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Hinduism: Empty Diversity

By Winfried Corduan

My class in world religions was visiting a Hindu group on a Sunday morning, and we stayed for the communal lunch. I was sitting on one of the large mats next to a gentleman who had been a member of the group for as long as I had been visiting with students, so our conversation was easy and relaxed. I decided to bring up a subject that I am usually reluctant to broach because it could be construed as offensive. I asked him what he thought of the militant extremist Hindu groups, oftentimes classed together as Hindutva, some of whom had been persecuting Christians. My acquaintance immediately resorted to the notion that we were only getting a distorted picture because of biased news reports. He conceded that the Hindutva were highly patriotic, but denied that they were militant or that they ever resorted to violence because they were true Hindus. He said, “You heard what our speaker said a little while ago, that we are all Brahman, and so we are all God inside. So they could not hurt anyone else because they know that all people are equal on the spiritual plane.”

I found his answer to be somewhat disappointing for several reasons. For one, he was denying something that is a genuine reality in India at this time. Second, I am never comfortable with answers along the line of “they couldn’t have because they wouldn’t have” or vice versa because such answers beg the question, “But what if they did?” To infer from what he thought the Hindutva groups might believe to the conclusion that, therefore, they could not have committed certain actions is a huge leap. At that, it is not at all clear that the Hindus of the Hindutva believe the same things as my friend does, and even if they did, there is no good reason to suppose that they lived out their beliefs with perfect consistency. I cannot look into those people’s minds and hearts, so I need to focus on the first observation, namely the tremendous diversity within Hinduism.

Hinduism’s Diversity

“Hinduism” is an artificial term, coined by Westerners, that is intended to encompass the religious side of the dominant South-Asian culture. It is difficult to overemphasize the symbiosis between religion and society. There are a few items that join Hindu groups together, none of which are deep spiritual beliefs: the caste system, cow protection, and recognizing the sacred Scriptures, the Vedas, as inspired writings. But note that the requirement to recognize the Vedas is not a requirement to practice the religion as it is set forth in the Vedas; it simply means to respect them as authoritative and divine.

So, if we want to understand Hinduism, we need to establish some form of taxonomy of the various groups and subgroups. But doing that is also not as easy as one might think because there are several ways of dividing up Hinduism for purposes of classification (see Table 1). We could follow its stages of historical development; we could lay out the six philosophical schools (Vedanta, Yoga, Samkhya, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, and Purva Mimamsa); we could elaborate on “the three ways” towards salvation (works, knowledge, and devotion); or we could focus on the three main schools of devotional (Bhakti) Hinduism (devotion to Shiva, Vishnu, or the goddess under her many different names and forms).

Of course, we can also mix and match these categories so that quite a few permutations are possible, though historically and traditionally there have been some natural assortments among the different categories. Where you fall within these many options depends not so much on your choice as on your heritage of family, geography, and local traditions. An article such as this one is clearly not the place to develop all of this complexity. However, the more contact we are planning on having with Hindus, the greater our need to go beyond easy, streamlined summaries.

Speaking in really generalized terms, in the Western world one is most likely to encounter Hinduism in one of two different forms. One is a somewhat intellectual version, and this is the form in which it has become best known in the West. We shall refer to it as “Vedantic Hinduism.” The other one is Hinduism with all of its colors, smells, and sounds: Hinduism with temples, statues, rituals, and images, both repulsive and attractive. This version is the one that is actually dominant in South Asia, but it is becoming increasingly popular in the Western world due to changing immigration laws. The strongest evidence for this fact is the growth of Hindu temples in almost every major city in America by now. Let us call it “Temple Hinduism.”

Various Ways of Dividing Up Hinduism

Historical developments

Aryan Invasion ca. 1500 B.C. Vedas

Establishment of Brahmanic Religion 1500-500 B.C.

Upanishadic (Vedantic) period. 500 B.C. to A.D. 500

Development of Bhakti Movements A.D. 500 to present

Modern Hinduism with many gods, many scriptures

Schools of Philosophy

Purva Mimamsa (ritual-oriented) 

Vedanta (Advaita: Identity of Atman and Brahman)

Samkhya Atheistic dualism (spirit and matter) and pluralism (many souls)

Yoga (Samkhya plus a god)

Nyaya (Logical analysis)

Vaisheshika (Scientific Classification)

The “Three ways”

The Way of Works (Karma Marga)

The Way of Knowledge (Jnana Marga)

The Way of Devotion (Bhakti Marga)

Three Main Schools of Bhakti 

Vaishnavite (Focusing on Vishnu and his avatars)

Shaivite (Focusing on Shiva and his family)

Shaktite (Focusing on the goddess)

Vedanta Hinduism

There was a time when the immigration laws saw to it that Indians were allowed to come here to study, but only a few got to stay, and these were people who were highly qualified professionals, particularly physicians and engineers. In terms of religion, insofar as these people would practice any form of Hinduism at all, it would more likely be a form that would appeal to the mind and be more philosophical than ritualistic in nature. These immigrants found that there were already organizations in the United States promoting Vedantic Hinduism.

There were two main groups that we can look back on as importing Hinduism into the Western world. The first was established by Westerners, the other one had Indian leadership. These are the Theosophical Society and the Ramakrishna mission, which got a head start in America as the Vivekananda Society. It is with quite a bit of reservation that I am willing to apply the label “Hindu” to the Theosophical Society because much of what they were teaching was more in line with occult spiritualism. Mme. Blavatsky, its founder, considered herself to be a medium, and she claimed to have supernatural powers. Nevertheless, they wished to be affiliated with Hindu groups in India; they were responsible for some translations of Hindu scriptures into English; and their main beliefs followed the Vedantic pattern that we shall describe below.

The other introduction of Hinduism into the United States occurred in 1893 when Swami Vivekananda spoke at the “World’s Parliament of Religions,” which was held in conjunction with the World’s Fair in Chicago. He kept on stressing the ideas of “assimilation and not destruction” and “harmony and peace and not dissension.” Although some of the delegates grumbled, those in the outside world who were looking for Eastern religions loved the young, chubby swami and his message, and pretty soon Vivekananda Centers were springing up all over America. Thus, the form of Hinduism to which most early immigrants would subscribe already had a small base in the United States.

Under the categories given above, (a) historically, Vedanta developed in the sixth century BC as a reaction against ritualism and the exclusive privileges of the priesthood; (b) as the name says, it incorporates Vedantic philosophy as well as religion; and (c) it follows the way of knowledge. The “Vedanta” were a series of books, commonly called the Upanishads, that were composed about a thousand years after the Vedas, the original holy books, and they are considered to be additions to the Vedas; in fact, Vedanta means “supplement to the Vedas.” Even though they are supposed to elaborate on the Vedas, some of the Upanishads represent a drastic change away from the religion as it had been practiced before that time. These books are by no means consistent in their teachings, but the best known Vedantic form of thought, and the one to which we usually apply the term Vedanta (unless otherwise qualified) is a monistic philosophy in which nothing is real except for the one ultimate reality that is beyond all thought, reason, or conceptualization.

This reality is Brahman. It is often referred to as “God,” but in this form of Vedanta, we should not think of Brahman as personal or involved in the world as an immediate agent. Many Vedantists claim that everything other than Brahman, which is collectively called maya, is pure illusion. Others don’t take it quite that far; they say that maya is real enough, but only insofar as it is nothing but an emanation from Brahman similar to the way a projector casts an image on a screen.

If only Brahman is real, it simply follows that human beings are not real; they are also maya, and this goes far beyond the physical side. Your body, your soul, your mind, your spiritual faculties, your personality and psychological traits, just about everything is part of maya and, therefore, does not have the same reality as Brahman. It is only in the very depth of our being, in such a deep recess that it is undetectable and—dare I say it—unknowable, that we have a connection to Brahman. In the Chandokya Upanishad a father asks his son:

Have you ever asked for that instruction by which we hear what cannot be heard, by which we perceive what cannot be perceived, by which we know what cannot be known?1

And this connection is not just a representation of Brahman, but it is Brahman itself. Even though it is so deeply concealed that it is virtually undiscoverable, this is one’s true Self (called Atman), and this true Self is the very same Brahman that is the only genuine cosmic reality. Thus, Atman and Brahman are identical with each other, not just in the sense of being totally alike, but in the sense of being one and the same thing. It follows that, if Brahman is correctly referred to as God, then you are God.

If you talk to Vedantic Hindus, they will often try to persuade you that what they believe is not all that different from what Christians believe. Most likely, they will insist that, just as in the Bible, Hinduism has only one God, Brahman, and that all of the other Hindu gods are simply manifestations or symbols of Brahman. Hinduism also has a triad of gods (the trimurti or “tri-shape”) as a counterpart to the Trinity, because Brahman manifests himself as Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu, the (Preserver), and Shiva (the Destroyer). Brahma created the universe; Vishnu preserves it along with its fundamental rules (the dharma), and when the world has become old and worn out, Shiva will raze it so that Brahma can create a new world. But how close to the Christian Trinity is the trimurti? A closer look at the two beliefs will show that they do not have much in common other than the number three.

First of all, the impersonal Brahman, who is beyond all words and concepts, is nothing like the personal God of the Bible, who interacts with his creatures and reveals himself to them. Second, the Nicene Creed notwithstanding, the New Testament frequently attributes the creation of the world to the Son as well as the Father (John 1:3, Col. 1:16), rather than leaving it with one person such as Brahma. Third, Vishnu as Sustainer or Redeemer is drastically different from Christ, our Savior. It all comes down to what problem the religion is trying to solve. In Christianity, the central problem is our alienation from God due to our sinfulness. Jesus solved that problem for us because in him God the Son joined himself to a human nature, and he atoned for our sins by his death and resurrection. In Hinduism, the goal is to get out of the cycles of reincarnation, which is possible thanks to the dharma, the “Way.” From time to time, when the dharma has been threatened, Vishnu has been incarnated (become an avatar) and set things right. The direct object of Vishnu’s redemptive activities is not human beings, though they clearly benefit from it, but it is the dharma that Vishnu rescues. Thus in the Ramayana, the epic written about Vishnu’s avatar, Rama, Brahma says of him:

Whenever there is loss of dharma on earth, the Lord incarnates himself in order to destroy the demons and to restore dharma.” (Uttara 8)2

And the next avatar, Krishna, says,

Whenever there is a decline of Dharma (Righteousness) and a predominance of Adharma (Unrighteousness), O Arjuna, then I manifest Myself. I appear from time to time for protecting the good, for transforming the wicked, and for establishing world order (Dharma).(4:7-8)3

Furthermore, there is no way in which one can plausibly correlate the Holy Spirit with the god Shiva beyond the obvious attributes of deity.

But let us move on with a further look at Vedantic Hinduism. Its central message is “Atman is Brahman.” You are God. You are infinite. You may think that you are finite, but you actually are infinite. Your biggest spiritual problem may be that you continue to think of yourself as finite, and that you must learn that you are, in fact, infinite. Once you have attained that realization, you are set free of the cycle of death and rebirths. This is not an easy lesson because, after all, you experience yourself as finite, and you definitely have attributes of finitude, such as being limited by time and space and not knowing that you are infinite.

Well, of course this is hard, a Vedantist might reply. After all, most of what you consider to be “you” still belongs to the illusory realm of maya, and so the illusory part of you certainly would not know that it is Brahman for the simple reason that it is not Brahman. For a moment, that seems to clear up the problem—but then, on further review— the whole scheme falls apart logically.

Let me rephrase the previous point just a little bit: the finite part of you does not know that it is infinite because the finite is not infinite; it is not even truly real. But then the question arises, who exactly it could be that could quite possibly be spending a lifetime in pursuit of the spiritual goal of knowing that he is infinite? We just ruled out the finite person because the finite is finite and will never be infinite. Neither can it be the infinite that is spending a lifetime learning that it is infinite because the infinite certainly cannot have forgotten that it is infinite and now be in the process of learning of its infinity through meditation and yoga. The infinite must know that it is infinite or it would not be infinite, so there is hardly any deep spiritual meaning in declaring that the infinite is infinite. Conversely, of course the finite can learn that the infinite is infinite, but there’s nothing particularly new and startling about such an assertion either. This scheme would be meaningful only on the condition that something finite can also be infinite, an idea that Vedanta itself rejects. In short, even though Vedantic Hinduism has had a strong appeal to people who are trying to find fulfillment in a non-Western religion, it ultimately suffers from a logical breakdown from which it cannot recover.

Temple Hinduism

But we are only talking about a minority of Hindus here, anyway. I will never forget the first time that I entered a Hindu temple. Having studied Vedantic Hinduism in depth, and knowing all about Atman and Brahman and maya, as I stepped into the courtyard, I realized that none of these philosophical contemplations had anything to do with what I saw in front of me. There were statues of various gods and goddesses. There were containers for burning sandalwood and incense. There were priests to whom people came with their offerings, which the priests then performed on their behalf. When it got to be the proper time, musicians appeared, and they had a worship service (puja) in which the priest and his assistant moved from deity to deity waving lights and incense before the statues. I learned later that the actual gods and goddesses were said to indwell them.

This is the religion of the majority of Hindus. Many of them have never even heard of the Atman-Brahman identity, and for many of those who have, it is a piece of speculation that is not very relevant to them. They worship personal gods, who are ultimately without form, but who—for our sake— have taken abode in the statues in temples so that people can have an easy opportunity to worship them. Of the so-called three ways mentioned above—works, knowledge, devotion—most of contemporary Hinduism is derived from the third. “Devotion” can be interpreted either as the devotion of a human being to a god, or the devotion of a god to a human being.

There are three major divisions in the school of devotion (Bhakti). One focuses on Vishnu and his many incarnations, such as Rama and Krishna; one centers on Shiva and his divine family; and the third one concentrates on a goddess, such as the ferocious-looking Kali. However, to identify with one of these three groups does not mean that you ignore all the others. It just means that you give precedence to your god and worship all the gods in the style of your tradition.

In Bhakti Hinduism, what the gods do for us is help us overcome the fruits of our actions. Every action brings about results, which, in turn, will define the duties for our next lives. Those actions are our karma, the fruits are our karmaphala, and there is no way of avoiding them. Usually this is thought of as an automatic process, but in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna expresses it as his judgment. He says concerning people who deviate from the dharma: “I hurl these haters, cruel, sinful, and mean people into the cycles of rebirth in the womb of demons again and again” (16:19). Thus, people who do evil are reincarnated endlessly.

But good people actually don’t fare much better. The best they can hope for is a vacation in heaven before the cycles start over again.

The doers of the rituals prescribed in the Vedas . . . worship Me by doing good deeds for gaining heaven. As a result of their meritorious deeds they go to heaven and enjoy celestial sense pleasures. . . They return to the mortal world . . . upon exhaustion of the fruits of their good Karma. Thus . . . persons working for the fruit of their actions take repeated birth and death. (9:20-21)

One might think that, therefore, the best thing to do is nothing, but that doesn’t help either. Krishna declares, “One does not attain freedom from the bondage of Karma by merely abstaining from work” (3:4).

It seems as though one is inextricably entrapped, but this is where Bhakti Hinduism provides a way out in the form of the devotion to a god. Krishna makes the offer: “After attaining Me, the great souls do not incur rebirth in this miserable transitory world, because they have attained the highest perfection” (BG 8.15). Just do not think of this offer as free grace. For the most part devotion to a god implies a life of complete dedication, which is not easy to carry out.

In the meantime, the Hindu person does what he can to improve his karma. He knows that whatever station he holds in this life is the fruit of his previous existences. If he is a highcaste Brahmin, he must have accumulated quite a bit of merit in his last life. On the other hand, a low-caste Shudra recognizes that his own karma has brought him his present misery. Thus, Hinduism has rationalized social inequity, and it does little good to point out this fact to a Hindu because that is precisely what his religion entails: it is only fair that life should be unfair. What the Hindu needs to hear is that there is a fourth way, though it heads in another direction. This way leads him to see that his problem is not that he exists in the world, but that, due to his sin, he exists separated from the God who created him.

The Christian Alternative

Let’s revisit another field trip with another class to another Hindu temple. This one was an ISKCON center (“Hare Krishna”). We had observed the chanting and dancing and were, once again, having a meal together. Various ISKCON leaders were stationed strategically to answer any of the students’ questions. I was at the table with the former director, listening to him respond to questions about life in devotion to Krishna. Again I took advantage of a long-standing relationship when I finally added a comment. “You see, Govindh,” I said, “here’s the problem. Krishna hasn’t done anything for you. You can spend your entire life devoted to him, but at the end of the day, you are still covered as much in your sins as you were in the beginning. Krishna did nothing to remove your sins, but Christ died on the cross so that God can freely give you Christ’s righteousness.”

This is the crucial difference: on the one hand uncertainty, contradictory speculations, promises with no basis to back them up, and a life time of servitude; on the other hand, the decisive act of God in history on our behalf.

Winfried Corduan is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Taylor University. He is the author of numerous books including Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions (IVP), and No Doubt about It: A Case for Christianity (Broadman & Holman).


1 Chandokya Upanishad VI, 1, 3. Max Müller, trans. Sacred Books of the East 1:92.

2 Swami Venkatesananda, tr., The Concise Ramayana of Valmiki (New York: SUNY, 1988), p. 356.

3 Bhagavad Gita 4:7-8. Freemont, Calif.: The American Gita Society.

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