At the time of this posting, I am in India and I will be here for another week or so. It is my third trip to the Subcontinent. My first was in the 1960s when poverty was overwhelming. Last year I made my second trip and was struck by the improvements, but the bustle, color, and variety had not changed. I love India.
The next set of blog posts will describe my religious adventures in India. My goal is to speak with people of many different perspectives and to bring them and their ideas to life for you.
To prepare you, here is a very brief primer on Hinduism.
In a previous blog post I mentioned two dimensions of Hinduism that I admire:
Flexibility and pluralism that welcome a spectrum of gods and philosophies.
The three paths to Nirvana or Absolute Reality: devotion, selfless service, and meditation.
In the early times of Hinduism (~1200 bce) the first scriptures, the Vedas, began to be written. At that time the major Gods included Indra (storms and rain), Agni (sacrificial fire and messenger to other gods), Soma (the sacred drink) and Varuna (water and the celestial ocean). Gods were addressed through sacrificial ritual similar to other cultures of that time. The individual’s afterlife was not an issue, continuity was through clan and tribe.
Over the next two thousand years or so, several cultures merged and an amazing pluralism developed in India. This development included many different gods and goddesses as well as a complex variety of philosophies, including atheism.
Today the major deities are
1) Vishnu, the preserver, with his avatars Krishna and Rama;
2) Shiva, the destroyer, especially of ego; and the inter-related array of
3) Shakti goddesses, including Shiva’s wife Parvati (love and devotion) and Kali (fierce destroyer of evil).
Regardless of which god or goddess you choose, it is widely accepted that devotion to the gods (bhakti yoga), selfless service (karma yoga), and meditation (prana yoga) can lead to liberation (Moksha) or to a better rebirth and eventual Moksha. It is agreed that these three yogas, seriously practiced, wear away the false self (or ego) and open the possibility of Moksha.
Moksha is the deep realization that the individual self (Atman) and ultimate reality (Brahmin) are one.
Traditionally, one is born a Hindu. Over 90% of the world’s 1.1 billion Hindus are in India. However there are three other religions which were born in India: Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. In the thousand years before the common era, Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism exchanged ideas and practices. Jainism, the most austere and the smallest, influenced Gandhi’s ideas of nonviolence. Buddhism thrived and then declined for a variety of reasons, almost finished off by the Muslim Mugal conquests of the 1500s and 1600s ce. The Sikhs arose during the times of Hindu Muslim conflict. Christian missionaries came as early as the first 100 years ce. European missionaries followed the Portuguese traders of the 1500s and subsequent European colonials.
Today the total Indian population is some 1.3 billion people. Here are some approximate breakdowns:
1 billion Hindus (80%)
19 million Muslims (14%)
3 million Christians (2.3%)
2.5 million Sikhs (1.9%)
1 million Buddhists (.8%)
500,000 Jains (.4%)
Watch this space for one Indian adventure in ideas after another.