Hinduism And The Hindu Gods
I will start with an astonishing fact: in India, there are more than 330 million deities! Yes, it’s true – more the 330 million gods, goddesses, semi-gods, demons, and angels. This in itself shows just how complex Hinduism is. And don’t worry, it gets even more complex than that… But as travelers to India, I think it necessary to start with the basics and to try and understand first and for all in a simple and non-academic way, what is Hinduism.
Firstly, it’s important to understand that Hinduism does not fall into the same categories that we are more familiar with from the religions of the western world – the Monotheistic (who believe in one god) religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Hinduism does not have a founder, nor central authority or hierarchy. It does not contain one obvious sacred book with a revelation or has prophets.
The term “Hinduism” was created when the first Europeans arrived in India. From the 19th century, they tried to study it and used the term as a code name for all the
religious phenomena of the local Indians. Hinduism is an umbrella for many beliefs, colors, sounds, smells, gods and goddesses, rituals, ceremonies, opinions, philosophy, languages and dialects, culture and ways of life of hundreds of millions of people in a huge geographical unit. Of course, diversion exists in every culture, but the Indian variety is so vast, even to a point that it contains many tensions and paradoxes within itself. According to some scholars, the differentiation between the different cultures and religions that developed in the sub-continent are so large, that the term Hinduism made by European colonialism can seem like a false artificial description. On the other hand, more “positive” scholars do find a few guidelines that are common for all ethnic and cultural diversities within the sub-continent. I will present them here (in a quite superficial way…)
Some of Hinduism guidelines:
1. A linkage to the old scriptures of the Vedas and the great Indian exposes of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata
2. The obligation on some level to the social order of the caste system
3. Links to key terms like Dharma (law, correct order, appropriate behavior) and Karma (account of past deeds)
(note that the terms of Dharma and Karma also exist in Buddhism, but have a different meaning)
4. Earthly life is cyclical – Samsara (endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth)
5. Life has stages: chaste student, house ownership and renunciation of worldly things
6. All humans should try and gain liberation (Moksha) from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. This can be achieved in different ways. Some of them are through knowledge, yoga, meditation, and devotion to a personal god (Bhakti)
I presented here key terms that are the core of Hindu philosophy and beliefs. Thousands of books and texts have been written on this subject and I will take the opportunity to discuss more it in other posts of mine. But these principals give us for now at least an infrastructure to understand what Hinduism is and allow us to reveal at least some of its depth, creativity, and thought. The magical melting pot of Hinduism has inspired many throughout the years – from Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and European romantics that saw the spirituality of Hinduism, to even the Nazis that admired the racism of the upper Hindu classes over the lower casts. Missionaries, travelers and philosophers, each one of them viewed Hinduism in their perspective.
So, after this short introduction, we are ready to look more closely.
Let’s start with getting familiarized with the Hindu gods. Check out part 2.