Out of the more than 3.57 billion people in the world today, one in seven is a Hindu. To understand why Hinduism, with its intricate framework of mysticism, is espoused by such a large number of people, it might be helpful to examine the Hindus’ contemplative approach to life through the eyes of a student of Hinduism. Here is a comparison between Eastern and Western thought made by Hari N. Dam, a Hindu and former student at the University of Minnesota:
“You live in time; we live in space. You’re always on the move; we’re always at rest.
“You’re aggressive; we’re passive. You like to act; we like to contemplate.
“We always hark back to the past; you always look forward to the future. We pine for the lost paradise; you wait for the millennium.
“We accept the world as it is; you try to change it according to your blueprint. We live in peace with Nature; you try to impose your will on her.
“Religion is our first love; we revel in metaphysics. Science is your passion; you delight in physics.
“You believe in freedom of speech; you strive for articulation. We believe in freedom of silence; we lapse into meditation.
“You first love, then you marry. We first marry, then we love. Your marriage is the happy end of a romance; our marriage is the beginning of a love affair. Your marriage is a contract; our marriage is an indissoluble bond.
“Your love is vocal; our love is mute. You delight in showing it to others; we try hard to conceal it from the world.
“Self-assertiveness is the key to your success; self-abnegation is the secret of our survival.
“You’re urged every day to want more and more; we’re taught from the cradle to want less and less. Joie de vivre is your ideal; conquest of desires is our goal.
“We glorify austerity and renunciation; you emphasize gracious living and enjoyment. Poverty to you is a sign of degradation; it is to us a badge of spiritual elevation.
“In the sunset years of life, you retire to enjoy the fruits of your labor; we renounce the world and prepare ourselves for the hereafter.”
Despite the difference in emphasis between the two life styles, there are certain basic similarities in the tenets of Hinduism and our own gospel fundamentals. The stressing of self-control and the solidarity of marriage are two obvious parallels.
The story of Hinduism began more than fifteen hundred years before Christ was born, or just about the time Moses was leading the children of Israel out of Egypt. And although its beginning is obscure and without a known founder, this Eastern-centered religion has continued to be one of the most enduring and compelling forces for spiritual development in the world.
Among the many factors that have contributed to the development of this religion, none has been more significant than the continual subjugation of its people. Many forces have operated together to prevent India from successfully throwing off the yoke of oppression. Subject to foreign rule and control until very recently, she has been at the mercy of marauding and conquering races for literally thousands of years. This confusion of races, castes, and religions in a civilization ranging from the highest type to the most primitive has resulted in an amalgam of many religious cultures.
Although Hinduism is composed of elements from many other cultures and influences, it originally grew out of the merging together of two relatively developed civilizations, one somewhat more primitive than the other.
The Aryan (ancient Persian) peoples invading from the north into the Indus and Ganges River valleys of India found a dark-skinned people with a nature religion hardly yet developed sufficiently to produce a body of religious literature.
But recent archaeological findings have revealed the fact that a relatively advanced civilization had flourished after developing early in the Indus River Valley and reached a peak about 2500 B.C. Before its decline (2000 B.C.) it had progressed to a point where the people were able to build unusual three-story brick houses within walled cities.
The probable cause of the decline was lack of water, the age-old plight of many deteriorating civilizations. The monsoons bearing the needed rain shifted to the east and no longer brought water to the land.
The religion of these people in that time prior to the arrival of the Aryans, the pre-Vedic period, was largely characterized by the animistic worship of a variety of objects and nature forms. There were many spirits, both benevolent and evil, whose appeasement or warding off required special skill in incantations and the use of magical formulas.
The fair-skinned invaders wandered out of the northern highlands and settled on the Indian plains, calling the region Hindustan after the great river that watered the land. They imbibed many customs of worship and devotion of the conquered people, but they had certain priestly contributions of their own to add to the emerging Hindu religion. The simple Aryan herdsmen worshiped nature gods, such as Indra, the god of the storm, and Agni, god of fire.
Thus, the emphasis shifted to belief in and worship of specific gods of nature during this early Vedic time, with special reverence for the greater manifestations of nature in the elements of fire, water, sun, earth, and sex. The earliest forms of religious worship were conducted by the father of each family, but when Brahman priests imported by the invaders began to control the religious way of life for the whole society, they took over that function.
The Brahmans were also responsible for the formation of the Vedic scriptures begun during this period, a time of exchanging between the two merging cultures.
The Aryans divided themselves into four social classes and imposed a strict color-line segregation in their relationship with the native Nagas and Dravidians. By this means and through a practice of marriage control, they laid the foundation of the traditional caste system that has persisted into our own time.
Only the Aryan invaders were permitted in the three upper castes: the Brahmans or priest-teachers of the other castes, the soldier-ruler (Kshatriyas) caste, and the farmer, craftsman, merchant (Vaisyas) caste. It was the responsibility of the second caste to be the protectors of society, while the third caste sustained the economy with skill and capital.
Members of fourth class, made up originally of the Dravidians and other native tribes, were forced to be the laborers or slaves. Under the caste name of Sudra, they were denied the privileges of the higher castes. These rigid class distinctions became an important part of the developing religious system. The social picture became even more complicated with the inclusion of a class below the Sudra at the very bottom of the social order, known as the outcasts or untouchables. Because of the degrading work and pitiable occupations to which they were assigned, such as cleaning waste and refuse from the streets, disposing of contaminated dead animals, hunting, and scavenging, they were considered unclean and not fit to touch or come in contact with anyone of a higher caste. In fact, the untouchable was required to cross the street or get off the road entirely when the occasion demanded so that his shadow would not fall on anyone of higher caste and thus pollute the innocent. Forbidden to draw from the village wells or enter into sacred places, they withdrew from the village before nightfall and lived with fellow outcasts in abject poverty and unspeakable misery.
Believing that they were living in this particular circumstance as reward or punishment for a previous life, they neither sought to break rank nor envied those of higher caste. They were taught by the Brahmans that observance of the rules and restrictions of caste without violation constituted the highest religious fulfillment and would make possible being born again into a better life. Thus the duties and obligations of caste were stressed rather than human rights, and by this system the Hindu society was kept stable for over three thousand years.
The Brahmans drew up the strict rules for all castes, including prohibitions against mixing of caste—no marrying, eating, or talking with persons of another caste. Sons in each of the four castes inherited the occupations of their fathers, and daughters married men of similar occupation, while the untouchables were doomed to perpetuate for themselves and their posterity wretched lives of squalor and ignorance.
This attitude of submission to caste status and a willingness to forbear patiently is closely identified with the doctrines of transmigration of souls and reincarnation, and it is of special interest to the Latter-day Saint. The seemingly related doctrine of preexistence has prevailed in almost every age. As a philosophical or theological concept, it can be found in the beliefs of Plato, the Essenes, Philo, Origen, Justin, the American Indians, Gnostics, and the Hindu religions, just to mention a few. On a basis of idealism or realism, variations of a theory of preexistence have been discovered in the writings of Schleiermacher, I. H. Fichte, Herbart, and Schopenhauer. Among the more recent philosophers entertaining similar theories are J. M. E. McTaggert, Henri Bergson, and William James.
All of these theories may have some element in common with the Mormon idea of preexistence; but with the possible exception of the view held by some modern theosophists, the Mormon concept differs with all of these in the belief that the conscious spirit ego is an eternal entity.
Actually, this notion is not entirely foreign to the Hindu teaching that developed at a later time in the written tradition, but may very well have been known in the earlier primitive religion before the coming of the Aryans. In contrast to the Mormon idea of the importance of self and individualism, the Hindu doctrine of the eternal nature of soul avoids the implication of unit selfness and stresses the World Soul concept, with both the spiritual and physical natures of man coming from the same source. Thus, though man has a soul nature apart from the body that can be reborn into another body, it is not a self in the ultimate sense, but like the body it is merely a part of the great World Soul.
This teaching is not so explicit in a later writing, the Gita, cherished by world religionists. From what was formerly a portion of Book Six of the Mahabharata, we have the following:
“This ego (soul) was not born, nor will it die, neither will it ever pass into nothingness after having once been. This soul being unborn, is eternal, without change, and ancient. It is indestructible even when the body is destroyed.” 1
Neither can the Mormon doctrine be considered as a form of reincarnation, since there is no concept of a previous incarnation, nor does it have anything in common with transmigration of souls except the idea of preexistence itself. There is no series of migrations of the soul, but only one body and one eternal identity in the Mormon concept. Thus the idea of endless preexistence developed in the Indian religions is somewhat similar to that of Mormonism, in a crude fashion, but the related transmigration ideas immediately alienate it from the Mormon view.
One of the substructures of traditional Hinduism that contributed much to the foundation of the whole system was Brahmanism, established as a philosophical and religious system by the Brahmans, the priestly caste. Much of Brahmanism was based on the Vedas, the most ancient of the sacred books of India. These earliest literary productions consisted primarily of incantations, hymns, and prayers of sacrifice and appeasement to forces of nature such as sun, moon, and rivers, which were personified as Agni (god of fire, lightning, and sun), the celestial bearer of sacrifice to the gods. There was usually no distinction as to superiority, but fire, wind, and rain were sometimes special objects of worship united into one god.
One of the best examples in the entire history of religion of the influence of environment and climate upon the formation of religious beliefs and practices is revealed to us in the history of Brahmanism. Between the years 1200 B.C. and 800 B.C. the merged Indo-Aryans pressed gradually farther and farther into the Ganges Valley and settled in small community states. The northern climate had been more brisk and invigorating. Here the hot climate depressed them; and in the face of drought and the threat of famine, they found life more difficult. Formerly they had concerned themselves primarily with this life in their worship practices, bargaining and entreating for material blessings and favors. Now they turned their attention to the hereafter. With the addition of more sacred writings such as the Brahmanas, and particularly the Upanishads, regarded by many as the foundation of modern Hinduism, the stage was set for the development of a thoroughgoing, priestly religion.
New gods were introduced by the priests, and all the forces of nature were identified with a spiritual being that when unpersonified was called Brahma, the “One Spirit” or “World Soul” that filled the universe, the primordial essence, the only real entity, absolute, eternal, immaterial, invisible, and unappreciable by the senses.
Although Hindus worshiped Brahma, he (it) is not in the strictest sense an object of worship but rather one of abstract meditation. Since the soul of each person is an infinitesimal portion of the World Soul, every man is consequently a manifestation of Brahma (God). This is not only true of the soul but of the physical nature of man as well.
Man’s greatest goal is to be delivered from the fact of selfness or individuality through the return to God or the merging of his soul with that of Brahma. Only then can he enjoy release from the pain of life and find complete happiness and ultimate peace. The only way this absorption into Brahma and deliverance from life can be attained is through meditation after one has learned to live the good life and has conquered maya, an illusion of time and space.
Any manifestation of reality or being, whatever appears to exist, is attributable to Brahma, and our ultimate purpose is reunion with it. Among the many manifestations of this impersonal god are certain incarnations or instances of Brahma taking a mortal body. As Vishnu the preserver or Shiva the destroyer, the deity can be worshiped as a personal god.
The addition of this new concept into the doctrine of God marked to a certain degree, at least, the transformation from Brahmanism into Hinduism proper. The emerging Hinduism was characterized chiefly by its neglect of Brahma, the primordial essence and creator, together with a shift of attention to the popular deities Vishnu and Shiva.
When dominated by activity, the pantheos (World Soul) continued to be Brahma, the creator; as the incarnate destroyer or disintegrator it was Shiva; and as the defender or preserver from evil it was Vishnu. Thus Hinduism returned to the polytheism of the early Vedic and pre-Vedic periods and de-emphasized its pantheism (God equated with laws of the universe).
Among the deities, Vishnu appears to have been one of the most popular; and although frequently regarded along with other select deities as an incarnation of Brahma, he also is credited with his own avatars or incarnations into different forms for chosen purposes.
In similar manner Shiva, although consistently of a despondent and moody nature, has a number of votaries. Usually portrayed in the attitude of gloomy contemplation, Shiva sits with his matted hair unkempt, a necklace of human skulls around his neck, and ashes smeared over his naked body. His three eyes spew forth fire to consume those who interfere with his devotions.
The worship of these and other gods—such as Indra, the god of the firmament; Varuna, of the waters; Agni, of fire; Kuvera, of wealth; Kama, of love; and Yama, of the infernal regions—produced for Hinduism its share of sects and divisions and holy orders.
The institutional history of Hinduism is almost inextricably interwoven with the historical development of its scriptures. Each transitional stage was represented in the contemporary scripture. However, the new concepts and practices in each successive period were not mere substitutes for their former counterparts, but rather accumulative additions. Hinduism has been able to absorb much of all it has touched. Like an immense sponge, it has never yet reached its saturation point, and in some instances it has been able to accommodate seemingly incompatible if not contradictory concepts and practices within the same system with a degree of tolerance not likely in other world religions. In fact, elements of its own internal reform movements (“Hindu Protestantism”), including Buddhism and Janism, have become part of mainstream Hinduism in some measure.
This does not entirely preclude the packaging and cataloging of its doctrines and practices, but anyone making such an attempt is prone to oversimplify and must be cautious about generalizations in his assessment.
Popular or modern Hinduism, then, represents the practical implementation of all that is old and new growing out of the progressive formation of the Vedic sacred literature and the evolution of its religious way of life. This relationship is even more apparent when the two aspects are viewed together in the successive historical periods named after the contemporary sacred literature that influenced and fostered it. The catalog of Hindu scripture includes the following writings: the Vedas, Brahmanas, Upanishads, Laws of Manu, Bhagavad Gita, and Epics and Puranas.
The unfolding of the Hindu story up to this point has covered roughly that period beginning with the fifteenth century B.C. down to the sixth century B.C. This was the age of the influence of the Vedas augmented by the Brahmanas and the Upanishads.
The Vedas, written in Sanskrit before 100 B.C., include the oldest Hindu document, the Rig Veda (Psalms), together with the Yajur Veda (Sacred Formulas), the Sama Veda (chants), and the Atharva Veda (charms). These constituted the authority of the written tradition that generated the animism and nature worship already identified with that period. Prayer and appeasement provided the way of salvation with Indra, god of the firmament, the most popular among the early worshipers.
The extensive prose treatises on religion known as the Brahmanas (Priestlies), written between 1000 and 800 B.C., were among the earliest Indo-European prose known to philologists. With their special concern for ritual and ceremony, the directions for sacrifices, and the duties of the priests, they established a priestly foundation and a distinctive ceremonial and ritualistic Hinduism. The worshiper of that age sought salvation through the assistance and special status of the priests.
The transition into philosophic Hinduism was contemporary with the composition of the Upanishads (800 to 600 B.C.). These dialogues, which were in part commentaries on the Vedas and speculation about the universe, designate Brahma as the one supreme being and point up the importance of knowledge and learning in salvation, knowledge not only of the one supreme being but also of moral principle, which is a steppingstone to salvation. While there were distinct elements of mysticism characterizing this period, and even a practical approach to salvation through the Yoga of the time, the greatest emphasis was upon intellectual religion. It might well be described as “Hindu scholasticism.”
About the time Legalism was developing among the Jews in Palestine in the second and third centuries before Christ, a new body of sacred Hindu literature was being composed.
Comprising twelve chapters of wise maxims and prohibitions, the Law—Book of Manu came to be regarded as a veritable religious legal code. Salvation was dependent, in part, upon obedience to the law without regard to consequences. The spirit of the time demanded conformity to rules and regulations; and the ultimate realization of redemption, it was felt, would be attained through good works.
This shift in emphasis resulted in a greater elaboration of the caste system and a more detailed defining of the religious life by authoritative directives.
The basis of much of the sectarian teaching of the later period and the esteemed scripture of popular and modern Hinduism were the collection of religious stories and poems called the Epics and Puranas. The earlier writings in this larger collection were being produced in the late pre-Christian centuries about the same time as the Laws of Manu, but many of the later portions were written largely after the start of the middle ages.
They comprise in eighteen books and two grand poems some of the world’s great literature. Of the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the latter is the longest epic in the world. Book six of this great dramatic poem, the Gita (a portion of which has been quoted), was considered by Mahatma Gandhi to represent “all that is highest in the religious life of man.” It was composed earlier than the other works of this larger collection and was eventually given a special place by itself. Its doctrine of universal salvation and emphasis upon supplication to God were largely responsible for inspiring the devotional elements that appeared in Hinduism.
In spite of the varied forces from both within and without that had played upon Hinduism to mold it into the comprehensive system that it had become, the India of the time of Columbus was yet a part of the world only marginally touched and little known by the Westerner of that day.
The Western voyager penetrating the world of the Hindu found a people of agrarian warmth and closeness to the soil, symbolized in their obligation of protection for the cow and reverence for all living things. They ate no meat and worshiped their many deities with great pentecostal zeal. In singing, dancing, and clashing of cymbals, they expressed their religious joy.
Much of this has been preserved and added upon. There are many rites both in the home and at the shrines and temples that symbolize, in sometimes simple, sometimes elaborate ceremonialism, the religious feeling and beliefs of these people. Hindus not only abstain from eating meat, but those in the upper castes also drink no intoxicants. Until very recently, the most important manifestation of religious fidelity was conformity to caste. There is no sin in the sense of offense to God, but rather sin against oneself in the violation of caste.
The law of Karma, or law of the deed or of the harvest, “irrevocably decreed,” operates independent of Brahma and determines by its imposition of reward or punishment the degree of progress toward ultimate release from embodied existence. 2 Karma, operating in harmony with reincarnation, provides also the means of repentance and forgiveness. The great Indian statesman and philosopher Radhakrishnan has stated:
“The law of Karma encourages the sinner that it is never too late to mend. It does not shut the gate of hope against despair and suffering, guilt and peril. It persuades us to adopt a charitable view towards the sinner, for men are more often weak than vicious. It is not true that the heart of man is desperately wicked and that he prefers evil to good, the easy descent to hell rather than take the steep ascent to heaven.” 3
While the Christian Europe of Columbus’ time was convulsing with a reform spirit that eventually produced the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation, Nanak, a protestor and reformer of Hinduism, was actively engaged in the establishment of Sikhism, or third of three great Hindu protestant movements. Appearing relatively late on the scene, Nanak’s contribution had been preceded two thousand years by the reform attempts of Gautama (Buddhism) and Mahavira (Jainism). Buddhism and Jainism had been originally atheistic, but Sikhism was devoutly monotheistic in its attempt to compromise and reconcile Hinduism with the intruding Allah worship of the Muslims.
Although Hindu reformers have established distinguishing patterns for their respective movements, they have tended to agree in some areas as to the things that needed reforming: obsolescence of the ancient scriptures, excessive sacerdotalism and priestly functions; the elaborate caste system and polytheism.
Buddhism, although disappearing in India as a separate religion, was eventually absorbed into Hinduism. Its influence was seen in the subsequent stress placed by Brahman priests on meditation and the ethical life. Equally significant was the apparent influence on later scripture in which choice and profound gems of spiritual insight were noted. The literate Hindu intellectual could enjoy a contemplative detachment from the mundane life through his absorption into the sublime and noble beauty of what he read. The great masses of common men received this experience indirectly, but its effect was unmistakable. It inspired a great yearning for ultimate union with the universal soul.
The spiritual demand upon the Hindu in the light of this divine yearning is compulsive. It is not a halfhearted thing but rather typical and consistent with the Oriental concern for the inner meaning of life. Thus the extreme rigor of self-discipline or sacrifice, together with the relationship of self to people and events, is assessed in terms of the total cosmos.
This pervasive mystic mood, which has been subsequently identified with popular Hinduism, lends it a character somewhat unfamiliar to those of us who are of the Mormon tradition. Our tendency to emphasize the practical, utilitarian aspects of religion leaves us ill equipped to appreciate the mind and feeling of the Hindu.
Yet there is much in Hinduism to which the Latter-day Saint could subscribe. The gap between the ideal and the real is usually quite wide. That which we can accept in principle as virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy might well be implemented into our lives in a practical and real way.
Dr. Horsley received his advanced degree in philosophy and Christian history at the University of Muenster, Germany. He is now a professor of philosophy at Brigham Young University, and serves as teacher development director in the Provo Fifth Ward, Provo Stake.