“We will have dinner there, but the food has not been sacrificed to idols.” My professor was serious. No, we weren’t entering a time warp to visit 1st century Corinth. We were traveling as a group to visit one of largest Hindu temples in the nation for another immersion experience in my World Religions class.
Before we went to visit the temple, there were three weeks of eye-opening lectures in which we learned five very important things:
1. Hindus do not view their tradition as a “religion.” Hinduism is a way of viewing the world– a lens through which people experience the connectedness of all things. There is no separation between the natural and spiritual, so there is no need for a “religion” as we understand it.
2. For Hindus, there is only one God– and all things are a part of God’s oneness. This includes the animals, trees, and even inanimate objects like bricks and rocks. Everything is running over with the energy of the Creator; God does not create without leaving his calling card. However, Hindus do not worship trees, or buildings, or rocks. To quote the gracious guru who provided our tour of the temple, “God is in the rock, but the rock is not God.” It is also an understatement to simply say that God is one… For them, there is ONLY God– all are partakers of God’s oneness. Oneness means a lack of dualism in all things– including the spiritual world. God is neither he nor she, but both he and she. (For the record, many Jews would agree with this perspective on God’s gender/genderlessness.) There is no devil or evil. There is only God and the universe which is a part of God. Good and evil, love and hatred, creation and destruction all emanate from humanity which is a part of God. All are one, and all are responsible.
The many “gods” that are worshiped by Hindus are merely manifestations of the One Presence. In Christianity, it is not blasphemous to say: “I worship you, Jesus” or “I worship you, Holy Spirit” or “Please come to my physical aid Jehovah Rapha (God who heals)”. Likewise, Hindus see no differentiation between God and his many manifestations. Worshiping an image of those manifestations is not problematic for Hindus because these images only serve as bridges to help the finite human mind comprehend the infinite. Hindus understand that the image is not God– just as we understand that the cross is not Jesus.
4. To offer eternal life to a Hindu is to offer a grave punishment. Hindus are trying to escape the cycle of being “born again”. They don’t want to be trapped in an eternal life that cannot be escaped. Hindus believe that humans are endlessly reincarnated until they live well enough to escape the cycle. These reincarnations occur because humans fail to learn what it means to be human and to truly embody God.
5. The goal for those who practice Hinduism is to become one with God again. Humans are understood to be individuated from God by self ignorance– however in order to escape self-ignorance, one must transcend the basic knowledge of “self.” Coming to a truer or better knowledge of “self” involves developing a knowledge of one’s interconnectedness with the world around him/her, one’s connectedness to the friend as well as the stranger, and one’s connectedness to God.
With these things in mind, my classmates and I went to tour a temple belonging to one of the oldest religions in the world. During our commute, some of us were brimming with excitement, and many others were nervous about the coming immersion experience. What would we see there? What kind of worship experience should we expect? The answers were just a few miles ahead on the freeway to Maryland.