I was raised in the Christian tradition, like most kids in America. I went to Sunday school, I took part in the youth group, I attended service with my family. I’m thankful for it, and to this day I believe taking your children to worship is one of the best things you can do for them. However, as I grew older, I began to question what it was I was taught to believe in. I began asking questions like ‘Why does God punish forever (Hell)?’, and ‘Why do other people have such different ideas of who God is, even within Christianity?’
By the time I was in my late twenties, I was an agnostic, and by my thirties an atheist. I was convinced that humans made God in their own image, that we made our own destiny and further asserted that the universe was nothing like any religious work contended it to be. I had changed from being a person who thought they were being shown the answers into someone who thought there simply weren’t any as far as theology was concerned.
One evening I was walking around with a girl I had become friends with who attended a local state university, and we were having a discussion (more like a debate) on the existence of God. What stuck me as strange was that she did not get defensive, nor were her replies to my assertions filled with the usual Bible quotes or nonsensical pocket philosophy I had heard from other people on the topic. Instead, I got what appeared to be rational explanations for why she believed there was a God.
Over the months that followed we became very close, and I eventually learned that she held a few different belief systems, most notably Hinduism. While I had studied the tenets of Christianity pretty throughly, Hinduism was something i simply didn’t know very much about. She took the time to explain what much of it meant, what she believed and, more importantly, why. I am about to do the same for you today, so you can perhaps understand why it is I believe what I believe.
Explaining a belief system that involved multiple gods might be easier for folks to comprehend than Hinduism’s actual spiritual philosophy, but it’s central to understanding what it is to be Hindu. The first thing that I learned is that Hinduism is not a true polytheistic religion for most Hindus. The vast majority, like myself, consider themselves Vedanta, which is to say that they believe in a single god of the highest form, called Brahman.
Brahman represents the eternal and permeating presence of God, yet it also represents a God that is transcendent of the cosmos, who can witness the universe as something apart. God is not only transcendent of the universe, but of existence itself. Brahman is formless and genderless; He (she, it) represents the very fabric of reality. God is everywhere, and God is everything, and God is transcendent, or beyond, everything. This concept of God, which tends to be very hard for people brought up under a different belief system to get their brains around (including myself), is found only in Hinduism.
It’s really difficult to perceive God this way; we’re just humans, and we attach human qualities to everything, including God. Hindus who visualize God with human qualities, such as personality and form, are thinking of God as Isvara. Isvara refers to the personal aspect of God, but normally it’s a set of qualities of God that’s being addressed. It’s also extremely common to have a name and perhaps an image attached to that particular set.
So, when a Hindu refers to Vishnu, Ganesha or any of the other gods, they are actually referring to a form of Isvara, the personal aspect of God. Just like people have many sides to their personalities, so does God (Isvara). God can be the destroyer, the creator, the lover or the hater, the wise or the foolish, just like you can. In fact, you are all those things at times because God is all those things, all the time. Indeed, your part of Brahman is also transcendent – it is a part of God, and part of you and the universe, yet separate.
The ‘personal’ aspect of God is taken quite literally – it’s personal. When a Hindu worships Ganesha, for example, it’s with the recognition that the worshiper is applying this particular set of traits – human traits – to God to better communicate with Him. Since we’re all Brahman, it’s a way of awakening those same qualities in himself. Ganesha is Isvara, which is ultimately Brahman, just like the worshiper.
To quote the Mahabharata, Krishna (a human incarnation of God) said to the warrior Arjuna, “You are from me, and I am from you, and no one can tell the difference between us”. That is the ultimate goal of Hinduism, to realize, or become ‘enlightened’, to the extent that we are Brahman.
The next thing I discovered – and my friend had to practically beat this one into my thick skull, because I didn’t understand the whole Brahman thing yet – is that God does not make mistakes. For most of us, this is a trite phrase found on motivational magnets for the fridge, but what it’s getting at is the idea that we are all exactly the way God intends us to be at this given moment. The world, indeed the universe, is exactly the way God wants it to be, and not one iota different. You do not exist alone in the world; you are not only in God’s focus for being taught, you are in God’s plan to teach others. What you do, right or wrong, good or evil, is used by God to bring everyone along the path, however winding, to Him. So, get used to it – you are perfect!
It was at this point that Hinduism really began to part company with a lot of what Christianity had taught me. So, before I go further, I want to take a moment and touch on another lesson I learned from Hinduism: tolerance. Not just tolerance, but acceptance. God not only uses people to teach people, but He uses religion as well. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Paganism, agnosticism, atheism – all are paths to God. A good Hindu has absolutely no business telling someone else that their view of God is incorrect. A person views God the way God needs them to view God in order for them to learn, both intellectually and spiritually, who God is. So, this is how I, as a Hindu, view God. Your mileage may vary.
Reincarnation was the next hurtle, but it makes such beautiful sense after grasping the first ideals presented here. If we are all bound to a destiny of sharing an eternity as one with Brahman, how can we be eternally punished in Hell – or spend an eternity in Haven? It doesn’t make sense for God to, on the one hand, wish everyone to be one with Him, and on the other condemn souls – parts of Himself – to eternal punishment. It also doesn’t make sense that God would reward souls eternally based on such a short period of spiritual learning. If our purpose is to learn everything God has to teach us on a spiritual level, then how could anyone possibly do it in the span of a single lifetime? Even the most devoted followers of God, men and women who have dedicated their entire lives to developing a deep relationship with the Lord, will tell you that they are nowhere near learning everything there is to learn on an intellectual level – never mind a spiritual one. We must be able to return again and again to learn God’s lessons, through multiple lives and experiences.
Meditation was something I’ve found difficult to learn to do. It’s more difficult to master for some folks than others, and I have the inkling I’m not one of the fortunate few. Almost all Hindu text deals not with the nature of God but with meditation, turning off the mind so that you can experience one’s ‘inner self’. The mind gets in the way; there are constant distractions, from the toils and tribulations of everyday life to the itch on your foot when trying to actively meditate. Your ‘inner self’, of course, is Brahman, that hidden spark of God residing inside you – the soul is simply another part of God. Meditation is a way to communicate with God, just like prayer and participation in worship.
The last thing that I’ll touch on in this article is karma. This is, perhaps, one of the most misunderstood tenets of Hinduism, and I’ll do my best to set the record straight. Karma is more than simply repercussions for what one does. You’ve heard the theory of the fluttering butterfly’s wings causing a storm on the other side of the world? Karma is very much like that. The ‘repercussions’ are felt not only by you in your life, but by others around the world. God, if He is about anything, is about balance. Concepts like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are human perceptions, not God’s perceptions (He is transcendent, remember?). God uses the effects your life has on others to teach you and others valuable lessons on both intellectual and spiritual levels.
Does that mean you shouldn’t care if you’re good or evil? Not at all! You should be good, because in general, goodness begets goodness and when folks are happy it’s because life is ‘good’ for them – but when bad things happen to good people (just like when good things happen to bad people) it’s one way of karma balancing itself out. There are lessons to learn in ‘bad’ things as much as in ‘good’ ones. Whatever karma you have unbalanced at the end of this life, you’ll work out in the next – so, don’t worry so much about your karma. Just do what you know is right, and be good to people, and God will handle the rest.
So, now that I’ve tried to explain all these things for you, I realize I still haven’t addressed the point of the article – what is ‘being Hindu’? Being Hindu, aside from everything I’ve written about here, is a state of mind. If you believe God loves you eternally, if you believe you are one with Him and that one day your soul, your part of Brahman, will reside in harmony with Him, what is it I should do as a Hindu to facilitate that? Why nothing – nothing at all. Worship if you want to, work if you want to, play if you want to. The world is yours to do in and with as you please. God will teach you in everything that happens in your life, if you’re open to the lessons. Perhaps you don’t know what tomorrow brings, but God does, and He will be there with you, in this life and the next, and forever.
Being Hindu ultimately means realizing that I am eternal, just like God. God and I are in this existence together, because He and I are inseparable. “You are from me, and I am from you, and no man can tell the difference between us”. If you can grasp that, then you have a very good idea what it’s like being Hindu.