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If it is difficult to understand Hinduism, it is also difficult to explain it to

anyone. To attempt a Hinduism for Dummies type project is itself an idiotic enter
prise. The following questions are slightly uncommon in phrasing, meant to make
you feel like asking more questions and not fewer. The answers are not from a sc
holarly authority on the subject but just someone who has lived, experienced and
studied the ethos of Hinduism first-hand so dispute and contradict me as you pl
1. What does Hinduism mean?
A: Just as Christianity is the religion of Christ, so is Hinduism a religion of.
.. what?
The definition opens the door to the true difficulty in understanding Hinduism,
because it simply identifies as an ism of Hindu, which is a term derived from Sind
hu, the Sanskrit name for the Indus River. The term compounds the various religio
us and philosophical systems practiced in the land of the Indus River, India and
today, the broader Indian subcontinent, comprising of India, Nepal, Pakistan, B
angladesh and Sri Lanka. Indeed, one of the Indian subcontinent and the Republic
of India's historically popular colloquial names is Hindustan Land of the Hindu
s. So this religion, if there is indeed only one, is named on a geographical bas
is. Nor has Indian culture traditionally observed strict boundaries between reli
gion, philosophy, science or art, all of whom are often entwined.
Many of its adherents prefer the term Sanathan Dharma - the Universal religion, wh
ich doesn't exactly make things clearer. Many Hindus will tell you they consider
Hinduism not as a religion, but as a way of life - a cultural ethos, or another t
erm for Indian civilization.
2. So then what is Hinduism exactly?
A: Umm... a lot of things, to be frank. Going by the traditional definition set
by geography, the mantle of Hinduism includes more than five schools of philosophy
that don't believe in a creator-god, believe in a creator but not a supervising
god, are agnostic or indeed, completely atheistic and materialistic such as the
Samkhya and Carvaka schools. The actual theism and belief in a creating, superv
ising and destroying godhead is the school of Vedanta, based on the four Vedas.
This broad, traditional definition of Hinduism is the source of serious political
disputes as well. Religions that arose specifically rejecting the Vedas, such as
Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism may technically qualify as being part of Hinduism
because they were born in the Indian subcontinent. This point is laboriously in
sisted upon by Hindu nationalists, who ask Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs to call th
emselves Hindu. Yet each community has developed distinctive identities, and whi
le there are no actual conflicts or issues between these communities (inter-marr
iage, worship at common temples and social interaction are common), many of them
don't like the idea of submerging their religious identity into a larger pool.
3. What is the holy text of Hinduism? Who are the gods of Hinduism, and what are
the clergy like?
A: According to the Supreme Court of India, a follower of the Hindu religion is
identified by his adherence to the four Vedas Rig, Atharva, Sama and Yajur. Howe
ver, this legalistic interpretation has been challenged as inaccurate, as Hindui
sm does not emphasize one source, one book or set, one prophet, one savior or ev
en one god. Moreover, the Vedas are divinely inspired, but are not the word of God.
Hinduism has long evolved beyond the Vedic era. The religious practices of most
Hindus are significantly different from Vedic teachings, which talk about a lita
ny of deities who most Hindus do not worship anymore. The great Vedic deity of I

ndra is merely a figurehead ruler of Hindu heaven (Swarga); he is susceptible to

sin, chastised by defeats at the hands of demons, and has to be rescued by the
actual Supreme Lord, Vishnu. A lot of the stories involving Indra, the Lord of T
hunder and Rain, actually bear a striking resemblance to the tales of Zeus and J
The popular Hindu godhead are the trinity of Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the P
reserver) and Shiva (the Destroyer). Close to half of Hindus consider Vishnu to
be the Supreme God and the source spirit of Brahma and Shiva, who are personalit
ies of Vishnu these Hindus call themselves Vaishnavas. A significant segment of
Hindus believe the same thing about Shiva, and are called Shaivaites. Yet anothe
r significant branch are the believers in Shakti, a female power exemplified by
Shiva's wife, Uma that is the source of both Shiva and Vishnu.
Of course, the lay Hindu worships many gods who address specific needs. Villages
have their own unique deities. Indeed, most regions and even districts have cu
lturally distinctive forms of Hinduism. If you've heard of many thousands of Hin
dus gods, its quite true. The question arises how do Hindus reconcile faith and
a common identity in such a vast godhead? The popular philosophical explanation
is that they are all forms of Vishnu, or Shiva. This approach is called Advaita
the One God has many forms. God as an idol or in the shape of an animal or man i
s not inferior to a formless, monotheistic deity.
For most Hindus, the Vedas are merely the source of mantras chanted in a mind-nu
mbing fashion by Brahmin priests at various ceremonies, called pujas. Modern Hin
du religious and philosophical attitudes are shaped by later texts such as the B
hagavad Gita, a poem that is part of the larger epic poem, the Mahabharata. The
Upanishads are a source of religious philosophy, and the Puranas detail the many
mythical-yet-fantastic adventures of Hindu deities. Whether one approaches them
as literally true or simply as stories all are quite fascinating reads.
Hinduism does not have a centrally-organized clerical organization comparable to
the Roman Catholic Church. While the eighth century Hindu leader Adi Shankarach
arya established four Shankaracharyas assigned by region to lead Hindu society,
today their influence is restricted to local sects professing loyalty. While sma
ller sects led by saints and gurus have central leaderships, lay Hinduism is org
anized at a very local level, with Hindus turning to their neighborhood and vill
age priests, and priests who specifically serve certain castes and sub-castes. W
ith rare exceptions from reformist movements attempting to integrate castes, pri
ests are only derived from the Brahmin caste.
4. What do Hindus believe?
A: The mother of all questions a lot of things, but some doctrines common to mos
t Hindus include:
A. Karma your deeds. A virtuous being that does good deeds, upholds morality and
does its duty towards society, religion and humanity will ascend the hierarchy
of life the lowest being insects and animals, rising to man, then subdivided int
o castes. The most virtuous of the highest caste can find Moksha, or liberation
from the cycle of rebirth and enter Swarga, or Heaven.
B. Reincarnation if you're a good animal (whatever that is), you will earn highe
r birth, perhaps into humankind. If you are a rotten human being say like Hitler
or Stalin you will be reborn as an insect.
C. Time from creation to the end of the universe, Time is divided into eras call
ed yuga the first Krita-yuga or Satya-yuga being the age where life was perfect;
truth, justice and peace prevailed, and there was no human suffering. The situa
tion deteriorates over the next two yugas, Treta and Dwapara, before we enter ou

r times in the Kali-yuga, where immorality, untruth and human suffering are maxi
mized (Quelle surprise). No exact measurement of time really exists some interpr
et the yugas to have lasted tens of millions of years, with the lives of human b
eings lasting hundreds of years in the earlier ages of piety. A change from thos
e who say the world is only a few thousand years old, but just as unscientific a
nd no better, as this view still considers life as only getting worse.
D. Heaven and Hell Swarga is heaven and Naraka is a term for a hellish environme
nt. A key distinction from Christianity and Islam is that neither is a permanent
destination if your conduct in heaven is unbecoming, you will be sent down to ear
th to re-enter the cycle of birth, and you have to earn religious merit all over
again by being a good person. Hell is like jail you serve a definite sentence s
et for specific crimes; all human beings will have to spend at least a small tok
en of time in hell for any little sin, lie or fib they committed. However, once
time is served, you can be reborn as a higher being or enter heaven.
E. Avatars incarnations of the Supreme Lord to save humanity; there are legends
about the incarnations of Shiva in such a role, but Vishnu's avatars are the mos
t popular. The first avatar of Vishnu is as Matsya, or a fish he arrived to warn
Manu of an impending flood that would wipe out all sinful human beings, and ins
pired Manu to construct a large ship to rescue humans and other living beings. S
ounds familiar? Yes, this is the Hindu flood story, developed distinctly from th
e story of Noah's ark. The avatars arrive to rescue humanity or the most virtuou
s individuals of the time from evil. The most popular incarnations are those of
Rama, the prince of Ayodhya the most virtuous king and the ideal man; the epic p
oem Ramayana is the story of his life and Krishna, the mentor and guide of the v
irtuous Pandava brothers, who struggle against their evil Kaurava cousins to reg
ain their rightful kingdom in the Mahabharata.
Hindu eschatology does predict a final incarnation Kalki. He will arrive at the
end of the Kali-yuga, before the entire universe is destroyed, to save the right
eous and virtuous from the onslaught of evil.
F. Varna known as caste, this is the most controversial aspect of Hinduism that
has nevertheless spread even beyond Hindu society. The Varnashrama doctrine divi
des humanity into four classes by duty or occupation. The Brahmins are the highe
st in the order, entitled to be priests and scholars, whose meditations and perf
ormance of religious duties ensure the relative piety of the world. The Kshatriy
as, or warriors and princes, who rule states and fight wars. The Vaishyas are en
titled to be traders and business people, and the Shudras are laborers and farme
rs. Reformers, apologists and other defenders of Hinduism maintain these divisio
ns are just occupational, describing how human society subdivides itself and tha
t all castes are actually equal.
The reality is different. For thousands of years, caste was entrenched by birth,
and castes behave as a result as tribal communities. With the growth of the pop
ulation, they have divided themselves into thousands of sub-castes that do not e
xist in Hindu scripture. However, Hindu scripture considers Brahmins and Kshatri
yas to indeed be of high birth - in the cycle of life, they are closest to moksha.
While it doesn't take much to see how the Brahmins and Kshatriyas loved to contr
ol society like this, the system degenerated into sheer cruelty. Socializing bet
ween castes was strictly prohibited; inter-marriage and inter-dining with lower c
astes unthinkable. Large populations of Indians were considered too unclean to even
count within the four-tiered order of life they were treated as untouchables, qui
te literally. They lived away from the rest of the town, village or city, and co
uld not walk on the same side of the road as the other castes, nor drink water f
rom the same well. By profession, they were butchers, and handled leather, anima
l skins and hides, collected and disposed of refuse and human waste essential, y
et unclean professions to the higher castes.

Untouchability was outlawed by the British government in the nineteenth century,

yet its practice was not largely ended until a national reform movement arose u
nder leaders such as Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Bhimrao
Ramji Ambedkar. Hindu religious and political organizations committed themselve
s to ending the practice of untouchability, and eradicating it became an urgent
priority of the Indian independence movement. The rise of a modern industrial ec
onomy and metropolitan cities further weakened this sinister institution. Even s
o, caste barriers and rivalries remain strong in many parts of India, and humili
ating treatment is often meted out to those considered as low caste.
The caste system has morphed beyond its religious constructs into ethnic and soc
io-economic classes. It has long controlled who you will be allowed to marry, wh
o will most likely be your friends. Even generally liberal Hindus like to match th
eir son or daughter with a mate of the same socio-economic class, who worry abou
t preserving their status in society as you do, and are more likely to stick tog
ether and consider each other as belonging to the same nath, lineage or communit
y. Having enduring thousands of years, the caste system of stratification is not
going away anytime soon..
5. What's this about atheism being a part of Hinduism?
A: Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen said:
In some ways people had got used to the idea that India was spiritual and religio
n-oriented. That gave a leg up to the religious interpretation of India, despite
the fact that Sanskrit had a larger atheistic literature than what exists in an
y other classical language. Madhava Acharya, the remarkable 14th century philoso
pher, wrote this rather great book called Sarvadarshansamgraha, which discussed
all the religious schools of thought within the Hindu structure. The first chapt
er is "Atheism" a very strong presentation of the argument in favor of atheism a
nd materialism.
Thanks to the broad definition of Hinduism and the diversity of the schools of b
elief and philosophy, you can still be a Hindu if you believe in some things and
not others, reject some and not others, or even rejecting everything completely
. I have known many Hindus of my generation who do not believe in any aspect of
Hindu theology, can barely tolerate the ritualism, caste-ism and superstition of
their parents, but still consider themselves Hindu atheists or culturally Hindus.
6. How does Hinduism react with other religions?
A: Not too badly, I must say. That is, if a religion does not mess with Hinduism
. Hindus are not trained to believe that non-Hindus are going to hell, nor are t
hey desirous of conquering the world for the Hindu religion. Hindu ideas about t
he afterlife, heaven and hell are based on karma and not faith in a specific sav
ior, god or prophet. The doctrinal diversity of Hinduism has also forged a gener
al tolerance for different beliefs and religions. You don't get your head choppe
d off if you convert to another religion, but there might be social ostracizing
if you convert to, say, Islam.
Islam fares badly with Hinduism, because it teaches polytheism and idolatry as t
he worst of sins. While many Hindus and Muslims across India enjoyed several cen
turies of peaceful coexistence, invasions by Muslim armies have been traumatic e
xperiences in Indian history that claimed many lives, devastated whole cities an
d specifically targeted Hindus. The invasions by Mahmud of Ghazni, Muhammad of G
hor, Timur, Babur and Nadir Shah were particularly traumatizing, for their memor
y is invoked in folklore and in modern religious disputes, where mosques were co
nstructed over the holiest of Hindu shrines. Hindu subjects of Muslim-ruled king
doms were forced to pay the jaziya tax and had to withstand pogroms launched on

the whims of the Sultans.

In 1947, India was partitioned to create the Muslim state of Pakistan, and as a
result, millions of Hindus and Sikhs were driven out of Pakistan - which technic
ally was the land of the Indus River, where the first Vedas were written. The fu
rther victimization and cleansing of Hindu minorities in Muslim-dominated Pakist
an and Bangladesh, and acts of terrorism against India by Pakistan-sponsored ter
rorist groups have fed growing Hindu anger against Muslims. The legacy of partit
ion and rising Islamism means a constant question mark about the loyalties of In
dia's Muslims in the minds of many Hindus.
In doctrine, Christianity is hostile to Hinduism due to its opposition of polyth
eism and idolatry, and the over-zealous efforts to convert Hindus. However, the
only Christians who established an empire in India were the British, who actuall
y helped established traditions of secular law. Catholic Portuguese rule was har
sh upon Hindus, but limited to Goa and other small strips. India is home to more
than 28 million Christians who, unlike Muslims, are largely liberal, well-educa
ted, upwardly mobile and do not consider religious identity as in conflict with
their nationality, and thus mix well with Hindus. The figure of Jesus is admired
by many Hindus, and myths about Jesus having sojourned in India have many taker
With Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs, there are doctrinal distinctions but as they ar
e also Indian religions, there are no practical differences. Many Hindus revere
the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak and worship at Sikh gurdwaras. Sikh gurus suc
h as Tej Bahadur and Gobind Singh are worshiped and considered heroes of Hinduis
m for protecting Hindus from pogroms and persecution during the rule of the Musl
im Mughal dynasty. Sikhism was not considered a separate religion until the 19t
h century. Many Hindus consider Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, to be an incarna
tion (avatar) of Vishnu, and otherwise respect and worship him. Ahimsa (non-viol
ence) is a doctrine common to Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. There are few, if
any, cultural differences between these religions, and intermarriage and sociali
zing is common.
With Zoroastrianism (Parsi-ism) and the Baha'i Faith that arrived from Iran, the
re have been no recorded clashes or disputes with Hindus, and both communities h
ave assimilated well over the centuries. India is also one of the rare countries
that have no history of antisemitism towards the Jewish tribes that settled the
only attacks on Indian Jews were perpetrated by Portuguese Catholics and recent
ly by Islamist terrorist groups.
Syncretism is big in the Indian subcontinent. Most Hindus love Sai Baba, a mysti
c fakir who is believed to have been a Muslim by birth but a follower of the sai
nt Kabir, and a true icon of Hindu-Muslim harmony. Throughout his life, he refus
ed to identify either as a Muslim or Hindu and championed love and peace; millio
ns of people from all religions make pilgrimage to the town of Shirdi to worship
the saint. Hindus and Sikhs perform pilgrimages to the mausoleum of Haji Ali in
Mumbai, with no concern over his Muslim identity. This rare fabric of faith wit
hout boundaries is being seriously endangered by the spread of Islamism, and the
counter-reaction by Hindu extremist leaders.
7. Do Hindus do holy war?
A: Will you ever have to worry about Hindu terrorism? I'm 99% sure that you won't.
There is no concept, teaching nor effort of trying to convert the rest of human
ity to Hinduism. Hindus don't do its my way or the hellfire-way. Hindus who have s
ettled across the world may remain tightly-knit as communities, but they don't t
ry to win converts nor object to the practice of other faiths. In the history of
Hinduism and the Indian subcontinent, there has been no verified Hindu effort t
o exterminate other religions. The survival of the ancient traditions of Jainism

, Buddhism and Sikhism may attest to that.

However, Hinduism within India has seen the rise of a political ideology that sy
nthesizes religion and nationalism. Called Hindutva (Hindu-ness), its advocates
demand that all Indians call themselves Hindus even if they wish to follow other r
eligions, because a Hindu to them applies as a nationalist identity for all loyal
inhabitants of India. At various stages, its advocates have demanded loyalty tes
ts for Muslims, and demand that India be declared a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation)
. Ripping off a few tactics from the American Christian Right, they claim India'
s secularism is owed entirely to its Hindu ethos. In the past few decades, Hindu
extremist groups have orchestrated riots against Muslims and attacked Christian
missionaries. Their popularity has increased with the spread of Islamism and Is
lamist terrorism from Pakistan.
8. How does Hinduism regard homosexuality?
A: Not as a bad thing. Many Hindu scriptures and mythical tales have intergender
, androgynous and homosexual characters cast in a positive light. Scripture, myt
h and temple art acknowledge sexual diversity.
That said, homophobia is prevalent across India. Taking pages out of the playboo
ks of the Christian Right, Hindu nationalists have tried to demonize gay and les
bian Indians, even though Hindu heritage is demonstrably more tolerant. The lega
l battle against a Victorian-era law, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code crimi
nalizing homosexual acts continues with the irony of Hindu nationalists defendin
g a Victorian Christian statute being lost on no one but themselves.
9. What do you think is the best part of Hinduism?
A: The endurance of a legitimate and long tradition of free-thought - Hinduism, or
the religious and philosophical systems of India, include the Carvaka school of
thought which holds that there is no godhead, that the laws of nature are selfstanding and do not require a governing deity, and that materialism and the purs
uit of pleasure is nothing to be frowned upon, but is actually a legitimate sour
ce of happiness. Sounded to me a lot like Christopher Hitchens talking, except t
hat this was said at least 3,000 years ago, before we ever learned about DNA or
described the solar system.
While having its share of fanaticism and bigotry, Hinduism is not an absolutist
faith like the Abrahamic religions. It's ethos has been shaped by a great divers
ity in philosophical and theistic schools, and a vast number of regional and cul
tural variations. Perhaps this explains a historic capacity for tolerance and ac
commodation, if not genuine intellectual freedom within Hindu society.
The literature and poetry are exceptional and brilliant the Mahabharata is a dee
ply fascinating, thrilling, riveting work. You don't have to believe that Krishn
a is a God - in fact, Krishna as a philosopher and statesman, a sharp, witty and c
unning strategist is a far more intriguing and compelling personality. The moral
issues of the Ramayana reflect man's age-old struggle to live a moral life; I d
ispute many of its lessons, but to do so is to only make it a source of a deep a
nd intriguing debate. I could go on, and on about the complex and fascinating ta
les that constitute Hindu mythology, but it should suffice to say I am very prou
d of this share of the heritage.
10. What do you think is the worst part of Hinduism?
A: Fatalism not just the caste system by itself, for as despicable as that is, t
here is no society on earth that has been able to resist some form of social str
atification, tribalization, racism or slavery.

No, its the fatalism that has emerged due to the doctrines of karma and rebirth.
A person born to a low-caste or as an untouchable is trained to think that he or
she is in this position and made to suffer greatly because of a crime he or she
committed in a past life. Therefore, you must accept slavery and humiliation as
a penance for a crime you never have a chance of knowing you ever committed. You c
an never do anything about your station in life don't resist, or you will ensure
divine retribution and even-lower birth!
This fatalism has prevented many generations of Indians from embracing and pursu
ing reform of any kind. Indeed, the first efforts to end untouchability did not be
gin until the British introduced modern education and science to India. The highe
r birth castes long believed they have a God-given right to treat the lower birth p
eople as slaves, as part of a continuing punishment for those mythical sins. How
ever, the worst part is that this fatalism has long seeped into the untouchable cl
asses themselves not only have many generations been divided in resistance or un
willingness to resist this cruelty, but they have often created sub-castes of unt
ouchables amongst themselves.
This total helplessness before the settled, divine order has meant many generation
s of Indians have succumbed to a hysteria about superstition, ritualism, numerol
ogy and astrology as the only way to see what's coming and avert disasters. Prie
sts have to be paid, worshiped and fed in order for them to perform the ceremoni
es necessary for your departed loved one to go to heaven and not end up in hell
many millions of poor Indians have been fleeced and emotionally tormented into p
aying priests who terrorized them with the idea that the fate of the soul of the
ir family members were hell-bound.
That a grieving family can be emotionally terrorized and ruthlessly exploited in
their most difficult hour of pain, and that this practice continues even amongs
t many liberal and educated Hindus, is something I have witnessed and would cert
ainly describe as being evil - purely evil.
Hopefully at this point, you have more questions about Hinduism to pursue answer
s for. Hinduism is quintessentially Indian, but also the oldest of the religions
that have survived and thrived beyond the evolution of monotheism. Understandin
g it is essential to any true understanding of human nature, and considering how
central it is to the lives of more than 900 million people, to the advancement
of liberty and progress in humankind.