Hinduism is the most ancient religion in the world–there is no time in literature when there was not some form of this religion.
Most philosophical foundations are found in the Upanishads, a collection of treatises based on about 300 years (800-500 B.C.) of religious reflection by various sages. Under their religion, philosophy became paramount in Hinduism.
The principle underlying the Upanishads is that humanity’s spiritual problem is resolved neither by religious practices such as worship, nor by works or social service, but by life-changing knowledge of what is actual reality or truth.
Today Hinduism is the religion of 80% of India, a nation of 700 million people. Recent estimates of the number of Hindus worldwide put its population at approximately 650 million.
It is growing in influence in America:
- Spiritual unity of all reality, and reincarnation leading to “enlightenment”–the basic premise of the New Age Movement
- Baha’ism, rooted in Hinduism, with its pluralism
- Personalized Nature in transcendental meditation
- Darwin’s unity of humanity and animals–monism
- Physical reality as “maya” (illusion); cf. Christian Science view of evil and physical suffering
- Categories for comparison (taken from Woodfin 149-55):
- View of God, gods, or ultimate reality
- Basic understanding of humanity
- Central focus or basic understanding of reality
- Concept of redemption or “salvation”
- Eschatology or interpretation of ultimate destiny
Ultimate reality: “Brahman”
According to Hinduism, Brahman is the “supreme soul of the universe,” without beginning or ending, unchanging and eternal, beyond all description.
Not the creator of the world, but the very essence of all reality.
Not to be “worshiped.”
The Many “gods” which Hindus worship as part of Brahman, include:
“Kali”–a threatening, near-demonic goddess
“Siva”–dynamic yet ascetic
“Vishnu”–glorious and gracious
“Krishna”–loving and invincible; incarnation or descent of Vishnu
Many others, from simple provincial deities to cultic gods which are approached through elaborate images, idols, and ritual. “Bhakti” is Hindu devotion to one of these gods as their personal god of worship.
View of humanity: “Atman”
Hindus see Atman as a “manifold conglomerated collection of changing finite phenomena” (Woodfin).
Not “real” in the sense of separate physical identity:
Is one with and part of Brahman
Only appears to be real because of “maya” (illusion)
The apparent world is a mere illusion; we should see the world as a spiritual unity, not a duality of body and spirit.
“Atman” is innermost, true being of mankind; like Brahman, it is eternal and unchanging.
Atman is simply part of Brahman, as the air inside a jug is the same as the air outside it.
Suffering and the need for “salvation” arise through our ignorance of this identity of Brahman and Atman.
Central focus: the identity of Brahman and Atman
Learning and living out this identity is the goal and purpose of Hinduism. This goal leads to belief in the commonality of all humans and, in fact, all reality. This worldview is “monistic”–it sees all reality as one.
Concept of “salvation”—”moksha”
Hindus believe salvation comes from our understanding and experiencing the identity of Atman in Brahman. Our greatest burden is not sin but ignorance of the true nature of our identity with Brahman. We can overcome this ignorance only through properly understanding and experiencing this identity.
Moksha is available to us all through our own efforts; once we realize our Brahman consciousness and live it out, we will no longer be deluded by maya and will transcend all suffering and need. The goal:
“The highest state for a human is a waking trance in which the self is disciplined to such an extent that the world is not experienced and awareness of the One is complete. But even this experience is a foretaste of a still higher form of existence, when a person is released from the cycle of birth and rebirth and has immediate awareness of bliss (Newport, Life’s Ultimate Questions 385).
“Yoga” (“yoke” or “union”) is the spiritual discipline required to reach this goal of identification with Brahman.
In this discipline one yokes himself to a chosen deity to achieve enlightenment and union with Brahman.
Note that these three methods correspond to the three basic personality types or ways of knowledge (the pragmatic, rational, and intuitive):
Karma Yoga–stresses the importance of good works and self-less actions; pragmatic, emphasis on doing. One yokes himself or herself with Spirit through the chosen deity by disinterested good will and service; thus all deeds are holy deeds and acts of worship.
Jnana Yoga–for intellectual persons; stresses the path to oneness by yoking with the chosen deity through knowledge or contemplation; made up of the “Six Philosophies,” one of which the intellectual will choose to follow.
Bhakti Yoga–simplest form of yoga; emphasis on loving or feeling; places primary stress on emotion or devotion, unites with chosen deity through acts of love, and is closest to Christian worship.
According to most Hindus, Christianity is simply one of the Bhakti paths.
The “Four Goals” of the Hindu lifestyle are:
- Material happiness
- Loving and being loved
- Doing one’s duty
- Working to achieve liberation
Ultimate destiny: absorption into Brahman
The individual soul (“jiva”) is responsible for good works. According to the doctrine of “karma,” it will be rewarded with an exact equivalent of merit or demerit according to the nature of its deeds.
The soul is this subject to “samsara,” reincarnation, in keeping with the merit it obtained in the previous life.
This belief system leads to the caste structure, by which we are rewarded or punished for our previous deeds:
- Warrior or leader
- Worker or merchant
- “Outcastes”–outside the system, with no caste rights whatsoever
The “Four Stages” of life through which a Hindu passes:
- Student: training is accomplished
- Householder: one earns a living and provides for family
- Forest dweller: one leaves the family after providing for them adequately and attempts to learn religious wisdom
- Renouncer: wisdom is achieved at a certain level and all material goods are renounced.
The ultimate goal: escape from the cycle of rebirth and karma and absorption into Brahman to whose essence we already belong.
Followers of Shankara (9th century A.D.)–stress impersonal monism and need for self-less identity with Brahman.
Followers of Ramanuja (12th century A.D.)–taught the relative independence of nature and the human soul; allows for possibility of Bhakti personal devotion and “avatars” (holy men who are manifestations of Brahman).
Hare Krishna originated with Chaitanya Mahaprabha (16th century A.D.), who taught that direct love of Lord Krishna was the way to “burn off” ignorance and sin, overcome bad karma, and attain bliss.
Krishna is considered to have been an incarnation or avatar of the high god Vishnu.
The sect of Krishnaism has continued since that time in India, and was brought to America in the 1960’s. Now it has developed into the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, known popularly as Hare Krishna.Reasons for appeal to the West include:
- Belief that we each share in the “divine”
- No category for “sin”: all such wrong and suffering are “maya”
- Reincarnation: no fear of death
- Works and rewards as basis for happiness and ultimate destiny
- Monism: strongly anti-materialistic
Responding to Hinduism
Christians should show that our faiths do not teach the same truths, but are mutually contradictory. Both claim exclusive truth. Hinduism tends to absorb all other religions, in the belief that we will eventually come to the right (their) perspective.
Understand the appeal of Hinduism to its followers:
- Cultural issues
- Family and traditional background
- Begin with common ground:
- Common desire for union with “God” (cf. Galatians 2.20)
- Common belief in ultimate unity and inner cohesion of all reality (cf. Colossians 1.16-17)
Finally: Ask which approach is best supported by objective evidence, and which best meets its own goals.
Show the need for an answer to sin and forgiveness.
Contrast Hinduism’s works-righteousness with Christ’s offer of salvation by grace. Demonstrate the life-changing reality of Christ’s love in our own.
Sources consulted: Norman Anderson, ed., The World’s Religions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975); Terry Muck, Alien Gods on American Turf (Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books, 1990); Jacob Neusner, ed., World Religions in America: An Introduction (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994); John B. Noss, Mans’ Religions, 5th ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1974); Ninian Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind, 2d ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976); Smart, The World’s Religions (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1989); Ninian Smart and Richard Hecht, ed., Sacred Texts of the World: A Universal Anthology (New York: Crossroad, 1982).