Monday, July 27

Paradox of One and Many in Hinduism

The documentary, “India and the Infinite: The Soul of People” directed and narrated by widely-known religious scholar Huston Smith (author of The World’s Religions), seeks to explore an important question. This question - “what makes India different?” - is answered in a number of ways. Prior to examining the answer, however, it is pertinent to ask, “different in what time period?” India has gone through several religious developments, as clearly seen in the developing Vedic literature and later Upanishads. The Vedic period covers roughly 1500-500 BC, and consists of four major books. It was, however, received through oral transmission until it was written down in AD 1000. In fact, much as Muslims prize those who can recite their Holy Qu’ran (called a hafiz), Hindus prized those who could recite the Vedas properly through memory. Following the Vedas were the Upanishads, written around 500 BC. But there was a drastic thematic, philosophical and religious difference between the Vedic literature and the Upanishads: the notion of Brahman.

In the Vedas, there is a worship of nature-based divinities (a form of polytheism, not necessarily pantheism). In fact, it is seen in the Rig Veda, for example, that there are eleven gods in heaven, eleven gods in the atmosphere and eleven gods on the earth. It is also worth noting that although there are only 33 gods in the Rig Veda, elsewhere, 33 million gods are to be found. Evidently, then, the concept of a Supreme Reality - the Brahman - was not prevalent. In fact, it is not found in early Vedic literature. With the development of the Upanishads, several new concepts entered into Hinduism. Each of these concepts may have had a minor role prior to this, but they came to the forefront of Hindu belief at this time - Brahman, Atman, and reincarnation.

The “Brahman” is the One supremely Real, the All-Pervasive (similar to a name of Allah). The “Atman,” or the Self, is the presence of Brahman in us. It is not, however, the Christian concept of humanity as the imago dei (image of God), but actually being God ourselves. Therefore, this important development from the many gods to the “one” is not necessarily a linear development from polytheism to monotheism, but to monism, so that the goal is to realize “I am Brahman.” This idea of monism is essentially that everything in the universe comes from one ultimate reality, or one primary source. The Rig Veda, oldest of the Vedic literature, does refer to the One who “breathed without breath” (Hymn of Creation 10:129), but does not elaborate on this point. This monism is also found in various Christian, Muslim (specifically Sufi), and Baha’i groups.

The Upanishads also developed a doctrine not used in Vedic literature, as aforementioned: that of reincarnation. From this arose the concepts of samsara and moksha. The fundamental Hindu belief was that the soul (or the Self) goes through birth, death, rebirth, death, rebirth, and so forth. Buddhists would later develop the concept of Nirvana as the telos (or “end,” “goal”) of life, but the Hindus living at the time of the Upanishads believed that each individual lived in this rebirth cycle known as samsara. The goal was to have good karma, and by doing so, eventually free oneself from samsara. This liberation is known as moksha.

It is interesting that Indian traditions developed as briefly outlined, as we may see similar patterns in different mythologies, though not quite the same. Ancient Egyptians, for example, worshiped many gods, but at one time held monotheistic belief in Akhenaten (Atenism). Ancient Israelites had a covenant with the one God, Yahweh, but some still worshiped local deities. This development from polytheism to monism is not an exact parallel, but worth noting among the annals of history. Among these and other factors, and bearing this background in mind, Smith’s documentary asks - what makes India different? The documentary does not delve too much into actual teachings, doctrines, beliefs, or developments of Hinduism. However, it does illustrate how these developments have carried on, and how some of their practices and way of life are permeated with these various beliefs found in Vedic literature and the Upanishads. For example, there is a plurality of languages (English is used for general use), although due to modern globalization, this comes as no surprise. The former British occupation in India is mainly responsible for this, but it added another layer to the already complexly layered society.

Further, India seems to have everything. Smith notes in the documentary that “ The visible India excludes nothing... [and] Their very soul is the Infinite.” Indians - specifically Hindus - have a deep respect for all ages of life, which is partly rooted in the belief in samsara: it is better to care for a cow, for example, as it may be your deceased grandmother who was reincarnated. India also boasts a plurality not only of languages, but of religious traditions. There are almost more Muslims, for example, in India than in all of the Arab world. Conversely, although Buddhism began in India, few Buddhists can be found here. Indian Christians, on the other hand, trace their origin back to St. Thomas in the 1st century. The documentary shows this plurality of religious traditions - as well as what we may call multiple religious belonging. One may be a Christian Hindu Muslim, for example. In Occidental Christianity, many would see this as contradictory, but in India, belonging or adhering to multiple religions is not unheard of. Evidently, the development between the Vedas and the Upanishads is continuing into the 21st century, particularly in a plural sense.

Finally, a significant point made by Smith is the Indian art. In India, Art is Religion - Religion is Art. The purpose of this art, he argues, is to inform and transform. This also includes dance and song. Shiva, god of dancing, is an exemplar of this. Also, sculptures are a major form of art. The wealth of different arts in India comes out of and adds to its rich tradition. One will still find statues of Vishnu, Ganesh, Shiva, and others, while at the same time, Hindus will be seeking Brahman, and some may even be found in a Christian church, worshiping Jesus as one among the many. The paradox of one and many in India is not something so clearly discernible or definable as has been detailed. Indeed, it is one of the great mysteries of India. Multiple religious belonging and the growing pluralistic nature of religions both in the East and West is contributing to this, and the very soul of India is constantly changing. As a result, one would be hard-pressed to truly make sense of this shifting paradox of one and many, a paradox that reaches to the heart of India. As Smith concludes, India can be reached by land - but - what of the soul? 

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