Swami Achuthananda in his book, Many Many Many Gods of Hinduism, writes that in order to understand or appreciate Hinduism, an individual must necessarily also understand Indian culture.
In India, the religion is the culture and the culture is the religion. You cannot learn one without understanding the other.1
In the 1960s, the Beatles brought an awareness of Indian culture to those in the West through their involvement with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Transcendental Meditation. Naturally, the mode by which the Beatles expressed their exposure to Indian culture was through their music, specifically through George Harrison’s sitar playing, notably on the song, “Norwegian Wood” and others. At the time, George Harrison took a few lessons from the classical sitar master, Ravi Shankar, but would later abandon the instrument. In today’s culture, Harrison probably would have been accused of “cultural appropriation” because of his blending of Indian music with Western pop music and without having taken the “proper” approach to his studies.
As it happens, Indian music was the topic of my high school senior essay. I wanted a topic that was different, and it was. Probably too different since, if I recall correctly, my English teacher dissed it.
Unless one has had the opportunity to actually travel to India, most of us in the U.S. tend to get our exposure to Indian culture, and other far away cultures, through the media, namely movies. Accordingly, I’ve provided a short list of movies that I believe provide a glimpse into Indian culture:
- The Rains Came, 1939
- Gunga Din, 1939
- The Man Who Would be King, 1975
- Gandhi, 1982
- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1984
- The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, 2011
The Rains Came is a story that takes place in 1938 Ranchipur, India during the time of British rule. As most would expect, in the opening sequence there are monkeys surrounding a group of men playing instruments (a sitar is being played in another scene) near the grounds of an English family’s home. There are also many scenes of cows roaming the streets unencumbered. The Western view is that cows are sacred in India. Also, nearby an English residence is a statue of Queen Victoria symbolizing British rule. Considering the movie was released in 1939, you never saw anyone sweat even though many characters were complaining of the heat. There was only one scene near the end where Myrna Loy’s character was seen sweating. Throughout the film, there is an undercurrent of British arrogance and contempt towards the Indians and an understated sense of Indian resentment towards the British. In today’s culture we would say the British were guilty of “white privilege.” The film also portrays a high-ranking Indian welcoming his guests with the Namaste—the Indian equivalent of a handshake. In another scene, an apparent Hindu is chanting the word OM while the floods were raging in an attempt to appease a deity or deities since tradition held that catastrophes were caused by God.
Gunga Din is a story set in 1880 British controlled India. The film opens in Tantrapur where members of a Thuggee Cult are cutting telegraph lines leading into the village in preparation for their attack. The landscape including and surrounding the town is mountainous, desolate, and generally inhospitable. Members of the Thuggee Cult, a Hindu sect, are seen calling upon their goddess Kali for help when they are captured by a British patrol who arrived at the village. The Thuggee method of killing is by ritualistic strangulation. Towards the end of the film, two British soldiers and Gunga Din are captured in the Thuggee temple while trying to rescue one of their fellow soldiers who was previously taken. The leader of the cult or Guru as he is referred to in the film, encourages his followers to “Kill! Kill! Kill!” for the love of Kali. As everyone is probably familiar with the story, in the end it was the water boy, Gunga Din—a wannabe soldier, who saves the regiment from certain annihilation by the cult.
The Man Who Would be King is a story taking place in and around Marwar Junction, India. In the opening scenes we see a crowded, hectic marketplace. Camels are ubiquitous. Snake charmers and scorpion tempters are performing in the streets, very occultic. The countryside as viewed from the train scenes travelling from Lahore to Jaipur appears hot, dusty, desolate, and foreboding. The film very explicitly attempts to tie in the Masonic Order with the history and culture of India. References to the theoretical origins of Freemasonry with the builders of Solomon’s Temple are made early on in the film. Our two protagonists in the film attempt to dupe the inhabitants of Kafiristan by one of them pretending to be an incarnation of the Great Architect of the Universe. Initially, the Kafiristan inhabitants fall for this deception due to their recognition of the Square and Compass Masonic symbol. However, our protagonists’ deception is short-lived—the story doesn’t end well for them.
Gandhi begins by showing his assassination by Nathuram Vinayak Godse, a Hindu nationalist, in Delhi. Interestingly, the film doesn’t provide an insight into the motives of Godse, it only shows the assassin’s apparent hatred of Gandhi. After Gandhi returns to India from South Africa, he begins his transformation into the non-violent, Indian Independence leader he is remembered as today. Gandhi’s British resistance movement is best described as civil disobedience. Along the way we see squalor in Bombay, overcrowded train cars, and the occasional camel. The film portrays the British in the worst possible way. At one point, the importation of British clothing into India is blamed for the poverty in the country. Sitar music is played throughout the film along with everyone greeting one another with the Namaste gesture. The issue of the adherence to Indian Untouchable caste is seen when Gandhi’s wife refuses to perform duties that are normally assigned to an Untouchable. The film frequently exposes the underlying current of mistrust between different religious groups in India, particularly between Hindus and Muslims. Gandhi’s philosophy isn’t portrayed as specifically Hindu, because at one point he declares that he is a Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Jew—Gandhi is in favor of Hindu-Muslim unity. The film points out that both the ‘Gitas’ and the Koran were used during worship in Gandhi’s temple. Nevertheless, when India is granted independence from Britain, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is established.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom primarily takes place in the fictitious Pankot Palace but most likely takes place in Rajasthan, India in 1935. Everyone knows the story, Indiana Jones arrives at a remote village where the inhabitants claim that the Hindu god Shiva brought him and his companions to their village so that he [Indiana] could retrieve a Shankara stone that was removed from the village by an evil cult residing in nearby Pankot Palace. As it turns out, the evil cult is none other than anti-British Thuggee worshippers of the Hindu goddess Kali who were thought to have been eradicated long ago. Many strange un-Indian practices are portrayed in the film including the eating of snakes, beetles, and monkey brains. In addition, the worship of Kali consisted of some very occultic practices including “voodoo” inferences. In the final scenes, after saving the village from the “evil” Thugee cult, the characters Indiana Jones, Willie Scott, and Short Round greet the village chieftain with an authentic Hindu Namaste.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a story about a group of retired dysfunctional British citizens who decide to spend their retirement in India at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The film explores and, for the most part, normalizes the outsourcing of jobs to India. The movie opens with the character Evelyn talking on the phone with a support center obviously located in India. The theme of British racism is portrayed by the character Muriel who is advised by her British doctor of Indian descent that she could have her hip replacement surgery done sooner and cheaper if she decided to have it done at a hospital in Jaipur. After the group leaves the airport in India, they are overwhelmed by the apparent chaos, noise, and crowds of people. Camels and elephants are seen roaming the streets while buses made by Tata weave in and out of traffic. The buses are overcrowded and the heat seemingly intolerable. Muriel eventually befriends a hotel maid who is an Untouchable, a person of the lowest caste in India. The character Graham is gay. He confesses to Evelyn that long ago he disgraced Manoj, his former gay partner, and Manoj’s entire family when their relationship was discovered. When Graham dies, Manoj gives him a proper Hindu funeral by cremation and then spreading his ashes in a nearby lake. At one point in the film, Evelyn experiences the infamous Indian headshake. Also, prominently displayed near the hotel’s reception desk is a large photograph of the hotel’s owner, Sonny Kapoor, in a Namaste pose.
Unlike most other installments in this GOD & the Gods series, Hinduism is not considered to be a mythological belief system as is the case with the Norse and Celts. Hinduism is also not believed to be a polytheistic religion as is commonly perceived by those in the West or those outside the religion, but it is believed to be henotheistic. Hinduism, like the three other major mainstream religions, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, all believe in a supreme deity. Hinduism is also recognized as the oldest religion in the world, possibly older than Zoroastrianism.2
However, unlike Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Hinduism embraces other significant distinctions in that it has no known founder, no single scripture, and was never under any obligation to a particular dogma.3 Nevertheless, Hindus do believe in three specific doctrines: Karma, Predestination, and Reincarnation.
Along with Swami Achuthananda, Swami Bhaskarananda also believes that Hinduism is henotheistic, that is, a belief in one god without denying the existence of others.4 On the other hand, viewed from a Christian point of view, Swami Achuthananda appears to be in error when he says in one place that “the learned ones call Hinduism a henotheistic religion” and later on implies that Hinduism accepts many paths to God.5 Is he confusing many paths with many gods? Probably not since the Hindu understanding of the term “gods” is different from what is believed in Christianity or in the West. It’s also reasonable to question how Hinduism can be considered monotheistic if the belief in many gods exist? Again, it all boils down to how you define the term “gods.”
I concede that Hinduism accepts that there can be many approaches or paths to understanding God, but the final destination is the one true God, not the many gods. And for Hindus, that “One and Only God”6 is Brahman.
Contrary to what is understood in Christianity, Brahman is not a person but a “single primordial and extremely abstract principle designated THAT.”7 This principle is beyond human comprehension and unknowable by ordinary humans and has evolved into what is now known as Brahman.
The concept of Brahman or the One has always existed, even before anything was created!8 If Brahman is an abstract principle beyond human comprehension, then how is it that this concept has come to be known? The answer is by divine revelation recorded in the Vedic texts.9
Before creation, God (Brahman) existed. The Hindus refer to God in this pre-creation transcendental state of existence as Nirguna Brahman. Nirguna Brahman is not a person and does not possess attributes such as being male or female which explains why the neuter pronoun “That” is used.10 Nevertheless, Nirguna Brahman does possess the non-personal attributes of being infinite, changeless, unfathomable, and indescribable, as well as transcending time and space.11
How is it then that Hindus worship something that is unknowable and impersonal as Nirguna Brahman? Well the answer is simple, yet somewhat difficult to arrive at, and that is by human characteristics being projected on the impersonal infinite Nirguna Brahman by its finite votaries. Through this process, the impersonal becomes personal, Nirguna Brahman becomes Personal Brahman or Personal God.12
Hindus refer to this Personal God as Saguna Brahman or Ishvara. If Ishvara is the one personal God, why so many other gods? Well, the other gods aren’t other gods at all, they are merely different aspects or facets of the one God. Surprisingly, Hinduism has its own version of the Trinity13 which comprise the three fundamental aspects: creator, preserver, and destroyer and are given the names: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva respectively.
Anyone trying to understand the Hindu concept of God who has just a passing interest in Christianity will be immediately struck by the apparent similarities between the two religions. However, despite the similarities, there are many significant differences that seekers of God should be aware of.
The first difference is that the God of the Bible is personal…very personal. While the Hindu concept of Brahman and its derivative Nirguna Brahman is an abstract principle being neither male nor female and referred to as “That,” GOD declares his name in Exodus as “I AM WHO I AM.” (For a more detailed discussion on the name of God, see my “One God” blog post.) GOD is a person possessing personal attributes: goodness, benevolence, mercy, love, holiness, righteousness, and justice along with some other controversial attributes:
Yet I have loved Jacob; but I have hated Esau… (Mal. 1:2-3 NASB)
For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. (Deut. 4:24)
Note that the Hindu Trinity is economical (create, preserve, destroy) as is the biblical Trinity. However, in the biblical Trinity, the Father, Son, and Spirit are all persons but are economically subordinate meaning they each operate distinctly yet are all equally GOD. The Father initiates, the Son accomplishes, and the Spirit applies.
The second difference is that Christianity, unlike Hinduism, is dogmatic. In order to be considered a Christian, a person must believe that: The Bible is the living Word of GOD; Jesus is GOD incarnate being both GOD and man; and GOD exists in three persons. As I’ve said in another place, “The Bible is the living Word of God, but it isn’t a living document.”
The third major difference is that all paths don’t lead to GOD. Since Hinduism is non-dogmatic, all religions are basically equivalent in that the votaries of each religion can create God in their own image. As expected, the Bible says otherwise:
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.
For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matt. 7:13-14)
I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, Nor My praise to graven images. (Isa. 42:8)
In Genesis, it says “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Gen. 1:27) In Hinduism, God is created in man’s image.
Now, how do the three Hindu doctrines compare to biblical doctrines? To partially answer that question, I refer the reader to my blog post on “Free Will or Destiny.” That blog post takes care of karma and predestination, so that leaves us with the doctrine of reincarnation.
Swami Bhaskarananda writes that there are two reasons for a soul to be reincarnated, one is to satisfy unfulfilled desires, and the second is to achieve a higher-level of spirituality; and interestingly he writes that the departed soul is the one who initiates the reincarnation, not God!14 Sounds like a similar doctrine espoused in verses from a famously arrogant and rebellious poem, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”15
Hinduism is also no stranger to the belief in the evolution of species and the transmigration of souls. Swami Bhaskarananda notes that it is also possible in exceptional circumstances for a soul to be reincarnated in some sub-human species.16 I suppose this aspect of the doctrine is the reason why the character Dr. Vijay Alezais in the film Wolf tells the character Will Randall that his being bitten by a wolf at a time when the moon was closest to the earth in 100 years was auspicious,17 meaning a sign of future success. Dr. Alezais believes Will Randall’s condition to be a gift to be desired and not evil or something to be despised. Dr. Alezais also confesses that damnation is not part of his belief system18 which is consistent with Hinduism.
I’ll close the discussion with two biblical references concerning the impossibility of reincarnation and the certainty of judgement and damnation.
And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment… (Heb. 9:27)
‘And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us. (Luke 16:26)
Swami Achuthananda, Many Many Many Gods of Hinduism, (North Charleston, SC: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013), 1. ↩
Swami Bhaskarananda, The Essentials of Hinduism: A Comprehensive Overview of the World’s Oldest Religion, (Seattle, Viking Press, 2002), 1. ↩
Achuthananda, Many Many Many Gods of Hinduism, 98. ↩
Bhaskarananda, The Essentials of Hinduism, 65. ↩
Achuthananda, Many Many Many Gods of Hinduism, 61. ↩
Bhaskarananda, The Essentials of Hinduism, 65. ↩
Ibid., 66. ↩
Ibid., 65. ↩
Ibid., 68. ↩
Ibid., 66. ↩
Ibid., 69. ↩
Swami Harshananda, Hindu Gods and Goddesses, 2nd ed., (Mylapore, Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1982), 4. ↩
Bhaskarananda, The Essentials of Hinduism, 94. ↩
“Invictus,” William Ernest Henley, Poetry Foundation, accessed December 02, 2018, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51642/invictus. ↩
Bhaskarananda, The Essentials of Hinduism, 95. ↩
Harrison, Jim, Wesley Strick. Wolf. Blu-ray. Directed by: Mike Nichols. Culver City: Columbia, 1994. ↩