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From the Spring 2015 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

A Thumbnail Sketch of Hinduism(s) for Christians

by Gerald R. McDermott, Ph.D.
Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion, Roanoke College


here is no such thing as Hinduism. (You now know more than the average Christian and will immediately stand out in your next theological debate). The word Hinduism presumes a religion in which the parts are consistent with one another. But such a religion does not exist. That will no doubt surprise you, but consider this: Hinduism is a word the British coined as a catch-all term for the innumerable and often contradictory religions they found on the Indian subcontinent.
  Why do I say contradictory? Because, for example, some Indian religions are theistic (they believe in a personal god) and others aren’t. The latter think the divine is an it, not a Someone. It is an it that includes everything and contains everything (this is called pantheism), but it most certainly is not a Person who created the world or to whom we can pray.
  That’s why I say some Indian religions contradict others. Theistic Indian religions contradict pantheistic Indian religions. And these pantheistic religions can actually be called atheistic, because they don’t believe in a personal god who created the world or can save us. They are religious (they have a reverence for the mystery and spiritual essence of the world) but atheistic (there is no personal god who created or rules the world).
  Most Hindus probably would not agree that these different religions are contradictory. They would either say that it doesn’t matter, because religious practice is most important, or that what seems contradictory to us is really harmonious at the “highest” level of reality. (I will explain “levels of reality” below). Some of these Hindus talk about Hinduism as a journey in which they progress from worshipping a god, to realizing that that god is merely an image of ultimate reality in which there are no
personal gods.
   But back to my first point: instead of one religion called Hinduism, there are many religions in India, often contradictory and wildly conflicting in beliefs. That’s why I have titled this essay “A Thumb-Nail Sketch of Hinduism(s).” A more accurate title would be “The Native Religions of India.” I say “native” because Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism (as well as others) are also flourishing religions in India, with millions of adherents there, but they were founded elsewhere. This essay will focus on Indian religions that got their start on the Indian subcontinent.
   There are many different religions that are called Hindu. The Hindu scriptures in fact say there are 330 million gods, and at least several scores of these gods have their own sets of beliefs and practices. So where to start?
   I think the best way to make some sense of this huge number of competing and mutually conflicting Indian religions is to (1) look at two concepts about life and death that almost all Hindus believe, and then to (2) see the two major sets of Indian religions (all called Hindu) that try to resolve those two things.

Two Things on Which Almost All Hindus Agree

  The first thing most Hindus agree on is samsara. This is pretty much what we call reincarnation. For Hindus it is a combination of karma (literally, “deeds”) and rebirth. It means that after death we are judged by an impersonal law of karma, which determines what kind of life we will be reborn into. If we performed bad deeds and therefore have bad karma, we will be reborn into an unhappy life as a human being, an animal, or even an insect. If we led a good life and accumulated good karma, then we will be reborn into a happy human life. Samsara is the endless (and without beginning, either) cycle of life, death and rebirth: after each life, we die and are reborn into a different life.

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