By Linda Johnson
To appreciate Hinduism, one must read at least portions of the vast quantity of Hindu scriptures (the Veda, the Mahabharata, the Gita, etc.), which aggregate ten plus times the size of the Christian Bible. Still, one must begin somewhere, and Linda Johnson’s 2002 Guide to Hinduism, is an extremely useful and well documented, 400-page beginner’s reference book on Hinduism – despite being published as part of the “Idiot’s” series, and the author’s predilection to be linguistically too “cool”. As one Hindu-reviewer said, “It’s probably the best overview of Hinduism in English today.” For anyone who wants a thorough overview of Hinduism, this is a marvelous place to start. An American of the Hindu faith, Johnson has authored a dozen or so books and given many lectures on India and Hinduism. She holds a Master’s in Eastern Studies from the University of California-Berkley. There is no “selling” in this book; it simply reveals vast knowledge about, and respect for, Hinduism, India and Hindus. It is a faith of peace and love and it eschews the judgmental aspects (and anger to convert) which are prevalent in so many religions.
In January 2001, 70 million Hindus gathered on the banks of the Ganges River in North India to celebrate a religious festival. There wasn’t a hint of violence or crime, despite the fact that there are some five major Hindu sects and 3,000 minor ones, and opinions vary. Yet, they honor each other’s traditions and beliefs and make no effort to convert or exclude anyone of a different faith. Herein abides the essence of the distinction between Hindus (and their progeny, the Buddhists) and the other best known religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), whose beliefs have so often led to bloodshed. Hinduism is the dominant religion in India (estimated 80%), and India, with some 1.2 billion population, is soon to pass China as the world’s most populous nation. One-sixth of the world’s population is now Hindu. It is high time to learn what Hindus believe and see if some of their tranquility and love might be circulated.
Until the Muslims arrived in c. 1000 CE, the Hindus had a history of not fighting other nations or faiths. The Muslims burned their temples, raped their women and killed their men, spawning centuries of hatred. When India became Independent and Pakistan split from it (comprising mostly Muslims), the violence between Muslims and Hindus raged but is now confined mainly to the border between their countries. Many nations have conquered portions of India (e.g., Muslims, Mongols, Persians, Huns, Greeks-Alexander), but India has swallowed them whole and assimilated them into its vast culture. The conquerors largely vaporized. The Muslims stand as a lone exception, still defiantly occupying part of northern India.
Hinduism is generally known as “the Eternal Religion”, because it is accepted by most as the world’s oldest religion. The Hindus have many Bibles ; one (the Mahabharata, a tale of the battle between light and darkness) is the longest literary work in the history of the world (6,000 pages). Hindu scriptures, according to Hindus, date back to 4,000 and, possibly, even to 6,000 BCE – versus roughly 1280 BCE for the Torah (the first five books of the Jew’s and Christian’s Old Testament). Western Biblical scholars, intent on proving their faiths to be the oldest, challenge these dates but what difference does it make? There is scant evidence to prove that any
scriptures were written when claimed by any faith. Archeological digs have found advanced civilizations in northwest India as far back as 2700 BCE – about 1,500 years before Moses. Dates had to be based on memories over hundreds or thousands of years and as sometimes noted on copies of copies of copies of original texts (when finally written), and, of course, only copies exist of all such scriptures.) Regardless, dates don’t change content.
To oversimplify Hinduism unjustly, it might be summarized as follows: Hindus believe in one god but with many facets, faces, forms and types; they see god in nature, in man, in the universe, in themselves, in everything; they have thousands of “saints” and “swami’s” and gurus (rather than one Moses, Jesus or Muhammad); they believe in love and peace above all else and that there are many roads to salvation or “heaven”; they make no claim to being the only true religion; they revere all sentient creatures (humans and animals alike); they are generally vegetarians; they believe that all life forms are related (as scientists now maintain that DNA proves); so, Hindus aspire to love all life forms; some of them eat mostly or only fruit; they “meditate” and practice yoga for long periods – hours, days, weeks and longer, sometimes in isolated and barren caves in the hills; they fast similarly; many live in rags and eschew material possessions and could care less; they are the masters of mind over matter, walking on hot coals without being burned, holding their breath for unbelievable periods, etc.; they are the world’s fathers of meditation and yoga (and self-hypnosis?), in many forms, and they exert great control over their minds and bodies, managing pain and creating pleasure; Hindus believe that life is not rooted in matter but in consciousness; they believe that universes come and go (as scientists, like Stephen Hawking, now maintain ); they see time and space and thought as one (as some scientists now agree, ibid fn. 2) and that we have the ability to travel to wherever and whenever we want; they see the body as our “vehicle” for the moment and has karma based on our past and present lives; they believe in re-birth (reincarnation) in whatever condition and form of creature that our prior existence as earned for us; unlike the Jews, Christians and Muslims, Hindus give women equal status among their saints, swamis and gurus; they see many of god’s facets/faces/forms as being female (although they, too, fall far short of treating women properly); Hindus use material images to represent different facets of their god (as Christians uses crosses, crucifixes, images of Christ, Mary, etc.) in their temples and homes – to which they sometimes make “offerings” of flowers, food, etc.; this does not make them idol worshippers; they are far beyond that; the icons represent qualities and serve as reminders; they’re like “icon-short cuts” on a computer’s desktop, i.e., an icon that points to the real source; everything (god, man, nature) is multidimensional and offers layers of meanings and subtlety; there is no “original sin” or “eternal damnation” or “Hell”; and “born again” to a Hindu means reincarnation ; Hindus have temples but many pray primarily in their homes; they believe that the soul lives forever, and that it simply changes forms, until it achieves a state of perfection.
Emerson (a Unitarian minister as well as great American philosopher) and his protégé, Thoreau, were devotees of the Hindu scriptures, particularly of the Bhagavad Gita (Song of God) and its “stupendous and cosmological philosophy…large, serene consistent, the voice of an old intelligence…” Emerson formed the Transcendentalist movement in America, which was based upon Hindu scriptures.
Too often, the world has mocked Hinduism for some of its idiosyncratic manifestations, calling Hindus animal worshippers or idolaters or as believers in many gods. None of that is
accurate. Hindus love life in all of its animal and plant forms; they use idols as talismans (much as Christians wear crosses or have them in their churches), and Hindus see their ONE god as many faceted, in myriad forms, in nature, in the heavens, in mankind and in themselves. Simply said, Hindus believe that when you harm someone else, you are literally harming yourself, and, when you love someone else, you are loving yourself. Who could say it better? To what higher philosophy can we aspire? Not surprisingly, Hindus are historically a peaceful people; with limited exceptions, they live their beliefs. Hinduism, The Eternal Religion, gives us much to admire and very little to criticize. Bravo to author-Linda Johnson for her laymen’s language 400-page summary. All the world would do well to embrace Hinduism’s loving beliefs. I resolve to read much more about Hinduism.
1. The “Veda” or “Vedas” is comprised of four books and is the dominant Hindu Bible but almost no one reads it anymore. Written in Sanskrit originally, when translated into English, it is hard to follow at best (like Chaucerian English but much less intelligible); it is somewhat unintelligible even to Sanskrit experts and so warrants a Brahmin (priest) or guru as a guide. The Upanishads are the philosophical portion of the Vedas. Schopenhauer said “The Upanishads has been the solace of my life and will be the solace of my death.” The Puranas are the layperson’s Veda, and the Bhagavad Gita is the most popular of all Hindu scriptures. 2. Via an ongoing cycle from infinite density via black holes to a Big Bank to black holes to infinite density and Big Bang again. See A Brief History of Time by Hawking. Some assert that Jesus believed in reincarnation, as he mentions several times that John the Baptist was the prophet Elijah in a previous life (Matt. 11:2-15; 17:10-13 and Mark 9:9-13).