Hinduism: 10 Questions in Understanding World's Third-Largest Religion (Part 2)

Read Part One by clicking here.


Hinduism is both difficult to understand and explain. These questions are slightly uncommon, meant to make you want to ask more questions, not fewer.

If it is difficult to understand Hinduism, it is also difficult to explain it to anyone. To attempt a “Hinduism for Dummies” type project is itself an idiotic enterprise. The following questions are slightly uncommon in phrasing, meant to make you feel like asking more questions and not fewer. The answers are not from a scholarly authority on the subject but just someone who has lived, experienced and studied the ethos of Hinduism first-hand – so dispute and contradict me as you please.

6. How does Hinduism react with other religions?

A: Not too badly, I must say. That is, if a religion does not mess with Hinduism. Hindus are not trained to believe that non-Hindus are going to hell, nor are they desirous of conquering the world for the Hindu religion. Hindu ideas about the afterlife, heaven and hell are based on karma and not faith in a specific savior, god or prophet. The doctrinal diversity of Hinduism has also forged a general tolerance for different beliefs and religions. You don't get your head chopped off if you convert to another religion, but there might be social ostracizing if you convert to, say, Islam.

Islam fares badly with Hinduism, because it teaches polytheism and idolatry as the worst of sins. While many Hindus and Muslims across India enjoyed several centuries of peaceful coexistence, invasions by Muslim armies have been traumatic experiences in Indian history that claimed many lives, devastated whole cities and specifically targeted Hindus. The invasions by Mahmud of Ghazni, Muhammad of Ghor, Timur, Babur and Nadir Shah were particularly traumatizing, for their memory is invoked in folklore and in modern religious disputes, where mosques were constructed over the holiest of Hindu shrines. Hindu subjects of Muslim-ruled kingdoms were forced to pay the jaziya tax and had to withstand pogroms launched on the whims of the Sultans.

In 1947, India was partitioned to create the Muslim state of Pakistan, and as a result, millions of Hindus and Sikhs were driven out of Pakistan - which technically was the land of the Indus River, where the first Vedas were written. The further victimization and cleansing of Hindu minorities in Muslim-dominated Pakistan and Bangladesh, and acts of terrorism against India by Pakistan-sponsored terrorist groups have fed growing Hindu anger against Muslims. The legacy of partition and rising Islamism means a constant question mark about the loyalties of India's Muslims in the minds of many Hindus.

In doctrine, Christianity is hostile to Hinduism due to its opposition of polytheism and idolatry, and the over-zealous efforts to convert Hindus. However, the only Christians who established an empire in India were the British, who actually helped established traditions of secular law. Catholic Portuguese rule was harsh upon Hindus, but limited to Goa and other small strips. India is home to more than 28 million Christians who, unlike Muslims, are largely liberal, well-educated, upwardly mobile and do not consider religious identity as in conflict with their nationality, and thus mix well with Hindus. The figure of Jesus is admired by many Hindus, and myths about Jesus having sojourned in India have many takers.

With Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs, there are doctrinal distinctions but as they are also Indian religions, there are no practical differences. Many Hindus revere the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak and worship at Sikh gurdwaras. Sikh gurus such as Tej Bahadur and Gobind Singh are worshiped and considered heroes of Hinduism for protecting Hindus from pogroms and persecution during the rule of the Muslim Mughal dynasty.  Sikhism was not considered a separate religion until the 19th century. Many Hindus consider Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, to be an incarnation (avatar) of Vishnu, and otherwise respect and worship him. Ahimsa (non-violence) is a doctrine common to Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. There are few, if any, cultural differences between these religions, and intermarriage and socializing is common.

With Zoroastrianism (Parsi-ism) and the Baha'i Faith that arrived from Iran, there have been no recorded clashes or disputes with Hindus, and both communities have assimilated well over the centuries. India is also one of the rare countries that have no history of antisemitism towards the Jewish tribes that settled – the only attacks on Indian Jews were perpetrated by Portuguese Catholics and recently by Islamist terrorist groups.

Syncretism is big in the Indian subcontinent. Most Hindus love Sai Baba, a mystic fakir who is believed to have been a Muslim by birth but a follower of the saint Kabir, and a true icon of Hindu-Muslim harmony. Throughout his life, he refused to identify either as a Muslim or Hindu and championed love and peace; millions of people from all religions make pilgrimage to the town of Shirdi to worship the saint. Hindus and Sikhs perform pilgrimages to the mausoleum of Haji Ali in Mumbai, with no concern over his Muslim identity. This rare fabric of faith without boundaries is being seriously endangered by the spread of Islamism, and the counter-reaction by Hindu extremist leaders.

7. Do Hindus do “holy war?”

A: Will you ever have to worry about “Hindu terrorism?” I'm 99% sure that you won't. There is no concept, teaching nor effort of trying to convert the rest of humanity to Hinduism. Hindus don't do “its my way or the hellfire-way.” Hindus who have settled across the world may remain tightly-knit as communities, but they don't try to win converts nor object to the practice of other faiths. In the history of Hinduism and the Indian subcontinent, there has been no verified Hindu effort to exterminate other religions. The survival of the ancient traditions of Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism may attest to that.

However, Hinduism within India has seen the rise of a political ideology that synthesizes religion and nationalism. Called Hindutva (Hindu-ness), its advocates demand that all Indians call themselves “Hindus” even if they wish to follow other religions, because a “Hindu” to them applies as a nationalist identity for all loyal inhabitants of India. At various stages, its advocates have demanded loyalty tests for Muslims, and demand that India be declared a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation). Ripping off a few tactics from the American Christian Right, they claim India's secularism is owed entirely to its Hindu ethos. In the past few decades, Hindu extremist groups have orchestrated riots against Muslims and attacked Christian missionaries. Their popularity has increased with the spread of Islamism and Islamist terrorism from Pakistan.

8. How does Hinduism regard homosexuality?

A: Not as a bad thing. Many Hindu scriptures and mythical tales have intergender, androgynous and homosexual characters cast in a positive light. Scripture, myth and temple art acknowledge sexual diversity.

That said, homophobia is prevalent across India. Taking pages out of the playbooks of the Christian Right, Hindu nationalists have tried to demonize gay and lesbian Indians, even though Hindu heritage is demonstrably more tolerant. The legal battle against a Victorian-era law, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalizing homosexual acts continues – with the irony of Hindu nationalists defending a Victorian Christian statute being lost on no one but themselves.

9. What do you think is the best part of Hinduism?

A: The endurance of a legitimate and long tradition of free-thought - “Hinduism,” or the religious and philosophical systems of India, include the Carvaka school of thought – which holds that there is no godhead, that the laws of nature are self-standing and do not require a governing deity, and that materialism and the pursuit of pleasure is nothing to be frowned upon, but is actually a legitimate source of happiness. Sounded to me a lot like Christopher Hitchens talking, except that this was said at least 3,000 years ago, before we ever learned about DNA or described the solar system.

While having its share of fanaticism and bigotry, Hinduism is not an absolutist faith like the Abrahamic religions. It's ethos has been shaped by a great diversity in philosophical and theistic schools, and a vast number of regional and cultural variations. Perhaps this explains a historic capacity for tolerance and accommodation, if not genuine intellectual freedom within Hindu society.

Booker Prize-winning author Sir Salman Rushdie explains how the Hindu treatise Natya Shastra champions the freedom of expression:

The literature and poetry are exceptional and brilliant – the Mahabharata is a deeply fascinating, thrilling, riveting work. You don't have to believe that Krishna is a “God” - in fact, Krishna as a philosopher and statesman, a sharp, witty and cunning strategist is a far more intriguing and compelling personality. The moral issues of the Ramayana reflect man's age-old struggle to live a moral life; I dispute many of its lessons, but to do so is to only make it a source of a deep and intriguing debate. I could go on, and on about the complex and fascinating tales that constitute Hindu mythology, but it should suffice to say I am very proud of this share of the heritage.

10. What do you think is the worst part of Hinduism?

A: Fatalism – not just the caste system by itself, for as despicable as that is, there is no society on earth that has been able to resist some form of social stratification, tribalization, racism or slavery.

No, its the fatalism that has emerged due to the doctrines of karma and rebirth. A person born to a low-caste or as an “untouchable” is trained to think that he or she is in this position and made to suffer greatly because of a crime he or she committed in a past life. Therefore, you must accept slavery and humiliation as a penance for a crime you never have a chance of knowing “you” ever committed. You can never do anything about your station in life – don't resist, or you will ensure divine retribution and even-lower birth!

This fatalism has prevented many generations of Indians from embracing and pursuing reform of any kind. Indeed, the first efforts to end “untouchability” did not begin until the British introduced modern education and science to India. The “higher birth” castes long believed they have a God-given right to treat the “lower birth” people as slaves, as part of a continuing punishment for those mythical sins. However, the worst part is that this fatalism has long seeped into the “untouchable” classes themselves – not only have many generations been divided in resistance or unwillingness to resist this cruelty, but they have often created sub-castes of “untouchables” amongst themselves.

This total helplessness before the settled, “divine” order has meant many generations of Indians have succumbed to a hysteria about superstition, ritualism, numerology and astrology as the only way to see what's coming and avert disasters. Priests have to be paid, worshiped and fed in order for them to perform the ceremonies necessary for your departed loved one to go to heaven and not end up in hell – many millions of poor Indians have been fleeced and emotionally tormented into paying priests who terrorized them with the idea that the fate of the soul of their family members were hell-bound.

That a grieving family can be emotionally terrorized and ruthlessly exploited in their most difficult hour of pain, and that this practice continues even amongst many liberal and educated Hindus, is something I have witnessed and would certainly describe as being evil - purely evil.

Hopefully at this point, you have more questions about Hinduism to pursue answers for. Hinduism is quintessentially Indian, but also the oldest of the religions that have survived and thrived beyond the evolution of monotheism. Understanding it is essential to any true understanding of human nature, and considering how central it is to the lives of more than 900 million people, to the advancement of liberty and progress in humankind.

Photo Credits: Natesh Ramasamy

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