An Introduction to Hinduism
Hinduism - What is it?
The term "Hinduism" came into use about AD1200, but actually putting a finger on what Hindus believe is difficult: their religion has no founder, no prophet, and no instructional structure. It is a way of living much more than a theology, a philosophy rather than a religion.
The majority of Hindus believe in a supreme being, but not all. Some respect all life and eat only vegetables, while others will gladly eat meat from sacrifices in the temple. To some, their religion is highly personal; to others it is impersonal. A belief in reincarnation, found almost everywhere, is one of the few unifying features. Contrary to popular belief in the west, Hinduism is not an ancient static set of beliefs that are easily described; it is a body of customs, practices, and beliefs that are hard to outline and which go through major changes every few hundred years.
Hinduism started in the Indus River Valley in the third millennium BC with Temple-Citadels and god-kings much like Babylon. Worship revolved around water and the river and focused on fertility, nurture and the origin of life. Then came the Aryan invasion of the 2nd Millennium BC.
The Aryans were Indo-Europeans and had gods who resembled the Greek and Roman gods. They met for worship around fire and sacrificed animals. They also brought with them the Verdic texts - the Rig Veda - which had been composed in Central Asia, and came to be considered revelation. The two strands were blended together in the Indus Valley. The Aryans established the caste system and taught that hierarchy is divine intention.
Around 600BC reform movements began and new revelations began to be added to the Vedas. Among these, the Jains and Buddhists are the best known. The Jains were started by Mahavira (599-527BC) and they promoted a respect for all life that went to the point of wearing scarves over their mouths so as not to kill insects by accidentally inhaling them. Today there are about 3 million Jains in India. Buddhism became more popular. Its founder Siddharta Guatama, rejected sacrificial cults and the caste system, teaching instead that religion should be a more inward search for "quenching" of desires and an escape from the cycle of rebirth.
The next significant stage in the development of Hinduism started about 300 BC with the writing of the Hindu epics: the sutras, the Mahabharata and Tamayama cycles, and the Bhagavad Gita. These epics are taken today as historical accounts by most Hindus and are heard from childhood. They are the basis of much of the proactive aspects of popular Hinduism today including the popularity of Krishna as a god and practice of Sati - or widow burning. The period was also a time of synthesis and blending of the various aspects of Hinduism. In the 1400's the Chaitanya sect of the Krishna worship was established in Bengal, based on the Hindu epics.
Sometime around 600AD, India began to export Hinduism into Southeast Asia. For much of the period between 600 to 1400AD, large portions of Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Indonesia were covered with small Hindu kingdoms. The world view of much of Malaysia and Indonesia remains Hindu, even though the people are at least nominally Muslim. Bali, in Indonesia, resisted the advance of Islam, and today is the only place in the world where a significant Hindu community exists which is not made up of ethnic Indians.
Today, the diversity of Hinduism makes it difficult for outsiders to grasp. Salvation can be found at the end of any one of three courses: the way of knowledge (the search for enlightenment through yoga and ascetics); the way of action (fulfilling duty within the context of family relationships); and the way of devotion or love (to an individual god and temple, seen in the west in the Hare Krishna movement). Most Indians follow the way of devotion.
The Christian missionary faces several theological difficulties when confronting Hinduism. The religion has two concepts of grace, referred to as "monkey grace" and "kitten grace". They believe that sometimes grace places them in the position of a baby monkey, who must exert strength to hang on to its mother; sometimes it puts them in the place of the kitten whose mother simply picks it up and carries it - sometimes even against it's will.
Another difficulty is the idea that there is not one way but many ways to God. The resistance of Hinduism to Christian witness and ideas can be seen in Mahatma Gandhi - he was fascinated with the cross and said his favorite song was Wesley's "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross". Yet his understanding of the cross never went beyond the idea that suffering can be an effective tool for change.
Hinduism also has a clear concept of reincarnation. According to Hindus, the god Vishnu (out of compassion), has become incarnate 9 times. One of these incarnations was Buddha. The difficulty is not getting Hindus to accept Jesus as God incarnate, but in getting them to accept that Jesus is the only incarnation of God.
One writer has commented on the Indian mind: "there is a sense in which Indian thinking springs from an unrest in the soul rather than from intellectual curiosity?" This unrest is both the hope and problem of reaching Hindus. It is the problem because it has motivated a lot of searching, and many Indians feel that no people on earth have sought truth the way that they have; the result is a pride that will listen to no one. It is the hope because some Indians finally became thirsty enough to overcome this pride, and come to see more than suffering in the cross.
Bethany World Prayer Center
This article (which first appeared in "Frontiers Focus" Vol 1 #3, and is used by permission),
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