Sheetal Shah serves as Senior Director of the Hindu American Foundation, where she focuses on developing its public policy strategy. She practices Ashtanga yoga at Ashtanga Yoga New York and serves on the Board of the Broome Street Ganesha Temple. We asked her to list 10 things she wishes people knew about Hinduism. Ms. Suhag Shukla contributed to the article.
1. Hinduism’s core principle is pluralism.
Hindus acknowledge the potential existence of multiple, legitimate religious and spiritual paths, and the idea that the path best suited for one person may not be the same for another. The Rig Veda, one of Hinduism’s sacred texts, states Ekam sat vipraha bahudha vadanti, or “The Truth is one, the wise call It by many names.”
As a result of this pluralistic outlook, Hinduism has never sanctioned proselytization and asserts that it is harmful to society’s well being to insist one’s own path to God is the only true way. Hindus consider the whole world as one extended family, and Hindu prayers often end with the repetition of shanti – or peace for all of existence.
2. Caste-based discrimination is not intrinsic to Hinduism.
Caste-based discrimination and “untouchability” are purely social evils not accepted or recognized anywhere in the Hindu scriptural tradition. The word “caste” is derived from the Portuguese “casta” — meaning lineage, breed, or race. As such, there is no exact equivalent for “caste” in Indian society, but what exists is the dual concept of varna and jāti.
Sacred texts describe varna not as four rigid, societal classes, but as a metaphysical framework detailing four distinctive qualities which are manifest, in varying degrees, in all individuals. Jātirefers to the occupation-based, social units with which people actually identified.
There are four varnas and countless jātis. In theory, the numerousjātis loosely belonged to one of the four varnas, but were not limited to the traditional profession of the varna in ancient India. Over time, however, varna and jati became conflated and birth-based.
The four varnas — and the most common professions belonging to each — were:
- teachers, scholars, physicians, judges, and priests (brahmanas)
- kings, soldiers, administrators, city planners (kshatriyas)
- businessmen, traders, bankers, agricultural, and dairy farmers (vaishyas)
- laborers, artisans, blacksmiths, and farmers (including wealthy landowners) (sudras)
A subsequent fifth category, now known as the “untouchables,” emerged more than 2,000 years after the Rig Veda (the first Veda) to categorize those jātis which, for various reasons, did not fit into the four-fold varna structure.
Many of these jātis performed tasks considered ritually impure, physically defiling, or involving violence, such as preparing and eating animal products. However, no sacred text or book of social law ever prescribes this fifth category. Rather, Hindu scripture emphasizes equality of all mankind.
Ajyesthaso akanishthaso ete sambhrataro vahaduhu saubhagaya
No one is superior, none inferior. All are brothers marching forward to prosperity.
The term “caste” in modern India is primarily understood to meanjāti rather than varna and is a feature across all religious communities. Discrimination on the basis of caste is also outlawed. Generally, neither varna nor jāti have bearing on one’s occupation in modern India, but may still influence lifestyle, certain socio-cultural practices, and marriage.
3. Karma is more than just “what goes around comes around.”
Karma is the universal law of cause and effect: each action and thought has a reaction, and this cycle is endless until one is able to perform virtuous action without expecting rewards.
The Bhagavad Gita, III.19 and III.20 expounds on this:
Tasmad asakta satatam
Karyam karma samacara
Asakto hy acaran karma
Param apnoti purusah
Sampasyan kartum arhasi
Therefore, without attachment
Perform always the work that has to be done
For man attains to the highest
By doing work without attachment
Likewise you should perform with a view to guide others
And for the sake of benefiting the welfare of the world
Belief in karma goes hand in hand with belief in reincarnation, where the immortal soul, on its path of spiritual evolution, takes birth in various physical bodies through the cycle of life and death. Though karma can be immediate, it often spans over lifetimes and is one explanation to the commonly asked question, “Why do bad things happen good people?” or visa versa.
4. Hindus recognize and worship the feminine Divine.
Hinduism is the only major religion that worships God in female form. Hindus revere God’s energy, or Shakti, through its personification in a Goddess. Shakti is seen to be complementary and not in competition with divine masculine powers which manifest as God(s).
The Vedas are replete with hymns extolling the equality and complementary roles of men and women in the spiritual, social, and educational realms. Hinduism remains one of a few major religions in which women have occupied and continue to occupy some of the most respected positions in the spiritual leadership — including Sharda Devi, The Mother, Anandamayi, Amritanandmayi Devi or Ammachi, Shree Maa, Anandi Ma, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda and Ma Yoga Shakti.
Hindu society has, over the ages and in modern times, seen tremendous contributions made by women in nearly every aspect of life.
5. Hindu iconography is replete with symbolism.
Just as we see the endless sky and oceans as blue, we are reminded of the Divine’s infiniteness through the blue-toned depiction of some Hindu Gods. Because Hinduism teaches that all of nature is Divine, Hindus believe that God manifests in the various forms that are found in nature.
For example, the ever-popular Ganesha is depicted with an elephant head, symbolizing wisdom, as elephants are recognized to be among the wisest of animals. Hanuman, worshipped as the perfect devotee and depicted as a monkey, symbolizes the individual’s ability to quiet the ever-racing human mind through loving devotion to God and selfless service, or seva.
6. Hinduism is actually a family of six major schools of thoughts, one of which is Yoga.
Over the ages, various schools of theology developed in Hinduism through a dynamic tradition of philosophical inquiry and debate. Six schools of thought, or darshanas, are recognized as the most influential:
- Vaisheshika: considered one of the most ancient atomic theories founded by Sage Kanada. Sage Kanada held that all matter is made up of atoms and these atoms are activated through Divine intervention. Vaisheshika and Nyaya eventually merged.
- Nyaya: a system of logic proving the existence of the Divine as well as other core Hindu concepts such as karma. Nyaya insists that nothing is acceptable unless it is in accordance with reason and experience. The thoroughness of Nyaya logic and epistemology greatly influenced succeeding orthodox and unorthodox schools of thought.
- Sankhya: considered one of the oldest schools of thought. Sankhya divides all of existence into two categories — Purusha(divine consciousness) and prakriti (matter). Very little Sankhya literature survives today, and there is some controversy over whether or not the system is dualistic because it propounds the existence of these two categories.
- Mimamsa or Purva Mimamsa: interprets the rules of Vedic ritual, proffering perfection in ritual as a path towards moksha.
- Yoga: more aptly Raja Yoga focuses on quieting the mind through an eight-limb system (Ashtanga yoga) as described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras for a balanced life and ultimately moksha.
- Vedanta: arguably the most influential on modern Hinduism, this theology relies primarily on transcending one’s identification with the physical body for liberation. The means by which an individual can transcend one’s self-identity is through right knowledge, meditation, devotion, selfless service, good works, and other religious and spiritual disciplines. Major sub-schools of Vedanta include Advaita, Dvaita, and Visishtaadvaita.
7. Hindus believe the Divine resides in all beings.
By accepting the divinity in all beings and all of nature, Hinduism views the universe as a family or, in Sanskrit, vasudhaiva kutumbakam. All beings, from the smallest organism to man, are considered manifestations of God.
Mankind carries a special responsibility, as it is believed to be the most spiritually evolved with the capacity to not only tolerate, but honor the underlying equality and unity of all beings. In line with this idea is the commonly heard Hindu greeting of Namaste, which means “The Divine in me bows to the Divine in you.”
8. Hindus worship God, or Brahman, in various forms.
Most Hindus believe in one, all-pervasive Divine Reality that is formless (Brahman) or manifests and is worshiped in different forms (Ishvara or God/Goddess). A Hindu may choose to worship God in the form(s) of Shiva, Ganesha, Lakshmi, or any form that personally speaks to her.
Hindus will freely worship multiple forms of God and participate in the many religious festivals throughout the year that honor the different forms of the Divine (i.e. Shivaratri pays homage to Shiva, Janmashtami pays homage to Krishna, etc).
The reason Hinduism depicts God with form is based on an acknowledgement that the average human mind finds it near impossible to mediate upon or develop a personal relationship with a Divine that is formless.
9. Hinduism is a global religion.
Though the majority of the world’s Hindus reside in India, there are substantial Hindu populations across the globe. Hindus form sizeable minorities in North America, the UK, Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, Fiji, and Malaysia.
In the recent past, sizeable Hindu populations existed in Bhutan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, but those have diminished considerably due to human rights violations and lack of religious freedom.
10. Hinduism and Sanatana Dharma are synonymous.
The term Sanatana Dharma, loosely translated as “Eternal Law or Way,” is self-referential. The term “Hindu,” however, is a twelfth-century Persian abstraction referring to the Indic civilization they found espousing certain beliefs, practices, and a way of life on the banks of the Indus (therefore Hindu) river.
Over the centuries, the diverse followers of Sanatana Dharmahave adopted the references of Hindus and Hinduism. Other terms used to refer to Hinduism include Vedic, Sanskritic, Yogic,Indic, and Ancient Indian.
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