Hinduism is perhaps the oldest living religion. In fact, the origins of Hinduism can be traced back to at least 2500 BCE and today there are close to a billion followers. It behooves us, therefore, to ask, "What is Hinduism"? and then to understand how this ancient tradition has managed to survive and even thrive in modern times. Before we do this, however, there is an even more basic question to ask, namely, what is the nature of religion itself? The most common answers go something like: Religion is the belief in God, the soul and an afterlife; religion is a set of rules to regulate how people should act in the world; religion is a series of rituals and symbols that address the psychology of human beings; or religion is a way of life. While all such answers are surely true, they unfortunately limit our ability to understand the true nature of religion and what it means to be religious. Ultimately, such views even impede spiritual growth. Let me explain.
Most people view religion as one thing: A set of
beliefs, rituals and behaviors that form a world-view. But
instead of viewing religion as one set of things, I prefer
to break religion into two constituent parts, namely, faith
and a cumulative religious tradition. The first arises from
the perception that life is a wondrous mystery, and the second
is what results from this perception.
Pillars of Creation
From the earliest times up to the present, human beings from
all cultures have looked out at the world and felt deep amazement,
a kind of wonder. From the flash of lightning in the sky and
the crash of thunder that follows, from the eclipses of the
sun and the moon that have caused primitive peoples to run
and flee, to the exquisite views of DNA strands that regulate
biological life and the amazing images of distant galaxies
seen through a space telescope, human beings have constantly
been confronted with the wonder and mystery of the world around
them. Moreover, this wonder and mystery also confronts us
from the negative aspects of life. We call it horror. Death
and destruction are a great source of horror. The devastation
caused by a powerful earthquake is a great horror to see.
Anyone who has ever witnessed death, with the gradual fading
of consciousness and the profound silence and coldness that
follows, also knows this horror. These horrors indeed have
a great impact on human consciousness. Perhaps the most universal
response of the human heart toward this wondrous mystery and
even the horror of physical reality, has been, and continues
to be, a questioning into the nature of reality. Who are we?
What is this world? Why is there suffering, and so forth?
Implicit within such questioning comes a faith that there
can be answers to such questions. This faith takes many forms,
one of which is religious faith. In other words, the origins
of religious faith lay within the experience of life itself;
and so long as there continues to be life, with all its beauty
and mystery, and even horror, there will always be faith.
Even modern science, which has solved the mystery of lighting,
thunder and eclipses, has shown even greater beauties and
mysteries that continue to inspire the heart of mankind.
South Indian Rock
Faith, translated into physical reality, results in an almost
infinite variety of religious expressions: architecture, music,
dance, dietary laws, dress codes and even belief systems.
Religious architecture, for example––churches, mosques, synagogues,
and temples––can be looked upon as the projection or translation
of faith into physical form. Each of these buildings have
their particular architectural styles and they all arise from
the collective faith of their worshippers. Similarly, in the
realm of religious art, there are unlimited religious expressions
beginning from the ancient rock paintings of early man in
the caves of France and Spain or the outstanding Islamic designs found
in the mosques of Saudi Arabia, or the ancient Greek and Roman
sculpture found in the ruins of Athens and Rome. Music and
dance are also expressions of religious faith. The requiems
of Bach and Mozart, or the Indian dance styles of Kathak and
Bharata Natyam are examples of faith projected into the world
of music and dance. Even dietary laws, codes of conduct, and
forms of dress are projections of this faith. The Jewish and
Islamic laws of kosher and halal, the Hindu restrictions against
meat and alcohol, or even the use of psychogenic drugs found
in many indigenous tribes of North America and Australia are
examples of faith translated in terms of dietary laws.
Projections of religious faith similarly includes many intangible
manifestations. In the intellectual realm, religious beliefs:
God as Father, God as Mother, the belief in a soul, an afterlife
or in reincarnation, are also manifestations of religious
faith. In terms of social organization, the Indian caste system
or the Christian or Buddhist's systems of monastic organization
are examples of faith translated into the realm of social
organization. Taken together, each of these categories of
religious expression––architecture, music, dance, dress, dietary
laws, belief and social systems––form the cumulative religious
traditions of the world, which we commonly call Hinduism,
Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and so forth. Consequently,
we can speak of Christian faith, Hindu faith, Islamic faith,
etc. I use the word "cumulative" because these
expressions of religious faith build up or "accumulate" over
time. The older a religious tradition, the deeper its layers
of accumulated tradition. In common terms, I sometimes think
of the cumulative religious traditions as the "stuff" of religion.
Not only does religious faith inspire the religious traditions
of the world, faith is also nurtured by these same traditions.
Anyone who has ever sat in a cathedral like Chartres or Notre
Dame in France or the massive Balaji temple in south India
knows the powerful effect of architecture on the human heart.
If you have visited the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican and
contemplated Michelangelo's hand of God reaching out to the
hand of man on the ceiling that towers above, you may also
know the powerful effect of religious art on human faith.
Religious faith and religious traditions go hand and hand,
and for this reason they seem inseparable, but at the same
time, being able to distinguish between the "stuff" of religion
and religious faith itself empowers a person and promotes
spiritual growth. Failing to distinguish between the two,
leads to the mistake of confusing the stuff of religion with
the essence of religion. It leads to attachment to the externals
of religion instead of to the inner mystical and mysterious
origins of religion. Unfortunately, the world is always full
of people who miss the essence of religion in the name of
being religious and who fight and argue over all aspects of
the cumulative religious traditions. Consequently, they impede
their own spiritual growth and the growth of those around
them. Therefore, as you read this small work that describes
the cumulative religious tradition called Hinduism, be aware
of the deep and mysterious yearning of religious faith that
underlies this tradition and inspires it.