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Hinduism versus Monotheism
Mohan R. Limaye
Professor Emeritus
Boise State University
Today there are about 800 to 850 million Hindus in the world, and most of them are
concentrated in India. In fact, historically, geographically and culturally, the idea of
Hinduism is closely bound with the idea of India. The diaspora -- the Hindus living
outside India -- try to preserve the traditions they took with them from India to their new
homes. Any changes or “movements” in Hinduism originate in India.
Hinduism almost defies definition—so much so that a famous Indian author once
quipped that Hindus are those that call themselves Hindus. In addition, beliefs and
practices vary from region to region in India and, within the same region, from caste to
caste, and from even sub-caste to sub-caste. As a result, a Hindu cannot assert with
certainty that all Hindus observe any specific ritual or doctrine without exception. Any
Hindu who, therefore, ventures to write about Hinduism has to begin with a warning or
caveat that other Hindus are likely to disagree with him/her on several points. Hence, I
need to emphasize that the following description is my individual interpretation, my
personal take on what Hinduism is all about.
Let me first attempt to describe what Hinduism is, and then what it is not. Incidentally, it
is very important to talk about what Hinduism is not because that is easier to do and also
easier for a non-Hindu to grasp because its complexities will become clearer that way.
Since most of my readers are likely to be Americans, that is, followers of monotheistic
religions, I think that a comparison of Hinduism with the Abrahamic faiths may enrich
non-Hindus’ understanding of Hinduism.
According to Hindus, man is not a “fallen” being or a born sinner. Man or woman did
not fall from grace. Therefore, there is no question of any god or god’s son or daughter
sacrificing his/her life for man’s original sin. Nirvana, Moksha (Release), or “salvation”
is a consequence of one’s personal effort.
Even though tradition is more important to Hindus than doctrine (rudhihi shaastraat
baliiyasii), there are some commonly shared beliefs among Hindus. Hinduism works on
at least two levels: one is the spiritual or “transcendental” level—the teaching of the
Upanishads that the individual soul (atman) and the universal soul (param-atman) are
identical. Such understanding or “knowledge” leads to release (moksha or nirvana) from
the round of existences, termed “samsara” in Sanskrit. On this level, there is no heaven
or no hell. On this level, there is neither god, nor need for one. However, it cannot be
overemphasized (and as many scholars have noted) that dogma is less important in
Hinduism than behavior or social conventions.
On the second, more “practical,” level where most Hindus lead their daily lives, they
worship many gods and goddesses. One may trace the origin of these Hindu deities in
the sacred texts called the Vedas, the Puranas, and the two famous ancient epics of India
– the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Not monotheism but multiplicity of deities is the
reality of Hindu faith. Hindus pray to them and make offerings to them for specific
favors, for averting bad luck and disease or achieving sound health and general wellbeing. In this respect, Hindu deities are rather similar to Catholic saints. Hinduism is
openly and unashamedly transactional: One good turn deserves another. Hindus are
constantly striking bargains, entering into contracts, with their gods: “I will pray to you,
worship you, make offerings to you, etc. if you grant me such and such boons.” And, in
my opinion, that is the way it should be. In an ancient Indian play by Kalidasa (The
Recognition of Shakuntala), an ascetic says to the hero, “Propitiate Indra—the King of
the gods—by means of regular offerings. He is then sure to be pleased to bring optimal
rains for the benefit of your subjects!” A character in another famous Sanskrit play of
almost 2000 years ago (The Little Clay Cart—Mruchhakatikam) expresses a similar
sentiment when he says to his friend, “What good is worshiping the gods if they don’t
reciprocate, if they don’t show any favors?” Citing examples from literary classics is
crucial because of the realism, veracity and credibility they bring to bear on the issue.
Unlike religious texts, they do not have a moralistic or didactic axe to grind. These
examples demonstrate that Hinduism has been transactional for thousands of years,
virtually from its very beginning.
This kind of worship also includes the path of strong devotion (bhakti) to the deity of
your family, your caste, or your personal preference. In devotional songs and prayers, the
Hindu devotee looks upon the deity of his personal preference, not as someone to be
feared (as the Deity in the Old Testament), but to be loved as a friend, a counselor, a
mother and, at times, even as a lover. Some gods and goddesses are more commonly
worshiped all over India, like the elephant-headed Ganesha who wards off disasters and
the goddess Durga (especially in Bengal), also known as the demon-killing warrior deity,
Kali, in many of her manifold names and manifestations.
Most Hindus (and Buddhists) believe in Karma, the idea that people’s present life is
influenced, even determined, by their actions in their past lives. Some Christians may
find an echo of predestination in the concept of Karma. But the ideas are different in that
people are responsible for their Karma, while God determines arbitrarily (?) who is going
to be saved and who is not. Hindus, therefore, do not go through crises of faith as some
Christians or Jews seem to go through, troubled by thoughts such as “Why do bad things
happen to good people? If God is kindly, why does he allow evil to exist and even
prosper?” (Apparently, the notion of “free will” does not squelch such doubts among at
least some monotheists). Hindus ultimately hold themselves -- that is their Karma (not
deities) -- responsible for what happens to them. They, however, believe that though
Karma is destiny its undesirable effects can be mitigated through fasts, pilgrimages, or
ritualistic vows.
One must admit that, over the centuries, Hindu upper castes abused and misappropriated
the concept of Karma to justify and perpetuate their discriminatory practices directed
toward the lower castes and, particularly, to maintain the exploitation, and close-toslavery status of the former untouchables by arguing that they had none to blame but their
own Karma. But when the Dalits (the oppressed) began their “revolt” from the early
decades of the twentieth century, they were able to argue that it was (now) the upper
castes’ Karma to be revolted against, their payback or reckoning time.
Besides the all-pervasive power of Karma, other concepts guiding Hindu beliefs and
behaviors include the cycle of births, deaths, and rebirths (reincarnation); the sacredness
of the cow; four major castes; four stages of life; and four goals of human beings.
Westerners are somewhat familiar with the institution of caste. Most of them, for
instance, seem to know that many Hindus marry within their own castes, but not many
Westerners know about the Hindu goals of life: right conduct or duty (dharma),
acquisition and consumption of wealth (artha), sexual pleasure and procreation (kama),
and release from the cycle of birth and death (moksha). Moksha can be attained by
following any of the four paths recommended by the sages: the Path of Knowledge, the
Path of Karma or Action, the Path of Devotion (to one’s personal deity), and the Path of
Renunciation. As mentioned above, Moksha (unlike in the Abrahamic religions) is a
result of one’s personal effort, not a consequence of anybody’s grace or favor. The
Upanishads also enjoin every Hindu to venerate his or her mother, father, teacher, and
guest (in that order of priority).
The ideal most Hindus strive for is selfless action, duty without hankering after the fruit
of action. This is what the Bhagvad Gita (The Song of the Lord), a didactic and spiritual
text many Hindus revere, teaches. How many, however, reach this goal is another matter.
The four stages or passages of life include scholar (when celibacy is recommended),
householder, retiree, and renouncer or ascetic, the last stage when all desires are
extinguished (Not many, however, achieve this last stage). There is a strong strain of
asceticism in Hinduism; however, it is balanced by material pursuits in the householder
stage of life when the goal is acquisition and consumption of wealth. The crowning goal
of an individual Hindu is, of course, Moksha – Release from the cycle of births and
Hindu society is hierarchically structured and divided in numerous castes and sub-castes;
a Hindu’s caste is determined by birth. The origin of castes is mythical and, as such, is
inseparably linked with the Hindu religion. Monotheistic societies like Jewish, Christian,
and Moslem societies are also divided, but mainly by class. In addition to caste, class too
is a divisive factor in Hindu society with attendant intercaste and interclass strife and
jockeying for power. However, it does not have doctrinally determined “horizontal”
schisms such as Hinayana and Mahayana within Buddhism, Catholicism and
Protestantism within Christianity, or Sunni and Shia within Islam. As a result, no war has
occurred among Hindus because of differences of dogma or religious ideology. It is true
that there were strong tensions until the recent past between, say, the devotees of Vishnu
and those of Shiva. Similarly, in the remote past, there were struggles between Hindus
and Buddhists. But there are no authenticated reports of any bloody wars among Hindus
on the scale of the wars between Catholics and Protestants or Sunnis and Shias.
Differing interpretations among Hindus themselves of what Hinduism means have been
the result of the fact that (unlike Christians, Jews, and Muslims) Hindus do not have one
authoritative scripture. They recognize and cite (as expediency dictates or as the mood
strikes them) many texts which have gained “scriptural” authority among them over the
last several thousand years. The Vedas, the Upanishads, the various Puranas, a number
of law books (Dharmashastras), and the Bhagvad Gita (referred to above) are some of
them. Add to this the fact (which is the case among the followers of other religions too)
that the interpretations of sacred texts vary depending upon who is citing them.
Some Hindus maintain that Hinduism is monotheistic, but I think there is some confusion
of terms here. What they mean is that some Hindu philosophers (like Shakaracharya in
the 9th century) propounded a theory more accurately named “monism” (advaita).
Monism, in rather over-simplified terms, means that the only “reality” is one, namely,
Brahman, roughly translated as “the universal soul.” On the other hand, monotheism
refers to the belief in one God. Monists (advaita-vadins) assert that when one attains the
realization that there is “no two,” that there is only Brahman, the question of worshiping
any god does not arise. “You are It” (Tat Twum Asi, meaning “your individual soul is
identical with the Universal soul”). But this is the esoteric, transcendental part of
Hinduism, the Vedanta. Most Hindus do not dwell on this plane. They believe in many
gods and goddesses and, consequently, end their prayers or rituals often with salutations
to all their gods. From this perspective, Hindus are indisputably polytheists.
When I examine the first two commandments of the Old Testament (which form two
major articles of faith for the three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and
Islam), I’m proud to be either a polytheist or an atheist, depending on what mood I am in.
The first “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” will strike many Hindus (including
me) as the dictate of a despot or autocrat since Hindus believe in many gods. I am aware
that monotheists may retort, “If you truly believe in one omnipotent God, who will
protect and provide for you, why would you need other gods?” However, I think most
Hindus would want a choice. Hindu gods and goddesses are like candidates running for
elective offices in a democracy. They all have to promote themselves by claiming that
they are the best among what the “market” has to offer.
Similarly, most Hindus would be very disturbed by a god who subjects a man to an
unnatural act just to test his loyalty. I am referring to the story of Abraham in the Old
Testament where a disaster, a son’s sacrifice, is averted at the last moment. It is beside
the point that God sends one of his angels to stop the human sacrifice that He had
demanded in the first place. At least in the region where I was born and brought up in
India, there is a myth, a legend, that one of the gods has been waiting (for “twenty eight
eons”) for his devotee to finish massaging his aged parents’ feet. So here is a God of the
monotheists, an instigator of a cruel and unnatural act because He wants proof of His
devotee’s faith, because he is so insecure as all tyrants are, while in the pantheon of
Hindu deities, there is one who does not mind waiting because his devotee is busy
fulfilling his filial duties.
In the same vein, in Hindu eyes, the second commandment “Thou shalt not make unto
thee any graven image” is quite unreasonable and counter-productive because Hindus
find concentrating on worship much easier when they have an image in front of them. In
addition, they will respond, “If God made man (and woman) in His own image, shouldn’t
God look like people? Why not then make likenesses of Him (for instance, like men and
women with some additional or “superhuman” features)?” Again, I grant that devotees of
Abrahamic religions may argue that you cannot capture or “portray” through human
means the essence of an all-powerful, all-encompassing, entirely metaphysical entity.
It is important to note that Hinduism is not an institutional religion; it has no Pope, no
bishops, no clergy, no mullahs, or no rabbis. Those who chant the mantras and assist at
worship in Hindu households on religious festivals or ceremonies such as weddings, or
those who narrate and sing the stories and myths of gods and goddesses in temples do not
necessarily represent any institutions. These “service providers” are paid fees piecemeal
for their work, though some wealthy temples and households “retain” Brahmins for this
purpose. Among Hindus, there are no weekly scheduled congregational gatherings.
There is no Friday prayer at a mosque or no Sunday service at a church. Hindus go to
temples when they want to and not as assemblies guided by “leaders.” For Hindus, a
daily worship (pooja) in one’s home is the observance that matters rather than attendance
at a public place of worship.
As an aside, many Hindus claim to be more “spiritual” than the adherents of other
religions. They very carefully omit to define what spiritual means. However, among the
Hindus I grew up with (the Kokanastha or Chitpawan sub-caste of Maharashtrian or
Western Indian Brahmins), I have seen some people more materialistic, acquisitive, and
consumption oriented than most Americans I have met in my almost 45 years of stay in
this country.
Part of the freewheeling milieu and open attitudes toward belief and doctrine among
Hindus can be attributed to the fact there is no doctrinal rigidity in Hinduism. Hence,
there is no such thing as doctrinal heresy among Hindus. They do not have to declare
that there is no God but God. In fact, they can be atheists and still claim to be Hindus.
Nor do they have to recite “The Lord’s Prayer”. One does not have to profess exclusive
loyalty to any dogma to be a Hindu. That is why Hindus are not “afraid” to attend a
church service, enter a mosque, or go to a synagogue. They are not worried that, as a
result, they will lose their anchor, their faith will waver, or they will be lured into another
In fact, over the centuries very few conversions have occurred voluntarily out of
Hinduism. Most conversions have taken place through force or coercion and bribery.
From approximately the 13th century to the 18th century, political power was so closely
associated with Islam at least in Northern India that when a Hindu king or a petty
aristocrat (sardaar) converted to Islam his subjects almost automatically and routinely
accepted the new religion. Of course, since India’s independence overt coercion has not
been a possibility.
Though bribery in various forms and religious institutions of learning are the prevailing
modes now used by non-Hindu missionaries to spread their faiths in India, educated and
financially well-placed Hindus of today are proof against bribery because they do not
need money that badly. They are generally not likely to convert to other religions
because they do not think that any other religion is superior to Hinduism in philosophy,
doctrine, or practice. They do not therefore freak out just because they happen to like
some practice or idea in another religion. They will continue as Hindus while admiring
that one particular idea.
Hinduism is not an evangelizing religion; Hindus do not have proselytizing zeal because
they believe that all paths to salvation are legitimate and effective. Prior to the arrival of
the monotheists in India (Muslims and Christians), either by means of invasions, through
migrations, missionary activities or trade contacts, there was no violence caused by
religious strife in India because in earlier eras the outsiders coming in were pagans, who
worshiped many gods and goddesses. They were not religious zealots; their deities
mingled with Hindu and Buddhist deities. India then was a religious and ethnic melting
Monotheistic iconoclasts (attacking Hindu gods and goddesses) and polytheistic idolworshippers, however, do not mix well. Acceptance is not a one-way street. A situation
where Hindus tolerate other religions while missionaries from other (monotheistic)
religions despise Hinduism and go on converting Hindus cannot last forever. That is why
it should not surprise anyone that many modern Hindus resist all forms of covert and
overt coercion or bribery that Christian and Muslim missionaries have been employing
for ages to convert Hindus, especially the poor, to their religions.
Some may arguably maintain that Hindus did not always in the past resist the aggressive
and violent encroachments of other religions against them and that a great number of
Hindus were lost to the onslaught of other religions. Be that as it may, I for one cannot
get over my admiration for the courage of the Hindus of those times. I am astonished by
the historical phenomenon that while the expansive Islam totally extinguished the earlier
religions from a wide swath of the then known world – from North Africa to West China
– South Asians (by and large) tenaciously and bravely held on to Hinduism in India and
Buddhism in Sri Lanka. It is not ferocious adherence to any dogma but the attachment
for a unique way of life that those Hindus were defending.
Because modern Hindus do not take that kind of aggression from other religions quietly
any more, we hear about clashes in India between Christian missionaries and Hindu
activists. Another reason for Hindu resistance to evangelizing efforts is that these
conversion activities have resulted in insurrectional tendencies among the converts who
have been demanding secession from India and agitating for new sovereign homelands of
their own. No patriot or nationalist in India is going to tolerate secessionist talk. Of
course, Hindus (especially the upper caste and the rich) cannot disown or wash their
hands of their culpability in neglecting or ignoring the wretched poor among their midst
who have no other recourse or relief but to go to the missionaries who are ready to lend a
helping hand in exchange for conversion.
In my judgment, Hinduism has had the following social/cultural, political, and economic
consequences for today’s India:
1. After independence, India chose a democratic form of government:
Democracy in India is a direct result of Hindu belief in polytheism and
acceptance of doctrinal diversity. For a non-homogeneous country like
India, democracy is the most effective and workable polity.
2. Indians avoid extremes: They reject the run-away, unregulated
capitalism on the one hand and the innovation/creativity-stifling
communism on the other. This moderation or the middle path is a
reflection of Hindu contempt for rigidity of dogma.
3. India did not build empires: When Hindus and Buddhists migrated to
Southeast Asia and built kingdoms (in parts of what are today’s Malaysia,
Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam) starting around the seventh century,
the “mother country” did not keep imperial ties with those political
4. India has welcomed various followers of non-Hindu religions seeking
refuge over the centuries. Iranians or Parsees in the remote past to Tibetan
Buddhists under the Dalai Lama in the recent past are some instances.
However, from only in the last few decades have Christians in the West
begun allowing the immigration of non-Christians (maybe, with the lone
exception of Jews) in their countries.
5. Because of doctrinal flexibility in Hinduism (almost like “anything
goes”), there is no such thing as Hindu religious fundamentalism. Hindu
fundamentalism is a political phenomenon: what it means is a protest
against coddling of religious minorities. When commentators, particularly
Western, label some parties as “Hindu Fundamentalist” I hope these
Pundits are aware and capable of understanding that this is about power
and about sharing or giving up of political advantage vis-à-vis non-Hindu
Indians. It is totally different from the doctrinal purity battles among the
adherents of Abrahamic religions. It is unlike, say, Christian
fundamentalists or Wahabi Muslims accusing their co-religionists of
swerving from the “true” path.
6. What the upper castes in India may (should, by now) have realized is
that Karma can be a double-edged sword. What held the former
untouchables and the lowest castes down and oppressed for centuries, the
Karma theory, is itself in the last 80 years or so leading to their
emancipation. Evidence? The recent election of a former untouchable
single woman to the CEO (Chief Minister) position of the most populous
state of India—Uttar Pradesh. Of course, the exposure to Western ideas of
equality and modern forms of democracy during the British Raj greatly
facilitated this emancipation.
1. The caste system, which restricts Hindus’ freedom to act and pursue
individual goals.
2. A status quo mentality which dampens entrepreneurship and prudent risktaking – However, of late, more and more Hindus are becoming
3. The low status and horrific treatment of women holding them back, even
though things are gradually changing for the better.
4. A general lack of personal freedom due to rigid social customs and practices
restricting original thinking and challenging creative activity.
5. An all-pervasive hold of blind faith and superstition that discourages clear,
rational, and scientific thinking.
However, when all is said and done, one observation can be made with certainty about
Hinduism: Not just tolerance but accommodation or acceptance of the other is its
hallmark. In addition, when several Christian denominations are losing their members
and finding it difficult to attract new members and when at least fundamentalist Muslims
have to keep Islamic adherents in line with threats of savage punishments, Hinduism has
remained dynamic precisely because it allows total freedom of belief and doctrine to
those who call themselves Hindus.
This is an opinion piece, not an academic or scholarly paper; therefore, I am
acknowledging my debt to the following persons collectively, without quoting them
individually. They read various earlier versions and made excellent usable suggestions
for the improvement of this document. They are Prof. Emeritus Jerry Alred, Prof.
Madhav Deshpande, Prof. Emeritus Charudatta Hajarnavis, Vishwas Kolhatkar,
Aniruddha Limaye, Sara Hartje, Sanika Sathe, Prof. Murli Nagasundaram, Prof.
Dattatraya Patil, and Prashant and Alaka Valanju. I also wish to thank those other
anonymous individuals who, without my being consciously aware of it, may have
influenced my thinking about religion.
Appendix A
Hinduism: Bare Essentials
First things First
Mohan R. Limaye
Two caveats: (A) This analysis of Hinduism is strictly my personal interpretation.
(B) I’m giving this talk from the perspective of one who was born and “raised” a
Hindu – not a theology expert or a scholar on religion.
1. Hinduism works on at least two levels: esoteric, abstruse or philosophical and
everyday or practical. (a) Monism (advaita) –one “god” (in principle) and (b) a
multiplicity of deities (in practice) based on “division of labor.”
2. There is no one single authoritative or sacred text among Hindus. They have
many books that have the status of sacredness (though one may say the books are on
a continuum of “sacredness” or “popularity”). As one consequence, the beliefs and
practices of Hindus vary widely from region to region in India.
3. Doctrinal fluidity is a distinguishing mark of Hinduism. A materialistic school of
philosophy (jadavaad) has existed among Hindus alongside with a devotional or
theistic school. Moreover, you can admire some principles or ideas in, say,
Christianity and still remain a Hindu. Nobody will question your “Hinduness.”
4. Hinduism is more a matter of culture, lifestyle, or a way of life than dogma or
doctrine. Hindus live comfortably with doctrinal diversity or even vagueness.
5. Belief in a deity or God is not a prerequisite to Moksha or “Release from the
round of births and deaths.” Total devotion to a deity of your choice (ishta-devataa)
is only one of several ways to attain Moksha (the goal of devout Hindus).
6. Hinduism is a religion of compromise and accommodation. This worked until the
arrival of monotheists, as invaders, whose religion did (does) not make room for
“acceptance” of non-believers.
7. Hinduism has no lateral/horizontal divisions based on differences of dogma. No
Sunni-Shia or Catholic-Protestant type divides. Hindus, however, do have
hierarchical stratification – castes. Those divisions lead to discrimination, social as
well as economic.
8. As a rule, people cannot convert to Hinduism. There is no “Message (“Gospel”)
to Spread.” Besides, if nothing else, practical difficulties prevent conversions: What
caste can the converted be assigned to? Who will marry the casteless?
Appendix B
Hinduism in a Nutshell
Mohan R. Limaye
A Hindu “Model” of Human Values and Social Organization
A Glossary of Key Sanskrit Terms
1. Atman and Param-atman (the same as “Brahman”) -- the Individual soul
and the Cosmic soul. In essence, they are identical.
2. Karma – (multiple meanings): action; the law of action and its consequences;
(You may pay for your actions in this very life, but, in addition, your actions in
this life will determine your “status” in the next life). One’s Karma is one’s
“destiny or fate.” In a commonly used expression, Nishkam Karma, it means
action without attachment, “selfless” action/duty.
3. Moksha--– release from the cycle of reincarnation (escape from a round of
births and deaths). Is there any similarity to (Buddhist) Nirvana?
4. Samsara – (at least two meanings): 1. the flow of this life or existence; 2. also
“a round of births and deaths” (reincarnation?)
5. Varna – literally means “color.” But the term is often used to refer to Castes.
(and sub-castes). Historically, intercaste marriages have been frowned upon.
6. Yoga-- (multiple meanings): literally, “a pathway,” “bringing together,”
“attainment,” or “union” (of body and spirit?). American/Western “physical
exercise” is only one of those meanings.
Some “Values” Clusters
A. Four Paths (yogas) to Moksha: 1) Knowledge, 2) Action, 3) Devotion, and 4)
B. Four Goals: 1) Right conduct and ritual, 2) Acquisition and consumption of
wealth, 3) Sex and procreation, and 4) Release (Moksha)
C. Four Stages of Life: 1) Student (and celibate), 2) Householder/ family person,
3) Detached retiree, and 4) “Renouncer”: totally separated from worldly affairs
D. Four Obligations: 1) Rites and sacraments, 2) Begetting sons, 3) Teaching or
recitation (of the scriptures), and 4) Civilized social behaviors
E. Four Venerations: 1) Mother, 2) Father, 3) Teacher or guru, and 4) Guest
F. Four Castes (with numerous sub-castes): 1) Brahmins (priests and scholars),
2) Kshatriyas (warriors, administrators), 3) Vaishyas (traders, farmers, artisans),
and 4) Shudras (menial laborers)