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 exactly 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 the Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Hinduism does not have a founder, nor central authority or hierarchy. It does not contain one obvious sacred book with revelation or have prophets.
The term “Hinduism” was created when the first Europeans arrived to 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. In fact, Hinduism is an umbrella for many beliefs, colours, 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 differentiations between the different cultures and religions that developed in the sub-continent are in fact so large, that the term Hinduism made by European colonialism can be seemed as false artificial description. On the other hand, more “positive” scholars do find few guide lines that are common for all ethnic and cultural diversities with in the sub-continent. I will present them here (in a quite superficial way…)
Some of Hinduism guide lines:
1. A linkage to the old scriptures of the Vedas and to the great Indian eposes of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata
2. Obligation on some level to the social order of the caste system
3. Links to key terms like Dharma (law, correct order, appropriate behaviour) 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 discus more about it in other posts of mine. But these principals give us for now at least an infrastructure to understand what Hinduism is, and give us an opportunity 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, travellers and philosophers, each one of them viewed Hinduism in their own 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.