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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Hinduism: An Identity for India’s Diverse Cultures

For almost 5,000 years, Hinduism has existed not only as a religion but also as the framework for Indian culture.

As complex and varied as the land where it evolved 25 centuries before Christ, Hinduism is the binding force behind millions who live in India today. Hinduism’s strength lies in its diversity. By encompassing all classes, intellects and personalities, it has allowed Indians of different social standings, educations and beliefs to co-exist harmoniously.

Hinduism, which has flourished in India for nearly 5,000 years, is the foundation on which Indian culture is based. Archaeological studies reveal that a complicated and sophisticated civilization existed in the Indus Valley along the Arabian Sea in 2500 B.C. These pre-Aryan people were firmly ruled, well-ordered and especially preoccupied with ritual purity and priestly worship. When Aryans from the North invaded this civilization in 200 B.C., they brought with them their religion which included sacred books written in Sanskrit known as the Vedas. In the course of time the religion of the Aryan newcomers assimilated the cults and rituals of the pre-Aryan people and developed into Hinduism.

The complexity of Hinduism is the result of social and political influences which have existed side by side as equally important parts of it. These differences have been absorbed into Hinduism since its beginning without threatening its basic framework. An example is India’s caste system. There are numerous speculations as to how the castes originated. Among the pre-Aryan Indus Valley people there was a tendency to segregate groups according to occupation. But occupation was not the only thing that kept the groups bound. There was enough social cohesion to maintain different languages and customs after Aryan conquerors invaded. Further separations were encouraged by the tremendous racial pride of the Aryans. In time as different tribes settled in India, they retained their customs and were given a permanent place in Hindu society. The term caste was given to these segregated groups by 16th century Portugese explorers. Caste was the Portugese word for the family or clan that the explorers observed in India. The caste system forbids marriage or even dining between different caste members. These rules are seen as cruel discrimination. However, the caste system is an integral part of Hinduism.

A Hindu believes that this life is one of many and that he has a chance to be reborn or reincarnated into a better position in the next life depending on his performance in previous lifetimes. This belief in reincarnation is one of the three fundamental concepts of Hinduism.

It is because of the Hindu belief in reincarnation that animals are held in such high esteem. Killing a living thing is unthinkable because it may very well be the embodiment of a friend or relative. In addition, the cow is venerated in India not only because of the Hindu belief in reincarnation but also because of its usefulness. Milk has provided a basic food supply and its dropping are often used as fuel in many Indian households. Although the cow is not considered sacred, killing it is not permitted. A Hindu believes that the bull is sacred for it is a symbol of procreation and is associated with the god Shiva. Also, in Hindu mythology, divine attributes were given to animals.

The second basic concept of Hinduism is karma. Karma is, simply, the law of cause and effect. Because of karma a Hindu’s position in life is determined by his actions in previous lifetimes. Each Hindu’s standing in society is the unavoidable and direct result of his particular karma.

According to his place in society, the Hindu is bound to certain duties. Dharma, the third concept of Hinduism, is the law which dictates rights and duties.

No matter what his caste, a Hindu believes that through dharma, karma and reincarnation, he will work out his destiny. He strives for a freedom from the cycle of rebirths. This freedom can be achieved through intense meditation or yoga. Yoga is the union of individual self with Universal Self.

This Universal Self pervades the universe and is called Brahman. Brahman is a spirit all-pervading, watching over all beings. It is the witness, the perceiver. Atman is the equivalent of Brahman, but it is found in the individual. Similiar to the soul, atman is the eternal knower within a Hindu.

Western religions focus primarily on the believer’s relationship to the one God who is personal, transcendent, and holy. Hinduism has no such focus. It makes no dogmatic statements about the nature of God and the essence of the religion. Nor does it depend on the existence of God or whether God is one or many. In fact, Indians worship gods numbering in the millions through prayer, meditation, or sacrifices.

Of the millions of deities that Hindus worship there are three main ones. Brahma is first among the gods. He comes from the all-powerful, all-pervading source called Brahman. He generates creation in a process similiar to spring which comes repeatedly. The two other gods, Shiva and Vishnu, regulate this creation process. Shiva is the destroyer and Vishnu the preserver. Followers of Shiva are called Shaivites and many wear distinctive head markings of painted horizontal lines. Vaishnavites wear three vertical lines on their foreheads. Some Indian women wear red dots (tilaks) on their forehead to signify that they are married. Other women wear colored tilaks for decorative purposes.

Perhaps one of the best known Hindus is Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi, a renowned pacifist and philosopher, was largely responsible for bringing reform to the Hindu caste system. He introduced the spiritual ideal of nonviolence to his people, a movement which eventually led to India’s independence from Britain in 1947.

The Hindu’s journey is indeed a difficult one. Gandhi once wrote: “I am but a poor struggling soul yearning to be wholly good-wholly truthful and wholly nonviolent in thought, word and deed: but ever failing to reach the ideal which I know to be true. It is a painful climb, but the pain of it is a positive pleasure to me. Each step upward makes me feel stronger and fit for the next.” As the Hindu struggles to be good in his present life he teaches the Christian a valuable lesson.

A freelance writer with an interest in Eastern religions, the author is a former employee of Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

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