Religion is an inescapable part of our lives. It deals with some of the most fundamental questions which humanity has grappled with from the dawn of time. Religion is a major source of inspiration, meaning, as well as controversy in human culture, history, politics, economics, art, and literature. Consciously or not, religion forms an important part of our individual identity and our psyche; it informs our attitudes and responses in matters big and small.
Yet paradoxically, a vast majority of us know very little about our religious beliefs. What little we know often comes by osmosis from watching family elders perform rituals and festivals. While this is broadly true for all religious groups, for reasons to be discussed shortly, it is especially true for the Hindu society.
This raises some important questions: Is it necessary to “really know” one’s religion to be a good practitioner of it? Why is it not enough to have just a working level understanding of its practices and rituals? If the answer to the first question is affirmative, what is the best way to study it?
These are important questions for any religion to answer. However, we are going to address these questions specifically from the perspective of the Hindus and Hinduism.
Complexity of Hinduism
Without a doubt, Hinduism is a very complex religion, especially when compared with the other major world religions. Indeed, to a casual observer, it can appear as a baffling collection of beliefs and rituals.
Firstly, Hinduism encompasses multitude of Sampradayas or traditions. Each one has its own history, thought system and practices. Often their philosophic perspectives and practices appear to be mutually incompatible.
Secondly, the source literature of Hinduism is massive, to say the least: 30 million Sanskrit manuscripts, according to one Google search! Even the list of its core scriptures is quite large: 4 Vedas, 108 Upanishads, 18 Maha Puranas, and so on. When one considers the countless number of scholarly commentaries on these scriptures, the amount of Hindu sacred literature can be quite overwhelming, especially when compared to the three Abrahamic religions where the entire belief system rests on a single source text.
Thirdly, the cultural and regional diversities impart additional layers of complexity to the Hindu belief system.
Finally, the concept of personal deity or Ishwara, gives a very sharp and visible layer of complexity to Hinduism. The same deity can appear very different from one Sampradaya or cultural or regional entity to another. Many of the popular Hindu deities appear visibly abnormal or unnatural.
It is quite a challenge, therefore, for the uninitiated to square such a bewildering array of beliefs and practices with the “Ekam sat, viprah bahudha vadanti” tenet of Hinduism.
How Complexity Affects Hindus
Those who have good grounding in Hindu philosophy would rightly argue that underneath this confusing collection of beliefs, lies a strong unifying thought system that supports Hinduism. However, without a good understanding of this thought system, the apparent complexity and contradictions in Hinduism lead to confusion, unease, and eventually doubts about the veracity of the entire belief system. This, in turn, gives rise to such phenomena as the “Hindus in name only” (HINO) and “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR).
Clearly, a HINO or SBNR parent cannot be expected to reliably transmit his or her inherited traditions to the next generation. Not only do such parents lack the commitment to their heritage, they also lack the capacity and confidence to articulate their inherited faith to their children. While this is a huge problem for the Hindu society at large, it is an existential threat to Hindus communities living in countries where they are but tiny minorities.
That is not all. Leaving aside the HINOs and SBNRs, many deeply committed Hindus who do not have a good understanding of the philosophic structure of Hinduism, find themselves inadequate in articulating their belief system to non-Hindu audiences. To make matters worse, they often default to utterly clumsy and embarrassing responses to basic questions about Hinduism, thereby contributing to a distorted and negative image of Hinduism.
Last, but not the least, Hinduism, for a long time, has been under sustained attack from a host of interests in academic, media and political circles. Some of the criticism may stem from honest differences of opinions. However, a lot of it appears to be bad-faith mischaracterization of the Hindu ideology. If we are to defend our religious heritage from these corrosive forces, we have no choice but to develop a strong cadre of Hindus committed to acquiring deeper knowledge of its philosophical underpinnings. Not only that, they also need to possess a thorough understanding of the main points of attack on Hinduism (i.e., the “purva paksha”), as well as a working knowledge of the attackers’ own religious beliefs.
Academic Study of Hinduism
From the foregoing it is clear that, for Hinduism to sustain its vitality, the Hindu society needs to focus less on observation of rituals and pay more attention to understanding the philosophical underpinnings of Hinduism. What is required is a clear, comprehensive and, above all, unbiased perspective of how different elements of Hinduism mesh together, how apparent diversity is supported by a unified thought system with shared values and perspectives, as well as a comparative analysis of Hinduism relative to other major world religions. Faith based institutions can certainly help in this enterprise. However, their views will always be open to challenge for being too vested in their respective traditions. Academic institutions, on the other hand, can offer a believable, panoramic and clinical treatment of the subject, and therefore, are better suited to the task.