Here are 5 things Christians should know about the Hindu faith:
1. Hinduism is believed to be the world’s oldest religion and, today, is the world’s third largest religion.
Many scholars believe that the roots of Hinduism can be traced back over 4,000 years, arguably making Hinduism the world’s oldest religion. Hinduism originated on the Indian subcontinent. In the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit, the word “Hinduism” means “dwellers by the Indus River,” which is a river that flows through northern India.
After Christianity (with its 2.3 billion followers) and Islam (with its 1.8 billion followers), Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world, with approximately 1.1 billion followers. The country of India is home to the overwhelming majority of the world’s Hindu population. Other countries with large Hindu populations are Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
2. Hinduism has no single set of rules and is, instead, a compilation of many diverse beliefs.
There is no single originating source or founder of Hinduism. In addition, Hinduism itself is not a single, organized religion with one set of rules. Instead, Hinduism is comprised of a fusion of many philosophies, beliefs, and traditions. Within this compilation of belief systems, there are several core Hindu beliefs, including the following:
Most Hindu sects are henotheistic, meaning that they worship a single god named Brahman, while recognizing the existence of other gods. The gods can take many forms but are all manifestations of Brahman’s universal spirit;
Hinduism encompasses many sacred writings and not one holy book in particular. For this reason, Hinduism is referred to as a “way of life” or a “family of religions” rather than as a single religion;
Hindus believe in the doctrine of karma, referring to the universal law of cause (actions) and effect (consequences);
One of Hinduism’s central principles is that an individual’s actions and thoughts directly determine the status of that individual’s current life as well as that individual’s future lives. In other words, if a follower of Hinduism behaves well in this life, that follower will improve his conditions in his next reincarnated life. Likewise, if the follower behaves poorly in this life, he will worsen his condition in his future reincarnation;
With each reincarnation, Hindus hope to reach a way of living that embodies proper conduct and morality; and
The goal of Hinduism is to achieve salvation, at which point an individual’s soul stops reincarnating. Once salvation is reached, the saved soul becomes part of what Hindus believe is the one absolute soul (Brahman) that binds all other souls.
3. There are many deities and paths to salvation in Hinduism.
The supreme Hindu god is Brahman, who is believed to be the ultimate force existing in all things. However, most Hindus worship additional divine beings, who take on separate forms but who are each part of Brahman’s singular universal force.
Some of the most prominent deities representing Brahman include:
- Brahma: the god who created the universe and all living things
- Vishnu: the god who preserves the universe
- Shiva: the god who destroys the universe to prepare for its renewal
The ultimate spiritual goal of Hinduism is to achieve salvation, which ends the cycle of a death and rebirths. A follower can achieve salvation in Hinduism by detaching from the material world and accepting the overriding unity of all things with the one universal soul—Brahman.
Salvation in Hinduism can be achieved through different paths, including through selfless acts of service to others, uniting oneself with Brahman intellectually through study, and/or devotion to one’s personal god.
4. Hindus revere all animal life and consider the cow, in particular, to be a sacred animal.
Hinduism reveres animal life generally and many Hindus are vegetarian. Traditionally, Hindus have considered the cow in particular to be a sacred animal. The cow is not seen as a god nor is it worshipped as such.
Rather, certain Hindu scriptures identify the cow as the “mother” of all civilization, providing milk to sustain humanity. As such, Hindus view the cow as a sacred symbol of life, to be protected and esteemed, never consumed.
Cows are allowed to roam free in cities and villages alike in heavily-Hindu countries. In fact, so great is the protection of cows in predominantly-Hindu India, for example, that a person can be imprisoned for harming or killing the animal.
5. Hinduism in India—home to 1 billion of the world’s Hindus—espouses a caste system.
Throughout its history, Hinduism in India has observed a caste system, or, hierarchy, categorizing people into defined social classes. An individual’s standing in the caste system is believed to be linked to that person’s accumulated merit in past lives, i.e. their karma. A person’s caste is hereditary, with its own rules as to a person’s social, professional, and religious standing. Last names in India are indicators of what caste a person belongs to.
There are four main castes within Hinduism. At the top of the social hierarchy are the priests and other educated professionals. Next on the social chain are the protectors and public servants of society. Next are skilled producers involved in commerce, such as merchants. The last rung of the caste system includes the unskilled laborers.
There are many subcategories within each caste. There are also people that Hinduism considers to be outside of the caste system. This social class is referred to as Dalits or as the “untouchables,” and its members are viewed by some Hindus as the lowest members of society. The “untouchables” do the “unclean” work in India, such as leatherwork and street cleaning.
In 1950, India’s constitution banned discrimination based on caste, and many of today’s Hindus no longer follow the caste system. However, incidents of violence continue against those considered to be among the lowest level of the Hindu hierarchal system. Furthermore, it’s still common for Hindus to avoid marrying outside of their particular caste.
Clearly, Hinduism is fundamentally different from Christianity in many ways. However, understanding some of the beliefs that your Hindu friends and neighbors may live by will help prepare you to extend love and grace as you interact with them, relying on the Holy Spirit's guidance.
Dolores Smyth writes on faith and parenting. Her work has appeared in numerous print and online publications. You can read more of her work on Twitter @LolaWordSmyth.
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