The Candid Eye

June 11, 2009

Ten questions people ask about Hinduism – Part2

Filed under: Hinduism — thecandideye @ 3:00 AM
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This article of Himalayan Academy is continuation of the previous one.

6) Are Hindus forbidden to eat meat?

A: Hindus teach vegetarianism as a way to live with a minimum of hurt to other beings. But in today’s world not all Hindus are vegetarians.
Longer answer: ur religion does not lay down rigid “do’s and don’ts.” There are no commandments. Hinduism gives us the wisdom to make up our own mind on what we put in our body, for it is the only one we have—in this life, at least. Vegetarians are more numerous in the South of India than in the North. This is because of the North’s cooler climactic conditions and past Islamic influence. Priests and religious leaders are definitely vegetarian, so as to maintain a high level of purity and spiritual consciousness to fulfill their responsibilities, and to awaken the refined areas of their nature. Soldiers and law-enforcement officers are generally not vegetarians, because they have to keep alive their aggressive forces in order to perform their work. To practice yoga and be successful in meditation, it is mandatory to be vegetarian. It is a matter of wisdom—the application of knowledge at any given moment. Today, about twenty percent of all Hindus are vegetarians.
Elaboration: This can be a touchy subject. There are several ways to respond, depending on who is asking and the background in which he was raised. But the overlying principle that defines the Hindu answer to this query is ahimsa—refraining from injuring, physically, mentally or emotionally, anyone or any living creature. The Hindu who wishes to strictly follow the path of noninjury naturally adopts a vegetarian diet. It’s a matter of conscience more than anything else. 
When we eat meat, fish, fowl and eggs, we absorb the vibration of the instinctive creatures into our nerve system. This chemically alters our consciousness and amplifies our lower nature, which is prone to fear, anger, jealousy, confusion, resentment and the like. Many Hindu swamis advise followers to be well-established vegetarians prior to initiation into mantra, and to remain vegetarian thereafter. But most do not insist upon vegetarianism for those not seeking initiation. Swamis have learned that families who are vegetarian have fewer problems than those who are not. Poignant scriptural citations counsel against eating meat. The Yajur Veda (36.18) calls for kindliness toward all creatures living on the Earth, in the air and in the water. The Tirukural, a 2,200-year-old masterpiece of ethics, states, “When a man realizes that meat is the butchered flesh of another creature, he will abstain from eating it” (257). The Manu Dharma Shastras state, “Having well considered the origin of flesh and the cruelty of fettering and slaying corporeal beings, let one entirely abstain from eating flesh,” and “When the diet is pure, the mind and heart are pure.” For guidance in this and all matters, Hindus also rely on their own guru, community elders, their own conscience and their knowledge of the benefits of abstaining from meat and enjoying a wholesome vegetarian diet. Of course, there are good Hindus who eat meat, and there are not-so-good Hindus who are vegetarians. 

A: Hindus teach vegetarianism as a way to live with a minimum of hurt to other beings. But in today’s world not all Hindus are vegetarians.

Longer answer: ur religion does not lay down rigid “do’s and don’ts.” There are no commandments. Hinduism gives us the wisdom to make up our own mind on what we put in our body, for it is the only one we have—in this life, at least. Vegetarians are more numerous in the South of India than in the North. This is because of the North’s cooler climactic conditions and past Islamic influence. Priests and religious leaders are definitely vegetarian, so as to maintain a high level of purity and spiritual consciousness to fulfill their responsibilities, and to awaken the refined areas of their nature. Soldiers and law-enforcement officers are generally not vegetarians, because they have to keep alive their aggressive forces in order to perform their work. To practice yoga and be successful in meditation, it is mandatory to be vegetarian. It is a matter of wisdom—the application of knowledge at any given moment. Today, about twenty percent of all Hindus are vegetarians.

Elaboration: This can be a touchy subject. There are several ways to respond, depending on who is asking and the background in which he was raised. But the overlying principle that defines the Hindu answer to this query is ahimsa—refraining from injuring, physically, mentally or emotionally, anyone or any living creature. The Hindu who wishes to strictly follow the path of noninjury naturally adopts a vegetarian diet. It’s a matter of conscience more than anything else. 

When we eat meat, fish, fowl and eggs, we absorb the vibration of the instinctive creatures into our nerve system. This chemically alters our consciousness and amplifies our lower nature, which is prone to fear, anger, jealousy, confusion, resentment and the like. Many Hindu swamis advise followers to be well-established vegetarians prior to initiation into mantra, and to remain vegetarian thereafter. But most do not insist upon vegetarianism for those not seeking initiation. Swamis have learned that families who are vegetarian have fewer problems than those who are not. Poignant scriptural citations counsel against eating meat. The Yajur Veda (36.18) calls for kindliness toward all creatures living on the Earth, in the air and in the water. The Tirukural, a 2,200-year-old masterpiece of ethics, states, “When a man realizes that meat is the butchered flesh of another creature, he will abstain from eating it” (257). The Manu Dharma Shastras state, “Having well considered the origin of flesh and the cruelty of fettering and slaying corporeal beings, let one entirely abstain from eating flesh,” and “When the diet is pure, the mind and heart are pure.” For guidance in this and all matters, Hindus also rely on their own guru, community elders, their own conscience and their knowledge of the benefits of abstaining from meat and enjoying a wholesome vegetarian diet. Of course, there are good Hindus who eat meat, and there are not-so-good Hindus who are vegetarians. 

7) Do Hindus have a Bible? 

A: Our “Bible” is called the Veda. The Veda, which means “wisdom,” is comprised of four ancient and holy scriptures which all Hindus revere as the revealed word of God.

Longer answer: Like the Taoist Tao te Ching, the Buddhist Dhammapada, the Sikh Adi Granth, the Jewish Torah, the Christian Bible and the Muslim Koran—the Veda is the Hindu holy book. The four books of the Vedas—Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva—include over 100,000 verses. The knowledge imparted by the Vedas ranges from earthy devotion to high philosophy. Their words and wisdom permeate Hindu thought, ritual and meditation. The Vedas are the ultimate scriptural authority for Hindus. Their oldest portions are said by some to date back as far as 6,000 bce, orally transmitted for most of history and written down in Sanskrit in the last few millennia, making them the world’s longest and most ancient scripture. The Vedas open a rare window into ancient Indian society, proclaiming life’s sacredness and the way to oneness with God. 

Elaboration: For untold centuries unto today, the Vedas have remained the sustaining force and authoritative doctrine, guiding followers in ways of worship, duty and enlightenment. The Vedas are the meditative and philosophical focus for millions of monks and a billion seekers. Their stanzas are chanted from memory by priests and laymen daily as liturgy in temple worship and domestic ritual. All Hindus wholeheartedly accept the Vedas, yet each draws selectively, interprets freely and amplifies abundantly. Over time, this tolerant allegiance has woven the varied tapestry of Indian Hindu Dharma. 

Each of the four Vedas has four sections: Samhitas (hymn collections), Brahmanas (priestly manuals), Aran-yakas (forest treatises) and Upanishads (enlightened discourses). The Samhitas and Brah-manas affirm that God is immanent and transcendent and prescribe ritual worship, mantra and devotional hymns to establish communication with the spiritual worlds. The hymns are invocations to the One Divine and to the Divinities of nature, such as the Sun, the Rain, the Wind, the Fire and the Dawn—as well as prayers for matrimony, progeny, prosperity, concord, protection, domestic rites and more. 

The Aranyakas and Upanishads outline the soul’s evolutionary journey, provide yogic philosophical training and propound realization of man’s oneness with God as the destiny of all souls. Today, the Vedas are published in Sanskrit, English, French, German and other languages. But it is the popular, metaphysical Upanishads that have been most amply and ably translated. The Vedas advise: “Let there be no neglect of Truth. Let there be no neglect of dharma. Let there be no neglect of welfare. Let there be no neglect of prosperity. Let there be no ne-glect of study and teaching. Let there be no neglect of the du-ties to the Gods and the ancestors” (Taittiriya Upanishad 1.11.1). “United your resolve, un-ited your hearts, may your spirits be one, that you may long to-gether dwell in unity and concord!” (Rig Veda 10.191.4). ‘there, where there is no darkness, nor night, nor day, nor being, nor nonbeing, there is the Auspicious One, alone, absolute and eternal. There is the glorious splendor of that Light from whom in the beginning sprang ancient wisdom” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 4.18). ‘taking as a bow the great weapon of the Upanishad, one should put upon it an arrow sharpened by meditation. Stretching it with a thought directed to the essence of That, penetrate that Imperishable as the mark, my friend” (Mundaka Upanishad 2.2.3).

8) Why do many Hindus wear a dot near the middle of their forehead?

A: The dot worn on the forehead is a religious symbol. It represents divine sight and shows that one is a Hindu. For women, it is also a beauty mark.

Longer answer: The dot worn between the eyes or in the middle of the forehead is a sign that one is a Hindu. It is called the bindi in the Hindi language, bindu in Sanskrit and pottu in Tamil. In olden days, all Hindu men and women wore these marks, and they both also wore earrings. Today it is the women who are most faithful in wearing the bindi. 

The dot has a mystical meaning. It represents the third eye of spiritual sight, which sees things the physical eyes cannot see. Hindus seek to awaken their inner sight through yoga. The forehead dot is a reminder to use and cultivate this spiritual vision to perceive and better understand life’s inner workings—to see things not just physically, but with the “mind’s eye” as well. The bindi is made of red powder (called sindur, traditionally made from powdered turmeric and fresh lime juice), sandalpaste or cosmetics. 

In addition to the simple dot, there are many types of forehead marks, known as tilaka in Sanskrit. Each mark represents a particular sect or denomination of our vast religion. We have four major sects: Saivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism and Smartism. Vaishnava Hindus, for example, wear a v-shaped tilaka made of white clay. Elaborate tilakas are worn by Hindus mainly at religious events, though many wear the simple bindi, indicating they are Hindu, even in the general public. By these marks we know what a person believes, and therefore know how to begin conversations. 

For Hindu women, the forehead dot is also a beauty mark, not unlike the black mark European and American women once wore on the cheek. The red bindi is generally a sign of marriage. A black bindi is often worn before marriage to ward off the evil eye. As an exotic fashion statement, the dot’s color complements the color of a lady’s sari. Ornate bindis are even worn by actresses in popular American TV shows. 

Elaboration: Men and women of a particular religion wishing to identify themselves to one another often do so by wearing distinctive religious symbols. Often these are blessed in their temples, churches or synagogues. Christians wear a cross on a necklace. Jewish boys wear small leather cases that hold scriptural passages, and the round cap called yarmulka. Sikh men wear their hair in a turban. In many countries, Muslim women cover their head with a scarf, called hajib. 

Do not be ashamed to wear the bindi on your forehead in the United States, Canada, Europe or any country of the world. Wear it proudly. The forehead dot will distinguish you from all other people as a very special person, a Hindu, a knower of eternal truths. You will never be mistaken as belonging to another nationality or religion. The sacred forehead dot is an easy way of distinguishing Hindus from Muslims. And don’t be intimidated when people ask you what the dot means. Now you have lots of information to give a good answer, which will probably lead to more questions about your venerable religion. 

For both boys and girls, men and women, the dot can be small or large depending on the circumstance, but should always be there when appropriate. Naturally, we don’t want to flaunt our religion in the face of others. We observe that many Christian men and women take off or conceal their crosses in the corporate business world. Some communities and institutions disallow wearing religious symbols entirely.

9) Are the Gods of Hinduism really married?

A: It is true that God is often depicted with a spouse in our traditional stories. However, on a deeper philosophical level, the Supreme Being and the Gods are neither male nor female and are therefore not married.

Longer answer: In popular, village Hindu ism God is represented as male, and God’s energy, or Shakti, is personified as His spouse—for example, Vishnu and Lakshmi. In Hindu temples, art and mythology, God is everywhere seen as the beloved, divine couple. Philosophically, however, the caution is always made that God and God’s energy are One, and the metaphor of the inseparable divine couple serves only to illustrate this Oneness. 

Hinduism is taught on many levels to many different people, and to uneducated people who are not able to understand high philosophy, Hinduism is taught in story form. Because the temple is the center of every Hindu community, and everyone is focused on the temple and the Gods within it, the Gods are the major players in these stories. Hindus who understand the higher philosophy seek to find God on the inside while also worshiping God in the temples. Simple folk strive to be like a God, or like a Goddess. These tales, called Puranas, have long been the basis of dance, plays and storytelling around the fire in the homes to children as they are growing up. The stories illustrate how a family should live, how they should raise their children, and much more. Before the printing press, there were few books, and Hinduism was conveyed orally through stories and parables. While these often violent children’s tales should not be perpetuated, there remains much of value in the extensive writings of the Puranas.

Elaboration: Those who learn the higher Hindu philosophies know that Gods are neither male nor female. In fact, attaining to that Godly level of being is one of the mystical goals of yoga. This is accomplished by blending the feminine and masculine currents, ida and pingala, into the spiritual current, sushumna, in the center of the spine within each individual. 

Hindus know that the Gods do not marry, that they are complete within themselves. This unity is depicted in the traditional icon of Ardhanarishvara, Siva as half man and half woman, and in the teaching that Siva and Shakti are one, that Shakti is Siva’s energy. Siva is dearly loved as our Father-Mother God. Yet, sexual gender and matrimonial relations are of the physical and emotional realms, whereas the Gods exist in a stratum that far supersedes these levels of life. For that matter, the soul itself is neither male nor female. 

Some modern swamis now urge devotees not to pay any attention to Puranic stories about the Gods, saying that they have no relationship with the world today—that they are misleading and confusing and should no longer be taught to the children. Instead, they encourage followers to deepen themselves with the higher philosophies of the Vedic Upanishads and the realizations of Hindu seers.

Other faiths sometimes criticize the Hindu religion as a sort of comic-book religion, and we should not be part of perpetuating that image by passing on such misconceptions as the marriage of the Gods. Other religions move and adjust with the times. Hinduism must also do so. It must offer answers to the questions about God, soul and world—answers that are reasonable, that can be understood and accepted even by a child, that are coherent, sensible and strictly in accord with scripture and tradition. This is necessary in the technological age, necessary in order that Hinduism will be a religion of the future, not of the past.

10) What about caste and untouchability?

A: Caste is the hereditary division of Indian society based on occu-pation. The lowest class, deemed untouchables, suffer from discrimination and mistreatment. It is illegal in India to discriminate against, abuse or insult anyone on the basis of caste.

Longer answer: Caste, from the Portu guese casta, meaning “clan” or “lineage,” refers to two systems within Hindu society. The first is varna, the division of society into four groups: workers, business people, lawmakers/law enforcers and priests. The second is jati, the thousands of occupational guilds whose members follow a single profession. Jati members usually marry within their own jati and follow traditions associated with their jati. In urban areas they often enter other occupations, but still usually arrange marriages within the jati. 

Wealth, especially in urban areas, often trumps caste. Industrialization and education have greatly altered India’s jati system by eliminating or changing the professions upon which it was originally based, and opening new employment options. The jatis are evolving to function today less like guilds and more like large clans of related families. At the bottom are the so-called untouchables, who perform the dirtiest jobs and have suffered much like the black people of America, who were freed from slavery just 138 years ago. Strong laws have been passed in India to end caste-based discrimination. Modern Hindus rightly deplore caste abuse and are working to set matters right. Just as in the US, it is a difficult task that will take decades, especially in the villages.

Elaboration: Caste is, no doubt, the biggest stick that Hindus get beaten with. It is taught as the defining attribute, or fatal flaw, of Hinduism in Western schools. Untouchability as a formal system shocks Westerners. One response we can make is to separate social stratification from the issue of racial/class discrimination. 

First issue: social stratification. India is one of the world’s oldest societies. It has sustained a continuity of culture and religion for thousands of years. Europe, on the other hand, has seen millenniums of upheaval. Still, one only has to go back to before the 17th-century industrial revolution to find a social system that is similar to caste. European society then comprised the landed elite (including royalty, a hereditary caste maintained to this day), merchants, artisans and peasants. The artisans formed guilds, occupation-based organizations that served both as closed unions and marketing monopolies. The guild legacy remains in Western surnames such as Smith, a metal worker. There was no public education system, and each generation learned at home the family occupation. There was little technological change, so jobs were static. Industrialization and public education altered (but did not destroy) this class system in the West, just as they are changing caste and jati in India today.

Second issue: racial/class discrimination. Most Indians are unfamiliar with the extent of discrimination in the West today. In America, for example, hundreds of thousands live destitute and homeless on city streets, as true “untouchables.” US cities are more racially segregated than before the 1950s Civil Rights Movement because of “white flight” to the suburbs. Black Americans receive harsher sentences than white Americans for the same crime. Many Native American Indians live at the bottom of society, destitute and alcoholic, on barren Indian reservations. This kind of response—we can call it the “You”re one, too” defense—doesn’t mean Hindus should not work much harder to end caste discrimination. But it reminds others that no country in the world is yet free from racial discrimination.

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