Hindus living overseas occasionally come across non-Hindus who ask questions about Hinduism. Of course, there is voluminous literature on Hinduism on the web, but how do we distil the essential ingredients to tackle the questions? I share below how a Christian missionary confronted me when I boarded the airport flyer from the Los Angeles Airport to Marriott Hotel, New Port Beach in December 2013.
As I boarded the shuttle, a couple in early-70s, sat next to me. After exchanging pleasantries, the lady introduced herself. “I am Melonie – I am a Christian missionary and my friend is a missionary from Spain”. I shook hands and said, “I am Milind and I am a researcher”.
I was dead tired after over 15 hours of travel from Canberra to Los Angeles and was in no mood to take the conversation further. Despite my indication to that effect Melonie kept nudging me for a chat. Though I was irritated and could have curtly declined, I thought to take the duo head-on.
Our conversation proceeded as below:
Melonie: “what faith do you follow? Who do you worship?” I replied “I am a Hindu. I worship Krishna”.
Melonie: “You worship a false God”.
I was taken aback: “Really? But how do you know whether the God that I worship is true or false?”
Melonie: “Because the Bible says so”.
I replied “I have read the Bible. It does say don’t follow a false prophet but show me one sentence where Jesus says Krishna is a false God and don’t worship him. It appears that you are saying it. But it means you are telling me something that is NOT in the Bible. It is your personal view or the view of the Church NOT of the Bible, right?” Melonie reluctantly agreed.
I continued “if adherents of various religions start finding fault with each other’s way of worship/beliefs, will this create harmony? I was sitting here quietly. You sat next to me and asked about my faith. But thereafter, you affronted me saying that I worship a false God. Who do you think is sowing seeds of conflict? me or you? I am fortunate, I am born a Hindu and my culture teaches me to avoid affronting other people’s faiths and not to be judgemental about them. I have read the Bible, but have you read the Gita?”
“No” she replied. I asked “how can you conclude then that I worship a false God?”
Melonie didn’t know how to handle the brown bloke sitting next to her!
Her Spanish male colleague, John, interjected. “But Hinduism has many Gods”. I said “that is a misconception. There is no God in Hinduism unlike in Abrahamic faiths. Hinduism is all about seeking the Ultimate Reality /Truth. That ‘Truth’ according to Hinduism is one. However, to realise that there are many ways – one of which is devotion or worship but it is not the only way’.
‘But isn’t there idol worship in Hinduism?’ John continued.
I replied, ‘that is another misconception spread by people who have little to no insights in the deeper ethos of Hinduism. By idol worship, an adherent to the Abrahamic faith means devil worship. When a Hindu worship an image or idol, s/he knows that he is NOT worshipping the idol, but the Divinity manifested in it. Krishna, Rama etc are avatars NOT gods. There is total freedom in Hinduism to worship the divine either with form or without form or not to worship it at all if you so wish. There is no compulsion of any kind. A complete democracy one would say. Idol is a wrong translation of the Sankrit word Murti. For a Hindu, everything is just Divine (Brahma). We do Murti pooja not idol worship’.
John digressed the discussion again: “but Mother Teresa has done lot of good work in India”.
“There are many philanthropic organisations among Hindus too, the Ramakrishna Mission, for example, runs schools, colleges and hospitals without any motive to convert. However, in the case of Mother Teresa, the underlying motive was conversion. Am I right?” Both agreed. “Consequently, it is not true service or love but a quid-pro-quo, a sort of trading. When you don’t reveal your intentions upfront are you not committing an emotional fraud on people? Hinduism emphasizes service to humanity without any expectation whatsoever- of conversion or otherwise”.
I asked, “do you know why?” Both pleaded ignorance. I continued.
“Look, the aim of Hinduism is to end suffering of every individual and help her/him attain bliss which it says is possible by knowing the Brahma or the Divine or the Ultimate Truth. However, Hinduism says that Divinity need not be searched outside. It is present right within you. This is because the divinity permeates everything and everyone including you. This also explains why Hindus worship nature, trees, rivers, including animals. The oneness with nature can be realised by knowing oneself. Hence, Hinduism’s prescription is Know-Thy-Self.
Unlike you, Hinduism doesn’t believe that one is born in sin, on the contrary for a Hindu everything is just divine. It doesn’t instil the fear of hell among young kids. Wouldn’t that be an emotional abuse of a child? Since all are God’s children everyone is divine, and everyone is free. So, to whom are you converting? From the Divine to the Divine? And why?
The problem arises with Abrahamic faiths because they hold the view that those who are not in their commune, need to be brought into it either forcibly or with inducement. Furthermore, in the global market for religions, such faiths want to sell their goods – their faith – like a multinational corporation. Consequently, denigrating other faiths (attacking the competitor’s product) becomes legitimate. Hinduism’s focus is on spirituality not on forming a commune, a regiment of adherents or an army of a particular God or prophet which potentially sows the seeds of conflict”.
Both looked remarkably nonplussed.
I continued. “Hinduism gives freedom of choice. It doesn’t impose its world view on others. All Hindu scriptures are but dialogues, where the teacher tells the disciple, don’t believe in what I say. Use reason, use logic, use your buddhi. In the Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna, ‘I have fully imparted to you the secret knowledge, now ponder over it and do as you like’. Unlike the God of some faiths, Krishna is not an authoritative or jealous God who threatens to kill if one doesn’t follow the path ordained by him. Hindu philosophy developed by reviewing a priori position (poorva paksha), refutation thereof (khandan), new position/claim (uttarpaksha), evidence (pramana) and conclusion (anuman). This parallels modern day scientific method”.
‘But Hindus have millions of Gods, isn’t that weird?’ asked Melonie.
“Look, the concept of God in Hinduism is very different from yours. You believe that God gave a message to his chosen messenger at a particular time and place to be followed for eternity, right??” Both agreed. “But why does God discriminate so blatantly? Is it not wrong? Why access to God should be allowed only to or through a special messenger who is long dead. Rationality guides Hinduism and not belief in an imaginary personal God. It doesn’t have a theistic god like Abrahamic religions. For Hinduism, the Divinity is accessible to all and no agent possesses exclusive distribution rights of Gods message or holds an access control. When a Hindu worship the divinity, s/he never gets a message ‘access denied’. Because access to the divinity is and should be available to anyone who genuinely seeks the divinity shouldn’t it be? A Hindu doesn’t feel threatened by other’s ways of worship. In fact, Hindus have not only encouraged but even provided sanctuary for people of other faiths to worship in their own ways since a Hindu believes that like them, they too are seeking the divinity in their own way. A Hindu happily gives that freedom to others. But faiths that have a narrow-world view precisely deny that to those who don’t toe their line. Isn’t this religious dictatorship? Will this promote harmony?’
Since ancient time, Hindu kings have provided safe-haven for adherents of persecuted faiths all over the world. But when the asylum-seekers or guests instead of being grateful, turn against the asylum-provider, do you think there will be a natural reaction for such ungratefulness? When people take advantage of your goodness and you react do you think that it would be appropriate to dub the reaction as intolerance? Some faiths, for example, the Jewish and the Parsees are honest enough and openly grateful to the Hindus as they were provided safe-haven in difficult time. Yet some others consider it to be their God ordained duty to convert a Hindu from her/his broadminded faith and lock him up as they are in a narrow-minded prison which they erroneously consider to be superior. How should one deal with such ungratefulness? Do you have a solution?
By now, I could see that they were feeling uncomfortable but didn’t know how to take me on. Other people in the coach were also listening to our conversation with interest. It was my opportunity to make the missionaries realise how narrow their thinking was.
I said: ‘if you put a lock (of say the Bible) on people’s brain, their ability to think critically dies, and they become like robots/soldiers. ‘Yours not to ask why, yours is to do or die’ becomes the motto as in the army. Good for you since now you can easily manipulate them. They follow you like sheep so that you can then shepherd them in the direction you want.
Hinduism doesn’t jail your brain but gives you full freedom to seek the divinity in your own way. Hindus have always encouraged critical thinking. No wonder, Hindu rebels – Buddha and Mahavira – never felt threatened to voice a different view way back in 500 BCE, yet in Christianity for over 300 years and until recently, scientists like Galileo and Copernicus lived under the fear of the Church. Interestingly, do you know that Hindus worship Buddha as the 10th avatar of Vishnu?
One of the sacred books of the Hindus, the Rigveda starts with a verse ‘let noble thoughts come to us from all sides. Do you think a flowing water is better than stagnant water that eventually stinks?’. Divinity permeates everything including the self, so ‘Know Thy Self’ is the only central message of the Hindu scriptures’. ‘Didn’t Jesus also say the kingdom of God is within you?’ They nodded.
The Spanish attempted a meek defence: ‘But multiple ways can confuse people’. I replied, ‘on the contrary it would give more choice wouldn’t it?’. I came from Australia, you came from Madrid, she comes from within the US but all of us landed at L.A. Similarly, you can take any route but would ultimately land at the door step of the divine. This is what Hinduism’s message is.
To realise the Divinity within, Hindu scriptures, suggest four paths: Karma Yoga (self-less performance of duty), Bhakti Yoga (devotion), Raj Yoga (mind control) or Jnana Yoga (rationality/discrimination). Any of these ways can help the quest inward and to realise the divinity within to attain eternal peace. Such a realised soul sees the dance of the Divine all around. Hinduism shifts focus from outward differences to the inward unity connected by divinity. A Hindu prays for all beings (not just those who are Hindus). A scriptural prayer runs thus: ‘let us be protected together, nourished together, work together, sharpen our intellect together, let there be no hatred amongst us, Om peace, peace, peace’. Accordingly, Hinduism practices universal brotherhood and non-violence towards all beings.
The Spanish digressed once again: “Gandhi was an apostle of non-violence”.
I said “you are very right but you probably don’t know that Gandhi said: “when doubts haunt me and disappointments stare me in the face and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita and find a verse to comfort me; I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow”.
“Gandhi was described by some as the Living Christ. But remember he remained a proud Hindu throughout. Accordingly, to be a good Christian one needs to be a good Hindu first. Only a Hindu can really understand Christ as Gandhi did”.
It was nearly an hour’s journey. We reached our destination.
They were both a little frustrated that they could not push their world view down my throat. Probably, they felt they tapped the ‘wrong’ guy on the shoulder. Melonie asked, ‘what do you teach?’. She probably thought, I teach religious studies. I replied, ‘I teach and research in banking, finance and anti-money laundering’. They were both flabbergasted.
Melonie said “hope we meet again. It was an interesting chat. I said “for sure, but let us come prepared and continue the dialogue. We learn by exchanging, not by imposing, our perspectives. I have read the Bible, I suggest you read the Bhagvad Gita”.
Both smiled. I shook their hands and off we went our ways!
Hindus belong to a great tradition that is based on debates, discussion and critical thinking unlike some faiths who believe in one holy book, one imaginary God and one chosen messenger. Hindus need to understand the core of their own faith and how it compares with other faiths. No wonder after studying all religions Swami Vivekanand advised Hindus to raise their head high and say it with pride that we are Hindus.
Featured Image: Quora