[Esther Feltus has background for a presentation of Hinduism. As a missionary she carries a great burden for the salvation of the Hindus. In most recent times many Christians have become deeply concerned to learn how this group may be won, and Adventists share in this interest.
This was a project in one of our Seminary classes.--L. C. K.]
Hinduism is the religion of three million people. The followers of Hinduism believe that it is the oldest religion in the world, that it originated four thousand years ago, and that it is the source of all other religions.
The word Brahman is used to refer to the eternal spirit. Brahman, the world-soul, is considered to be the only unquestionable fact in the universe. To achieve union with Brahman is the object of Hinduism. The individual human soul is called At-man.
The Hindus believe that the soul is Spirit. Weapons cannot cut it; fire cannot burn it; water cannot wet it; wind cannot dry it. It is birthless and deathless. The body is only its dwelling-place. It is not really affected by the changes of the body. It is not affected by the pleasure and pain, hunger and thirst, disease and decay, of the body. In its essence it is free, unbounded, pure, perfect. There is no such thing as sin, which can destroy the divine quality of the soul. What we call sins are only the mistakes which we make in life owing to our ignorance of the truth. These so-called sins may either contract the soul's divine nature or create barriers around it, but destroy the soul they can never. As sin cannot destroy the soul, so neither can virtue add- anything to its glory. Virtue only removes the barriers and helps to manifest the self-existent divinity of the soul. The soul is beyond time and space, and therefore infinite. Being infinite, it is one. The many souls in the world are but reflections of the one soul. Each individual soul is a reflection. The goal of man's evolution is to re-unite the reflection with the universal soul.'
Non-Hindus regard Hinduism as a mixture of fables and superstitions; but the Hindu people claim that their religion has two aspects—devotional and philosophical. Even though there are 330,000 Hindu gods, the concept of monism is pronounced in Hindu thinking.
To them all is Brahman, including our own selves. Only through ignorance and deception do we see life as multiplicity instead of oneness, and our salvation consists in dispelling the illusion of "I" and "thou" and realizing that we and all the world are part of the divine One. When we have achieved God-realization or Self-realization, as the Hindus often call it, we flow back into Brahman, losing our egos and individualities even as rivers lose their names and forms when they flow into the ocean. . . . To the Hindu to merge with Brahman means only the giving up of a finite limited personality for an infinite one. It is pure bliss.2
Brahman, the creator, takes the form of the god Brahma; Brahman, the sustainer, takes the form of the god Vishnu; and Brahman, the destroyer, takes the form of the god Shiva. Brahma is the least popular of the three. When the power of life within Brahman creates a universe the result is called maya.
Maya is a projection of the Real though it is not the Real. In Hindu cosmology a universe projected from Brahman exists only for a cycle, approximately 4,320,000,000 human years, and then it is destroyed either by fire or water and maya returns once again into the heart of Brahman. This process is repeated over and over again.2
Krishna is an incarnation with a very striking history. How much of it is legendary and how much sober fact, if he ever lived at all, it is exceedingly difficult to say. He is, like Rama, a great hero, "an exterminator of monsters, a victorious warrior," but unfortunately his record is not admirable. As given in the Puranas he is said to have had sixteen thousand wives and a hundred and eighty thousand children, many of his days being spent in an impure round of gambols with the shepherd maidens. Spiritualize these accounts as far as one may, the dangerous journey through such mire to reach the heights beyond is sure to leave its stain deep on the soul of even the purest-minded reader. It is a sad plight in which popular Hinduism finds itself with its most exalted incarnation.4
Cults in North and South India
The majority of the Vaishnavas are in the northern part of India. They no longer sacrifice animals in connection with their worship, but use grain, fruit, flowers, and milk instead.
The Shaivites, who worship Shiva, the destroyer, are found in South India. Shiva is often worshiped in the person of his wives. One of these is Kali, who is considered to be the most wicked and cruel of all Hindu goddesses. The Kali Temple in Calcutta is one of the most famous in India. Recently a Hindu priest invited a Seventh-day Adventist evangelist to speak at this temple. The evangelist quickly accepted the invitation. Upon arriving at the Kali Temple he found five thousand Hindus waiting to hear the story of Jesus.
When we are told by Monier-Williams that ninety per cent of all the people of India are demon-worshipers, we ask how that can be when the people have been roughly divided between the two great sects. The fact is, the lines are loosely drawn and are stepped over with ease. Millions who may at times worship at the shrines of Krishna or Siva are also devotees of lesser gods and village divinities, who are little better than malignant demons. They see no incongruity in so doing. They are in want and are fearful as they look into the future—why should they not have access to any and all gods who may possibly avert the dangers which beset them? 6
Because Hindus believe that God is in everything, they reverence everything in nature. The cow is held in special esteem. Most orthodox Hindus are vegetarians and would no sooner eat beef than a Christian would eat the flesh of a human being. Foreigners who visit India are amazed at the number of cows making their way along the streets and sidewalks. Great respect is shown to them. Regardless of the throngs, there is always room for the cows. Provision is made for old cows in hostels that have been endowed by the wealthy. Hindus are warned, "All that kill . . . cows rot in hell for as many years as there are hairs on the body of the [slain] cow."
Monkeys are also regarded as sacred. This accounts for the fact that certain sections of India are overrun with monkeys. These animals not only cause great inconvenience but are destructive as well. However, no orthodox Hindu would think of exterminating them, for they are held in great esteem. Temples have been erected in their honor, and the monkey god, Hanuman, is very popular. Poisonous snakes are also reverenced, and their presence in the community is encouraged.
The Caste System
Hindu society is divided into castes. At the top of the caste system are the Brahmins, or priestly caste. The warrior caste, the merchant caste, and the laborer caste follow in descending order. The untouchables, who are referred to as the outcaste group, are so low they are not even considered a part of the caste system. These four castes have been subdivided until there are now more than three thousand sub-castes. The Brahmins, or priestly caste, consider their standing to be next to the gods. But the outcastes are so low that even their touch is believed to be defiling to those of the higher castes. If a Brahmin finds himself within sixty-four feet of an outcaste, he feels that he is polluted, for the breath that the outcaste has exhaled has contaminated the air.
For many years the caste groups were separated by regulations concerning marriage, food, occupation, and residence. Today the restrictions on residence and occupation are being lifted. Up until a few years ago the rules regarding occupation were very rigid. A person did only the type of work his father had done.
There is the story of the weaver who was starving because imported machine-made goods were selling so much cheaper than he could make the handmade goods. There was no means of livelihood at hand for him. When it was suggested that he try some other occupation he was filled with horror. He could not—to do so would be to break caste. So what was left for him—nothing but to starve to death. "It is the custom of our people" is the final word.7
Up until recently a Hindu would not eat with anyone below his own caste; neither would he eat food that had been handled or prepared by one below his caste. Even though he were dying of thirst and were within a few feet of a well of pure water, he would not touch it if it belonged to someone below his caste. Today the better educated Hindus are disregarding the rules of interdining.
It is at the point of marriage that caste retains its deathlike grip upon the social life of India. Hindu parents are between two fires. It is a disgrace to have daughters who remain unmarried after their early teens, and yet husbands must be found within their own caste or subcaste. This rule is absolute and unbending. A Hindu may be lax in respect of food and eating with other caste men, but at this point he is like adamant. He simply will not marry his children to outsiders and thus "break caste." This is the unforgivable sin in Hinduism. The problem that is suggested by this dilemma has led to customs which have been of untold injury to Indian life. Child marriage is an almost inevitable outcome of the necessity of finding desirable husbands and wives for all the boys and girls in the community. Thousands of marriages are consummated before children reach their teens, with physical and moral results which can only be deplorable. This custom, in a land of high mortality, has produced thousands of little widows and widowers. The boy may marry again, and usually does so, but the poor girl—her story is the saddest of all the suffering little women in the world. She is held responsible for the death of her husband, and as a criminal her hair is shaved off and her dearly loved ornaments are taken away and she is dressed in a coarse garment and becomes the drudge of the family. She may not remarry, but remains until the end of her life a poor miserable soul—unless, of course, she be the mother of sons. This lifts her to a position of honor from which she cannot be completely displaced. The most commendable thing for the widow to do until comparatively recent times was to mount the funeral pile and be burned to death with the body of her husband; and, willingly or unwillingly, this horrible custom, called sati, or suttee, was carried out many thousands of times before the British government put a stop to it in 1829.8
Even though it is now illegal for a widow to be burned to death with her dead husband, all too frequently the Indian newspapers carry accounts of the interruption of a suttee by the police.
Some have questioned, "Have the new laws of the present constitution concerning caste distinction and untouchability eliminated these practices?" One authority replies, "No. Not any more than the Supreme Court's decision has actually removed segregation from our southern states." "
Caste—A Most Tyrannical Concept
Some students of anthropology consider caste, which is the most prominent institution of Hinduism, to be the most tyrannical social order that has ever been imposed upon human beings.
It is fundamentally divisive and stands as a strong bar against the unity which the forward looking Hindu knows must be achieved before India can become a strong nation ready and worthy to take its place among the nations of the world. Even deeper than this, however, caste kills all sense of brotherhood. To a Hindu his "brother" is a member of his caste and no one else. He is taught to despise and look down upon the lower castes as inferior, by contact with whom he must not soil his hands. And when we come to the fifty millions of out-castes, or "untouchables," we reach a depth of human misery and degradation almost unbelievable. Their touch is polluting and their very shadow falling on the food prepared for a high-caste man renders it unfit for use. Centuries of such disdain and abuse have created a race of cringing creatures who, scorned by their own proud superiors, have lost all the self-respect they might have developed and are to-day among the most pitiable people in the world. They constitute one of the greatest challenges to social and religious service to be found anywhere. And yet despite their name, out-castes, they are a part of a religio-social system which is responsible for their present condition. 11
The Law of Karma
The inequalities of caste are the result of man's actions as dealt with through the process of reincarnation. The caste into which one is born in this life—whether it be a higher caste or a lower caste, or a nonhuman form—is dependent upon the way he has lived in a past life. And the caste into which one will be reborn in a future life depends upon his behavior in this life. The law of Karma determines the operation of transmigration.
Karma means "action" or "deed," but it refers to such actions or deeds in one life as work out their results in the next life and the next and so on until their force has been entirely spent. According to our Karma, we are born into a new life well or strong, good or bad, rich or poor. It is a kind of retribution working itself out automatically and inevitably in existence after existence. There is absolutely no escape from the clutches of this inexorable law. All we can hope for is not to add to our Karma, so that when what we have inherited is finally exhausted there will be no more fuel to keep the fire burning. The fuel consists of deeds—any deeds, good or bad—which stimulate life. To live then—just to live, whether nobly or dishonorably, it makes little difference—is an evil with a most unfortunate entail for the future. If we might only cease from doing deeds, from any activity, and simply exist with no attachments to life, we would be on the way to emancipation. But it is exceedingly difficult and cannot even be begun without devoting one's whole mind to that end. The ascetic who gives himself to various kinds of cruel austerities and would thereby cut the cords of desire which bind him fast to life and its joys and sorrows, is on the highway of salvation and at some time, it may be millenniums ahead, will have exhausted his Karma and be thus set free from the necessity of further transmigrations12
Asceticism is practiced by thousands of Hindus. So strong is its influence that children and young people sometimes leave their homes to become sadhus, or holy men. The ascetic discipline and the athletic discipline that are imposed upon one who is striving for purification of heart in order that his soul may be united with the Universal Soul, is called yoga, which means "union." One who places himself under such discipline is called a yogi. Many of India's great men have been ascetics, but not all have become holy men. Because the national hero, Ghandi, was so absorbed with the affairs of government, he is not considered a holy man by the orthodox Hindus. Only a yogi who is free from himself, his family, his caste, his country, and all sense perceptions can ever become one with God, they believe.
According to Hindu scholars, "the outstanding contribution of Hinduism to the philosophical wisdom of the world is the doctrine that the soul is immortal and unchangeable regardless of the changes that take place in the body and the mind; that it is one, in spite of the apparent multiplicity seen in the universe; and that it is incorruptible and divine, notwithstanding the sins or errors to which a man seems to fall a victim." "
Hinduism, as it has been developed during the last thousand or twelve hundred years, resembles a stupendous far-extended building, or series of buildings, which is still receiving additions, while portions have crumbled and are crumbling into ruin. Every conceivable style of architecture, from that of the stately palace to the meanest hut, is comprehended in it. On a portion of the structure here or there the eye may rest with pleasure; but as a whole it is an unsightly, almost monstrous, pile. Or, dismissing figures, we must describe it as the most extraordinary creation which the world has seen. A jumble of all things; polytheistic pantheism; much of Buddhism; something apparently of Christianity, but terribly disfigured; a science wholly outrageous; shreds of history twisted into wild mythology; the bold poetry of the older books understood as literal prose; any local deity, any demon of the aborigines, however hideous, identified with some accredited Hindu divinity; any custom, however repugnant to common sense or common decency, accepted and explained—in a word, later Hinduism has been omnivorous; it has partly absorbed and assimilated every system of belief, every form of worship, with which it has come in contact. Only to one or two things has it remained inflexibly true. It has steadily upheld the proudest pretensions of the Brahman; and it has never relaxed the sternest restrictions of caste. We cannot wonder at the severe judgment pronounced on Hinduism by nearly every Western author. According to Macaulay, "all is hideous and grotesque and ignoble;" and the calmer De Tocqueville maintains that "Hinduism is perhaps the only system of belief that is worse than having no religion at all." 14
In working for Hindus the gospel worker may safely start with the story of Jesus. They are interested in Christianity's great Teacher and agree with the principles set forth in the Sermon on the Mount. They are greatly impressed with practical godliness, and our message of healthful living is received enthusiastically. Genuine Christian courtesy and a kind, friendly attitude will go a long way toward establishing confidence in Christianity.
Adventism must have a message for the Hindus. The gospel is still the "power of God unto salvation," and after the proper contact has been made Bible doctrines will make an appeal. The following suggestions are important in our efforts to reach this people:
- Become sympathetically intelligent regarding Hinduism.
- Love conquers all obstacles. Learn to love the Hindus.
- Begin your teaching in a practical, simple, yet understandable way.
- Remember always that you are to reach the individual, not just the group. People of any faith differ one from another. There is an avenue to every heart, and the gospel worker, led by the Holy Spirit, may find it.
- Strange as the customs of the Hindus may appear to the Christian, there is a reason for them. Have you something better to present? The Hindu in his quest for truth will want it. Can you present Christ as the only way of truth—that is the big question!
- Christianity is the true solution to breaking down the caste system. God created all men equal. The Bible teacher must present the complete blissfulness and equality of the kingdom of God.
1 Swami Nikhilananda, Essence of Hinduism, The Beacon Press, Boston, 1948, pp. 8, 9.
2 "The World's Great Religions—Part I—Hinduism," Life, Time Inc., Chicago, III., Feb. 7, 1955, p. 63.
4 Edmund Davison Soper, The Religions of Mankind, The Abingdon Press, New York, 1921, pp. 171, 172.
5 Ibid., p. 174.
6 Life, op. cit., p. 71.
7 lone Lowman, Non-Christian Religions, Van Kampen Press Wheaton, Ill., p. 49.
8 doper, op cit., pp. 165, 166.
9 Everett T. Cattell, "A Christian Look—Hinduism," Moody Monthly, August, 1933, p. 19.
10 Ibid., p. 19.
11 Soper, op. cit., pp. 168, 169.
12 Ibid., pp. 159, 160.
13 Nikhilananda, op. cit., pp. 77, 78.
14 J . Murray Mitchell, and Sir William Muir, Two Old Faiths, Chautauqua Press, New York, 1891, pp. 43, 44.