Like many Hindus I often find myself at a loss when called upon to explain to others what Hinduism is. I find this problem of Hindu identity to be particularly acute among Indians living in the west, and other “Westernized’ Hindus. What is Hinduism? Is it the observance of festivals like Diwali and rituals like the daily Sandhya-Vandana? Is it reverence for the Vedas as the word of God, belief in the message of the Bhagavadgita, or is it universal tolerance? And this word tolerance – does it include unlimited tolerance of evil? Is it total pacifism, a belief that nothing is worth defending or worth fighting for? Is it some or all of these?
When faced with these questions I find that the major difficulty that a modern Hindu faces in defining Hinduism to others stems from his difficulty in defining it to himself. This is especially the case with the ‘educated Hindu’ who has unconsciously acquired the habit of looking at himself and his civilization through Christian eyes. As a result, his reaction is invariably defensive and he mumbles something like ‘essential truth in all religions’ or Sarva Dharma Samatvaor some such equally meaningless platitude.
But this habit – of measuring something with alien values – is a very serious limitation if anyone wants to understand what Hinduism is really about. I am speaking here not of the historic hostility of the missionary to Hinduism which has always tried to show it in the worst light possible. The problem runs deeper, the vision and vocabulary of a revealed religion like Christianity or Islam are fundamentally unsuited to describing Hinduism, for Hinduism is an evolved and not a revealed religion. It is also pluralistic, while Christianity and Islam are exclusivist – for they acknowledge no beliefs other than their own as legitimate
The problem that I see in this is not just lack of sympathy:
It is the severe limitation of the concept of religion as the revelations of a book or a prophet found in creeds like Christianity and Islam. Trying to understand Hinduism in terms of a revealed belief system or creed is like trying to understand Quantum Mechanics through Newton’s Laws of Motion. It just cannot be done. One must try to understand Hinduism on its own terms, and not in terms of the internal and external features borrowed from other (exclusivist) creeds. In this article, that is what I shall try to do in as simple a fashion as possible.
But first I would like to make it clear that I approach this task as a student of science and not as a theologian or true believer. Though born into a Hindu family, I am not by any means a devout Hindu. Most people do not consider me a practicing Hindu at all. My interest in Hinduism stems from my work in the history and philosophy of science. Recent research has shown that mathematics, especially geometry, has origins in some Vedic practices that go back to before 3000 B C.
I also discovered that the concept of mathematical proof can be traced to some Yogic principles described in a famous work known as the Yogasutra written by the legendary Patanjali. This greatly intrigued me: the most rational of the rational sciences has religious and mystical roots! It will no doubt come as a surprise to many readers to learn that ‘rational thinking’ something we all prize so highly, has mystical roots. Both Patanjali and the Greek Pythagoras were mystics, and yet they laid the foundation for the rational processes on which our own civilization depends. This is what made me look deeper into the religious thoughts of the Hindus and the ancient Greeks. And what I have to say here about Hinduism is the result of that search. I will try to make it as simple as possible, in terms of seven basic features as I found them in my research into history and philosophy of science.
Hinduism Has No Historical Beginning
The Rigveda, the oldest of the Hindu scriptures is stated to be eternal and that it always existed. Speaking as a scientist I find that claim hard to accept. There must have been a time in the history of the world when what is contained in the Rigveda did not exist. But there is no period in time which we can definitely point to and say: “That is when the Rigveda began to be composed.” In the 19th century, European scholars and Indologists like Max Muller tried to fix 1200 BC as the date of composition of the Vedas. But this was tied to their own Biblical belief according to which the world was created at 9:00 AM on 23 October 4004 BC and the Biblical Flood took place in 2448 BC. This was just superstition, but history books continue to use the date 1200 BC for the Vedas though science has discredited it.
The Truth however is quite different: Vedic civilization in India can be traced at least to 7000 BC in archeological remains. The last ice Age ended more than 10,000years ago, and we cannot even say if the Rigveda is pre or post Ice Age. There are places in the Rigveda where we find descriptions that seem like eyewitness accounts of the cracking of ice caps. The famous Vedic legend of the solar God Indra killing Vritra or ‘the coverer’ refers probably to this phenomenon. The main point is: unlike Christianity and Islam which are historical religions, we cannot find a specific date or even a century or millennium when Hinduism began.
More fundamentally, unlike Christianity and Islam which are historical religions, we cannot trace the founding of Hinduism to a historical person or a historical era. Christianity cannot exist without Christ, nor Islam without Muhammad, but no such historical person exists in Hinduism about whom one can say: ‘Without him, Hinduism cannot exist.’
In other words, Christianity and Islam are Paurusheya religions, while Hinduism is apaurusheya. Christianity is the religion founded by a purusha called Jesus Christ, while Muhammad is the purusha of Islam. There is no such purusha of Hinduism. (Paurusheya is a derivative of purusha – Sanskrit for man).
Hinduism is Not a Revealed Religion. It has no Single Authority or Book.
Even the Vedas are not the ultimate authority in Hinduism. The word Veda is derived from the root ‘vid’ – meaning to know – and Veda simply means knowledge that was discerned by the Vedic seers. It is not a theology or a belief system that everyone is required to acknowledge. The Vedas are simply an accumulated body of knowledge. A Hindu is free to question any or all of the scriptures. He does not cease being a Hindu for denying the authority of scriptures. Even the Bhagavadgita questions the authority of the Vedas. The Hindu scripture is meant only to be a guide. One is free to follow one’s own interpretation. Appeals to authority cannot be used to suppress dissent.
In brief, in Christianity and Islam, scriptures is the book of authority, while Hindu scriptures are guidebooks from which one is free to choose a particular path.
Hinduism Recognizes No Prophet as Having Exclusive Claim over Spritual Truth.
This is undoubtedly the greatest difference between Hinduism and revealed religions. A Hindu who believes in the existence of God (or Gods) can follow one’s own path. One is not required to acknowledge an intermediary as a prophet or as the chosen agent of God. In a revealed religion, one can know God only through the divinely chosen agent or intermediary. One who denies the authority of this special intermediary is called a non-believer. This means: in a revealed religion, a believer in God has to believe also in the intermediary. One is not free to believe in God and deny the agent as intermediary. One who does so is still called a non-believer even if one is a believer in God. As a result, in a revealed religion, belief in the divinely chosen intermediary becomes no less important than belief in God. In reality, the intermediary invariably becomes more important than God; God is dispensable, but not the intermediary.
The agents of this divinely chosen agent are called the ‘clergy’, and they enforce the diktats of the divinely chosen one with often quite considerable severity. Hinduism recognizes no such intermediary. Every man, woman and child has the same direct access to God through his or her own efforts. Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita says: “All creatures great and small – I am equal to all, I hate none, nor have I any favorites.” All are therefore equal in the eyes of God. And this rules out the claim of any privileged or chosen agent of God. The scriptures are there only to assist in these efforts or paths that are often called Yoga.
Hindu God is a Personal God, Internal to the Seeker.
A great deal of discussion centers around whether God is one or many, with some making much of the ‘fact’ of superiority of monotheism. This has tended to make western educated Hindus at times defensive about their religion which in turn makes them claim that Hinduism is also at bottom monotheistic like Christianity and Islam. This shows a serious misunderstanding of the nature of God as expressed by Hindu sages – for God in Hinduism is not something to be counted like pebbles. According to the famous Isha Upanishad, god is everywhere: “The whole universe is the abode of God, every nook and every living thing.”
Hindu God is not an external God who reveals himself only to a chosen prophet to be then imposed as the ultimate authority on others. God is something that anyone can know through one’s own effort and seeking. Remember Krishna’s words: “All creatures great and small – I am equal to all; I hate none, nor have I any favorites.” The different yogas are pathways that can lead one to knowledge of God. This is very similar to ancient Greek mysticism as practiced by sages like Pythagoras. There is no dogma that an external agent enforces upon everyone in the name of One God. Thus, the Hindu God like the Greek God is a personal God – as diverse as the individual. The multiplicity of Gods one sees in Hindu and Greek pantheons is a reflection of the multiplicity of pathways explored by sages. It is a natural consequence of the spiritual freedom that is the right of every Hindu.
The so-called monotheistic creeds that are enforced by intermediaries in the name of one God do not permit this spiritual freedom. Believers have to believe in what they are told to believe –they are not given a choice. It is for this reason that theocracies always claim to be monotheistic, invoking their One God in whose name His representatives enforce authority. This may be called ‘authoritative monotheism’ as opposed to monotheism of choice in which one is free to believe in One God or many Gods. Hinduism gives this freedom of choice and conscience.
Hinduism Does Not Recognize Claims of Exclusivity or a Clergy
Anyone who claims to be the exclusive possessor of spiritual truth or the only ‘method’ of reaching God finds no place in Hinduism; a method or a message can only be one among many. Exclusivity divides the world into believers and non-believers which Hinduism does not. Krishna speaking as God in the Bhagavad Gita says: “All paths lead to me,” and also “those who worship other Gods with devotion worship me.” This leaves no room for anyone claiming to be the only true guide to God, claiming to be in possession of the only path. As a result, Hinduism has no clergy to monitor and enforce the belief among believers.
Hinduism Does Not Force Itself on Others Through Proselytization
Since the main emphasis in Hinduism is the realization of the divine through personal effort and experience, Hindus have never sought to convert others through force or persuasion. Religions like Christianity and Islam seek external growth through expansion; this has inevitably meant suppression of the individual. Hinduism on the other hand seeks growth internally through the individual.
Hinduism is a method – an approach to the fundamental questions about creation and existence that respects different pathways. This in a way is like scientific thinking, not something that can be forced upon others by fire and sword. For this reason, Hindus have never found it necessary to send missionaries backed by guns and gold to convert others. Those who wish to join the Hindu fold must seek it – through study and with the help of teachers.
There is now substantial interest in the world in Hinduism and its offshoot of Buddhism. But there are no central authorities like the Pope with his vast army of clergy running a multinational business empire in the name of one God. Hindu missions in the west are essentially volunteer organizations. Anyone visiting them can see the difference between a sermon and the serene atmosphere and the free discourse found in these Hindu missions. The priest or the Sadhu claims to possess no divine authority sanctioned by God or His agent. He is simply a repository of learning and experience. And for this reason, many in the west that Hinduism has attracted have been men and women of the highest intellectual accomplishments including scientists’ highest intellectual accomplishments including scientists and artists. They are attracted by the rationalism of Hinduism – which is a method and not a creed; it seeks to impose no dogma and carries no authority.
The only ‘Dogma’ of Hinduism is Freedom of Choice and of Conscience.
Hindu religious literature, in its pristine form is concerned mainly with the knowledge and method necessary to learn the truth about God. This can take the form of Vedantic philosophy like the Upanishads, practical techniques like Yoga, or examples of great lives to be emulated like what are found in the epics and the Puranas. It is completely wrong to compare these works with the scriptures of revealed religions which lay down the beliefs required of true believers that are then enforced by the clergy. The Reformation in Europe was essentially a revolt against this exclusivist authority.
Hindu scriptures on the other hand are simply guides for each individual to follow according to the dictates of his or her consciences, capacity and will. The great Bhagavad-Gita is a summary of different pathways, particularly as found in the Upanishads.
If there is one belief above all others that defines Hinduism it is pluralism: there is no one chosen path and no one chosen people. As a result, there is no division of the world into mutually exclusive camps of believers and nonbelievers. All paths of spiritual exploration are equally valid, and there is no such thing as heresy. This is what makes Hinduism pluralistic.
At the same time, pluralistic tolerance does not mean tolerance of evil. Defense of this freedom of thought and of conscience is the duty of every Hindu. Tyranny is not a fundamental right. Anyone who in the name of ‘essential’ unity of all religions’ claims that it is the same as in every other religion is either deluded or dishonest. It is a very great fallacy to claim that all religions say the same thing by comparing isolated fragments taken from different scriptures.
So here is an interesting anomaly: the only dogma that Hinduism admits is one that does not permit of a dogma. Of the seven principles just stated, the last – relating to freedom of choice – is the one most pristinely characteristic belief of Hinduism. Any accommodation of a belief system that denies one’s freedom of choice and of conscience is fundamentally incompatible with Hinduism.
To follow one’s own chosen path calls for a guide and a discerning intellect. The scriptures – the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Gita and others are this guide. And the search for such a discriminating intellect – the Gita calls it sthithadhi or ‘stable intellect’ – is expressed in a prayer stated thousands of years ago in the great Gayatri mantra in the form of a chant addressed to Savitar so that he may ‘inspire our intellect’ – dhiyoyo nah pracodayat. This prayer – dhiyoyo nah pracodayat– as I see it embodies the essence of Hinduism.
Gayathri Mantra: Om tat SaviturVarenyam,
Dhiyo yo nah Pracodayat.
Gathin Vishwamitra, in Rigveda III.62.10