Common Misconceptions about Hinduism

Being an ancient religion, Hinduism now is plagued with many wrong and false ideas about it. These probably arose over time because people did not always adhere to the proper sources of knowledge.

As Hinduism expands in the West, the emerging forms of this ancient tradition are naturally being reflected through the medium of Western languages, most prominent of which, is English. But as we have pointed out, the meanings of words are not easily moved from one language to the next. The more distant two languages are separated by geography, latitude and climate, etc. the more the meanings of words shift and ultimately the more the worldview shifts. While this is a natural thing, it does present the danger that the emerging Hindu religious culture in the West may drift too far afield. The differences between the Indian regional languages and Sanskrit are minuscule when compared to the differences between a Western language such as English and Sanskrit.

Most books available on Hinduism in bookshops in the West today are written by non-Hindu Westerners. Most of them are very scholarly and recount the doctrines in a clinical manner, sometimes without any insight. Many of these scholars are in fact hostile to the very subject matter that they purport to recount in an impartial manner.

With this problem in mind, the great difficultly in understanding Hinduism in the West, whether from the perspective of conversion or from a second generation of Hindus, is that it is all too easy to approach Hinduism with foreign concepts of religion in mind. It is natural to unknowingly approach Hinduism with Christian, Jewish and Islamic notions of God, soul, heaven, hell and sin in mind. We translate brahman as God, atman as soul, papa as sin, dharma as religion. But brahman is not the same as God; atman is not equivalent to the soul, papa is not sin and dharma is much more than mere religion. To obtain a true understanding of sacred writings, such as the Upanishads or the Bhagavad Gita, one must read them on their own terms and not from the perspective of another religious tradition. Because the Hinduism now developing in the West is being reflected through the lens of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the theological uniqueness of Hinduism is being compromised or completely lost.

The most obvious misconception about Hinduism is that we tend to see it as a religious faith. To be precise, Hinduism is a way of life, a dharma. Dharma does not mean religion. It is the law that governs all action. Thus, contrary to popular perception, Hinduism is not a religion. Out of this misinterpretation, has come most of the misconceptions about Hinduism.

See: Dharma and Religion; Vedic and Abrahamic Thought.

Not a "religion" in a similar sense to which Christianity and Islam Is

It is not easy to define Hinduism, for it is much more than a religion in the Western sense. According to some scholars, Hinduism is not exactly a religion. Also known to practitioners as Sanatana Dharma, which means everlasting or eternal dharma (Truth / Rule). Hinduism can best be defined as a way of life based on the teachings of ancient sages and scriptures like the Vedas and Upanishads. The word 'dharma' connotes "that which supports the universe" and effectively means any path of spiritual discipline which leads to God.

Hindu Dharma, as one scholar analogizes, can be compared to a fruit tree, with its roots (1) representing the Vedas and Vedantas, the thick trunk (2) symbolizing the spiritual experiences of numerous sages, gurus and saints, its branches (3) representing various theological traditions, and the fruit itself, in different shapes and sizes (4), symbolizing various sects and subsects. However, the concept of Hinduism defies a definite definition because of its uniqueness.

Hinduism: A Modern Term

Words like Hindu or Hinduism are anachronisms. They do not exist in the Indian cultural lexicon. People have coined them to suit their needs in different points of history. Nowhere in the scriptures is there any reference to the term "Hinduism". The very name “Hinduism” is a regional/people group descriptive name. It is the name for the inhabitants and the religion of the Indus River region. The inhabitants were called Hindus and their religion was called Hinduism.

The common name for Hinduism is Sanatana Dharma.

A Civilization more than a Religion

Hinduism does not have any one founder, and it does not have a Bible or a Koran to which controversies can be referred for resolution. Consequently, it does not require its adherents to accept any one idea. It is thus cultural, not creedal, with a history contemporaneous with the peoples with which it is associated.

Much More than Spirituality

Writings we now categorize as Hindu scriptures include not just books relating to spirituality but also secular pursuits like science, medicine and engineering. This is another reason why it defies classification as a religion. Further, it cannot be claimed to be essentially a school of metaphysics. Nor can it be described as 'other worldly'. In fact, one can almost identify Hinduism with a civilization that is flourishing even now.

A Common Faith of the Indian Subcontinent

The Aryan Invasion Theory having been completely discredited, it cannot be assumed that Hinduism was the pagan faith of invaders belonging to a race called Aryans. Rather it was the common meta-faith of people of various races, including Harappans. The Sanskrit word 'aryan' is a word of honorable address, not the racial reference invented by European scholars and put to perverse use by the Nazis.

Of a Very Ancient Origin

A Culture Much Older than we Believe

Evidence that Hinduism must have existed even circa 10000 B.C. is available: The importance attached to the river Saraswati and the numerous references to it in the Vedas indicates that the Rig Veda was being composed well before 6500 B.C. The first vernal equinox recorded in the Rig Veda is that of the star Ashwini, which is now known to have occurred around 10000 B.C. Subhash Kak, a Computer Engineer and a reputed Indologist, 'decoded' the Rig Veda and found many advanced astronomical concepts therein. The technological sophistication required to even anticipate such concepts is unlikely to have been acquired by a nomadic people, as the Invasionists would like us to believe. In his book Gods, Sages and Kings, David Frawley provides compelling evidence to substantiate this claim.

Hinduism was not brought to India by Aryan Invaders

The racial British-colonial theory that propounds that Hinduism developed through outside influences, such as the Aryan invasion is false. Hinduism was not brought to India by Aryan Invaders. The Aryan Invasion theory has been debunked by scholars.

See: The Myth of the Aryan Invasion Theory

Has a Worldwide Presence and Spread

Not a little-known religion which has few followers

Hinduism is not practiced by a relatively small group of people. It is the world's third largest religion, after Christianity and Islam, with roughly 1 billion adherents.

False notion that Hinduism is rarely found in countries other than India

Hinduism is not practiced only in India or just by Indians. Other countries with large Hindu populations include Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius, Fiji, Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States.

Neither a Monotheism or Polytheism in the Western Sense

Hinduism is a Not Polytheistic!

Many believe that multiplicity of deities makes Hinduism polytheistic. Such a belief is nothing short of mistaking the wood for the tree. The bewildering diversity of Hindu belief - theistic, atheistic and agnostic - rests on a solid unity. "Ekam sath, Vipraah bahudhaa vadanti", says the Rig Veda: The Truth (God, Brahman, etc) is one, scholars call it by various names.

Hinduism permits worship of multiple God forms, endowed with different looks, powers, and attributes, who, in reality, represent the One Reality (not the same as English word "God"), known as Brahman, or Parabrahman, Paramatma or Satchidananda. Hinduism accepts the basic differences in every person in taste, temperament and capacity of intake in the matter of religion.

What the multipicity of deities does indicate is Hinduism's spiritual hospitality as evidenced by two characteristically Hindu doctrines: Adhikaara (the doctrine of spiritual competence) and Ishhta Devata (the doctrine of the chosen Deity). The doctrine of spiritual competence requires that the spiritual practices prescribed to a person should correspond to his or her spiritual competence. The doctrine of the chosen deity gives a person the freedom to choose (or invent) a form of Brahman that satisfies his spiritual cravings and to make it the object of his worship. It is notable that both doctrines are consistent with Hinduism's assertion that the unchanging reality is present in everything, even the transient.

Hindus are Not Idol-Worshipers

"Idol-Worship" is simply not how a Hindu practitioner describes his or her religious activities. Hindus hold that they are worshiping, not an idol, but a divine reminder of God — or perhaps a manifestation of God that has taken the form of a particular physical representation.

The images of Gods and Goddesses, or murtis, are used as focal points to help aid in meditation and prayer. Hindus do not consider God to be limited to the murti. Murthis are strictly used to help channel concentration during worship.

There is a strange dichotomy in how such religious imagesare judged. When they are part of the Christian tradition they are called icons and classified as works of art and regarded as sacred in nature. When they are part of non-Christian or pagan traditions they are called “idols,” which is a derogatory term that indicates not the sacred but mere superstition. An image of Christ as the good shepherd is called an icon and viewed with respect. An image of Krishna as the good cow herder - which is a similar image of the Divine as watching over the souls of men — is called an idol, which encourages one to look down on it. This is prejudice and negative stereotyping in language of the worst order.

To call such images as idols implies that those who worship them practice idolatry or take the image itself as a God. This adds yet more prejudice and error to this judgement. The use of an image - whether we call it an icon or an idol - does not imply belief in the reality of the image. That we keep a photograph of our wife and children at our work desk does not mean that we think our wife and children are the photograph. It is a reminder, not a false reality. Moreover, the use of the term idol inflames the sentiments of anti-idolatry religions like Christianity and Islam, as both the Bible and the Koran, at least in places, instruct their followers to oppose idolaters and smash their temples and images.

— By David Frawley (Vamadeva Shastri) on Idols and Icons: The Misrepresentation of Hinduism in the Press

Mistranslation of Hindu Terms

The term God is not the same as Brahman

"God" is a term that refers to a Male, Creator, Being (n.). This "God" concept is not the same as Brahman, Paramatma, or Satchidananda — a neuter term.

The term Salvation is not the same as Moksha

“Salvation” is an ambiguous word that can refer to a lot of phenomena. When trying to understand the concept of salvation in any religion, we need to be very clear on what the context is. It is not just a question of how one might get saved, but also what one is saved from and to. In Hinduism, "salvation" is most frequently referred to as “moksha,” which means most literally “release.” One is saved, not from sin, as a Christian might say, but from one's own existence. The fundamental problem for all human beings is that we live in a world of suffering and illusion, and that, left to ourselves, we will continue to do so for all time. As long as we exist in the phenomenal world (maya), we will suffer, and since we are doomed to move from life to life to life in the cycle of reincarnation (samsara), the suffering will theoretically never end. What drives this seemingly unbreakable chain of existences is the law of karma; it determines as what kind of a being (plant, animal, or human) and in what circumstances we will reappear in our next life, depending on what we do in this life. So, the point of moksha is to be released from the cycle of reincarnation and to attain a state of bliss in union with Brahman.

Cultural Misportrayal

Hindus are allowed to eat meat

Hinduism does not mandate that its followers be vegetarian. Many adherents of Hinduism are not vegetarian, although a vegetarian diet is encouraged in accordance with principles such as ahimsa (nonviolence) extended to animals.

Hinduism has not ordained that the society should be caste-based

Hinduism had accepted the practical fact that there will always be differences among persons in intellectual, physical and mental capabilities. For the society to run smoothly like well-oiled machinery, there has to be a well-defined division of labor. The society needs all sorts of people who do their jobs to the best of their ability doing those activities best suited to them. The society needs peasants and artisans (‘Shudra'), traders (‘Vysya'), intellectuals and teachers (‘Brahmin'), and warriors (‘Kshatriya'). Each class requires its own skill sets, physical and mental capabilities, food habits, ethical and moral codes of conduct and the Hindu Dharma has provided these guidelines. What is best suited to one class need not be a benchmark for another. The society at large accepted these classifications as matters of fact (without acrimony) in ancient days. It is also said that such a division of labor was not originally based on family lineage. But when followed over generations, it gradually turned into a caste system and further degenerated into upper and lower classes with discrimination and acrimony between them. This is actually a sociological phenomenon and it is incorrect to blame the religion for it.

Hinduism is not anti-materialistic and does not totally discourage enjoyment

What Hinduism says is that materialistic pursuits or running behind sensual pleasures is not going to fetch you everlasting happiness. It only says that behind any unbridled searching for enjoyment, there is always a pain lurking behind. Hinduism advises one to practice moderation, to be watchful, and not to get carried away. Hinduism does place liberation - ‘Moksha' as the ultimate goal of life and for the majority, the path of progress towards the goal (Moksha) includes Dharma (righteousness), Artha (materialism) and Kama (sensual enjoyments). The important point is that the materialistic and sensual enjoyments (Artha and Kama) must always be guided by righteousness (Dharma). Leading a life this way, one can gradually understand the transient nature of worldly life, acquire dispassion (‘Vairagya') and the mind then yearns for liberation (Moksha), the ultimate goal.

It is no doubt that Hinduism gives the highest regard to renunciation. But again, for the society at large, the recommended way of living so as to attain the supreme goal starts at ‘Brahmacharya' (celibacy at a young age while acquiring education), followed by ‘Grihasta' (married life of a householder), ‘Vanaprasta' (living frugally in a secluded way at the forest, once the couple has completed their duty toward their offspring) and finally ‘Sanyasa' (total renunciation). When an earnest seeker is mature enough to comprehend the transient nature of worldly life, has a high degree of discrimination and dispassion and yearns for God, he can opt to renounce much earlier, without going through all these stages one by one.

Hinduism does not preach fatalism and does not negate self-effort

It is wrong to think that by advocating Karma theory (which says that for every action in the past, one has to face the reaction inescapably in the future and this cycle transcends births over births), Hinduism encourages a fatalistic attitude. What Hinduism says is that one cannot have freedom of choice in facing the repercussions of past actions, but one does have the free will to choose his present actions. It is quite obvious that only because we have the freedom of choice of action, we have accumulated our past Karmas!

The essence of Hinduism on this matter is two-fold. One: The reactions to our past actions are not entirely self-propelling; they are indeed executed by the will of God; the more one surrenders to God and the more one accepts with humility the divine dispensation, the more one gets relief from the impinging effects of Karma. Two: By carefully choosing one's present actions based on Dharma, by doing acts with dispassion and a sense of surrender to the supreme, one paves the way for escaping from the evil effects of his present actions in the future.

Hindus do not worship cows

Hindus don’t worship cows. However, heavy reliance is placed on the cow. Cows gave a highly useful protein-rich milk, as well as fuel and fertilizer. Additionally, the cow was often used to till fields. Because of its unselfish giving, the cow is viewed as a caretaker and symbolically, a maternal figure. For this and other reasons, many Hindus don’t eat meat.

References

Bibliography
1. Common Myths About Hinduism, Much More Than Just Another Religion!, by Subhamoy Das, About.com
2. How Do You Define Hinduism?, The Basics of Hinduism, By Subhamoy Das, About.com
4. Common Misconceptions, Hindu Students Council.

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