10 Big Questions About Hinduism, Answered
With approximately 1 billion followers, Hinduism is the third-largest religion in the world. Hinduism was born in ancient India (modern day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) more than 5,000 years ago, and 90 percent of today’s Hindus still live in the Indian subcontinent. In the United States, Hindus make up 0.7 percent of the population (2 million), roughly the same as Buddhists and slightly fewer than Muslims.
Yet many Americans and other Westerners remain ignorant of even the most basic tenets and practices of Hinduism. Are Hindus polytheistic? Are they all vegetarians? Do they have their own holy scriptures and places of worship? Do they worship cows?
Here’s a chance to dispel some of the most pernicious myths about Hinduism, and to learn more about a rich and profound religious tradition that recognizes the divine nature of all creation and invites everyone, regardless of one’s religious background, to walk their own path of righteous living.
We’d like to thank Suhag Shukla, executive director and co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, for her generous help in answering our 10 big questions about Hinduism.
There are so many Hindu gods and goddesses — Vishnu, Shiva, Indra, Lakshmi and many more — that it may seem obvious that Hinduism is polytheistic. But that’s not really true.
Hinduism teaches that there is a single “Divine” that many Hindus call Brahman that is manifested in a multitude of forms, including gods and goddesses. Brahman itself is formless and unknowable, beyond words and human attributes like gender. It is the ultimate reality that exists beyond matter, thought, life and death.
Lucky for us humans, elements of Brahman are made knowable and accessible to us through various manifestations. One of those manifestations is the material world — everything in the universe from the largest galaxies to the smallest insect. In that sense, all of existence is imbued with the Divine.
Hindus also believe that Brahman manifests through gods and goddesses and their many “avatars” or divine earthly forms. Each of these powerful beings represents certain aspects of the Divine that become knowable by reading and retelling the stories of the gods and goddesses found in Hindu scriptures.
But just because Hindus believe in the existence of many gods doesn’t mean that they are polytheistic. Shukla says that the Western idea of polytheism better suits the Greek gods and goddesses, who each served their individual desires, not that of a unified Divine.
“Think of clay as an analogy for Brahman,” says Shukla. “Clay can take the form of a pot or of a dish, but the underlying reality of all of those different utensils is clay. Without clay, those forms can’t exist.”
The Hindu belief in one ultimate reality with diverse manifestations is better described as “monism” or “one-ness.” Different schools of Hinduism also qualify as pantheistic (“all existence is Divine”) or panentheistic (“all existence is within the Divine”).
There’s a Sanskrit hymn found in the Vedas, the most ancient Hindu holy text, that reads:
Truth is one, the wise call it by many names.
And just as Hindus believe that Truth is one, called by many names, so too is the Ultimate Reality called by many names.
So, to answer the question: Do Hindus believe in God or gods? The answer is Yes.
Hinduism is rich with ancient and sacred texts that serve a role in some ways similar to the Torah in Judaism, the Bible in Christianity, and the Quran in Islam.
While there is no central Hindu text that carries the singular authority of the Bible, each book in the Hindu canon contributes to deeper understanding and worship of the Divine.
For example, there are sacred Hindu texts that read like hymns of praise (the Samhitas) and others that tell stories of gods, goddesses and ancient wars (the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita). Other Hindu texts are focused on priestly matters of worship and ritual (the Brahmanas), while some dive deep into the mystical mysteries of ultimate reality (the Upanishads).
The holy texts of Hinduism began as oral traditions passed down for centuries before being written down and codified between 1200 B.C.E. and 200 C.E. The oldest texts are the Vedas, which serve as a foundational Hindu text from which most other holy works expand upon.
Hindus have a slightly different relationship with scriptures than other faiths, Shukla explains. Hinduism teaches that enlightenment is ultimately achieved through personal experience of great truths that come about through study, prayer and introspection (realization), not through faith alone (revelation). Another difference is that Hindus believe that the words of a living, enlightened teacher like a guru are as important and valid as words found in the holy texts. The most important thing is how you live those eternal truths and how they change you.
Both Hinduism and Buddhism (as well as Jainism and Sikhism) share a belief in karma and reincarnation. Hinduism teaches that when the Divine takes form, it is encapsulated as atman or the “soul.” This soul, which exists within every form of reality (not just humans and animals, but even nonliving things like rivers and rocks), is eternal and cannot be destroyed. Instead, when one form passes away — through death, decay or destruction — the soul moves on to inhabit a new form.
Reincarnation, or samsara, is the continuous process of death and rebirth in which the soul repeatedly takes on new forms and new experiences. However, the nature of samsara is suffering, so the ultimate goal of Hinduism is moksha, liberating the soul from the endless cycle of death and rebirth, and allowing it to return to the Divine.
Moksha can only be obtained when a soul inhabits a human form, so humans are considered the most spiritually evolved lifeforms.
The force that governs the transmigration of souls from one form to another is called karma. In its simplest form, karma is the law of cause and effect. Righteous and selfless thoughts, speech and actions have a positive effect on your soul, while lying, stealing, cheating and hurting others will have negative effects.
Dharma, which often translates as “duty” or “morality,” points to a way of righteous living that’s most conducive to spiritual growth and the accumulation of good karma. Part of righteous living is detachment, including detachment from the rewards or “fruits” of righteousness. Only when one works for the benefit of all beings without any expectation of, or attachment to reward will they achieve liberation.
We’ll talk more about this in the section on India’s caste system, but Shukla emphasizes that Hinduism does not teach that people who suffer in poverty or illness are being “punished” for evil actions in a past life. For starters, a poor person may suffer on a physical level, but may otherwise have a kind and giving disposition, while a rich person may enjoy physical comforts, but is plagued with meanness and jealousy.
“That’s a serious misunderstanding of this concept,” says Shukla. “Karma acts as a positive motivator and does not give permission to judge the suffering of others or absolve us from helping others. We have a duty to better the circumstances of family, society and our country.”
This belief is rooted in the understanding that all living creatures are manifestations of the Divine. Violence against any living being will therefore have a negative effect on one’s karma. Various Hindu scriptures teach that a meat-free diet is not required, but “meritorious” to the welfare of the soul.
Mahatma Gandhi was famously vegetarian, adding credence to the belief (outside of India, at least) that all Hindus were vegetarian. In reality, that’s never been the case. Even the gods and goddesses of Hindu scripture would occasionally feast on meat. For modern Hindus, the choice to eat vegetarian or not largely depends on regional food traditions. For example, large percentages of Hindus in the northern Indian states of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Punjab are vegetarian, while relatively few Hindus living in southern India keep a strictly vegetarian diet. A 2014 study out of India found that 71 percent of the population over 15 was not vegetarian.
Cows hold a special reverence among Hindus, but they are not “worshipped.” In the Vedas, the cow is associated with Aditi, who is the mother of the gods. Cows are revered because they’re seen as docile creatures who give to people more than they take from them. In India, cows are allowed to roam the streets and are given bits of food for good luck. Gandhi once wrote, “If someone were to ask me what the most important outward manifestation of Hinduism was, I would suggest that it was the idea of cow protection.”
In Hinduism, sacred images of the gods and goddesses are called murti and are a central part of home and temple worship. Because murti is sometimes translated as an “idol,” there’s a misconception (especially among Westerners) that Hindus are “idol worshippers,” one of the chief sins of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Shukla says that a better translation of murti is “embodiment.” Much like all of existence is believed to be an embodiment of the Divine, the image of a Hindu god or goddess is understood to be an embodiment of a certain aspect of the Divine. A murti of the goddess Saraswati embodies learning and wisdom, while a murti of the goddess Lakshmi embodies prosperity.
In a Hindu home, one or more murti are typically placed on a small altar and serve as visual tools for contemplating a particular attribute of the Divine. The murti is sanctified or made holy through a priestly blessing called prana prathista. Once sanctified, the image is incorporated into daily rituals (nitya) of prayer and meditation.
“There’s a specialness that comes with the form of a murti, because of the divine attributes that we’re seeking to honor through that form,” says Shukla, “and also through the ceremonies that are conducted in order to elevate that material form into something even more sacred.”
One of the most common home-based ceremonies is called puja, in which the murti serves as a focal point on which to train all the senses on the Divine. The sense of smell is stimulated by incense and fragrant flowers. The ears are awakened with the sound of traditional mantras and tingling bells. The eyes soak up the colors and contours of the murti and the light of candles. The sense of taste is satisfied by eating prasad, small treats offered by the god or goddess. And touch is engaged throughout the ceremony.
Again, it’s important to clarify that Hindus are not worshipping these “idols,” or even worshipping the god or goddess represented by the murti. Rather, they use the murti as a sacred tool for focusing their minds and spirits on righteous qualities that they wish to bring into their daily lives and interactions with others.
Unlike most Western religions, Hinduism doesn’t establish a set time or place for worship. It’s largely up to the individual. While many elements of Hindu worship are practiced at home, there is also community-based worship available at Hindu temples.
At home, most Hindu families will have a small altar adorned with a murti and maybe some photos of ancestors that have passed on. In addition to the puja ceremony we just described, there are other home-based rituals that involve purifying the murti by bathing the image and sprinkling it with crimson vermillion powder. Fruits and sweets are laid out on the altar to be blessed by the deity, and candles and incense are lit, often daily. According to different Hindu traditions, family members might chant hymns and mantras, or use prayer beads as part of home worship.
Hindu temples are called mandirs and are open to both Hindu and non-Hindu worshippers. Some Hindu temples are large, ornate buildings that look like their ancient counterparts in India, while others resemble community centers.
Temple worship is similar to home worship in that there are usually one or more murti that serve as the focal point for various ceremonies and rituals. The difference in the temple is that the rituals are mostly conducted by a Hindu priest and attended by members of the community. Like a church service, some rituals are scheduled to take place on specific days and times.
If you visit a temple, it’s helpful to know what’s expected. Visitors take off their shoes before entering in order to keep the temple clean. Leather products are discouraged out of respect for cows. Modesty is shown by avoiding shorts and sleeveless tops. Many people also bring gifts of fruit or flowers to the temple as offerings to the deities.
The word guru means “dispeller of darkness.” In Hinduism, a guru is an enlightened spiritual teacher who dispels the “darkness” of ignorance and guides his or her students on a path toward moksha.
In the Hindu tradition, the words and teachings of a guru are just as holy and sacred as the ancient Hindu texts. While Hindus are not required to have a guru, it’s considered advantageous to seek the help and direction of a wise teacher.
While there is no recognized Hindu authority that confers the title of guru, many gurus claim a sacred lineage. Often they were students of a well-known guru who was himself or herself the student of other famous gurus going back centuries. A guru is not only expected to be wise, but to have had his or her own direct experiences with the Divine that inform their teachings.
The students or disciples of a guru are called shishya, and the close relationship between a guru and his or her loyal followers has been central for transmitting Hindu truths and practices, especially when Hinduism was primarily an oral tradition. In the past, students lived with or near their guru so that their spiritual education could be individualized to their needs, but now many gurus take students remotely or publish their teachings in books and online.
Although students are expected to show devotion and respect to their guru, they don’t worship the teacher or follow him or her blindly. Gurus aren’t gods; they are still human beings with human frailties, and students are expected to use their judgment about inappropriate behavior or unethical teachings.
It’s also perfectly OK for Hindus to switch gurus for any reason, including if they feel that their spiritual needs have changed or would be better served by somebody else.
Yoga is one of the six schools of thought in Hinduism that originate from different interpretations of the Vedas, the most ancient of Hindu texts. But yoga as it’s traditionally understood and practiced in Hinduism is very different from what’s been popularized in the West. The original Hindu yoga wasn’t intended as an exercise regimen for increasing flexibility and strength, but as a path to enlightenment through focusing the mind and controlling the senses.
The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit for “union” and is broadly defined as any practice that helps an individual experience God. Yoga is not just a set of physical postures and breathing exercises, but includes moral values, ethical practices, focused awareness, scriptural study and worship of the Divine.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna describes four kinds of yoga, each representing separate but interdependent paths to achieving moksha:
With the help of a guru, individuals can learn what type of yoga is best for their personal spiritual growth, though the different types of yoga are not mutually exclusive. Of the four mentioned by Krishna, raja yoga is closest to what Westerners would recognize as yoga. The Bhagavad Gita describes it like this:
In the West, yoga has mostly been reduced to a series of poses known as asanas. And while those poses absolutely have their physical benefits, including lowering stress levels and blood pressure, the practice of yoga is less about strengthening the body than strengthening the mind and changing our very being. “While practicing asana for improved health is perfectly acceptable, it is not the goal or purpose of yoga,” says the Hindu American Foundation website.
“Yoga in its broadest sense is a spiritual path and practice with the ultimate goal of allowing us to calm our minds, control our senses, and go inward to recognize our divine nature and how that divine nature is shared across all of existence,” says Shukla. “Which then would, in turn, create a shift in our behavior toward others. A shift toward being more compassionate, loving and kind toward everyone and everything.”
There are festive and important Hindu holidays year-round, although some are primarily celebrated in specific geographic regions of India or by devotees to a certain god or goddess. Hindu holidays follow the lunar calendar, so they can fall on different days and even months every year in the West.
First, there are a host of deity-specific celebrations that could include visits to temples dedicated to the specific god or goddess, the singing of special devotional prayers, dancing, all-night vigils and more. A few of these major celebrations are:
Holi is a colorful and widely observed seasonal holiday. Celebrated throughout India by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddists, Holi is a joyous spring festival (February/March) that’s celebrated by tossing colored dyes into the air and feasting late into the night in an atmosphere of unity and peace.
Perhaps the most popular holiday throughout India and the Hindu diaspora is Diwali or Deepawali, the Hindu festival of lights. During the multiday winter holiday, families light traditional clay lamps (or hang cheerful holiday lights) to commemorate the triumph of good over evil. They also gather in the homes of friends to share Diwali treats.
There is no scriptural or spiritual basis in Hinduism for the discriminatory and oppressive caste system that developed in India, including the labeling of the very lowest social class as “untouchables.”
India’s birth-based caste system, later codified by the British during imperial rule, was partially the result of an unfortunate distortion of the Hindu concept of varna or personality types. The Vedas taught that individuals generally fall into four different personality types, each essential for a well-functioning society:
In the Vedas, none of these personality types was “lower” or less important than the rest, but over time, the personality types got lumped together with an occupation-based social system called jati.
Jati are similar to medieval European trade guilds, where people with the same profession established their own rules and communities. In India, those rules included specific religious practices and rituals. Eventually, membership in a particular jati became a birthright passed on from one generation to the next. Every religious community in India has their own jati groups and affiliations.
Over time, many Hindus mistakenly concluded that being born into the laboring classes was a reflection of the state of one’s soul — bad karma meant that you were stuck with a torturous existence. When the British arrived in India, they noted a group of people whose position in society was so low that they fell outside of both varna and jati. The British called them the “untouchables.”
Discrimination on the basis of caste or class was officially outlawed in 1948 with Indian independence, but like racial bias in America it remains engrained for some Indians, regardless of religion. It’s important to re-emphasize, however, that the caste system was never rooted in Hindu teachings. In fact, the Vedas teach exactly the opposite, as expressed by this ancient hymn:
“No one is superior, none inferior. All are brothers marching forward to prosperity.”
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10 Big Questions About Hinduism, Answered
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