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Our Religions: The Seven World Religions Introduced by Preeminent Scholars from Each Tradition

Our Religions: The Seven World Religions Introduced by Preeminent Scholars from Each Tradition

by Arvind Sharma

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An essential introduction to the world's living religions by experts from each tradition -- published in conjunction with the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions.


An essential introduction to the world's living religions by experts from each tradition -- published in conjunction with the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Chapter One


Defining Hinduism

Mahatma Gandhi is acknowledged, even by his critics, as the greatest Hindu of modern times. However, on the evening of January 30, 1948, he was shot to death by a fellow Hindu, Nathuram Godse, for acquiescing in the partition of the country into India and Pakistan. Godse bowed to Gandhi reverentially before shooting him to death, and Gandhi raised his hand in a gesture of forgiveness as he fell. In performing these surreal acts of spiritual chivalry, both acted as they did in the name and spirit of Hinduism. How are we to define a religion that embraces both the victim and the assassin?

Gandhi, Godse, and God:
The Difficulty in Defining Hinduism

Time passes, but paradoxes persist, When Gandhi was killed by Godse's bullets, the last word heard to escape his lips was that of Rama -- one of the Hindu names for God. Almost half a century later, on December 6, 1992, militant Hindu activists demolished a 464-year-old mosque, virtually with their bare hands, to replace it with a temple dedicated to the same Rama in whose name Gandhi had laid down his life for the cause of Hindu-Muslim unity. Many Hindu women fasted the day after Gandhi died in 1948, but in 1992 "many women volunteers were seen crying," presumably with joy, as the domes of the mosque began crumbling under persistent pounding and a crescendo built up with chants of "Jai Shri Rama" (Hail Lord Rama).

Hinduism does not make it easy for its followers to define it in the best of times, and thejourney from Hindu piety to Hindu militancy under the banner of the same god does not make it any easier.

What is true of the gods of Hinduism is also true of the Hindus. The Hindus, no less than their gods, are difficult to pin down. This aspect of Hinduism is best illustrated by the experience of the Muslim savant of the eleventh century, Alberuni, who wrote a masterly treatise on India known by the title of its English translation as "Alberuni's India." At several points he is constrained to observe: "The Hindus differ among themselves..." or that "some Hindus believe..." until, finally, he bluntly states that there is not one thing that one Hindu says that is not denied by another!

Can such a religion ever be defined? To begin to answer this question, let us first turn this minus into a plus and reflect on what the problem of defining Hinduism itself tells us about Hinduism.

What This Difficulty Reveals
about the Nature of Hinduism

The problem of defining Hinduism has its positive side: It helps to reveal Hinduism's distinctive nature in several ways. First, it tells us that Hinduism has a special relationship with India. After all, most Hindus believe that Rama, like them, was born in India. Second, it shows that Hindus share a special kind of relationship with all Indians. Thus Hinduism is inclusive -- particularly in the Indian context. Hindus today are quite willing to accept Buddhists, Jainas, and Sikhs -- members of some other faiths of Indian origin -- as Hindus, although the Buddhists, Jainas, and Sikhs may demur. Hinduism tends to extend this attitude to the Indian followers of the faiths of even non-Indian origin -- even though these may demur even more strongly. Pushed to its logical extreme, a Hindu can claim that one is most a Hindu when least a Hindu, that is, when one has dissolved one's Hindu particularity in Hinduism's all-embracing inclusiveness. Hinduism in this extreme formulation paradoxically becomes identical with its own negation! Such a Hindu is like anyone else -- only more so. Some Hindus are indeed willing to go that far but most still remain tied to India with a sacred thread, however attenuated it might become. Third, the difficulties in defining Hinduism tell us that not only does Hinduism have ethnic roots and tends to be inclusive but also that, in its eagerness to be inclusive and in its tolerance of diversity within, it is willing to overlook contradictions and may even generate them.

Given such diversity, it seems as if Hinduism is constantly seeking some anchor for the floating mass of diverse beliefs and practices that it encompasses. It is as if the storm itself generates a center, not so much that a storm forms around a center -- which is the more usual way in which religions grow. Several such centers have been suggested and may have functioned as such. In classical India, the Vedas -- a body of revealed texts -- came close to occupying that position; Alberuni suggests that belief in reincarnation might have played a similar role in medieval Hinduism; and adherence to caste and the acceptance of the sanctity of the priestly class of brahmins and/or of the cow have also been suggested as constituting such centers. But while indicative of Hinduism in their own ways, none of these features is definitive. In this, Hinduism may be compared to a doughnut; it is the doughnut that defines the doughnut-hole and not the other way around. J. L. Brockington has suggested, given the fact that diversity is "part of the essence of Hinduism," that its "distinctiveness is only intelligible in terms of its history" and that "it is a subconscious recognition of this diversity, which defies any simple definitions, that leads Hindus to appeal to their perceived origins in the Veda; it is a recognition that the unifying factor lies in their common history. The appeal to the Vedas permits both an affirmation of the supremacy of tradition and an implicit acceptance of the reality of adaptation." The fact that the Hindus call their own tradition sanatana dharma or "immemorial tradition" supports such a view.

Toward a Definition of Hinduism

Hinduism, therefore, is closely associated with the Vedas, or rather with the acceptance of the notion of their authority, for the actual knowledge of the Vedas, such as it existed, was, for vast periods...

Our Religions. Copyright © by Arvind Sharma. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Arvind Sharma is professor of religion at McGill University and the author or editor of many books on world religions.

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