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An Ancient and Mature Religion

Hinduism: Week 1

An Ancient and Mature Religion
Wednesday, September 16, 2015

If you have ever traveled to India, you will realize that Hinduism is less a religion there and more a 5000-year-old culture, formed by such ancient sources as the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita and communicated in thousands of other ways. Hinduism is the product of millennia of deep self-observation, human history, a confluence of cultures, and innumerable people seeking the Divine and seeking themselves.

Hinduism is much more comfortable with pluriformity and multiplicity than are the three religions of “the book.” This is symbolized by thousands of gods and dozens of primary deities in Hindu literature and tradition. Christians have surely dismissed polytheism too quickly as “wrong” or with nothing to teach us. Claiming monotheism as their religion has allowed Western “believers” to worship ideologies like Communism, Capitalism, Jihadism, and Success/Consumerism without recognizing that they are indeed our real and operative “gods”—and like all gods they are always “above question.” We are de facto polytheists ourselves, while pretending to have “one God before us.”

On a related note, the best way to be captured by a heresy is to pretend to have condemned it. Christians condemned polytheism and verbally affirmed our strict monotheism, while fully allowing ourselves to be polytheistic in practice. We did the same with Gnosticism, pretending to dismiss it as a heresy in almost every century under a different name—while most of Christianity floated blissfully along “in its head,” which is the exact meaning of “Gnostic”!

In a recent webcast, Mirabai Starr shared that “Hinduism is actually quite monotheistic or better said monistic. The Upanishads assert that there is only one supreme, divine reality.” The ancient, diverse tradition led to the overwhelming consensus and conclusion that the Atman (True Self/Individual Consciousness) is the same as Brahman (God). This is summarized in the well-known Sanskrit phrase Tat Tvam Asi, loosely translated as “Thou art That.” This is the final extent and triumph of non-dual thinking (advaita): God and the soul are united as one.

Hinduism’s maturity—which allows it to refrain from argumentation—is shown in its respect for at least four basic personality types and four stages of life. This provides for much human variety and patience with individual growth and understanding, and it moves people toward both tolerance and compassion. The Hindu religion does not tend to be highly organized around one right belief or one right ritual or any uniform seminary training.

This of course can be seen as either its greatest strength or its greatest weakness. But I cannot deny that people wander in great numbers in and out of temples all day every day in India and Nepal, while many Christian churches have a hard time filling up even once each Sunday morning. You don’t need an elite priesthood for people to light candles, bow, sit in silence, offer flowers, chant, or pour oil over sacred stones. Hindu children just watch, and the reverence and respect is passed on to another generation; while we Christians argue in academies about theories of justification and who is worthy to go to communion—and that is what we too often pass on—not quiet worship of Mystery but noisy ideas about which we are certain.

Gateway to Silence:
Moving toward love and union

Image credit: Mariko Bhakti Hirakawa at Veerupaksha Temple, India; photo by Ramnath Bhat