Basic Elements of Hinduism

BASIC ELEMENTS OF HINDUISM

Excerpts From: Hinduism and Islam A Comparative Study



Index :

Hindu and Hinduism
Main Features
Lack of a Common System
Caste System
Superiority of the Brahman
Polytheism
Sex and Sex-Worship
Authority of the Veda



Hindu and Hinduism

The term 'Hinduism' has been derived from 'Hindu'. 'Hindu' is a Persian word which means dark [ 1 ]. The word was first used by Muslims [ 2 ] for the inhabitants of the 'land beyond the Indus (Sindhu) river' and later, for the ancient Indians in general. The word was never used in Indian literature or scriptures before the advent of Muslims to India [ 3 ]. According to Jawaharlal Nehru, the earliest reference to the word 'Hindu' can be traced to a Tantrik book of the eighth century C.E., where the word means a people, and not the followers of a particular religion. The use of the word 'Hindu' in connection with a particular religion is of very late occurrence [ 4 ].

The Muslim rulers used the term 'Hindu' to mean Indian non-Muslims only. The Brahmans gladly welcomed it as it brought all the non-Muslim Indians under a single umbrella and thus provided them with a rare opportunity to expand their social, religious and political influence over them in the name of religion. The British rulers maintained it with one modification. They excluded the converted Christians from those covered by the term 'Hindu'.

The non-Muslim people of the South Asian subcontinent called Hindu had no precise word for their religions [ 5 ]. They were, as they are, divided into thousands of communities and tribes, each having its own religious beliefs, rituals, modes of worship, etc. Finding it difficult to get the names of the religions of these communities, the British writers gave them the word "Hinduism" to be used as a common name for all of their religions in about 1830 [ 6 ]. Thus the people called Hindus got a common element, at least in word, to be identified as a distinct, single community.

The people called Hindu have nothing common in their religious affairs. 'Hinduism', therefore, cannot give any precise idea as to what it means. Attempts were made to define the term but could not succeed. Faced with this dilemma, Hindu scholars sometime use the word Sanatan Dharma (eternal religion) and sometime Vedic Dharma (religion of the Veda), etc. for their religion. But as names of their religion, these words are also untenable as they do not imply anything precise for all the people called Hindu.



Main Features

Hinduism is a bundle of many things, often mutually contradictory. It is, therefore, not easy to identify its main features. However, some elements which are generally regarded as its main features are given below.



Lack of a Common System

Hinduism is not a revealed religion and, therefore, has neither a founder nor definite teachings or common system of doctrines [ 7 ]. It has no organization, no dogma or accepted creeds. There is no authority with recognized jurisdiction. A man, therefore, could neglect any one of the prescribed duties of his group and still be regarded as a good Hindu. "Hinduism has never prepared a body of canonical scriptures or a common prayer book; it has never held a general council or convocation; never defined the relation between laity and clergy; never regulated the canonization of saints or their worship; never established a single centre of religious life; never prescribed a course of training for its priests."[ 8 ] In the words of S.V. Kelkar, "There is in fact no system of doctrines, no teacher, or school of teaching, no single god that is accepted by all the Hindus."[ 9 ] In Hinduism, none is, therefore, regarded to have forsaken his or her religion, even if he or she deviates to any extent from the usually accepted doctrines or practices.



Caste System

Hindu society is divided into several thousands of caste and sub-caste. Caste is a highly organized social grouping. A Hindu is born in a caste and dies as a member of that caste. As caste is determined by birth, one can never move from one caste to another. Castes are not equal in status but arranged in a vertical order in which one caste is at the top and is the highest (the Brahman), another at the bottom and is the lowest (the Dalit) and in between them there are the Kshatriya, the Vashya and the Sudra in a descending order. This inequality in status is said to be an outcome of a person's deeds (good or bad) accomplished in his previous life. Caste differences find their expression largely in connection with marriages and eating together. In the words of S.D. Theertha, "... the Hindu social order is simply a menace to freedom, unity and peace. The three thousands and odd castes and the larger number of sub-castes, into which the Hindus are irretrievably divided, keep nearly ninety-five per cent of the Hindus in perpetual disgrace and permanently condemned to an inferior social status [ 10 ]. More on Caste System.



Superiority of the Brahman

The Brahmans occupy the highest position in the hierarchy of the caste system. They are said to have sprung from the mouth of Brahma (god), they are the rightful possessors of the Veda. They possess spiritual superiority by birth. They have the monopoly right to act as priests, conduct religious ceremonies and festivals, and accept alms. The Brahman is the deity on earth by his divine status [ 11 ]," born to fulfil dharma. Whatever exists in the world is his property. On account of the excellence of his origin, he is entitled to all. "Let a Brahman be ignorant or learned, still he is a great deity. To Brahman, the three worlds and the gods owe's their existence." [ 12 ] (emphasis added). More on Brahman from Hindu Scriptures.



Polytheism

Hindus believe in many gods and goddesses. Some of them are human (e.g. Krishna, Rama [ 13 ]), some animals (e.g. fish, monkey, rat, snake), (some animal-humans as in the case of Ganesh who has the head of elephant with trunk and the body of a human), and some others are natural phenomena (e.g. dawn, fire, sun). Their number is generally believed to be 330 million. According to Hindu belief, god incarnates, i.e., takes the form of human being and other animals and appears in this earth in that form. Gods and goddesses were born like human beings and had wives and children. No god possesses absolute power; some of the gods are weaker than the sages and some others even weaker than the monkey (e.g. Rama).

Another aspect about Hindu gods is that the status of their godhood is not fixed. One finds that some gods were worshipped for a time and then abandoned and new gods and goddesses were adopted instead. The gods and goddesses worshipped now-a-days in Hindu homes and temples are not Vedic. The Vedic gods like Agni (fire), Surya (sun) Usha (dawn) are completely rejected and the gods and goddesses mentioned in the Puranas are worshipped by modern Hindus. Similarly, Rama who is currently receiving increasing acceptance among Hindus in India because of the wide propagation of the official and other media was never worshipped as a deity until the eleventh century.



Sex and Sex-Worship

Hindu scriptures are essentially pornographic in nature, full of sexual allusion, sexual symbolism, passages of frank eroticism and stories relating to venal love. Some religious sects even introduced ritual intercourse as part of their cult and a potent aid to salvation [ 14 ]. The rituals, festivals and ceremonies are characterized by the display of obscene portraits, sex and sex-worship. The temples, places of pilgrimage and other holy shrines are full of sculptures with all sorts of sexual postures. The sexual life of Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, is well-known for its indecency. He had illicit relations with Radha, wife of his maternal uncle, in addition to a number of milk-maids, although he had a large number of wives [ 15 ]. Among Hindu gods, the most prominent ones are: Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the sustainer) and Siva (the destroyer). Brahma is found guilty of cohabiting with his own daughter, Saraswati. It is for that reason that he is deprived of being worshipped. Vishnu is guilty of deceitfully ruining the chastity of a married woman, called Tulasi. Siva is not worshipped but the image of his linga (sex-organ) is widely worshipped. This is because of the curse of some sage [ 16 ]. In the sculpture, Siva and his consort Parvati are depicted in various explicit poses of the sexual act.

Prostitution is encouraged in the form of religious custom of devdasi (slave-girls dedicated to temple-idols). Hindu gods and rishis (sages) are found engaged in sexual act with beautiful women and breeding illegitimate children. As for instance, in order that Rama could have strong soldiers in his army, the gods engaged themselves in begetting powerful sons. This they did by engaging themselves, in the words of Dr. Ambedkar [ 17 ], "in wholesale acts of fornication, not only against apsaras, who were prostitutes, not only against the unmarried daughters of Yashas [ 18 ] and nagas, but also against the lawfully wedded wives of Ruksha, Vidhyadhar, Ghandharvas, Kinnars, and Vanaras (monkeys) and produced the vanaras who became the associates of Rama" [ 19 ].



Authority of the Veda

It is generally believed that the Veda is recognized as an absolute authority in Hinduism but the so-called low- caste (non-Aryan) Hindus have no access to the scripture because they are considered impure by birth. So the Veda is far from being an authority for these people. The only people who are allowed to read and listen to the scripture are the Aryan Hindus. The Brahmans, the sole custodians of the Veda, too hardly benefit from it because it is written in Sanskrit, a dead language, 'its content has long been practically unknown to most Hindus, and it is seldom drawn upon for literal advice' [ 20 ].



References

[l] Firuz al-Lughat (Lahore: n.d.), p. 615. Also see Lugat Sa'idi: (Kanpur: 1936), p. 633.

[2] H.G. Rawlinson, Intercourse Between India and the Western World, (Cambridge: 1926), p. 20.

[3] Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics (ERE), (New York: l 967), 6:699. Also see Swami Dharma Theertha, History of Hindu Imperialism, (Madras: 1992), p. vii.

[4] Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, (New Delhi: 1983), pp.74-75.

[5] Benson Y. Landis, World Religions, (New York: n.d.), p. 49.

[6] The New Encyclopaedia Britannica (NEB), 20:581.

[7] Richard F. Nyrof, Area Handbook for India, (Washington: 1975), p. 163.

[8] ERE. 6:7 12.

[9] Theertha, p. 177.

[10] Ibid., p.209.

[1l] Wilkins: Modern Hinduism, (London: 1975), p.239.

[12] Theertha, p. 37.

[13] Hindu zealots demolished the historic Babari Masjid on 6 December 1992 in order to construct a temple on its site for Rama.

[14] A.L Basham, The Wonders That Was India (Calcutta: 1967), p. 172.

[15] The number of his wives was sixteen thousand one hundred and eight (16,108) and his children numbered one hundred and eighty thousand (180,000). See Ambedkar, Riddle of Rama and Krishna, (Bangalore: 1988), p.25.

[16] See Chapter 4.

[17] Dr. Ambedkar was the first law minister of independent India and was the author of India's constitution.

[18] Yaksha, naga, ruksha, vidyadhar, gandharva, kinna, each of these words means demigod.

[19] Ambedkar, p.7.

[20] NEB, 20: 581.




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