Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Hinduism and Buddhism in a Very Small Nutshell

     A while ago, my sister-in-law asked me to provide a short statement on what Hinduism and Buddhism were all about. Needless to say, this is not an easy subject to boil down into a few paragraphs. Both religions involve a tremendous amount of deep philosophical thinking, as well as a hugely diverse corpus of popular devotions and beliefs. One could spend a lifetime studying each. Nevertheless, since the whole outlook of these eastern religions is so completely alien to our own, it is worthwhile putting a brief summary into an article, so here goes.

     The original inhabitants of India were Dravidians, who are black, and speak languages unrelated to any others. They are today concentrated in the south of the country.The ones you are most likely to meet in Australia are Tamils. About 3,500 years ago they were invaded by a group of caucasians from the northwest called Aryans, who spoke a language distantly related to Greek and Latin - and English. One Aryan branch moved south into Iran (Iran = “Aryan”), while the other settled in the Indo-Gangetic Plain of the north, and interbred with the Davidians. Generally speaking, the people of southern India and black, and those of the north brown. But the Sri Lankans are mostly Aryans.
     Beginning from the late 7th century, India was subjected to wave after wave of extremely violent and destructive Muslim invasions. Pakistan and Bangla Desh are Muslim, and there are large numbers of Muslims in the north of India, but fewer in the south.

    The two main themes of Hinduism are:
  • Pantheism. There is not only one god, but one reality. Everything in the universe: every god, demon, human, or animal is a manifestation of the one nameless, impersonal god, as the sparks are a manifestation of the fire. In the beginning he split himself into an infinity of individuals as a sport, or recreation. Essentially, everything is an illusion. And this, essentially, is the cause of all suffering in the world.
     It follows that everything we feel, do, or think is non-god, and an illusion. The only way to achieve moksha, or salvation, is to divest yourself of all feelings, deeds, or thoughts. In fact, yoga developed as a method of concentrating the mind on nothing for that very purpose. This is the purpose for the terrible, life-denying austerities practised by the Hindu holy men. In order to reset the moral imbalance of the universe, they are trying to crucify themselves. But, as I heard one preacher say, the trouble with crucifying yourself is you can never get that last nail in i.e. human power is insufficient for the purpose.
  • Reincarnation. After death, our souls are recycled into new bodies. You have probably heard the term, karma (“deed”). This refers to the process by which individual actions produce good or bad effects. Bad karma will cause a person to be reborn as a poor person, in a lower caste, as a woman, in one of the hells, or as an animal. By good karma you can advance your position in the world in your next life, or be reincarnated in heaven, or as a god, but you are still bound by the cycle of existence. You still haven’t reached moksha. Because animals contain recycled human souls, all life is sacred. Cows are holy. A good Hindu is a vegetarian. In practice, the lower castes can eat any meat except beef. Individuals may be saved, but the universe cannot be, for it is cyclical. It is constantly going through cycles of advancement and decay, in each of which certain gods appear and disappear. 
Social Features of Hinduism
    The people of the Middle East and India, whether Jewish, Muslim, Parsee, or Hindu, are strong believers in ritual purity. Certain disgusting things such as excrement, menstrual blood, and contact with dead bodies is defiling. Alcohol is forbidden. Hindus are cremated, not buried. Originally, a widow was expected to have herself burnt, preferably alive and undrugged, on her husband’s funeral pyre. As such, she was called a suttee (which is the name of the person, not the ritual). When the British put an end to it, there was no place for widows in Hindu societies. Women are treated as second class humans.
     Hindu society is strictly regulated into castes, a word used to translate two terms. The first is varṇa (warṇa) or “colour”: the four basic castes from first to last: Brahmins or priests, Kshatriyas or soldiers/rulers, Vaisyas or merchants, and Shūdras or peasants. The other terms is jātī, the sub-castes within the other four. Each composes a specific occupation. Jātīs may move up the social ladder over the centuries, but never the individual. You must stay in the caste into which you are born, and may only eat with and marry members of the same caste. If you are good, you may be reborn in a higher caste. The lower castes are treated badly by the upper castes.
     Below and outside the caste system are despised occupations such as toilet cleaners, undertakers etc. They belong to the large group known as harijans, outcasts, pariahs, or untouchables. As the last terms imply, they are treated like dirt.

The Scriptures
     The earliest Hindu scriptures are the Vedas, collections of prayers recorded by the original Aryan invaders in the middle of the first millennium B.C. Theoretically, these are the holiest of all the scriptures. In practice, the Vedic gods are rarely worshiped as such any more.
     Appendices to the Vedas are the Upanishads, which teach the doctrine of pantheism.
     The real Hindu scriptures are vast collections which came out in the first half of the Christian era. The first set are the epics, the Mahābhārata and the Rāmayāṇa. The first one, in particular, is incredibly long, and they contain a vast number of very childish myths in the same category as superhero comics. Included in the Mahābhārata is an interpolation called the Bhagavad Gītā, or “Song of the Lord”, being a long sermon by Krishṇa.
     Next are the 18 Purāṇas, which contain myths of creation and the activities of the gods.

    As mentioned before, the ultimate god of Hinduism is impersonal. But later, there came a movement of seeking salvation by means of bhakti, or wholehearted devotion to a specific god, usually Śiva or Krishṇa, about which more later.

The Gods

     There are supposed to be 330 million gods (who counted them?). Typically, they are depicted as having many arms. However, they are all considered manifestations of the one, nameless god. This god manifests himself (itself) in three major deities: Brahmā the Creator, Vishṇu the preserver, and Śiva the destroyer. The devotees of each claim that their god is the “real” god, and the other two are illusionary manifestations of him. Brahmā has lost the battle; he has only a single temple left. The followers of Vishņu are called Vaishṇites, and the followers of Śiva, Śaivites. There are six purāṇas celebrating Brahmā, six celebrating Vishṇu, and six celebrating Śiva. Each of them claims that the other are illusions, and should not be worshiped.
     Śiva (pronounced “shivva”) is represented as a mediating yogi, or a many-armed “Lord of the Dance”, or as an erect penis, which is as common over there as the sign of the cross over here. Vishṇu is a very benign god. During every cycle of the universe he incarnated on earth as ten avatārs, not necessarily in human form. Krishṇa is the eighth, and most popular, and the tenth is still to come.

Hare Krishnas
     In the 16th  century there arose a teacher called Chaitanya, who preached salvation by bhakti (devotion) to Krishṇa. He is believed by his followers to be an avatār of Vishṇu, and to have sprouted four extra arms. In the last century, one of his followers founded the International Society of Krishṇa Consciousness, or ISKC. We know them as the Hare Krishnas from their chant. They have two scriptures: the Bhagavad Gītā and the Bhagavad Purāṇa, which tends to merge Krishṇa and Vishṇu as the supreme godhead, even more so than the other Vaishṇite purāṇas. From reading the Hare Krishna literature, you would never guess that any other purāṇas exist, let alone those exalting Śiva or Brahmā. Their spiritual masters have kept them in ignorance, and you may like to raise the issue with the next Hare Krishna you meet.


     Buddhism arose in India at the end of the sixth century BC, but became extinct in its homeland. It consists of two religions, as distinct as Judaism and Christianity. The Theravāda or “traditional way” is present in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand, the Mahāyāna or “great vehicle” in Central Asia, Japan, China, and Indochina. Siddharta Gautama was a prince from the south of Nepal who renounced everything and joined a group of ascetics. Realizing this was getting him nowhere, he sat down under a tree and vowed he would not get up until he had solved the mystery of the universe. Amazingly, he did so. He became the Buddha, the “enlightened” or “awakened” one.
   The three principles of Buddhism are that the world is soulless, sorrowful, and changing. It is essentially mechanistic. Buddhists do not like being called atheists, but they do not believe in an ultimate god. In practice, for help in everyday life, they call upon the gods of whatever country they are in, but these gods are just beings higher than us. The big issue of salvation has to be worked out individually.
     The world is constantly changing. Your body is changing with every breath you take and every mouthful you eat. Your mind is changing with every thought. You are not the same person as the tiny baby who first came into the world. The only reason you think you are is the illusion of identity produced by memory. Thus, the world is soulless. However, the Buddha was not prepared to give up the idea of reincarnation. He taught that our “identity” is a complex of desires which, at the time of death, move on into another body.
     The world is sorrowful, not because happiness is impossible, but because sorrow cannot be avoided for long. It is inherent in having desires. The only way to avoid it is to let go, to give up on desires. He and his disciplines developed a system by which this can be achieved, particularly involving monasticism. When you reach that goal, you have reached nirvāṇa or the “blowing out”. At that point, you are completely at rest. You have no further desires to frustrate you, and no more incarnations.
     This, in essence, is the Traditional Path, and it effectively seeks salvation by works. The Buddha himself is in nirvāṇa, and has no further dealings with mankind. He can be used as a model and inspiration, but there is no point in praying to him.
     The Great Vehicle, however, seeks salvation through saviours. It is fundamental to its teachings that merit is transferable ie you can gain benefit from somebody else’s merits. They believe that many enlightened souls, out of compassion for humanity’s lost, put off their final journey to nirvāṇa, but halt at a point just before, where they can help mortals with their own merits. They are called bodhisattvas.
     Tibetan Buddhism is often referred to as a third Buddhist religion. It is incredibly complicated, and essentially returns to the same pantheism which the Buddha tried to retreat from.

     Sikhism began in the Punjab in the 15th century as an attempt at compromise between Hinduism and Islam. They believe in one God who is omniscient, omnipotent, invisible, and so forth - rather like the Christian God. They seek union with God by giving up egotism and living a righteous life, but they leave open the possibility of reincarnation. They are not allowed to cut their hair, take alcohol or other intoxicants, or eat meat which has been ritually sacrificed. They preach the equality of all people, regardless of race, class, or sex.
     They follow the five K’s: kesh (uncut hair), kanga (a wooden comb), kara (an iron bracelet), kacchera (a pair of cotton underpants), and kirpan (dagger or sword). The men wear turbans and have the surname Singh (“lion”), while the women are called Kaur (“princess”).