This morning I am going to attempt something impossible: an introduction to Hinduism. The task is made particularly impossible as in terms of scholarship I am profoundly inadequate to the task and am, frankly, in awe of the creature which we call 'Hinduism'. One day, I hope, the House of Every will have teachers deeply schooled in traditions outside the Greek and Judaeo-Christian, but for now I offer this introduction in a spirit of viewing, albeit in a daze and from a place of the most superficial understanding, this glorious ocean of narrative and meaning.
The first, Christian, introduction I ever had to Hinduism was limited to the observation that it was 'polytheistic' as contrary to 'monotheistic', and hence my imagination had it as a kind of paganism of the East. There are far more universalist ideas which are familiar to us all however, like reincarnation attached to the idea of karma, as well as many ideas less well-known but still very available, like ahimsa (peace) and dharma (truth). Millions in the West practice vegetarian diets inspired by Hinduism, practice asana yoga (what we often just call 'yoga'), various forms of meditation and other practices such as tantra. Millions also, especially since the 1960s, have travelled to India, followed various gurus or joined the Hare Krishna religion, one of the rare evangelical manifestations of Hinduism.
But even if we are familiar with all of this and have read along the way (say) the Mahabharata (which includes the famous Bhagavad Gita), the Upanishads and also a good smattering of the works of (say) Radhakrishnan and Mahatma Gandhi - that is, even if we are by Western terms reasonably educated - we haven't even begun to scratch the surface. For Hinduism, its literature and its practices, is an apparently endless expanse. In a way it is a system of comprehending belief rather than a religion. In a way, and from a philosophical brahman's point of view, we are all Hindu. Hinduism, from a particular point of view, is the House of Every already.
We think of Hinduism as vegetarian, and indeed about 20% of India is lactose vegetarian. We think of Hinduism as celebrating many gods, and using elaborate shrines and statues, and that's got a lot of truth in it too. But there are Hindus who sacrifice cows and others who avoid all idolatry. There are various 'Hindus' who worship entirely different pantheons of gods, and there are others who worship just one. The one God, the supreme deity, has a few names, depending on the tradition (Brahmin, Shiva, Vishnu are just the ones I know), but they are also mutually recognisable. There are also various pathways of atheism recognised as Hindu, though these are traditionally considered 'difficult' paths.
In Hindu philosophy the Western monotheisms are deftly packaged and comprehended. Yahweh is a Semitic version of Brahmin (or the like), and Moses, Elijah, Jesus and Mohammed are all avatars of the god. The brahman philosopher doesn't have to wonder much about this - it is very clear within his or her worldview. I am told that many Hindus were converted to Christianity early on as they recognised the stories of Jesus as being about a clear manifestation of Krishna. The alliterative similarity with 'Christ' can only have helped, but the parallels don't end there.
Indeed Hinduism splinters and some of the splinters have become something distinct from Hinduism. Some would say that the Hare Krishnas is not really Hinduism, due to its Westernisation and evangelism, but it is clearly a derivative. In a way Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism are all originally children of the Hindu mother. In the Indian Constitution the term 'Hinduism' means all of these religions.
There is, to the Western mind (well, to mine), a paradox in the way Hinduism is generally believed. Firstly it is the very embodiment of freedom of religion, constantly expressed in its sheer diversity, and this is a distinctive feature of Indian society. But the objective is to sincerely live by the religion one was brought up with and the sincere expectation upon others is that they will sincerely live by the religion they were brought up with. Not only is evangelism frowned upon, all 'conversion' in any direction is frowned upon. But whilst 'conversion' might not make sense to the Indian mind, a developmental pathway through different religious practices and even beliefs at different times of life does make sense, all within the same 'religion'.
There is a scene in the movie Gandhi which always stuck with me and now seems a good illustration of this very foreign (to my background anyway) aspect of Hinduism. A Hindu man comes to Gandhi overwhelmed with guilt that he has killed a Muslim man and orphaned his son. The penance Gandhi demands of the man is to bring his own child up as a Muslim. I remember as a youth (heavily influenced by Christianity) I found this unbelievable. I still think it would be an almost impossible penance for a Christian or a Jew (or a Muslim in the other direction), as to bring up a child according to another religion would be effectively condemning the child, according to deeply held theological prejudices. But now I can see that it would not be so impossible for a Hindu. It would be very difficult and challenging - a true path of penance - but it would not be theologically anethmatic.
It is important on a geopolitical level to note that this repugnance of 'conversion' is perhaps the major philosophical fault line between the Hindu world and the Islamic world. This feature of Hinduism has been greatly heightened by the conflict. In this regard we might note that the word 'Hindu' derives from the name of the Indus River, the ancient valley which is now Pakistan. One good reason to gain a little understanding of Hinduism is this very real conflict, which may remain one of the major fault lines in human empathy and understanding for a long time to come.
But there's other good reasons for us to open the door on Hinduism. It has often occurred to me how inadequate the Western religious canon is with regard to human psychology, physical health and sexuality. By contrast to Christianity anyway the Vedic (and Chinese for that matter) traditions place a far greater emphasis on these things, in meticulously developed knowledge-corpusses and practices to improve and enrich such everyday matters as our lives on earth. In Hinduism the heart of this difference seems to be an emphasis on the concept of self, atman, which is not just a singular abstraction like 'soul' but has an entire psychological and physiological anatomy that barely exists in Western monotheism. It is the vacuum of such ideas that has meant that Hindu practices (yoga, meditation, tantra, 'chakra balancing' etc) have exploded in the West much faster than Hindu theology.
Let's be clear that like all traditional religion Hinduism is laced with all sorts of supernatural beliefs and nonsense (to the modern) narratives. But cautiously, from my current understanding, the Hindu world has always been much closer to a view of such reality as metaphors, of worlds for the creative engagement with meaning, just as I suspect the pagan world was. Theatre, music and art, including the use of much colour and ornament, are important. According to Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, a former Indian President who wrote a lot attempting to introduce Indian thought to the West, "Hinduism is not just a faith. It is the union of reason and intuition that can not be defined but can only be experienced." That sounds very modern, but as far as I can see he was not misrepresenting the ancient spirit of the religion. Canon, absolutism and scriptural literalness just don't seem to have ever been strong forces in India. It may have once been a weakness, but I think it has become a great strength.
And let's also not leave criticism of Hinduism aside. The most common ones that arise are the traditional caste system, arranged marriage and, most disturbingly, bride burning, the practice (among specific traditions) of a woman dyeing on the pyre with her deceased husband (oddly the practice was not generally reciprocated by husbands). But when we approach these issues we quickly realise that the best criticisms of these things are coming from within India, and Hindu society is reforming rapidly. Thankfully, bride burning is a thing of the past. Gandhi is the best known critic of the caste system, but quite aside from modern pressures, there is strong argument derived from the Vedas that status is a matter of merit rather than birth (apparently). Today's Indian women too, like their Western counterparts, are increasing in their social freedom due to forces within their own society.
In all of this I hope no one thinks I'm trying to convert them to Hinduism. I am merely identifying, outside the Western tradition, a gold mine of material and practices for anyone interested in developing conscious religion (like myself). The other really massive gold mine is Chinese religion, which I will also get around to briefly reviewing. Once again, for us to really get any meat from these traditions it will take more familiar theologians than myself. But I am very conscious of my own cultural limitations, and feel the need to at least get a more universal feel to the scope of Every.
And there is geopolitics. It's certainly occurred to me that Western commentators on religion, including its most vocal critics, have treated the overarching dominance of the Judaeic religions as a given in history alongside the political and economic dominance of the West. The religionists seem pretty smug about it and the atheists barely seem to comprehend religion outside the West. Let's be clear: As China and India relentlessly elbow their way into the point position of civilisation's march the rise of Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism will follow. Everything, to be sure, is unperturbed.