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Who is a Hindu--What is Hinduism?

Bodhinatha provides answers to the questions: "Who is a Hindu" and "What is Hinduism." He describes the scriptures of Hinduism and the four major denominations of Hinduism and explains that Hinduism is "God-centric" and that Hinduism is man's innermost truth. Bodhinatha gives insights from Gurudeva on these topics and clears up the misunderstandings which flow from many temples in North America where several Deities may be found within a single temple.

Unedited Transcript:

As you know we've been traveling a lot in July and August and lots of lectures, classes, seminars, presentations. Various places here and eastern and western Canada and most recently in New Brunswick, New Jersey for the Dharma Summit 2005 gathering of representatives from Hindus, Hindu temples and institutions throughout North America. So I gave lots of presentations, had lots of questions and answers and discussions and was surprised to get some basic questions.

Sometimes you feel like you're over shooting, as though you're talking about a topic that's not really where the interest is. So, the basic questions that came up were expressed in the form of "Who is a Hindu?" and "What is Hinduism?" Kind of an important area, so cause there's some confusion about it for some reason in the minds of people. You know "Who is a Hindu" and "What is Hinduism?" Isn't this clear as you think it would be. So I assembled my answers into this talk and the answers. It's a three fold answer, it's in three parts and one of the reasons is the concerns and interests of different people who asked the question were different. So I kind of addressed their particular side of it and it turned out to be three different aspects. So, here goes.

The first part of the answer as to "Who is a Hindu?" and "What is Hinduism?" is that Hinduism is the Sanatana Dharma, or eternal religion. Hinduism does not have a founder. In fact, it has neither a beginning nor an end and is coexistent with man himself. It is not one man's teachings or interpretation and is not limited to a single facet of religion, but it consists of the entire prism. It is a God-centric religion. The center of it is God. All of the other religions are prophet-centric. Here is a quote from Gurudeva on this concept: "The search for Truth, for God, is called the Sanatana Dharma, or the Eternal Path because it is inherent in the soul itself, where religion begins. This path, this return to his Source, is ever existent in man, and it is at work whether he is aware of the processes or not. There is not this man's search and that man's search. And where does the impetus come from? It comes from the inside of man himself. Thus, Hinduism is ever vibrant and alive for it depends on this original source of inspiration, this first impulse of the spirit within, giving it an energy and a vibrancy that is renewable eternally in the now."

The idea that Hinduism resides within each of us, in our soul, was highlighted In Hinduism Today about ten years ago when the Christian evangelist, Pat Robertson-- as part of his goal of making the United States a Christian nation--made a bold public statement that Hindus should not be allowed to immigrate to the United States. (Imagine that.) The late and distinguished spokesman for Hinduism, Ram Swarup of New Delhi, gave an insightful reply which we printed in Hinduism Today. In one portion, Ram Swarup stated: "Robertson wants to keep out Hindus from America. But would he be able to keep out Hinduism from the seeking humanity? Hinduism resides in all seeking hearts and whenever man's seeking for Gods becomes spiritual, Hinduism, or the tradition of Sanatana Dharma, automatically comes in. In what way and how long could man's innermost truth be kept away from him?"

As expressed in both of these statements, the Hindu concept of life is that each soul is moving ever closer to God over a period of many lives. And when the soul reaches sufficient spiritual maturity, it naturally awakens a conscious desire to know God, to experience Truth. This spiritual longing then leads the soul to take up the practices and study, to take up the practices and study the philosophy of the Sanatana Dharma in order to complete the processing of knowing itself. Thus it is quite clear that you cannot keep Hinduism out of a country when it already resides within the soul of every person in that country waiting to be expressed at some point in the future. We can compare the inherent search for Truth that exists within the soul to a dormant seed hidden in the soil waiting for the right environmental conditions to sprout.

The second part of the answer to the question as to "Who is a Hindu?" and "What is Hinduism?" is that Hinduism is the Vaidika Dharma, or religion of the Vedas. In other words, Hinduism encompasses all religious traditions that accept the Vedas as scriptural authority. Religious traditions in India that did not accept the Vedas are Indian but not Hindu. Among these were Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism, which rejected the Vedas and thus emerged as completely distinct religions, disassociated from Hinduism, while still sharing many philosophical insights and cultural values with their parent faith.

The Vedas are revealed scripture and called shruti, "that which is heard." A second category of revealed scripture are the Agamas. Each of the three denominations--Saivism, Vaishnavism, and Shaktism--has its unique Agama texts. The Vedas and Agamas are of supreme theological authority and spiritual value. They are timeless teachings transmitted to rishis, or seers, directly by God thousand of years ago. For countless centuries shruti has been the basis of philosophical discussion, study and commentary, and this attention has given rise to countless schools of thought. It is also the subject of deep study and meditation, to realize the wisdom of the ancients within oneself. Most mantras are drawn from shruti, used for rites of worship, both public and domestic, as well as personal prayer and japa. Though sometimes the Bhagavad Gita is put forward as Hinduism's core scripture, "its Bible", this, of course, is not the case as it is not part of the scriptures for those of the Saiva and Sakta denominations. The Vedas are the only scriptures that Hindus hold in common.

It is important to mention that while the Vedas and Agamas are shared as part of every Hindu's primary scripture, shruti, each sect and lineage defines its own unique set of smriti or secondary scripture. The sacred literature, punya shastra, from which smriti is drawn consists of writings, both ancient and modern, in many languages. Especially central are the ancient Sanskritic texts, such as the Itihasas, Puranas and Dharma Shastras, which are widely termed the classical smriti. It is also important to mention that scripture in Hinduism, however, does not have the same place as it does in many other faiths. Hinduism is premised on realization. To be enlightened, one must have personal experience of the Truths set out in the Vedas and Agamas.

Another point regarding Vaidika Dharma is that sometimes the words Hindus and Indians are used in ways that make them synonymous terms. Of course, they are not. All Hindus are not Indians, and all Indians are not Hindus. The concept that the term Hindus only refers to those whose religion accepts the authority of the Vedas helps keep this confusion of terms from arising.

The third part of the answer as to "Who is a Hindu?" and "What is Hinduism?" is that Hinduism is a religion comprised of four primary denominations or sectarian traditions, known in Sanskrit as mata. In other words, Hinduism is not just a one faith but a family of myriad faiths whose major denominations are Saivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism and Smartism. These four denominations hold such divergent beliefs that each is a complete and independent religion. Yet, they share a vast heritage of culture and belief--karma, dharma, reincarnation, all-pervasive Divinity, temple worship, sacraments, manifold Deities, the guru-shishya tradition and a reliance on the Vedas as scriptural authority.

This aspect of Hinduism is particularly important to having a clear understanding of the Hindu temple. I have met many Hindus, particularly in North America, who find the multiplicity of Deities present in the temple to be a source of confusion. This is even more the case for those temples that have Deities from the three traditions of Saivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism all in the same temple hall.

Including the denominations of sectarian temple worship as one of three answers to the question "Who is a Hindu?" also helps distinguish a non-Hindu who is studying Hindu philosophy or practicing yoga from a Hindu. The importance of this distinction may not be apparent. Hinduism, as is the case of other religions, has a hierarchy of beings in the inner worlds or planes who work with those in the physical world who are Hindus by birth or conversion. This working together of the inner and outer worlds happens most fully in the temple. It is in the sacred precinct of the temple that the Deity and the multitude of devas who assist Him are able to bless, uplift and purify devotees. Vedantins and yogis who are not Hindus do not receive the same blessings from the Deity as they have not given the Deity permission to work with them in this way. Permission is given when one formally joins the Hindu religion. It is also important to mention that Hindus new to the religion through birth or conversion do not simply join Hinduism rather they join one of Hinduism's denominations. They traditionally receive a name from that specific denomination as part of being given the namakarana samskara, name-giving sacrament.

Here are some insights from Gurudeva on the idea of blessings being received from the Deity: "The Gods can be and are seen by mature souls through an inner perception they have awakened. This psychic awakening is the first initiation into religion. Every Hindu devotee can sense the Gods, even if he cannot yet inwardly see them. This is possible through the subtle feeling nature. He can feel the presence of the Gods within the temple, and he can indirectly see their influence in his life."

In summary, we hope the three parts of our answer when taken together help bring clarity to our Hinduism Today readers on the two questions of "Who is a Hindu?" and "What is Hinduism?"

And it goes on to suggest readers can write in and share their thoughts too, that it's only a beginning answer, three part answer and there are other parts that could be added to these important questions "What is Hinduism?" and "Who is a Hindu?"

A related point that I couldn't fit in the article that happened at the same time was, a number of Hindus mentioned that they find the number of Deities in the temples to be kind of confusing and overwhelming. You know there are so many Gods, why are there so many Gods, why are there so many Deities in the temple? And so they don't have a understanding of what to do so they're worshiping all of the Deities equally. So, but you know if there's fifteen Deities in the temple it can be kind of confusing. And so what I suggested was well choose one. I didn't go into the four denominations, that's part of the process of course but choose one of the Deities to get close to, to make a friend out of, and show respect to the others. So that was the solutions because obviously you really can't get close to fifteen Deities all at the same time, it's just, the mind can't do that but it can show respect in a simple way to all of the Deities in the temple yet focus on becoming close to one Deity. So of course in our tradition, the Saivite tradition, Gurudeva suggested that everyone starts with Lord Ganesha. That that's the Deity to get to know first. Why is that? Well it's the easiest Deity in our tradition to get to know, He's kind of closer shall we say. And He's concerned with helping us in the more mundane or secular aspects of our life.

And this even became apparent in Thailand of all places. So in Thailand has a few Ganesha temples and of course Thailand is comprised mainly of Buddhists. But lots of Buddhists go to the Ganesha temple to worship Ganesha. So we did an article on this and so our reporter Rajiv Malik asked them, well you know you're buddhists, you're not supposed to be worshiping gods, Hindu Deities; why are you worshiping Ganesha? And they said well, Buddha's fine and all but for spiritual matters, but when it comes to helping in our everyday life, praying to Ganesha works better. So somehow Ganesha influences our everyday life more than Buddha does in their mind so that's the same principle we carry forward in Gurudeva's writings is that Ganesha helps us in our everyday concerns. Getting a good job, doing well in school, things like that. Very practical. Helping us find our right dharma, our right place in life.

So, for all of those reasons it's logical to start with Ganesha and get close to Him first, and we call that process you know, making Ganesha a friend. In fact we used that in our recent insight section "My Friend Lord Ganesha." That's what it called right? We used that title. "My Friend Lord Ganesha" for our Ganesha insight section in the issue that hasn't been mailed yet. It's been printed but you haven't received it. And it's a simple way of conveying the goal. We all know what a friend is. A friend is someone we share our life with, we enjoy being with, we feel close to. So if we can have that kind of relationship with Lord Ganesha, obviously we're very close. So that's the goal is to become close to a Deity and have them feel like a friend to you.

Thank you very much. Have a wonderful week.

Aum Namah Sivaya

[End of talk]

Photo of  Gurudeva
Through pranayama, through mantra, through tantra, wielding an indomitable will, the last forces of form, time and space subside, as the yogi, deep in nirvikalpa samadhi, merges into Parasiva.