Many a Winding Turn
Hinduism in Thought and Practice

We talked last time about the basic path we are taking for this course, our exploration of World Religions, starting with some basic definitions.  Jay and his group pointed to the roots of the world “religion,” noting its connection to our word “ligament,” something that binds.  This is a particularly useful way of thinking about religion: as something that holds people together.  It’s also useful to think about religion as a way of exploring and explaining this world and our life in it.  In addition, we might see “religion” as an attempt to find a balance of our conflicting, sometimes irrational desires, our will to power, order, comfort, truth, community. 

I pointed out that, for most ancient civilizations, religion and society (or religion and civilization) were almost identical, religion serving as a binding and balancing force. This was particularly true for the Romans—the most religious of all peoples, according to Polybius. 

But, as I pointed out last time, in its attempt to absorb all its subject peoples into one great religious /political/social system ended up swallowing to strains of thought that served to upset that religious balance: Greek philosophy and the tradition that stems from the Hebrew prophets.  This meant that, in addition to religion as a preserver of tradition and the status quo, there was within Roman society an element of religion that challenged the political and social status quo in a major way.  This opens up the door to “world” religions, the kind of faiths that might exist (to at least an extent) independently of the political and social status quo, religions that present paths one might choose within many different societies and cultures—religions that (unlike Mesopotamian polytheism) might survive even the collapse of a civilization!  All of these world religions are paths that a thinking man or woman might well choose to follow today, regardless of what particular tradition they have grown up with.  I don’t think anyone would be all that surprised to find an earnest American seeker of truth to embrace Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism or Taoism. We would be surprised to find anyone embracing (say) traditional Mesopotamian religion: I don’t think you’re likely to find neighbors worshipping Marduk!

Why do some religions fade out altogether?  Why can others survive?  For 19th century thinkers like Comte and Hegel, there was a natural course of religious development here, a move away from polytheism toward monotheism and (in Comte’s case) a move away from theism altogether.  But it’s not quite as simple as that: while the polytheistic systems of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome faded into nothing, a very similar polytheistic system remains strong, strong enough to compete with the other major world religions for human allegiance: Hinduism.

Initially, Hinduism (like the religions systems of Egypt and Mesopotamia) was a status quo religion virtually identical with Indian civilization itself.  The name “Hindu” is the label outsiders gave to the people of the Sind/Indus region, people who developed one of the world's first great civilizations.  At roughly same time great civilizations developing in Egypt and Mesopotamia, an equally strong civilization was developing in the Indus valley (what we usually call Harappan civilization). Most probably, some of the beliefs of later Hindu teaching go back to the Harappan period.  Unfortunately, the Harappan language has yet to be deciphered, so we don’t know about Indian belief of this period the kinds of things we know about contemporary developments in Egypt and Mesopotamia. 

Around 1500 B.C. Harappan civilization came to an end.  We don't know for sure exactly how and why (since we have no written records) but many historians believe that the arrival of a new people into India, the Aryans, played an important role in disrupting Harappan civilization. These Aryans, already dominating Media and Persia, now moved on to India as well (c. 1500 BC). At the time, the Aryans were illiterate, but they were militarily strong enough to dominate much of the subcontinent.

Interestingly, the Aryans themselves ended up establishing one of the world's greatest civilizations. The next 1000 years of Indian history (1500-500 BC), what we call the Vedic age is a great creative period (see these Aryan /Vedic Age links). During this time, India produced some of the world's most impressive art and architecture.  In addition, India was for hundreds of years the greatest center of mathematics in the world.  Only in the 17th century did Europeans catch up, and even today many of the world's top mathematicians are from India.  India also was the original home of the world's greatest game, chess (invented perhaps by an Indian queen to distract her overly-amorous husband.) 

It is during the Vedic period that Hindu religion takes its basic shape—and here we do have solid information on what the peoples of India believed.  During this period, the people of India created and passed on some of the greatest epics in all of human history, poems full of exciting stories and impressive insights into virtually every aspect of human experience.  We get works like the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Ramayana, and the Bhagavad Gita. 

[Much excellent material one each of these works and many more important Hindu texts online:]

Now, unfortunately for us, it’s not easy to come up with an easy systematization of the divisions of Hindu scriptures, a “law, prophets, writings” sort of thing. Here’s Wikipedia’s summary giving approximate dates of the some of the major texts:

Here’s an oversimplification that works for me:

1.  Vedas (knowledge): the general name for all the Hindu religion texts.  Not all the religious texts are technically part of the Vedas, and there is dispute among Hindus about what technically should be considered part of the Vedas and what not.

2.  Mahabharata: perhaps the longest poem ever written: 200,000 lines!  (A typical Greek play is around 2,000 lines).  There’s a “story within a story” technique here, and, there are some sections within the Mahabharata that can stand alone as major works, e.g., the Bhagavad Gita and a short version of the Ramayana. Many of the Puranas likewise belong here.

3.  The Bhagavad Gita: the story of the warrior Arjuna and the way Krishna guides him into truth.

4.  The Ramayana: many stories within the framework of the great love story of Rama and Sita.

5.  The Puranas: stories of the gods and goddesses, genealogies. Some of the stories are in the Mahabharata, but there are later Puranas, including stories reflecting Buddhist and Jain beliefs.

6.  The Upanishads: summaries of the philosophical teachings of the Vedas, some written toward the end of the Vedic period, and some post-vedic.

Note notice that the arrangement of Hindu texts in complex and sometimes contradictory.  Hinduism is a complex religion and, as the Hindus themselves admit, a contradictory religion.  In the Hindu view, however, these contradictions are not at all a bad thing.  Reality is contradictory, and a religion ought to reflect the contradictory nature of human experience.  This is a very different attitude than that of western religion!  Christians, Moslems, and Jews are all disturbed by any apparent contradictions in their religions, and work hard to show that their religious beliefs are consistent. 

Not so the Hindus.  This attitude toward contradiction is a great strength of Hinduism.  It enables Hinduism able to absorb any new religious impulses.  You've got a new religious idea?  Great!  We'll believe that...too!

Hinduism’s ability to absorb and include religious ideas means that, eventually, it is a religion with something for every taste—including a god for every taste.  Your Novak anthology gives you some the oldest Vedic texts, hymns in honor of the various gods.

Now I don’t see anything in these texts a whole lot different from the hymns in honor of Baal or Tammuz, are Ra in the polytheistic traditions that died out—no real clues as to why Hinduism can become a world religion.  And, for the most part, there is much here to support Prothero’s contention that there is a radical difference among the major religions, and particularly a great contrast between Hinduism and Christianity.  This is particularly clear when one looks at the earliest Hindu law code, the Code of Manu.

[Discussed extensively in class.  See]

One of most important contrasts with Western religious tradition is the very different attitude toward ritual.  Rituals, particularly religious austerities like the tapas, give spiritual power quite apart from good and evil.  Taraka gained his power through his tapas. Viswamitra became a sage through austerities--and a sage powerful enough to create an alternative heaven!  This idea is very different from that of Christians, Jews and Moslems: religious ritual in these religions is important, but not nearly as important as in Hinduism.

What's also a bit strange is inconsistency in ritual.  Within Hinduism, there is temple prostitution and often great emphasis on sex as the way to spiritual progress (e.g., Tantraism).   On the other hand, there is an equally high regard for abstinence (e.g. Ghandi and his women).  Why such seemingly contradictory ideas?  Perhaps because the ultimate virtue is to see that physical things make no difference. Or perhaps Huston Smith is on the right track in seeing a non-judgmental “we must all pass through these stages of development” idea within Hinduism.

Hinduism dominates every area of life in India, including the political and social system.  Indian society: the caste system.   There are four principle castes and thousands of sub-castes.  Caste in India determines your whole life: where you can live, what you can eat, what profession you will follow, what you can wear, and who you will marry.

For the top castes, this works out quite well.  "Brahman is by right the Lord of this whole creation.  A Brahman is born highest on earth, the lord of all created beings.  Whatever exists in the world is the property of Brahman," says the Code of Manu, the most important of the Hindu law codes.

For the lower castes, things are not nearly so good.  They must live outside the villages.  For clothing: the garments of dead.  For eating utensils: broken dishes.  For jewelry: iron.   They can be killed for simply walking on a public road or entering the house of Brahman.

The caste system is very different from what we're use to in the West, but it has some advantages.  It produces a very stable society.  Why?  It takes away a lot of worry.

The social status of women is also very different from what we're used to in the west.  Since marriage is determined by caste, marriages are arranged by parents, often when those to be married are very young.  Perhaps this is not so bad--arranged marriages in India are often more successful than ours!  But the marriages are hardly equal.

The Code of Manu says, "A husband must be constantly worshipped as a God by a faithful wife.  Day and Night women must be kept in dependence by the males of their families."

What you have to watch out for in particular is women's unbridled lust.  "It is the nature of women to seduce men in this world; for that reason the wise are never unguarded.  One should not sit in a lonely place with one's mother, sister or daughter, for the senses are powerful and master even a learned man."

Women are expected to control lust and be faithful to husbands--even after the husband is dead.  Among some Hindus, women are expected to prove their fidelity by casting themselves onto their husbands’ funeral pyres, burning themselves alive.  This practice is known as "sati" (suttee in some texts), and a woman who sacrifices herself is said to be "sati" (pure).

Another major difference between Hinduism and Western societies is its acceptance of infanticide.   It is perfectly acceptable in Hindu society to kill an unwanted baby.  You have a girl when you wanted a boy?  Kill it, and try again.

This was once the practice in the West as well.  The Greeks and Romans considered infanticide acceptable.  But ultimately, we came to view baby-killing as one of the worst of crimes.  Or at least we did until 1973.

Why would women jump on pyres?  How can people kill their own babies?

A lot of it has to do with Hindu belief in reincarnation.  Hinduism teaches that this life not all there is: you will later come back in another form.  What form you get depends on your karma.  If your karma is good, you will come back as something better, a Kshatriya or a Brahman, perhaps.  If you are bad, you'll come back as something worse, as a member of lower caste, or as a woman perhaps. And if you're particularly bad, you'll come back as a rat--reincarnation is not limited to human forms.

Reincarnation is an idea the West toyed with. Plato and the Pythagorians believed in reincarnation (probably influenced by the Hindus).  But the West basically gave up the idea while India held onto it. The result: a very different attitudes to all sorts of things, particularly suffering.  In the West, one automatically feels obligated to help those suffering if one can.  In India, one is not so quick--because you know why they are suffering, and there is not much you can do if someone's karma is bad.

Hindu emphasis on reincarnation is tied closely to their idea of human history.  Hindus believe in a cycle of eras (yugas) each with a different mixture of good and evil.  In Kritayuga, there is universal righteousness.  In Tetrayuga, righteousness is reduced by ¼.   Next is Dwaparayuga, where righteousness if reduced by ½.  And it Kaliyuga, righteousness is gone.  The cycles turn slowly: more than 10,000,000 years for each. Unfortunately for us, we are caught in Kaliyuga—not much hope of earthly escape—in our next many incarnations, we will still be in the midst of Kaliyuga.  Obtain Nirvana if you can!

Well, here ends our first session on Hinduism: and you get a temporary break from Kaliyuga.  But you will find will probably find yourself back right here tomorrow.