Sometime in late September 1999, a senior Roman Catholic priest made remarks to the following effect in my presence in an informal setting (but on his “territory”): “I think it is high time that we all stop thinking of God in a primitive and pagan manner as a terrible and frightening Being ever ready to mete out fearsome punishment to sinners and begin to think of God in a more acceptable manner as One who is merciful, kind, benevolent, loving, compassionate and ever ready to forgive sinners when they repent sincerely”.
Since the season was that of Durga Puja and Kali Puja (the great annual Hindu festivals celebrating the Glory of the Mother Goddess in Her Form as Durga and thereafter in Her Form as Kali), his references and implications were obvious. He was referring, in an uncomplimentary manner, to those particular manifestations of the Almighty towards which we direct our minds during these festivals. He either did not realise or chose to remain silent on the point that apart from these two manifestations of the Supreme Being, there are others, too, of the aspect and demeanour well-depicted by his own description of a desirable and acceptable Supreme Being, such as Sarasvati, Lakshmi, Bhavani, Vaishnavi and more.
Why should there be so many “manifestations” of the same and one and only Supreme Being? This is a separate subject and will be addressed later in this article.
On another occasion soon after the priest’s remark, a Muslim colleague commented, “With the passage of time society progresses and becomes increasingly more refined. So a later religion is more scientific and incorporates the accumulated wisdom of greater human experience. Since Islam is later than both Hinduism and Christianity, it is more advanced than the latter two and hence more acceptable”.
At that time (1999) the reverend’s and my colleague’s comments prompted me to write a small article explaining why in spite of their arguments I am and continue to remain, and very happily so, a proud and thankful Hindu. An annual publication in Calcutta did me the honour of publishing it, and this article is based in part upon that article.
Of course, both Islam and Christianity look upon the presence of these religions (Islam and Christianity) in the ancient land of India as a philosophic conquest, a specially important conquest where they have, as they profess, been able to break an evil system full of countless social injustices and replace it with their own and better philosophies (as if the societies that have embraced Christianity and Islam are free from injustices!). It does not require much effort to see the inherent fallacies in this viewpoint. Neither Islam nor Christianity (nor for that matter the so-called “atheistic” Marxism which really is also a religion in itself, too!) has “replaced” Hinduism in India, which is still predominantly Hindu. True, there have been and continue to be a good deal of conversion into Christianity (and also Islam in some cases) in many places in India (among the backward classes of society which are lured into embracing these religions by inducements of material gain and psychological concerns like “belongingness” – an interesting area of inquiry but beyond the scope of the present article), but the fact remains that these conversions are confined to the poor and needy and not do not succeed with those who are able to survive with even a bare minimum of economic decency. This fact in itself speaks volumes, the more so when it is contrasted by the disillusionment with Christianity among large sections of the economically prosperous western world. How else does one account for the many mushrooming and thriving centres that propagate Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and similar philosophies (or the western perception of these philosophies – not quite the same thing as the philosophies as they really are!) in the materially advanced countries of the first world? It is worthy of note that unlike conversions to Christianity in India, where the converts are the poor and “downtrodden”, the converts to Hinduism (take converts to the ISKCON movement, for example) in the western world are mostly people who have converted on the strength of their convictions and not for the odd dollar thrown their way.
So what is the essential nature of that which we call “Hinduism”? A more descriptive name of this religion is “Sanatana Dharma”. Sanatana means “eternal” and Dharma means “the property of being”. For example, it is the property (or nature) of an electric bulb to give light; so we say that the Dharma of the electric bulb is to give light. What should be the property of an apple tree? It should be to bear apples. That is, its Dharma is to bear apples. And so on. In this sense, Hinduism is but a humanistic code of right behaviour (right property) for human beings. And, because these fundamental human values hold good across both time and space (they are true all the time and everywhere) the argument that Hinduism is archaic, irrelevant or less “scientific” than “newer” religions does not hold water.
The point is, “Hinduism” is a religion without a religion – a religionless religion. We Hindus merely believe in reincarnation and the law of karma on the one hand and a few basic human values on the other, and that is all. Any person who believes in these values is a Hindu, whether or not he practises its outward rituals. Thus a Hindu may or may not believe in the existence of a God: he is free to be agnostic if he likes. Our “Sankhya” philosophy is considered to be agnostic by many. A Hindu may or may not go to a temple to worship. In Christianity and Islam, going to the church/mosque is an important part of the religion. If a Christian does not go to mass or if a Muslim does not join in communal prayer in the mosque or do his required Namaz, he is frowned upon. But this is not the case in Hinduism. As a Hindu, I may go to the temple or I may not. I may pray at home, I may not. I may participate in community Pujas, I may not. I may meditate, I may not. These are not at all factors or acts that Hinduism enjoins under pain of punishment or some horrifying retribution. As long as I believe in some simple, basic principles and values, described below, I am a Hindu.
Similarly in the way I eat. I do not have to fast. I may be a vegetarian or a vegan, I may not be one. I may eat anything I like and still be a Hindu. After all, there are few things that humans eat that do not have life, at least before they are cooked. This includes everything from the plant world. There is a story in the Hindu Sriptures to the effect that when Bramha created the world, he did not create anything to eat. So all the living creatures went to Him and said. “O Lord, what shall we eat?” Bramha realised their difficulty and replied, “Let life eat life”. At an ISKCON midday discourse in their Soho Street temple in London, I once asked the speaker (an ISKCON initiate of African descent), “Prabhu, I am all for vegetarianism on account of a variety of reasons; however, please show me the exact authority in our Scriptures where it is categorically stated with cogent reason that we should be vegetarians only”. The learned speaker could not answer me straightaway and said, “Please meet me after this lecture and I will show you the citations you seek from the Scriptures”. But immediately after the lecture (about 10 minutes after his statement) when I edged my way forward towards him he appeared to take advantage of the crowd and in fact niftily escaped! The point is, vegetarianism, though highly laudable in its own place and worthy of acceptance as a philosophy and practice, is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition of Hinduism. It is merely what many Hindus choose to be, not because they are Hindus, but because they belong to those sects of Hinduism that embrace vegetarianism, on the principle “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” (“the world is indeed a family”). There are indeed non-vegetarian sects of Hinduism, too – the Shaakta sect, for example, is non-vegetarian.
And so again in the way I dress. I do not have to make any outward display in dress or appearance to be a Hindu. I do not have to abstain from the ordinary and reasonable pleasures of life, so long as I do not cause anyone trouble. As a Hindu, I am not bound to observe any particular religious practice. Whether I do or not is entirely my personal choice. I do not impose this on anyone else, nor desire to do so, however mildly or persuasively. I do not have to convert anyone to my way of thinking, either. This is unlike Christianity or Islam where the “missionary” programme of bringing as many others “into the fold” as possible by any means whatsoever is a very big and “righteous” agenda. In the olden days such conversions took place by violent means, today they take place through a variety of material and psychological allurements. But the intention and the effect are similar.
As a Hindu, I have to believe in and accept certain basic human values. If I can adopt and practise them, so much the better. These values are sometimes referred to as “Yama”: some scholars say there are five Yama, otheres say there are ten, yet others say there are eight. On a comparison of various views, the following emerge in consensus:–
1. Satyam – As a Hindu, I believe that I should speak the truth. Here, truth must be tempered with kindness and compassion when needed. If the truth causes harm, when it may sometimes do, it is better not to say it. For example, it is sometimes better not to reveal to a terminally ill patient the terminal nature of his illness. This depends upon a variety of circumstances including the personality of the patient. Individual circumstances, and no general rule, must decide which truth must be tempered in which manner. Our great Texts are full of many discussions, illustrations, stories, etc., on this very point. It is said, “Satyam Brooyat, Priam Brooyat”, i.e. the truth and the pleasant truth should be spoken.
2. Ahimsa – A Hindu believes in non-violence. This does not mean vegetarianism, for there does not appear to be any reason for destroying plant life if animal life is not to be sacrificed, too. One reason a vegetarian gives for not eating meat is that meat comes from violence – “Himsa”; then, if taking life is cruel, why does he eat at all? After all, even plants have life and also feel pain as well as pleasure. In India, cows are milked by first using their calves to begin the flow of milk from the udder. As soon as the first few drops of milk begin to emerge, the milkman forcibly drags the calf away and collects the milk to sell it to the “pure” vegetarian (for some reason, the vegetarian likes to refer to himself as “pure”!): Is such snatching away of from the mouth of an innocent and helpless creature, all for the pure vegetarian person’s selfish consumption, not Himsa?
No, the meaning of Ahimsa is not vegetarianism. Rather, Ahimsa means not doing violence beyond that bare minimum without which we ourselves cannot survive. As a Hindu, at least I do not cause untold suffering to an animal by slowly bleeding it to death in the name of religion. Muslims have been known to make very small incisions in the windpipes of large animals like camels and leave them to die a slow, hours-long and agonizing death.
Non-violence towards human beings is too well-known a concept to merit discussion in a small article such as this one.
3. Asteyam – This means not taking that which does not belong to one. “Stena” means “stealing” (notice the phonetic similarity between the two words – an example among many hundreds of similar sounding words across Sanskrit and many languages, indicating the widespread dissemination of Sanskrit culture all over rather than Sanskrit borrowing from other cultures. (And, for the benefit of the vocational critics who journey through life with the sole self-assigned goal of picking perceived holes in others’ arguments – and being vocal and vituperative about it rather than counter/educate with cogent debate – yes, I know about the common root of Sanskrit and Latin, the ancient Indo-European Language et al. I submit my statement does not contradict this theory of a common linguistic root). As a Hindu, I will not steal or appropriate for myself that which is not rightly mine. Greed and selfishness have no place in the scheme of things of a practising Hindu.
4. Daya – A Hindu has compassion and sympathy for all living creatures. Hinduism is a “religion” of love, kindness, mercy, selflessness and rendering assistance to the needy even at great cost to oneself.
5. Kshanti – This is an amalgam of related virtues – the combined virtues of patience, forgiveness and tolerance and withstanding suffering. As a Hindu, I am catholic of outlook, believing in a live and let live policy. I am not a fundamentalist or a bigot. Religious persecution is rarely found in the history of Hinduism. When Charvak propounded his anti-Vedic and materialist theories, no order (or the equivalent of the Muslim Fatwa) was passed by any religious head baying for his life. On the contrary, the merit of his scholarly approach to his theory was recognised (though the theory itself was not accepted) by the very people against whose ideology he wrote and they called him Maharshi Charvak. Such is the catholicity and tolerance of Hinduism. Simlarly in the case of Gautama the Buddha – although Buddhism is anti-Hindu, anti-Sanskrit and anti-Brahmin, Buddha has been recognised as accorded the place of the ninth Incarnation of the Supreme Godhead (Vishnu).
6. Arjavam – This refers to simplicity, straightforwardness and absence of deceit. A Hindu is one who believes in such openness and who is free from hypocrisy. Kayena Manasa Vacha (by body, mind and speech – this last includes deed), he is one and only one person. The Shantipaatha of the RgVeda begins thus: “May my speech (this includes deed) be established in (meaning be in conformity with) my mind and may my mind be established in my speech…”:–
“Aum Vaang Me Manasi Pratishthitaa Mano Me Vaachi Pratishthitam …”
— This was a prayer written about eight millennia ago, showing the refinement of the Hindu mind even at an age so ancient. Which other culture had such heights of thought as early in human history as then?
7. Madhuryam – A Hindu believes in possessing sweetness of disposition and a pleasing and pleasant personality. He is not rude or impolite and comes across as a balanced and likeable person.
8. Dama – This is self-control, i.e., the control of passions. A Hindu does not allow his baser impulses to the get the better of him. He does not surrender to the demands of his sense organs to perverse limits.
9. Dana – This means to give, to teach, to distribute, to share, to purify and to protect. A Hindu is ever ready with these attributes. He gives till it hurts.
10. Akalkata– This means being free of sin. In Hinduism, the word “sin” is not used in the same way as it is used in a religion like Christianity. In Hinduism, sin is not an action. It is the reaction to an action. The abovementioned nine values prevent a person from committing a bad deed (a “sin” in the Christian sense of the word). This value of Akalkata prevents one from reacting negatively to perceived evil. It does not mean being proactive in remedying the wrong. It merely means not being judgemental and condemning somebody without a full appreciation of the facts and circumstances. It means not adopting a superior, virtuous “holier-than-thou” mental attitude. In one of our Texts, a story is told of a righteous vegetarian Brahmin who would leave home every morning on his daily work. His rounds would take him along a certain narrow lane in which there was a butcher’s shop. As the Brahmin would pass the shop, he would say to himself, “My God, my God, what a sinner this butcher is. He kills many innocent animals every day”. When both died, the butcher went to heaven and the Brahmin went to hell. The butcher had not sinned (because he did not think about his actions) but the Brahmin had, by his reaction to the butcher’s actions.
Apart from these basic humanistic values, the Hindu believes in reincarnation and the law of karma. These two concepts are interlinked. The law of karma says that one reaps as one sows. Reincarnation is the principle of rebirth and there is no way other than acceptance of this principle of reincarnation by which all human phenomena can be rationally explained. Christians do not believe in reincarnation, rather, they believe in eternal life after death, either in heaven playing harps and hanging out with other harp playing angels or in hell, suffering eternal damnation of the most horrifying kinds. I cannot conceive how a kind, compassionate, loving, forgiving God who is all mercy can condemn one to eternal damnation in hell – for all times to come, without hope of redemption – on the basis of ill deeds committed in one and only one lifetime of say, fifty or sixty or seventy or eighty or even a hundred years. And what about those who die young, as children or maybe as six-month old infants? Do they get eternal hell or do they get to play the harp for ever in heaven? No, I cannot accept this logic. Our Hindu ideas of rebirth and the law of karma are far more reasonable. More, on account of the law of karma, Hinduism – and only Hinduism – reflects the principle of justice and the scientific process so completely accurately.
Such is the essence of Hinduism. It may now be pertinent revert to a question cited early in this article, viz., why have so many gods and goddesses or “manifestations” of the Almighty? Is Hinduism really monotheistic or is it essentially polytheistic?
The answer is: Hinduism is certainly monotheistic. The Hindu Texts say: the Supreme Being (“Brahman”) is formless, nameless and also without attributes of any kind. In the Texts, the Supreme Being is referred to as “It” or “That”. Because this is an abstract concept, it has been made easier to understand for those who cannot easily think in abstract terms by speaking of different manifestations of “It” or “That”. This has been done by deifying or personalising different forces as “manifestations” of the Almighty.
There is more. Hinduism is so catholic a religion that it actually gives the authority to everybody to create his or her own “manifestation” of the Formless and Nameless Almighty. If someone said he was happy to consider a piece of stone or a tree or a lump of clay or anything else to be his preferred form or manifestation of the Almighty, Hinduism permits it without calling it sacrilege or blasphemy. Every person is free to worship according to his own particular set of values, conditionings and beliefs. If I worship a piece of stone as the Almighty, I am actually worshipping the Almighty itself in the form in which I find it easy to comprehend the Incomprehensible, the Formless, the Nameless, the Attributeless, the Infinite. I believe in the Yama principles set out above, I believe in the law of Karma and rebirth and I use my finite mind-intellect equipment to fix itself on the Infinite by means of a symbol (or, if I can be comfortable with an abstract and undefined concept, I transcend the requirement for a symbol). Ergo, I am a Hindu. It is as easy as that.
A well-known Sanskrit excerpt from our Scriptures says:
“Ekaiva Shaktihi Parameshvarasya
Bhinnaa Chaturdhaa Viniyoga Kale
Bhoge Bhavaani Purushaseshu Vishnu
Kope cha Kaali Samarecha Durgaa”
[Rough transliteration: “The one and indeed one only Force of the Supreme Being manifests Itself in four ways according to circumstances: During peace and prosperity, It is Bhavani, in Its Male Form, It is Vishnu, in Anger It is Kaali and in War It is Durga”]
The festivals of Durga Puja and Kali Puja – alluded to at the start of this article – merely signify, inter alia, the victory of good over evil. Yes, Kali is fierce and Durga, the Mother Goddess, is victorious in war: we bow to the forces of good that the beasts and demons in us be destroyed. Surely the reverend father who attacked Kali and Durga would have known this (having been an Indian in India), but, after all, being a convert to Christianity, it is likely he would have been more staunch a Christian (in a bigoted sense) than one born of an old Christian lineage in another country…..
The Christians have a cross as a symbol. The Muslims (who swear by a Formless Being) have a crescent moon and star as a symbol. Muslims keep a picture of the Kabah in Mecca in front of them when they direct their minds towards the Absolute. Others have other symbols. Even “extreme” Christians like the Jehova’s Witnesses who profess to be against what they call “Churchianism” refer to the Infinite Power as “the Creator”. I have the Pranava and other things as symbols. What problem does the reverend priest or the Muslim colleague have with that? Why must they embark upon a crusade of converting people into Christianity or Islam? More, on what authority do they so embark?
As a Hindu, I recognise the Absolute everywhere and in everything. As one of our great Texts – the Chhandogya Upanishad – says: “Sarvam Khalvidam Bramha Tajjalan Iti Shanta Upaseeta”. This means as follows:
Sarvam = all; Khalu = indeed; Idam = this; [Khalvidam = Khalu + Idam] Bramha = the Absolute; Tat = That (meaning from and into That); Ja = is born; Lan = merges into; [Tajjalan = Tat + Ja + Lan] Iti = this (or such); Shanta = calmly; Upaseeta = contemplate.
[Transliteration: “All this (that we percieve through the ten senses* and the mind-intellect-memory-emotion equipment) is indeed the Absolute from Which all this is born and into Which all this merges; contemplate upon this (principle) with a calm mind”]
So Hinduism is a very humanistic religion. It permits the individual enormous liberties, within a few rational and humane boundaries. As a result, many schools of philosophy have blossomed within its benevolent fold. Hinduism is therefore essentially a convenient word or a convenient concept to denote diverse ways of life that are all good, noble, pure and morally and spiritually elevating. Yes, there have been corrupt and sinful practices by people calling themselves Hindus – practices that have been quickly and gleefully pounced upon by various Christian missionary sects to disparage the religion itself. If these evil practices (and admittedly there have been many through the course of Hinduism’s long, long history) are proofs that Hinduism itself is evil, cannot the same be said of Christianity or Islam, for there have been many equally corrupt and sinful practices perpetrated by people calling themselves Christians and Muslims?
The Christians may say: “These evil people are not actually Christians”. The Muslims may say: “These evil people are not actually Muslims”. Well, I too can say “These evil people are not actually Hindus”. The Christians can say “If all were to follow the Bible the world would be a happy and problem-free place”. The Muslims can say: “If all were to follow the Quran the world would be a happy and problem-free place”. Well, I too can say: “If all were to follow the Bhagvad Geeta (or one of several great Books from the Hindu Scriptures) the world would be a happy and problem-free place”. Is this something to quarrel about?
If those who seek to push, willy-nilly, their own Book would but study, with an open mind, that of the person whom they are trying to win over to their fold, and, thus understanding the greatness of that Book too, would but assist that person to follow his own Book rather than convert to the missionary’s belief system, the world would be a better place. Is it too much to ask the missionaries with the “altruistic” material handouts they so kindly dish out to those who will convert to their belief system to make the handout truly altruistic by assisting the recipient be a better person by properly understanding and following the recipient’s own religious tenets? Alas, I fear as things stand today, it perhaps is.
If I were a philanthropist with the resources to better the conditions of, say, a Christian in need, I would assist the Christian, saying to him, “Your own religion is a great one. Understand it properly and live by the Bible.” I would do more: having read and understood the Bible (as I have) I would help him understand the Bible. This mindset makes me a Hindu. I am glad and humbly grateful I am one.
– Acharya Dr. Chintamani Rath, Ph.D(Music)
(Original article was http://www.ragaculture.com/hinduism.html )