Good conversation is one of my greatest delights. I have often marvelled at the pleasure that mere talking can provide, and at the twists and turns of thought and intellect in the course of such talking. Sometimes a conversation leaves a lasting impact, or makes a greater difference to oneself than is at first evident.
I had one such conversation last weekend: sitting comfortably for an afternoon’s talking with friends, and discussing, as we often do, films and books and the state of the world, the talk turned to matters of religion, faith and belief.
Our friends, who are not Hindus, asked us some very basic questions about our belief-system : would you call yourself a Hindu? what does it mean to you to be Hindu? what is Hinduism? how would you explain it to an outsider? what would you say are the main tenets of your religion? is Hinduism a religion?
I tried to answer their questions, but I was dissatisfied with my answers, which left our friends, as they said, ‘more confused than when I began!’ Their questions disturbed me, and made me look within myself and without, to examine my beliefs, and my understanding of that which I claim to live by. I have spent the last few days thinking, and reading, and sorting my thoughts, and shall try and answer here, more coherently and fully the questions that we were asked.
Do I call myself Hindu? Yes, I do call myself Hindu, when I do call myself anything. I don’t like labels, because labels divide and categorise and lock us into boxes. But if I have to take on a label, that label would be Hindu, because that is the one philosophical system that allows me the intellectual and spiritual freedom to be the way I wish to be.
I have never spent much time thinking about my religion: it was never more than a box to be ticked, a field to be filled on the occasional form or questionnaire. My father is Hindu, and just as I took on his name at birth, I took on his religious denomination as well. For some, that is enough to define me and my belief system.
My mother was Jain, and brought up as I was by my grandparents, and following their way of life more than any other, some would say that I was Jain.
In childhood, I was Hindu more by omission than commission: I did not take Communion or go to Mass, so I wasn’t Roman Catholic; I did not read the Koran, so I wasn’t Muslim; I didn’t go to the Gurdwara, so I wasn’t Sikh. Therefore, I must be what remained, which was Hindu. We celebrated Hindu festivals – Diwali, Holi, Saraswati Puja – so, yes, I was Hindu. But we also observed Jain rites and followed the teachings of Mahavir – so I was Jain.
The first and fundamental principle of Hinduism is the acceptance of all religions, an acceptance that flows from the perception that all belief-systems, and all forms of the Divine, are journeys towards, and manifestations of the same universal Force.
Sri Aurobindo, in his The Secret of the Veda, writes that the hymns of the Rig Veda, the oldest of Hindu scriptures, ‘continually recognise, sometimes quite openly and simply, sometimes in a complex and difficult fashion, always as an underlying thought, that the many godheads whom they invoke are really one Godhead - One with many names, revealed in many aspects, approaching man in the mask of many divine personalities’, that there is one Divine Existence ‘who manifests Himself in many names and forms, each of which is for the worshipper of that name and form the one and supreme Deity.’
And so it is a simple matter for me to be both Jain and Hindu at the same time, as I am. No matter which god I worship, or which tirthankar I follow, all endeavours will ultimately flow into and become one with the Universal Power.
What is the nature of this Universal Power, this Source of all things? Can I describe it? I cannot. For, as Indra, Lord of Swar, the realm of pure intelligence, explains in the Rig Veda:
It is not now, nor is It tomorrow; who knoweth that which is Supreme and Wonderful? It has motion and action in the consciousness of another, but when It is approached by the thought, It vanishes.
What, then, is the place and purpose of the thousands of gods and goddesses that Hindus seem to worship? They are symbols, concrete manifestations of ideas, thoughts and concepts that may prove difficult for most human minds to grasp in the abstract, but which become easier to understand when presented in the form of a divine figure.
For example, consider the representation of Knowledge as Light, as that which banishes the Darkness of Ignorance. This is a metaphor that can be understood by almost every culture. Consider then Surya, who is the Sun, as well as the god of revelatory knowledge through whom we can arrive at Truth. This is his function, too, in the Vedic Gayatri Mantra, an appeal to the solar disc Savitur to lead the intellect into enlightenment.
Similar abstractions and metaphors are found in the worship of ancient Greece, a civilisation more or less contemporaneous with the Vedic world - Apollo the Sun, is the god of poetry and prophesy, grey-eyed Athena, the goddess of Dawn, is the strong, pure goddess of Knowledge. Ideas of War, Love, Chastity, Beauty, all are personified in the form of gods and goddesses.
Another question that I am often asked is – do Hindus have a holy book? No, they do not, not in the sense that Christians have the Bible or Muslims the Koran.
Hindu sacred texts are of two kinds: shruti, that which has been heard, viz that revealed directly by the gods to mankind; and smriti, that which has been memorized and is tradition, not revelation. The Vedas and the Upanishads are examples of shruti, while smriti includes the Puranas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata contains the Bhagavada Gita, considered by many Hindus today to be the holiest of all the texts. Between them, these texts contain all Hindu thought, philosophy, metaphysics, mythology, rites, rituals, and rules of conduct.
The sacred texts of Hinduism are not prescriptive; there is nothing that is laid down that must be done by one to qualify as Hindu. Over the centuries, social power groups and vested interest have instituted practices that have overlaid much of the pure thought and philosophy contained in the Vedas and Upanishads. Some of these practices, which were essentially social or economic in nature, such as the caste system, have come to be associated with the practice of Hinduism.
In my understanding and my experience, the practice of Hinduism does not demand the practice of ritual of any kind. Rather, it gives me complete freedom to follow or not follow whichever of these traditions or customs I choose. I do not believe in the caste system; I do not ever visit a temple unless it has some historical significance or achitectural merit; I do not observe any of the fasts and pujas that many others do. I do not follow any book, I do not recite any prayers, the concepts of ‘karma’ and reincaranation hover somewhere on the periphery of my subconsciousness and are generally ignored by my conscious mind, I accept the existence of a universal Force reluctantly and debate the idea of God. Yet I consider myself Hindu.
So then, what do I do that tells me that I am Hindu? Nothing very much, except to attempt to live by the principles I believe in, principles which include the following:
- Tolerance of different points of view and belief systems.
- Non-violence, or Ahimsa, towards myself and my spirit, and towards all life, all existence.
- The necessity to condemn violence, hatred, intolerance and injustice of any kind.
- Freedom to think and live the way I wish to, and to let others do the same.
- A belief in the strength of the human spirit, and its ability to touch eternity through whatever means that are open to it – work, love, beauty, compassion.
- A gradual but steady movement towards that state of being where my locus of control becomes completely internal, where I am dependent on no outside factors for my happiness.
- A belief in the idea of moksha, mukti, nirvana, and knowing that the human spirit is capable of great suffering and great serenity, a consequent belief in the necessity to strive for serenity and ultimate spiritual release, through detachment.
And so – is Hinduism a religion, in the sense in which Christianity, Islam or Judaism are religions? For some it is, its boundaries clearly defined, its do’s and don’ts laid out, its rites and rituals clearly prescribed. For others, like me, it is a way of thinking and a way of life.