"In Hinduism man explores the divine
and expresses it both in its limitless riches of myth and
the accurately defined insights of philosophy.
They seek release from the trials of the
by ascetical practices, profound meditation and
recourse to God in confidence and love."
(Vatican II: Declaration on the Relation of the Church to non-Christian religions, No.2)
Hinduism has its origin in prehistoric times and at first glance it would appear that the Indian people worship a multitude of gods but this has to be viewed from their perspective.
Long ago the wise men of India realized that there was only One God which they named Brahma. The symbol at the left represents the sacred sound OM which signifies God Almighty, that which has no beginning or end. The Christian term "Amen" which came from Jewish culture is phonetically similar to Om and may have its origin in prehistory. We also use the expression "O God" and "O Lord" in many Christian prayers which seems to proceed from our natural awareness of the awesome mystery which is God. And in the book of Revelation we read: "The Amen, the faithful and true witness, the source of God's creation...." (Rv 3:14)
a) How did the Hindu trinity come into being?
Like all other people on earth the Hindu began to worship personified forms of the forces of nature. These gods were limited since they only controlled the parts of nature which they represented.
In time the Hindu realized the need for a superior being who controlled the whole universe whom they called Brahma. Brahma was too abstract and impersonal for the people to worship and so arose the primary trinity of gods: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. It is widely believed that these three aspects of reality represent Earth because from it springs life, Water because without water nothing living can endure and Fire destroys life. Further, each god of the trinity is given consorts to rule with them.
This may resemble the Christian Trinity but is a far cry from it. The Hindu trinity is a construct human consciousness based on what they observed in nature and is ultimately impersonal. The Christian Trinity instead was revealed by Christ as Father, Son and Spirit. The Son and Spirit are begotten by the Father from all eternity and uncreated. It is true that Christ expresses the Trinity in human terms which is appropriate since Fatherhood and Sonship first exists in God and this dynamic relationship is reflected in His Creation. Further, this expression of sonship paves the way for understanding the love between the Father and the Son and God's love for us.
b) What is the nature of Brahma?
"The visible forms
of my nature are eight:
earth, water, fire, air, ether, the mind, reason, and the sense 'I'.
But beyond the visible nature is my invisible Spirit.
This is the fountain of life whereby the universe has its being."
(B. Gita 7:4-5)
Hinduism is fundamentally a pantheistic view of reality "All is God". The visible creation is an emanation of Brahma but they do admit of degree of realization of Brahma, that is matter is its lower nature and Spirit its higher nature.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition there is God and Creation with creatures dependent on God. We may express this view as follows: Nothing comes from nothing if by nothing we mean not even God. Now at some point God restricts his glory to create a space outside of himself where he can be present, reflect his being in creatures and act in a way that does not take away the freedom of their natures. "Through the powers and potentialities of the Spirit, the Creator indwells in the creatures he has made, animates them, holds them in life and leads them into the future of his kingdom." 51The starting point of this indwelling is God himself but his presence in creatures is limited by the nature He has given his creature.
c) Do the Hindu worship many gods?
"They worship me as One and many because they see that all is in me." (B. Gita 9:15)
Many have the misconception that the Hindu worship many gods. The many images which the Hindu seems to worship are expression of the yearning of the seeker for God which in most Hindu know is One. The spiritual leaders of India realize that a particular name and form of their deities are limitations which in his weakness man imposes on Brahma. The believer must be lead away from "idols" and rites to encounter the Spirit who is beyond the limitation of time and space.
In the religious context of Hinduism the red dot represents the inner eye which is to be focused on Brahma. It reminds the believer to always be aware of God (Brahma).
Once again from the Christian perspective we see that most Indians unknowingly are seeking the Incarnation of God, that is, a way to get closer to God. The embodiments of God which they create are not real but there is one historical Incarnation of God which is Jesus Christ, God's only Son who is both God and Man.
d) How is man to achieve union with Brahma?
As the Hindu saw it, the ultimate destiny of man was union with Brahma. But Brahma was perfect and man lived in ignorance of his true nature. The atman, as they see it, is the uncreated divinity in man joined to a human body. Man tends to identify his true nature with psycho-physical dimensions of his existence, that is thoughts, feelings, desires, etc. Man born in ignorance is subject to the law of Karma (the law of cause and effect) which means that man's actions and its consequences shape and determine his evolution to higher or lower realms of existence, (Reincarnation).
How is man to realize his true self or atman? Their answer was practices of Yoga which means union. So in Hinduism we find devotional yoga, meditation yoga, intellectual yoga, that is the way of spiritual knowledge and work yoga. All of these means, however, do not guarantee complete purification and so they adopted the idea of Reincarnation. We read in the Bhagavad Gita:
"And thus a Yogi ever-striving,
and with soul pure from sin,
attains perfection through many lives
and reaches the Eternal Supreme."
(B. Gita 6:45)
For the Hindu Reincarnation is the return to the world of suffering and death and is to be avoided. For those who find their way to Brahma, they find it through a process of purification (Reincarnation) which reminds me of the Christian concept of Purgatory. For those who never find their way to Brahma, it's hell as expressed in the Bhagavad Gita:
"In the vast cycles of life and death
I inexorably hurl them down to destruction:
these the lowest of men, cruel and evil, whose soul is hate.
Reborn in lowest life,
in darkness, birth after birth,
They come not to me, Arjuna;
but they go down the path of hell. (B. Gita 16:19-20)
I do not believe Reincarnation can be taken literally. However, it does express, as seen above, a certain truth about man's relation to God.
There is much good self-effort toward attaining Brahma and salvation from "ignorance" in India.
What is still lacking in India
is the effort of God to reconcile mankind to himself
through the Expiatory Sacrifice of Christ
who takes away the Sin of the World.