The many paths to truth

C apuUSA Today religion writer Cathy Lynn Grossman has a great piece today on the superficial treatment Hinduism receives in America. She looks at everything from The Simpsons’ Apu to the mangled version of Karma in the TV hit My Name is Earl:

Throw another ingredient in the American spirituality blender.

Pop culture is veering into Hinduism — sort of. Call it a Hindu-esque sampling of the flavor, images and style of a 6,000-year-old faith but with no actual theology involved.

Though small in terms of American adherents, Hinduism has had a profound influence on Americans since it was introduced in the 19th century. Grossman looks at its recent incarnations and provides a bit of perspective. There are 930 million Hindus worldwide, 98 percent of whom are in India. Hinduism is a 19th-century term for a spectrum of ancient teachings, she says:

As Christians are unified by the centrality of Christ, so Hindus, divided among thousands of sects and sub-sects, are unified by “one, all-pervasive supreme God, though he or she may be worshiped in many forms,” says Suhag Shukla.

Shukla is the author of a fact sheet on the faith for the Hindu American Foundation, a U.S.-based human rights group that defends and explains Hinduism for an estimated 2 million Hindus in the USA.

The foundation finds mass media often present Hindus as polytheistic (not) and idol worshipers (not) and confuses religious teachings with controversial social practices such as providing a dowry.

Hmm. I’m really not sure it’s accurate to call Hindus either polytheistic or not polytheistic. Those terms are very Western and fail to accurately convey Hindu beliefs. Hindus do worship many, many Gods. They also believe that there is one supreme deity in many incarnations. It is very difficult for people raised with Western ideas to wrap their heads around this seeming contradiction, but it is not difficult for Hindu thinkers. God is one and many, they might say. In fact, the Rig Veda says “Truth is one and the learned call it by many names.” Hinduism is rather pantheistic with polytheistic attributes. And the idol-worshiper contention is similarly debatable. It is true that when Christians went to India to convert Hindus, they derided the Hindu believers there as idol worshipers and that insult was taken to heart. But Hindus do also appreciate fashioning murtis, images used during worship to help focus devotion and meditation. They tend to represent forms of God like Ganesh, Krishna, or Kali.

The thing is that the Suhag Shukla is not an impartial representative of Hinduism. Rather, she has ties to a very specific brand of Hinduism. We’ve discussed these Hindu Nationalist folks before, as they are very involved in the textbook fights going on in California. They are very political and not without controversy. And in America these Hindus are very sensitive to American-style criticisms against polytheism, idol worship, and the inequality inherent in the caste system, etc.

Anyway, the article is great and it’s nice to see some much-needed coverage of an influential religion. And it’s nice how Grossman compares Hollywood’s trivializing of Hinduism with the trivializing of Christianity. She finds the upside for Hindus:

It could be argued that exposing the West to Hindu ideas and images — short of blasphemy — can’t be all bad if it provokes further study.

“Theology is understood by scriptwriters as an a la carte menu of ideas,” says [Dick] Staub, [a writer on faith and culture for Christianity Today Online]. “Blenderism accepts the relativity of truth. There’s no requirement to assert any one thing is right or wrong. Put it in the blender, and there you go.”

The funny thing is how the scriptwriters’ view reflects the influence of Hinduism’s many paths as introduced to America long ago through Emerson and Thoreau.

Print Friendly

  • Joel

    “I’m really not sure it’s accurate to call Hindus either polytheistic or not polytheistic. Those terms are very Western and fail to accurately convey Hindu beliefs. Hindus do worship many, many Gods. They also believe that there is one supreme deity in many incarnations. It is very difficult for people raised with Western ideas to wrap their heads around this seeming contradiction, but it is not difficult for Hindu thinkers. God is one and many, they might say.”

    I don’t see why this should be a lot harder to acccept rationally than the Trinity.

  • Scott Allen

    Joel asks why, rationally, it should be harder to accept a Hindu version of God (“…monotheistic in its belief in one God and henotheistic in that any one God can be worshipped without denying the existence of other Gods”) than the Trinity. Good question, and in order to be “rational” we can review the orthodox (that is, both Roman and protestant) view of God, that He is one in essence but three persons. This is a rational construct. For example, a common household nail can have 3 parts (i.e., head, main body, tip) but have one essence (i.e., a steel alloy). The 3 “persons” of the Trinity are obviously more profound than simple parts of a nail, but we can see how an entity can have 1 essence but also differentiation in other characteristics. Your apparent premise is that Hinduism does this on a massive scale — there is “…one, all-pervasive supreme God…” (to quote again from the Hindu American Foundation fact page) “…though He or She may be worshipped in different forms and by different names.” This is certainly plausible. Please note that “Scripture in Hinduism, however, does not have the same place as it does in many other faiths. Hinduism is premised on realization, not revelation.” What does this mean? Basically that it’s difficult to make any rational (that is, well-defined) characterization of Hinduism because there is great latitude for “realization.”
    Conversely, Christians are stuck with the Scriptures as written, with the claim that they are the personal revelation of God. The concept of the Trinity is a rational explanation of what the Bible says about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To sum it up, Hinduism has no requirement to rationally reconcile statements in its scriptures because they do not have the same role as the Bible does for Christians. I cannot say that Hinduism is rational, I can’t say it’s not, because it won’t allow such specific statements. Hence its superficial appeal to Americans, if you want a one-size-fits-all approach to religion, Hinduism will allow an a la carte approach.

  • Will

    There was an essay by Robert M. Price, sometime of the Jesus Project, on “If You Hate Christianity, You’ll Loathe Buddhism”, on how the popular American version of contrasting Dogmatic and Superstitious Christianity with Open and Individualistic eastern religions involves an apples-and-oranges comparison, taking the most rarified form which has been “exported” to the west as the “true” version, and ignoring all the multifarious versions actually practiced by “native” believers.

  • Jeff the Baptist

    “Hindus do worship many, many Gods. They also believe that there is one supreme deity in many incarnations.”

    Agreed. Perhaps expanding the Trinity into some sort of Panoply would serve as a good illustration for this. One god, many forms and faces. But as Scott points out, this is not an illustration without flaws.

    The real problem with Hinduism to Western senses is that even use of the word “theology” is loaded. Christians have a systematic, rational, and unified theology. So do Jews. Muslims are making efforts towards developing one. Using the word, theology almost implies this idea of a unified theory of God to western minds. But the Hindus have no such concept and probably couldn’t develop one even if they wanted to. Perhaps they have a central shared narrative, but that is about it.

  • Avram

    A year or so ago I read an article that claimed that Hinduism was actually an invention of the 18th and 19th centuries, an imposition of an over-simplified framework onto a much broader and diverse array of beliefs. Let me see if I can find it.

    OK, the original article has 404′d, but has a copy. The author is Pankaj Mishra, who claims:

    In the 18th century, the British were both appalled and fascinated by the excess of gods, sects, and cults they encountered in India. It was a religious situation similar to the pagan chaos a Christian from the eastern provinces of the Roman empire might have encountered in the West just before Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. As it turned out, like the powerful Christians in Rome, the British in India sought and imposed uniformity. [...]

    These scholars organised their impressions of Indian religion according to what they were familiar with at home: the monotheistic and exclusive nature of Christianity. When confronted by diverse Indian religions, they tended to see similarities. These similarities were usually as superficial as those found between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But the British assumed that different religious practices could only exist within a single overarching tradition. They also started off with a literary bias, which was partly the result of the mass distribution of texts and the consequent high degree of literacy in Europe in the eighteenth century. They thought that since Christianity had canonical texts, Indian tradition must have the same. Their local intermediaries tended to be Brahmans, who alone knew the languages—primarily Sanskrit—needed to study such ancient Indian texts as the Vedas and the Bhagavad-Gita. Together, the British scholars and their Brahman interpreters came up with a canon of sorts, mostly Brahmanical literature and ideology, which they began to identify with a single Hindu religion.

    I totally lack the expertise which would enable me to tell if Mishra’s article is worth taking seriously.

  • Scott Allen

    Avram’s closing comment about the formation of a canon is interesting. I definitely lack any expertise in most religions other than as a practitioner of christianity and student of arabic and Islam (and then only as an undergraduate minor). Still, comparison with development of the christian canon may be instructive. Essentially there was a large degree of circulation, sharing, and debating about different Old and New Testament books and letters over 1,500 years. Church councils/synods dealt with issues on a reactionary basis (as they surfaced), formalized certain doctrines and labeled others as anathema. The formal selection of the canon by Rome was itself a reaction to doctrinal issues advanced by Protestants (who thereafter were accused of “censoring” certain books/letters out of the Bible). My point is that you may need (1) a group, that is (2) intent on controlling its teachings, and (3) is able to send representatives with authority to make decisions, that (4) will enforce such decisions with excommunication or even harsher penalties to “police” itself. Hinduism would seem to have lacked the sort of “policing” process I just described, particularly if we look at the number of idols worshipped and their seeming lack of formal doctrine. So, while Mishra’s article may seem demeaning and harsh (if you value a unified, formal religion), it is plausible. Yet, even if the British in essence imposed a title (or umbrella term) on disparate beliefs, it should not change the facts. For Hindus, what they take to be valid scriptures and practices either have a commonality at some level (or if you will, “path” or “paths”) or they do not. As such, this sort of allegation only places the British as a proxy of sorts for any other Seekers, assuming they honestly attempted to find congruities instead of imposing their own notions or exagerrating incongruities within Indian tradition. I sympathize with them, it’s difficult for Roman Catholics and Protestants to discuss the canon because it naturally resurrects all the “reactionary” issues that spurred the formalization before/after Trent.

  • MJBubba

    Doesn’t this discussion reveal one of the reasons that reporting on religion is so difficult? There are far too many reporters in the MSM that assume that Christianity is one big thing, with a couple of divisions (Catholic/ Protestant, with some complications). Likewise, they see Islam and Hindu as similarly monolithic. Actually, there is probably more division within the world of Hinduism than within Christianity. (Have you browsed the Handbook of Denominations lately?) I believe that it is true to say that many Hindus are polytheistic, and that many Hindus think of the myriad Hindu deities as aspects of a singularity that has similarities to the Buddhist Whole, and that many Hindus blend these ways of thinking, and that, in addition to these, there are hundreds of splinter groups with a bewildering array of thought about the Hindu deities. Religion seldom makes for easy reporting. I appreciate the GetReligion efforts to educate the journalists and encourage proper coverage of these issues.

  • Will

    And similarly with “Buddhism”. Just what are the commonalities between a Theravada ascetic, a Tibetan syncretist, and a Japanese Pure Landite preaching salvation by faith in Amida? Buddhists themselves have trouble with this.