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Kavitha Dispatch

Following the Flower of Hinduism:
Part I - The Mysteries
June 17, 2000

Hinduism Alive and Well

Remember learning about the ancient religions of old civilizations like the Egyptians? Well, when you visit an ancient temple or pyramid in Egypt, it's an archeological site, dug up and appreciated for its history. In India, on the other hand, the ancient temples of thousands of years ago are still houses of worship. Whereas in Egypt the sun God Ra has long since been replaced by Islam and Christianity, Hinduism continues to thrive and lead the way of life for millions upon millions people here in India and Nepal.

Hinduism is the major religion of India and Nepal, in fact it's the major religion of Asia as a whole, and yet this religion remains a mystery to most people in the West. A religion of blue idols, sacred cows and elephant-headed gods...well, Hinduism is this and so much more.

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Ganesh is one of the sacred symbols of Hinduism
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Hinduism is one of the oldest religions in the world, some of its ancient texts are over 3000 years old! During these thousands of years Hinduism has evolved into a complex religion full of different practices and different philosophies and each of the hundreds of millions of Hindu followers around the world have a seemingly limitless choice of deities and paths to enlightenment to choose from for their own individual interpretation of Hinduism. Perhaps it is because Hinduism has continually evolved and adapted new trends, texts, and practices throughout the ages that it has flourished longer than any other major religion.

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This goddess has shown up on t-shirts and lunchboxes!
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So you've seen the technicolor lunchboxes, the T-shirts with images of colorful gods and goddesses, maybe you even caught a picture of Madonna painted blue and singing Sanskrit prayers.... and now you must be wondering, "What's up with this strange religion anyway?" Let's take a closer look at this mystifying religion that controls not only the spiritual, but also the social aspects of life for the majority of people here in Nepal and India.

Hinduism began by evolving out of shamanistic religions that paid tribute to a number of nature gods and goddesses. As long ago as 1600 BCE some of the gods still worshipped today like Indra (the Goddess of the sky) and Surya (the God of the sun) had appeared. Most of the foundation for what is practiced as Hinduism today was laid out in the Vedas, or the Books of Wisdom, which were probably written between the 12th and 8th centuries BCE.

A number of complex rituals and sacrifices were instated that helped ensure a hierarchy of people. Those at the top were the ones who held the mysteries of practicioning these rituals. This hierarchy of people continues to this day through the caste system which still dictates social status in much of Nepal and India. Contrasting this rather rigid and sometimes petty track of Hinduism, the philosophical groundwork of Hinduism was recorded during the later Vedic period in a series of teachings known as the Upanishads.

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Hinduism is a way of life for millions of people
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From here on out Hinduism has continued on in two very different but overlapping levels which appeal to each person in different ways. Admit it: there are times when you like to think, to ponder puzzling questions and look deeper in to something that interests or intrigues you...like questions concerning the universe or how we ended up here. But hey, who are we kidding? There are MANY other times when we would just rather not think so hard about such deep issues, when we would rather escape in to an exciting story or celebrate a festival or do something mindless but rewarding. In just such a way, Hinduism developed in 2 levels: one is its essential and profound insights for the philosophers amongst us, and the other is its popular practices and pantheon of gods for the general public.

Vocabulary

archeological - the scientific study of past human societies
thrive - the scientific study of past human societies thrive - to grow strongly

First let's talk about the essence of Hindu philosophy to appease the deep thinkers...(besides it'll help the rest of us understand the comic-like tales to come!) Hinduism believes that the soul of every living thing is a part of the universal soul, the brahman, or the ultimate reality. Everything in the material world is just an illusion. Every soul's ultimate goal is to reunite with the brahman, but to do that it must first go through a series of births and rebirths, or reincarnations. Ideally a soul will move closer and closer with each reincarnation, but its progress is kept in check by the soul's karma. Karma is the law of cause and effect. Just as Christians find it important to lead a good life so they can make their way to heaven, Hindus also must lead a good life to progress and benefit from their karma. If they were to live in a dishonest or immoral way, then their actions would not be forgotten. According to Hindu belief, karma will make sure the soul gets what it deserves whether it comes in this lifetime or the next. Ultimately a soul will break free from the impermanence and illusion of this world and attain moksha, or liberation, from the cycle of rebirths, and rejoin the brahman.

To Each Their Own

Despite some of its rigid ritual and social rules, Hindu philosophy is remarkably open and individualistic. It admits many paths to enlightenment and historically absorbed new doctrines rather than condemning them. One way in which this is panned out is that, unlike other religions, Hinduism does not accept converts. This is one of the primary ways Hinduism differs from Hare Krishnas. Although Hare Krishnas follow much of Hindu philosophy and read Hindu texts, they also actively try to seek converts which is contrary to Hindu belief. A religion teacher from Nepal that I once met explained it to me like this: "We Hindus believe that however you are born, whatever religion you may be, there is a path to enlightenment there. Why convert and change to be something else, when you can practice the way you were born to be? There is a reason you were born as you were. Live the life given to you to its best potential and you will be justly rewarded, whether that means heaven, or nirvana, or moksha."

The 'Universal Soul' ? What?! This brahman thing is a bit vague to comprehend I know, that's largely why the rich mythology of Hinduism first developed. In an attempt to personalize the brahman for the general public to better comprehend it, a number of gods and goddesses were created. Find out more about this level of Hinduism, the fun and colorful, easily understandable side of Hinduism in my next dispatch. You thought the Greek Gods were full of drama and intrigue? Check out the Hindu Pantheon...

-Kavitha

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...kavitharao@bigfoot.com
 

Kavitha - Following the Flower of Hinduism: Part II Monkey - Headed Gods and All
Jasmine - Hug A Tree - It May Be Your Last Chance
Team - Making a Difference: Wanna Go To Burma? Think Again!
Team - Life in Tibet Could Be Better

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