Sunday, September 19, 2010


September 19, 2010 By Stephen Ellis

Continuing my columns on the world’s great religions, it is very important that we look at and try to understand the third largest religious following in the world, the Hindus. At the latest count, there are almost one billion Hindus in the world, most living in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Little is really understood about Hinduism in the Western World. Although this column is brief, it may offer some enlightenment to a predominantly Christian and Islamic Western World:

Hinduism differs from the religions of the rest of the world in that it does not have a single founder; an orthodox theological system; a single concept of God; a single Bible; a single system of rules or morality; a central authority. Hinduism does not believe that there have ever been any angels or prophets of God here on Earth. Actually, Hinduism is more like an all-encompassing way of life rather than going to a place of worship to pray to a single God.

Hinduism claims to be the oldest religion in the world dating back to 1,500 BC. Contra to this, the Western World recognizes the Torah and Judaism as going back to approximately 4,000 BC.

Most forms of Hinduism do recognize a single God, but believe that other Gods and Goddesses are manifestations or aspects of that one supreme God.

Until recently, Hinduism had been thought of as probably the world’s most tolerant religion. Its leaders, like Mahatma Gandhi, preached tolerance and love of all peoples. Gandhi organized a non-violent civil disobedience in India which, in 1947, resulted in abandonment of the British occupation and India becoming an independent State. However, the predominantly northern part of India was populated by a very violent Muslim population that severed itself from India and the Hindus by forming their own country, Pakistan. Small wars between India and Pakistan have been ongoing since both became independent States.

With an independent nation came politics: As the Hindus became more political, they became more intolerant of people whose beliefs were different: There have recently been numerous attacks by Hindus on Christian and Muslim religions and their churches, temples, etc.

One of the strongest aspects of Hinduism is as much social as it is religious: This is called the “caste system”. Hindus believe that there are four basic castes, or social classes. Each caste has its own rules and obligations for living. The elite caste is the Brahman, or priest caste. Second are the Kshatriyas, or warriors and rulers. Third are the Vaisyas, or merchants and farmers. Finally, the fourth caste is the Shudras, or laborers. Outside the caste system are the “untouchables”; the lowest of the lowest. Designation as an “untouchable” was outlawed in the 1940s, but it still exists today. A person does not get to decide or have the ability to change his or her caste – that matter is decided when one is born into a particular caste.

In summary, these are the basic beliefs of Hinduism:

1. That God is a three-in-one God known as “Brahman,” which is composed of: Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the Preserver), and Shiva (the Destroyer). The level of Godliness can be achieved by humans through the stage of Nirvana.

2. The Caste System.

3. Karma: The law that good begets good, and bad begets bad. Every action, thought, or decision one makes has consequences – good or bad – that will return to each person in the present life, or in one yet to come.

4. Reincarnation: Also known as “transmigration of souls,” or “samsara.” This is a journey on the “circle of life,” where each person experiences as series of physical births, deaths, and rebirths. With good karma, a person can be reborn into a higher caste, or even to godhood. Bad karma can relegate one to a lower caste, or even to life as an animal in their next life.

5. Nirvana: This is the goal of the Hindu. Nirvana is the release of the soul from the seemingly endless cycle of rebirths.

At the same time, Hinduism teaches that all living things are Brahma, or God. Enlightenment is attained by becoming tuned in to the Brahman within. Only then can one reach Nirvana.

Some aspects of Hinduism, like Karma and Reincarnation, do have significant support within the religions of the Western World like Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

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