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February 16, 2013

GLOBAL FAITHS: Hinduism grew from worship of many gods

Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world after Christianity and Islam. It is the faith of most of the people of India, about 900 million people worldwide, says Wikipedia. Some observers call it an encyclopedia of religions. Unlike Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, Hinduism can’t point to any individual founder. Its various expressions simply grew out of the polytheism of India’s aboriginals and of Aryan immigrants into India several thousand years before the time of Jesus.

The Aryan invaders or immigrants used a language called Sanskrit, and their early writings in that language show what kind of religion they practiced — sacrifices, libations of a sacred drink to their gods, and prayers to these gods for health, long life, and happiness.

The relationship of the lighter-skinned Aryans  to the darker-skinned aborigines, usually called Dravidians, led to both intermarriage and prejudice. As a consequence, Hindus developed a caste system with priests (Brahmans) on top, warriors and rulers (Kshatriyas) next, farmers and merchants (Vaishyas) third, and laborers (Shudras) fourth. The original word for caste was “varna,” a cognate of our word “varnish,” but in Hinduism denoting color. Between the four major castes many people got classified into sub-castes and, below the Shudras, outcastes. These outcastes were formerly called “untouchables” but today are called Dalits.

Modern India has passed legislation to abolish caste discrimination, but caste consciousness does not disappear easily in Indian society. Prejudice tends to persist longer if it is rooted in religious belief, as Americans have seen in race prejudice in this country.

The religious justification or rationalization of caste rests in two long-standing Hindu doctrines or teachings — karma and reincarnation. Some Hindu apologists say the idea of karma is caught by the words of the apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians (6:7) “You reap whatever you sow.” Karma reflects the truth that what people think, say, or do inescapably shapes their personality and character.

Related to karma is Hindu’s other teaching, reincarnation, or rebirth. This is the view that people’s karma in a past life gives them their present lot, and that their karma in this life determines their future birth into a higher or lower caste.

Behind karma and reincarnation stands another basic and long-standing Hindu belief, pantheism. It was first articulated in some writings called the Upanishads. In these writings appear the practice of yoga meditation and the pronouncement of some of these meditators, or gurus — that there is only one underlying life force in the universe, and that individuals are one with this universal life force, like a drop of water is one with the ocean.

Pantheism is what gives Hinduism its tolerance. Since it holds that everything is God, Hinduism can see everything as an expression of God. Therefore Hindus are free to worship God through whatever appeals to them, whether that is the loving god Krishna or the violent god Shiva. Shiva’s temples usually have sexual symbols, as I saw in a Hindu temple in California.

Pantheism is also what stands behind Hindu reverence for life, although it usually focuses upon select forms of life such as the cow or the rat, which can create problems because of the havoc an unchecked rat population can cause.

Hinduism’s tolerance does not seem to extend to Christianity. It could if Christians would see Jesus Christ as just another expression of the universal life force. But the claim that Jesus is a true revelation of God’s nature and purpose makes it objectionable to Hindus. Christianity has therefore not had easy going in India, though it has had considerable success among its “outcastes.”

Marlin Jeschke is professor emeritus of religion and philosophy at Goshen College.

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