On Monday morning last I went to 7.25am Mass in my local Parish Church. Generally, there is quite a small attendance unless it is a Holy Day. What really struck me was that there were five different Indian families in the congregation. This led me to wonder about Hinduism, which is the religion of the majority of people in India and Nepal. Like Buddhism, which I explored in a former blog it is one I know little about.
Unlike most other religions, Hinduism has no single founder, no single scripture and no commonly agreed set of teachings. ‘Hinduism’ as a label for the religious traditions, beliefs, and practices of the people of India only came into existence relatively recently. Historically, Hindus have referred to their religion as Sanatan Dharma (the eternal way). For many Hindus their religion goes beyond time and space; it is the eternal truth; it has no founder or teacher.
Hindus appear to believe in many different gods, but in truth they believe that there is only one God, but they worship God in many forms.
The oneness of God is to be found in Brahman. Brahman is the ultimate reality from which all created things come and to which all things ultimately go. Brahman is essentially a mystery – it is both beyond all things yet present in them all. It is beyond personification, it is beyond images of the deities and the idea of a personal God and therefore in its essence is indescribable.
Brahman is represented by the Trimurti; the three deities of Brahma (the creator of the universe), Vishnu (the preserver of the universe) and Shiva (the destroyer and recreator of the universe). The three deities are not separate in reality but aspects of the life-force of Brahman, creating, preserving and destroying and recreating the universe.
Because Vishnu is the preserver of the universe, Hindus believe that he appears on earth in a form known as an avatar (one who descends). An avatar represents the power of God to take any form, human or animal, in order that righteousness may be restored on earth. There are nine avatars of Vishnu and the most important of these are Krishna and Rama.
Hindus use the sacred symbol aum, to stand for Brahman. Aum is the vibrating sound of the universe, which is made by the life giving force of Brahman. It is often chanted as a mantra in meditation and worship and is found in all temples.
A very important form of God in Hinduism is that of the goddess which represents Shakti (divine power). Shakti gives the universe energy and life. Shakti in the form of the goddess takes a variety of forms, on her own or as a consort of the male gods mentioned above.
In the form of Kali the goddess is at her most terrifying. Shown dark or black in colour she has many heads with a tongue dripping blood. She wears a garland of skulls and hols a severed head in her hands. These symbols represent her great power in destroying evil.
A murti (form) is an image of a god used as a focus for Hindu worship. Murtis can be elaborate marble forms, as seen in many Hindu temples, or small plastic images, as seen in homes, or images in colourful posters. The murti acts like an icon in Christianity. It is a form that enables worshippers to concentrate on the attributes of God. Murtis are sometimes referred to as ‘windows into the divine’. The different images of God communicate the divine attributes of Brahman.
For Hindus, time is cyclical; it has no starting point or end; it returns to the point where it began. Therefore the symbol of the wheel has become an important teaching tool in Hinduism. This view of time is very different from Western views, which tend to see time and history as linear with a starting point and an end point.
Too many Hindus all days are holy and time is marked by a myriad of festivals, feasts and celebrations. Their festivals have a variety of characteristics and functions. Some are connected with the seasons and nature. Some are specifically religious and provide Hindus with a way of expressing their faith. Some festivals bring the community together, others remember key events in the history or mythology of the tradition. India is so vast that a festival can be celebrated in different ways and at different times, depending on what part of India it is taking place in. However, the symbolism of light and dark and good overcoming evil is a common thread.
Hindus are born, live their lives, die and are cremated but, according to Hindu belief, this is not the end of the story. Whilst the ashes of the body return to the earth, the atman (soul) is eternal and is born into another body which then continues its existence through another cycle. As the Hindu text Bhagavad Gita says, death is like casting off one set of clothes and putting on new ones.
This reincarnation is not seen as something to be joyful about; it is called samsara (the wearisome wheel of suffering and satisfactoriness). Therefore the aim for Hindus is to escape samsara and reach moksha (spiritual liberation).
All souls are subject to karma (the law of cause and effect). This means that good deeds lead to benefits and bad deeds to future hardships. A soul escapes only when it has learned not to be attached to this world. Spiritual blindness may lead a person to believe that material possessions will ultimately lead to happiness. The goal is to become a sannyasin or ‘world renouncer’.
Moksha can be realized in different ways. These paths are called yogas. Bhakti yoga is the path of devotion to God; Jhana yoga is the path of spiritual insight and knowledge; Karma yoga is the path of selfless service and action. A great example of the latter was Mahatma Gandhi who devoted his life to God through loving actions towards others.
Yoga is not the same as meditation and neither is it merely a set of physical exercises. Yoga comes from the Hindu word yolk and means to unite, connect, or establish a relationship with the Supreme Being or ultimate reality.
A Hindu’s spiritual journey follows the natural process of growing up. Life is divided into four stages or ashramas, each with its own dharma (spiritual duties).
The most common example of Hindu ethics is known as the niyamas (observances) and the yamas (abstentions). These form part of a spiritual path called Raj Yoga. They encourage believers to be pure, and happy with what they have, to make sacrifices, study the scriptures and worship daily. They should have reverence for all living things, speak and seek the truth, avoid desire, greed, lust and intoxication and never steal.
Hindus are guided by their scriptures which can be classified under two headings Shruti and Smriti. The Shruti or revealed truths are scriptures believed to have been revealed to holy men who interpreted them for those who seek spiritual guidance. They are ancient and contain scriptures referred to as the Vedas and the Upanishads.
The famous writer Max Muller referred to the Vedas as the oldest books in the library of mankind. Hindus believe that the content of the Vedas was revealed by God at the beginning of creation.
The Smriti are the remembered truths and form what is usually referred to as the popular religious tradition. They contain the great Hindu epics such as the Raymayana and the Mahabharata and the later scriptures called the Puranas. One of the lessons which comes out of this is the universal message that good triumphs over evil.
As Christians there are many elements of Hinduism which are exemplary, but for us it can only be through His son Jesus the God has revealed Himself to the world.
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan