As I embarked on this quest for religious literacy, one of my main goals was to overcome common misconceptions about other religions so that I might better appreciate and learn from them. I am constantly amazed as I study and talk to people just how different my outsider perspective is compared to the way they see and understand their own beliefs. This is often discouraging as I am reminded just how high the mountain of religious literacy is to climb, but also motivating as each new insight brings rich rewards both in understanding and inspiration. Such a worthwhile journey!
Since most of my world religion textbooks start with Hinduism (one of the oldest world religions), I have already encountered many personal misconceptions regarding this religion. While I am no expert having just started my own education, I thought a few other people might find what I’ve learned helpful. So here we go…
- Hindus are not simply polytheistic. Ok what? But they have around 330 million gods and that seems to match the definition of polytheistic. True, but what I am learning is that at the heart of Hinduism is the belief in one supreme god; Brahman. According to Hindu thought, humans are incapable of understanding and defining Brahman so it is left to every person to find a way to think about Him. For some this does not allow for any sort of form or definition; Nirguna Nirakara (without form and characteristics). For others, they understand Brahman through one of his many expressions, which forms their pantheon of gods. All roads, all thoughts, all gods lead back to Brahman. Interesting!
- Hindus do not worship idols. But wait, I have seen them pray to statues and give offerings? As mentioned above, the supreme God Brahman is worshiped through various forms including images or statues. Hindus believe that all objects are a living embodiment or “arca” of God. These images allow the believer to focus their thoughts on Brahman whom they find present in all of creation. Still trying to wrap my head around this one, but it is good to recognize that what others (especially those from a western christian background) might see as idol worship may mean something different to practicing Hindus.
- Hinduism is not a central organized religion. What do I mean by that? Hinduism might be more accurately called Dharma or ‘the way’. This path however has many teachers and many approaches to the path so there is no one authority or core doctrine. If you want to learn about Hinduism, there is not an official church website out there with handy “what we believe” content. Sure those we would call Hindu (who in fact go by many names) share common teachings such as Atman, Karma, Samsara, Moksha, and of course Brahman; but we need to be careful making broad generalizations when it comes to such a diverse religion. Note: I believe this caution should be applied to all religious studies, but I am especially finding this important with Hinduism.
Well, those are just a few things that I have learned so far. I find Hinduism very inspiring and find much within its practice that I relate to. I look forward to more encounters with Dharma ‘the way’.