This is from a book on how doctors and care-givers can better understand their Hindu patients. It should be understood in that specific context.
If trying to understand Hinduism has ever stretched you to the point of bewilderment- please read this page!
You are not alone. Even learned professors of religion have been known to flinch at the sheer complexity of beliefs and practises we now know collectively as Hinduism. It is a religion, or, more properly, a family of religions, with no common founder and no point in recorded history when it began. That alone makes for an uneasy start.
There are many more factors which add to the complexity of Hinduism: the wide diversity of scriptures; the different theological perspectives and the ancient sages who taught them; the schools and spiritual communities that grew up around the historic gurus; the mediaeval revivalists and the modern reformers; the various gods and goddesses propitiated by countless worshippers and the seemingly numberless rituals involved.
When you factor in that India is a land measuring 2,000 miles from west to east; a country of more than a billion people where 18 major languages are spoken, it is easy to understand why Hinduism is by no means a straightforward subject.
But for a medical practitioner, carer or social worker to be able to better understand Hindu patients and their beliefs, values and needs, especially at times of sickness or bereavement is a distinct advantage.
This chapter seeks to condense the complexities down into the fundamentals – the divergent beliefs into some common principles, values and understandings that every Hindu would either acknowledge or agree with. Specifically this chapter focuses attention on moral principles, the inner values that inform a Hindu’s choices and behaviour in daily life and at special times. I also touch on the main denominations within Hinduism, their philosophical views, the particular deity worshipped by that denomination and a few of their common practises.
The biggest difference between the European mind and the Hindu mind is the value placed by the latter on sacred literature. While Europe went through the Enlightenment, an intellectual revolution where rational thought and scientific discovery was increasingly prized over religion, India did not. Where Europeans saw fit to gradually separate Church and State – specifically the influence of religious leaders on politics and universities – India did not. Rational thought has always existed side by side with religion in India. Indeed, the two are not presumed to be in opposition to each other. India had advanced mathematicians and surgeons even before the days of Pythagoras and Hippocrates. The philosophical thought of the ancient Hindus was systematic and unerringly logical. But the scientific disciplines never excluded the concept of God. Understanding the nature of God was held to be the supreme goal of all philosophy, and the moral basis of society was determined by sacred scripture written centuries before.
It is still like that today. In southern India it is not uncommon to see a devout Hindu Physics graduate, with white clay forehead markings, offering a few sticks of incense to his worshipable deity during the lunch break at a nuclear installation. Neither would it be totally out of the question to meet a heart surgeon who believes in the eternal non-physical soul. This paradoxical union of science with religious thought can be puzzling, yet quite refreshing for a European observer.
The canonical literature for Hindus is known as the Veda or simply ‘knowledge.’ These voluminous texts come with extensive commentaries and corollary literature on many subjects, including those of a scientific nature. The sacred texts – and the values and concepts contained within them – have been compared to a large tree that has many branches but only one trunk.
The trunk of the Vedic tree, the moral and foundational principle upon which the entire tree stands, is that human life is a precious opportunity to live in such a way as to find happiness during life, to experience it in abundance after this life, and to assist others towards that same happiness. This can only be achieved through self-discipline, the pursuit of knowledge and right conduct, including charity towards others. A Hindu may be motivated to follow the moral precepts given in the Vedas out of informed personal choice, a sense of duty to family and society, a notion of the rewards here and hereafter, or a spirit of service to God. Whatever the internal reasons, to follow them is to be considered a good Hindu. The essential four moral precepts, from which so many others spring, are: Austerity, Truth, Cleanliness and Mercy.
Austerity – Tapa
Every religion has its creation story. In the Vedas it is described that human life in the universe only fully
began when God uttered the word ‘tapa.’ This Sanskrit word actually means ‘atonement’ or ‘penance’ and implicit within the term is the understanding that the souls in this world have become separated from God due to spiritual forgetfulness of their eternal position. Only through the voluntary acceptance of disciplines for a higher goal can they be once again restored to their rightful position.
Typical austerities might include rising early in the morning, taking a cold bath, prayer, study of the scriptures; fasting from certain foods or at certain times of year; refraining from sexual promiscuity; avoidance of idle speech or speech that offends; going on pilgrimage; and giving money to good causes.
Truth – Satyam
To speak the truth is so highly prized as a moral principle that countless stories are told within Hinduism to illustrate and encourage this particular discipline. Even today, all of India’s coins bear the national slogan: Satyam eva jayate – ‘Truth will be victorious.’
Typical religious acts based on this principle are always keeping promises, no matter how difficult it may be; remaining faithful to one’s marriage vows; always repaying debts; and speaking truth even when doing so loses one a personal material advantage.
Cleanliness – Saucam
To remain clean means to use whatever device is required to bring oneself back to ones original position of purity. Externally this is done daily by bathing with water. So much is the daily bath or occasional ritual bath a feature of Hinduism that it is often depicted in books as being emblematic of the culture. Internally the mind may be polluted by impure thoughts or speculative endeavours such as gambling which cause one to lose mental determination and concentration. Many Hindus will avoid alcohol for this reason. Some Hindus will refrain from eating eggs since they are not considered clean; and many others will not eat onions or garlic since they are said to make prayer and meditation unfocused.
Mercy – Daya
Leading a more spiritually awakened life leads one to feel compassion for others. It is considered vital for the progressive Hindu to feel empathy when learning of the suffering of others. This compassion will lead one to acts of kindness or ‘mercy.’ Thus acts of charity are made, especially to those who are in greatest need. Traditionally, these may include gifts of food, especially grains; digging wells; planting trees; and if the donor is able providing homes and schools. Children, the elderly, lone women and monks are all considered to be automatically in need of various forms of charity – especially in a society where no state provision is made.
The Hindu concept of mercy is also extended to animals, which are considered defenceless, and thus most Hindus will not unnecessarily inflict cruelty upon animals. A great number of Hindus for this reason are staunch vegetarians. Those who are not strict vegetarians will still refrain from eating beef, since the cow is considered sacred, being given by God to work the land and provide milk.
Most religions have lists of the good deeds to be done, and the bad deeds to be avoided during life. Hinduism is no exception, and there are many such lists. From the preceding list of four, religious commentators created other longer, but still succinct, lists of good and bad actions. These are memorised by children and students and extensively expanded upon by parents, teachers and priests. I include here a combined list of 20 taken from the famous Yoga Sutras of the sage Patanjali and other writings:
Ahimsa – Non-violence Non-injury to others in thought, word or deed. Not subjecting or allowing others to experience pain
Satya – Truth To refrain from lying or breaking promises. To speak the truth without distortion or deviation
Asteya – Non-stealing To refrain from theft or prolonged debt
Brahmacarya – Divine Conduct Celibacy, Chastity, being faithful in marriage
Kshama – Patience – Restraining intolerance with people and circumstances
Dhriti – Steadfastness – To overcome fear, indecision and to persevere, even in difficult circumstances or with challenging persons
Daya – Compassion – To overcome insensitivity to others; to feel sympathy
Arjavam – Honesty – To be straightforward, to renounce deception. Freedom from mental duplicity
Mitahara – Moderate Appetite – to regulate the diet
Saucam – Cleanliness Purity of body, mind and speech
Hri – Remorse Experiencing healthy shame for misdeeds
Santosh – Contentment Being satisfied with that which is available without severe endeavour
Dana – Giving Acts of charity without thoughts of reward. Hospitality and offerings to monks.
Astikya – Faith – An unflinching trust in something sublime
Svadhyaya – Study of scripture. Daily reading and discussion
Mati – Cognition. Developing spiritual intellect through the guru’s guidance
Vrata – Sacred Vows. Following regular and occasional observances faithfully
Japa – Recitation. Chanting mantras and prayers daily
Tapasya – Austerity To take up voluntary acts of denial such as a regular fast from food.
Ishvara-pranidhan – Surrender to God. To feel oneself to be the servant of God and to act in that capacity
No matter what particular denomination Hindus may belong to, they would find the above principles to be entirely acceptable. Having said that, there are so many denominations with so many saints, gurus, gods and goddesses, that even with common moral principles to unite it, Hinduism can still seem bewilderingly complex. However, European Christianity can look a bit like that to Hindus too.
Raised as a Christian in a small village in Cornwall I knew nothing of Christianity beyond what was taught in my local Methodist chapel. I knew nothing of Baptists, Pentecostals, Seventh-Day Adventists or the Catholic Church. And I could not even conceive of the Russian Orthodox Church – what to speak of the Ethiopian Coptic! What all these denominations have in common of course is the figure of Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity. Although their philosophies, liturgies, and systems of governance may differ considerably, their ultimate purpose is one: salvation through the Son of God.
Given the geographical spread of India and the thousands of years it has been in existence, it is hardly surprising that there are marked differences between one denomination and another. It has had at least three times as long as Christianity to develop, diversify and spread itself. And whereas Christianity has, more or less, one uniting philosophical perspective on reality, and one manifestation of the Godhead, Hinduism has three distinct philosophical perspectives and a multiplicity of manifestations of Godhead.
Three Ways of seeing the Divine
Perhaps it might be easier to understand the different religious perspectives within Hinduism through these generalised statements:
All the gods and goddesses like Ganesh, Durga, Shiva, Vishnu and Krishna are equal. They give different rewards according to which one we worship. You must worship your personal god every day and others especially when you need help. They provide blessings and happiness in this life and ultimately help with a future good re-birth. We can even dwell with them in heaven.
All the gods and goddesses are equal and different manifestations of the formless Godhead, the divine Spirit or Brahman. Ultimately the rewards they give must be abandoned for the attainment of moksha – complete freedom from the cycle of reincarnation. In themselves therefore, they have no intrinsic reality since their forms, like ours, are an illusion. Ultimately, if we follow the Vedas properly, we will merge with the existence of God, losing our individuality but regaining our eternity.
There is one God. He is real, the origin of everything, and is a person with form and other attributes. Although the divine white light shines from Him still it is a subjective part of Him. The various gods and goddesses are also real and are created by Him. He is known as Vishnu – ‘one who dwells everywhere’ – and by serving Him we can eventually, in this or some future life, return to live with Him eternally.
Generally speaking, one of the above three perspectives would be held by most Hindus. In some cases, an individual might change his perspective after meeting a particular guru. The following four main groupings within Hinduism contain hundreds of denominations each.
A group that concerns itself mainly with worship of five primary gods as a means to final spiritual liberation: Ganesh, Vishnu, Shiva, Surya, Shakti and Skanda. The worshipper chooses one as his personal deity. All are considered equal.
Devotees of Shiva, seen with a trident sitting in meditation, who worship him as the supreme, either with a view to dwelling with him in heaven or attaining their final liberation by his grace. Shaivites will also worship Ganesh, Shiva’s son, the elephant-headed god of new beginnings.
Those who are worshippers of the Goddess, mainly the wife of Shiva known variously as Parvati, Devi, Shakti, Amba, Durga and Kali
The devotees of Vishnu. They believe that the individual soul does not merge with Vishnu but attains eternal service to Him. They may worship Vishnu directly or one of His many incarnations who descend to Earth at different times in history such as Rama, the hero of the famous Ramayana, beloved of all Hindus. Other Vaishnavas may worship Hanuman, the celebrated monkey-warrior servant of Rama. Still other Vaishnavas hold that Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead and that He reveals His own perspective – and thus the final perspective – in the battlefield conversation known as Bhagavad-gita. The Gita is known as ‘the Hindu Bible’ and consequently Lord Krishna is the most well-known of all.