Saturday, May 17, 2014
Hinduism as I understand it
May 15, 2014
By Saeed Qureshi
Unlike the main three Abrahamic religions rooted in history, Hinduism is based on mythology. Hinduism has no founder as Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism and many other religions have. It evolved with the passage of time spawning thousands of years. We know its place of birth is India or Hindustan. It did not evolve in one day or on a specific date. It is utterly difficult to fathom how old this religion is as the ancient history has no record about the civilizations coming into being or when the humans imbibed religions with a belief in a deity, lord or God that rules the universe.
Although Hinduism is reckoned to have a colossal pantheon of 330 million gods or deities, yet all these gods are said to be various manifestations of one God Brahman, Brahm, OM or AUM. As such despite being labeled as polygamous the Hindu religion is claimed to be a monotheistic religion. This contention comes closer to what some of the Muslim philosophers interpreted God with countless unfolding manifestations in the universe including the planet earth.
For instance Ibne-Arabi one of the most influential Muslim thinkers said that God manifests himself in everything that exists. Even man’s free will or even evil is a manifestation of certain law as these have their being in God. The glaring difference between Hinduism and Islam is that while in Hinduism every God is endowed with specific powers, in Islam all the powers are vested in one God.
Let us now delve into the fundamental beliefs of Hinduism and it sacred books and how this religion is practiced or what are its main gods, rituals and beliefs. Out of countless lot of deities and gods three gods are most revered and prominent in Hinduism. These are Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. As a group these are called Trimurti or triad. Brahma is the creator, Vishnu is the preserver and Siva is the destroyer.
These gods have their wives as well. Brahma’s wife is Saraswati (the goddess of knowledge), Vishnu’s wife is Lakshmi. Siva has two wives. His first wife Sati committed suicide or became Suttee. Siva’s second wife has two forms. In her kind form she is called Parvati, Uma, Gori and Golden One. Her fearsome name is Durga or Kali. These three elite gods have their off springs and children as well. Another popular god Ganesha (elephant) or Ganpati is one of the sons of Siva.
The oldest Hindu sacred books are called Vedas. These are books of prayers and hymns and are four in number. Their names are Rig-veda, Sam-veda, Yajur Veda and Athar –Veda. The other books that were later written were Brahmanas and the Upanishads. The Brahmanas contain details of rituals and sacrifices while Upanishads describe Hindu philosophy of thought and actions, which means fundamental beliefs and perceptions.
The third category of Hindu books is called Puranas. These are stories of mythical Hindu gods and heroes. The famous stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata are part of Puranas epic literature. Ramayana is the story of Ramchandra who is believed to be the seventh reincarnated saint of god Vishnu. Bhagavad-Gita another popular legend is included in Mahabharata. It narrates a philosophical conversation between lord Krishna and his close friend Arjuna.
The Vedas, Brahmanas and the Upanishads are considered to be divinely revealed scriptures. However, the epics and Puranas collectively known as Manu Smriti are the humanly composed writings that define and describe in details the religious and social laws including the caste system.
The deep-rooted caste system in Hindu society is derived from a hymn of Rig Veda that divides the human body into four parts. But this human body is that of Purusha the original father figure of mankind. These four parts are mouth, arms, thighs and feet. The top most part that is mouth are the Brahmans, the arms are Kshatriya or the warrior caste, the thighs are symbols of Vaish caste(merchant class) and the feet are for the Sudras, untouchables or the lowest caste.
The belief in an immortal soul is central to Hinduism. This belief is integrated with the concept of Karma which means that the present state in life of a person is the result of the deeds of the former existence. The soul goes through an unspecified cycles of transmigrations or reincarnations and when completely purified of sins it unites with the supreme reality Brahm or creator of the universe. This unity or immersion means the liberation of soul from the embodied existence and is termed Mukti or Moksha or salvation.
In Hinduism a soul can survive and exists in human bodies through a cycle of reincarnations. In Islam the souls leaves the body and goes to a place called purgatory. It would rejoin the body on the Day of Judgment and the dead man would come to life again. In Christianity the soul and body remain together during the death which it terms as sleeping. In Judaism the soul leaves the body and would reenter it at a specified point of time.
Hinduism essentially comprises numerous rituals, gods, myths, legends, and festivals. The legends and myths about the past gods and heroes like Krishna and Rama originate from the ancient sacred books written several thousand years before the Christ. The rituals such as putting a Tilk or pigment on the forehead, taking a bath every morning, going to temples to offer food mostly fruits to gods, taking bath in river Ganges( Ganga in local language) have evolved during the development of Hindu religion over a prolonged period of time in ancient India.
Among the priestly class there are swamis (spiritual guide), pundits (ritual leader), Sadhus (saint), mahants (holy men), and Gurus (spiritual guide) who pray and explain and perform intricate rituals like marriage, making sacrifices, birth and death.
According to Hinduism’s mythology there are four ways of attaining liberation of soul or technically Moksha. These are in fact various postures that one can adopt to have a spiritual link with what in Hinduism is termed as the ultimate truth or OM. These postures are Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Bakti Yoga and Raja Yoga. For performing these Yogas, a common Hindu devotee has to seek help from the trained and professional religious Gurus or Pundits.
The veneration of animals particularly cow, ape and elephant and letting them squat anywhere on the roads, paths and squares gives striking contrast when compared with the appalling treatment meted out to the human beings called Dalit or untouchables. While the animals are worshiped as deities and enjoy the uninhibited liberty of movement and are devotionally fed, the sudras or Shudras as the members of the lowest caste are segregated, degraded and treated as scum of the earth.
These Dalit are so miserable even in modern era that they cannot eat, sit, socialize, marry with other classes nor can they undertake good jobs permissible to other three castes. Their occupation is confined to such repugnant tasks as sweeping, cleaning lavatories, burning the dead bodies and carrying human excretion from homes.
Even in present day India a person is bound in a rigid class system and for him or her there is never a wayout. The word for caste in Sanskrit is Varna which means color. So primarily in India, the caste system is based upon the color of the people. The darker ones or Dravidian origin who are destined to be in the lower caste. The first thee castes being of Aryan origin are fair colored and thus enjoy a privileged position.
The caste system is determined by karma which means that a person’s status was already determined because of a prior existence. As a result of this belief millions of people in India are locked into perpetual poverty, injustice, wretchedness and hatred. It is indeed a painful dilemma for the world at large to watch the insidious dichotomy that while a section of human beings is utterly degraded and treated contemptuously, the animals are revered and worshiped.
The elephant god or Ganesha is one of the most favorite gods for being a remover of obstacles. Now the veneration for elephant god stems from the myth that when Ramchandra entered Lanka to defeat Ravan, he was riding on the elephant. The Ape god is venerated because he led Ram to Lanka and cow is sacred because during his stay in exile for 14 years, Ram Chandra was drinking its milk to sustain. Such are the queer dimensions of Hindu mythology. I am not aware why snake is worshiped as a god.
River Ganges is another highly sacred god. There is common belief in Hinduism that it previously existed as the Milky Way in the heavens. There are various detailed and complex versions as to how it descended upon earth. One of the miraculous influence as described in Brahmaputra is that” that those who bathe devoutly once in the pure currents of the Ganga, their tribes are protected by her for hundreds of thousands from dangers”
There are two fundamental beliefs in Hinduism. One is Samsara (transmigration of an imperishable soul). The other is Karma that implies that good or bad deeds of a former existence are responsible for one’s present state good or bad. Now the belief in Ganges’s miracle of purifying all the sins contradicts the belief that the human soul is trapped into a cycle of reincarnation until it is purified and joins the creator of the universe i.e. Brahm, the supreme all pervasive entity of the universe.
When compared, the two statements, it appears that bathing in Ganga cuts short that agonizing cycle of births and rebirths. As such the previous state of a migrating soul may not influence someone’s present state which is what the doctrine of reincarnation is all about. Since it is the wish of every Hindu to bathe in Ganga once at least in life he or she is purified from all evils and thus his soul is ready to be liberated from the unremitting cycle of transmigration and thus after death instead of entering another body, should rejoin the Om or Brahm. This belief patently demolishes the very foundation of transmigration and reincarnation dogma.
Sex is an integral part of Hindu religious beliefs. Siva is revered as the god of fertility and the god of the phallus or lingham. Siva’s sex organ or linga is worshiped where both vulva and lingham are seen attached to each other. Hindu scriptures are replete with sex allusions, sexual symbolism and eroticism. The temples display sexual poses and obscene scenes and glimpses of ritual intercourse, and sex worship. The sexual life of god Krishna and its exposure has been widely and profusely illustrated. He is seen surrounded by pretty gopis or female devotees.
One can find the pictorial scenes of Hindu gods and rishis (sages) engaged in sex with beautiful women and devdasis (slave girls dedicated to the temples) on temple walls. In one of the statues, Siva the god of fertility is inside one lingham and has four heads around in another. The representations of phallus, vulva and pregnant female figurines have been found during the archaeological excavations in Taxila and other ruins in India.