The Complexity of Knowing Hinduism


by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay is about the problem of understanding Hinduism because of its diversity and complexity due to historical reasons.

Hinduism is difficult to understand, even for those who practice it for long. Even the priests who are well-versed in the ritual knowledge of the Vedas and offer regular worship in the temples may not know the depths of its philosophy or the diversity of its beliefs and practices. Some practices and teachings of Hinduism are specific to certain sects and teacher traditions. They are not usually shared in public, since people may misunderstand them or misuse them.

The tradition of secrecy

That knowledge is revealed only to those who join them and gain the trust of the teachers or their trusted inner circle. Many secrets of Hinduism are revealed to the practitioners only after they achieve progress on the path and qualify for it. For example, in the past the knowledge of the Upanishads was taught in secrecy to trusted disciples, after they were thoroughly vetted.

The same was the case with many other branches of knowledge in Hinduism. Dissemination of information depended purely at the discretion of a few people who possessed it. Even now the knowledge of Hinduism is not fully documented. Many old texts are yet to be fully translated and their authenticity yet to be established. The knowledge of Hinduism is thus distributed, with no central authority controlling its flow. Therefore, considerable, dedicated effort is required to gain mastery of its knowledge and wisdom.

Multiple sources

The complexity of Hinduism is also because it is derived from many sources. The people who practiced it in the past belonged to different social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. They worshipped local deities and followed local traditions. Some of them gradually found their way into Hinduism. Some of the deities they worshipped became associated with major gods and goddesses of Hinduism as their emanations and manifestations.

Further, each of the sects of Hinduism has a long history. Some are much older than all the world religions today. Their core philosophy, beliefs and practices, which took considerable time to develop are usually at variance with those of others. Hence, irreconcilable differences between them are inevitable and cannot be resolved. While they add to the richness and diversity of Hinduism, the make the task of the students of Hinduism much more difficult.

Artificial construct

Scholars largely agree that Hinduism is an artificial construct, borne out of the expediency to systematize its knowledge and ascertain its place in comparison to other religions. It contains within itself many traditions, rituals, beliefs and practices which date back to the Indus Valley period or even earlier (5000 BC). There was no religion by the name Hinduism before the British. It came into prominence during the British times as part of an effort by the scholars and British administrators to identity the native faiths of India and distinguish them from Islam and Christianity.

Thus, Hinduism is a composite faith. It contains all the religious traditions and belief systems that originated in India, except Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Hinduism is a generic name under which all the religious systems of India were grouped into a composite faith. Since the traditions which are now part of Hinduism underwent numerous changes in their long history, of which we have little knowledge, any narrative of Hinduism does not fully justify or factually represent its antiquity historicity, vision or depth. This is true with regard to any text book, history book, research, academic or scholarly work about Hinduism.

Cultural bias

Besides, the early work on Hinduism was mostly done by foreign scholars, who had limited knowledge and understanding of the native traditions. It led to many distortions and misrepresentations in the construction of Hinduism, history and theology. Those distortions continue to leave their influence upon the academic studies even today, especially outside India, as people take advantage of the freedom Hinduism gives to interpret its tenets according to their personal agendas, limited knowledge and cultural bias.

Hinduism is also known as Sanatana Dharma (eternal religion), a name which has become more popular in post independent India as a nationalist response to address the distortions of Hinduism caused by the works of secular scholars. The justification for it is that the main source of the knowledge of Hinduism is God himself and that knowledge (Vedas and Tantras) said to exist eternally in the highest heaven. Besides, the obligatory duties which are enshrined in those works are considered to be the duties of God himself, which he performs to ensure the order and regularity of the works and which he delegates to gods in heaven and humans upon earth. It is also true that the knowledge contained in the scriptures of Hinduism helps humans achieve eternal freedom through liberation (Moksha).

According to the Vedas, the eternal tradition, which is founded by none other than God himself in the very beginning of creation, is meant to be practiced by not only humans but also gods, demons and celestial beings. All beings who are bound by the eternal laws and instructions of God (Dharma) are its adherents, whether they practice it or not and know it or not. Those who selflessly and dutifully abide in them upon earth are liberated, while those who engage in selfish and desire-ridden actions, ignoring such duties remain bound to the cycle of transmigration and continue to suffer.

Limitations on propagation

Propagating the faith is not one of the obligatory duties in Hinduism. Since people are subject to karma and bound to the cycle of births and deaths, they have to earn the right to acquire the right knowledge through self-effort only, and they have to come to it by earning the merit through righteous actions. The scripture suggest that God loves those who propagate his teachings to people who are ready for that knowledge. At the same time, they also state that one should not confuse others with their knowledge. Since people are deluded and ignorant, they should be allowed to practice their chosen Dharma, however inferior it might be.

The world is made up of dualities. They serve as the framework of our knowledge. Hence, whether it is religion, science or any other branch of knowledge, contradictions and diversity of opinion are inevitable in our world. Since our knowledge is relative to the context and the perspective in which they are perceived or comprehended, we cannot consider any truth absolute, except those which are declared so in the revelatory scriptures such as the eternal and indivisible state of Brahman or the nature of Self.

Relative truths and polarities of opinion exist in our perceptual world because God in his eternal wisdom has granted free will and freedom to each human being to explore and comprehend truth according to his or her essential nature. That freedom should not be taken away by any human institution or individual because in the ultimate analysis everything here is subject to the eternal and inviolable law of Dharma and Nature. They ensure that our knowledge is defined and limited by the degree of our delusion and ignorance as well as by the degree of purity or impurity which is present in us.

Diversity is the outward projection of God. Its purpose is to confuse, delude, distract and attract so that one remains engaged with it. All our intellectual knowledge is part of it. Hence some confusion is inevitable in our understanding any subject. The more we explore truth with our minds and senses the more we become confused. Hence, Hinduism cautions people against becoming excessively involved with the world, and recommends for withdrawing into oneself to find the eternal truth which is hidden in all. When you find it, knowledge becomes self-evident, and confusion and delusion disappear.

The diversity and complexity of Hinduism also teaches us an important lesson. It is the need for humility and openness in our thinking and attitude so that we can avoid debating and disputing with others on trivial matters and cultivate the all inclusive vision of the inner Self, without which one cannot purify the mind and stabilize it in contemplation.

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