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Part 2: Essay donated by Chintamani Rath

Religions in India.
The essential nature of Hinduism

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Religions in India:

Of course, both Islam and Christianity look upon the presence of these religions (Islam and Christianity) in the ancient land of India as a philosophic conquest, a specially important conquest where they have, as they profess, been able to break an evil system full of countless social injustices and replace it with their own and better philosophies (as if the societies that have embraced Christianity and Islam are free from injustices!).

It does not require much effort to see the inherent fallacies in this viewpoint. Neither Islam nor Christianity (nor for that matter the so-called "atheistic" Marxism which really is also a religion in itself, too!) has "replaced" Hinduism in India, which is still predominantly Hindu. True, there have been and continue to be a good deal of conversion into Christianity (and also Islam in some cases) in many places in India (among the backward classes of society which are lured into embracing these religions by inducements of material gain and psychological concerns like "belongingness" -- an interesting area of inquiry but beyond the scope of the present article), but the fact remains that these conversions are confined to the poor and needy and not do not succeed with those who are able to survive with even a bare minimum of economic decency.

This fact in itself speaks volumes, the more so when it is contrasted by the disillusionment with Christianity among large sections of the economically prosperous western world. How else does one account for the many mushrooming and thriving centers that propagate Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and similar philosophies (or the western perception of these philosophies -- not quite the same thing as the philosophies as they really are!) in the materially advanced countries of the first world? It is worthy of note that unlike conversions to Christianity in India, where the converts are the poor and "downtrodden", the converts to Hinduism (take converts to the ISKCON movement, for example) in the western world are mostly people who have converted on the strength of their convictions and not for the odd dollar thrown their way.

The essential nature of Hinduism:

So what is the essential nature of that which we call "Hinduism"? A more descriptive name of this religion is "Sanatana Dharma". Sanatana means "eternal" and Dharma means "the property of being". For example, it is the property (or nature) of an electric bulb to give light; so we say that the Dharma of the electric bulb is to give light. What should be the property of an apple tree? It should be to bear apples. That is, its Dharma is to bear apples. And so on. In this sense, Hinduism is but a humanistic code of right behavior (right property) for human beings. And, because these fundamental human values hold good across both time and space (they are true all the time and everywhere) the argument that Hinduism is archaic, irrelevant or less "scientific" than "newer" religions does not hold water.

The point is, "Hinduism" is a religion without a religion -- a religionless religion. We Hindus merely believe in reincarnation and the law of karma on the one hand and a few basic human values on the other, and that is all. Any person who believes in these values is a Hindu, whether or not he practices its outward rituals. Thus a Hindu may or may not believe in the existence of a God: he is free to be agnostic if he likes. Our "Sankhya" philosophy is considered to be agnostic by many.

A Hindu may or may not go to a temple to worship. In Christianity and Islam, going to the church/mosque is an important part of the religion. If a Christian does not go to mass or if a Muslim does not join in communal prayer in the mosque or do his required Namaz, he is frowned upon. But this is not the case in Hinduism. As a Hindu, I may go to the temple or I may not. I may pray at home, I may not. I may participate in community Pujas, I may not. I may meditate, I may not. These are not at all factors or acts that Hinduism enjoins under pain of punishment or some horrifying retribution. As long as I believe in some simple, basic principles and values, described below, I am a Hindu.

Similarly in the way I eat. I do not have to fast. I may be a vegetarian or a vegan, I may not be one. I may eat anything I like and still be a Hindu. After all, there are few things that humans eat that do not have life, at least before they are cooked. This includes everything from the plant world. There is a story in the Hindu Scriptures to the effect that when Bramha created the world, he did not create anything to eat. So all the living creatures went to Him and said. "O Lord, what shall we eat?" Bramha realised their difficulty and replied, "Let life eat life".

At an ISKCON midday discourse in their Soho Street temple in London, I once asked the speaker (an ISKCON initiate of African descent), "Prabhu, I am all for vegetarianism on account of a variety of reasons; however, please show me the exact authority in our Scriptures where it is categorically stated with cogent reason that we should be vegetarians only". The learned speaker could not answer me straightaway and said, "Please meet me after this lecture and I will show you the citations you seek from the Scriptures". But immediately after the lecture (about 10 minutes after his statement) when I edged my way forward towards him he appeared to take advantage of the crowd and in fact niftily escaped! The point is, vegetarianism, though highly laudable in its own place and worthy of acceptance as a philosophy and practice, is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition of Hinduism. It is merely what many Hindus choose to be, not because they are Hindus, but because they belong to those sects of Hinduism that embrace vegetarianism, on the principle "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam" ("the world is indeed a family"). There are indeed non-vegetarian sects of Hinduism, too - the Shaakta sect, for example, is non-vegetarian.

And so again in the way I dress. I do not have to make any outward display in dress or appearance to be a Hindu. I do not have to abstain from the ordinary and reasonable pleasures of life, so long as I do not cause anyone trouble. As a Hindu, I am not bound to observe any particular religious practice. Whether I do or not is entirely my personal choice. I do not impose this on anyone else, nor desire to do so, however mildly or persuasively. I do not have to convert anyone to my way of thinking, either. This is unlike Christianity or Islam where the "missionary" program of bringing as many others "into the fold" as possible by any means whatsoever is a very big and "righteous" agenda. In the olden days such conversions took place by violent means, today they take place through a variety of material and psychological allurements. But the intention and the effect are similar.

This essay continues with a discussion
of basic human values in Hinduism.

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Copyright © Chintamani Rath. Contact Dr Rath for permission to use.
Initial posting: 2009-SEP-30
Latest update: 2009-SEP-30
Author: Chintamani Rath
 

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