Hinduism came to America very early. In fact, there may have been some Hindu believers present at the time of the very founding of the country. That being said, here was not any significant presence until after 1965 when immigration reform made it easier for people from other nations to immigrate to the United States. A significant part of this new immigration was the Hindu community. While Hindus don’t tend to attract a great deal of attention to themselves, relatively speaking, there is currently a thriving Hindu community of over one million adherents living in America.
The most prominent person who helped increase the visibility and prominence of the Hindu religion in America was Swami Prabhupada. He came to the U.S. in 1965 and set about gathering a following. While, strictly speaking, his focus was on furthering a particular strand of Hinduism, Hare Krishna, he caused Hinduism in general to become very high profile. Since that time many Hindus have become a part of American society and have formed themselves into all kinds of close-knit communities.
The name Hindu was originally the descriptive name of the inhabitants of Indus River region of India, and the name of their religion was called Hinduism. Since those early times, Hinduism has spread throughout India and today covers a large and diverse number of beliefs with a few unifying themes.
Worldwide, Hindus are found mainly in the nation of India. In fact, over 90% of the population of that country are Hindu. In addition to India, there are also large populations of Hindus in Nepal, Mauritius, Fiji, Guyana, Suriname, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Bhutan.
In many ways, Hinduism is difficult to describe because it has absorbed a massive number of customs and concepts from other sources. In addition to that, it has branched off into many other cults and religions. Some of these hold many similarities to traditional Hinduism wile others differ radically from their source. In fact, there are so many schools of Hindu thought today that almost anything said about it must be qualified to some extent.
The origin of Hinduism comes from the Aryan peoples who moved to the Indus Valley in northwestern India, somewhere around 1500 B.C. Over the next several centuries, this people group conquered virtually the entire subcontinent of India and brought with them the religion that was then in Iran. The Aryans were originally polytheistic and had quite an elaborate system of sacrifices. As the religion evolved, this led to the formation of a priesthood which was know as the Brahmins. This later evolved further into the caste system that is so prominent in India today. Many of the other elements of diversity within the religion resulted from the absorption of outside ideas. As the Aryans conquered the native population in India, much of the religion of the invaded group was absorbed as well.
The earliest stage of Hinduism is usually called the pre-Vedic period. During this period, the people were mostly polytheistic and worshiped a Mother Goddess and a horned god. This was primarily an Animistic period.
The Vedic period began around 1500 B.C. when the Aryans invaded northern India and imposed their Vedic civilization and religion on the Indians living there. This became a transitional period which began turning the population from a strictly Animistic religious point of view toward a Far Eastern Thought perspective.
Around 600 B.C. came the Upanishadic period when Hinduism became a more philosophical religion and began morphing into the popular religion of the masses. During this time, the Vedic religion boiled all the gods down into a single pantheistic principle (the absolute universal soul, impersonal life force, cosmos, or Brahman) with the belief that the universe is god and god is the universe. This completed the process of evolution from which the major tenets of Hinduism emerged.
On a philosophical level, there are six schools of Hinduism. These are not Hindu denominations, but are the theological teachings of the religious elite. They include: 1) samkhya, an atheistic and dualistic school; 2) yoga, which adds worship of God and physical discipline to samkhya; 3) nyaya, a rationalistic form of thought; 4) vaisheshika, a way of classifying all of reality into certain categories; 5) vedanta, which stresses the identity between god and the soul (Brahman-atman); and 6) mimamsa, a school advocating the literal interpretation of the Vedas.
There are estimated to be about 800 million adherents of Hinduism worldwide.
Basic Beliefs and Practices
There are numerous different branches of Hinduism which philosophically and theologically go in many different directions. That being said, there are several key concepts which form the basic foundation of almost all Hindu thought. If we understand these core beliefs, much of the rest of our understanding comes together more easily.
1. Brahman – Brahman represents the concept of the eternal Trimutri, or Three-in-One God. These three aspects are not understood to be personal gods, but rather manifestations of the oneness which is Brahman. It consists of Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu, the Preserver; and Shiva, the Destroyer.
2. Submission to Fate – In Hinduism, man is understood to be a part of Brahman (the universal absolute) and has no access to a personal God who can help or do anything for him. This is an expression of the pantheistic belief in Hinduism that everything is an expression of the impersonal life force. Based on this impersonal understanding of reality, each person does his deeds on earth and “what will be will be.”
3. The Caste System – Individuals are understood to be born into a particular caste based on the law of karma. Since one is born into the place in existence that is their proper place, each person must live his or her life in that station of life without even being concerned about change. Change is possible only in the next life.
Originally there were only four castes, but today there are literally thousands of castes and sub-castes. The law of karma determines a person’s placement in one of the castes. The larger categories consist of Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vaishyas (merchants), and Shudras (workers). The three higher castes are termed “twice- born” and are given full participation in society. The Shudra caste exists to do the manual labor of society and are considered impure. These outcastes, or untouchables, have little or no standing in society and do work that renders them unclean. Though the caste system has been formally abolished in India, it is still conceptually essential in the Hindu concept of dharma, karma, and reincarnation.
4. The Law of Karma – Karma is the principle that every action a person does in physical life has consequences beyond the act itself. Good actions create good karma and bad actions create bad karma. Karma is carried over from one lifetime to the next, so a person’s present state of existence is determined by his or her performance in previous lifetimes. The goal is to accumulate enough good karma to move upward on the progression of lives and to ultimately end the cycle of birth, death and rebirth by finally merging with the main body of the impersonal life force.
There are different categories of karma. There is the karma one is born with which came from previous lives, the karma from the actions of one’s present life – that produced by one’s thoughts and life plans – and the karma that is in force for this present life. In addition to individual karma, there is also the karma of one’s people and culture.
Karma is also used to explain evil. If something terrible happens to a person with no seeming connection to their direct actions, it is assumed that the law of karma is operating based on bad deeds of the past.
5. Reincarnation – The doctrine of reincarnation refers to a chain of rebirths in which particular pieces of the life force are able to move to higher or lower states through successive lives. It is believed that the life force of all living creatures, including man, is trapped in a nearly endless series of rebirths in a quest to rise to higher levels, and eventually escape the cycle altogether. All beings progress from lower life forms up through human life, which is the highest level. Once in human form, one ascends through the lower castes and ultimately to the highest caste of the Brahmins. At that stage, if one generates good karma over a lifetime, it is possible to finally achieve release or liberation and the life force leaves material reality and merges with the main body of life force.
6. Moksha – Moksha literally means liberation and is the final stage that one reaches when the life force is liberated from the chain of rebirths and is united with the “cosmos.”
7. Yogas – Yogas are physical disciplines which enable an individual to control the body and emotions. These are believed to be helpful in disciplining one’s life in order to help accumulate good karma in the current life.
8. Dharma -Dharma means religion or duty, and each individual must find and follow this “Law of Moral Order” in order to attain moksha. Individuals know their duty in society based on their caste placement and stage of life, and must willingly and faithfully fulfill it.
Brahman is the Hindu concept of ultimate reality and is an undefinable, impersonal and philosophical absolute which is the ultimate manifestation of oneness – what is often referred to as the impersonal life force or cosmos. There are literally thousands of gods that are worshiped in various sects of Hinduism, but these are mainly considered manifestations of Brahman. Popular Hinduism places more emphasis on the worship of these many deities. Much of this is a phenomenon that is a leftover from the Animistic past of the peoples in India from before the time Hinduism took over.
Man, in Hinduism, is understood to be the manifestation of the impersonal life force (Brahman) at the upper levels of the reincarnation process. When a particular piece of the life force reaches the upper levels, the physical manifestation in the material world is a human being. But as the life force is completely impersonal, it must be understood that the appearance of human beings as personal creatures is ultimately an illusion. Based in Hindu theology, ultimate reality is entirely impersonal and thus, in the ultimate sense, humans are understood to be without an individual self or individual self-worth.
The Hindu understanding of salvation is the escape from the recurring cycles of life (suffering) on earth and absorption into the main body of the impersonal life force (Brahman). It is liberation from one’s own physical existence. Hinduism recognizes three “ways” of salvation.
1. The way of knowledge – The total giving of one’s life to Brahman by mystical identification (a philosophical approach).
2. The way of devotion – Commitment of oneself totally to the worship of a particular god who will do all that is necessary to take care of the karma problem (a worship approach).
3. The way of works – The attempt to purify one’s soul by the meticulous observance of all laws and obligations of the Hindu scriptures (a works approach).
These ways of salvation are not ends in themselves. Rather, they are means for helping one accumulate good karma in this life to help move forward in the next.
1. What is the most fundamental reality? (Ultimate reality)
Ultimate reality in Hinduism is the impersonal life force (Brahman). This life force is seen to be an undefinable, impersonal and philosophical absolute. It is also understood to be the ultimate manifestation of oneness – that is, ultimately, everything in existence is defined by and exists as a part of the impersonal life force. This ultimate reality is characterized by its nature as being impersonal, pantheistic and monistic.
2. What is the nature of our material reality? (Material reality)
In Hinduism, material reality is understood to be an illusion. It is not an illusion in the sense that it doesn’t exist, but in that the actual nature of physical reality is different than what it appears to be. What appears to us to be personal and concrete is actually impersonal. Physical reality is understood to be so far away from the true expression of the impersonal life force that it appears different than it really is.
The physical reality is also understood to be cyclical. Periodically the universe is destroyed and Brahma arises to create a new universe. At this stage, Vishnu sustains the new one through a cycle of birth, growth and decline. Finally, Shiva destroys the universe and the cycle begins again. It is important, though, to recognize that Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are not personal gods. Rather, they are elements of the ultimate reality that is the impersonal life force.
3. What is a human being? (Humanity)
In Hindu belief, individual personality and individuality are illusions. Humans are simply an expression of the impersonal life force which is working its way toward “oneness with the one.” Reality is the part of the life force that animates the physical human being, not the seemingly personal human individual himself.
4. What happens to a person at death? (Death)
Hinduism asserts that at physical death, an individual’s life force recycles (reincarnates) into another form. Depending upon the individual’s karma at the time of death, the soul (atman – an individual piece of the life force) is reborn in either a higher or lower physical form. Through living correctly in each life cycle, it is possible to ascend through the orders of reincarnation and eventually achieve liberation from the cycle of rebirth and be reunited with and absorbed into the Divine Power.
5. Why is it possible to know anything at all? (Knowledge)
Knowledge, in Hinduism, is understood to be an illusion. Nothing exists as it appears. Ultimate reality is the impersonal life force.
6. How do we know what is right and wrong? (Morality)
In the Hindu faith, the cosmos is understood to be perfect at every moment. While good and evil appear to exist in life, these are actually illusions. Karma always evens things out so that there is always proper balance.
7. What is the meaning of human history? (History)
The cosmos, in Hindu belief, exists in eternity. The experience of time that humans seem to feel is an illusion. What we perceive as time that moves from past to present to future is actually a movement that occurs in cycles. The world passes through various stages, from birth to growth to decline. The world will eventually be destroyed and a new one will appear in the distant future. Also, since there is nothing personal associated with ultimate reality, there is no meaning associated with human history.
There are two lines of authority that Hindus look to in order to legitimize their belief system. The first is a set of writings that are referred to as the Sruti. These are, in effect, scripture texts which lay out the basic concepts of the faith. These writings include the Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita. These are not truly revealed writings as there is no personal god who is able to reveal anything. However, they are looked to as having some kind of transcendent source.
The second line of authority is the Smriti (tradition). These include the Sutras, Codes of Law, Agamas, Mahabharata, Ramayana, Darsahnas and Puranas. These writings are commentaries and other writings by people who have attained high levels within the Hindu tradition.
The ultimate authority for Hindu belief, however, is human experience. As there is no such thing as a personal transcendent being, there is no one to pass on information from beyond the material universe to humanity. There is a belief in a transcendent reality, but it is not personal in any sense. As such, the only means that mankind has to make contact with this transcendent reality is human experience. It is believed that this is possible as it is the impersonal life force which animates the life of individuals. By meditation and other means, it is believed that human beings can experience this life force and discover things about it. This kind of experience is the ultimate source of the other authority sources.
Evidence for the Authority
The only real evidence that can be put forth to validate the Hindu authority sources is the assertions of those who believe. There is no empirical element to the evidence because observation and experimentation cannot be applied to ultimate reality. Also, there is no way to validate the holy writings except by human experience. Human experience has its place, but there must be some way to validate that Hindu experience is right and other experience is not.
Evaluation of the Evidence
It is hard to take seriously any kind of authority that Hinduism puts forth since all of material reality is understood to be an illusion. Not that it doesn’t exist, but that it exists in a form that differs from the way humans experience it. That being the case, some way is needed to peer beyond the veil of the physical to grasp the nature of what is actually real. Since ultimate reality is not characterized by anything personal (i.e.. There is no personal God), there is no one from outside of the physical world who is able to reveal the truth about how reality is actually structured. So the assertions of truth and reality must be based on either human reason or experience. This is a problem, though, because even these must be filtered through our physical bodies – which are part of the physical world and, by definition, illusory. The big problem is that there is no one to arbitrate between different experiences of reality that various people have. How can Hindus know that their experience of reality is right and others are not? Thus, it is impossible to be sure that their reasoning and experience are correct and that other worldviews are incorrect.
Hinduism is a religion which forms the philosophical foundation for every belief system in the Far Easter Thought worldview. As a religion, it has close to one billion followers worldwide. It is definitely a powerful force in the belief landscape of the world. That being said, there are flaws in the belief system which are deeply problematic when testing for truth. Of all of the worldview systems, it has more problems than any other when it comes to matching up with actual human experience. The denial of material reality as a true expression of ultimate reality denigrates virtually every aspect of human experience. With a problem like that, it is hard to view the Hindu religion as a viable candidate for the true nature of reality.
© 2010 Freddy Davis