It’s a well-established fact that what we call ‘Hinduism’ today is actually a conglomeration of numerous different, separate faiths that scatter across the whole of the Indian Subcontinent. Some worship Shiva (known as Shaivas), some Vishnu (Vaishnavas), some others Shakti (Shaktas), still some others Sun, etc. There are Dvaitas (dualists) and Advaitas (non-dualists), too. Some believe on creator god; some other reject the idea of creator deity altogether. There are both avid theists and atheists (for example Charvakas were atheists).
Why all these diversification? Don’t they worship a single universal God as people from Abrahamic faiths do? Why there are so many distinct faiths with equally distinct ideas, treatises, rituals, etc.? Why is it that these myriad of faiths cannot trace the date of their origin (Hinduism is without its date of beginning on account of this)? How come there are some shocking similarities between Hebrew (or Jewish) tradition and these faiths? My puny little attempt at reacting to these questions will take hold of the following paragraphs.
My good friend TB Nepali is who I drew the inspiration from to scrawl this essay. During one of our spiritual discourses, he came to heavily impress on me, with his succinct account of Abrahamic faiths, the possible intimate connection between those Abrahamic faiths especially Judaism and numerous local traditions in Indian Subcontinent otherwise known (collectively) as Hinduism. I came to ponder upon not only the idea of the possible connection and striking resemblance (between them), but how these local Indian traditions might have been the mere and corrupt derivatives of those Middle Eastern ones, too.
Even more serious thought he stirred in me was whether the tradition I’d been following was a genuine one i.e. it was devoted to the service of God. We claim our religious traditions to be an instrument for keeping the God happy and pleased and celebrating his grandeur and glory; but are we doing so faithfully or within the set of the rules outlined by the God himself? Or how many of us believe at all on the idea of a single, omniscient, omnipresent, both immanent and transcendent God?
Well, here’s a caveat: my knowledge on religions, theology, the divine and other spiritual aspects is very shallow and not in any way different from that of what we call a layman. This essay represents my personal views which are purely based on my own experiences and knowledge accumulated over all those years of (my) striving for learning.
1. Fertile Crescent Vs. Indian Subcontinent Civilisation(s)
It’s been theorised, and largely proven, too, that Fertile Crescent (i.e. present day Middle East extending along the eastern and southern coast of the Mediterranean) Civilisation was the first ever human civilisation in real sense that ever developed on Earth. That from animal and plant domestication to the invention of wheel, to the invention of writing system (the Phoenicians were the first to do so as per the archeologists/anthropologists), to the invention and development of so many other things including the Jewish tradition took place there. Judaism and Hinduism are often considered two oldest religious traditions. What I’ve found is there is either no or very little mentioning of possible civilisations in Indian Subcontinent among the archeologists and anthropologists compared with other civilisations like Fertile Crescent, Hwango-Ho Valley, Nile Valley, etc. Indus Valley Civilisation in Indian Subcontinent was one of the great ancient civilisations (still archeologists and anthropologists are all but unanimous that it began a few thousand years later than Chinese and Fertile Crescent) but we cannot trace the possible root of Hinduism in IVC- in fact there has been no or only scant evidence of possible link- and hence prove its much purported antiquity.
If there was a great civilisation in Indian Subcontinent (except IVC) to which we could link the origin and development of Hinduism, it would be the matter of more interest, research and discussion among historians, archeologists and anthropologists. But there is almost no or very scant attention paid to such possible civilisation (in the Subcontinent). This boils down to a bitter fact – bitter for those who take pride on the so called antiquity of Hinduism – that civilisation started much later in Indian Subcontinent and so did what we call Hinduism. So here are we comfortable to say that Hebrew (or later Jewish) religious tradition might have predated the development of Hinduism by a few hundreds to thousands years?
2. Antiquity of Hinduism: Why we cannot trace the origin of Hinduism?
Answer is simple: that there were hundreds of tribal groups scattered all across the subcontinent and it was not possible to keep record of which group started what religious tradition when. What we call ‘Hinduism’ today is a collection of myriad of local tribal traditions which once dotted (and are still) the landscape of the subcontinent especially the Gangetic plains. Moreover as those tribal groups were in their primitive stage of development and as writing and record keeping system might have still not developed well until much later – oral tradition of Vedas testifies to this – it was very difficult to trace the date of the beginning of all those local religious traditions.
And, it was easier for us to clothe Hinduism with a garb of ‘the oldest religion’ as the date of its origin remained elusive to us (because of the above-mentioned reasons).
3. Cultural exchanges between Hebrews (later Jews) and Hindus: Striking similarities in both traditions
a) Animal sacrifice is found in both traditions (in order to propitiate the God or gods) performed amazingly in all but same fashion.
b) Segregation of menstruating women for at least five or seven days is strictly followed in both societies.
c) Consumption of meat and dairy products together is often forbidden in both traditions. I recall my childhood days when my mother would forbid me from having milk together with meat.
d) Both traditions have the legend of the Great Flood; Noah being the rescuer in Jewish flood and Manu in the subcontinent version.
e) Pronunciation of Jewish God YHWH and ours BRHMA, Noah (pronounced as Nuh) and Manu (pronounced as Mnuh), Christ and Krishna; and many others seems to be very identical or influenced by each other.
f) We can also draw parallels to some extent, if not in their entirety, between the Jewish Ten Commandments and our Ten Avatars (Dashavatars).
g) Consumption of pork is considered taboo in both societies by the priestly class (and other socially advantaged classes, too).
h) Star of David- a six-pointed star, the symbol of Judaism – has been commonly in use in the Subcontinent traditions, especially in academic fields. For example logos of schools and universities in Nepal and India consist of six-pointed star.
i) Both Jews and Brahmans (the priestly class in the Subcontinent traditions) claim themselves to be the chosen ones.
So which influenced which? Through ancient trade between the Sub-continent and Fertile Crescent region, this exchange of traditions must have been largely from west to east, i.e. Subcontinent traditions might have taken certain elements in from Fertile Crescent. Some cultural exchanges nonetheless took place from east to west: incorporation of Trinity in Christianity must have been inspired from Subcontinent one.
4. Polytheism Vs. Monotheism
Anthropologists and sociologists believe that polytheism indicates the early state of civilisation whereas monotheism means more advanced one. Until the authorship of Upanishads Hinduism was deprived of its essential philosophical interpretation of a single, either immanent of transcendent, God. It was the authorship of Upanishads that ushered in the idea of a single God more profoundly. And Upanishads were written sometime later. Brahma, not to be confused with Brahma, the creator deity, as we know has become to epitomize the idea of indivisible, eternal, immanent God through the vast corpus of Upanishadic writings. Before the authorship of Upanishads, Vedas had dominated the Subcontinent traditions with their extensive Vedic rituals and sacrifices which still continue today among Brahmanic traditions.
It was the same extensive performances of Vedic rituals and animal sacrifices that Buddha greatly despised and sought to change. As a result, a new tradition of Buddhism was founded on the principle of rejection of Vedas and peace and nonviolence.
Vedas principally eulogised a few major gods such as Yama, Indra, Shani, Rudra, Agni, etc. who lost their eminence to the later gods like Vishnu, Shiva, etc. as exemplified in Puranic, Epic (like Ramayana, Mahabharata) and other literature.
Even though the idea of single omniscient God might have been mentioned in many occasions in the Vedas, it was solemnized formally in Upanishadic writings much later. Intellectual deprivation of Hinduism was at last ended by the authorship of Upanishads and later literature. It would hardly be excessive to say Hinduism got its ‘maturity’ only after the authorship of the Upanishads.
Some scholars believe Hinduism is still largely a polytheistic religion. In contrast, Judaism holds the reputation of being one of the oldest monotheistic traditions.
5. Why Hinduism is riddled with rampant superstition?
The Subcontinent has its infamy as one of the most superstitious regions. Scholars are unanimous in the fact that superstition is the legacy of primitive societies. Rampant superstition, poverty and underdevelopment thus created here in the Subcontinent testify to this fact then?
So all those Subcontinent traditions otherwise known as Hinduism were not yet organised into what we call a religion and they were grounded on the belief in supernatural and magic? Our Hindu society has yet to achieve that level of civilisation where superstition no longer holds currency? Seems so as we (in the Subcontinent) are still a long way off from doing away with all those superstitions.
6. A ten-headed, thousands-limbed god: Gods in Hinduism don’t look like humans!
This is in sharp contrast with that of Abrahamic faiths in which God or lesser gods are almost always represented as lookalike to human beings. Gods are often personified in the Subcontinent traditions in different incarnations (avatars) with different forms which look more mythical, magical and typical of tribal lords and less sympathizing to human existence on Earth. Certainly there are some positive sides of this, too. For example, Shiva wearing only a loincloth, smearing ashes and wandering around represents the pastoral, vagrant lifestyle of the time whereas Vishnu reclined on the slithering bed of serpents and clad in opulence of jewelry and fine garbs with his consort Lukshmey almost always sitting by his side massaging his limbs exhibits the pampered lifestyle of the rich back then.
Gods (here lesser gods) in Abrahamic religions are more encouraging in that they often live and interact among the common people. Prophets like Moses, Jesus were born as ordinary men and spent their life among the populace. They were endowed with great powers but they rarely flaunted their powers in a way which could have amounted to an excess or vulgar show. They appear more civilised, genial and acceptable to the populace.
In the Subcontinent traditions Krishna and some other gods appear to be gregarious and living among the populace. Krishna acts both as a king and the leader of herdsmen. But his having many female cowwomen (called ‘Gopinis’) as his romantic consorts (though this could have purely been symbolic) makes him look primitive and less acceptable. Polygamy was common in primitive tribal societies- it is still common in backward societies- and Krishna seems to be testifying to the time then.
Even lesser gods in Hinduism seem to be possessing great powers which they sometimes use indiscriminately. Alien-like appearances make these gods in Hinduism look less compatible and less sympathising to human existence (on Earth). Their ethereal, outlandish appearances are hard to swallow for a common man. Such outlandish appearances of gods can be found possible only in superstitious, primitive, tribal societies! What you say?
7. Vedas were originally ambiguous over the Creation!
The famous Nasadiya Sukta in Rig Veda questions like this:
But, after all, who knows, and who can say
whence it all came, and how Creation happened?
the gods themselves are later than Creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?
Whence all Creation had its origin,
he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not,
he, who surveys it all from highest heaven,
he knows – or maybe even he does not know.
Here we can see the clear ambiguity of the Vedas over the Creation. We can interpret it either as an instance of skeptical inquiry which constitutes an important aspect of Indian philosophical tradition or simply a lack of surety. In contrast, Abrahamic faiths especially Judaism authoritatively and prescriptively speaks of the Creation as a benign and heedful act of God.
8. Primitivity of Hinduism: Worship of Devi indicates matriarchal society
Worship of Devi as the female aspect of the divine is deeply entrenched in most of the Subcontinent traditions. Along with the major male gods, Devi holds an important position among the pantheon of gods (and goddesses) in those traditions. With countless names and forms – like self-indulgent Kali and Durga exhibiting the wrath and brute power, Prithvi appearing as somber and doting, Shakti as a dedicated consort of Shiva, etc. – worship of Devi as lording over the tribes has come to symbolize the dedication of the society not only towards the women’s roles but the primitive characters of the society, too back then as matriarchal society represents the early stage of evolution of human civilization.
Worship of Devi hence proves the primitivity, early stage of the Subcontinent traditions and what’s more Devi with her different aspects was incorporated into the pantheon of gods only later during Puranic age.
9. Cow worshipping: Pastorality of Hindu society
Cows revered as holy in the Subcontinent traditions symbolize the pastoral nature of those traditions back in those days. As domesticated animals provided people with meat, fur, milk, hide, etc. people would have thought it right to pay homage to those animals and the cow as being one of the largest of early domesticated animals in the Subcontinent proved the suitable candidate deserving veneration
There could be many judicious reasons why the cow was chosen but it nevertheless epitomizes the then pastoral, animal herding society of the Subcontinent. Pastoral societies are regarded as at the early stage of evolution (of civilization). Lord Krishna probably most famously represents the pastorality of the Subcontinent traditions with his playful cow herder character.
10. Fire: A wonder to Hindus
Not only to Hindus fire was actually a wonder to every primitive man back then. Early humans craved for it, fought for it and got hell of wild amazement at its sight. This is not unreasonable as fire has proved to be one of the few essential tools of human progress and achievement. Humanity is heavily indebted to fire for its progress. Humans, however, never invented fire for fire was already there in its natural states like volcano, naturally occurring fires in the wild, etc.; they only learned to control and use it for their benefits.
But the people in the Subcontinent were excessively enamored to the peculiarity of fire! They admired fire to such a degree that building of fire has now become an indispensable part of their every single ritual. The Vedas also showed their honour (to fire) by eulogizing it as ‘Agni’. Rig Veda has eulogized fire (Agni) by mentioning it right at the beginning of its hymns.
Eulogizing fire has nonetheless been grounded on practical and genuine belief. Fire (or heat) is essentially a vital element in all living beings. Plants and animals both possess certain amount of fire (or heat) within them. Living beings without certain amount of heat (a feature of fire) in them is impossible. Fire is a purifying agent, too as it destroys almost everything. Even the origin of the Universe, according to both science and creation stories of major faiths, encompasses the great tale of a very hot and dense state of fire which suddenly, either arbitrarily or at the wish of God, burst off into what we now call space-time. There are great fires in the form of countless stars like our Sun in the universe.
Hindus are excessively in love with fire which somewhat shows their rudimentariness. Extensive use of fires in ‘yajnas’ -o1_ and other Vedic rituals hints at the Subcontinent’s obsession with ruddy incandescence. Vedas have their own recipe for building fires for different rituals which usually consists of using flint stone or other special types of dried wood.
11. Vedas are off-limits to women and ‘untouchables’!
This is the reason why Hinduism has never taken its firm root among the people other than Brahmans, Kshetris and few other advantaged ones. Great knowledge contained in the Vedas, Upanishads and countless other literature has remained confined within the grip of those advantaged peoples thus depriving others from enjoying it. Other people─ like women, Sudras, Vaishyas, ‘untouchables’─ have essentially been living without proper moral guides and directions from the scriptures as they are barred from reading and reciting the scriptures thus keeping them from getting the moral guides and ultimately the truth glorified in the scriptures. This could be the reason why women, untouchables and other disadvantaged peoples here are living in far more substandard condition than in other parts of the world.
Even as the Brahmans and other advantaged peoples have enjoyed their exclusivity in reciting and interpreting the Vedas and other scriptures, their moral standard has consistently been on its downward course. Knowledge gives you power and certain advantage over others. But if you ain’t good enough to hold it, let’s say you being abusive; you become a piteous victim of its corruption. In today’s Subcontinent the priestly class, including other advantaged peoples, is more corrupt because of its being abusive with the knowledge that it had its hands on.
12. Hinduism looks more humanist!
Not because it shows humans the path to liberation/salvation. Some people like to say Hinduism is more a way of life than a religion in its strict sense. Traditions, rituals and practices (in Hinduism) are based on the realities of everyday life and thus favour human existence on Earth more than the gods in the heaven. For example planting and watering holy basil in the vicinity of a house looks more a practical approach than an offer of worship to God or gods as the basil has been proven to be one of the two plants releasing more amount of oxygen into the atmosphere─ the other being the peepul (a sacred fig tree).
Similarly, scrubbing the floor, before performing rituals, with green cow dung has its own practical meaning. Green cow dung can act as a purifying agent as it possesses pest or vermin repelling characteristic.
These traditions are the product of the everyday experiences accumulated over the hundreds or even thousands of years of living in either fixed or semi fixed or nomadic settlements. These types of practical traditions are found in other societies, too especially those living intimately with the nature. Nomadic Aboriginals in Australia and New Guinea also have numerous such traditions based on their experiences living in close proximity with the nature.
13. Hindus are nature worshippers
Not unusual as the essence of Hinduism regarding the cosmology is that this universe has been made up of two different entities: Purusha (i.e. consciousness) and Prakriti (i.e. material realm, the nature). Purusha represents the male principle whereas Prakriti the female principle. As Prakriti (i.e. the nature) is what humans find abundantly around them in their close proximity assisting in their everyday life Hindus might have thought it wise to worship the different aspects of the nature: fire (Agni is the personification of fire), water (Barun personifies water), holy basil (Vishnu personifies this), air (Maruta represents it), rain (Indra), etc.
Thus nature worshipping is deeply rooted in Hindu societies as earlier Hindus might have thought it right to pay their homage to the Mother Nature and its different aspects. Nature worshipping (or animism) indicates the early stage of human evolution and the Subcontinent traditions with all their primitivity exemplify this.
14. Why Hindus worship a pantheon of lesser gods?
This makes Hinduism look more like a mythology. Yama, Shiva, Ganesha, Devi, Indra, Rudra, Agni, Barun, Chandra, Shiva (riding a bull and living in the Himalayas), etc. are some of the lesser gods in Hinduism who hold sway over most of the worshipping. Sometimes I think we Hindus are not worshipping the true Creator; instead we are busy deifying and personifying the elements of the nature. Showing our gratitude to the elements of the nature is always just and right but brushing the true Creator aside and giving more prominence to the nature nevertheless makes us primitive and devoid of the idea of the Creator.
Our apathy or ingratitude towards the Creator is evident on the fact that Brahma, the creator deity, has lost his prominence among the Subcontinent traditions. Brahma is not worshipped in most of the traditions. This adds to the already telling evidence of ignorance of God (the Creator) among the Hindus.
Granted, idolatry makes the traditions in the Subcontinent appear more primitive. Rampant superstition and the poverty and backwardness thus created rob the traditions of their honour and glory. Alien-looking gods with their equally crazy acts – like bereft Shiva wandering aimlessly carrying the corpse of Sati- have made the traditions the butt of foreigners’ rather curt jokes. Polytheistic nature of the traditions keeps them from concentrating on monotheism. All these make the Subcontinent traditions look less civilised than that of Fertile Crescent. As we know transfer of culture almost always happens from more developed, civilised ones to less developed ones. So are we ready to accept our Subcontinent (religious) traditions most probably drew inspiration from those of Fertile Crescent sometime in the distant past?
Whatever happened in the past should be left behind in the annals of history. As of today, we can claim with a sense of smugness that we the people of the Subcontinent now boast one of the most elaborate, in-depth and admired philosophical and spiritual writings in the form of Upanishads, Itihasa and other countless texts and treatises. Thanks to all those authors, philosophers, pundits, spiritual gurus, saints and sages, within a short span we have achieved such a height of spiritual and philosophical excellence that the social ills like superstition, poverty, etc. which remain today as the legacy of our ignominious not-so-distant past have now been dwarfed to the point of little regard.
But Mr Nepali with his spiritually worthwhile discourses has nonetheless seriously stirred me from within. He made me review the traditions I’d been following without ever questioning. I’m still stuck in limbo not knowing what the real truth is. Nonetheless, I’ve already been on a long journey to finding the cosmic truth.
I’m both a creationist and an evolutionist in that God created humans- including other things like universe, different life forms – in their primitive forms and now they have evolved to be what we call modern humans with all those modern marvels. Yet I’m not sure on the aspect of God: immanent or transcendent; personal or amorphous.
Personally I don’t think God made humans to be self-indulgent and this much corrupt with knowing no bounds of their misdeeds. Animals (on Earth) seem to be living within their limits following certain natural laws but humans? We have transgressed all those bounds and laws for merely the personal benefit. On account of human activities animals and plant species here are facing danger while countless others have already become extinct. The Earth itself is at the receiving end of human misdeeds: global warming, climate change; pollution, etc. are taking their devastating toll on the overall well being of the planet.
God certainly didn’t expect this level of corruption and decadence to take hold of one of his great creations.