What is Hinduism? – N.S. Rajaram


Dr. N.S. RajaramIt is a very great error to say that all religions say the same thing. They emphatically do not. When Krishna says, “Those who worship other gods with devotion worship me,” and Jesus says, “He that is not with me is against me,” they are not saying the same thing. – Dr N. S. Rajaram

Many Hindus, including some who see themselves as leaders and thinkers are stumped when asked to describe what they see as the essential features of Hinduism. This being the case, it is not surprising that young people should be confused—mistaking ritual and traditional practices for the essence. What is given here is a rational description that does not rest on the beliefs and practices of any sect.

The first thing to note is Hinduism cannot be viewed as religion deriving its authority from a book or the teachings of a founder: these are just sects. The appropriate term for what we now call Hinduism is “Sanatana Dharma”. It is not a creed like Christianity or Islam, but a philosophic system that has spiritual freedom as its core. Any path that accepts the spiritual freedom of everyone may be considered part of Sanatana Dharma. It has no national or geographical boundaries. Unlike Mecca for Islam and Jerusalem for Christianity, any land in any country can be the Holy Land for Hindus.

OmHinduism is anadi (beginning-less), and apaurusheya (without human founder)

The basis of Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma is the quest for cosmic truth, just as the quest for physical truth is the domain of science. The earliest record of this quest is the Rigveda. Its scripture is the record of ancient sages who by whatever means tried to learn the truth about the universe, in relation to Man’s place in the cosmos. They saw nature—including all living and non-living things—as part of the same cosmic equation.

This search has no historical beginning. This is not to say that the Rigveda always existed as a literary work. It means that we cannot point to a particular time or person in history and say: “Before this man spoke, the Rigveda did not exist.” On the other hand, we can say this about Christianity and Islam, because they are historical religions.

This brings up another important facet of Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism: it is a-paurusheya, which means it is not originate in any man (purusha). That is to say it has no historical founder like Christianity has Jesus Christ and Islam has Prophet Muhammad. We can say that Jesus is the purusha of Christianity while Muhammad is the purusha of Islam. These religions cannot exist without their founders. Christianity and Islam are therefore paurusheya. Hinduism has no such purusha on whose authority it exists.

Hinduism is a-paurusheya in a deeper sense also, which brings it close to science, and brings its spiritual quest close to the scientific method. In paurusheya religions, the word of the purusha (founder)—be it Jesus or Muhammad—must be accepted without question. This gives rise to an enforcing authority known as the clergy to ensure that no one deviates from the ‘true path’ as shown by the founder, but in reality as dictated by the human representative who claims to be the true spokesman of the purusha. He is the enforcing authority of the true faith.

This naturally leads to men exercising political power in the name of God. This is what we call theocracy. The authority is the scripture, which is said to represent the word of God as conveyed through his medium (thePurusha). In this scheme, the medium invariably becomes more important than God. For example, it is Jesus not his God that defines Christianity. Also, the sacred book becomes also the law book in the hands of its enforcers.

Hinduism on the other hand leaves the individual free from any religious authority. If any work is considered great, it is because of its merit and not because of the authority of the author. Similarly, a teacher is considered great because of the greatness of the teaching. For example, Vishwamitra is considered a great sage because of the greatness of the Gayatri Mantra, which he enunciated. If someone else than Vishwamitra had given us the Gayatri Mantra, it would still be considered great because of its message. It is the same with Krishna and the Gita. It is the message of the Gita that has led to people revering Krishna as a great teacher. Also, a Hindu is free to question or reject any part or all of a religious work.

It is different with revealed religions like Christianity and Islam: Jesus and Muhammad are invoked as authority to justify teachings that sometimes cannot be justified on their own merit. No such authority exists in Hinduism: the teaching must stand or fall on its own merit. This is what makes it apaurusheya. Cosmic truths existed before the arrival of Vishwamitra and Krishna. These sages, who first expressed them, were historical persons but the truth of their message is eternal and always existed.

This feature—of focusing on the message and its truth rather than the authority of the source brings Sanatana Dharma close to science and the scientific method. In science also, a principle or a theory must stand or fall on its own merit and not on the authority of anyone. If Newton and Einstein are considered great scientists, it is because of the validity of their scientific theories.

In that sense, science is also a-paurusheya. Gravitation and Relativity are eternal laws of nature that existed long before Newton and Einstein. These are cosmic laws that happened to be discovered by scientific sages Newton and Einstein. But no one invokes Newton or Einstein as authority figures to ‘prove’ the truth of laws of nature. They stand on their own merit. The same is true of the Gita and the Gayatri Mantra.

Hinduism recognizes the freedom of the individual. It recognizes no prophet’s claim as the possessor of the “only” truth or the “only” way.

This is probably the greatest difference between Sanatana Dharma and revealed religions like Christianity and Islam. One can see this in a recent proclamation by the Vatican. In a document titled “Declaration of Lord Jesus” [Dominus Iesus] the Vatican proclaims non-Christians to be in a “gravely deficient situation” and that even non-Catholic churches have “defects” because they do not acknowledge the primacy of the Pope.

This of course means that the Vatican refuses to acknowledge the spiritual right of others (including Hindus) to their beliefs and practices. It consigns non-Christians to hell; the only way they can save themselves is by becoming Catholics and submit to the Pope. It also makes the Pope more important than both God and Jesus.

It is worth noting that this statement has nothing to do with God, or noble conduct. A non-Christian who lives a life of virtue is still consigned to hell because he refuses to acknowledge Jesus as the only saviour and the Pope as his representative on earth. The same is true of Islam: one must submit to Prophet Muhammad as the last, in effect the only prophet, to be saved. Belief in God means nothing without belief in Christ as the saviour or Muhammad as the Last Prophet.

One who believes in God but does not accept Jesus or Muhammad as intermediary is still considered a non-believer and therefore a sinner. They simply do not tolerate pluralism. This is what makes both Christianity and Islam exclusive. The rejection of this formulation is also what makes Hinduism pluralistic and tolerant.

From this it is clear that what governs a revealed religion is not God but the founder who claims to be God’s intermediary. (The clergy acting in the founder’s name becomes the enforcing authority or the thought police.) A believer is one who accepts the intermediary as the savior. God is irrelevant. He is even dispensable but not the intermediary who is all-important.

Hinduism recognizes no intermediary as the exclusive messenger of God. In fact the Rigveda itself says: “ekam sat, vipra bahuda vadanti,” meaning “cosmic truth is one, but the wise express it in many ways.” The contrast between exclusivism and pluralism becomes clear when we compare the following statements by Krishna and Jesus Christ.

Krishna of the Bhagavadgita says: “All creatures great and small—I am equal to all. I hate none nor have I any favorites…. He that worships other gods with devotion worships me.” Jesus of the Bible says: “He that is not with me is against me.”

This means that Krishna has no favourites and accepts all forms of worship—even worship of other deities. But revealed religions like Christianity and Islam could not exist without favorites or intermediaries like the Prophet or the Son of God. The Bible says that God is jealous. Reflecting the “jealous God” of the Bible, the chosen intermediary is also jealous.

This is reflected in both the Bible and the Koran. “He that is not with me is against me,” says Jesus of the Bible (Matthew 12.30). So a devotee cannot know God, but can only go through the intermediary who jealously guards his exclusive access to an equally jealous God.

Hinduism is the exact opposite of this. Anyone can know God and no jealous intermediary blocks his way. And the Hindu tradition has methods like yoga and meditation to facilitate one to know God. Further, this spiritual freedom extends even to atheism. One can be an agnostic or even an atheist and still claim to be a Hindu.

In addition, there is nothing to stop a Hindu from revering Jesus as the Son of God or Muhammad as a Prophet. In contrast, a Christian or a Muslim revering Rama or Krishna as an avatar would be rejected as a heretic. This is also what makes Christianity and Islam exclusive, and Hinduism pluralistic and inclusive.

From this it is also clear why revealed religions always claim to be monotheistic: One God allows only One Intermediary. So every monotheistic religion also tends to be monopolistic. It also requires a thought police to enforce this belief system, just as every earthly dictator does. So they invariably become theocratic political systems. In contrast, in Hinduism, God is internal to the seeker. As a result each seeker has his or his own version of God. Different traditions like Dvaita, Advaita and others represent different pathways. They exercise no authority and there is no clergy to enforce.

Swastika: Motif on ancient pottery found in BulgariaHinduism and spiritual freedom

So the single most important theme of Hinduism is the freedom of the spirit. Just as science insists on freedom in exploring the physical world, Sanatana Dharma embodies freedom in the exploration of the spiritual realm. There are no dogmas or prophets—or their agents—to block the way. This allows Hinduism, like science, to grow and evolve with time. Dogmatic religions on the other hand are frozen in time. (In fact, a good deal of the effort by the priesthood in Islam and Christianity is to ensure that the original teachings do not become corrupted due to change.)

This freedom of spirit is most concisely expressed in the famous Gayatri Mantra, which prays: “dhiyo yo nah pracodayat”— which means, “Inspire our intellect.” So the greatest prayer in Hinduism is for clarity of thinking. It does not ask anyone to accept anything on blind faith in a prophet or any other agent of God. Teachers in Hinduism are only guides who suggest pathways. They have no authority. The seeker has to find his or her own way, with the help of guides if needed.

In the light of this, “conversion” to Hinduism entails accepting a way of looking at the world and not simply changing faith and adopting a new mode of worship. Above all it means acknowledging spiritual freedom and rejecting exclusivism. It is like accepting the scientific method, which also is a way of looking at the world. It cannot be done by force or with promises of profit.

As a result, it is a very great error to say that all religions say the same thing. They emphatically do not. When Krishna says, “Those who worship other gods with devotion worship me,” and Jesus says, “He that is not with me is against me,” they are not saying the same thing.

A Hindu is one who recognizes this difference—and the code founded on the principle of everyone’s right to spiritual freedom, while Christianity and Islam reject and even punish this freedom. The method of worship and the deity or deities one may choose to worship are secondary as long one acknowledges everyone’s right to this freedom and is prepared to defend it. So the only enemies of Sanatana Dharma are those that oppose spiritual freedom.

Swami Vivekananda on a-paurusheya: “Our philosophy does not depend upon any personality for its truth. Thus Krishna did not teach anything new or original to the world, nor does Ramayana profess anything which is not contained in the Scriptures. It is to be noted that Christianity cannot stand without Christ, Mohammedanism without Mohammed, and Buddhism without Buddha but Hinduism stands independent of any man, and for the purpose of estimating the philosophical truth contained in any Purana, we need not consider the question whether the personages treated of therein were really material men or were fictitious characters. The object of the Puranas was the education of mankind, and the sages who constructed them contrived to find some historical personages and to superimpose upon them all the best or worst qualities just as they wanted to, and laid down the rules of morals for the conduct of mankind. ” – Vijayvaani, 8-9 January 2016

» Dr Navaratna Srinivasa Rajaram is an Indian mathematician, notable for his publications with the Voice of India publishing house focusing on the “Indigenous Aryans” debate in Indian politics.

Encyclopedia of Hinduism

On 3–4 April 2010, a blessings ceremony for the Encyclopedia of Hinduism was held at Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh. It was attended by H.H. the Dalai Lama, M.M. Swami Gurusharananand, Swami Avdheshanand Giri, Sant Shri Rameshbhai Oza, Swami Ramdev, Sant Shri Morari Bapu and other religious leaders as well as top political leaders, including Shri L.K. Advani and then-Governor of Uttarakhand Shri Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, and India Heritage Research Foundation board members and trustees.

One Response

  1. A clear, concise, and enlightening article on Hinduism and how it differs from other religions.Although many Hindus instinctively know the difference, Dr. Rajaram has expressed it well for all of us.

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