When Christians, Muslims or Jews first encounter Hinduism they are likely to be struck by the profusion of gods and goddesses vividly represented in paintings, sculpture and other art forms. Colorful, often sensuous, sometimes humorous. After a visit to India, Mark Twain wrote: "India has two million gods, and worships them all. In religion all other countries are paupers; India is the only millionaire."
As Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th century mystic, explained, there can be as many spiritual paths as there are spiritual aspirants and similarly there can be as many gods as there are moods, feelings and emotions within the individual believer.
Pictured at right are three of the principal deities of Hinduism: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, sometimes referred to as the Hindu Trinity. Brahma is thought of as the creator, Vishnu as the sustainer of life, and Shiva is associated with dissolution and death.
Yet first impressions can sometimes be mistaken, for many Hindus regard their gods and goddesses as manifestations of the Supreme God, Brahman. In the Vedantic schools of Hinduism, Brahman is the name given to the concept of the unchanging, infinite, immanent and transcendent reality that is the Divine Ground of all Being. This Supreme Cosmic Spirit is regarded to be eternal, genderless, omnipotent, and omniscient. It can be described as infinite Truth, infinite Consciousness and infinite Bliss. There is a remarkable similarity between this set of attributes and those ascribed by Christians, Muslims and Jews to the one God of classical monotheism.
The differences between Hinduism and the western, monotheistic religions are more subtle. Historian Arnold Toynbee once wrote:
There may or may not be only one single absolute truth and only one single ultimate way of salvation. We do not know. But we do know that there are more approaches to truth than one, and more means of salvation than one. ... This is a hard saying for adherents of ... Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but it is a truism for Hindus. The spirit of mutual good-will, esteem, and veritable love ... is the traditional spirit of the religions of the Indian family. This is one of India’s gifts to the world.
Joseph Campbell put it this way:
The first principle of Indian thought, therefore, is that the ultimate reality is beyond description. It is something that can be experienced only by bringing the mind to a stop; and once experienced, it cannot be described to anyone in terms of the forms of this world. The truth, the ultimate truth, that is to say, is transcendent. It goes past, transcends, all speech, all images, anything that can possibly be said. But, as we have just seen, it is not only transcendent, it is also immanent, within all things. Everything in the world, therefore, is to be regarded as its manifestation. There is an important difference here between the Indian and the Western ideas. ...
There is another important difference between the Hindu and the Western ideas. In the Biblical tradition, God creates man, but man cannot say that he is divine in the same sense that the Creator is, whereas in Hinduism, all things are incarnations of that power. We are the sparks from a single fire. And we are all fire. Hinduism believes in the omnipresence of the Supreme God in every individual. There is no "fall." Man is not cut off from the divine. He requires only to bring the spontaneous activity of his mind to a state of stillness and he will experience that divine principle within him.
Further, in recent times western religions have been deeply influenced by the traditions of the east such that the differences Campbell mentions are no longer as pronounced. Within Christianity there is a renewed appreciation for the immanence of God and a recovery of the mystical sense of God's presence within the world of time and space. Further, the meditative practices derived from eastern traditions have been adapted by many Christians, bringing the spiritualities of the east and west much closer together.
Top 10 Largest National Hindu Populations
Source: Ash, Russell. The Top 10 of Everything, DK Publishing, Inc.: New York (1997), pg. 160-161; Adherents.com. This list of countries is taken directly from the Ash book, except for Indonesia, whose large population of Balinese Hindus were inadvertently left off of Ash's list.
In summary, consider the following from well respected reference works:
A diverse body of religion, philosophy, and cultural practice native to and predominant in India, characterized by a belief in reincarnation and a supreme being of many forms and natures, by the view that opposing theories are aspects of one eternal truth, and by a desire for liberation from earthly evils.
Hinduism is the Western term for the religious beliefs and practices of the vast majority of the people of India. One of the oldest living religions in the world, Hinduism is unique among the world religions in that it had no single founder but grew over a period of 4,000 years in syncretism with the religious and cultural movements of the Indian subcontinent. Hinduism is composed of innumerable sects and has no well-defined ecclesiastical organization. Its two most general features are the caste system and acceptance of the Veda as the most sacred scriptures.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.