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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Hinduism FAQ

As promised, here’s the first in my series on Hinduism. I absolutely loved the class I audited at Tufts this spring, and I’m excited to share what I’ve learned on the blog. It’s taken me so long to get this started only because (as you well know, dear reader) I have too. Many. Projects.

What follows are my most basic burning questions, which our professor Brian Hatcher mostly answered in the first couple of lectures (with the exception of “om,” which we came to a little later on).

 

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A Hanuman shrine in Bangalore.

 

Is Hinduism a polytheistic religion?

The delightfully slippery thing about Hinduism is that it can’t really be classified as a polytheistic or a monotheistic religion, nor is it a unified belief system with a “central authority” like the Pope or the Dalai Lama. You can look at a list of basic tenets like this one on the Hinduism Today website, but it isn’t accurate from a practical standpoint. Not every Hindu believes in reincarnation, for example, and it’s estimated that only 25 to 40% of Hindus are vegetarian, so ahimsa isn’t a hardfast principle either.

It seems that the underlying tenet of Hinduism, the thing all Hindus would agree on, is the oneness of all creation. Each of us has a soul—atman—which is part of brahman, ultimate reality, the “cosmic soul” if you will. In this sense there is only one “god,” though that “god” appears in many avatars; and because we are divine beings, we are all on a spiritual path.

 

What are the Vedas?

Amy Lou’s husband Finn recently finished his Ph.D. in Sanskrit and Indian Studies (check out this gorgeous video of Indian high school students getting ready for a theatrical competition, which Finn filmed in Kerala in December 2012). They actually moved to Kerala for a year, and when Amy Lou referred to Vedic this or that, I’d have pretty much no idea what she was talking about.

Now, however, I can tell you that the Vedas are the very oldest Hindu scriptures, written in Sanskrit and divided into four texts: the Rigveda, the Yajurveda, the Samaveda and the Atharvaveda. The Vedas are śruti—”what is heard,” or divine revelation—as opposed to smṛti, “what is remembered,” wisdom gained through tradition.

Each of the four texts is further subdivided into four (or five) types, the fourth being the Upanishads, which cover philosophy and spiritual principles (which is why we Westerners hear about them most often; this is where you learn about the concepts of atman and brahman).

Another word I came across from time to time is “Vedanta,” which means “the last” or “highest of the Veda.” Vedanta originally referred to the Upanishads; now there are six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, of which Vedanta is the most prominent.

 

What does “om” mean, anyway?

“Om” (or “aum”) is a sacred syllable, a primal sound or “root vibration” linking heaven and earth. It’s made up of three sounds, A + U + M, which symbolize earth, heaven, and the space between. Now I understand why we chant “om” at the beginning and end of yoga class—it’s the simplest and most powerful mantra there is.

 

* * *

What else will I blog about in this series?

The Four Goals of Human Existence

Hinduism and Vegetarianism (you knew that was coming!)

Hinduism and Yoga (ditto!)

Hinduism, the Epics, and the Role of Women

Asceticism

The Concept of Divine Sight

This is going to be great! (If I can just get organized enough to post on a regular basis…)

2 Comments to Hinduism FAQ

  1. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    July 31, 2015 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    I thought more Hindus were vegetarian–disappointing!

    I’m confused about the relationship between the class structure in India and Hinduism. Does the latter influence the former? They seem to contradict each other but then brahman is the highest class. Please expel me of my ignorance!

  2. Ajay's Gravatar Ajay
    September 1, 2015 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    I am not sure where the 25-40% estimate came from? I would say most of the Hindus mainly eat vegetarian meals. There is a large number of Hindus eating meat but not three times a day or every day. Vegetarianism is part of the Indian culture which has matured over thousands of years. Vedas stress purity in every aspect of life to realize self and the absolute truth. Purity means no meat eating and many other things. Based on the caste, mainly Brahmins and Vaishyas (traders) practiced strict vegetarianism. Kshatriyas (warriors) Shudras (servicemen) and untouchables had no diet restrictions meaning they could eat meat if so desired.

    The caste or class structure was set up based on the principal of mode of goodness (Brahmins) passion (warriors & businessmen) ignorance (working class), etc. All societies have people of these three nature. But caste system was based on a type of role that a group of people could assume to help run the society. Krishna said in Gita, of my universal form, Brahmins are my face, Warriors are my arms and Businessmen are my legs and others are my feet. All castes are important to run a healthy society but they contribute based on their capacity. Brahmins are thinkers, warriors are fighters and businessmen are skilled in mercantile. In other words, discriminating based on caste is not allowed by Hinduism. On the other hand Hinduism stress that people should stay in their own caste. But in times of emergency, any caste can take up different roles. For example, Brahmins can take the role of warriors, Working class could take Brahmins’ role, etc.

    I hope it helps. Let me know, if you have more questions.

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.