Over the years, I have come across many people who find the concept of a polytheist religion like Hinduism, interesting and confusing too. These people are generally curious westerners who want to know more about the land from where Yogashastra comes from.
These people do not have much knowledge about the Hindu religion (as it is being called now). However, it is even more intriguing how some of those who claim to know a lot about it have a completely different understanding of the basic tenets of the Hindu philosophy (but let us leave a discussion about those distortions for another long blog). In a nutshell, here is what I think:
Hinduism is not a religion at all!
And here’s why!
Hinduism is a Geographical Concept
Some theologians like Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev state that the term Hindu refers to anyone and anything born in the land between the Himalayas and the Hind Sagar (Indian Ocean). The concept of Hindu is a geographical one and not based on religion. The land was probably named after these two significant geographical structures since they are critical in protecting the people of Hind from invasions and outsiders. What it basically implies is that a Muslim or Christian or Jew born in India (also called Hindustan) is a Hindu.
Hinduism is a Recent Idea
Even though the Hindu philosophy is one of the oldest in the world, the concept of it as one religion is relatively recent. The term Hinduism was first used by British writers in early 19th century to describe what the people of this land believed in. It was probably easier for them to refer to the beliefs of all under a single collective umbrella rather than to understand the specific beliefs of the many clans, castes and groups who prayed to as many as 330 million gods.
Hinduism Defies Basic Tenets of a Religion
Hinduism does not have one specific book that details the way in which life should be lived. There is no one place that is considered as the highest authority on the religion. In fact, the philosophy followed by the people in the land of Hind is simple – there is a God in everything. There are gods for elements of nature like Agni (Fire), Vayu (Air), Prithvi (Earth), Varun (Water), Indra (Rain) and more. There is a god of industry (Vishwakarma), god of wealth (Kuber), god of love (Kamadeva) and more. And there are gods for planets and other heavenly bodies too like the sun (Suryadev), moon (Chandradev), and Saturn (Shanidev). There are snake gods, goddesses that protect from specific kinds of ailments (Sitala Mata) and more. The people of this land worship everything in nature. In other words, they see something good in every aspect of life!
Hinduism has no Conversions
While some recent politically motivated people in the country have spoken about converting some castes back to Hinduism, there is no specific process of conversion that has been stated in any of the scriptures. This is why, the philosophy has remained confined to (more or less) the Indian subcontinent.
Hinduism is All-Inclusive
One would consider that a religion would have rules that need to be adhered to. While you will find different groups of people following different practices across the country, there is no one rulebook that binds all Hindu people. While brahmins in the southern states may not consume meat, a Kashmiri brahmin will most certainly do. In fact, if you look at the practices across the various groups, you will find a very practical approach based on the requirements of the times and the lay of the land. It is a pity that most of this understanding has been lost over the years. Which is why some people forget the spirit of the ritual or the reasons why it was suggested and continue to follow it blindly (pity!).
The practice allows for personal interpretations of sin too. There is no higher authority waiting to tally your deeds, categorize them as good and bad and send you to hell or heaven. There is no day of judgement where you shall be punished for your sins or bestowed with blessings and comfort for eternity for your good deeds.
If you kill a terrorist trying to hurt a child, you decide whether you think it is a sin or not. What the court of law decides is another story, but the Hindu philosophy allows you to decide for yourself. In fact, it also states that the consequences (good or bad) of your actions shall be determined automatically.
It accepts all people who follow different practices and rituals. If someone of another religion wants to live life based on the Hindu philosophy, he is considered a practicing Hindu. As mentioned earlier, there is no reason to convert.
The all-inclusive philosophy is well defined in the common phrase – vaasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family).
Hinduism is an Ongoing Discussion
If Hinduism is a collection of spiritual thought over many years, it was probably meant to be an ongoing process. There are no static references and there is an atmosphere of debate and discussion. This was probably intended so that people keep an open mind and change the rituals or moral code based on the requirement of the times.
In chapter 18:63 of the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says:
iti te jñānam ākhyātaḿ
guhyād guhya-taraḿ mayā
yathecchasi tathā kuru
(I have given you the most confidential of all knowledge. Analyze it critically and act as per your wish and understanding.)
What is Hinduism Today
India is a land where spiritual thought achieved dizzying heights long before the West. It was a land whose people loved, hated and even fought amongst themselves but never invaded other lands. This, despite being invaded and plundered many times.
While the Hindu people fought off the invaders and retained their sovereignty, a lot of damage was done to the Hindu way of life. Not only did the Muslim invaders plunder riches, they also introduced the concept of a new Abrahamic religion that believed in one God and was relatively less tolerant. The Britishers came later and modified a large part of the history under the pretext of ‘educating heathens’.
By unifying the people of the land of Hind under the umbrella of Hinduism, the British gave rise to a religion that never was! It can probably be considered as the most significant disservice to the beautiful, all-encompassing, and evolving spiritual thought process that Hinduism was.
What is your interpretation of being a Hindu?