Common Myths and Realities
Continued from Part XXXII
Hinduism is predicated on the foundational concept that the eternal knowledge and wisdom of the ages and divinity cannot be ascribed to a single scripture or holy book and thus it is neither creedal nor dogmatic religion. Consequently, it does not mandate any rigid credo, doctrine or ritual to its adherents, instead prescribes alternate paths of knowledge, action and devotion even to reach oneness with God with ultimate goal of liberation (Moksha) in life. In essence, Hinduism offers a variety of flexible options to its followers such as divinity i.e. unmanifested and manifested (Nirguna and Saguna) to pray and worship, rituals to honour and observe, and customs and traditions to follow, and so on so forth. However, while this variety and multiplicity of options make the life of Hindus convenient and confortable, it creates many doubts and suspicion among the minds of other religious communities, particularly among the followers of Abrahamic religions, about the Hindu way of life.
This multiplicity of rituals and acceptance of different paths to reach God or achieve Moksha in life can be well explained from the illustration of “the mountain top” which can be reached from different base camps and scaling paths. Believers in every religion have faith in the existence of God but no one can convincingly prove if he (or she) has actually seen God or His exact shape or form or how He works. This uncertainty or the lack of conviction was true in ancient times and is true even now and had been best exemplified in the creation hymn of the oldest Hindu scripture Rig Veda (RV, Mandala 10.129.6-7) thousands years ago:
“Who really knows?
Who here can say it?
Whence was it born and whence came this creation?
The gods came after this world was created.
Who then knows whence it first came into being?
He, the first origin of this creation
– perhaps he formed it all, or perhaps he did not.
The one whose eyes control this world in the highest heaven
– he only knows it, or perhaps he knows not.”
In a nutshell, Hinduism includes almost all forms of belief and worship. It is so flexible and all-encompassing that even agnosticism forms a key doctrine in one of the major schools of philosophy. While Abrahamic religions consider that the body has a spirit or soul, the Hinduism believes the soul is eternal and resides in a temporary body. Perhaps this is the reason why the former believe in burial of dead while the latter cremates it. At the same time, owing to its flexible and all-encompassing nature, other communities world over including some Hindus have formed many misplaced opinions or myths about Hinduism; of these, the common ones are explained here.
Hinduism is a Polytheistic Religion
The Western outlook and theory and consequent world-wide opinion that the Hinduism is a polytheistic religion is primarily based on the logic and rationale of the multiplicity of deities. It is true that the Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) permits worship of multiple God and Goddess forms with different looks, attributes and functions. Hinduism is like a library full of vast knowledge and wisdom incorporating unusually liberal and flexible ideas on various forms of belief and mode of worship within it. Among the major religions of the world, Hinduism is only one that does not claim to be the only true religion. This was perhaps one of the main reasons why 19th century Indian monk and preacher Swami Vivekanand while introducing Vedanta and Yoga to the Western world emphasized that Hinduism philosophy not only teaches tolerance but also acceptance of difference. Hindu scriptures Vedas and Upanishads put forth an idea of the universal formless God i.e. Nirguna Brahman. Later when it was realized that adherents needed less abstract form of God for worship, Hinduism allowed different manifestations of God for the ease of devotees. This is how the concept of Saguna Brahman with Trinity and other divine forms was evolved.
However, the ultimate truth is that the Hinduism considers Brahman as the only Supreme Soul or the Universal Consciousness or the God of gods and the famous Trinity – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva - are His three different Saguna aspects or manifestations. Similarly, other deities too are aspects of Brahman only. Because of the worship of Brahman in multiple manifestations, the Hinduism gives an impression of a polytheistic religion while in essence it is the one and same God whom the followers identify by different names, forms and functions. The Vedas and ancient sages held that every divine entity in the universe is some aspect of Brahman Himself. The widely accepted and popular Advaita Vedanta philosophy in Hinduism, in fact, offers the most viable and credible answers on the spirituality, divine and unknown, and identifies Hinduism as a monistic religion.
As already mentioned, Hinduism is perhaps the only religion in the world which does not boast as the only true religion. It is neither based on the teachings of any prophet or messenger of God nor creedal in nature relying on one religious book, tenets of which cannot be debated or questioned by anyone. Instead Hinduism is based on the knowledge and learning of Vedas and Upanishads evolved by ancient sages over a long period and it allows tolerance, debate and difference of opinion on vatious subjects. Consequently, many people call it polytheistic due to acceptance of multiple forms and manifestations of God, some others treat it henotheistic i.e. worshiping one god without denying the existence of other deities, and some even call it agnostic. However, the oldest Hindu scriptures Vedas and Upanishads support the doctrine of monotheism insisting there is only one Universal Soul or God known as Brahman. The Advaita Vedanta philosophy put forth by Adi Shankara categorize Hinduism under monism endorsing Brahman as the only original and true existence with everything else as its creation or manifestation in the universe.
Hindus are Idol-Worshipers
Many religious communities world over, particularly Christians and Muslims, criticize and oppose Hinduism as a religion of idolaters. In these religions, idolatry is considered as worship of false god and is strictly forbidden, though holy symbols or images used by them are itself debatable. In fact, for the very reason under the influence of clergy for centuries, the Islamic invaders and rulers had been engaged in systematic jihad and destruction of Hindu culture, their temples and other religious places of worship treating idolatry as sin. On the contrary, Hindus treat idols as the medium of worship with the belief that a physical representation of God – in the form of an idol or image - enables them to concentrate in the prayer or meditation. For Hinduism and other Indian religions including Buddhism and Jainism, idols just represent the embodiment of divine as symbolism for the absolute, and not the Absolute (God) – a viable means to religious pursuit and Bhakti (worship).
The fundamental principle of the Vedic Dharma (Hinduism) has been that the Brahman is omnipresent in all forms and names thereby allowing freedom to the devotees to create multiple symbols with multiple names to enable concentration and attachment to the Divine. The Hinduism philosophy also holds that as the devotee becomes spiritually stronger, he (or she) would need less of the material symbols for devotion. Through the traditional ritual known as ‘Prana Pratistha’, as detailed in Agama Shashtras, the idol(s) in a personal house or temple is energized in a sacred way impacting everything surrounding them. The practice of energizing idols through the Prana Prathishta literally means reinforcement of the life energy into the idol, which is comparable to the practice of consecration in the Christian belief that evolved much later.
To illustrate the above point, the concept of Sadhak, Sadhya, Sadhna and Sadhan is relevant in the Sanatana Dharma. Here the Sadhak stands for the devotee, Sadhya for the Divine, Sadhna relates to devotion and Sadhan is the enabling medium of devotion. To understand this in a plain and simple term, one needs to understand that it is difficult for the ordinary subject (devotee) to understand the complex nature of the Universal Divine. Therefore, while an accomplished and higher level devotee could easily concentrate on the formless God, an ordinary devotee finds it easier to offer his prayer (Sadhna) if an energized idol or image (Sadhan) is available before him as a symbol of the God (Sadhya).
In essence, it is a simplified method of worship of the God. Thus idol-Worship is associated with the Hinduism but that does not essentially connote that Hindus are idol-worshipers. In reality, the Hindus actually worship the Supreme God and its various aspects while the idols merely serve as a medium and manifestation. The science of temples and idols has been dealt with at length in the Agama Shastras and the energized idols or images of the gods and goddesses are used for concentration in meditation and prayer. It is like someone pays same reverence to the image of his (or her) parents or teacher (guru) as of their actual persona, knowing well that the image is not the real subject but bowing before the image actually serves a means of paying respect to the parents or teacher.
330 Million Hindu Gods
Many educated people in the Western countries and followers of Abrahamic religions mock Hindus for following thirty-three crore (330 million) gods. In fact, many atheist and ignorant Hindus too have similar misplaced belief that Hinduism professes and endorses such a large number of deities.
During the Vedic period, people practiced many rituals or sacrifices as offerings to deities associated with various natural phenomenon. For them life itself was a continuous sacrifice and offerings as the source of all creation, diversity, and fulfillment of desires. In Vedic scriptures, there is mention of thirty-three “Koti” deities whom sacrifices and offerings were regularly made by the Vedic people for their own well-being and survival and that of their progeny. These thirty-three deities comprised of broad categories of the Adityas, Vasus, Rudras and Aswinis.
Of these, the twelve Adityas or personified deities were Vishnu, Aryaman, Indra, Tvastr, Varuna, Bhaga, Savitr, Vivasvat, Amsa, Mitra, Pusan and Daksa. The eight Vasus or deities of material elements were Dyaus (Sky), Prthivi (Earth), Vayu (Wind), Agni (Fire), Naksatra (Stars), Antariksha (Space), Surya (Sun) and Chandra (Moon). The eleven Rudras are five abstractions – Ananda (bliss), Vijnana (knowledge), Manas (thought), Prana (breath) and Vac (speech); five forms of Siva are Isana (revealing grace), Tatpurusa (concealing grace), Aghora or Bhairava (dissolution/rejuvenation), Vamadeva (preserving aspect) and Sadyojata (born at once); the eleventh for Atma (Self) is also ascribed to Rudras. Remaining two deities include Asvins (solar deities).
Ancient Hindu scriptures are in Sanskrit and the word “Koti” literally has several meanings such as category, type, crore (ten million) etc. Vedas and Upanishads talk of one Universal Consciousness or Supreme Soul referred to as Brahman (God) and everything else as Its manifestation or creation. Several hymns in Rig Veda and other Vedas and Upanishads can be quoted to vindicate this averment. From the Vedic to Medieval period, Hinduism experienced several transitions including evolution of the concept of “Trinity” with Brahma as the Creator, Vishnu as the Preserver and Shiva as the Destroyer as also many other god and goddess forms. These deities have distinct forms and functions yet all are considered various aspects of the same supreme God called Brahman.
Discriminatory Caste System
Hindus are often criticized for their hierarchical and discriminatory caste system and Hinduism as a religion is often blamed for the stated evil in the prevalent society. Actually, the Varna (class) System finds a mention in the Hindu texts as an occupational arrangement prevalent in the ancient Indian society which in the later period transformed into a rigid inheritance (birth) based caste system in the social hierarchy. This caste system does not have a religious sanction but this social evil crept in the Hindu society over the years.
Among Hindu Dharmashastras, Manu Smriti appears to provide the most comprehensive as also controversial and widely debated text on Varna System including differences among the scholars over the vintage and chronology as also interpretation of the text. According to Manu Smriti, the entire ancient society was divided in four Varnas namely Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra based on the division of labour (work) in the society. People belonging to one of these classes were called savarna while certain tribes and outcasts including sinners were categorized as avarna (untouchables). However, during the long history of Hinduism at some point of time, the work based system degenerated into the birth based one giving origin to the caste system multiplying further into various discriminatory layers and numbers.
A Brahmin was defined as one who attained spiritual knowledge and wisdom of high order through sustained learning, lived spiritual life and taught to enrich the society with the knowledge and wisdom. Usually priests, scholars and teachers came under this category. The Kshatriyas were rulers, warriors and men with administrative skills with a duty to protect and safeguard the interests of the society against the external and internal threats. The traders, businessmen and farmers were categorized as Vaishyas responsible for the sustenance of the society through farming, monetary transactions, barter and trade. The Shudras were the labour and service class with various technical and mechanical functions.
To vindicate the above averment, there are numerous illustrations in the ancient texts to suggest that the concept of Varna was indeed based on merit and not birth and was actually practiced in the ancient times. A few illustrations of merit based Varna system from the ancient era are given below:
- Aitareya Rishi was the son of a Daasa (slave) but was recognized as Brahmin of highest order during his lifetime. He wrote Aitareya Brahmana and Aitareyopanishad, the former a critical commentary on Rig Veda.
- Maharishi Satyakama Jabala was son of a courtesan but became Brahmin through learning and good deeds.
- Sons of Vishwamitra became Shudra while he himself was Kshatriya who turned Brahmin in later life.
- Vidur was a dassiputra (servant’s son) but became Brahmin and a minister of Hastinapur empire in Mahabharata era.
- Matanga was son of a Chandal by birth but became a Brahmin in Mahabharata era.
The caste system is, however, more of a social and cultural issue rather than a religious evil. In the modern India, a lot has been done by the government, NGOs and responsible citizens to improve the social fabric through interaction and convergence among different groups by legislation, empowerment, economic packages and reservation in various walks of life and job opportunities. The Indian Constitution and laws prohibit any discrimination in the occupation, working, social interaction including dining and sharing leisure time. Even inter-caste marriages are now quite common and accepted with relative ease in the society. India, however, still needs to go a long way to completely eradicate the caste-based inequalities from the society.
Hindus Worship Cow
There is a common perception, or rather misconception, among the non-Hindus, particularly Westerners and Muslims, that Hindus worship cows too. In India, a deep contrast exists between two main communities because Muslims have a religious belief that the resources (including cows) have been created by Allah for the consumption of His faithful while Hindus are devoutly found to protect, feed and adore the cow. This religious and cultural difference between Hindus and Muslims often becomes the cause of disinformation and conflict between the two communities. While Hinduism generally discourages violence against all living beings including animals and birds, Hindus are more protective towards cow as it is gentle and very useful for the society.
The ancient Indian Vedic society was agricultural based largely dependent on farming and cattle rearing. Cows were the well-known as rich source of a complete protein diet while bulls were useful in farming. Cattle faeces remained easy and plenty source of fertilizers and fuel. Besides nutrition, the cow milk was also an important ingredient for Indian medicine and body parts were made use in making various articles and artifacts even after the death of the animal. This practice is still in vogue and aforesiad facts are some of the reasons why Hindus lay emphasis on protection of Cattle (particularly cow) even today so much so that some devout Hindus even venerate cows symbolically treating it like mother.
In Hindu texts, due to its very nature cow is treated as symbol of the Earth, the nourisher, the ever-giving and the undemanding provider. The cow represents life and sustenance of life by providing milk, cream, curd, cheese, butter; even its urine and dung have uses for human beings. The Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) does not ask followers to worship cows nor in reality do they do so. Actually, this is only a common misconception because of the manner in which cows are reared, venerated and protected in a typical Hindu household. The milk and allied substances provide protein and mineral rich diet to humans and the milk is even used as substitute of the mother’s milk for the new born and toddlers. Even the cow dung is used as fuel and fertilizer in homes and agriculture. In return, all that cow needs is just grain, grass and water from the owners.
As Hinduism teaches ahimsa (non-violence), tolerance and protection of all living beings and even prorection of non-living objects of any use to mankind, a large number of Hindus remain vegetarian, protect and love many animals and birds, more particularly cow which is treated as a maternal figure in many households. Even after the large-scale globalization, a large number of Hindus remain vegetarian; even those who opt for non-vegetarian food habits are selective and choosy about available options. Most likely, the truth and ahimsa emphasized by the Hindu scriptures is responsible for a large number of Hindus remaining vegetarian. Because of their sensitivity, cows are protected by law also in several states in India.
Besides, Hindus are more tolerant and least violent compared to many other communities in the world, particularly the followers of Abrahamic religions. Respect for the life of living beings and opting for the vegetarian diet by the Hindus are matters of personal choice which should not be an issue for criticism or ridicule by other communities. Under the Indian Constitution, Article 48 mandates the state to prohibit the slaughter of cows, calves, and other milch and draught cattle. The Supreme Court of India too in a landmark judgment on 26 October 2005 had upheld the constitutional validity of anti-cow slaughter laws enacted by the states in India. Currently, 20 out of 29 Indian states have laws regulating and prohibiting the slaughter and/or sale of cows.
Bhagavad Gita is Hindu Bible
In the Western countries, scholars and even common people often try to draw parallels between the Bible and the Shree Bhagavad Gita citing the latter is "Hindu Bible". The Bhagavad Gita is the most familiar and recognized text of Hinduism in the West but it is certainly not Hindu Bible as it is neither creedal nor dogmatic unlike the Christian Bible. This important text in Hinduism is presented in a narrative dialogue between Lord Krishna and Prince Arjuna that contains the truth of universe summarizing knowledge and wisdom of the Vedas and Principal Upanishads. Many scholars consider the Gita to be an allegory depicting a person’s ethical and moral dilemma and struggle where it serves as a credible guide. Hinduism is rich in scripture with a vast collection of ancient religious writings broadly categorized as “Shruti” and “Smriti”. This includes the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, Agamas, Itihasas, Sutras, Shastras and the Bhagavad Gita (nicknamed Song of God).
The Bhagavad Gita is one of the most popular, well read and analyzed Hindu texts in India as also in some Western countries. It embodies the essence of Vedas and Upanishads unraveling the supreme spiritual mystery and gems of Hindu philosophy. The essential nature, form and virtues of Brahman (God) and Atman (soul), concepts of Karma and Dharma, theistic devotion and yogic means of liberation by exercising Jnana (knowledge), Bhakti (devotion) , Karma (action) and Raja Yoga, and many other important tenets of Hinduism are incorporated in the Gita in such a way that one may not find a parallel elsewhere. In short, it is an epitome and compendium of all Hindu scriptures. Notwithstanding, it cannot be compared with the Bible because it is not the only codified literature, instead a whole range of scriptures and texts (Vedas and Upanishads being the original and oldest) constitute the teachings of the Hinduism in various disciplines.
Hindus Are Vegetarian
Various communities world over largely have non-vegetarian food habits and many of them have a misconception that Hindus are mostly vegetarian. This is yet another myth because a majority of Hindus too are non-vegetarian; however, it is true that a considerable population of Hindus still opt for vegetarian food. Though exact count is not available but according to an estimate, approximately 31% of the Indian (Hindu) population is vegetarian. This is significant because the corresponding figures for some other big and prominent countries are much below: USA 5-8%, UK 7%, Australia 11%, Brazil 14%, Russia 3-4%, Canada 9.4%, China 4-5%, France 5%, Japan 4.7%, Germany 10% (Source: Wikipedia - include Vegan diet). Hinduism traditionally professed Ahimsa (non-violence) and tolerance, hence spiritual leaders and many commoners including women prefer to stay away from the slaughter and consumption of meat products.
Hindus Are Intolerant
India is predominantly a homeland of Hindus and Hinduism yet the country has traditionally welcomed and accommodated all religions of the world. With reference to a few violent incidents, of late a narrative is being circulated worldwide that Hinduism teaches intolerance and violence towards other religions. This obviously is a myth based on misplaced notions and selfish interests because Hinduism has always endorsed and respected different religions and their beliefs, philosophies and paths.
Hinduism has traditionally been a virtue and knowledge based religion with ahimsa (non-violence) and tolerance as essential and ingrained components. No other human race or community in the world has ever been as tolerant as Hindus. Hinduism values and endorses the concept that the methodology and means may be different but all belief systems lead to the same end goal; hence they should be recognized and respected by all. Hindus do not interfere in other belief systems; they do not believe in conversion or criticism of other religions; and react or fight back only when their own values and belief system is deliberately hurt, violated or threatened.
While other dominant religions of the world, particularly two dominant Abrahamic religions, are known for their intolerance towards adherents of other religions and attempts for forced conversion through coercion and evangelism, Hinduism has a glorious past of welcoming and accommodating other persecuted communities such as Zoroastrians, Jews, Tibetan Buddhists and early Christians from Syria and other places. Hindus value debate and differences of opinion in religious matters; hence they do not find difficulty in accepting tenets and teachings of other religions and peaceful co-existence with others.
In Hinduism, open debate and discussions are favoured to resolve differences or disagreement and displeasure is conveyed to opponents in subtle and scholarly ways. However, Hinduism does not encourage tolerance towards the evil doings and evil doers. Hindu scriptures provide that the person should not compromise or surrender to evil forces. All-time great epics in Hinduism namely Ramayana and Mahabharata fully endorse even armed violence to punish the evil doers. The Bhagavad Gita attaches utmost importance to fight for one’s rights and duties, and that in doing so no sin is incurred.
Sukha-duhkhe same kritva labhalabhau jayajayau
Tato yuddhaya yujyasva naivam papam avapsyasi.
(Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 2, Verse 38)
(Fight for the sake of duty, treating alike happiness and distress, loss and gain, victory and defeat. Fulfilling your responsibility in this way, you will never incur sin.)
Married Hindu Women Wear Red Bindi
More than the religious, it is a mark of cultural tradition. It is true that since ancient time the married Hindu women used to wear a red bindi (dot) on the forehead. This was made with vermilion powder on the forehead and between her eyes symbolising the love and prosperity in life. This location on forehead also relates to the “third eye” symbolic to the loss of ahamkara (ego). The widow women used to wear a black bindi that suggested the loss of her husband.
But it is no more true and only few Hindu women do this religiously now. In modern times, bindi is largely decorative and both married and single women, even girls, wear it as a fashion statement, which is commercially available in various colours and designs. Instead, among both Hindu men and women use a tilak (dot or line(s)) comprising of rolly (red turmeric), sandalwood paste or holy ash, which has a religious significance.
Karma is Fatalistic
This is a common belief or perception among Hindus that all events in life are predetermined and therefore inevitable. In other words, people cannot change the way events will happen and that events, especially unpleasant ones, cannot be avoided. This is contrary to the concept of the Karma-yoga in Hinduism.
As per the Bhagavad Gita, Karma is closely linked with the concept of rebirth as also the nature and quality of future life by leaving its imprints on the Self (Atman). Karma literally means action, work or deed but at spiritual level it refers to the principle of the cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (cause) have the future impact on that individual (effect). Karma-yoga or the path of action teaches people how to cope with the pains and pleasures alike without choosing and without escaping. Accordingly, every person has the ability to choose life's actions and create destiny with deeds. The ultimate goal of life is to have karma that would lead to the liberation from the cycle of rebirth, and thus achieve Moksha.