The precepts of Hinduism go back some 4 – 5,000 years. The name was not actually used until the 13th century, and only then by the invading Muslims, who wanted to distinguish between their faith and that of India.
There is no founding prophet as such and it can best be described as a way of living rather than that of thought. A former Indian president, Radhakrishnan, is reported to have said,
“Hinduism is more a culture than a creed.”
As such, Hinduism can embrace a wide variety of beliefs. It is always seeking to accept other beliefs and faiths, leaving no one outside. It often adapts other doctrines into its own interpretations and ‘mindset’.
“The main development of modern Hinduism took place in the period up to 1000 AD Hindus today practise a religion which mainly developed during the first thousand years of the common era. Its roots, however, reach back a further 2,500 years to the brilliant Indian civilisation that flourished in the Indus valley from about 2500 to 1700 BCE.” – The World Religions: Understanding the Living Faiths, Dr. Peter B. Clarke, p.130.
The history and development of Hinduism is often divided into four main time periods. Approximately,
3000 – 1500 BC – called the pre-Vedic period
1500 – 700 BC – called the Vedic period
700 – 200 BC – called the Upanishadic period
200 BC – 200 AD – is the fourth period where the beliefs of modern-day Hinduism were sharpened and defined.
Hinduism’s impact on the West really began in 1893, when Vivekananda addressed the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago.
“The cultural impact of Hinduism in the west in the modern era can be dated precisely to 1893, when the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago was attended by a Hindu ascetic named Vivekananda. He so impressed the gathering with his spirituality and view of Hinduism as a great universal faith that afterward there were many westerners who questioned the wisdom of continuing to send Christian missionaries to India.” – Ibid., p.125.
Vivekananda (1863-1902) had plans to study law in England until he came under the influence of Sri Ramakrishna and took his teachings to the world. Of Sri Ramakrishna we read,
“[He] came from a Brahmin family in Bengal. From an early age he experienced religious ecstasy and was particularly involved in the Kali cult. In his mystical trances he sought for communion with the ‘Divine Mother’ and, from the age of twenty, he was the chief priest of the Kali temple in his neighbourhood. Later, however, he came under the influence of Vedantic philosophy and so came to approach salvation by combining the paths of devotion and knowledge. He held that there was a universal truth in all religions and saw God present in a variety of manifestations-as the Divine Mother, as Sita, as Rama, as Krishna, as Muhammad and as Jesus Christ.” – Eerdmans’ Handbook to The World’s Religions, p.177.
Today, estimates vary as to how many Hindus there are in the world. Some would say there are only 400 million worldwide. Others, that there are 400 million in India alone, and worldwide probably nearer 700 million. Whichever is right the impact that Hinduism has had on the West has grown tremendously in the twentieth century.
This can be seen not just in the actual expression of Hinduism but also in the number of cult and new age groups that derive much of what they teach from Hinduistic belief. These include ISKCON (Hare Krishna), Transcendental Meditation, Osho (Rajneesh), many Yoga classes, Divine Light Mission, as well as a variety of other beliefs in the New Age Movement.
Definition of Key Words
The following are some of the key words used in Hinduism with their basic definition.
Avatar – An incarnation of the impersonal Hindu god in men.
Atman – The principle of life in an individual soul.
Aum – See Om.
Bhakti – Worship given to single deity. In many ways ‘grace’ because it offers a way to freedom without the harshness and severity of other ways.
Braham – The ultimate source of all being – it is origin, cause and basis. The absolute which almost defies a definition.
Dharma – Moral and religious code of conduct that brings liberation from the cycle of samsara.
Guru – A spiritual teacher.
Karma – Literally means ‘action.’ The law of ’cause and effect’ that determines our future progression and reincarnation.
Maya – ‘Illusion’, what we see is neither real nor unreal, everything is an illusion.
Moksha – Release from the cycle of samsara.
OM – Mystic syllable of affirmation used before prayer and at other times.
Reincarnation – Literally means, ‘to come again in the flesh’. At death the soul continues and passes to another body.
Rita – The power that gives the universe its order. This was later called Braham.
Samadhi – The state of super-consciousness that Yoga seeks to achieve.
Samsara – The flow from birth to death to rebirth.
Trimurti – The three deities of Hinduism, namely Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Upanishad – Literally means, ‘to sit at the feet of’. This describes the period that developed much of modern Hinduistic belief.
Yatra – The Hindu’s pilgrimage.
Yoga – Practice that can lead to samadhi. There are different ways to achieve this.
The Bible is not used as Scripture within Hinduism and there is not one book. The main scriptures of Hinduism are:
* Riga Verda – “Songs of Knowledge,” this is the oldest.
* Sama Verda – Mainly verses from the Riga rearranged for chanting.
* Yajur Verda – Instructions for those officiating at sacrifices.
* Atharva Verda – Magical formulae to help cure diseases and be victorious in war.
* Brahmanas – Supplemental explanations.
* Upanishads – Based on verdas but seeking to give a clear philosophy.
THE LAW CODES
THE GREAT EPICS
* Mahabharata and Ramayana – Epic stories that portray the complex nature of Hindu belief and culture.
The Mahabharanta contains the Bhagavad Gita which is probably the best loved of modern Hindu Scripture and is often referred to as ‘the bible of Hinduism.’ This was probably not written until the first century and has been made popular in the West, especially through the efforts of the Hare Krishna’s.
The understanding of God amongst Hindus is varied although most often it is an impersonal force.
“The vast majority of Hindus believe in God in some way or other, but there are some who do not . . . Some Hindus worship Shiva; others Vishnu or his incarnations(avatars), most notably Krishna or Rama; others again are worshippers of the goddesses . . . The individual Hindu may reverence one god, a few, or many, or none at all! He may also believe in one god and in several gods as manifestations of him. He may express the ultimate in personal or impersonal.” – Eerdmans’ Handbook to The World’s Religions, p.172.
Normally, although there are exceptions, their gods are not seen in human terms but rather in terms of nature or cosmic. All can be understood as expressions of Braham and so this gives no problem in there being limitless expressions because all are still from essence.
In the Vedic period the three main gods were:
Agn – the life-force, god of fire.
Indra – the shy god and god of war.
Varuna – the upholder of the cosmic order.
The three gods that came later all had a consort or wife.
Brahma – the creator and Sarasvati, his consort, the goddess of Knowledge.
Vishnu – the preserver and Lakshmi, his wife, the goddess of fortune and beauty.
Shiva – the destroyer and Kali, his consort, the great mother and symbol of judgement.
Vishnu is believed to draw near to man in ten avatars:
1. Matasya . . . . . . . . . . The fish.
2. Kurma . . . . . . . . . . . .The tortoise.
3. Varaha . . . . . . . . . . . The boar.
4. Nara-Simha . . . . . . . .The man-lion.
5. Vamana . . . . . . . . . . The dwarf.
6. Parusha-Rama . . . . . . Rama with an axe.
7. Rama-Chandra . . . . . .Noble hero of Ramayana.
8. Krishna . . . . . . . . . . .Who was also a god in his own right.
9. Buddha . . . . . . . . . . The enlightened one and founder of Buddhism.
10. Kalhi . . . . . . . . . . . . The tenth avatar yet to come.
With the three original gods of Hinduism these are some who have tried to draw parallels with the Christian Trinity, this however does not hold up to investigation.
“Comparisons have frequently been made between Hindu and Christian conceptions of God as a divine TRINITY. The Christian God, revealed as being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is often equated with Hindu doctrine of God as being Brahman, Vishnum and Siva[Shiva] (Creator, Preserver, Destroyer). But once again, this similarity is misleading. The mere fact that Christianity embraces the doctrine of God as being transcendent rules such a similarity point null and void. For Hinduism, because God is a neuter principle of reality, the triad of deities are but manifestations of that one reality. Christianity conceives of God as being one in essence and three in persons.” – Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions and the Occult, George A. Mather and Larry A. Nichols, p.177.
It follows of course that there is no place for Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit in Hinduism either.
There is no salvation in Hinduism as we would understand it in Christianity. The Hindu is aiming for moksh where they will find their release from the endless cycle of reincarnation.
“It contains ideas that we are completely at odds with Christianity, The traditional Christian view of these matters differs greatly from that of Hinduism. First, the distinction between good and evil is denied by the Hindu because material reality is illusory . . . Because all is Brahma (pantheism), sin becomes utter illusion. Karma is not sin in the sense of rebellion against God. Rather it is a designated part of one’s destiny. Although Hindu literature speaks frequently of the confessions of sins, responsibility toward God for such is denied. Salvation in Hinduism, therefore, is not the forgiveness of sins committed against God. Contrawise, salvation is a quest to end all earthly suffering, an escape from illusion, and the successful attainment of NIRVANA [the infinite].” – Ibid., p.120.
The main way of reaching this goal is through one of the four paths of yoga.
“It would involve yoga and the ascetic practices associated with it. It was thought that the control of breath would allow the self to escape from the body by closing the artery from the heart to the forehead-the path by which the self was understood to move to its home in the heart. The special knowledge is attained through meditation, accompanied by yogic discipline and the repetition of the mysterious mantra OM, which represented the ultimate in all its fullness.” – Eerdmans’ Handbook to The World’s Religions, pp.189/191.
As can be seen from the above, the worship of a Hindu is not to the Creator God of the Bible, but to what evangelical Christians regard as a false god. We of course are not against the individual Hindu but we can not worship with them, because even they define their God as being other than the true One of Scripture, who alone is to be worshipped. At times, this can lead to some difficult situations, especially at a multicultural school where visits are made to a local temple.
Worship may not just include idols but pilgrimages to certain ‘holy places’ too. Indeed these pilgrimages are very important to the worship of a Hindu. Making the journey to these holy places is regarded as an act of devotion and can lead to some religious merit. These Hindu pilgrimages are also regarded as a religious duty from which darsan (literally ‘seeing’ being in the presence of a deity which brings blessings) can be attained.
One website, which has a good explanation of these pilgrimages, explains it like this:
“There are thousands of pilgrimage sites – tirthas (sacred, fords or crossings) in India, where many places of pilgrimage are renowned for their divine images. And it is the darsan of these divine images that are sought , because the darsan is believed by Hindus to be far greater and significant than that which can be granted and given by holy men i.e. sadhus. It entails then, that holy places of pilgrimages are an extension of additional darsan, of which can be given and received by travelling on a pilgrimage.
“For example, pilgrims go to the sacred hill of Tirupati for the darsan of Sri Venkatesvara, an ancient icon believed to be a form of Visnu. According to legend, the Lord came to bless a particular devotee who was faithful in his duties towards his parents. The devotee took no time out from his duties to greet the Lord properly, and so threw a brick for him to stand on which impressed Krsna, and so Krsna has stood there ever since.
“It is important, however, to understand that Hindus do not only travel as pilgrims for the darsan of divine images but also seek the darsan of the pilgrimage places themselves, which are believed to be the natural places of where gods have dwelled. For instance, the river Ganga also known as the Ganges is said to have flowed in heaven before she agreed to come to earth.”
No matter how difficult the journey may be, Hindus feel that it is worth it, to stand in the presence of the deity. Indeed, they would not want to be ‘comfortable’ on these journeys, and accept hardship,s as making the pilgrimage even more worthwhile.
Apart from regular attendance at the temple their main festivals that we need to be aware of are:
Holi – A spring festival dedicated to Krishna. Originally a ceremony of fertility, it is now a joyful celebration of the beginning of spring.
Dasana – An autumn festival which consists of ten days of celebration in honour of Kali.
Diwali – Festival of lights-linked with the two female gods, Kali and Lakshmi.
With such differences in the basic beliefs we will always need to express love and consideration as we underline the differences between Hinduism and Christianity, highlighting, humbly, but firmly, why Christianity has a better message of hope.
Most Hindus will be working for their salvation by one means or another. Therefore sharing the finished work of salvation and the peace and rest that brings is very important. Seek to find out from them how they expect to ever win their own salvation and then show that you could never do it, but you found someone who could.
Sharing a loving testimony of what Christ has done for you, without putting their belief down in any way, is a good place to start. Many Hindus will have no concept of Jesus or at the very least a different view to us. Therefore concentrate on what has happened in your life rather than who Jesus is. Once established, what has happened must lead to the question, who did it?
Most Hindus will have no reality of forgiveness in their life and they will be striving towards a goal rather than knowing what has already been accomplished. The one major difference between Christianity and any other world religion is that Christianity is the only one to begin at the end. All others are seeking to work to salvation but Christians work out what we have already received. This is the message to share.
Their hope is in reincarnation and therefore a great way to witness is by comparing Reincarnation and Resurrection. See separate article.
Further help can be found here.