Hinduism is widely practiced in India. It is one of the most tolerant and accepting religion in the world. There is no compulsion in Hinduism to follow a specific God, rituals or beliefs. Hinduism allows everyone to find their own path to spirituality. Another aspect of Hinduism is that it does not seek to impose a single way of thinking on everybody. In the modern times with religious hatred and extremism on the rise, Hinduism teaches a lesson of acceptance and integration. Let's see what Dr. Shashi Tharoor has to say about this most fascinating religion.
Hinduism is a religion which does not have a single deity, holy book or any fixed set of rules. It allows a wide set of beliefs, rituals and traditions. In fact, it is probably the only religion in the world which does not require you to even believe in the existence of god. What makes it truly different is that it does not claim to be the only true way to God. This is quite unlike Christianity, Judaism and Islam. This allows people of widely different beliefs, faiths, traditions and creeds to live together in peace, harmony and acceptance.
There is no dogma or a single central religious figure like the Pope to follow. In fact, Hinduism does not even have a concept of heresy. This makes it an extremely flexible faith. It allows it to adopt the practices of different belief systems and make them a part of Hinduism. Many Hindus in India even visit the shrines of different religions and pray there with great reverence. This is unimaginable in any other religion.
Hinduism is a religion which allows you to imagine God as you see fit. If you wish to worship a formless God, it is permitted. If you wish to worship lots and lots of Gods with different attributes, that is also permitted. You can worship trees. You can worship rocks. You can see the divine as male or female. God is everywhere. God is in the Sun, Moon and the planets. God is in fire and God is in water. You can even have a God who is half human and half animal.
Dr. Shashi Tharoor’s own favourite God is Ganesha. Ganesha is a God with the body of man and the head of an elephant. He is revered across India as the God of knowledge and the remover of obstacles. He is worshipped before any major undertaking.
The core philosophy of Hinduism states that there is one God and that God is all pervading. He exists everywhere and in all things. However, the individual worshipper is free to imagine God in a form which is convenient and easy for him. Since each individual’s path to the divine is personal, there is no single definition of truth in Hinduism. This is one of the most famous quotes in Hinduism, “That which exists is One; the sages call it by various names.”
This approach is totally opposite to the beliefs of most other religions which claim that theirs is the only way to find God. Hindus are thus described by some scholars as people who worship their God but do not deny the existence of other gods.
Then there is the Hindu way of organizing our lives. There are four stages to a person’s life. In the first stage, he is a student and a bachelor. This time is spent in learning a useful trade and knowledge to lead a good life. Then he becomes a householder. He marries, has a family and enjoys all the pleasures of a family life while earning and taking responsibility for the family.
In the third stage, one retires to a forest and lives in harmony with nature and in the final stage one gives up all attachment to worldly desires and aims to merge his soul with that of the Creator.
Hinduism also states that at every stage of life one also seeks to balance out the various goals of life. These goals are fourfold. The first goal is to follow a moral code - dharma. The second goal is to earn enough so that one is prosperous and can get the material possessions needed. This is called artha. Third goal is to experience the pleasures of life. This is called kama. Finally one needs to strive for the ultimate liberation - moksha.
These goals ensured that all human needs are completely covered. Everybody needs to earn money. Everybody needs to have the basic necessities of life like food, clothing and shelter. Everybody needs and deserves to have pleasures like sex, love, family and other enjoyments in life. Finally everybody also deserves to reach spiritual fulfillment. All of these needs are important and they need to be taken care of. Hinduism does not suppress any of these needs as evil or ungodly. In fact the book “Kama Sutra” is an ancient treatise on sex which is a very detailed manual of sex and treats it as an important part of human life. This is a quite contrast to many later religions which treated money, sex and material possessions as shameful or ungodly.
Caste system is a major part of Hinduism. It is one of the negative aspects of Hinduism. In Hinduism, there are broadly four castes. A caste is basically a social group to which you belong. At the top are the Brahmanas. These are the teachers, priests and scholars. Next are the Kshatriyas. These are the warriors and rulers. Next come the Vaishyas. These are the farmers, merchants and mainly traders. Finally there are the Sudras. Sudras are basically manual labourers, servants and workers.
The problem with this system was that it allowed the oppression of lower castes by the upper castes. The original caste system was a much more broader and inclusive system which tried to reduce discrimination. However the caste based oppression and discrimination worsened after the arrival of the British rule. The British tried to rigidly force fit the entire population into specific castes and this made the system very cruel to the ones in lower castes.
Even after the independence, successive governments have tried to solve this problem but have only had limited success. Caste is a very deep rooted part of the Hindu society and very difficult to get rid of completely. Also, caste is a political issue nowadays with many different politicians supporting specific castes to get votes and build their support bases.
Many educated Indians are slowly getting out of the caste system but it is still a social issue that needs to be solved.
The second aspect of Hinduism is the widespread superstition and the so called gurus who exploit people on the basis of this superstition. The problem here is not with Hinduism as such but with the gullibility of the people. There have been many great teachers who have helped people with spiritual guidance and have also undertaken many great socially useful projects. Many spiritual teachers use the donations that they receive to build free schools, hospitals and universities.
However, there are also many fake gurus who indulge in all kinds of evil practices in the name of religion. Lot of their followers are fanatical in their devotion to their guru and can do many crazy things in the name of their leader. For instance, recently a religious teacher called Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insaan was convicted of rape and imprisoned. This led to mass riots in north India which were led by his devotees. This rioting, property destruction and other violence that followed totally paralyzed the life of the common people in two states and brought the two states to a complete standstill.
Hinduism has produced some really great spiritual leaders, teachers and saints to revive the religion when it was flagging and to provide spiritual guidance to the people. Let’s look at some of them.
Adi Shankara was born in 8th century CE when Hinduism had become highly ritualistic and difficult for the common people to follow. Other great teachers like Mahavira and the Buddha had propagated alternative forms of worship which were becoming really popular and Hinduism was in a decline. Adi Shankaracharya set out to revive Hinduism. He travelled across the country debating with prominent scholars and philosophers and always winning by his wisdom and the power of his arguments. He also gave a philosophy that said that the human soul or spirit and the divine cosmic spirit are really one and the same. To spread this philosophy he travelled the length and breadth of the country and established five great temples. These temples are called mutths and exist even today. He created great hymns to propagate his ideas and to worship God. He also wrote great commentaries on existing holy books of Hinduism.
Swami Vivekananda was a late 19th century Hindu guru and philosopher who truly revolutionized Hinduism and brought it in front of the world stage. He saw the widely varying beliefs and practices of Hinduism as its greatest strength. He said that every single system and practice had its own place in Hinduism. He urged his followers to give up fighting over religion and instead search for God with a true heart.
His greatest achievement came when he represented Hinduism at the Chicago Parliament of World Religions. He presented a holistic view of Hinduism to the world and tried to bridge the gap between different religions. He also gave the theory that all religions are just different ways and means for a human being to reach the divine and we should not be really fighting over it. This brought him immense respect and fame all over the world and brought the Hindu way of thought in front of the world audience.
Hinduism was first invoked as a political force during the Indian freedom struggle by VD Savarkar. He advocated a concept called Hindutva. Hindutva was a hardline concept where VD Savarkar proposed that Hinduism was the true religion of all Indians and that Hindus were the real Indians and inheritors of the country as opposed to Muslims and Christians. This ideology led to the formation of the organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh(RSS) which was an extreme right wing Hindu organization. Savarkar’s successor M S Gowalkar took this concept even further. He advocated that Hindus should be the primary citizens of the country and people who follow other religions should either leave the country or live under the rule of the Hindu majority with reduced rights of citizenship.
Eventually this intolerant version of Hinduism caused one of the most tragic episodes in the history of India. Nathuram Godse, a hardline Hindu fanatic assassinated Mahatma Gandhi because he disagreed with the message of secularism and tolerance advocated by Gandhi.
As a result of this, the RSS was banned as a political organization. It could only exist as a social and cultural body. This led to the rise of Bharatiya Jan Sangh(BJS). BJS was the political successor to the RSS. It was ideologically linked to the RSS and derived its philosophy from the RSS.
In the 1980s the BJS reconstituted itself as the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP). It soon became a principal opposition party in the country. Over time it clashed with the Congress party for power and finally in 2014, The BJP came to power led by the charismatic leader Narendra Modi.
While Modi has always highlighted his Hindu roots, he has also taken pains to ensure that he is seen as a mass leader.
Ultimately, the important aspect is how much would this concept of Hindutva control India’s politics. Whether the Indian Constitution would overcome the extreme aspects of Hindutva or whether Hindutva would overcome the secular aspects of the Indian constitution remains to be seen.
In the recent years, the tolerant and accepting version of Hinduism has been hijacked by extremists who are attempting to impose their own hardline version of Hinduism on the population. This has led to cases of great violence and rioting.
One issue which has become a focal point of violence is cow slaughter. Cows are considered holy in Hinduism and slaughter of cows has been considered a sin in Hinduism for a long time. However, in recent times, this has been used as an excuse to inflict violence against non-Hindus. In the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh recently members of a Muslim family were lynched by a mob which claimed that the Muslims were cooking and eating beef. The mob apparently did this to protect their Hindu way of life and to uphold the Hindu tradition of cow protection.
This has now become a politically charged issue with different political parties taking up differing stances on the issue.
There are many such issues on which hardline Hindus and their opponents are locked in a tussle over superiority. In many instances, Hinduism is just used as an excuse to grab more and more power by the warring factions.
The misuse of the Hindu way of life for political gains is something that Shashi Tharoor strongly condemns. The current ruling party in India, the BJP has strong RSS roots and this is a cause of concern for the Tharoor. However, he also acknowledges that moderate Hinduism itself has the power to incorporate all the religions together and take the nation forward. The version of Hinduism which destroys lives is not the true Hinduism. Real Hinduism is the one which was propagated by such great teachers like Swami Vivekananda who always advocated tolerance and acceptance of others differences. And in today’s environment of mistrust and religious fundamentalism, tolerance and acceptance is something we should all aim for..
Finally, we can say that the ancient Indian religion of Hinduism is one of the most tolerant, accepting and non-violent faiths in the world. It has a rich tradition of absorbing all the beneficial qualities from every faith that it comes into contact with. It allows a person to seek the divine in his own way. There is no rigid set of beliefs and no compulsion to force your religion on anyone else. Today, there may be people who are trying to subvert its essential message. However, Hinduism if taken in the right spirit has the potential to really spread the message of universal acceptance and tolerance in the world.
If you liked this microbook by the author Dr. Shashi Tharoor, you might like some of his other works as well. Please check out our microbook on The Empire of Darkness also by Dr. Tharoor. From self-help to business, from historical accounts to autobiographies, we have a wide range of microbooks that you can read in just 12 minutes!
Shashi Tharoor is a former diplomat and writer who is currently serving as a member of Parliament in India. Runner-up in the 2006 United Nations selection for secretary-general, his articles are available in outlets such as Time and Newsweek magazines, The Washington Post, an... (Read more)
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