What is Hinduism?
This is the first article in a series discussing Hinduism from a comparative religions perspective. Although as Muslims we believe wholeheartedly that there is only One God and Mohammad is His messenger, and that Islam is the religion of those who are submitted to God, these articles are not intended to denigrate other religions or their followers. Our intention is, as the title suggests, to compare religions.
Hinduism is the religion of the majority of people residing in India and Nepal. There are also large numbers of adherents scattered across the globe. Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world with approximately 950 million followers behind Christianity and Islam. It is sometimes thought of as the oldest living religion with elements that stretch back thousands of years, many scholars suggesting that it began more than 4000 years before the Common Era.
Hinduism which derives its name from the Persian name for river, originated in the Indus river valley. It is a collection of practices and beliefs with no single founder, no single scripture and no single set of beliefs. Hinduism is also closely conceptually and historically associated with the other predominantly Indian religions Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism.
Central to Hindu worship is the image, or icon, which is worshipped either at home or in a temple. Worship to them is primarily an individual act rather than a communal one, as it involves making personal offerings to the deity and chanting or repeating the names of favourite gods and goddesses. Water, fruit, flowers and incense are offered and pilgrimage to various stones, rivers, mountains and temples is thought to be seen by the particular deity being worshipped.
Hinduism is frequently described as a polytheistic religion due to the vast array of gods and deities, often based on needs or regions, and worship that almost always focuses on sculptures and images. However there are many who define Hinduism as monotheistic because of the belief in the supreme God – Brahman, whose qualities and forms are represented by the multitude of deities which emanate from him. Brahman is a Sanskrit word which refers to a transcendent power beyond the universe often translated as God whom it is said, can have unlimited forms and expressions
There are also those who view Hinduism as Trinitarian because Brahman is simultaneously visualized as a triad. The triumvirate consists of three gods who are responsible for the creation, upkeep and destruction of the world. They are Brahma,(who should not be confused with Brahman, the supreme god energy), Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma is responsible for the creation, Vishnu is the preserver of the universe, while Shiva’s role is to destroy it in order to re-create.
Hinduism has many scriptures; the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad-Gita are considered the most important. Most Hindus believe the soul, or atman, is eternal, and goes through a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara) determined by one’s positive or negative karma, or the consequences of one’s actions. The goal of religious life is to learn to act so as to finally achieve liberation (moksha) of one’s soul, escaping the rebirth cycle.
It is difficult to answer the question, is Hinduism polytheistic, pantheistic or monotheistic? We arrive at various answers from various sources, all equally correct according to each understanding of Hinduism. Hinduism worships multiple forms of the one God. According to the tenets of Hinduism, God is one as well as many. Hindus believe in monotheistic polytheism, rather than polytheism. Even though Hinduism is mistakenly regarded by many as a religion having many gods namely, polytheism, yet truly speaking Hinduism is a monotheistic religion.
Religion Facts tries to make sense of the differing definitions by saying that, ‘Although “monotheism” literally means belief in the existence of one God, the term has come to denote belief in a God who created and is distinct from the universe. Pantheism is the view that God is essentially identical with the universe and totally immanent in the world: God is the universe and the universe is God. Thus pantheism seems to be the most accurate label for Hinduism. The “with polytheistic elements” qualifier is added because the Supreme Being of Hinduism is most often worshipped in the form of multiple deities. However, it must be noted that this is a generalization that does not describe the beliefs of all Hindus. Some regard the universe as created by and essentially distinct from God, and are therefore “monotheistic” in the traditional sense.’
In just a few short paragraphs we have attempted to sum up thousands of years of traditions that have come about via freedom of belief and practice. There are ten basic human values inherent in Hinduism; however there are several entrenched practices that completely go against the tenants of Islam. These include the caste system and the devaluation of women. As mentioned above, Hinduism involves the belief in reincarnation and this too is unable to be reconciled with the teachings of Islam. Until recently Hinduism was considered the world’s most religiously tolerant faith. However mass conversions to other faiths has resulted in incidents of intolerance.
In part two we will discuss the status of women in Hinduism, the painful legacy left by the caste system, officially outlawed in India in 1949, and two glaring doctrinal differences between Hinduism and Islam, the worship of something other than God and the belief in reincarnation.
Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world. There are approximately 950 million adherents, most of them in India or Nepal. Central to Hindu worship is the image or icon, and central to Hindu belief is the concept of rebirth or reincarnation. These two fundamental convictions in some ways make Hinduism and Islam polar opposites.
Monotheism versus Polytheism
The most fundamental belief in Islam is the concept of One God. He has no sons, daughters, associates or intermediaries. He does not have partners or underlings; therefore, there are no demi gods or minor deities inherent in the concept of God. He is not part of His creation and God is not in everybody and everything. Praying to images, icons, statues, animals or stones is a grave sin. Believing that someone or something other than God alone is able to affect your life or future is a grave sin. Worshipping something or someone along with or instead of God and not sincerely repenting before death is considered to be the only unforgiveable sin in Islam. The belief in more than one god is called polytheism and the pure monotheism of Islam is directly opposed to it.
Polytheism is the worship of many gods, demi gods or deities and in the modern world it is epitomised in the eastern religions, particularly Hinduism. Hindus believe that everything is god or contains the energy of god therefore is worthy of worship, be it icons or symbols or nature itself. The multiple heads or limbs often seen in Hindu iconography represent divine omniscience or omnipotence, and the use of animals represent qualities associated with that particular animal, such as wisdom, agility or power. It is not difficult to see that the idol worship imbedded in all branches of Hinduism is very far away from the beliefs of Islam.
Hundreds of millions of people worldwide believe in reincarnation, or cyclic rebirths based on the transmigration of the human soul from one physical body to another. One of the principle beliefs in Hinduism is that the soul reincarnates again and again until it becomes perfect and reunites with the source – Brahman. The soul enters many bodies, assumes many forms, lives many lives and has many experiences.
Just as a man discards worn out clothes and puts on new clothes, the soul discards worn out bodies and puts on new ones. (2.22 Bhagavad gita.)
Reincarnation is refuted by all the main Monotheistic religions of the world. Reincarnation is against the basic teaching that the soul inhabits one human body, whose life is finite and upon which he or she will be judged, and punished or rewarded accordingly. The religion of Islam unequivocally rejects the concept of reincarnation.
Until, when death approaches any of them, he prays: “O my God! Let me return [to life], so that I might act righteously in whatever I have failed [aforetime]!” Nay, it is indeed but a [meaningless] word that he utters: for behind those [who leave the world] there is a barrier [of death] until the Day when all will be raised from the dead! (Quran 23:99-100)
The words of God, in the Quran are clear. When a person dies, he or she is unable to return to his or her old life. The soul stays in the grave and the person experiences torment or bliss based upon his/her beliefs and deeds until the Day of Judgment. Islam teaches that the purpose of life is to worship God, no matter how short or long the life may be. The soul is part of each unique created individual, it does not move from one body to another and it will never become part of God, who is separate from His creation. The reasons why human beings are not sent to the world over and over again is also explained in the Quran, when God says that if that were to happen they would just do the same things and commit the same sins.
“But if they were returned to the world, they would certainly revert to that which they were forbidden.” (Quran 6:28)
Hinduwebsite explains the process of reincarnation in the following way. ‘Hinduism speaks of the existence of heavens above and hells below. The former are sun filled, inhabited by gods and innumerable divine souls. The latter are dark worlds and populated by all the dark and demonic forces. The individual souls go into these worlds according to their deeds. But they do not stay there permanently till the end of destruction. They go there basically as a consequence of their actions, either to enjoy or to suffer. In either case they learn the lesson and come back to earth to start a new earthly life all over again.’
Islam, on the other hand states categorically that the soul cannot detach from a specially designed body and move on to another body, or upward and downward in a chain of worlds, heavens or hells. For our life on this earth the soul and the body belong together, they cannot be mixed and matched. There is only one soul belonging to one body that will be rewarded or punished on the Day of Judgement, to dwell forever in either Paradise or Hell. This is in stark contrast to Hinduism where heaven and hell are temporary abodes and a soul regains freedom over and over until it reaches self realisation or oneness with the eternal life force.
Hinduism is a group of religious traditions established over a long period of time. There are many different forms of worship, sometimes to personal deities, sometimes in the home, at other times in a temple. Hindus believe that there are many different paths to many different gods but all of them lead to the eternal life force or Brahman. Islam however teaches that there is no true deity but Allah alone. There is nothing like Him, as God says:
There is nothing like unto Allah, and He is all-hearing, all-seeing. (Quran 42:11)
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