Hinduism in India

The Meaning of Namaste

Hinduism is not merely a religion in India. It’s a way of life. When one presses one’s hands together into the greeting or salutation of the namaste, one participates not only in an act of respect, but also, as Fuller states in his article, “The Camphor Flame,” a particular Hindu worldview. This worldview is one in which the universe is populated by gods, spirits, demons, and omens, which shape the outcome of an individual’s everyday life.  

It is impossible not to encounter gods in India. They exist tucked between the roots of trees, in small shrines dotting the sidewalks of the road, in parking lots, in slums, inside shops, as stickers on the windshields of cars, as golden idols of commercialization in shops, as the brand names for products on billboards, as the objects of worship in temple palaces. These gods vary in name and form: Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna, Ram, Kali, Hanuman, Ganesh, Sita, Saraswati, Parvati, and on. According to the Vedas, there are some 330 million Hindu gods; but in reality, there are actually many more.  In Hinduism, every individual is a deity. Given India’s population, that makes another 1.2 billion. By performing the namaste, one not only legitimates the Hindu cultural universe, but also the divinity in one’s fellow man. Broken down literally, namaste means “I bow to you.”

In Hinduism, there are two types of pooja, or prayer. One type of worship is the hospitality ritual. When a Hindu worships the gods at home or during festivals, they treat the gods as honored guests, through such actions as the offering of food, drink, flowers, or the burning of incense. When gods are worshipped in the temple, on the other hand, they are treated as kings seated in their palaces–as lords presiding over the universe.

In my time in India, I have had the pleasure of witnessing both. A fellow UVA student, Surabhi, invited us to her home for dinner one night. When we arrived, we were shocked and pleased to find flowers and candles lighting the steps up to their apartment doorway. When we made it to the door, her entire family greeted us—grandpa in his wheelchair included!

Surabhi’s mother applied a dot of vermillion to our foreheads and sprinkled flowers over our hair. Surabhi’s father bowed before us, one by one, in a namaste. Surabhi’s mother later announced, as we sat strewn across the couches, fattened on appetizers, soda, and juice offered to us on silver trays, that in her religion, they greet guests as gods.

Only the first time they visit our home,” Surabhi’s father joked. 

Everyone laughed. But it was true. I have never been treated so well in my life, and, just like the pooja toward the murtis (statues) in the household, they treated us UVA students with the same kindness, generosity, and respect. We were visitors, and we were treated like gods.

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 All Hail the King

The second type of pooja, the worship of the king, we encountered when we visited the temple of Akshardam. The temple was built by the followers of Swami Narayan, a nineteenth century saint of Gujarat who had achieved Moksha (liberation) and dedicated his life toward fighting for social justice.

What was interesting is that in the sanctum of the temple, it was not the gods who occupied the throne, but a swami whose like-image had been constructed with gold. Disciples bowed at his feet and the gods formed a constellation around his head in mini carved caricatures in the ornate, pink, white, and light blue painted ceiling. The divine couples—Shiva and Parvati, Ram and Sita, Krishna and Radha—all occupied a periphery role in the temple. The Hindus crowded the throne room with respect and wonder. But I did not see anyone pray to him. It was only for the periphery gods that I caught young boys and girls slipping rupees into donation boxes, and bowing their heads, with hands folded, against the wood.

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 Akshardam Temple from the distance. Because of threats of terrorism, no cameras were allowed.

So What, Exactly, Is Hinduism Anyway?

Hinduism is a complex religion. Some, like one of our speakers, the head of a philanthropic organization who, for anonymity’s sake we will call Mr. Veda, wouldn’t even call Hinduism a religion. Historically speaking, Hinduism it is a name that derives from the Persian word used to refer to those people who lived East of the Indus River, the Al-Hind. The name ”Hindoo” given by the British, was a general term applied to the people practicing strains of recognizably similar rituals and beliefs. There has been much scholarly research on Hinduism since then. While Hinduism certainly isn’t a monolithic religion like Catholicism, with its set institutions and dogmas, there are, certain beliefs that unite the multiple sects and practices of the ‘Hindu people.’ One was discussed earlier: the divinity of all things.

Monism (the belief that everything is essentially one) finds its roots in the Vedas, an oral tradition orally transmitted by the Aryans through the generations as they migrated from central Russia into the subcontinent. In their philosophy, the universe is a single divine being, and all the gods, humans, plants, trees, and animals of the universe are manifestations of that same being. This being was later articulated, in the Upanishads, as the eternal and unchanging Brahman. It is this view of the universe that Mr. Veda shared with us at our first meeting—his Vedantic ‘way of life.’ In his view, every religion essentially worships the same truth, everyone and everything has a role in the same framework of destiny, everything is merely a play of matter, form, and the divine flux of energy. The true trick to life, he believes, is achieving a sense of harmony within this omnipresent God.

Mr. Veda claimed that his Vedantism is not a religion. And, indeed, much of the Vedas and Upanishads would not be considered religions in a more classically Christian sense either, being as concerned with they are with metaphysical, speculative philosophy. In the Camphor Flame, Fuller refers to the categories of greater and lesser traditions within Hinduism. Greater traditions tend to be upheld by the Brahmins, the educated, priestly caste at the top of the caste ladder. Greater traditions are speculative, in the manner as our host’s philosophy.

Mr. Veda’s views, when juxtaposed with popular Hindu belief, is also particularly fascinating. Your average tailor on the street or rickshawalla probably would not ruminate on the airy metaphysics of the Upanishads or the elitist, sacrificial rituals of the Vedas. They would opt instead to pray to a god with the hopes, like most people who pray, of overcoming a certain obstacle. This opens an interesting paradox. Mr. Veda claims he is not a Hindu, yet understands life from the most canonical of Hindu texts, the Vedas. In Old Delhi, the shopkeepers who sold the small statues of the gods would undoubtedly claim they are Hindu, yet worship Ganesh, the elephant God of good luck, who never appears within the Vedantic texts at all! So how does one explain this contradiction between the greater and lesser traditions? Where did gods like Ganesh come from?

The answer can be found through an exploration of the notion, as Fuller mentions in the Camphor flame, that both society and religion are mutually interactive. The Vedas were an important religious and societal innovation because they articulated a cosmological framework allowing for a considerable degree of flexibility in belief, ritual, and practice while maintaining shared, underlying assumptions about the way the universe worked. The major assumptions of this cosmology, originating in the Vedas and later developed more extensively in such epic works as the Mahabharata, are the concepts of dharma, (what ought to be done, morally and cosmically), samsara (the endless cycle of rebirth), karma (the deeds that determine one’s future rebirth), and moksha (freedom from samsara).

While the practices of Hinduism have taken many paths—ascetics retreating to the forest to realize the self as God; devotional performances of bhakti yoga to popular gods for salvation; tantric rituals of internal ‘God activation’ through irconic meditation, tantric orgies to achieve orgasmic, and prayer in graveyards; the poetry and songs of the Hindu saints; and village anthropomorphization of diseases and their cures into demons and gods—they all operate and reinforce one another within an overarching framework.

When one analyzes Hinduism, it is not so easy to divide all of its practices between the greater traditions of the classical Sanskrit texts and the little traditions of the local villages. The mythologies and philosophies are in a never-ending process of collision, synthesis, and change. And often times it is the little village gods, created from the villagers’ families or experiences—the gods of the periphery—who exert pressure on the more central, mainstream, canonical gods by inserting themselves as deities deserving of devotion.

Observations of Hinduism as Culture 

During our stay in India, we witnessed a variety of forms of Hindu worship, many of which I suspect are fairly recent innovations. Surabhi’s grandfather, stuttering in his wheel chair, handed out one thousand rupee notes to each of us, and invoked the blessings of his guru. Mr. Veda, at the banquet dinner at his house, directed several students and I to the small shrine of his Guru, who he sincerely believed was a reincarnation of God. At Akshardam, we witnessed the creation of a golden god out of a Gujarati swami, and in a roadside shrine, Hinduism even assimilated the godhead of Christianity—a Jesus strung with garlands occupied the same position one might find a Krishna. Toward the end of our trip, when Martha threw up in a South Asian restaraunt, it was not because of the strange food or bacteria in her stomach, but, according to the waiter, because she had eaten too much “cold”, food—a principle Fuller uses to describe the nonattached and creative powers of the divine.

 

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Shrine in a local neighborhood of Jesus

 

This sort of religious flexibility is markedly different than the Judeo-Christian tradition, with its clearly demarcated boundaries, which has influenced society in the West. In Christianity, there is a clear dichotomy of good and evil. You either go to heaven or hell, and there is no in between. There is God and the Devil, and all other worship is blasphemy. There is the Church and the State, and to mesh the two is to descend into theocracy. In Hindu society, the framework is established much more subtly. There is creation, as represented by Brahma and the female power, Shakti; there is order, as represented by Vishnu, the king; and there is chaos and destruction, as represented by the wild haired ascetic, Shiva—the three fundamental principles of the universe, not good and evil, but creation, order, and destruction.

One must wonder how such a religious culture—where gods are perpetually created, remolded, replaced and destroyed—has shaped the dynamic between secular and religious life.  In the airport, “prayer rooms” accompany bathrooms. During the rural development conference with the Institute of Rural Research and Development (IRRAD), a swami’s teachings on spiritual science shared the podium with solar innovation and LED lights. Religion meshes with politics, where some of the lower castes pursue a process of Sanskritization (the imitation of the lifestyle and vegetarian eating habits of Brahmins) to acquire social mobility while other lower-caste groups mobilize around the political platform that Hinduism, and the four-fold caste system that accompanies it, is essentially wrong. 

During our talk with Mr. Veda, he said something that I found particularly insightful when comparing the cultures of American and Indian society “In America,” he said, “you believe that you can control everything. That you can control fate. In India, you are forced to come to terms with the fact that often times you are powerless. All you can do is change your own perception.”

In America, we are worshipers of Vishnu. We worship order, administration, and law. We categorize, schedule, and attempt to control all of the variables within our individual routines. Good and evil. Right and wrong. A cultural universe of binaries. The inner compulsion to subjugate whatever deviates from our sense of propriety. In India, there is much more appreciation for Shiva, a god of fertility, destruction, chaos, and those things that one cannot control. In India, it is this chaos, I feel, which enjoys a much larger degree of respect in its ability to transform and upset society and the universe–and an acceptance that is perhaps resented, when social activists strive to improve their home country. 

Citations: 

“The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India [Paperback].” The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India: C. J. Fuller: 9780691120485: Amazon.com: Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Aug. 2013.

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