Hinduism: is it a religion or a ritual?

I am asked by a lot of people, what is your religion? Do you believe in GOD?

My answer is by birth, one can consider that I am a Hindu.

My mother went from being religious to atheist, like a pendulum which swung based on situations in life. She had her reasons for what she did. So of course, I was not brought up in a very religious way.

Thus, my answer yes I am Hindu by birth. But do I understand or am I able to explain what Hinduism is?
NO. Actually, not too many people can explain HINDUISM.

Basis of the religion it can be explained as below:

• Believe in Karma, you reap the fruits of your actions.
• Four main Vedas, are the guidelines or scriptures
• Belief in reincarnation, immortality of soul.
• Honesty, integrity and truth are emphasized. That is called Dharma, a path of righteousness.
• Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh are the creator, maintainer and destroyer who keep perpetual world going.

If you look at it, on surface, Hinduism is very simple. Live an honest life, be good to others, have moral values so that you can reach moksha (immortality). It should be easy to follow.

However, definition of Hinduism will vary from person to person, village to village depending on who you ask the question to. I vaguely remember hearing 33 crore Gods existed in Hindu religion growing up. I took world religion as a class to complete some college credits all the way on the opposite end, in USA and found out that there are 336,000 Gods and Goddesses in India. Imagine, trying to follow that as a religion. Idol worship is overrated in INDIA. Recently a movie came out (PK)which tried to shed some light on how much blind faith of idol worship is followed in India.

Every nook and corner, one may find a temple. For every GOD, a different temple exists. There are different days for different Gods. It is like their duties are divided. For example, Monday you worship Lord Shiva, Tuesday Hanuman, Friday for Laxmi. For years, I had heard that women are not allowed to recite Hanuman chalisa for whatever reason, I do not know. Now it is allowed.

Through mythology, emerged different deities image. It became a big business, even I fell for and have a temple in my house to worship the form. So now, prayers are said, shlokas are recited, bhajans are sung, aarti is performed in order to worship the form. For years again, I stood in front of every God’s deity in my house and in temple and recited all these above prayers. The trick we fell for was doing these things without really knowing the meaning of it. Most of the sholkas and prayers were in Sanskrit. Very few people anymore really know Sanskrit.

So we were following our parents and grandparents blindly because that is what was taught. Respect your parents, oh that was one other thing that Hinduism tried to instill. It is common sense to respect your parents. It should not be a requirement of a religion.

I went to temples, offered prasad, donated money for years. When, I came to USA, I found it very difficult to go to temple for no reason, because, you go inside temple, you say few prayers, donate some money, sit in a quiet place for a little bit and come back home. I can do that in my home temple. The other thing that happened particularly to me was I would go to temple with a friend or a family member and I would be done with my prayer. They are still sitting on their knees or standing with hands folded in prayer pose and eyes closed and going on with their set of prayers that I was clueless about. Given my background, knowledge was limited.

I have never been inside a church but if I were to go to a temple, my expectations were that every Sunday, there would be two hours service on The Scriptures ( the Four Vedas). If they are written in Sanskrit, I would love to hear both versions of it. That would be considered enlightenment.

Going and repeating few prayers from your memory in a place created as temple was not going to bring any different feeling than doing the same at home. If like, buddhist meditation temples, when you enter a temple and you feel serene, it may be worth going.

At home , there were rules. You can only do worship after you take a shower. Good for habit forming, but does the deity really mind if you are clean or not? When you light a lamp, the ghee you use should be pure and not from kitchen. Like God really minds. Also as time went by, people living in USA started using candles instead of Diya. I heard from someone, you can only burn 2 or 4 or 6 incense and it has to be held in right hand and circled clockwise. What if I did 1 or 3 or 5 incense sticks, was the world going to end? Using right hand at least made sense for everything that was religious or even to eat food because there a genuine other use of left hand in India.

There no female priests that I know of. Priests are allowed to get married so male or female could take on that role. However, may be there was at least one reason for females not to be in role of a priest. Women were not allowed to touch anyone in the house, or go in Kitchen or temple during the menstrual cycle. They had to sit in a corner away from normal path of getting in anyone’s way and ask for food which was brought to them and they washed their dishes and someone would sprinkle some water and take those dishes back or she may just use same dishes for 4 days. Originally, most families, kept the 4 day ritual. On fourth day after taking a shower and washing hair, she was allowed to resume normal life. Then they became modernized.

Now, females are working outside the house. So rules had to be modified. So now, slowly in some houses, women were allowed to roam around and touch everything in the house except for Kitchen and temple. One way, it was good 4 days off from Kitchen work for females if you look at the bright side of it. Every month, she was getting 4 days of vacation. There must have been some scientific reason behind this but it was overly dramatized. Now people live in fancy places, big cities and nuclear families started emerging. Men either did not know how to cook or did not want to cook, so females started entering kitchen and cooking. Slowly, only temple in home and outside was off limits. Having small houses, sometimes kitchen and temple were in same place. So further modification of rule, she can enter temple area just as long as she does not take part in any diya lighting or incense burning or dressing little God idols.

This is just one example of how the religion is not based on any solid foundation. Every household decides what works for them and they change it accordingly. It gives people more chance to talk about how rituals are performed in our house or in our town. One more topic to talk about other than food, clothes, weather , market or politics.
To make matters worst, there is caste system. If you are born as Brahmin, you were proud. Proud of what? Then next class kshtriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. When someone asked me, If I was brahmin? Yes by birth, again. Sometimes people would comment like “I knew you look like someone from higher class.” I am a human first and then whatever else everyone is trying to categorize me. I have basic fundamentals in life. Do not invade my space, I won’t invade yours. I do not care if you are a king or a sweeper. Everyone is a human first, born the same way, cried the same way when they entered the world. No one was born with a crown on their head or with a halo around their head.

To simplify life, probably only for that reason caste system was created. Brahmins were teachers, Kshtriyas fought war, Vaishyas took care of trade, and shudras were a worker class. Anyone below that were untouchables. Another stigma of the religion which can be talked endlessly.

Also Brahmins is a whole another topic.

So by now, rules for females changed per needs, every town has a different way of worshiping, there are many forms of idols, blind following of prayer system.

As I expanded my friend circle, I came to know new year for every Hindu is not same either. In some parts after Diwali, next day is (sal mubarak) new year. Some parts, it comes in spring time, called Gudi Padwa. Pongal, onam, ugadi…. different regions have different new years. If a North Indian were to get married to a South Indian, Kids will be very lucky as they get to celebrate 3 new years.

Living in USA, if you are not surrounded by Indian community, you will never even know when the new year or Diwali comes and goes. Nowadays you can look it up on the internet. So Diwali is just another working day. In school system, some people tried to petition for Diwali to be a holiday. My response to that was okay, so it is a day off. What are you going to do? Eat with family that you do everyday. Go to temple may be which you can go in the evening. Is there anything one does as a whole community other than get dressed and eat together and do some fireworks at night. Mostly no.

I have had opportunity to be around Jewish culture. Rosh hashanah is a school holiday. The reason is every Jewish family knows what is to be done on that particular day. They have a common practice that everyone follows with may be slight variations. So yes, if there was a unity in culture, and if there was something significant, specific that was performed by every Hindu around the world, people may respect that. In some parts of USA, Diwali is day off because there is larger population of Indian community and they may not show up to school anyways so county decides to respect that. Which makes sense.

So I have celebrated Diwali with different groups of people now and everyone has a different way of performing the puja, slight variations. That is just one holiday. Now there are lot of other religious events that vary in different parts of India.

But one that makes me shake my head is, female keeping a fast for husband’s long life. If you look at Hindu fast system, there are so many things that female do for husband’s long life, for children’s long life, or brother’s long life. I have yet to hear about a fast that is done for parents or wife’s long life. If it exists, I am not aware of it.

So if female fast for husband’s long life, it should be same for all Hindus at least one would think. But no, in North part, Karwa chauth is popular. You are supposed to see the moon. In modern world, if you do not see moon then you look up on internet when the moon is supposed to come out. In some parts, there is vat savitri, fast for husband and go seven rounds around the banyan tree. Recently, found out about one more, hariyali teej. So again if a north Indian marries a Gujarati, should she do vat savitri or Karwa chauth? Or both? Or none?

The rest of the non Hindu world, what do they do for their husband’s long life? I am not trying to make fun of the religion. That is not my goal. At one point all these rituals had a meaning probably. Before, people did not marry inter caste. Now forget inter caste, people marry inter-continental. Is there a foundation for such rituals? In the world of scientific proofs, any of the above rituals hold ground?

Yes, what holds ground is the basis of Hinduism. Sanskrit mantras, starting from OM to OM bhur bhurva swaha………….has been proven scientifically for its effectiveness.

Namaste has become a popular word in different countries around the globe. When people asked me “how do you say hello in India?” I had no real answer. Namaste which is very meaningful, my subconscious salutes your subconscious, is outdated art and in School (In India)we performed daily mostly without knowing the meaning of it. Yet one more thing we did with faith. Now western world greets you with Namaste sometimes and eastern world tries to shake hands or hug.

Taking positive aspects of any culture is not a bad thing. But forgetting who you are when the rest of the world is looking into rich history of Hinduism is a bad thing.

From my experience of not knowing meaning of gayatri mantra, I had decided that I was going to expose my daughter to parts of Hindu culture which makes sense and is meaningful. So she learnt few mantras with meaning. She and her friend recited those mantras at a playtime place. No one probably understood them. Okay. But the girls took initiative without any prompting that means they were comfortable. Next day, one girl from Indian Origin but born in America came up to my daughter and said “You know, you embarrassed me in front of everyone at playtime yesterday by reciting those mantras.” I was livid. I knew my daughter would not speak up for herself so I told the kid “If you are ashamed of your heritage, do not hang out with my daughter.” I came across strong. I agree. But I will not tolerate non sense. I am not ashamed of who I am born as and where did I come from. I have never felt discriminated even by people from other countries as I do not give them reason to.

But the girl who made comment obviously is hearing her parents trying to fit in. I knew her mother who was ignorant herself. No judgement. She once made comment like “What is yoga, does it really work, yoga is for old people.” Like mother like daughter. If you were born and raised in India somewhere you heard about yoga. It was not a fashion statement at one point. Now, when western world is preaching and practicing yoga, she should wake up and feel the breath of yoga. No, fancy words like Zumba was more for young generation according to her. So ignorant people are everywhere, does not matter if they did masters in computer science or in accounting.

One has to choose to be aware and open, going to fancy colleges does not teach you that.

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Rupal Dave
Columnist at Betingle

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