Most Common Misconceptions of Hinduism and their Traditions in Western World
Hinduism is a vast religion with multiple facets. It is one of the oldest religions in the world. For the less informed, Hinduism may look too confusing, too complicated to understand, and too contradictory in its precepts and practices. Even many Hindus do not know the exalted philosophies of the religion. Naturally, there are many misconceptions commonly prevalent about Hinduism, some propagated by vested interests, some by ill-informed westerners and some by self-doubting Hindus. Here is an attempt to clear up some of those misconceptions.
- Know that Hinduism, in its essence, is not a religion of multiple Gods.Hinduism permits worship of multiple God forms, endowed with different looks, powers, and attributes, who, in reality, represent the One God, known asBrahman, or Parabrahman, Paramatma or Satchidananda. Hinduism accepts the basic differences in every person in taste, temperament and capacity of intake in the matter of religion. A woman found distasteful to one person can be the soul-stirring sweetheart of another person. When such a difference in taste can exist, why not allow different tastes in the worshiping of God?Thus Hinduism permits you to choose a specific God form most appealing and lovable to you; it encourages you to believe wholeheartedly that that particular God form indeed is the one supreme God. A chaste woman considers her husband alone to be the most handsome and most wonderful person; likewise, at the lower echelons of religion, a believer’s conviction that his personal God alone is the most powerful and the “only true God” is also encouraged.As a person matures in his religious progress, he surpasses his narrow convictions. He understands by experience that one supreme lord has, by His grace, adapted to come in the form of his personal God and that He presents Himself in other forms to satisfy other sects of believers. At the ultimate level of experience, the seeker perceives that the whole universe is simply nothing other than God and it includes his own soul, too.
- Know that Hinduism has not ordained that the society should be caste-based with all the concomitant discriminations.Hinduism had accepted the practical fact that there will always be differences among persons in intellectual, physical and mental capabilities. For the society to run smoothly like well-oiled machinery, there has to be a well-defined division of labor. The society needs all sorts of people who do their jobs to the best of their ability doing those activities best suited to them.The society needs peasants and artisans (‘Shudra’), traders (‘Vysya’), intellectuals and teachers (‘Brahmin‘), and warriors (‘Kshatriya‘). Each class requires its own skill sets, physical and mental capabilities, food habits, ethical and moral codes of conduct and the Hindu Dharma has provided these guidelines. What is best suited to one class need not be a benchmark for another.In ancient days, the society at large accepted these classifications as matters of fact (without acrimony). It is also said that such a division of labor was not originally based on family lineage. But when followed over generations, it gradually turned into a caste system and further degenerated into upper and lower classes with discrimination and acrimony between them. This is actually a sociological phenomenon and it is incorrect to blame the religion for it.
- Know that Hinduism, by its Karma theory and the concept of rebirth, does not say that one has to gradually take birth “from lower to upper class” before attaining Moksha.Hinduism says that as long as one has desires, one has to take rebirth. The rebirth can be in any class of the society and even a rebirth as an animal is not ruled out. Even a highly spiritually oriented Brahmin may get a rebirth in the form of an animal just to satiate some odd, unquenched desires of the previous birth.
- Know that Hinduism does not say that the experience of God is reserved for Brahmins (the so called upper class/priest class) only.Traditionally, Brahmins, by virtue of their social status, had the exclusive access to the highest scriptural knowledge (of Vedas) in olden days. That way, they were better informed of the nuances of the highest religious facts. But that never made them exclusively able to attain the vision of God. The knowledge about swimming acquired by a person by reading books, but without any exposure to water, is useless. Likewise, in Hinduism, the personal experience of God is what really matters (and not the scriptural knowledge).
- There are countless great masters in Hinduism who have experienced God without any theoretical knowledge of scriptures. Traditionally, even great pundits and Brahmin scholars kneel before these unlettered divine souls, many of whom are not Brahmins by birth, to learn about the true experience of God from them. Umpteen examples are available in Indian history on this count. The phenomenon of Brahmins dominating the religious scenario and showing discrimination towards other castes is again a sociological development and not a religiously ordained one.
- Know that Hinduism is not totally anti-materialistic and does not totally discourage enjoyment.What Hinduism says is that materialistic pursuits or running behind sensual pleasures is not going to fetch you everlasting happiness. It only says that behind any unbridled searching for enjoyment, there is always a pain lurking behind. Hinduism advises one to practice moderation, to be watchful, and not to get carried away.Hinduism does place liberation – ‘Moksha‘ as the ultimate goal of life. But, for for the majority, the path of progress towards the goal (Moksha) includesDharma (righteousness), Artha (materialism) and Kama (sensual enjoyments). The important point is that the materialistic and sensual enjoyments (Artha and Kama) must always be guided by righteousness (Dharma). Leading a life this way, one can gradually understand the transient nature of worldly life, acquire dispassion (‘Vairagya‘) and the mind then yearns for liberation (Moksha), the ultimate goal.It is no doubt that Hinduism gives the highest regard to renunciation. But again, for the society at large, the recommended way of living so as to attain the supreme goal starts at ‘Brahmacharya‘ (celibacy at a young age while acquiring education), followed by ‘Grihasta‘ (married life of a householder), ‘Vanaprasta‘ (living frugally in a secluded way at the forest, once the couple has completed their duty toward their offspring) and finally ‘Sanyasa‘ (total renunciation).When an earnest seeker is mature enough to comprehend the transient nature of worldly life, has a high degree of discrimination and dispassion and yearns for God, he can opt to renounce much earlier, without going through all these stages one by one.
- Know that Hinduism does not preach fatalism and does not negate self-effort.It is wrong to think that by advocating Karma theory (which says that for every action in the past, one has to face the reaction inescapably in the future and this cycle transcends births over births), Hinduism encourages a fatalistic attitude. What Hinduism says is that one cannot have freedom of choice in facing the repercussions of past actions, but one does have the free will to choose his present actions. It is quite obvious that only because we have the freedom of choice of action, we have accumulated our past KarmThe essence of Hinduism on this matter of Karma or fate is two-fold.One: The reactions to our past actions are not entirely self-propelling; they are indeed executed by the will of God; the more one surrenders to God and the more one accepts with humility the divine dispensation, the more one gets relief from the impinging effects of Karma.Two: By carefully choosing one’s present actions based on Dharma, by doing acts with dispassion and a sense of surrender to the supreme, one paves the way for escaping from the evil effects of his present actions in the future.
- Know that Hinduism does not say that faith and surrender to a Hindu God alone are the way to salvation.Hinduism has two major approaches to the concept of God. One starts by negating “I” and the other starts and ends with “I”.In the first school (Bhakti Yoga – the path of love), the whole universe is God; It is God who creates, preserves and destroys. He is omnipresent and omnipotent. In front of him, “I” am nothing. I have no individuality. I, too, am part of him. He, the Paramatman, is the true existence. I, the Atman, am part and parcel of (and subservient to) Him.
- In the second school (Gnyana Yoga – the path of Wisdom), the seeker thinks “I don’t know whether a God exists; whether he is with form or without form; I don’t know whether the world is his creation; But one thing I know; I exist. In waking, dreaming or deep sleep, I am aware of my existence. When I think, “I am,” at that moment, everything else also comes into existence. When my mind ceases to function (as in deep sleep), the whole world, the entire creation vanishes. Everything – the world, the cosmos, the personal God of worship – everything is a product of the mind. When the seeker inquires to find ‘Who am I?” and truly experiences this reality in a truly “mindless” state, he grasps the fact that his soul, Atman, is none other than the Brahman, the supreme soul.
- Hinduism does not say that possession of occult powers is an indication that one has attained God realization.Occult powers (Siddhi) may develop in a person who is deeply involved in spiritual practices with single-pointed concentration. But it has to be understood that presence of Siddhi is not an indication of a person’s attainment of true spiritual wisdom. The highest goal being God realization in Hinduism, obtaining Siddhis in fact can distract a person from his goal and cause spiritual downfall.This is the warning given by all great spiritual masters of Hinduism. But a person who has reached his goal, may still have Siddhis in him but he cares the least about them. It is up to him to use them for the good of others or not.
- Know that Hinduism does not say that one should blindly believe his Guru to attain salvation.For an earnest seeker who is convinced that attaining Moksha – salvation/God realization/self-realization – is the goal of life, Hinduism emphasizes the need for surrendering to a Guru (rather to a Satguru – a Guru of the highest order who has personally experienced the Supreme Truth). Hinduism encourages one to do all the questioning and doubting before selecting a Guru; After surrendering to a Guru, asking probing questions of the Guru until getting convincing answers is also encouraged.At the same time, Hinduism is very clear that egotism is one of the greatest impediments to attaining the supreme truth. That’s why great masters say that unconditional surrender (rather than egotistic arguments and doubting) is the best option to receive the grace of the Satguru.
Other than the above, there are always differences of opinions among various schools of philosophies in Hinduism about the interpretation of scripture. But these are quite normal and acceptable in a vast religion like Hinduism. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa used to say, “Until one gets the vision of God, there will always be lurking doubts; Once divine vision is had, all doubts will vanish once for all.”