Thursday, October 25, 2007

Take a Hint from the East

Hinduism is a very rich and complex religion. Each sect is like a denomination with rich religious practices. Professional priestly brahmins have denominations like Shaivism, Shaktism, Vaishnavism, and Smartha. Each of these four denominations share rituals, beliefs, traditions and personal Gods with one another, but each denomination has a different philosophy on how to achieve life's ultimate goal (moksa, liberation) and different views of the Gods. Each follows different methods of self-realization and worships different aspects of the One Supreme God. However, each respects and accepts all others, and conflict of any kind is rare. Among Hindu followers as a whole, there is a strong belief that there are many paths leading to the One God or the Source, whatever one chooses to call that ultimate Truth.
The presence of different denominations and schools within Hinduism should not be viewed as a schism. On the contrary, there is no animosity between the schools. Instead there is a healthy cross-pollination of ideas and logical debate that serves to refine each school's philosophy. It is not uncommon, or disallowed, for an individual to follow one school but take the point of view of another school for a certain issue.

Although Hinduism has obvious differences from Judaism it still is, in some important ways, very much like Judaism. Like Judaism, it is a People first and a Religion second. It is all pervasive with ethics, rituals, values and beliefs underlying and directing all aspects of life. It has many different religious beliefs (albeit with more diversity than Judaism) but it is the constancy of orthopraxy which maintains its identity. They are both heritage-minded, non-exclusionary (i.e. Jews and Hindus both believe that non-adherents can still 'get into Heaven') and generally non-proselytizing.

It is therefore of no surprise - and frankly long overdue - that each community should finally recognize the other as natural allies in terms of how each religion intersects with communal life. (Not to mention politically as well, since both Israel and India are at the front lines of the confrontation with Islamic extremism.) In February there was a Hindu-Jewish summit in New Delhi where they met to officially recognize just that.

Anyway, I think we might have more to gain from our Hindu cousins in respect with how they manage a co-existence of very different ideas while not being much for heresy hunting. A similar approach could be applied for a reconstruction of modern pluralistic Judaism. Excerpts from here:

In the case of most religions, beliefs and practices come first, and those who subscribe to them are acknowledged as followers. In the case of the Hindu tradition, however, the acknowledgment of Hindus came first, and their beliefs and practices constitute the contents of the religion.
The Hindu tradition encourages Hindus to seek spiritual and moral truth wherever it might be found, while acknowledging that no creed can contain such truth in its fullness and that each individual must realize this truth through his or her own systematic effort. Our experience, our reason, and our dialogue with others—especially with enlightened individuals—provide various means of testing our understanding of spiritual and moral truth. And Hindu scripture, based on the insights of Hindu sages and seers, serves primarily as a guidebook. But ultimately truth comes to us through direct consciousness of the divine or the ultimate reality. In other religions this ultimate reality is known as God. Hindus refer to it by many names, but the most common name is Brahman.
A Hindu is thus identified by a dual exclusion. A Hindu is someone who does not subscribe to a religion of non-Indian origin, and who does not claim to belong exclusively to another religion of Indian origin—Buddhism, Jainism, or Sikhism. This effort at definition produces a rather artificial distinction between Hinduism and other dharmic traditions, which stems from an attempt to limit a system that sees itself as universal to an identity that is strictly religious.
Various schools have contributed to Hindu thought, each school with a different emphasis. The school known as Vedanta has been the standard form of intellectual Hinduism. According to Vedanta, the highest aim of existence is the realization of the identity or union of the individual’s innermost self (atman) with the ultimate reality. Although Vedanta states that this ultimate reality is beyond name, the word Brahman is used to refer to it.

Whether this ultimate reality is itself ultimately without distinguishing attributes (nirguna) or with personal attributes (saguna) has been a subject of extensive debate among Hindu scholars. To be ultimate Brahman must transcend (exist above and beyond) all limiting attributes, such as name, gender, form, and features. But how can the human mind, with its limitations, conceive of this transcendent reality? Human comprehension requires a more personal reality, with attributes.

Saguna Brahman is also called Ishvara, a name best translated as "Lord." A quotation attributed to 8th-century Hindu scholar Shankara illustrates the subtlety of these ideas: "Ishvara, forgive these three sins of mine: that although you are everywhere I have gone on a pilgrimage, although you are beyond the mind I have tried to think of you; and although you are ineffable [indescribable] I offer this hymn in praise of you."
How do we proceed if we wish to rise toward Brahman? Hindu thought takes the personality of the seeker as the starting point. It divides human personalities into types dominated by physicality, activity, emotionality, or intellectuality. The composition of our personality intuitively predisposes us to a type of yoga—that is, a path we might follow to achieve union with Brahman. Although many people associate the word yoga with a physical discipline, in its original Hindu meaning yoga refers to any technique that unites the seeker with the ultimate reality.

While physical fitness buffs may seek such a union by practicing hatha yoga, people with different personality traits have other choices. For the action-oriented person there is karma yoga, the yoga of action, which calls for a life of selfless deeds and actions appropriate to the person’s station in life. For the person of feeling, bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, calls for unconditional love for a personal divinity. For the person of thought, j├▒ana yoga, the yoga of knowledge, calls for spiritual and physical discipline intended to bring direct insight into ultimate reality. The yogas do not represent tightly sealed compartments, merely convenient classifications. A well-balanced personality might well employ all four. These yogas are sometimes called margas (paths), suggesting that the same destination can be approached by more than one route, and indeed by more than one mode of travel.
Hindus consider all of creation worthy of worship, and thus religious activity in Hinduism takes many forms. Rituals may be performed by the individual, the family, the village, the community or region; at home or in a temple; and frequently or infrequently. The prevalence and persistence of Hindu ritual may well provide the stabilizing factor in a tradition that is so flexible in doctrine. Ritual might even be considered the glue that holds Hindus and Hinduism together. Many rites and observances that Hindus practice daily have come down from ancient times. Others grew up around the lives and teachings of Hindu saints and sages. While details of rituals may differ from region to region and jati to jati, their meaning and central practices have remained consistent over vast distances of time and space.

Virtually all rituals in Hinduism possess multiple meanings, including symbolic interpretations. Even the way Hindus regularly greet each other may be regarded as symbolically bowing to the divine. The Hindu greeting involves pressing the palms of the hands together, which symbolizes the meeting of two people; placing the hands over the heart where Brahman dwells, indicating that one meets the self in the other; bowing the head in recognition of this meeting; and saying namaste, a Sanskrit word that means "I bow to you" and signifies "I bow to the divine in you."

So are there differences? Sure. But perhaps it is no coincidence that in Hebrew, Hudi and Yehudi are only separated by one letter.


Kiruv Awareness said...

Two interesting comparative religion books on the topic are :

Anonymous said...

I understand that Hindus used to practice Sati, the ritual burning of a widow on her husband's funeral pyre. Judaism makes a point of saying that we should take care of widows. Hindus used to practice the caste system. People could not leave the caste they were born into. The British attempted to put a stop to this. It owuld be interesting to see how the Hinduism and Judaism compare in the area of ethics and morals.

Kiruv Awareness Network said...

Maybe we should contrast the infrequency of Sati within the Hindu tradition and the condemnation that such behavior receives within that tradition with the absence of condemnation anywhere in the Orthodox world to some laws of chazal that are morally reprehensible? My point: it is probably unfair to both traditions to draw such sweeping conclusions.

See Sati practice
“Numbers:There are no reliable figures for the numbers who died by sati across the country. A local indication (1820's) of the numbers is given in the records kept by the Bengal Presidency of the British East India Company…………………….. Given a population of over 50 million at the time for the Presidency, this suggests a maximum frequency of immolation among widows of well under 1%.

Counter-arguments within Hinduism:
No early descriptions or criticisms of the practice within Hinduism, (or in the other native religions of Buddhism or Jainism), are known before the Gupta period, as the practice was little known at that time. Explicit criticisms later in the first millennium, included that of Medhatithi, a commentator on various theological works. He considered it suicide, which was forbidden by the Vedas ‘One shall not die before the span of one's life is run out.’ Another critic was Bana, who wrote during the reign of Harsha. Bana condemned it both as suicide, and as a pointless and futile act. There does not seem to be any thought or suggestion among any of these critics that the act would not be voluntary.

Reform and bhakti movements within Hinduism tended to be anti-caste, favoured egalitarian societies, and in line with the tenor of these beliefs, they generally condemned the practice, sometimes explicitly. The Alvars condemned sati, in the 8th century[.The Virashaiva movement in the 12th and 13th centuries, also condemned it.
In the early 19th century, Ram Mohan Roy wrote and disseminated arguments that the practice was not part of Hinduism, as part of his campaign to ban the practice.”

david said...

See the difference between Judaism and Buddhism:

We are very different!

Orthoprax said...


Fascinating. But this post is about Hinduism...