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LEADER RESOURCE 2: Hinduism Background

In this workshop, we explore a faith so ancient it is considered indigenous, yet it has grown through the millennia to attain a high level of complexity and sophistication. Furthermore, it is followed by more than 900 million people—nearly a billion human beings—around the world. This religion is Hinduism.

In check-in, you shared some of the ideas you had about Hinduism. It is fascinating how, living in a society where Hinduism is not predominant, we have lots of shared impressions about it, some of which are fairly accurate and some of which are not.

Hinduism takes many different forms. A famous Hindu saying is, "Truth is one; sages call it by different names."

Hinduism shares with Unitarian Universalism the belief that individuals are responsible for finding their own path to truth and that there are as many legitimate paths as there are individuals. Today, we will talk about the most common beliefs of Hinduism.

Monotheistic or Polytheistic?

Strict belief in a god is not necessary to Hinduism. Some Hindus might say they believe not in a "god" but in an Ultimate Reality, that is, the force behind the universe. Yet most Hindus understand this Reality as God. Some Hindus say that their religion is monotheistic (write "ONE GOD — Monotheistic" on newsprint), with a belief in one god, whom they call by different names, but Brahman (write "Brahman" on newsprint) is the most popular. However, Hinduism has literally thousands of gods and goddesses, and some Hindus would say that their religion is both monotheistic and polytheistic. How can this be? Is this a contradiction?

All these gods and goddesses are seen as facets of Brahman. They spring from the Hindu understanding that Ultimate Reality is too big to be grasped by most people all at once. People can, however, understand a god who oversees material possessions (Ganesha, or Ganesh), or a goddess who is a fierce protector (Kali). The nearly infinite variety of gods and goddesses is suited to the nearly infinite variety of human beings and human needs.

In Indian culture, the fact that Hinduism is both polytheistic and monotheistic is not a contradiction. It is not important to define the religion in this manner. One label could be considered insulting to Brahman, while the other makes the various manifestations seem less important. The understanding that something can be "both/and" (both monotheistic and polytheistic) is a belief you will encounter again in other Eastern religions, such as Taoism and Confucianism.

The fundamental energies of the divine are seen as both male and female, with masculine forces representing the strength of peace and awareness, and feminine forces representing power and energy.

Five gods and goddesses are the most important. Three of them form what is sometimes called the Hindu Trinity: Brahma (who is different from Brahman), Vishnu, and Shiva. (Share images from Leader Resource 3, Images of Hindu Gods, as you discuss the gods.)

  • Brahma is the Creator. In Western religious thought, there is a lot of emphasis on God as Creator, but in Hinduism, Brahma the Creator (or the facet of Brahma that creates) is actually the least important of the Hindu Trinity.
  • Vishnu is the Preserver, who protects and preserves.
  • Shiva is the Destroyer and God of Change, because all material things come to an end.

In these three, we have Creation, Preservation, and Destruction. The other two of the top five Hindu deities are Durga, Goddess of War, and Ganesha, God of Success. These two can be seen as somewhat balancing each other: They are deities to support people in conflict or in prosperity.

Two other popular Hindu deities are Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth, and Kali, the Scary One—also called "the Black One," Goddess of Death and Rebirth, the cycle of creation.

Kali (which translates literally as "time") is the fiercest image in the Hindu pantheon, with her many weapons and her necklace of skulls. She is often shown doing a dance of birth and death that occurs literally on Shiva, who smiles up at her. He might be the God of Change, but she is the active force that causes change in the universe. Ask the youth what they think the image of Kali dancing on Shiva might mean.

Hindus will often pray to Kali when they want to change some negative behavior, since there's no nonsense about her: When something needs changing, Kali changes it.

Ask the youth:

  • Do you see some utility in having different deities to represent different aspects of human life, or different facets of reality?
  • If you were to choose some deity—it does not have to be one of these—to focus energy on, related to some area of great importance in your life, what would it be? What would it relate to? Your family? Your work? Your dreams? Would it be love? Music? Worldly success? Spiritual enlightenment? Service to others?

Nonattachment to Results

Among the most important concepts in Hinduism is the idea of nonattachment. (Write "nonattachment" on the newsprint.) But—nonattachment to what? Nonattachment to the results of your actions. This can be hard for Westerners to grasp, because it seems to say we should not care about anything, whereas our society tends to value passion and caring. But what nonattachment means is to not allow the results of our actions to make us happy or unhappy. We will discuss this in more detail later in the workshop.

Vegetarianism

Most Hindus are vegetarians, believing it is wrong to kill an animal for food. But even Hindus who eat meat believe it is always taboo to eat beef. Some people think that Hindus worship cows, but this is not true. Cows do hold a special place in India, where they are protected and often treated with great affection, but there is a very practical reason for this. Indian society is mostly agrarian—most people survive by farming. Cows produce milk, a great source of protein, and their dung is also used in many ways, particularly as fertilizer for crops and fuel. A cow, which provides wealth in multiple ways, is considered too valuable to be butchered for food.

Cows are considered good gifts for high priests. On Gopastami, the "cow holiday," cows are washed, decorated in the temple, and given gifts in the hope that they will live long and continue to contribute to the well-being of the family and farm.

Karma and Reincarnation

The ultimate goal of Hinduism is to be relieved of the cycle of rebirth. Hindus traditionally believe that the soul is reincarnated—that after death, an enduring soul moves into another body and another life. Karma determines where the soul moves.

Karma refers to your moral actions in life. Positive moral actions lead to good karma, and negative ones lead to bad karma. The better your karma, the quicker you move through the cycles of reincarnation, and the sooner you reach the end.

Liberation from the cycle of rebirth is called moksha, or enlightenment, and it leads to the soul becoming one with the Ultimate Reality. This process is sometimes called nirvana. ("Nirvana" is originally a Buddhist term, yet the concepts are similar.)

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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