality. Gods and goddesses are represented by sculptured images, and most Hindus believe that the deities actually dwell in the idols. Hindus worship as individuals, not as congregations.
LIFE IS CYCLE OF BIRTHS, DEATHS AND REBIRTHS
Hindus believe that the soul never dies. When a person’s body dies, his soul is reborn into another body. Every action in this lifetime influences how his soul will be reborn in his next reincarnation.
If a person performs honorable deeds and lives a good life, his soul will be reborn into a higher state, as into the body of a person of noble standing. But if a person performs evil deeds, and leads a bad life, his soul will be reborn into a lower state, as into the body of a worm., and then he will have to work his way up again.
CHIEF AIM IS TO END REINCARNATIONS
To the Hindu way of thinking, whatever is IS – it’s ‘karma’ (fate) based on the actions of previous lifetimes, and there’s nothing we can do but to accept it and strive to live a little better for the next lifetime.
For a Hindu, the chief aim of existence is to be freed from the relentless cycle of births, deaths and rebirths. A person’s reincarnations will continue until he achieves spiritual perfection in one of three ways: (1) the way of works (carrying out prescribed ceremonies, duties and religious rites in order to add favorable karma to his credit), (2) the way of knowledge (concentrating with much discipline and meditation on the thought that he is part of the ultimate Brahman and not a separate entity), and (3) the way of devotion (loving and worshiping a deity, in public and in private, and extending this love to human relationships).
When this perfection occurs, in any of these three ways, his soul is freed from the chain of rebirths. He then enters a new level of existence, called ‘moksha,’ which is eternal, blissful, unconscious rest in Brahman.
‘NEW AGE’ IS MODERN HINDUISM
The ‘New Age movement’ is a popular modern version of Hindu thought. It’s an umbrella term which refers to a wide variety of ideas, practices and groups. It’s not an organized religion but a growing cultural trend in spiritual and social change which seeks to throw off traditional monotheism (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and secular humanism (rationalism, atheism, and skepticism) and usher in a New Age of self- realization.
In New Age thought, ‘God’ is everything. He’s not a personal being (see Topic 9). Instead, he’s an ‘it,’ like a principle, energy or force. We’re all (part of) God.
New Agers believe we’re moving into an exciting new era of spiritual discovery – called the Aquarian Age in astrology – which will be a quantum leap in evolutionary consciousness.
New Agers seek supernatural experience through yoga, martial arts, transcendental meditation, channeling (talking to spirits of the dead), extra sensory perception, telepathy, clairvoyance, remembrance of supposed past lives (reincarnation), psychic healing, out-of-body experiences, divination, and use of crystals. The result of these experiences, they say, is a feeling of oneness with everything, and the realization of one’s own divinity, sometimes called the ‘Higher Self.’ When we get to this high level of enlightenment, we’re no longer fettered by an external and objective reality, but rather we create our own reality.
There’s no standard, and thus no sin. Acts of wrongdoing are not done against any God but are done against ourselves as a result of our own ignorance.
Like traditional Hindus, New Agers believe that after death, the soul moves to a new body.
Bhagavad Gita 2:55-71:
(Sri Krishna speaking) They live in wisdom who see themselves in all and all in them, who have renounced every selfish desire and sense craving tormenting the heart.
Neither agitated by grief nor hankering after pleasure, they live free from lust and fear and anger. Established in meditation, they are truly wise. Fettered no more by selfish attachments, they are neither elated by good fortune nor depressed by bad...
Use all your power to free the sense from attachment and aversion alike, and live in the full wisdom of the Self. Such a sage awakes to light in the night of all creatures. That which the world calls day is the night of ignorance to the wise...
They are forever free who renounce all selfish desires and break away from the ego-cage of ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine’ to be united with the Lord. This is the supreme state.
Attain to this, and pass from death to immortality.