ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Hinduism and Indian Culture

Indian culture and Hinduism go hand in hand. In today’s India, however, more faiths are joining the circle.

Is it possible to separate two sides of a single coin? Is it possible to take a mind out of a body and still have a full human being? Can one imagine Indian culture without the Hindu religion?

Hindu ethos, Hindu mythos, Hindu religiosity and Hindu spirituality are part and parcel of Indian culture. But if you attempt to extract any Hindu element from Indian culture, you will find yourself trying to take the soul out of a body.

The bedrock of the Hindu ethos. There are four major goals that Hindus are directed to pursue in life. The first three of these – dharma, artha and kama – relate to the world: the ethical pursuit of success, pleasure and well-being in Hindu society. All three goals are subservient to the supreme fourth and final goal, moksha, or spiritual release. The spiritual and the transcendent are to he emphasized. The Absolute is the crown and fulfillment of all worldly goals.

Are all who live in India Hindu? Muslims make up the largest religious minority, roughly 11 percent of the population. About 10 percent of the population includes Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and non-religionists. Christians, half of whom are Catholic, number close to three percent of India’s population of 900 million people. Therefore, more than 70 percent of Indians practice sanatana dharma, or the ageless religion, the indigenous name for Hinduism. However, included in this portion of the population are a significant number of tribals who practice primordial religious traditions.

The wealth of India. India is often regarded as one of the world’s poorest nations. This stereotype is questionable. India’s great wealth lies in her people. Whatever the economic prosperity of the country, her linguistic, ethnic and cultural diversity is an important aspect of India’s wealth. This diversity is almost certain to plunge the casual Western visitor into culture shock. Indeed, the West pales in comparison to the stunning richness and variety of India’s different regions, peoples, languages, religions and subcultures.

Encounters. This past autumn my wife, Mariani, and I were in India after an absence of nearly five years from our beloved motherland. When one travels in India by bus, as we did throughout the states of Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra, one is far more likely to encounter Hindu India than aboard an airplane. Apart from the countless number of temples and shrines that clot the landscape – most of them Hindu – one’s eye discovers many Hindu elements of India’s rich culture.

Examples of Indian-Hindu customs. One notices that people in India wear red, white, yellow or light brown marks on their foreheads. For males these marks symbolize the religious sect to which they belong. Vertical lines in white generally mean they are followers of Vishnu, the god to whom humankind calls in times of distress. Horizontal lines indicate they are followers of Siva, the god of destruction and renewal.

If you are whizzing by a temple or shrine dedicated to Vishnu or Siva, you may observe your travel companions offering a gesture of respect, or namaskar, to their special deity. The devotee may raise his joined hands to his forehead and face the deity’s shrine. Popular devotion is also expressed when the bus crosses a bridge spanning a river or creek – you may see coins thrown from the windows as offerings. Or before the bus begins its ascent of a particularly steep mountain or hill – where accidents are frequent enough – a quiet offering or prayerful devotion is often made.

These signs of respect are not reserved for the deity alone. Suppose a fellow passenger in your crowded bus accidentally steps on your foot, or is pushed into you. That passenger would probably not render his apologies. Rather, he would touch you with respect and then touch his own forehead or chest.

Sacred Animals. As your bus winds its way through a crowded city street, you may be rather surprised to see a cow or bull standing or walking carefree amidst a swarm of people. If you were to look at the people walking near these sacred animals, you would see many of them touching the body of the animal and then touching their own forehead and chest.

It is well known that eating beef is religiously taboo for Hindus. The sacredness of the cow stems from the Hindu belief that the Hindu cosmos dwells in the body of the cow. The bull is sacred; it is the vehicle of Siva. Monkeys, lions, tigers, eagles, swans, peacocks, even cobras and mice, are objects of veneration – vehicles of the various Hindu gods and goddesses. This same ethos applies to particular forms of plant life linked to Hindu mythology, such as the fig and banyan trees.

Some Indian customs are Hindu, others are not. The Hindu element is so much a part of Indian culture that some of it has influenced non-Hindu aspects of Indian life, manners and customs. For example, anybody paying their respects to a cow would most likely be Hindu, but certainly not Christian or Muslim. But someone touching you as a gesture of apology could be Buddhist, Jain, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, or even an atheist. The custom is not specific to believers and practitioners of Hinduism alone.

How do Indian customs relate to the wellspring of Hinduism? The source of these customs and practices may be found in Hindu philosophy and religion. They tie in with the meaning of the common Indian greeting, Namaste, “Salutation to thee!” They also communicate Indian hospitality and warmth readily shown to strangers.

A key concept in Advaita (non-dualist) philosophy is that there is a single reality behind and within all the more obvious duality that we experience. That one reality is called brahman, which is different from the brahman caste even in its Sanskrit spelling and pronunciation. This brahman may be experienced by individuals within themselves as atman, or self. But brahman and atman are one. Thus, all reality is sacred. Salutation to the deity, salutation to human beings, hospitality to the stranger, respect for animals and plants, respect for food and water, respect for one’s implements and instruments, these signal the one Hindu ethos relating to the single golden thread of divine reality that runs through everything.

The Hindu Advaitic philosophical insight finds its corollary in bhakti, or the way the Hindu devotee or bhakta experiences the deity of his choice. Such loving devotion is experienced and expressed not only in the specific temple(s) of that goddess or god, where rituals are practiced individually as well as in community, but also toward all reality. For the deity is to be found in loving devotion everywhere and in all things, persons and happenings. Does the reverential attitude of the Hindu, and by extension of the Indian generally, not seem to make deeper sense in this wider context?

Is the “dot” a Hindu feminine ornament? The dot worn on a woman’s forehead in between, but just a little higher than the eyebrows, is called kumkum, or bindiya or puttu, depending on which of the approximately 20 modern Indian languages one uses to communicate. In earlier centuries this kumkum was invariably red and worn exclusively by women whose husbands were alive. It was an auspicious symbol that singled out non-widows. Non-Hindus – especially Christian, Muslim and, before 1947, Jewish communities – would differ strikingly from Hindus in that their women wore no such symbol.

But at some point in the latter half of the present century it has become fashionable even for non-Hindu women to wear the kumkum as a decorative ornament. Indeed the married and the unmarried, teenage girls as well as those in their pre-teens, even widows and older women, all feel free to wear the kumkum! What is more, women even choose to have the color of the kumkum match the color of their clothes, no longer discriminating against blue, green, silver, gold, black or yellow.

Is the caste system Indian or Hindu? There are thousands of castes in India, despite what scholars correctly say about there being only four varnas (strata), according to the classical texts of Hinduism. Generally, people know quite well which castes are superior or inferior to their own.

India’s caste system was generally followed in the realm of food and marriage. One never ate a meal with another of a superior or inferior caste; otherwise one would have to undertake a public penitential act imposed by one’s caste leaders. Today, this caste discrimination is very hard to maintain in the cities, the melting pots of nations. Only in traditional, usually rural, communities is this rule rigidly observed.

Every Christian should be repulsed by the concept of superior or inferior social status determined merely by reason of one’s birth. Muslims in India seem to have succeeded in keeping the system at bay, but not so with all the disciples of Christ! Although the caste system makes sense in Hindu society, in the specific context of Hindu belief and practice, this system has rubbed off on many non-Hindu communities in Indian culture.

India’s Christians and the caste system. Marriage, perhaps, is the last social bastion of the caste system. Unfortunately, many Christians still retain the caste system regarding marital unions. If one were to tell them that every kind of discrimination on the basis of caste has often been condemned in modern and contemporary Hindu society – by eminent Hindus themselves – and that, apart from such discriminatory behavior being diametrically opposed to the mind and heart of Christ, it is an inhuman practice, many traditional Indian Christians would not be deterred.

Indian concern about auspicious time. For millennia now, Indians have believed their lives and destinies have the most intimate connections with the position in the sky of the sun, the moon, the stars and the planets. This belief is considered most influential at the moments of one’s birth, marriage and death.

The vast majority of marriages in India continue to be arranged by one’s family. For the most part the choice of one’s life partner suggested by one’s elders is rather easily accepted by the future bride and groom. When the prenuptial arrangements are afoot, horoscope compatibility must be determined by the matchmakers. At what auspicious moment, muhurta, should the wedding take place? Usually if all other elements (social, financial, etc.) are not incompatible, and if only the stars are found to present an insurmountable obstacle, the families find a clever way around the problem. An astrologer is sought out who is ingenious enough to force the defiant heavenly bodies to conform, the muhurta is calculated, and the marital liaison is forged without further ado.

Ancient Hindu religiosity and the right time. Now the Hindu religious element in horoscopes and astrology may not he so evident. But from well before the birth of Christ, when Vedic Hindu sacrifices had become the norm for the upper three varnas of Hindu society – the brahmans, kshatriyas and vaishyas – the “right time” was a crucial factor in the success or failure of such sacrifices. If the astrological moment was not right, not only might the elaborately detailed sacrifice not be effective, the results might even have a negative effect on the sacrificing patron.

This attention to astrological detail naturally influenced other aspects of Hindu life as well. Not long after the birth of Christ, and again in medieval times (when several aspects of Hindu belief and practice became rigid), Hindu manners and customs relating to horoscopes, astrology and even palmistry seem to have become an important part of the lives of all the Indian peoples, non-Hindus included.

Indian Christians and auspicious time. My wife and I know Indian Catholics in Kerala and Karnataka who make important decisions only after consulting astrologers or palmists. There is a successful farmer in Karnataka, a Catholic, who habitually chooses the astrologically correct time to plant and harvest his crops, to buy and sell, to undertake journeys and to marry his children. Interesting, he sees such a practice as well as his periodic visits to his favorite palmist, not to be inconsistent with his Catholic faith!

One must emphasize that this would seem to be an exception rather than the rule in Indian Christian communities. Catholic priests and lay Catholics have traditionally frowned upon anything remotely resembling astrology, horoscopes and palmistry. But this has not been effective in keeping such beliefs and practices out of the lives of all Indian Catholics.

The moment when a newly married couple enters their home together is called the griha pravesh. Among some Syriac Catholics care is taken that this rite of entry into the hone is performed at an astrologically correct time. Now, people from outside India, especially Westerners, are likely to label such practices as superstitious or pagan. If one were to look at them more closely, however, One would discern their Hindu origins.

Indian cultural impact on Indian Christianity. India’s Syriac Christians claim St. Thomas the Apostle as their lather in faith. According to ancient tradition, Thomas arrived on the shores of the Malabar coast and preached the Gospel several centuries before it reached Western Europe and a millennium and a half before the Gospel took root in the Americas. These Syriac Christians have lived in peace and harmony with their non-Christian neighbors, sharing a common language and Indian cultural heritage, for almost 2,000 years. The casual visitor to southern India might find it difficult indeed to tell a Christian from a Hindu or a Muslim.

The majority of India’s Catholics, however, have been baptized since the arrival of the European maritime traders some five centuries back; the vast majority of Protestants have been baptized within the last two centuries. These Christians, baptized by Western missionaries, were encouraged to separate themselves from their Indian cultural traditions and adopt Western customs. Thus their names, manners of dress, food, ways of worship – even language – came to be different from those of the Hindus and other Indians.

However, among some Protestants, particularly after India’s independence in 1947, and among Catholics, especially after Vatican II, a change has been noticeable in many Indian Christian communities. They have begun the process of inculturation, integrating symbols, manners and customs of Indian culture. And where there was felt to be no compromise, Hindu practices have been incorporated as well.

Indian culture and civilization is, at its core, Hindu religious culture and civilization. Indian Christians, Catholics included, are heirs to that same great Indian culture and civilization, instilled as it is with Hindu ethos, mythos, religiosity and spirituality.

Malcolm Nazareth is completing his doctoral studies in Hindu-Christian encounter at Temple University in Philadelphia.

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