Spiritual Sponge: Styles and Stages of Hinduism

The most flavours of faith, the most meanings on the menu, the biggest smorgasbord of divinity in the cosmic kitchen – a platter of entrees to India’s top religion.

Today a speaker introduced Hinduism.  Technically, she said, there is no such religion.  The term was coined by foreigners to describe those who dwelled beyond the Indus River, now in Pakistan.  There is no founder, no single definitive Scripture, no official hierarchy or leader, like the Catholic Church has the Pope.  Most Hindus believe in karma (“As you sow, so you reap, sums up the karma theory in a nutshell.”), reincarnation, and the final goal of moksha or liberation, but there is no fixed creed.  A “Hindu” may be pantheist, atheist, polytheist, monotheist – that is, believing that all is God, there is no God, there are many, or just one.

It’s all very hard to get a handle on, like a jungle, some have said, with all manner of intertwined vegetation.  Hinduism seems to be an amorphous sponge, soaking up all influences, with “not just doors and windows, but no walls” – for our lecturer, receptivity and all-comprehensiveness are its central characteristics.  Writer Shashi Tharoor described Hinduism as:

the sole major religion that doesn’t claim to be the only true religion, and the only religious tradition which allows for such eclecticism of doctrine that there is no such thing as a Hindu heresy…  Hinduism is uniquely a faith without fundamentals… a civilisation, not a dogma.

Hinduism has been called a museum.  Newer rivals, like Buddhism, Islam or Christianity, are neutralised: Buddha and Mohammed and Christ are assimilated to Hinduism’s ancient pantheon of deities.  “Hinduism has a way of pacifying and accommodating its challengers.  It is simultaneously rigid and inflexible.”  (Luce 2006 108)

There are said to be 300 million gods and goddesses in India, each with “different portfolios”, making one for every family!  The big three that stand behind the others, the trimurty or Trinity, are Brahma the creator, Vishnu the sustainer, and Shiva the destroyer.  In a cute Sunday School-type acronym: Generator + Organiser + Destroyer = GOD.  I’ll introduce these guys in more depth later.

Some Hindus believe that reality is ultimately one, that all surface appearances of creatures or deities simply mask the impersonal Brahman.  Salvation from the cycle of death and rebirth comes in merging with Brahman like a river in the sea.  Others believe our souls are independent, so we can have a personal relationship with God.  Many movements worship one particular god as supreme, most often some form of Vishnu, Shiva, or Shakti, the female force of the goddess.  Brahma is rarely directly venerated, and the poor fellow has only a handful of temples (some say merely one, others three) in India out of, plausibly estimates this site, over 600,000.

Intersecting with the four or so different types of yoga or spiritual paths (see my last post), Hinduism specifies four ideal stages of life.  In youth, one is a celibate student, devoted to learning the Scriptures.  Then one should marry, have a family, and contribute to society as a householder.  About the time that grandchildren are born, it is appropriate to retire from society and contemplate spiritual things as a forest dweller.  The ultimate ideal, attained only by a few, is to become a full renunciate or sanyasin.  These leave their spouse and all property, perform their own funeral rites, and wander forth with nothing as a holy beggar.

This country is 82% Hindu and we will be having more lectures on Hindu customs and culture, so I’ll leave it there for now.