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Chinmaya Sharma


LNG 406

12 April 2011

Living Hinduism

A peach-colored dome extends above the rest of the structure, glimmering as the sun sets

behind its majestic form. While reddish-brown brick surrounds the lower-exterior of the

building, tan stucco encompasses the upper-level. Inside, priests adorn nine life-size idols with

clothes and various trinkets of gold and silver. A bell rings in coordination with a group of

people who chant before the idols. The priest waves a plate with a candle-like object in front of

one of the idols. The idol has the head of an elephant and four hands. If a group of people sees

this scene, most would question what kind of lunacy occurred in front of them. The “lunacy”

represents the temple and religious practices of Hinduism. With almost one billion followers,

Hinduism currently stands as the third largest religion in the world. Yet, most people do not

truly understand Hinduism and its virtues. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines Hinduism as:

“the dominant religion of India that emphasizes dharma with its resulting ritual and social

observances and often mystical contemplation and ascetic practices.” This succinct explanation

for such an expansive topic obliterates the true meaning of Hinduism. When students learn about

Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in their World History class, they obtain a comprehensive

analysis of every aspect of these religions. On the other hand, teachers oftentimes gloss over

Hinduism because of their lack of understanding. They blindly teach and emphasize certain

concepts which they fail to understand. Many of the misconceptions stem from the fact that

Hinduism has no specific starting point, no founder, and no “church.” Therefore, most people
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retain little knowledge about the truths of Hinduism. People only obtain vague descriptions of

the religion which leave them clueless. Misinterpretations of scholars cloud the reality of

Hinduism and those who realize the true definition of Hinduism must unmask the delusions set

forth by others.

Hinduism does not constitute a religion, but more-so stands for a way of life. Sarvepalli

Radhakrishnan, the second President of India, states, “Hinduism cannot be defined but only

experienced.” It defines a philosophy and guidelines to live by rather than dictating a set of

rules or commandments. In fact, Hinduism itself represents a misnomer. The word “Hindu”

derives its meaning from the river Sindhu. Westerners grouped those people who lived in the

Indus River Valley as Hindus and the name transferred over to the religion. As Hindu reflects a

civilization more than a religion, another description serves as the name of the religion.

Devotees call the true “religion” the Sanatana Dharma, which means “Everlasting Truth.”

Scriptures such as the Vedas and the Upanishads define Dharma as any path of spiritual

discipline which leads to God. The emphasis lies on the word “any.” Instead of indicating a strict

checklist of what to do and what not to do, the Sanatana Dharma creates a loose set of guidelines

for “good living.” The advice indicates how “good living” results in a closer connection with

God and eventually ends in Moksha, or liberation from the human body. These guidelines, found

in the Vedas (the oldest religious ‘texts’ of Hinduism), associate with all the different aspects of

life such as social, economic, and spiritual. The fundamental principles revolve around the

concept that devotees represent a part of God. In other words, the actions of the devotees should

reflect the actions of God. For example, one should keep himself clean, both inside and out.

Another rule guides devotees to practice self discipline, tolerance, patience and mental calmness.

In order for a true reconciliation between the soul and God, one must surrender his mind to the
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higher power. As indicative by the aforementioned statements, Sanatana Dharma steers people in

the right direction rather than holding their hand throughout the process. The Sanatana Dharma

neither encompasses a specific set of beliefs nor has a creed to declare such beliefs in. Two

beliefs, however, seem constant in the lives of Hindus: reincarnation and karma.

Reincarnation and karma qualify as two of the most commonly discussed concepts of

Sanatana Dharma. While other religions may include karma and reincarnation within their focus,

the concepts originate with Sanatana Dharma. Karma represents the principle of cause and effect.

In essence, the idea maintains that if one commits a positive deed, then God rewards him. On the

other hand, if one commits a negative deed, God punishes him. Scientific-minded people should

consider Newton’s Third Law of Motion which states, “For every action, there is an equal and

opposite reaction.” Karma suggests when one does any act, a force projects into the world and

eventually returns to the initiator with an equal impact. Karma does not equate to fate because it

maintains a self-created experience. Each soul has its own free will, but the actions of each

owner affect the future outcome of the soul. The future outcomes of the soul represent the

separate reincarnations. Sanatana Dharma describes how each individual must live through

several lives before it attains perfection and officially joins with God. While the body

disintegrates and joins with the soil, the soul transfers from body to body. The soul undergoes

many different births and deaths. After death, a person’s soul continues through evolution or

devolution based on karma. As a soul commits good deeds and maintains good karma, it evolves

through many different mediums, eventually reaching unity with God. Devotees could not obtain

this unity in one lifetime. Followers must transition from ignorance to semi-awareness and

finally to self-awareness. Since reincarnation supports the notion of biological evolution,

members of most other religions feel threatened by reincarnation as it directly challenges the
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belief of one life, heaven, and a day of judgment. Another source of controversy involves the

concept of the caste system.

Often times, historians emphasize the caste system as a staple of Hindu society.

Unfortunately, people degrade and alter the concept in order to exploit certain higher and lower

castes. In the past, these castes simply represented different sections of Hindu society. Four

castes dominated the society as the most prominent groups of the population. The Brahmins

signified the priests with educational knowledge. Kshatriyas protected society as warriors with

brilliant military and defense strategies. The Vaishyas represented businessmen and managers of

society who maintained a steady economic flow. The Shudras completed society and supplied a

steady workforce. The legitimate caste system did not degrade certain citizens or groups as it has

does today. The caste system also explains why certain Hindus eat meat, while others do not. In

the modern age, vegetarianism stands not as a mandate, but a choice. However, many years ago,

vegetarianism directly coincided with the caste system. As priests, Brahmins did not eat meat

due to God’s presence in every form of life. They respect and value all forms of life. Kshatriyas,

on the other hand, require the meat for their strength and healthiness. Castes represent a

subsection of reincarnation and karma. Once one reaches the human being, he must work his

way up through the castes. Each caste reflects a stratified closeness to God. Brahmins should

exhibit the characteristics of the purest being. The priests transmute their knowledge to the

remainder of the population. These Brahmins help perform poojas for the rest of the population

and assist the proliferation of good karma. A pooja compares to the common prayers heard in

churches. Priests perform these poojas for various reasons because each pooja has a different

meaning and significance. This guidance relates to that of the Pope and the priests who enforce

and interpret the messages between God and the humans. While no ‘Pope’ exists for Hindus, the
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commoners consult the Brahmins for almost every aspect of life. For example, the priests would

know the best date for a marriage. Brahmins signify the closest relationship to God and their

souls would transcend into part of God first. Despite the misconceptions made by others, each

caste contributes equally to Sanatana Dharma. Just like each of the castes, all of the

manifestations of God bestow their own contributions to Sanatana Dharma

Many people find it difficult to determine whether Sanatana Dharma exhibits

monotheism or polytheism. When observed from an outsider’s point of view, Sanatana Dharma

depicts over a hundred Gods. However, the truth remains that each of these Gods symbolizes a

reincarnation of one single Universal Being. A common prayer heard in temples states, “Om

Poornamindam Poornaad Poornamudachyate; Poornasya Poornamaadaaya

Poornamevaavashisyate.” The prayer translates, “What is Whole? This is Whole. What has come

out of the Whole is also Whole; When the Whole is taken out of the Whole, the Whole still

remains Whole.” In other words, everything in the world contains a part of God. Humans cannot

determine God’s presence by a number because he equates to the Infinite. The various

manifestations represent His way of showing Himself to us. Since God inhabits any animate or

inanimate object, God always watches over every human being. Each part plays its own role as

part of this one Master Being. This view coincides with the term known as pantheism, which

states the belief that God and the Universe are identical. In a sense, however, those who believe

in Sanatana Dharma support polytheism because they have faith in the hundreds of

manifestations. Although each of the manifestations may originate from one single Deity,

different regions tend to worship different incarnations which results in confusion. Most

knowledgeable scholars define the Sanatana Dharma as pantheistic with a touch of polytheistic

elements. The multitude of idols in the religion represents these polytheistic elements.
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Idol worship associates with Sanatana Dharma due to the numerous massive temples and

sacred sculptures built to honor the Gods. However, Sanatana Dharma does not promote idol

worship. In Sanatana Dharma, devotees recognize the true form of God as shapeless, formless,

and Infinite. While the Vedas encourage devotees to open their minds and transcend physical

worship, priests understand the difficulty for all worshippers to visualize the Infinite. From time

to time, God creates a human form so that humans can relate to the Infinite rather than His

shapeless form. God acquires a body or human form to establish truthfulness and other such

virtues to destroy evil forces. These numerous idols represent the spirit of God. When factories

make the idols, devotees do not immediately begin to worship them. Priests chant prayers laid

out in the Vedas for several days. The prayers ask God to rest His spirit inside the idol. After the

priests enchant the spirit of God into the idols, they place these idols in various temples. Each

temple may encompass a wide variety of Gods or dedicate the structure to one individual

manifestation. Relating back to the description of the temple in the introduction, each individual

idol or manifestation retains a different purpose. Lords Venkateshwara, Shiva, Krishna with

Radha, Ganesha, Rama with Sita, and Goddess Durga represent the destroyer of sins, the Lord

of mercy and compassion, the embodiment of love and joy, the supreme Goddess, the Lord of

success, the embodiment of truth, the embodiment of wively devotion, and the Goddess of

victory of good over evil, respectively. Instead of deterring future devotees, these idols guide

disciples closer to Moksha. Moksha represents the condition when one requires neither a temple

nor idols to worship. Moksha serves as the ultimate spiritual goal of devotees - when the soul

becomes part of the Infinite. While Hindus aim to join of the Infinite, they do not force their

religion upon others or “fight for their religion.”

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Unfortunately, people all too often associate Hinduism with terrorist extremists and

believe Hindus wish to force their religion upon others. However, this entire notion reflects the

ignorance and illiterateness of the majority of today’s society. Rather than distinguishing

between radicals and Hindus, people group those who appear similar into groups and label them

terrorists. While Hindu terroristic groups exist, they do not reach the caliber of those groups

which targeted the United States, London, or other such massive events. Many of those radical

groups portray a small portion of Muslims who wage a jihad. These radicals find non-Muslims

impure and fight in order to cleanse the world of those challenging the doctrines of Islam.

Hinduism, however, exemplifies the antithesis of these terrorists. Originally, Hindus did not

consider conversion an option because they believed the religion equated to a birthright. Even

though modernization changed the mindset of the Hindus to allow others to join the religion,

Hinduism does not require devotees to have a strict religious affiliation with itself in order to

receive the teaching. In other words, a man can believe in Christianity, but still learn the ways of

the Hindus. Hindus must simply accept and embrace the guidelines set forth by the Vedic texts.

Hinduism does not symbolize a religion which attempts to convert others. Instead, others make

their own decision to learn the teachings of the religion.

Hinduism, or Sanatana Dharma, is not a concept which can be understood in a day, a

month, or even a year. Numerous complexities surround the different sects and branches and

perplex the minds of even the most brilliant scholars. These scholars must rid themselves of the

mindset that Hinduism represents a religion and instead, they must understand that it signifies a

way of life. The people who follow the way of life all hope for the same goal - to join the Infinite

Being. Since the “religion” grows steadily and will soon surpass Islam as the second largest

“religion” in the world, the world should learn the true nature of Hinduism. People tend to fear
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those concepts which they fail to understand. These people require a true Hindu to explain to

them the reality of Hinduism. With this education, people around the world will comprehend the

complexities of the religion and abolish the ignorance which clouded their mind in the past.