By Mark Mayberry
Hinduism is one of the oldest living religions in the world. Followers of this religion can be found scattered around the world, nevertheless Hinduism is most closely associated with India. “Hinduism has its roots in the civilization that flourished in the Indus valley some 5,000 years ago, but did not develop as a formal religion until the conquest of the subcontinent by the Aryans of Central Asia in about 1,500 B.C.”(1) As Hinduism evolved over the centuries, “it continually absorbed and reinterpreted the beliefs and practices of the different peoples with whom it came into contact.”(2) Most Hindus live in India, but the faith is also practiced in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, etc.(3) Having between 500-600 million adherents worldwide, Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion, behind Christianity and Islam.
In recent years, Hinduism has had a strong influence in the United States and Europe. Many have turned to Eastern philosophy as a reaction against Western materialism. Hare Krishnas with their orange robes and shaven heads are a common sight in many large cities. Transcendental Meditation, when stripped of its “scientific” vocabulary, is essentially a Hindu discipline. The New Age movement promotes the concepts of Eastern religion in general and Hinduism in particular.
A. Basic Beliefs of Hinduism
Hinduism is exceedingly difficult for the Western mind to comprehend. It has no single founder or prophet, no particular ecclesiastical or institutional structure, and no established creed or dogma. This religion embraces a wide diversity of beliefs and practices. A Hindu is free to adopt any religious concept that he likes. For example, the vast majority of Hindus have some sort of belief in God, but others do not. A Hindu may conceive of God in personal or impersonal terms. He may worship one god, a few gods, a thousand gods, or none at all!
In blending together many different elements, Hinduism forms a complex but largely continuous whole. In many ways, Hinduism is more of a culture than a creed. Since it encompasses a whole way of life, it has religious, social, economic, literary and artistic expression. Although Hinduism resists a precise definition, there is a common set of characteristics shared by most Hindus which can be identified.(4)
On the surface, Hinduism appears to be an inclusive faith. The Hindu feels that every religious system contains the essential ingredients of truth. However, he views his religion as “more equal” than the others. Furthermore, the traditional tolerant image of Hinduism is not all-together accurate.
In India, where 85 percent of the population is classifieci as Hindu, other religions are officially recognized. However, sectarian violence is a fact of life in India. Bloody clashes frequently occur between Hindus and various religious minorities. In recent years, those who have converted from Hinduism to other religions have suffered persecution.(5)
One powerful Hindu organization, Rashtriya Swayam Sevak (RSS, the Hindu words mean “National Pure Service”), has urged the expulsion of all foreign missionaries from India and an official ban on foreign funds received by churches. This highly nationalistic group is devoted to restoring a Hindu society free from the influence of Christianity, Islam, etc.(6)
In Nepal, were Hinduism is the official religion, freedom of worship is guaranteed for the nation’s Buddhist, Moslem and Christian minorities. However, proselyting is illegal in this Hindu kingdom. Anyone who is convicted of trying to convert a Hindu to Christianity faces up to six years of imprisonment.(7) As you can see, Hindu tolerance is more myth than reality.
2. Sacred Writings
Hinduism has no single book, like the Bible, that serves as its foundation. Instead it has many sacred writings which have contributed to its beliefs. The most important of these writings include (1) the Vedas, (2) the Puranas, (3) the Ramayana, (4) the Mahabharata, (5) the BhagavadGita, and (6) the Manu Smriti.(8) The first group of writings are the oldest Hindu scriptures. The second group are a collection of long verse stories that contain many important Hindu legends. The third and fourth groups are long epics. The fifth document is a philosophical work which discusses the meaning and nature of existence. The final book is the basic source of Hindu religious and social law.(9)
Hinduism is a polytheistic religion. The vast Hindu pantheon is populated by no less than 330 million gods. However, all these gods are ultimately viewed as different incarnations of the all-embracing Brahman. He is the Supreme Being, the Universal Spirit, the Source of all life. Next in importance to Brahman comes the Hindu trinity of Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the preserver; and Shiva, the destroyer. Other wellknown deities include Ganesha, the elephant-headed god; Kali or Durga, the consort of Shiva; Lakshmi, the Vishnu’s wife, the goddess of fortune and beauty; Krishna, the incarnation of Vishnu and one of the most popular Hindu gods; Hanuman, the monkey-faced god, etc.(10)
4. Reincarnation and Karma
“The Hindus believe that man’s fate is not worked out in a single life on earth, but in a series of many existences stretching from the dim past into the distant future.”(11) According to Hindu teaching, when the body dies, the soul returns to earth in another form. This continuing cycle of death and rebirth is called reincarnation. Closely related to this concept is the law of karma, which states that each person will be rewarded or punished in their next life according to deeds in their present life. Every action, regardless of how small, influences how one’s soul will be reincarnated. If a person lives a good life, his soul will be reborn in a higher state, perhaps as a ruler or a priest. If a person leads an evil life, his soul will be born into a lower state, perhaps as a common laborer or a slave. An individual pays for his sins by being placed in a worse situation in the next life. In fact, a person may not necessarily be reincarnated as a human. He may have been a plant or an animal in a previous life and may become one again. This belief helps, explain the reverence that Hindus feel for all forms of life. All living things are a part of this perpetual cycle of existence. Supposedly, this process of reincarnation continues until a person reaches self-realizaton, or spiritual perfection. Then the soul is released from the cycle of life and death, and is absorbed into the Divine Being. Having once merged with the infinite, it never returns to this life.
The Hindu philosophy of existence is well summarized by the following statement: “A man’s lifetime is like a bead on a necklace whose other beads represent past and future lifetimes. Each soul, or atman, strives through successive rebirths to ascend the scale of merit until – after a life of rectitude, self-control, nonviolence, charity, reverence for all living creatures, and devotion to ritual – it wins liberation from worldly existence to achieve union with Brahman.”(12)
5. The Caste System
Hindu society is structured by a elaborate caste system where an individual finds himself locked into a network of complex relationships. This arrangement originated around 1500 B.C. when India was invaded by Aryans from central Asia. After conquering the land, these light-skinned invaders imposed a rigid system of social distinction upon the darkskinned people of India. Different groups were assigned different roles, and social contact between these groups was strictly forbidden. This was done to keep the “inferior” native peoples of India from mixing with the “superior” conquerors from Asia. Over time, the caste system became intricately connected with Hindu religion.
Hindu society is divided into four principal castes that are based mainly on occupation. These groups are ranked as follows: (1) the Brahmans, the priests and scholars, are the highest caste; (2) the Kshatriyas, the rulers and warriors, are next in order of prestige; (3) then comes the Vaisyas, the merchants and professionals; (4) and lastly are the Sudras, the craftsman and laborers.(13) Furthermore, these four basic groups have evolved into more than 3,000 subcastes, each with its own rights, obligations and rituals. “Except for unusual cases, caste is immutably fixed at birth; it limits a Hindu’s choice of occupation, marriage partner, dress, eating habits, religious practice, and his freedom to move about.”(14)
In addition, millions of Hindus belong to no caste at all. This large group, formerly known as the Untouchables, but now called Scheduled castes, is ranked lower than the lowest caste. Members of this group are restricted to performing the most menial jobs such as cleaning latrines, handling animal carcases, tanning leather, etc. Until recent years, these outcasts had no rights whatever. Considered polluted, they could not use the same wells, walk the same paths, attend the same schools, or worship in the same temples as caste members. However, thanks to the work of Mahatma Gandhi and other reformers, discrimination against the Untouchables was made illegal. The 1950 Constitution of India gave full citizenship to members of this community.
The caste system itself has weakened over the years. Education, technology and contact with the modern world has tended to diminish its influence. Hindus from different castes now freely mix with one another. However, ancient traditions die hard, and especially in the countryside, the caste system remains an unfortunate fact of life.
6. Hindu Worship
Hindu worship takes many forms. The daily worship, or puja, of a typical Hindu would include a visit to the temple, a stop at several shrines, and home worship.
Temple Worship: Hindu temples are filled with many shrines, each representing a different god. The sculptured images are treated as living human beings for it is believed that the divinities are actually present in the images. Food offerings are set before them daily, and the priests wash and dress the images as if they were alive.(15)
A Hindu may worship together with others, or he may sit alone and meditate in a corner. The incantation of a mantra is a central part of Hindu worship wherein a sacred word, such as om, is chanted over and over. Eastern religion affirms that reality cannot be known through reason but through the soul’s intuition of itself, and thus meditation is the route to enlightenment. It is designed to bring one into union with the Absolute.
Home Worship: Because of the importance of home worship, Hindus can fully participate in the ceremonies of their religion while rarely going to temples. Home worship involves meditation, prayer, the reading of sacred texts, and offering food, flowers, or incense to the family god. Most homes have a shrine devoted to the family deity, and wealthy Hindus may have a room set aside exclusively for worship.
The Worship of Saints: Hindus worship both living and dead men as saints. Local village heroes may be elevated to sainthood. Gurus and yogis are both venerated and revered. Since everything is sacred in Hinduism, almost anything can become an object of worship: rivers, trees, plants, etc. Many animals are worshiped as gods, but cows are considered most sacred. A Hindu would rather starve to death than kill a cow for food.
B. A Comparison with Christianity
1. The Concept of Revelation. A Hindu’s faith is based on superstition, mythology and legend. Many of the beliefs and practices of Hinduism actually contradict each other. However, such unfounded speculations are no match for the certainty of Scripture. Man has not been left to grope in darkness. God has spoken (Heb. 1:1-2; Eph. 3:3-5), and his word is Truth (Jn. 17:17; Jas. 1: 18). The Bible, a divine revelation free from all contradiction and error, is our guide through time to eternity (Psa. 119:105; 2 Tim. 3:16-17).
2. The Concept of God. Hinduism is an idolatrous religion in which countless gods are worshiped. However, the Bible presents Jehovah as the One True God (Deut. 6:4-5; 1 Tim. 1:17). He is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, perfect in holiness, love, mercy, etc. He is a personal God who demands our full obedience and complete devotion. The Bible prohibits the use of images or idols in the worship of God (Exo. 20:3-4), and exposes the foolishness of pagan idolatry (Psa. 135:15-18; Isa. 44; 45:20).
3. The Concept of Man. Hindu doctrine affirms that both animals and humans have souls. However, the Bible teaches that man is unique in God’s creation. Man is a dual being, composed of body and spirit, who is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). He was made a little lower than the angels but was given dominion over the animal creation (Psa. 8:4-8).
Whereas Hinduism envisions the flow of life through many existences, Christianity focuses on the importance of decision making within the context of one life. According to the Scriptures, death involves the separation of the body and the spirit (Jas. 2:26). When a person dies, the body of flesh returns to the dust, while the eternal spirit returns to God (Eccl. 12:7). God’s word affirms that we die only once, and after that comes the judgment (Heb. 9:27)! Those who have done good will be rewarded with eternal life, but those who have done evil will suffer eternal damnation (Jn. 5:28-29).
4. The Concept of Salvation. If there was ever a religion that taught salvation based on human merit, it is Hinduism. Through a series of reincarnations, those who perform good deeds eventually are liberated from this earthly existence and achieve oneness with Brahman. However, the Bible plainly reveals that man cannot earn salvation (Eph. 2:8-9; Tit. 3:5). Pardon and forgiveness are made possible only through the atoning sacrifice of Christ (Jn. 3:16).
The Hindu views every religion as true and a path to truth. Other religions are but different roads that ultimately converge on the same spot. However, the Bible teaches that fellowship with God can be achieved only through Christ Jesus (Jn. 14:6). His will must be obeyed if we are to have any hope of eternal life (Heb. 5:8-9; 2 Thess. 1:7-9).
5. The Concept of Worship. The bizarre rituals of Hinduism are in no way reflective of the worship that God desires. The Bible teaches that our worship must be “in spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:23-24). In other words, it must be offered with the proper attitude and according to the proper form. Therefore, it is imperative that our worship follow the New Testament pattern (Col. 3:17; 1 Pet. 4:11).
The idolatrous religion of Hinduism is a dismal and fatalistic philosophy, devoid of truth and light. However well meaning faithful Hindus may be, they are misguided believers in a benighted faith. Apart from Divine guidance, man is lost in darkness and despair. Yet, praise be to God for his glorious revelation of truth! The gospel of Christ represents God’s plan of salvation for lost mankind. Those who would be saved must wholeheartedly embrace the Christian religion. Christ Jesus is the only hope of the world!
5. “Some Low-Caste Indians Turn to Christianity, and Hindus Retaliate,” Christianity Today, August 6, 1982, p. 43; see also Jayashree B. Gokhale, “Castaways of Caste,” Natural History, October, 1986, pp. 31-37.
Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 10, pp. 300-303
May 17, 1990