Understanding Hinduism

In my last post I discussed the importance of Christians understanding other cultures and other religions. In this post we will focus primarily on understanding Hinduism. I do not believe that all religions lead to the same end or that all religions are equally true. However, I do believe in Religious Liberty. This is the idea that people should be free to practice whichever religion they choose. While we may not agree with one another regarding our spiritual beliefs, we can seek to understand one another and treat one another with kindness and respect.

Hinduism and Christianity in conversation:

While Hinduism and Christianity hold to wildly different worldviews and religious beliefs, there are some things Christians can learn from Hindus. Many Protestant Christian groups have become overly casual in their worship and have often segregated their spiritual life from their life outside the church. We need to be more holistic in our spirituality. That is a Scriptural idea and something that we can certainly do better on. Likewise, Hindus can learn more about the significance of community from Christian churches. There is value in the time we spend worshiping as a community emphasizing that we are not alone in our walk of faith.

While Hinduism and Christianity teach very different ideas, we can agree that people should be free to practice their faith and to live our beliefs.

Below is a conversation I had with Marika Torok, a yogini who was kind enough to meet with me and explain some basics of Hindu belief. From our conversation it seems clear that Hindus desire to please God, but much of their ability to do so is based on works. Listening to her explain their beliefs helped me to understand the Hindu Worldview and to better see where people are coming from who embrace Hinduism. I hope you too will find the conversation educational.

An Overview of Hinduism[1]

Origin: 2000-1500 BC

Writings:

Shruti (collection of writings, meaning “that which is heard,” seen as divine truths, also called Vedas or Vedic Sacred Literature), and Smriti (meaning “that which is remembered,” non-Vedic Sacred literature). 

The Shruti is divided into the Samitas (4 Vedas written between 1500 and 900 BC, Rig-Veda, Sama-Veda, Yajur-Veda, and Atharva-Veda), Brahmanas (written around 800 BC, instructions for priests and commentaries on the Vedas), and the Upanishads (written around 500 BC, seeks philosophical answers about the meaning of the universe).  The Upanishads are so important that they are called Vedanta meaning the end of the Vedas.

The Smitri includes later writings such as law codes (Laws of Manu), sacred romances (Puranas), and epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata-this one contains the Bhagavad Gita).

Beliefs:

Atman is the often viewed as the soul or self, but it is actually the divine reality in individuals.  Brahman is the ultimate reality behind all things.  Atman and Brahman are one, but if they are seen as separate then the beholder is in a state of Maya or illusion.  For the world to be brought back to where it needs to be people must travel through a series of Samsara (these are cycles of birth, death, and rebirth to another form, i.e., reincarnation).  Karma determines what one will be reincarnated as.  If good the individual will be higher in the next life, if bad, he will be lower.  Moksha is liberation from this cycle.  This liberation takes place when one rejoins the Brahman and the Atman.  When the Atman is absorbed into the Brahman, one finally reaches the sate of Nirvana.  Even if all of creation achieved this highest state, at some point the whole process would start over, because Hindus believe in an eternal creation, destruction, and recreation of the universe.  There are also three goals to achieve in this world, Kama (a life of pleasure in a skill, art, literature, or physical pleasure), Artha (economic security and power-found in possessions or position in life), and Dharma (social and religious duty).

In Hinduism one may choose from several paths or Yogas.  The seven types of Yoga include Raja Yoga, The Karma and Buddhi Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Laya Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Mantra Yoga.[2]  Each of these types of yoga is practiced with the idea of achieving specific goals. 

Raja Yoga focuses on the inner self, and teaches that the universe itself exists for the sake of Self.  The word “raja” refers to the kingly aspect of this type of yoga, as it emphasizes the superiority of the self.[3] 

Karma yoga focuses on good deeds, where it is taught that when someone performs good deeds, the deeds produce good results.[4] 

Jnana Yoga is the path of knowledge, where the policy of having an open mind is what “makes yoga itself acceptable all.”[5] 

Hatha Yoga deals with the release of stress through rhythmic breathing, and results in the controlling of the body and its functions.  The word “Hatha” means force, and the pattern of breathing “in” is the sun breath, and breathing “out” is the moon breath.[6]  The two forces simply go together. 

Laya Yoga is a form of yoga that attempts to awaken the inner force through the stilling of the mind, and is a rather mystical form of yoga.  Laya Yoga involves the forgetting of all external things.[7]

Bhakti Yoga is possibly the most popular form practiced in India and is the form of yoga that “supplies the craving of the human heart for the love of the Absolute” in such a way that it recognizes love and worship of any conception of deity; it is impossible to separate this form of yoga from others.[8] 

Finally, there is Mantra Yoga, which involves speaking mantras, or phrases that when repeated produce effects on the mind, body, and emotions in such a way that they give the practitioner a deeper sense of meditation and power over his or her environment.[9]  This form of yoga is famous for pronouncing the word “om” which represents the creator as well as the presence it holds in the inner self.

All of these practices are inner-related, and it is difficult to completely isolate any of them.  All forms of yoga are intertwined to some degree and generally result in the practice of several types of yoga by any person who finds himself practicing this kind of spirituality.  The term yoga itself simply means “union,” and involves bringing together the mind and body, for their betterment.[10]  Yoga is used as the name of different Indian paths for the transformation of consciousness, and ultimately to help someone transcend reality.[11]  In 1976, Yogi Amrit Desai gave a lecture called “Power of Mind,” where he claimed that all meditation is transcendental in nature, and when you begin to look inside yourself for truth, you will realize that god is truth, and that because truth is found in you, then God to, is in each of us.  He went on to state that this is because we are god, being made in his likeness and image.  In other words, because the divine resides in you, by looking inside yourself, you can become one with truth and with god.  This is the unifying power in the practice of yoga.[12]

Radha Krishna Temple in Allen Texas

God

Hindus believe that there is one God and that our souls are chipped from that divine essence. They also believe that God has manifested himself many times throughout history. They believe that God appears differently to different people groups and that all those apparitions (even ones that occur at the same time) are equally valid. Because of their belief in Samsara there is no real belief in hell and the final place of “salvation” comes when one reaches the end of the repeating cycles of birth, death, and reincarnation.

Worship

In Hinduism, worship is a private personal matter. While there are opportunities to worship with others or meet as a religious community, the focus is on the individual and his or her own path of spiritual growth.

Political Issues:

Hinduism was created for the caste system.  It was intended to keep people from being able to move up in life.  This has been a controversial issue, especially in India since Mahatma Ghandi. Hindus are also known for being peacemakers and often refrain from political action and debate. They are more concerned with being peacemakers than being involved with protests, liberation, revolutions, etc.

Additional Resources:

Religion Facts

United Religions Initiative


[1] Based upon notes from World Religions by Dr. Joseph Matos, from The New Age Movement by Dr. David Fletcher, from Encountering Cults and the Occult by Dr. John Moldovan, and from research by Scott Shiffer and Jessica Dowdy, and Charles Rogers.

[2] Earnest Wood, Seven Schools of Yoga: An Introduction, (Wheaton: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1976), 12.

[3] Gibson, 17.

[4] Gibson, 16.

[5] Gibson, 17.

[6] Gibson, 13.

[7] Gibson, 14.

[8] Gibson, 115-16.

[9] Gibson, 15.

[10] Walter B. Gibson, The Key to Yoga, (Baltimore: Ottenheimer Publishers, 1958), 9.

[11] George Feuerstein, Textbook of Yoga, (London: Rider and Company, 1975), 3.

[12] Yogi Amriti Deswai, “Power of Mind,” and “Meditation – How to be Open.”[13] From Ron Rhodes, New Age Movement, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995).

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