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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Religions of the World

Part One
Oriental Religions

Chapter 3

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Associate Professor of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University


Hinduism can better be described than defined. It is less a religion than a religious culture, and less creedal than ethical or racial, which historically identified the people living in a particular region, namely, beyond the Indus River, which runs in a southwestern direction from the present State of Kashmir to the Pakistan city of Karachi. The correlative words Hindustan, Hindi, and the modernized India have the same origin.

According to its own spokesmen, Hinduism is an amorphous, many-sided faith, about which it is hard to say anything with precision in the accepted Western sense of the concept of religion. Hindus describe themselves as persons who chiefly base their beliefs on the complex system of faith and practice of at least three Millennia. “If I were to define the Hindu creed,” wrote Mahatma Gandhi, “I would simply say, a search after truth through non-violent means. A man may not believe in God and still call himself a Hindu. Hinduism is relentless pursuit after truth. Denial of God we have known, denial of truth we have not known.” By this norm the solidarity of Hinduism is due more to the accident of geographic limitation than to any other factor. There is no founder of a church, no governing body, and no semblance of an ecclesiastical organization.

Vedic Literature

Unlike Confucianism, the Hindu religion professes to be founded on revelation, and the very names of its Scriptures, the Vedas and Sruti, means “knowledge’ and “thing heard.” By communication from the god Brahman “like truth or smoke emanating from wood.” Absolutely speaking the Vedas are the ideas in the Eternal Mind, while Sruti is the material expression of some of these divine concepts. The former are objectively inexhaustible, even as the Divine Mind is beyond limitation, whereas the latter are only as old as humanity, having first been heard by ear and later put into writing.

Vedic literature cannot be strictly classified into Scripture and tradition because of numerous overlapping, or into revelation properly so-called and human interpretation. However roughly comparable to the Scriptures is the Hindu Sruti, and to Tradition the Smriti (recollection). The composite is a bewildering maze of books and treatise that were composed over a period of fifteen hundred years, to about 600 B.C.

The Four Vedas

Historians variously date the writing of the basic Vedas between 3000 to 1500 B.C. The generally accepted estimates is that they were composed around the sixth century before Christ, and correspond to the time when Buddhism came on the scene. Buddha’s life span is commonly placed from 563 to 483 B.C.

There are four Vedas, which together form the Samhitas (collections), of varying length and concerned with a different aspect of faith and practice. The oldest part of the Vedas consists of songs (mantra) and ritual formulas that exist in three anthologies, the Rig Veda, the Sama Veda, and the Yajur Veda. A fourth book, Atharva Veda contains directives for Hindu priests and only much later obtained recognition.

The Rig (verse) Veda is the oldest document in Indian literature and consists of more than a thousand hymns arranged in ten “circles” or books. Prayers of petition and praise addressed to the gods are the dominant theme. A Hindu commentator, Yaska, writing about 500 B.C., classified the chief Vedic deities into the gods of the earth---Agni, Soma, Yama, and Brihaspati, the gods of the air---Indra, Vayu, the Maruts and Rudra; and the gods of the bright heaven---Savitar, Surya, Ushas, Pushan, Vishnu, Additi and her sons, especially Varuna and Mitra.

Western scholars are lavish in their esteem for the Rig Veda, describing the works of praise addressed to the gods as “miraculous in the image power of their sonority.” Recited according to rigid laws of melody, they reflect an age that had behind it centuries of religious culture. Yet the religion of the Rig Veda is quite different from the Hinduism of later times: more simple and less speculative concerned more with pastoral worship than with conceptions of the infinite which became characteristic of classic Hinduism, as in the Upanishads.

By way of exception, the tenth and last book of the Rig Veda includes such elevated concepts as creation and worship of the (one) Unknown God. Its composition was relatively late, about 1000 B.C., which accounts for the contrast between its evident monotheism and the crude notions of many deities in the aspects of nature occurring in the earlier books. It is addressed to Ka (who), or the God whom men do not know.

He who gives breath, who gives strength, whose command all the bright gods revere, whose shadow is immortality, whose shadow is death: Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?
Who through his might became the sole king of the breathing and twinkling world, who governs all this, man and beast: Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?
Through whom the awful heaven and the earth were made fast; he through whom the other was established, and he firmament; he who measured the air in the sky: Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?
Whom heaven and earth stand, standing firm by his will, look up to, trembling in their mind; over whom the risen sun shines forth: Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?
When the great waters went everywhere, holding the germ (Hiranyagarbha), and generating light, then there arose from them the sole breath of the gods: Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice?
May he not hurt us, Who is the begetter of the earth, or he, the righteous, who begot the heaven; who also begot the bright and mighty waters: Who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifice? [1]

For the most part, the object of desire in the Rig Veda is the satisfaction of the common, unreflective needs of life. An apparent exception is the splendor of Varuna, before whom the people felt they should have their sins removed and forgiven. Yet even here, the escape offered is rather from punishment for past misdeeds with little realization of the inner malice of sin. A solitary peak is reached in a single passage, where the sinners plead, “Let us be thine own beloved, Varuna, and cast all these sins away like loosened fetters.”

But the hymns to Varuna are few and his cultus is already overshadowed by Indra, who was the popular god. Indra could be appreciated by his followers. He could be genial and generous to them if they furnished him with soma to drink. He was anything but the god of sanctity, and often depicted in his own way as a leader in drunkenness and debauchery. There was no question of fearing such a god for the commission of sin, and other deities in the Vedic pantheon were not much higher. They were like powerful men on earth, whose favor could be assured by gifts and to whom sacrifices were considered not reparations for guilt or means of expiation, but a short of commerce between the god and his worshiper. Men gave that the gods might give in return; it was a religious business between two parties that were not much separated even according to moral standards.

The Sama Veda or Veda of melodies complements the Rig Veda by repeating many of the verses of the latter but supplying a musical notation for the performance of sacred chant. Four sets of chants are provided, with a number of isolated tunes intended as hymnal prayers.

Unlike the preceding, the Yajur Veda is addressed not only to the gods but also to the cultic objects that acquire a sacred character by reason of these invocations. Some of the formulas describe what can be attained by the object in question, others urge the object to action or impel another object to come into connection with it. A number of prayers are litanies, in which a statement or invocation is followed by a repetitive petition, as in the hymn to Thought.

The divinity that rises far when man is awake and falls back into him when he is asleep, the far-traveling light of lights is Thought. May it be friendly to me in what it devises.
That thought with which the wise skillfully perform their tasks in the sacrifice and rites---an unheard of wonder within all creatures---is Thought. May it be friendly to me in what it devises.
That which is knowledge, consciousness and will, an immortal light within living creatures, without which no action can be performed: such is Thought. May it be friendly to me in what it devises.
That by which immortality encompasses all that was, is and shall be, by which the sacrifice is performed with the seven officiates is Thought. May it be friendly to me in what it devises.
In it are the verses, melodies and formulas like spokes in a car’s nave; in it all the thinking of creatures is woven. Such is Thought. May it be friendly to me in what it devises.
Driving men as one drives swift steeds with the reins like a skilful charioteer; dwelling in the heart, yet moving and most rapid, such is Thought. May it be friendly to me in what it devises. [2]

Similar to the Rig Veda but regarded as inferior is the Atharva Veda, whose preoccupation with placating the devils, casting of spells, and averting harm gives an insight into the homely concerns of the Hindu religion not supplied in the earlier Vedas. Every phase of life is consecrated by religion, and charms are available for every contingency, from warding off the attack of robbers to winning the love of a husband.

Among the more exalted incantation is one in which the breath is invoked against fear.
As both the heaven and the earth do not fear, are not harmed, so, my breath, fear not.
As both the day and night do not fear, are not harmed, so, my breath, do not fear.
As both ritual and dominion do not fear, are not harmed, so, my breath, do not fear.
As both truth and untruth do not fear, are not harmed, so, my breath, do not fear.
As both what is and what is to be do not fear, are not harmed, so, my breath, do not fear. [3]

In the Atharva Veda the magical spells are not only “white” but also “black” or witchcraft, by which a wife may kill a hated rival or a Hindu priest destroy the noble who robs him of his cows.

The Brahmanas

How long the original Vedic form of Hinduism flourished is unknown. But in time ritualism became the dominant form of religion, and gradually fell under the monopoly of the priestly caste. Elaborate prose treatises were written as commentaries or interpretations of Brahman by means of symbols and ceremonies. Two types of these commentaries (Brahmanas) are distinguishable: the prescriptive and the explanatory, the two forming a vast repertoire that leaves nothing to the imagination. Whether an action should be done at the right or the left, whether a jar should be in this spot or that, whether a blade of grass should be laid down pointing to the north or the northeast, whether the priest stands before or behind the fire, into how many pieces the sacrificial cake is to be divided---all this and more is treated in great detail.

Each Veda has one or more Brahmanas of commentary, with three for the Sama Veda, and eight Brahmanas all told. Closely associated with this phase of Hinduism is the rise of the Brahmin or priest, who came to exalt himself above the gods, for he alone possessed the secret of the sacrifice which is able to bend the will of the gods.

Woven into the Brahmanas are legends on the origin of the world, epic tales, anecdotes about the goddesses and commentaries on the songs. One of the best known is the story of the flood in which Manu, the generic name for the father of mankind, is one morning approached by a fish to warn him of a universal deluge. The fish’s advice was to have Manu rear it until it became a kind of whale, and at the same time builds a huge ship. “After he had reared it in this way, he took it down to the sea, and in the same year which the fish had indicated to him, he attended to the advice of the fish by preparing a ship; and when the flood had risen, he entered into the ship. The fish then swam up to him, and to its horn he tied the rope of the ship, and by that means he passed swiftly up to a distant northern mountain.” [4] After the flood Manu was left alone in the world, but on offering a sacrifice of butter, milk and curds, he produced a daughter, through whom he generated the present human race.

Reacting against the ritualism of the Brahmins are works of an esoteric nature called the Aranyakas or “forest treatises.” Hermits used to recite them outside the community in the silence of the woods, in order to penetrate more deeply into the meaning of ritual sacrifices without performing the rites themselves. Like the Brahmanas, these commentaries are also attached to the Vedas, two for the Rig Veda and one for the Atharva Veda; but they go beyond the Brahmanas in mystic and magical formulas. Among the treatises is a verse composition on human sacrifice. The prospective male victim is a Brahmin or other noble, bought at the price of a thousand cows and a hundred cattle, who is permitted a year of freedom, in which he can do as he wishes, except that he must remain chaste. Another Brahmin or member of the royal family performs the sacrifice, which historians assign to the post-Vedic age, after the rise of Buddhism. [5]

The Upanishads

With the Aranyakas are certain “secret teachings” that contain in unsystematized form the fundamentals of Hindu philosophy. Since they come at the end of the Vedic literature, they are called Vedanta, or “end of the Vedas.” Their more familiar title is Upanishad, which literally means “sit down before” (a teacher).

If there is one master idea in the Upanishads, it is the doctrine offered by previous sages and expanded into a means of redemption from the burdens of life and the wearisome trials of birth, death and reincarnation. This mystery of salvation is expressed by the equation: Atman - the Brahman, in which Brahman stands for the transcendent yet immanent supreme divinity and Atman for that eternal portion of Brahman, which abides in every living being. Atman is a part of Brahman as salt is part of the water in which it dissolves.

“Place this salt in water, and then wait on me in the morning.”
The son did as he was commanded.
The father said to him, “Bring me the salt, which you placed in the water last night.”
The son having looked for it, did not find it because it was dissolved.
The father said, “Take a sip from the surface of the water. How is it?”
The son replied, “It is salt.”
“Taste it from the bottom. How is it?”
The son replied, “It is salt.”
The father said, “Set it aside. Then come back to me.”
He did so, saying, “It is always the same.”
Then the father said, “Here also, in this body, although you do not perceive Being here, nevertheless it is there.
“That which is the finest essence---this whole world has that for its soul. That is Reality. That is Atman (Soul). That you are, Svetaketu.”

If the main theme of the Upanishads is that Brahman and Atman are the same, that the reality of the world outside is identical with the reality of the self within, this final secret is found only as the crowning discovery of a long and painful search. On the way towards that solution many alternative suggestions are made and rejected. But when the ultimate revelation has been fully grasped, it can only be repeated again and again in a sort of rapture. “I am Brahman,” and “You are That,” are the key words of the Upanishads which unlock all the beatitude.

For all their subtlety, the Upanishads are still within the ambit of Vedic literature. Their fourteen principal treatises are correlated with the four Vedas, with the surprising fact that the masterful Rig Veda has only two Upanishad commentaries compared with seven for the cultic and magical Yajur Veda.

Sources of Popular Religion

Vedic literature is the mainstay of Hinduism, but only a fraction of its total concept. With the rise of Buddhism the needs for a broader appeal of Hindu theory were developed into what some writers summarily call Smriti (tradition), but which, more familiarly, may be considered popular religion. Two types of lore are concerned: the formalistic body of Sutras (concise formulas) and a set of epics that for most Westerners are all they know about Hinduism.


At first glance the Sutras appear to be anything but popular, and certainly they are erudite enough. But their purpose was to popularize, in the sense of extend, the scope of Vedic ideas by their application to a wide range of topics that might otherwise have been untouched by Hinduism. Six disciplines are involved, with Sutras covering each: ceremonial, phonetics, prosody, grammar, etymology and astronomy.

Among the Sutras, the first which deals with ritual (Kalpa) is the most important. Similar to the Confucian idea of li, the Hindu Kalpa comprehends in separate tracts the basic ceremonies in the offering of public sacrifice, the regulations for domestic devotions, and a detailed study of social behavior for people in the various castes along with aphoristic rules for different conditions and stages of life. “One should speak the truth,” the Kalpa prescribes, “and speak it pleasingly. One should not speak the untruth because it is displeasing. Whatever is dependent on others is misery; whatever rests on oneself is happiness.”

Bhagavad Gita

The greatest of Indian religious writings, Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Blessed One) is the best-known work in Indian literature, whose influence on Hindu thought has been monumental. It has been called “India’s favorite Bible,” which permeates the collective religious consciousness of the people as no other single piece of Hindu writing. Gandhi memorized its contents (about 30,000 words) as an act of devotion, and found in it, as generations had before, a gospel of action, with promises of deliverance that are quite unique in the religious systems of the East.

Actually the Gita is only a fragment of a larger epic, the Mahabharata, which contains upwards of a hundred thousand couplets. The epic is a mixture of religious sentiment, warlike legends and philosophical speculation that suggests a compound of Homer, Plato and Virgil---yet fused into a remarkable synthesis. Its ultimate goal is Bhakti, or the prospect of complete union with the sole Being, whose names are innumerable but whose invitation to divine friendship is unmistakable.

With your thoughts all actions casting upon Me, devoted to Me,
Turning to discipline of mentality, keep your mind ever fixed on Me.
If your mind is on Me, you shall cross over all difficulties by My grace;
But if through egoism you will not heed, you shall perish.
Be Me-minded, devoted to Me; worshiping Me, revere Me;
And to Me alone shall you go; truly to you I promise it----
Because you are dear to Me.
Abandoning all other duties, go to Me as your sole refuge;
From all evils I shall rescue you: be not grieved!
This you may never tell to one not mortified, or without devotion,
To one that obeys not, or to one that murmurs against Me.
Whoever in utmost shall make known this secret to My devotees,
Will assuredly come to Me.
No one among men does anything more pleasing to Me than he,
None shall be dearer to Me on earth than he.
And whoever shall study this communion of duty between us two,
By him shall I be worshiped with knowledge: so I hold.

Built into the Gita are two speculative systems, theism and pantheism, which the author (or compiler) does not try to resolve. Various theories have been proposed to explain the two irreconcilable strata. One is that the poem was originally theistic and professed belief in a single transcendent Deity, distinct from the universe; this was later edited to satisfy monistic philosophers in the Brahmin tradition. More likely, however, the Gita was first a kind of Upanishad, or philosophic meditation cast in poetic form, whose original monistic thesis of an absolute Brahman was modified in the interests of a rising cult of Krishna, the incarnation of Vishnu (cosmic and solar deity), with whom some speculators had identified Brahman.

The Gita is clothed in the form of a story timed on the eve of a great battle, featuring Arjuna, a reflective warrior who hesitates about entering hostilities because of the carnage in which this will result. While brooding over the death of so many people, including his loved ones, the god Krishna rebukes his scrupulosity “that leads neither to heaven nor to honor.”

Krishna explains that once a person has been born into the world, it is forever and that he will never die. Souls are without beginning and without end, and the enclosure of a soul in a particular body is unimportant. Consequently there is no real slaying, for at death the soul puts off one body only to put on another, much as a man removes and puts on his clothes.

These bodies come to an end, it is declared, of the everlasting, unperishing, incomprehensible, Body-Dweller. Therefore fight.
This never is born, and never dies, nor may it after being come again to be not.
This unborn, everlasting, abiding Ancient is not slain when the body is slain.
As man lays aside worn-out garments and takes others that are new, so the Body-Dweller puts away worn out bodies and goes to others that are new.
Swords cut This not, fire burns This not, water wets This not, wind dries This not.
Unshown is This called, unthinkable This, unalterable This,
therefore knowing it is this wise, you do well not to grieve.

So much for theory. As for practice, Krishna reminds the hero to exert himself, yet not seek reward for the work that he does. Rewards do not belong to the Self but to the passing modes of (bodily) nature. Krishna had advocated this teaching in his many previous births, even as he himself works and yet is workless. Epitomized in one statement, “On action alone be your interest, never on its fruits. Let not the fruits of action be your motive, nor be your attachment to inaction.” [9]

The highest virtue, however, is not mere stoicism, not seeking reward, nor “holding in indifference alike pleasure and pain, gain and loss, conquest and defeat,” but meditation on Self or the indestructible Reality within. “For the man whose delight is in Self, who finds contentment in the Self, and satisfaction only in the Self, there is nothing for which he should work.” [10]

Unfortunately man’s desires betray him into ambition and blind him to the real values of things. Hence the advice “by constraining the senses, free yourself from this sinful one that destroys knowledge and discernment.” No doubt the senses are exalted. But “higher than the senses is the mind, higher than the mind is understanding; and higher than understanding is This,” namely, knowing Self to be higher than understanding, and supporting the self by Self. [11]

Entreated to identify himself, Krishna reveals the heart of Hindu theology. He describes his origin by his own power, his frequent incarnations, his right of domain over the good and wicked in the world, his finality as the goal to which disciplined souls are destined even to entering the divine estate.

Though unborn and unchanging of essence, and though Lord of born beings, yet resorting to My own material nature, I come into being by my own mysterious power.
For whenever the law fails and lawlessness up rises, then do I bring myself to embodied birth.
To guard the righteous, to destroy evildoers, to establish the law, I come into birth age after age.
Whoever knows my wondrous birth and actions as they truly are, goes not to rebirth on leaving the body. He comes to Me, Arjuna.
Rid of passions, fear and wrath, made of Me, taking refuge of Me, cleansed by the austerity of knowledge, many have come into My Being.

While depreciating the value of action and warning against the hope of reward, Krishna recommends sacrifice to the deity, since “not even this world is for him who does not offer sacrifices. How then the next? Yet material oblations are not the peak of divine worship. “Better than sacrifice that consists of substance is the sacrifice of knowledge.”

Thus the Gita gives recognition to two opposing schools of Hindu thought, which it calls the “speculative” and the “discipline method.” By the first is meant salvation through the power of perfect knowledge, which implies passivity or withdrawal from the world and renunciation of activity. By the second is meant the contrary, the quest of emancipation by selfless performance of duty. Both methods are approved, with full credit to the “way of philosophic speculation.” Nevertheless the Gita normally favors “disciplined activity” or “indifference in action,” which, in turn leads to knowledge, and is more simple than the way of knowledge and inaction.

Towering above both methods, however, is the easiest way to salvation---the way of devotion or love of the deity. By filling his being with Krishna, and doing all his acts as a service to him, man attains that union with the Eternal which is final salvation.

Whatever be your work, your eating, your sacrifice, your gift, your mortification, make it an offering to Me.
I am indifferent to all born things; there is none that I hate, none that I love. But they that worship Me with devotion, dwell in Me and I in them.
Even though he should be an evildoer who reveres Me with devotion, he shall be deemed good, for he has the right intention.
Quickly his soul becomes righteous, and he goes to eternal peace. Be assured that no one who is devoted to me is lost.

To be sure, this highest “path of devotion” carries an implicit contradiction. The Krishna elsewhere pictured as all-provident is here said to be “indifferent to all born thing,” and in the very act of soliciting the highest human devotion, professes there is “none that I love.” Such incompatibilities are only part of the larger unresolved issue in the Gita, of an authentic personalist theism paralleled by the Vedantic theory of an impersonal, world soul Absolute. But this very tension may explain the Gita’s popularity among Hindus who see it as a reflection of their own ambivalent views of the universe.

Hindu Sectarianism

Two types of sectarianism are discernible in the history of Hinduism, one theological and the other mainly philosophical. The latter accounted for the rise of such heretical systems as Buddhism and Jainism, and will be examined later. On its theological side, the Hindu religion had sown the seeds of division when it failed to explain the equal dignity of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva in the sacred writings. Brahma was not a popular deity, and quite naturally the followers of Vishnu and Siva each claimed the honors of supremacy for their favorite. Out of this rivalry grew two distinct sects---Vishnuism and Sivaism, which became solidified through centuries of sectarian writings call the Puranas (Antiquities), extending from the first centuries of the Christian era to the twelfth.

Not the least feature of both types of sectarianism is the role played by Krishna, who had already gone through three radical developments---from warrior, to demi-god, to the equal of Brahman. In the Puranas he appears in all the lewd obscenity that has deeply (and unfortunately) colored the Western ideas of Oriental religion.

On reaching manhood, Krishna gave himself up to a life of dissipation and unbridled debauchery. He did not even respect the virtue of his sisters or his own mother. After carrying them off by force, he treated them as if they were his legitimate wives. After slaying his uncle, he carried off the maiden Rukhmani, but the legend says he had sixteen thousand wives and a prodigious number of children.

Yet within the same Puranic tradition we find Krishna not only worshiped as a god, or equated with Brahman, but he receives adoration from Brahma (the rival of Vishnu and Siva) and is praised in language that simply identified him with the world. “Krishna is the Soul of all souls, the Self of all selves, with whom all souls are eternally united. In reality it is Krishna who has become, indeed, the whole universe.” [14]

Between the two sects, Vishnuism and Sivaism, the former conceives its deity as benevolent and many times incarnate through mercy for the human race. Consequently the Vishnava is primarily a devotionist. His piety is analogous to the love of a mother towards her child or of a husband for his wife. The two main incarnations of Vishnu, Rama and Krishna, symbolize the deity’s concern for the weakness and needs of mankind.

Sivaism, on the other hand, venerates its god more out of fear than love. Siva is in a special manner the great god of the Himalaya mountains; inaccessible, transcendent, absorbed in divine contemplation. The Ganges River came down from the heavens because Siva bore on his matted hair the forceful impact of its falling torrents. He creates and destroys, and at times obscures by his power of illusion (maya), and on occasion may even be gracious to the suffering. Mythologically he is the successor of the malicious Vedic divinity, Rudra, author of sickness and death. Understandably Vishnuism is more popular and more widely diffused than Sivaism in modern India.

Besides the two main divisions numerous other sects are scattered among the millions of Hindus, and often impossible to classify because they have no ecclesiastical structure and no definable creed.

Saktism concentrates on the cult of the feminine form of the god and professes belief in the sakti or “divine energy.” It may best be described as worship of the Mother-Goddess, Sakti, either alone or in the company of her consort, or as one of the many feminine deities that arose in Hindu mythology outside the Vedic tradition. The sacred books of Saktism are the Tantra, written about the eighth century A.D., but reflecting theories prevalent for some three hundred years before. A thousand popular stories are told about Sakti (or her equivalents): Her birth in the mountains, her youth, her courtship of Siva, and her children. Like Sivaism, the cult of the goddess on its speculative side is directed towards an identification of the individual with the Supreme Being.

Lesser sectarian groups generally follow some religious reformer, ascetic or sage, and have developed a literature of their own. The Madhva sect preaches salvation through the immediate and intuitive knowledge of the deity; the Vallabhas teach a variety of divine grace; the Gosvamins are heads of monasteries and temples; for the Kapalikas the chief acts of worship are singing and dancing; Pasupatas seek to attain ecstasy by means of violent practices; the Lingayats are directed by wandering monks who reject the Veda, caste system and images; the Bhagavatas profess an extreme form of devotionalism and interpret the eroticism of Hindu mythology in terms of mystical love.

Basic Religious Principles

Every analysis of Hindu religious principles must take into account the two main segments of Hindu society, the popular or undeveloped majority and the intellectual minority, which some have aptly called the “outer” and “inner” forms of Hinduism.

Outer Hinduism

The ordinary Hindu believes in many gods, out of a pantheon estimated at “thirty-three crore” or thirty-three times ten million male and female deities. Warrant for this polytheism is found in the Rig Veda, which honors a profusion of gods and prescribes sacrifices in their name. Chief among the animal sacrifices are two possessions that the ancient Aryans most prized, the horse and the cow. The latter is the animal most often given divine honors in Hinduism, and no pious Hindu would ever kill one.

Out of these deities the average Hindu chooses one as patron god (istadevata) who becomes the object of special veneration. He may have a vague idea of Brahman, but is quite satisfied to consider his favorite the only god, who is normally Brahma, Vishnu or Siva, or one of their incarnations like Krishna or Rama. All this is confirmable to the Vedas which allow the worship of God under any form and in any manner; nor is there any objection to joining the worship of a favorite god together with other deities. Polytheism, therefore, is the hallmark of the popular Hindu religion, unless we call it henotheism, in which one god is preferred but others are not excluded.

Along with the worship of the gods, Hinduism teaches transmigration of souls and obedience to caste customs. The two concepts are closely related. The theory is that when a man dies his soul goes to the particular heaven of his particular god, as a reward for devotion to that deity. Later the soul returns to earth and is rejoined to another body, by transmigration from one corporeal dwelling to another. This process goes on forever, and the soul is inexorably bound to the “wheel of existence” that turns around and around, from birth to death to birth to death, in unending repetition.

Sojourns in heaven between reincarnations are temporary and their duration depends on the virtue practiced before death. Souls are rewarded (and punished) on earth also, as may be seen from the fact that some are healthy and others sick, some wise and others ignorant. A soul is born into one of these groups according to its merits in previous bodily lives.

This doctrine is the key to understanding the caste system in Hinduism. For the Hindus believe that a person belongs to a high caste as a reward for virtue in a previous existence. Similarly demerits, or the Hindu equivalent of the consequences of sin, explain why some people belong to a low caste, like the Musahars (Mouse Eaters) or to the lowest group of Pariahs (Untouchables) who belong to no caste at all. They are at the opposite end of the Hindu caste system, ranging from the highest, the Brahmins (Priestly case) through lower but still elevated classes like the Rakputs (Kings Sons) or Kshatriyas (Rulers).

Orthodox Hindus believe the castes are fixed and irrevocable, determined solely by one’s conduct in a prior bodily existence. Nothing can change a man’s lot during life to place him in a higher caste, but if he is faithful to caste regulations he may deserve this privilege in a future reincarnation, even to becoming a Rajput or Brahmin.

Inner Hinduism

Parallel with this popular form of Hinduism is the religion of the educated and intellectuals. They follow the Upanishads, tolerate idols on the ground that this helps the ordinary man to pray and offer a sophisticated balance to the henotheism of the masses. Two strains in this “inner” Hinduism must be carefully distinguished: the more familiar pantheism which holds there is only one reality, Brahman, the foundation of all beings; and the less well known but widespread position which admits some kind of distinction between Brahman and the individual soul. Common to both schools are certain basic attitudes towards the deity and the prospects of escape from the “wheel of existence.”

Brahman is the Absolute beyond all multiplicity, change, division or relation. It is the One Reality which is the Ground and Principle of all things. Nothing can be predicated of Brahman because all qualities or attributes would contradict the absoluteness and unicity of the Supreme Reality. Brahman is, but we should be limiting Its infinity if we said that Brahman is this or that. To know correctly one must resort to negation, the “not this not that” of the Upanishads. When Hindus speak of Brahman to they do not refer to God as Creator, Ruler or Savior. They even affirm that Brahman is impersonal because It is rather the Godhead than God, apprehended by relation to the world as an object of devotion. They do not pray to Brahman, they meditate on It.

The descent from this impersonal unicity of Brahman to pantheism came by way of a radical concept of the universe. Hindu philosophers, in common with thinkers in all nations, held to the principle that “Out of nothing, nothing comes into existence,” yet not in the sense that nothing exists without sufficient cause, but that without a material cause nothing can be produced, even by divine power. Given this premise, they found themselves affirming that God is immanent in all of apparent creation. “Truly,” they declare, “all this is Brahman.” [15]

Evidently such monism, which makes God impersonal and the world unreal, does not correspond to the common sense notion of religion, which is the relation between a rational creature and a personal Deity. Hindu speculators recognized this and sought for a compromise between their own intellectualism and the popular religion. Their compromise in essence was to say there are two aspects to Brahman. God considered in Himself is the Absolute and Impersonal; but as manifesting Himself in creation He is Relative and Personal. There is consequently a two-fold Brahman: one that is phenomenal and another noumenal. The first is the existing, visible world; the second is the reality which underlies the world. Only the latter is absolutely real; the former is only relatively real, i.e., to us. Technically Brahma (masculine gender) is the sensibly perceptible universe, whereas Brahman (neuter gender) is the impersonal Absolute.

Texts abound in which this duality is proposed. “There are two forms of Brahman; the crude and the subtle, mortal and immortal, limited and unlimited, definite and indefinite.” [16]

Correspondingly there are two forms of religion, one higher and the other lower. The lower type consists in seeing Brahman in its various created forms and is expressed in the positive dictum, asti, asti (it is this, it is this). But the higher type consists in apprehending the Brahman Absolute in Itself, by way of a negative axiom, neti, neti (not this, not this).

Can these two kinds of religion be reconciled? Not really, according to the Hindu elite, except that one may be suffered to continue until the other is (if ever) discovered. The “pedagogic truth” in Hinduism’s sacred books which claims that Siva or Krishna is God is not really true; neither is it true that we and the world around us really exist as distinct entities. Simple people who take the sacred books literally are mistaken, and when they assume their own individual existence they are under an illusion. Indeed they are an illusion. Were it otherwise, they would understand that they are the One, Infinite God who is all there was, is or ever will be.

Professing pantheism, “inner” Hinduism says to the multitude of uncultured believers that those who follow the ways of the gods receive the reward of the gods, a brief taste of heaven between successive rebirths on earth. But they will never be delivered from the “wheel of existence” with its illusory lives and deaths until they realize that only God exists and all else is illusion (maya). To achieve this liberation three ways are mainly proposed: by means of concentration and self-control (yoga), through unselfish performance of duty, and by way of intense devotion or contemplative love.

Indian spirituality is perhaps best known by the practice of yoga, derived from the root yuj, to unite or yoke, which in context means union with the Absolute. Numerous stages are distinguished in the upward progress towards the supreme end of identification, by means of knowledge, with the deity: the practice of moral virtues and observances of ethical rules, bodily postures, control of internal and external senses, concentration of memory and meditation--finally terminating in total absorption (samadhi), “when the seer stands in his own nature.”

Although the psychic element is far more important in Yoga than the bodily, the latter is more characteristic of this method of Hindu liberation. Its purpose is to secure the best disposition of body for the purpose of meditation. The practice begins with a simple device for deep and slow breathing.

Stopping the right nostril with the thumb, through the left nostril fill in air, according to capacity. Then without any interval, throw the air out through the right nostril, closing the left one. Again inhaling through the right nostril, eject through the left, according to capacity. Practicing this three or five times at four hours of the day, before dawn, during midday, in the evening, and at midnight, in fifteen days or a month purity of the nerves is attained. [17]

After such preliminary exercises, more complicated practices are undertaken, but not without the guidance of a professional yogin called guru. The meditative phase begins with fixing the mind on one object, which may be anything whatsoever, “the sphere of the navel, the lotus of the heart, the light of the brain, the tip of the nose, the tip of the tongue, and such like parts of the body”-- or also God. Gradually by sheer concentration of attention the mind reaches a state of trance, where all mental activity stops and the consciousness rests in itself. The state of samadhi is the culmination of yoga and beyond it lays release. The life of the soul is not destroyed but is reduced to its “unconscious and permanent essence.”

Not everyone can practice yoga, at least not in the sense of prolonged application of the mind, disengaged from the phenomenal knowledge of the world and coming face to face with its own subsisting ground which is the Universal Spirit. Many cultured believers who take Hinduism seriously seek release from endless reincarnations by way of unselfish performance of duty, especially through works of charity and social welfare. Its full Sanskrit equivalent is karmaphalatyaga, which is generally shortened to karma. This was basically Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of life and the motive force of his crusade against untouchability. His war on this miasma was conducted in terms of Hinduism. “I do not want to be reborn,” he stated, “but if I have to be reborn I should be reborn an untouchable so that I may have their sorrows, sufferings, and the affronts leveled against them in order that I may endeavor to free myself and them from their miserable condition.” [18]

Other Hindus are inspired to follow the Vedic praise of Bhakti or loving devotion as the means of final release. Their system, if it may be called such, does not differ radically from yoga except for a shift of emphasis on the will and emotions. It teaches the rules of love and directs the affections with varying stress on Self (Atman) or outside of self on that which is infinite Beauty.

Whosoever is desired by this Atman attains this Atman and to him this Atman is revealed. Whosoever is intensely loved by this Atman will become the favorite of this Atman. Thus, in order that the loved one might attain the Atman, the Lord himself intervenes. For the Lord said, “I shall direct the will of those who offer Me constant attachment and adore Me with love and I shall show them the way to reach Me.” This continual remembrance is expressed by the word Bhakti. [19]

Theistic interpreters of the method of devoted love call it the highest expression of authentic natural mysticism, which has no desire to merge into the unconsciousness of the Absolute, but rather to be conscious of the presence of a personal God and savor Him intensely. Undoubtedly some Hindus so conceive Bhakti spirituality. But they are exceptions to a speculative tradition which tries to solve the antinomy between the claims of religion asking for a personal god and those of Hindu metaphysics, denying absolute transcendence to a personal being.

The object of the bhakta’s devotion, therefore, is not God but a god, the highest he can imagine, some individual being endowed with all the attributes that belong to the divinity, a being which is said to be the Supreme Person, identified even with Brahman, yet conceived as related and internally subject to change, affirmed as transcendent while seen against a philosophical background of a centuries-old pantheism.

Nevertheless the bhakta wants to love and give himself to a god he can see and touch and serve, a god who is near to his devotee with the promise of liberation from the eternal cycle. Throughout the writings of Hindu mystics, there is a pathetic yearning for the incarnate god in human form, only partially satisfied by the avataras (descents) of Hindu mythology.

Caste System

It would be inadequate to say that Hindu society is nothing more than the caste system, whose foundations rest on the earliest Vedic sources. Nevertheless, the social ethics of the Hindu religion is certainly based upon caste.

Traditionally the origin of castes goes back to the Rig Veda, which says that, “One fourth of the Supreme Being constitutes all beings, while three fourths of Him are immortal and stand above. With the one-fourth below, He extended on all sides into the animate and the inanimate….His face became the Brahmin. His arms were made into the Kshatriya. His thighs became the Vaisya. From His feet the Sudra was born.” [20]

Many historians believe this passage describes the social organization created by the Aryans after they had settled on Indian soil. As a theocracy it was ruled by divinely appointed kings (Kshatriya), assisted by priests and ministers who explained the code of laws (Brahmins), arming and trade were handled by the Vaishyas. The aborigines (Sudras) were reduced to slavery by the upper three classes.

Since the Sanskrit word for these categories is varna (color), it seems the racial element played some part in first stratifying the caste system. Brahmins (white) were assigned the highest duties: studying, teaching, sacrificing, and assisting others with alms and gifts. Kshatriya (red) were also allowed study, sacrifice and almsgiving, but further privileged to use weapons and protect life and material possessions. The Vaisya (yellow) had privileges similar to the preceding, along with the duty to trade and tend cattle. Finally the Sudra (black) had the obligation of serving the other three varnas. In time the prohibition of inter-marriage would create new classes of people that later proliferated into the twenty-five hundred castes of Medieval India.

Other scholars prefer to add the certain fact that prior to the Aryan invasion there had been well-established religious and magical taboos, which together with occupational monopolies provided a logical basis of the caste system. The Aryans exploited the existing social divisions they found in India, and in time superimposed on them the dogma of karma (deed done), by which every man was told that his birth in a particular caste was the result of his previous existence, and that strict observance of the rules of his caste gave him the only hope of (possible) eventual liberation.

Already in the Gita, the hero is persuaded by Krishna to fight because such is his duty as a member of the ruling class. Previous arguments had appealed to the immorality of the true Self.

Look at it from the point of view of your caste duty (svadharma). Why hesitate? For a Kshatriya, is there anything more noble than a righteous war? Happy are the Kshatriyas to whom such a battle as this comes. It opens a door to heaven. Were you to refuse to fight, you would spurn your duty and incur disgrace and sin. Everyone will speak ill of you in the future. For a man of honor, that kind of disgrace is worse than death. [21]

Outside the pale of the four varnas are the untouchables who do not properly belong to any caste. They are the Pariahs whom Gandhi affectionately named the Harijans (the people of the god Hari), and who are further divided into a great number of subcastes.

According to traditional Hinduism, the life of the members of the upper three castes should be spent in four successive stages (ashramas), which are carefully regulated. First comes the “stage of the celibate” who should “abstain from wine, meat, perfumes, garlands, sweetmeats and women. He should neither look at nor touch women. He should never strike anybody.” [22] After studying the Vedas he is to marry and begin his life as householder, with manifold duties stressing hospitality, almsgiving, industry and fidelity to caste prescription. With the advancement of age, the faithful Hindu (alone or with his wife) should retire from active duty in order to pray, practice austerity and finally reach the state of a Sannyasi which is the apex of human morality.

While these prescriptions are only remotely approximated in modern times, they represent an ideal that Hindus still respect: as, for instance, in the character sketch of the Sannyasi portrayed in the law books of the castes.

Wishing neither for death nor for life, the Sannyasi should wait for the appointed time as a laborer for his wages. His feet guided by his eyes, the water he drinks strained through a cloth, his speech purified by truth, his conduct governed by reason. Let him endure insult without retaliation; let him have no enemy, knowing that his body is of no value. He should never answer anger with anger, and he should bless those who curse him. Truthful in his speech, he should find his delight in the Supreme and be indifferent to all pleasure; having no friend but himself, let him wander here upon earth in quest of true happiness. [23]

No provision is made for the special training of women, who are supposed to acquire the qualities of their caste in life as wives and mothers in the household in which they are born.

Apart from its religious justification, the caste system is a complex phenomenon which is hard to define. However, here are certain characteristics that stand out to distinguish it from any comparable structure in other religions. The caste may be considered a closed social group, theoretically based on heredity, so that a person belongs to the caste in which he is born. In Vedic times a non-Aryan could become a Brahmin, provided he had the qualifications. Later on the three primary castes became separated by watertight partitions, making it practically impossible to pass from one to the other.

Each caste, moreover, has an independent organization, a nominal head and council which may meet on special occasions. It has common festivals and common usages, particularly in the matter of marriage and diet. As a rule, members of a caste practice the same profession or trade; and within their groups they are liable to certain penalties, of which the most serious is expulsion from the caste.

Among the castes, only the first (Brahmins) is invested with truly religious authority, although lower groups participate in varying degrees in the ritual ceremonies. Technically the Brahmins stand at the top of the social hierarchy with corresponding privileges. Ancient tradition says that “the very birth of a Brahmin is the eternal incarnation of the Law.” For centuries they were the philosophers and writers who taught the Vedas and were entrusted with all that pertains to the priesthood. They were required to meditate on the Hindu scriptures, bathe twice daily in running water, become strict vegetarians and wear the sacred thread symbolizing their caste. Without the aura of near-divinity which formerly surrounded the Brahmins, they are still the intellectual leaders of Hinduism, numbering such men as Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Formerly the warrior caste, the Kshatriyas were to defend the right, protect the weak and use force when necessity required. Indian sovereign used to be chosen from this caste and until modern times they were members of the nobility. At present only the Rajputs, a segment of this military class, survive in any number. Most of the others have entered clerical professions and represent a kind of middle class in Hindu society.

Vaisyas have the business of dealing with material goods of every description. They promote internal and foreign trade, engaged in farming and industry, and played a major role in creating the Republic of India. Mahatma Gandhi belonged to a sub-caste of the Vaisyas, the so-called Baniya or grain-merchant clan.

Unlike the Pariah untouchables, the fourth and lowest caste of Sudras have never been slaves, but were free to carry on or leave their work and place of employment. Their service of the upper castes was not such that others might not perform it, but it was theirs by class privilege. Servants, shepherds, artisans, and workmen of all kind were traditionally Sudras. An interesting restriction to which they were subject was the prohibition to learn the Vedas, but with the option of studying the great epics and Puranas instead. Subdivided into hundreds of subordinate castes, they are the majority of India’s population and Brahmin writers still describe the Sudras as born to labor and naturally unable to do anything better or higher.

Outside all the castes, and barred from ever becoming sannyasis, the untouchable Pariahs are unknown origin, although the classic Laws of Manu state that “illicit marriages between people of different castes, marriages contrary to rule, omission of the prescribed ceremonies, these are the origin of the impure classes.” Hindu theology would explain their existence in terms of Karma and punishment for a bad life in a previous existence. Since Gandhi’s crusade in their favor, their condition has much improved, notably in greater freedom to intermarry with members of the castes and worship in temples that had formerly been closed to them. Employed as tanners, butchers, sweepers, and the like, their history includes a fair quota of Hindu “saints,” since the same Laws of Manu admit that in certain cases Pariahs of the lowest and most degraded groups may obtain supreme bliss without passing through reincarnation.

Ritual and Worship

For most Hindus, worship and ritual are the mainstay of religion, and more important than what god they choose for patron or whether, as for many intellectuals, they accept any personal deity at all. The whole of a faithful Hindu’s life is punctuated at regular intervals by rites and external practices to which he is bound if he wants to maintain the Aryan Dharma (Sanskrit for “law”), as the traditional Hindu way of life is called.

Rites, Sacrifices and Observances

The variety and complexity of religious practices in Hinduism defy classification. Castes, sects, and philosophical schools are the main source of difference; but modern conditions in the city demand further adaptations of a ritual that was meant for rural and not urban ways of life.

Since the Brahmins are not only the highest social caste but also their whole life is supposed to be controlled by ritual, their religious practices serve as models for the other castes. A survey of their customs will give a cross-section of the ritual observances throughout Hinduism.

Rising before sunrise, a Brahmin should avoid looking at any inauspicious objects or persons, like a widow or a sweeper. His right foot must touch the ground first, and once out of bed he rinses his mouth three times and winds the holy thread round his neck and over the right ear. After bowing to the sun he takes the morning ablutions, preferably in running water, and concludes with a prayer to the gods, ancestors and sages.

Then begins the morning prayer (Pratah-sandhya), which must be finished before sunrise. While seated on a low stool and facing the east, the Brahmin sips water and pronounces the sacred formulas (mantras) over the ashes he has brought with him to mark his forehead, arms, ribs and knees. Closing one nostril after the other, he exhales and inhales; repeating the consecrated gayatri invocation, “Let us meditate on the excellent radiance of the divine sun. May he stimulate our minds.” Besides other prescriptions, the gayatri is repeated one hundred and eight times on a rosary counting the beads.

Following this is the offering of ghee (semi-fluid butter), curd and rice to the fire. Called homa, the morning sacrifice must precede the first meal, and is followed by spiritual reading with another detailed ritual. The right hand is placed successively in front of the mouth, the eyes, ears, nose, lips, top of the head, chin, forearms, navel, and the back in order to invoke the gods and attain their protection. After repeating the gayatri, a sacred book is briefly read.

Next comes the triple propitiation ceremony. After sipping water and facing east, the worshiper pours water from his straightened finger while the sacred thread hangs over the left shoulder. This is to propitiate the gods. He repeats the pouring, but now between the two little fingers, with thread hanging around the neck and he facing west---to propitiate the sages. Lastly he faces south, thread hanging from the right shoulder, and pours water between thumb and first finger of right hand---to propitiate the ancestors.

A final ritual is the worship of the deity, normally in a small room of the home where an image of the favorite god is reserved. Part of the ceremony is to use blessed water which the Brahmin sprinkles over the utensils of worship (bell, copper vessel, spoon, sandal-wood paste, incense, conch shell) and over the worshiper himself. Special prayers and rubrics depend on the deity who is worshiped. At the end comes a prayer asking forgiveness of sins.

For the sake of convenience, shorter rituals are provided to cover the five daily essentials: bath, morning prayer, sacrifice, reading and worship. Even where Hindus have given up the long morning ceremonies, they still daily recite the gayatri to the sun.

Sacrifices on a large scale, as practiced in Vedic times, are now practically reduced to oblations honoring the home and temple deities. Occasionally, however, something of the ancient custom is revived to propitiate the gods on a grand scale, as in the expiation ritual where a number of Brahmins are invited to supply by proxy the estimated two million times that a householder is supposed to recite the gayatri during his lifetime. The priests may take several days to complete the required quota, while pouring ghee on the fire during the recitation.

In a broad sense, sacrifice for the Hindus takes on various meanings and as such is prescriptive for every day. Reading the sacred writing is considered a sacrifice to Brahman, the offering of propitiation is sacrifice to one’s ancestors, the morning homa satisfies for a sacrifice to the gods, feeding of animals is said to be sacrifice to the element, and hospitality is sacrifice to human beings.

Temple worship for the Hindus is not strictly liturgical in the sense of a public ceremony. When the faithful come to a shrine, the priest alone performs the ceremonies, with no participation of the laity, who join in the ritual by reading some holy book, reciting their beads or joining in religious song. Instructions are also sometimes given.

In the innermost chamber of the temple is an image of the main god, while other shrines may surround the principal one in honor of lesser deities. The daily ritual consists in treating the image as a living person. Before dawn the god is awakened with sweet music, he is bathed, often by washing a mirror reflection, and then dressed and made ready to meet the pilgrims for the day. Meals are served him twice daily, and before sunset another light refreshment followed by changing of clothes and retirement for the night. The god Siva is usually represented by the phallic symbol, to which the same kind of ritual is given, and in some temples this image is bathed continually.

Though blood sacrifices to the male gods are rare, the goddesses, especially Kali, are often propitiated by the offering of animals beheaded by the priests, and their blood used by the people to smear on their foreheads. Private worship in the temples requires the saying of prayers and he offering of an oblation to the gods at the hands of a priest. After Sacrifice, the faithful receive a small portion of their offering to the deity as a memento.

Vows are often made to the gods for obtaining some favor like the birth of a child or cure of an illness. Votaries also promise some act of mortification if their petition is heard, say, walking around the temple a certain number of times or abstaining from salt for several weeks or months.

Apart from the regular home or temple ceremonies, the Hindu religion is filled with special observances that affect every detail of a person’s life. Consulting horoscopes before marriage or choice of profession is done by professional astrologers, whose decisions are highly respected even by the most educated classes.

Every day of the week carries some auspicious or inauspicious regulation. On Mondays cloth and shoes should not be bought, nor journeys eastward started, but birth and weddings are promised good fortune; Tuesdays there should be no sowing, shaving or shopping, and traveling north is discouraged; Wednesdays are lucky for the birth of a boy, but unlucky for a girl, and anything done on Wednesday will bear double fruit; Thursday white food is recommended, but not travel southward; Friday is a good day for buying land but bad for traveling west; Saturdays are inauspicious for almost everything, except to begin a friendship, engage a servant or move into a new home; Sundays are days of fast for barren women and lepers, and ideal for travel in any direction.

Similarly certain days of the lunar month are either lucky or ominous. The eleventh day of each fortnight is the holiest and most propitious; whereas the first, fourth, ninth, and fourteenth are the opposite. On the last day of the month, the moonless day, no marriages ever take place because of the risks involved.

Together with the gods, who are invoked and worshiped, Hinduism has a myriad of demons and evil spirits against whose influence the people must be protected. For this reason amulets are worn, usually around the arm, and contain an image of a god, a piece of paper or bark on which some spell has been written, a coil of thread or a tuft of hair.

Spirits who wander are propitiated by giving them a home and due homage. They are often represented by a stone, smeared with vermilion, and surrounded by other stones. During worship, the stone is bathed, smeared with ghee, the vermilion renewed and oblations of fruit and sweetmeats are offered. Particularly dangerous spirits are propitiated by bloody sacrifices, which may involve the devil-dance performed by a medium who allows himself to be temporarily possessed by the demon, to the accompaniment of furious music. Exorcisms are also practiced, and vary from physical violence to recitation of simple prayers.

Major Purifications

Although Hinduism has no sacramental system, the term it uses for special purifications, Samskara, has been adapted by Christians as the standard word for “sacrament.” Hindus disagree on the actual number of samskaras, some counting as many as forty, including the household ceremonies previously described. However, four at least are commonly recognized as primary, and coincide with the most important events of a person’s life: birth, initiation, marriage and death.

Shortly after marriage a ceremony of oblation to the sun takes place, in which husband and wife pray for the conception of a son, “Faithful wife” the husband concludes, “give birth to a son who will live long and perpetuate our line.” Three months later the ceremony is repeated, followed in turn by three pre-natal ordinances in the fourth, sixth and eighth months of pregnancy.

At the time of birth, the father anoints the child’s tongue with a rice and barley emulsion and gives it ghee mixed with gold powder to eat, and four months later offers his offspring to the moon. Either then or on the first birthday the child is given a name, chosen by the father after invocations and according to which lamp burns more brightly before one of two tablets signed with alternate names. Touching the mouth, nose, ears and eyes of the baby, the father pronounces two prayers, whispering the name in the mother’s left and the child’s right ear. According to the caste, different prefixes are added, for example sharma (auspicious) for Brahmins and dasa (servant) for Sudras.

Initiation ceremonies are reserved for boys, which nowadays take place at the time of adolescence. The main features are a sacrifice of ghee; holding of water in the hands and dropping same; being touched on shoulders, navel, and heart by a religious preceptor; and having the sacred thread imposed in three strands---of cotton for Brahmin, and of hemp or wool for the lower castes. From the initiation on, the Hindu must perform the religious duties proper to his class. Many Hindus are faithful in reciting the gayatri prayer throughout life.

Although some changes are inevitable in modern India, the average Hindu marriage is pre-arranged by the parents of the prospective groom and bride, whose first duty is to consult a genealogy expert to make sure of a right choice. As a rule, bride and groom do not meet before marriage, though an exchange of photographs is permitted.

Astrologers are further consulted about the day and time of the wedding, at which the bride’s father officiates as religious minister. Sprinkling blessed water on the tied hands of the young couple, and reciting his own and their genealogies, he says to the groom, “I give you this my daughter, arrayed in clothes and ornaments, and devoted to Prajapati (Lord of the populace).” However the marriage consent is not officially given until the bride, at the request of the bridegroom, takes seven steps to symbolize her acceptance of him as her protector, master and husband.

Consistent with their belief in re-incarnation, as the Hindus approach death they wish to make sure that no ritual purification is omitted in order to ensure, if possible, final emancipation (moksha) and avoid return to earth for another round of bodily expiation. Just before death, the dying person is laid on the floor to escape the evil spirits who roam between heaven and earth. Formerly they were brought to die at the banks of the river Ganges.

Immediately after death the body is washed, wrapped in new cloth, and taken in procession on a stretcher, led by the person who carries the jar of fire to be sprinkled with Ganges water, and burned at a slow fire (about three hours) into which ghee is regularly poured. Children under eighteen months, ascetics, lepers and people with certain diseases are not burned but buried. Following the funeral a ritual of purification takes place, which goes on for eight to thirty days, as a prelude for the all-important shraddha ceremony on which the destiny of the deceased finally depends. Differing greatly according to caste and locality, the main feature of the shraddha is offering and invocations of ancestors, which should be done by the deceased person’s son and therefore explains why every Hindu is anxious about his fate after death until a son has been born to him.

Dominant Personalities

More than with most religions, Hinduism has depended on the leaders of Indian history who have shaped its religious culture. The number of lesser figures is legion, and even those who have made a substantial contribution are numerous. Certain names, however, stand out either because of influence is fully established by centuries of tradition and a dedicated following, or, in more recent times, because their ideas are considered representative of the best in Hindu thought.

Sankara (788-820) was the most noted of all Hindu commentators. Born into a Brahmin family of Malabar, Sankara early became noted for his wisdom and practice of yoga. He wandered from place to place, studying and teaching, either alone or with his disciple Padmapada. At Benares he wrote commentaries on the Brahman Sutras, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, and died in Kanchi at the age of thirty-two.

A creative thinker of the first rank, Sankara developed what has since become known as “illusionist monism,” or “non-dualism” (advaita), according to which the world and Brahman do not really exist separately. Only the One is real; the many are illusion or maya.

His writings show a sincere effort to give the doctrine of the Upanishads greater unity and coherence. He does this by distinguishing two forms of knowledge, a higher and lower, or more accurately, knowledge and science. The higher knowledge recognizes only one reality---the Self, which is inherently unknowable because it is subject and not object of knowledge. Outside the Self, the phenomenal world is knowable, indeed, but unreal. Sankara held it is the business of philosophy to distinguish between the two spheres and give the self a sense of unity with the infinite and uniquely real Brahman.

Since ethics and religion belong to the phenomenal world they are unreal. “The knowledge of active religious duty has for its fruit transitory felicity, and that again depends on the performance of religious acts. The inquiry into Brahman, on the other hand, has for its fruit eternal bliss and does not depend on the performance of any acts.” [24]

Although Sankara’s commentaries were originally personal interpretations of the Vedanta, or “end of the Vedas” section of the Hindu sacred writings, their doctrine became so influential it is often described simply as the Vedanta. Its purpose is to discover the identity of the objective reality of the universe with the subjective reality of the thing-in- itself, much as Kant used the term in his philosophy.

In common with Hindu thinkers before and since, Sankara insisted on the need for redemption, which he said can come only by the knowledge of this identity between Brahman and the self. “Release,” he taught, “is nothing but being Brahman. Therefore release is not something to be purified.” Its meaning has “not the slightest relation to any action, except knowledge.” [25] For persons qualified to obtain such knowledge life has no other significance. If a man knows Brahman, he is one with Brahman, who is neither agent nor enjoyer. He can say, “I neither was an agent or an enjoyer at any previous time, nor am I such at the present time, nor shall I be such at any future time.” [26] Taken literally this doctrine would destroy moral responsibility, but Sankara’s disciples insist that such is not the case for those truly enlightened.

About three centuries after Sankara arose another famous commentator, Ramanuja (1050-1137), who used the same Vedic texts to arrive at a different philosophy of life, a “qualified non-dualism,” which is still a type of monism, but with a difference. He rejected the distinction between the higher and lower knowledge, the idea of unreality in the world, and of the individual’s absolute identity with Brahman. He sought to explain the Vedanta on the theory of a supreme God of grace.

We know from the sacred writings that there is a Supreme Person, whose nature is absolute bliss and goodness, who is fundamentally antagonistic to all evil, who is the cause of the origination, sustenance, and dissolution of the world, who differs in nature from all other beings, who is all-knowing, who by his mere thought and will accomplishes all his purposes; who is an ocean of kindness, as it were, for all who depend on him, whose name is the highest Brahman. [27]

Souls are delivered from the cycle of birth and rebirth by their devotion to Brahman, and they are redeemed not by merger with the One but by enjoying intercourse with him.

Yet Ramanuja did not rise entirely above a monistic conception of reality. He spoke of the “highest Brahman which is the sole cause of the entire universe,” but at the same time held that, “of this Brahman, the individual selves are modes, in so far, namely, as they constitute its body.” Since the true nature of these selves is obscured by ignorance, we come to understand the highest Self by a process of release not unlike that of Sankara, except that instead of knowledge the redemptive means is devotion to Brahman. [28]

In modern times, Ramakrishna (1834-1886) was the founder of the mission which bears his name and whose purpose was to spread Hinduism beyond the borders of India to other nations. Born in the Hoogly district of Bengal as Gadadhar Chatterji, Ramakrishna Paramahmsa assumed this name when he became a sannyasin. Though uneducated in any formal sense, he produced a powerful impression on his contemporaries because of his personal history of intense religious striving and ability to teach the Hindu way of life in simple and vivid analogies.

Ramakrishna had a series of remarkable experiences, which began with hours of a kind of mystic ecstasy in the temple of the goddess Kali, where he served as priest. For years he sought release and unity with Brahman, mainly by a passionate devotion for Krishna which he cultivated by dressing himself as a woman and expressing himself in terms as graphic as those of “Radha, my paramour.”

Desiring to experience with other religious systems, he lived for a while as a Moslem and reflected for days about the life of Jesus. He finally concluded that while all religions are alike, “for the Hindus the ancient path, the path of the Aryan Rishis is the best.” His favorite deity was Kali.

After his death, his disciple Vivekananda (1863-1902) traveled far and wide to spread the teachings of the master. He spoke as the representative of India at the parliament of religions in Chicago in 1893, and on his return to India was received with enthusiasm as the successful protagonist of Hinduism to the Western world. Adopting certain Western methods of organization he founded a society of like-minded native Hindus and converts, whose headquarters are in Calcutta but with centers in many Indian cities and affiliates in other countries.

Ramakrishna, through Vivekananda, has been greatly responsible for the image of Hinduism prevalent in the West, and correspondingly their writings are a quarry for the Hindu estimate of alien faiths, notably the syncretistic notion that while all religious cultures are good, Hinduism at its best is superior to any other religion of mankind.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), one of the great poets of the Orient, symbolized in his person and writings the genuine spirit of modern Hinduism. His religion was based on a deep love between the Supreme soul and the soul of all existing beings. “In this love,” he felt, “strength and beauty, form and emotion, the limited and unlimited have all become one.” [29]

Tagore wrote a great deal on religious themes and after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1913 his influence outside India has been enormous. Perhaps no Hindu in the past century has offered the West a better insight into the character of his religion, or, according to the Indian People, more accurately described their philosophy of life. The fact that he wrote in English and Bengali made his work readily accessible to European and American readers.

“I am no authority on Metaphysics,” Tagore confessed. “In any controversial discussion regarding monism and dualism I shall remain silent.” Yet he was not silent on his own conception of the Deity or of his relations with the one he called God..

I can only say from what I feel that my innermost God has a joy in expressing Himself through me. This joy, this love pervades every part of my being, suffusing my mind, my intellect, this entire universe which is so vivid before me, my infinite past and my eternal destiny. This game of life is beyond my comprehension, and yet right within myself He is intent on playing His game of love continuously. [30]

He was often asked about his religion, and tried to satisfy those who inquired, while admitting that the categories of his thought transcended the facile beliefs of the common man.

What is generally called “religion,” I cannot say I have achieved within myself in a clear, deep-rooted form. But there has been in my mind a steady onward growth of something alive which I have felt on many occasions. It is not, by any means, a particular conception---but a deep awareness, a new awakening.
What the Scriptures say, whether they are true or not, I do not know. Most of the time they profess truths that are of little use to me. In fact they are quite non-existent as far as I am concerned. Whatever I build up to perfection with my life-efforts is the ultimate truth for me. [31]

The deepest religious sense he knew was the realization of affinity with the infinite universe. “I know that just as the stars, the planets, the sun and the moon shall ever exist,” so there has been in every man “a constant creative process from time immemorial.” But “what will be the outcome of all this I do not know,” nor did he think it necessary to inquire. [32] The essential thing was to foster communion with whatever this ultimate of existence may be, as he succinctly expressed it in a prayer which he composed on his eightieth birthday.

He is one alone and one attribute, and yet by His union with many powers creates infinite attributes fulfilling their hidden meanings. Into Him the world is dissolved finally, who is God from the beginning of creation. May He unite us with Mind that is auspicious. [33]

If Tagore identified religion with anything objective, it was with the love of mankind, “not in the practice of established customs and rites,” and still less in creedal beliefs. Its manifestation was to sympathize with all religions and never to reject any. After describing a variety of creeds, he asked himself, “which of these religions I claim for my own.” His answer, when sought in his innermost heart, was that “I am not in favor of rejecting anything, for I am only compete with the inclusion of everything. I want to accept all excluding nothing, for it is I, my friend, that waits outside to meet me.” [34] On this cryptic note he finished his final testament of religious faith.

Unlike Tagore in many ways, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan is yet one with him in the conviction that the essence of all religions is the same, since, as he explained, “religion is not a creed or code but an insight into reality.”

Radhakrishnan has shown himself a versatile genius, universally recognized and acclaimed for his remarkable ability as teacher, scholar, philosopher, statesman, and India’s cultural ambassador throughout the East and West. His wide learning, brilliant style and absolute tolerance brought him recognition as the greatest interpreter of Indian philosophy and religion in the present century.

Radhakrishnan is credited with two major contributions to Hindu thought: his re-interpretation of the doctrine of maya in the Vedanta system of Sankara, and his exposition of a profound philosophy of the religion of the spirit.

According to him, maya has not meant to Hindus that the world is all illusion. No doubt the world of everyday events and things is not the ultimate reality, but neither is it unreality. The only maya he admits is the mystery of how the finite rises from out of the bosom of the infinite, while discarding the simplistic Christian theory of creation.

We know that there is the absolute reality; we know that there is the empirical world; we know that the empirical world rests on the Absolute, but the how of it is beyond our knowledge. The hypothesis of creation is a weak one, and it assumes that God lived alone for some time and then suddenly it occurred to him to have company when he put forth the world. The theory of manifestation is not more satisfying, for it is difficult to know how the finite can manifest the infinite.

If we say God is transformed into the world, the question arises whether it is the whole of God that is transformed or only a part. If it is the whole, then there is no God beyond the universe and we lapse into lower pantheism. If it is only a part, then it means that God is capable of being partitioned. [35]

Since none of these theories satisfies him, Radhakrishnan prefers to believe, “it is not possible to determine logically the relation between God and the world.” The premise that runs through his voluminous books is the postulate that unless the mind can understand how something exists and can explain its nature, it should remain agnostic on the subject. Given the fact that “the history of philosophy in India and Europe has been one long illustration of the inability of the human mind to solve the mystery of God to the world,” it follows that “a wise agnosticism is more faithful to the situation” than spurious devices for evading the problem or authoritarian creeds which pretend to give the answer. [36]

His religion of the spirit, joined to a deep religious fervor and conviction, provided him with a concept of life that some have said is the most persuasive presentation of Hinduism since the time of Sankara. It is certainly the most intelligible to Western readers, since most of Radhakrishnan’s writings are in English, and his years of contact with European culture gave him the categories of thought needed to make an Oriental religion understandable in the West.

Experience, in Radhakrishnan’s terms, is the soul of religion, and all the religions of history are only extensions of the experienced insight of great men into reality. Thus Hindu religion “is not a founded religion’; nor does it center round any historical events. Its distinctive characteristic has been its insistence on the inward life of spirit. To know, possess, and be the spirit in this physical frame” has been the constant aim of the Hindu religious endeavor.

The Hindus look back to the Vedic period as the epoch of their founders. The Veda, the wisdom, is the accepted name for the highest spiritual truth of which the human mind is capable. It is the work of the rishis or the seers. The truths of the rishis are not evolved as the result of logical reasoning or systematic philosophy but they are the products of spiritual intuition, the drishti or vision. The rishis are not so much the authors of the truths recorded in the Vedas as the seers who were able to discern the eternal truths by raising their life-spirit to the plane of the universal spirit. [37]

However, although the Vedas are highest in value because they are deepest in insight, they are not alone in their penetration of being. Buddha, Moses, Christ and Mohammed also had visions of existence. Indeed “witnesses to the personal sense of the divine are not confined to the East.” Socrates, Plato, Augustine, Dante, Wesley and numberless others testify “to the felt reality of God.” The only mistake would be to equate this personal vision with its interpretation, since institutions abide, while interpretations change. “Theory, speculation, dogma, change from time to time” as the intuitions become better understood. Their value is acquired from their adequacy to experience.” [38]

When religious forms dissolve and interpretations are doubted, it is an invitation to get back to experience itself and reformulate its contents in more suitable terms, which Radhakrishnan believes he has done for Hinduism and suggests may be needed for other faiths as well.

Estimate of Christianity

The influence of Christianity on Hinduism is recognized in the purification of certain cultic divinities, like Krishna, who was rediscovered as the dignified god of the Gita and thus replaced the wanton shepherd god of the later Puranas, mischievous and lustful as no man could ever become. And more profoundly in modern times, the result of contact with the Christian West has affected Indian thought by extroverting its predominant individualism and preoccupation with self to the point of deification as Atman. Hindu writers with no sympathy for what they call Occidental materialism admit the chief impetus to the great social conscience in Hinduism has come from the West.

Quite alone among the religious leaders of the East, the father of his country, Mahatma Gandhi has spoken and written at length about Christianity, and thereby offers a valuable insight into Hindu religious thought.

When the prime mover in India’s struggle for independence was assassinated by one of his co-religionists in 1948, the assassin’s motive for the crime was partly that Gandhi seemed to be compromising on Hinduism and catering to Islam. The judgment was a commentary on the prevalent Hindu spirit which looks with sympathy, if not with positive favor, on other religious systems including Christianity.

In his autobiography, he tells about his early prejudice against Christians because some missionaries he met “used to stand in a corner near the high school (at Rajkot) and hold forth, pouring abuse on Hindus and their gods. I could not endure this.” Later when he heard about a convert who began to speak critically about the religion of his ancestors and their customs, “this thing created in me a dislike for Christianity.” [39]

However, this was only an early impression, which soon gave way to a broad tolerance that grew out of Gandhi’s long experience with Moslems, Christians, Buddhists and Sikhs, and was nourished by his devotion to a sixteenth century version of the religious epic Ramayana, that for three hundred years has been the most popular scripture among the common people of North India. Written by Tulasi Das (1532-1623), its philosophy is a simple gospel of salvation to all people, in homely and idiomatic vernacular (not as the Vedas and Gita in Sanskrit) that goes straight to the heart of the average Hindu, oppressed by the prospect of perpetual rebirth and depressed by the impossibility of the unlearned ever grasping the knowledge of the Absolute demanded by the metaphysicians of Hinduism. Centered in the epic are the exploits of Rama, one of the celebrated incarnations of the deity Vishnu, to whom Gandhi was so devoted (as a Vishnuvite) that his dying words were the invocation, “O Rama! O Rama!”

Writing in his mature years, Gandhi said “I regard the Ramayana of Tulasi Das the greatest book in all devotional literature.” It was the basis of his eclectic theory of toleration that illustrates to a marked degree the peculiar genius of the Hindu people.

As a young man he often joined in community worship with Mohammedans and Christians, and read the religious classics of the different religious with no fear of being unfaithful to his own traditions. In reading their texts, he discovered that “I was equiminded towards all these faiths although perhaps I was not then conscious of it. I do not find I ever had the slightest desire to criticize any of these religions merely because they were not my own, but read each sacred book in a spirit of reverence, and found the same fundamental morality in each.” [40] At times he could not understand what he read, or was bored by the contents, as with certain parts of the Old Testament, but he asked himself, “What was the meaning of saying that the Vedas were the inspired Word of God? If they were inspired, why not also the Bible and the Koran?” [41]

As a consequence, Gandhi’s theology accepted into fellowship every religious creed, which in turn made him the object of suspicion among those who were less syncretistic than he. He defended his positions.

In spite of my being a staunch Hindu, I find room in my faith for Christian and Islamic and Zoroastrian teaching, and therefore my Hinduism seems to some to be a conglomeration, and some have dubbed me an eclectic. Well, to call a man eclectic is to say that he has no faith, but mine is a broad faith, which does not oppose Christians. It is a faith based on the broadest possible toleration. It is that broad faith that sustains me. [42]

Not only did he defend himself against the charge of eclecticism but he took issue with those for whom religion means dogma and intransigence of faith. The need of the times, he felt, is not one religion but mutual respect for the devotees of different religions. “We want to reach not the dead level, but unity in divinity,” and any attempt to root out religious traditions is sacrilege. “The soul of religion is one, but is encased in a multitude of forms. The latter will persist to the end of time. Wise men will ignore the outward crust and see the same soul living under the variety of crusts.” [43] What exists in nature is equally true in religion---a fundamental unity running through all the diversity. Or from another viewpoint, “for me the different religions are beautiful flowers from the same garden, or they are branches of the same majestic tree. Therefore they are equally true, though being received and interpreted through human instruments equally imperfect.” [44]

Gandhi saw the issue in epistemological terms, which he derived from a theory of knowledge in which the mind always approaches truth without ever reaching absolute certitude.

We have not realized religion in its perfection, even as we have not realized God. Religion of our conception, being thus imperfect, is always subject to a process of evolution and re-interpretation. Progress towards Truth, towards God, is possible only because of such evolution. And if all faiths outlived by men are imperfect, the question of comparative merit does not arise. All faiths constitute a revelation of Truth, but all are imperfect, and liable to error. Reverence for other faiths need not blind us to their faults. We must be keenly alive to the defects of our own faith also, yet not leave it on that account, but try to overcome these defects. Looking at all religions with an equal eye, we would not only hesitate, but would think it our duty, to blend into our faith every acceptable feature of other faiths. [45]

Going a step further, Gandhi placed the criticism of truth in religion not in objective evidence but in the autonomous mind, since “the seat of religious authority lies within.” If he spoke of Vedic literature or the New Testament as revealed, it was only by an extension of language. “I cannot let the scriptural text supersede my reason.” [46] Even God is subject to this relativity. “I do not regard God as a person. Truth for me is God. But you need not go into what may sound like mystic lore; you may simply worship what you find to be the Truth, for Truth is known relatively.” [47] If we must speak of revelation, “I have no hesitation in regarding the Koran as revealed, as I have none regarding the Bible.” Only let us not assume what is “an essentially untrue position to take, for a seeker after truth, that he alone is in absolute possession of truth.” [48]

The concept of Christ in this scheme of values is not what believing Christians take Him to be. Against the backdrop of ten avatars for Vishnu alone, one incarnation more or less would seem to be inconsequential. But Gandhi knew that Christianity regards its founder as more than a figure like Krishna or Rama, and infinitely superior to the human sannyasis of Hinduism. Sometimes he praised the person of Jesus as a great moral figure and model of selfless charity. “Jesus,” he admitted, “came as near to perfection as possible.” And “I regard Jesus as a great teacher of humanity.” [49] But that was all. There could be no question in Gandhi’s mind of accepting Christ as the eternal Son of God.

Some of his analyses suggest that he had never understood what Christian theology means by the Trinity or the Hypostatic Union. “That Jesus is the only-begotten son of God is to me against Reason, for God cannot marry and beget children. The word son there can only be used in a figurative sense.” [50] At other times he seemed to grasp the issue but his mind was preconditioned by theories of absolute determinism propounded for centuries by Upanishad interpreters, sympathy with the mythological incarnations of Vishnu and Siva, and more than passing familiarity with the rationalism of such men as Albert Schweitzer whom he did not hesitate to call “that most Christlike of all Christians.” [51] Among these elements the most important was determinism, which prompted Gandhi to discount the miraculous groundwork of the Christian Gospels. There was no miracle, for example, in the story of the multiplication of loaves and fishes. “A magician can create that illusion.” The same with resurrections from the dead.

I do not deny that Jesus had certain psychic powers as he was undoubtedly filled with the love of humanity. But he brought to life not people who were dead but who were believed to be dead. The laws of Nature are changeless, unchangeable, and there are no miracles in the sense of infringement or interruption of Nature’s laws. But we limited beings fancy all kinds of things and impute our limitations to God. We may copy God, but not He us. [52]

Understandably, therefore, Gandhi had little patience with the efforts of Christian missionaries evangelizing the Hindus, on the principle of bringing them the message of salvation. His apodictic statement, “If I had power and could legislate, I should stop all proselytizing,” [53] was consistent with the larger pattern of regarding Christianity as only a partial, even inferior, insight into religious truth. So averse was he to the whole idea of conversion that he felt people should not “even secretly pray that any one should be converted, but our inmost prayer should be that a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim and a Christian a better Christian.” For his part, “Hinduism with its message of ahimsa (non-violence) is to me the most glorious religion in the world.” Religion is such a personal matter that “I believe there is no such thing as conversion from one faith to another” in the accepted Christian sense of the terms. [54]

Era of Change

Of all major religions in the world, Hinduism is the most closely identified with ethnic origins and, since the founding of the Republic, with specified geographical boundaries. With the emergence of India as an independent nation, this correlation of the sacred and secular has assumed still deeper meaning to the point where Western observers speak either of India’s prospective role as a leader in the family of nations or of Hinduism as a world force, whose religious principles have become matters of vital importance to all peoples.

No one is more conscious than the Hindus of the new responsibility which national autonomy has created for a religious culture that numbers one seventh of the world’s population, and yet is concentrated in an area one third the size of the United States. Centuries of domination by petty overlords, Islamic rulers, and British colonialism have produced a desire (and the need) for self-realization that make the present generation the most critical in the four millennia of Hindu history.

Their own writers are not agreed on all the means used, but generally recognize certain factors that characterize the emerging spirit of modern Hinduism: its ready adaptation to the demands of co-existence and even cooperation with other, non-Hindu, religions; its use of religious motivation in the interests of material progress; its willingness to shed, no matter what the cost, a multitude of social customs and traditions that for centuries had been part of the Hindu way of life; and its practical reversal of what critics had assumed was inevitable policy, by erecting a political state in which the majority are professedly Hindu believers and yet giving freedom of belief and practice to all the citizens.

Continuing in the footsteps of Gandhi, who said, “When I am gone, he will speak my language,” Jawaharlal Nehru could be severely critical of the Christians who exploited their colonial possessions. But he was also open to the influence of Christian ideals, and wrote in his autobiography about the “many books on Catholicism and papal encyclicals” a friend gave him to read while the future prime minister was in prison. “Studying them,” he observed, “I realized the hold it (Christianity) had on such large numbers of people. It offered, as Islam and popular Hinduism offer, a safe anchorage from doubt and mental conflict, an assurance of a future life which will make up for the deficiencies of this life.” [55]

Typical of this ecumenical trend is the Birla Mandir temple at New Delhi, named after the prominent industrialist who endowed it. Though its architecture and sculpture are in the traditional style, the interior is symbolic of a resurgent culture that is willing to accept whatever values other religions have to offer. Besides the gods of Hinduism, there are worshiped here the chief teachers of other lands and faiths---Jesus and Mohammed, Confucius and Lao-tzu, Plato and Aristotle.

Gandhi defended himself against charges of eclecticism and Nehru, without the Mahatma’s deep sense of piety, nevertheless saw in all religions and not only in Hinduism that nourishment of “inner development,” without which merely “external progress” was futile and illusory. In order to achieve the former some of the latter is necessary and yet their relationship is that of means to end.

It is commonplace that in the modern industrial West outward development has far outstripped the inner, but it does not follow, as many people in the East appear to imagine, that because we are industrially backward and our external development has been slow, therefore our inner evolution has been greater. That is one of the delusions with which we try to comfort ourselves and try to overcome our feeling of inferiority. It may be that individuals can rise above circumstance and environment and reach great inner heights. But for large groups and nations a certain measure of external development is essential before the inner evolution can take place. [56]

Nehru appealed to Gandhi’s authority in directing the spiritual resources of Hinduism both as a motivating force for action to raise the physical standard of living and as goal to be attained once the “external development” is assured. “No man can live without religion,” he quoted Mahatma. Religion sustains men in their efforts for temporal improvement, and offers them ideals beyond the achievement of secular ends.

Hindus themselves admit that along with the essentials of their religion, a heavy superstructure of all kinds of customs and superstitions have been piled on the principles of faith. As a result vast numbers of people accepted these customs and habits as a necessary part of religion. “The caste system, untouchability, and many other major and minor shibboleths, which New India is gradually and relentlessly determined to discard, were in the past incorporated in Hinduism.” [57] They are being removed under steady pressure from the law and by systematic education.

Apologists for this renascence argue that the social organization of the Hindus is the result of unregulated growth which through historical reasons came to be stunted in its early stages; that the fragmentation of social feeling is the outstanding feature of Hindu society and based on the pseudo-religious theories of joint family and caste; that these and similar institutions of the Hindu people are not objectively connected with their religion but derive entirely from law and custom, and so are secular; and therefore that the whole structure should be re-examined and modified through national legislation.

A graphic example of the new approach is the article on Pariahs in the Constitution of India. “’Untouchability,’” it declares “is abolished and its practice in any form is abolished. The enforcement of any disability arising out of ‘Untouchability’ shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.” [58]

However, the most significant feature of current Hinduism is its creation of a non-Hindu State, in which all religions are equal; where social, economic, and political aspects of life bear no relation to the faith of a citizen. The framers of the Constitution fully allow for belief in God and the acceptance of the higher laws of the universe, which govern the physical world of space and time. But there is no constitutional preference in favor of Hinduism, and conversely, other religious cultures are given parity before the law. “Subject to public order, morality and health,” the provision reads, “all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess practice and propagate religion.” [59]

At the same time cognizance is taken of the special status of Hinduism, since nothing in the Constitution should be construed as preventing the State from “providing for social welfare and reform or throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus,” who are defined to include Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains, as historical derivations of the parent religion. [60]

Not all Hindus are satisfied with this modified “secularity” as they call it. They feel that Hinduism should be more dominantly integrated in the juridical construct of the nation, and to this end have successfully urged that instruction in the schools be in Hindi, and that the changeover should take place within a fixed period. They further argue that severance of the social values from their religious moorings is not a Hindu but a secularist move inspired by years of indoctrination among the educated classes in the philosophy of John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer and other rationalist thinkers, in whose scheme religion and dogma had no place. The danger, they feel, is that some alien ideology like Marxism may come along to fill the vacuum created by divorcing the ancient religion from the institutions to which it gave life.

These and similar objections are met by Radhakrishnan and others with a redefinition of concepts that show better than anything else how fluid and, by Western standards, hard to describe is the Hindu way of life. They insist “there has been no such thing as a uniform, stationary, unalterable Hinduism, whether in point of belief or practice. Hinduism is a movement, not a position; a process, not a result; a growing tradition, not a fixed revelation. Its past history encourages us to believe that it will be found equal to any emergency that the future may throw up, whether on the field of thought or of history.” [61]

Accordingly after a long winter of many centuries, they believe this is one of the creative periods of Hinduism. They see their society in a condition of unstable equilibrium, in which there is much wood that is dead and diseased that has to be cleared away. They are convinced that what seems to the orthodox like surrender of principles is only their restatement with special reference to the needs of a more complex and mobile social order.

Chapter 3 - Hinduism


[1] Rig Veda, X, 121.

[2] Yajur Veda, XXXIV, 1-6.

[3] Atharva Veda, II, 15.

[4] “Cata-Patha Brahmana,” Sacred Books of the East, vol. IX, pp. 61-62.

[5] Arthur B. Keith, The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads, 1925, p. 347.

[6] Chandogya Upanishad, VI, 13, 1-3.

[7] Bhagavad Gita, XVIII, 57-58, 65-70.

[8] Ibid., II 18-25.

[9] Ibid., II, 47.

[10] Ibid., III, 17.

[11] Ibid., III, 41-43.

[12] Ibid., IV, 6-10.

[13] Ibid., IX, 27, 29-31.

[14] Srimad Bhagavatam, Book X, chap. 4.

[15] Chhandogya Upanishad, III, 14, 1.

[16] Brhad Upanishad, II, 2, 1.

[17] Vivekananda, Raja-Yoga, p.21.

[18] Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, New York, 1950, p. 144.

[19] Vivekananda, Bhakti Yoga.

[20] Rig Veda, X, 90.

[21] Bhagavad Gita, II, 31-34.

[22] Manu Smrti, XI, 177-180.

[23] Ibid., VI, 45-49.

[24] Vedanta Sutras (Commentary), I, 1.

[25] Ibid, I, 1, 4.

[26] Ibid, IV, 1,13.

[27] Vedanta Sutras, (Commentary), I, 1.

[28] Ibid.

[29] A Tagore Testament, New York, 1954, p. 67.

[30] Ibid., p. 9.

[31] Ibid., p. 10.

[32] Ibid., p. 10-11.

[33] Ibid., p. 107.

[34] Ibid., p. 42.

[35] Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, The Hindu Way of Life, London, p. 67.

[36] Ibid., pp. 67-69.

[37] A Source Book in Indian Philosophy, Princeton, 1957, pp. 615-616.

[38] Ibid., p. 616.

[39] Mahatma K. Gandhi, Autobiography, Ahmedabad, 1948, pp. 49-50.

[40] Mahatma K. Gandhi, Christian Missions, Their Place in India, Ahmedabad, 1941. pp. 5-6

[41] Ibid., pp. 24-25.

[42] Mahatma K. Gandhi, Young India, Dec. 22, 1927.

[43] Ibid., Sept. 25, 1925.

[44] Harijan, Jan. 30, 1937.

[45] Christian Missions, p. 3.

[46] Harijan, Dec. 5, 1936.

[47] Ibid., May 25, 1935.

[48] Young India, Sept. 25, 1925; Harijan, Jan. 16, 1937.

[49] Harijan, Apr. 17, 1937.

[50] Ibid., Mar. 6, 1937.

[51] Ibid., Jan. 25, 1935.

[52] Ibid., Apr. 17, 1937

[53] Ibid., May 11, 1935

[54] Ibid., Sept. 28, 1935.

[55] Jawaharlal Nehru, Autobiography, London, 1953, pp. 376-377.

[56] Ibid., p. 379.

[57] Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, The Evolution of India, London, 1953 pp. 376-377.

[58] Article 17.

[59] Article 25, Par. 1.

[60] Ibid., Par. 2.

[61] The Hindu Way of Life, pp. 129-130.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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