Despite being born in a practicing Hindu family, and despite being brought up in the tradition of idols, temples, and sacrifices, and despite living in the land of Kumari, the living goddess of Nepal, I never understood Hinduism. It was too complex and diverse.
Hinduism is an ancient polytheistic, pantheistic, henotheistic, and animistic religion, which is mystically syncretized with peculiar beliefs and practices. That sentence alone is confusing!
In recent years, Hinduism has enthralled many Westerners. Some adopt Hinduism as a philosophy or find its mysticism and yoga alluring, while others devoutly follow its religious practices. Because of this, I believe Christians in the West need to know more about this religion and its core concepts. Here are nine things you should know about Hinduism.
1. Hindus believe in an impersonal god.
Mainstream Hinduism understands god as one, yet it asserts this god can manifest itself in multiple names and forms. A supreme god, popularly known as Brahman, is believed to be the infinite abstract principle, not a person—the absolute reality, the source of consciousness, and the pure existence and knowledge. Brahman doesn’t exist per se but is existence itself. This god is an assembly of superlative attributes rather than a being. It’s an impersonal essence and force. This essence or force isn’t all knowing. Instead, it’s knowledge itself that is Brahman.
2. Hinduism lacks a unified source of authority.
Hinduism is claimed to be the most ancient religion in the world. However, it has no founder, no single sacred scripture, and no unified creed or confession. Hindus revere many authoritative scriptures, such as Vedas, Vedanta, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Bhagavata Purana, and Ramayana. These scriptures’ claims are confusing and self-contradictory in many places. They have an elaborate creation narrative of mankind and the cosmos, as well as narratives of how gods and goddesses came into being. These scriptures are read primarily by Hindu scholars and priests, not by laypeople or everyday adherents.
3. Hindus believe in karma and reincarnation.
Hinduism is seen by some to be a fatalistic religion. Its sacred scriptures claim the doctrines of karma and reincarnation are inseparably interwoven. Karma is the law of cause and effect that determines a person’s unalterable fate, and that fate is perpetuated in reincarnation. Hindu scholars argue that either Brahman operates this process or natural laws of causation are accountable for its effects. Hinduism teaches that karma isn’t only the fate of humans. Deities and devils also experience this fatalistic process as predetermined by Brahman.
Karma is the law of cause and effect that determines a person’s unalterable fate, and that fate is perpetuated in reincarnation.
4. Hindus believe gods can be created.
Hindus believe in a hierarchy of gods. Superior deities have the power and privilege to form a vassal god and to grant a “right of worship” to them as well. Ganesh, an elephant god, is a popular example. He’s said to have been created by his mother, Parvati, from dirt rubbed off while bathing. His father, Shiva, chopped off Ganesh’s head because he provoked Shiva to wage war against him. Shiva did this without realizing Ganesh was his recently created son. Eventually, Shiva provided Ganesh an elephant head and simultaneously granted him the gift of divinity.
5. Hindu gods took various avatars to kill sinners.
The Hindu scriptures have many polished narratives of gods taking various human and animal forms in order to restore cosmic order. These forms are called avatars. The most popular one is likely Vishnu’s avatar of Krishna (who murdered his own evil uncle). Krishna declared this in Bhagavad Gita, chapter 4:7–8:
Whenever there is decay in righteousness, O Bharata,
And there is exaltation of unrighteousness, then I Myself come forth;
For the protection of the good, for the destruction of evil-doers,
For the sake of firmly establishing righteousness, I am born from age to age.
Altogether, Vishnu is said to have taken 10 incarnations. Through those avatars he claims to have restored the cosmic order of righteousness by destroying the unrighteous. Interestingly, some Hindus have deified Buddha by recognizing him as Vishnu’s final avatar.
6. Hindus believe sin involves killing a god.
Hindu scriptures claim that all living being possess an atman (spirit), and killing them, knowingly or unknowingly, is a sin. This includes not just humans but birds, beasts, reptiles, mosquitos, lice, worms, and flies. In addition, the monistic school of Hinduism argues that every spirit—from tiny living and non-living things to enormous living and non-living things in the universe—incorporates into Brahman (Monism). Since atman and Brahman are identified with one another, killing anything implies the killing of Brahman itself.
7. Hinduism is pluralistic and inclusive.
Mainstream Hindus claim that all religions of the world lead to the supreme, impersonal god. This concept is often depicted in a dazzling circle surrounded by the symbols of all religions, and in its epicenter dwells the glorious spirit out of which emanates light to all the world religions. Additionally, some Hindus claim that god sends mahatma (“a great spirit”) in every age to lead the world into the righteous path that ultimately leads to Brahman. Jesus Christ is viewed as one of the greatest lights along with Buddha, Moses, Muhammad, Guru Nanak, and Confucius.
8. Hindus practice pilgrimage.
For Hindus, tirtha (pilgrimage) is a holy ritual that pleases the gods. Hindus make pilgrimage to sacred temples, such as Banaras Kashi, Badrinath, and Kedarnath, which mostly venerate Vishnu and Shiva. As in many other religions, Hindus also make pilgrimage to sacred burial shrines where they worship and pray to their dead gods and gurus (religious teachers). These acts produce good karma and are regarded as a dharma (religious act) that might merit reward in the next reincarnation.
9. Salvation by grace is foreign to Hindus.
It’s written in Hindu scriptures that the soul is immortal. However, the soul takes a new body in every reincarnation because of the cycle of birth and death (samsara). According to Hindu belief, it takes 84,000 incarnations for a person to cycle through all living beings (i.e., insects, animals, fish, birds, etc.) and eventually obtain another reincarnation. Salvation (moksya) is the completion of and removal from this cursed process. The person is then assimilated into the infinite ocean of Brahman’s divinity, uniting with it eternally. At this point, only the spirit is liberated, because it leaves the body forever, a concept similar to Gnosticism. Earthly life is believed to be an illusion or shadow (maya), and its reality is a spiritual life in heaven, a concept similar to Platonism.
Strict spiritual practices are the only way to attain this blissful deliverance, because god is only satisfied by the perfect karma, obedient life, and worship (sadhana). Solely based on this perfection, Brahman grants salvation. Salvation by faith alone in God through grace apart from karma is unimaginable in Hinduism.