Friday, May 27, 2011

Religion Friday: Hinduism

Hinduism is the polytheistic religion of India. Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world, with around 900 million followers. Out of shear statistics, one would think I know some, but I live in the Bible Belt, so no. When I think of Hinduism, I think of gods with multiple arms, bright colors, body paint, reincarnation, mystical meditation, and all the magical things imperial Britain made India out to be. And that’s because the religion is so old, much of Indian culture stems from Hinduism. Worship consists of devotion/sacrifice to the gods, family duties, and meditation. The sacred writings are the Vedas and later, the Upanishads.

The symbol I have posted is the most important to Hinduism, the Om. In Sanskrit, the Om symbol is comprised of three sounds. The Om sounds is the essential sound of creation; it is believed that first the sound Om was created, and the world arose from that. The Om continues to hold everything together and is important in some meditations.

Hinduism is full of gods, and like the Greeks, individuals or local groups will usually have focus on one or two local, specific gods. The three main gods are Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. While worship to the gods is part of the religion, the purpose of life is not to receive reward from the gods. Rather, the goal for Hindus is to attain a higher spiritual level, eventually ending the cycle of reincarnation. Hinduism states that dharma, or the path of ethics and duties, guides all of one’s actions. Karma is the right action that can lead to freedom from reincarnation. They believe that when a soul dies, it is reborn with a new chance to be break the cycle. And while I don’t agree, I do like the idea that those who aren’t of the faith aren’t evil and aren’t punished: they are simply less enlightened and will have the chance to be in the next life.

Maybe because there are so many gods to honor, there are lots of holidays. My favorite (purely because of the pictures) is Holi, the spring festival of merrymaking. There is not a lot of religious depth to it that I could find; it’s primarily just a spring celebration that includes a bonfire and tossing brightly colored paint. On the other end of the spectrum is Mahashivaratri (Festival of Shiva), a time of fasting and meditation. The temples to Shiva are filled with people praying and making offerings.

Besides the various gods, Hindus also believe in the existence of Brahman, the one force behind all that is. The many gods each characterize an aspect of the Brahman. It was actually this tenet of Hindi faith (and the world created from a sound) that made me start to see the universality of many religions. Before, I couldn’t understand how humans have such varying views of the world, but when I learned about the Brahman, I felt that, “When a Hindi feels the Brahman, it must feel very similar to when I feel God.” I’m not a relativist, so I won’t say that since the feelings are the same, the religions are equal. But I do think any person sincerely seeking God can feel Him. Even a polytheistic faith can acknowledge the oneness of the universe. Religions that seem so different can both feel His presence; it’s just the interpretations that are different.

Next Friday: Buddhism

[The picture of Holi only shows the bright colors used in the festivities. People will be covered head to toe in these colors, which makes for some beautiful pictures if you have the time to look them up. Photo credit to REUTERS/Amit Dave]

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