For starters, I think it’s interesting and worth mentioning that the term “Hinduism” was assigned, by Muslim invaders in the common era, to the sum of beliefs and practices of people on the Indian subcontinent that were not Muslims. To be Hindu meant to be non-Muslim, nothing more. To identify oneself as “Hindu” is a fairly modern concept in relation to the history of what we call “Hinduism,” which includes not only the Vedic culture brought by the foreign Aryans but also the culture of the indigenous Dravidians and remnants of the Indus Valley Civilization. Hinduism is therefore inclusive of many practices and philosophies by virtue of the nature of its synthesis in society. There is no central philosophy or practice that can be associated with every individual that considers himself to be Hindu. For a religion to be so inclusive and pluralistic seems to suggest to many that Hinduism is a philosophy, and not a religion, but that argument is based on subjective definitions of philosophy and religion and personally it seems to be an irrelevant discussion.
We associate Hinduism with concepts such as reincarnation, karma, idol worship and the caste system. We associate it with emaciated ascetics. We associate it with Ganesha—the god with the elephant head. We associate it with Krishna—the frolicking lover getting it on with the Gopis but still claiming Radha to be his true love. How do all of these things come together? From what cohesive, instructive texts can such an array of seemingly disparate practices and beliefs arise from without contradiction? Well, let us look at our options.
the 3 ages of hinduism (approximate, debatable dates, of course)
the Vedic age (2000BCE – 200BCE)
- rg veda, yajur veda, sama veda, artha veda
- characterized by ritual sacrifice, focus on orthopraxy, and propagation of vedas solely through oral transmission due to the value of shruti over smriti ; in sacrifice, the idea was that you did the rituals properly and you got what you prayed for–rain, shine, baby boys, etc.
the Upanishadic age (800BCE – 300BCE)
- upanishads, aranyakas, brahmanas
- characterized by rationalizing components of the vedas; where the vedas are “what” and “how” the upanishads are “why”; philosophical and esoteric texts
leading to the yoga sutras and dharma shastras (application of vedic and upanishadic values to people and society–> division of society into caste and class is rationalized and perpetuated); marking the transition from this period into the next
the Bhakti (devotional) age (200BCE-present day)
- bhagavad gita, tamil devotional literature of alvars and nayannars, sampradaya literature (regional bhakti literature)
- seems to have developed independently in south and north india; south indian bhakti traditions date back to 300CE while north indian bhakti traditions date back to 1200CE, largely due to the influence of sufism (610-700’sCE, gaining popularity during the early years of the umayyad caliphate), the bhakti yoga of islam
- characterized by reverence of a personal god, isvara; devotion gains preference over asceticism and classical yoga; main principle of value from the vedas is the sacrifice of karmic fruits and performing action as sacrifice; the meaning of sacrifice evolves over the course of the 3 ages significantly
What’s of interest to me is whether the essence of the Bhakti age echoes the message of the Upanishads and the Vedas. Or if the message of the Vedas have been more or less forgotten. I probably won’t actually answer this question in the course of this post but we’ll see.
It’s first necessary to take a closer look at Bhakti yoga and the ways by which a Hindu can be a devotee and share a relationship with god.
the possible relationships between a devotee and the divine
1) peaceful: a relationship devoid of attachment or emotion; calm, contemplative; related to the ways of the ascetic
2) respectful: focusing on god’s majesty; servant-master relationship; god as a caregiver
3) companionship: god is a friend; there is familiarity and equanimity between god and the devotee
4) parental: parental love is a model for how one ought to have selfless love for god, without seeking rewards; perhaps an understanding that involves the idea that god “requires” or “deserves” your affections, prayers, and praise
5) amorous: to see god alone in the most intense love that one may experience; to experience a relationship with god is to experience the highest form of love possible; this is the ultimate goal of bhakti yoga, as well as sufism–to experience “the true love”
It makes sense to me that different people would be inclined to seek different relationships with god, but in reality it is much easier for people to accept that there is a “correct” type of relationship with god that they ought to seek. The idea that god could be seen as your friend as opposed to something immaterial and beyond your comprehension yet deserving of your utmost love and respect…is blasphemous to some…but might be the only reassuring thought that gets someone through his day. Given the diversity of people, their needs, their temperaments, and their predispositions, how can there possibly be one mode of thinking that is right for all?
Some Hindus situate different religions as being under the bracket of Hinduism. The Indian government considers Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism to legally fall under this bracket. Obviously to the dismay of many Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists whose religions branched off and away from Hinduism for a reason. Hindus would probably go so far as to call Mohammad an avatar of God Almighty except that would, I dunno, probably piss off most Muslims. We managed to claim Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu though. This is because religion has evolved for the Hindu over time based on need and influence and nothing could be more natural. The offshoots of Hinduism are not different religions or practices but instead evolved (for better as well as worse) ideas born of the perennial philosophy of Hinduism. The changes for the better we embrace and the changes for the worse that we can’t stop we regard as the universe’s natural affinity towards entropy.
To my dismay, the very things that ring true to me, and appeal to me the most in Hinduism are the reasons why a large number of so-called Hindus today don’t know much about Hinduism. It’s all-encompassing, it encourages seeking the path that resonates with you. It doesn’t acknowledge the idea of a sinner, which many Hindus are happily aware of. It does acknowledge the idea of sin, which many Hindus are happily unaware of (more on this later).
The religious discipline found in Islam, for example, is just not possible in Hinduism. There isn’t one text that all Hindus can agree to be “the text”. There isn’t one path held superior to others. There is no one to tell you what to believe. It is not for the masses, it is not nearly as accessible as other religions. And so I see my friends from Hindu backgrounds converting, seeking the aspects of organized religion that Hinduism does not really offer to them. This in itself doesn’t bother me at all, but in recent years I’ve read a wealth of Hindu texts in which I have found some of the most elegant and cohesive of philosophies. Mostly it just makes me sad that Hinduism is seemingly lost amongst its so-called followers. Its universal wisdom is forgotten because, well, who signs up for the path to self-realization when you can just follow a book of rules that will be your ticket to everlasting happiness after death? Sorry Hinduism, as a religion, you kind of lose. But I guess maybe you never intended to be a religion at all.