February 17, 2019

The Incredible Flexibility of Hinduism

“The word “Hindu” denotes more than a set of theological beliefs. In many languages, French and Persian among them, the word for Indian is Hindu. Originally foreigners used it when referring to the people beyond the Indus River, which is now in Islamic Pakistan. In fact, the word Hindu did not exist in any Indian language until its use by outsiders gave Indians a term for self-definition. Many Hindus, in other words, call themselves by a label that they didn’t invent but adopted cheerfully.

“Hinduism,” then, is the name that foreigners first applied to what they saw as the indigenous religion of India. It embraces an eclectic range of doctrines and practices—from pantheism to agnosticism, from faith in reincarnation to belief in the caste system. Yet none of these constitutes an obligatory credo for a Hindu. We have no compulsory dogmas.

The religion is predicated on the idea that the eternal wisdom of the ages and of divinity cannot be confined to a single sacred book. While others might look to the heavens to find God, the Hindu looks within himself. There is no Hindu pope, no Hindu Vatican, no Hindu catechism, not even a Hindu Sunday. Hinduism does not oblige the adherent to demonstrate his faith by any visible sign. Instead Hinduism offers a smorgasbord of options to the worshiper: of divinities to adore and to pray to, of rituals to observe, of customs and practices to honor, of fasts to keep. Hinduism allows believers to stretch their imaginations to personal notions of the creative Godhead.

The Hindu texts operate from a platform of skepticism, not a springboard of certitude. The 3,500-year-old Rig Veda—in its creation hymn, “Nasadiya Sukta”—wonders about the mysteries of creation. It concludes, “In the highest heaven, only He knows—or perhaps He does not know.” Not even what one might think of as the most basic tenet of any religion, a belief in the existence of God, is a prerequisite: Agnosticism is a key principle of at least one major school of Hindu philosophy.”

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