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Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Many Many Many Sects of Hinduism

In The Many Many Many Gods of Hinduism Swami Achuthananda, whose name translates to Eternal Bliss, would like us to know that Hinduism isn't truly polytheistic.  He also tells us that Western scholars say that Hinduism is henotheist.  That is my experience of Hinduism as well.  What does henotheism mean?  I was taught that it means this:  "There are a great many Gods worshiped by all the peoples of the world.  This one is ours.  You worship your God, we will worship ours, and we will all get along." My theory is that in the most ancient times when humans were nomads within defined territories, each small group of nomads probably had its own God.  When humans settled down, all these peoples met and discovered that their Gods had different names and attributes.  I think that henotheism would have been the solution to this religious convergence.  It would have been what made the most sense to people at the time, and I think that it makes the most sense of the Hindu religion.

It is important to note that Swami Achuthananda's teachings about Hinduism are not the only ones.  That is in summary the main point that I have to make about his book, but I do have other things to say about it as well.  I received it from The Bookplex, and here is my review.


There is an approach to Hinduism called Vedanta.  It's very common in books about Hinduism directed at Western monotheists.  It goes like this:  Although there are three major Gods of Hinduism: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer, Brahma is the High God and the only one that all Hindus worship.  This is exactly what Swami Achuthananda tells us.  Western monotheists are always very happy to hear this.  Yet in Western cities where there are large communities from India, there are Hindu temples.  If you go to those temples, you can find out that there are other approaches to Hinduism.

For example, there is a Shaivite approach.  The God of Shaivites is Shiva.   Shaivites believe that Shiva created the universe.  How can this be if Shiva is the Destroyer?  Well, in the Shaivite perspective, Shiva creates and destroys.   He danced the universe into being and at the end of the current era (yuga), it will be destroyed.  Then Shiva will re-create it.  This has happened before and will continue to happen eternally in an endless cycle.  It's a Shiva centered view of Hinduism. I would think that it would be truer for Shaivites to call Shiva the Reincarnator rather than the Destroyer since they perceive him as being in charge of the cycle of death and re-birth.  Shaivites are only one example of the enormous diversity that can be found among the sects of India.

Another theological difference in approach deals with the issue of attachment. Vedantists value detachment.  They teach that if you are attached to anything, you will not become enlightened.  At the other end of the spectrum is the Bhakti Movement.  Bhakti means devotion.  On Know India, an official Indian government website, there is an article about the Bhakti Movement   Those who follow the Bhakti  approach value strong spiritual attachments rather than detachment.  It involves very deep abiding love for your God which is definitely an attachment. They are usually Shaivites and Vishnaivites, worshipers of Vishnu. As an abstract deity, Brahma generally doesn't attract Bhakti. My mystical Jewish Rabbinical ancestors valued something similar called Devaikut which means adhesion or devotion.   Perhaps this is why I relate more strongly to the Bhakti strand of Hinduism.  Mystical attachment doesn't mean that the Bhakti Movement is opposed to asceticism.  In fact, they are strongly attached to asceticism and go to great extremes.  Going to extremes shows your commitment.  Being advocates of detachment, Vedantists are much more moderate in their religious practices.  
Swami Achuthananda  criticizes Westerners for publishing the Vedic hymns separately without the Brahmana.  From the description of the Brahmana, these are commentaries.  The Old and New Testaments of Judaism and Christianity are usually published without commentaries in English.  The text of these testaments are considered divinely inspired.  Commentaries are not considered divinely inspired and therefore have a different theological status. Some might say that publishing religious texts without commentaries allows readers the religious freedom to interpret them for themselves.  This idea was a major impetus for the Protestant Reformation. The reformers wanted to be able to decide what the Bible meant without intermediaries deciding for them.   Swami Achuthananda apparently thinks that those who read the Vedic hymns without the Brahmana are reading them out of context.  Yet doing so could allow a new generation of readers to come up with interpretations of the Vedic hymns that are more relevant to them. I have a particular interest in doing this sort of thing. According to the Old Testament, my ancestor Jacob met an angel and wrestled with him.  Since I have never met an angel, I wrestle with texts instead. 

This book deals with issues concerning India and Hinduism that are quite controversial.  One is the Aryan invasion theory. Swami Achuthananda tells us that it never happened.  I found an abstract of a PubMed article from 2009 that corroborates this statement. It's India's Aryans Genetically Indigenous To India . Yet it does seem to me that something cataclysmic did happen in ancient India.  Swami Achuthananda's  section about the archaeology of early India posits that the center of the civilization from which the Vedic hymns emerged was the Sarasvati River which dried up 2500-4000 years ago depending on which scholars you believe.  I think that this implies major climate change. The chaos resulting from environmental disruption could have also brought about drastic social change.  These transformations might have included the caste system which was responsible for a great deal of discrimination against the people at the bottom.     

Swami Achutananda wants us to believe that Hinduism is more tolerant than other religions, and I actually believed that this was true until I read this book.  It was in the pages of this book that I learned that after non-Hindus have entered a Hindu temple, Hindu priests perform a cleansing.  I learned that Indira Gandhi was not allowed to enter some Hindu temples because she was married to a Parsi.  Oh, and then there was the fact that 40%  of Hindus weren't allowed to enter Hindu Temples until the early 1900's because they were Untouchables. It's all about purity.  In Hinduism, some people are regarded as  pure and others are regarded as impure. Which people are impure has changed over time, but the idea that some people are impure has apparently remained.  Orthodox Judaism has an idea that women's natural functions make them impure.  I read a novel this year called Rav Hisda's Daughter which theorized that this was a Zoroastrian idea that wasn't part of Jewish practice until the Babylonian Exile.   If there had been an Aryan invasion, the Hindu believers of India could say that their intolerant ideas about purity were imposed on them by outsiders, but they don't get to say that anymore.

Swami Achutananda argues that the caste system was not racially based because there isn't more than one race in India.  What is race?  It usually means a genetic difference in skin color. Are there genetic differences in skin color among the peoples of India?  This definitely appears to be the case. There was a November 2013 article about these genetic skin color variations  in Popular Science which can be found at Genetic Skin Color Variation in India.  So whether or not the caste system originated as institutionalized racism, there seems to be race and racism in India. This prejudice about skin color hasn't gone away in India any more than it has in the United States.  See this item from Time about reaction in India to the most recent Miss America and this article Stop Pretending That India Isn't Racist in The Hindu. Some racist Americans have historically interpreted the Old Testament in a manner that justified their ideas. See blog article on racist interpretation of the Old Testament . I feel that the Hindu caste system has been used to justify racism just as the Bible has been used to justify it.

I think the main problem with Swami Achutananda is that he is oblivious to his own biases.  I had to filter out the bias in order to benefit from this book, and that was a difficult process.