Hinduism is not simply another monotheistic religion, as a few groups seem to be implying today. Though there is a Hindu theism of several varieties, much profound philosophical depth and long traditions, it is part of a larger set of spiritual approaches that include most of the spiritual views and practices that staunch monotheists dread and denigrate.We cannot simply equate the Hindu idea of the supreme reality with the One God of western
monotheism any more than we can equate Christian salvation from sin and going to heaven with Hindu Moksha or liberation from karma and rebirth. Hinduism is not just western monotheism in a different garb but reflects a more ancient and more global strain of spirituality that exclusive monotheistic traditions have tended to deny, subvert and try to convert to their own beliefs.
First of all, Hinduism defines itself as Sanatana Dharma meaning the ‘Universal and Eternal Tradition’. As a universal tradition, Hinduism cannot reject any aspect of human spirituality or striving to know the ultimate truth, which allows it not only to embrace religion and spirituality of all types but also to develop philosophy, art and science, even to accept a place for atheism as a stage in the development of human thought.
Hinduism embraces what the West calls polytheism (the Divine as Many), monotheism (the idea of One Creator), pantheism (seeing the universe as God), monism (the idea of One Reality equal in all things, yet transcending all) and more, without any sense of contradiction. It embraces the use of images, human, animal and naturalistic in form (idol worship), the use of symbols and geometric designs (yantras), the use of sacred sound (mantra), and purely formless approaches to the Divine as impersonal and Absolute through silent meditation. Hinduism can no more reject the depiction of a multiplicity of deities than it can reject the place of representational art as part of its comprehensive approach to the artistic realm, such as we find in Hindu temple iconography.
In fact, Hinduism better reflects the pagan and native traditions of the world like the Taoist, Shinto, Native American and Native African, the pre-Christian traditions of Europe of the Greeks, Romans, Celts, Germans and Slavs, as well as the ancient traditions of Egypt and Babylonia, than it does the Biblical traditions. These so-called pagan traditions, like the Hindu, do not merely consist of primitive idol worshippers caught in superstition. They also see the Divine as One and as the Absolute beyond all manifestation. We see this more clearly among the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers like Parmenides, Heraclitus, Apollonius and Plotinus but the same trends exist in the other pagan traditions as well. The Native Americans similarly know of the One Creator but recognize the sacred link of all lives and a variety of spiritual manifestations.
All native cultures honor the Earth as the Mother and the Heaven as the Father, and find thesame sacred essence in all of nature. Like the pagan traditions, Hinduism sees the Divine in nature, with nature as the manifest aspect of the supreme reality or Brahman. That is why Hindus and pagans find sacred places in all of nature with its great mountains, rivers, plains and ocean and why their sacred rituals mirror natural processes using the elements like fire and water. Such naturalistic traditions are not born of time, history and human
personalities but arise from a connection with the universe as a single organism, including honoring all species. Such pagan traditions are not simply what the West regards as the superstitions of uncivilized or unsophisticated peoples. Western philosophy, logic, science and democratic politics are rooted in pagan Greco-Roman traditions, not the faith-based monotheistic religious traditions, whose little philosophy or science was borrowed from the same pagans they sought to convert as unholy. Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and Shinto traditions of Asia are also well known for their profound philosophies and great cultures. Today we must move out of an authoritarian and exclusive idea of divinity, which tends to give rise to autocratic cultures, to a pluralistic view of religion, which is what the pagan traditions often reflect as well.
Hinduism does recognize that theism in the sense of the worship of the One Lord of All (Ishvara) has its place as an important aspect of human spiritual striving. There are strong traditions of Vaishnava, Shaiva and Shakti theism among others in India. Every Hindu deity can be honored as Ishvara or as reflecting the Cosmic Lord, even forms like Ganesha with animal heads. At the same time, Hindu deities can be lauded as the Absolute beyond manifestation or in the forms of nature, like Shiva as the Lord of the Mountain. The Hindu Ishvara can be worshipped through a number of angles of approach as male or female and is not limited to one name, depiction or historical revelation.
Such an ‘inclusive Hindu theism’ does not deny the worship of the Divine as many, and includes honoring the deities ruling the elements, worlds and planets. Nor does it deny the worship of the Divine as impersonal and transcendent, the formless supreme Brahman whose nature is like space or the void. Above all, Hindu philosophies see the Divine as our own deeper Self, not as a separate reality. That is why in Hinduism there is no salvation by proxy by any outside agency, messenger or prophet, there is only knowing the reality within our own nature, what is called Sat-chit-ananda or Being-Consciousness-Bliss.
While we can recognize that theism does have its place in human spiritual aspiration, to reduce that aspiration only to theism of an exclusive type as its highest or only legitimate expression, is a great mistake. It results in the denigration of the wider scope of human spiritual striving. It also tends to confuse belief, which is but an emotional assertion, with a real change of consciousness, which requires Yoga and meditation as daily practice. Hindus need not try to appear as copy cat monotheists in order to gain favor in monotheistic circles which tend to dominate the interfaith movement today. They need to be true to their own tradition and to the pagan and native traditions that they are part of, better represent, and have shared a common destiny with, including the same assault against them by monotheistic groups.
This means that Hindus should work to expand the current view of what religion should be in the world today, which gives too much regard for monotheism, towards a greater Santana Dharma or universal approach that honors every form of spiritual striving on individual and cultural levels regardless of name and form – and which puts knowledge above faith as the most effective means of reaching the supreme truth.
Perhaps the most common calling of the Divine in the Vedas is as a friend (sakha), one with whom one has a common kinship, affinity and affection, not one to whom one alls out of guilt, fear or shame. Vedic and Hindu deities are one in all and all in one, and reflect various aspects of our own deeper nature. We are all friends in that universal reality, whatever name we chose to call it. That sacred presence is everywhere and is usually better known to those who live close to nature rather than to those who pontificate over religious politics in the media.
Certainly we should draw parallels between the Hindu and other religious, spiritual and cultural traditions of the world, when these actually exist. And a number of such connections do exist even with monotheistic traditions, particularly along their mystical and unorthodox sides. However, even more such connections exist with pagan and native traditions, which should be given their priority in any attempt to explain Hinduism to the West.
Of course, some Hindus may wish to discard any baggage associated with pagan traditions and want to appear more theologically correct in monotheistic circles, but that is to deny not only their own heritage but their friends in the religious world, who are also looking for Hinduism for help in preserving their ancient cultures.
Hinduism should proudly assert itself as the world’s oldest and largest religious, spiritual and cultural tradition that is not rooted in any one book, one prophet or savior, limited monotheistic view of reality, or need to convert the world. Hindus have nothing to be ashamed of in the arena of world thought except not adequately knowing, expressing or living according to their own Sanatana Dharma, which can encompass all the best that is in theism without denigrating the rest of the universal search for the highest truth, or making monotheism the model of all religious striving.
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