Hinduism is a complex and seemingly contradictory religion. It is also a way of life. The key concepts of Karma, The Caste System, the four permissible goals, the ways of salvation, and the infinite manifestations of God combine to create a culture immersed in ritual. Karma binds the belief in the transmigration of the soul and the hope of reaching Moksha (salvation) to right behavior. The Caste System, as delineated in the Vedas 1, serves to stratify society and eventually leads to discrimination and social strife. The Four Permissible Goals of the Hindu Religion "recognize that men naturally and therefore legitimately seek, in the course of many rebirths, four aims in life" (Noss, 178). They are pleasure, power, morality, and salvation.2 There are three ways to reach this salvation. These are the Way of Works, the Way of Knowledge, and the Way of devotion.3 Finally, the multiple faces of God serve to address the many needs of the Hindu believer.
The first concept that is key to understanding Hinduism, is understanding the Law of Karma. It is a philosophy of cause and effect. Hindu belief is that every being is exactly what he should be, given his life experiences and actions in his former life. "It commits the Hindu who understands it to complete personal responsibility" (Smith, 64). There is no one to blame but oneself if one is hungry or unlucky. There is not such thing as luck. Karma is not to be confused with predetermination, however. The Hindu, through samsara, can better his situation. Since life is just a series of lives, hard work and devotion can promote him to a higher station. If one is born into a low caste, one's Karma in his previous life was obviously bad.
The Caste system in Hinduism separates believers into "four groups: seers, administrators, producers, and followers" (Smith, 55). The Brahmin is the first group. They are involved with all things spiritual. They are the religious teachers "whose birth is "an eternal incarnation of the sacred law" (Noss, 210). The second group is self-explanatory. They are the administrators. They organize the labors of others. The third caste is the vaishyas. "They "find their vocation as producers. They are artisans and farmers" (Smith, 56). The last caste is the shudras. They are members of society who are best suited to work for others. There is one other caste, which has been outlawed in present day Indian society, and that is the outcaste. These are Hindus without value to the point of their shadow being a threat. It is easy to understand how the caste system has served to trap Hindus into specific areas of life. The caste system proscribed mixed relationships as well as social order. Yet the caste system is simply the result of Karma, or so it is for the Hindu.
"What has come to pass is that the political leaders of India are reacting constructively to the commonsense realization that the old order is disintegrating under modern industrialized and mechanized conditions of society. The old-time exclusiveness of the castes is crumbling away." (Noss, 214)
As it is with any type of discrimination or "profiling," the caste system still affects the lives of Hindus in numerous ways. It was and is a spiritual justification for the powerful to remain so. Even though the social structure struggles under the caste system, Hindus exercise a great deal of freedom in their path toward perfection.
The first is Kama (pleasure)4. For the Hindu, there is nothing wrong with pleasure or striving with all one's might to obtain it. Pleasure is not the final goal; however, it is a path to understanding. If one has experienced pleasure in all its forms, and realizes that there is more to life, then he has achieved the goal. Artha, (power and substance) 5, is a second desirable goal of man. This is a highly prized goal in Western society. Wealth and power seem like the only state worth attaining. Again, the Hindu belief is that once this state is attained, one will understand the value of renunciation. The third path is Dharma6. "Dharma, considered in its stricter sense as religious and moral law, sets the standards for a far worthier and more deeply satisfying life"(Noss, 179). If a man performs the tasks of his life using the tenants and principals of the scriptures, then he is acting within good Dharma. He will realize, as with the first two goals, that Dharma is not the ultimate goal. The fourth is Moksha7. This is the release from the circle of samsara into the realm of total happiness, which is Moksha. Moksha is the highest goal to have. If these are the goals, then how does one reach them? "The three ways of release or liberation recognized by orthodox Hinduism were clearly worked out and described"(Noss, 179).
The Way of Works is a system by which the devoted follow strict codes to pay debts to the Gods in terms of sacrifice, duty, and the following of laws. If a Hindu can remain faithful to the prescribed duties he may find the solution to samsara. The Way of Knowledge can only be completed by understanding and following the Upanishads8. ". . .only those who shared the philosophic passion of the Upanishads could follow it" (Noss, 182). The last way to escape samsara is the Way of Devotion. One chooses a god or goddess and devotes one's full attention in adoration to that god or goddess. It is through this unyielding devotion that the devotee attains release. This leads one to the question of one god or many.
Hinduism, at first glance, appears to be a religion of many gods and goddesses. There is Shiva, the Destroyer, Vishnu, Ganesha, and Parvati just to name a few. Yet, they are all the manifestation of the One God. "The infinite can be represented in infinite ways and does manifest in infinite ways" (geocities, 1). Hindus worship a different manifestation of God depending on what they need. "Vishnu sustains, Shiva destroys, and Brahma creates"(geocities, 1). Hinduism believes that many roads lead to one truth. It is accepting of other religious paths with the understanding that they are simply different manifestations of the same path.
The Hindu beliefs and practices intersect with every aspect of daily life. As with any religion, it is the level of devotion that dictates the degree to which ritual touches the devotee. To be Hindu is, under strict devotion, to be a vegetarian -- unless one belongs to a specific caste. To be Hindu is to obey the proper etiquette when dealing with other caste members. Inter-marriage or even riding a bus is prohibited if one practices strict adherence to the laws.
Belief in Hinduism restricts the type of work in which one may be employed. Certainly working in a slaughterhouse is not on the path. Modern society requires the interconnection of many levels of life. This is the conflict of Hindu belief. Yet, Hinduism is flexible. It allows the devotee to choose the path that he finds most suitable. He is able to choose the god or goddess who speaks to his soul. More importantly, Hinduism promotes optimism. One is always able to improve one's lot in life. Karma gives the Hindu a moral compass. One knows that one's actions in this life will be reflected in the next.
Believers in Hinduism are not condemned from birth with only one possible path to salvation. They do not have to feel guilt for their humanity, nor suffer admonishment for their shortcomings. While Christians seek forgiveness, Hindus seek truth. It is an interesting concept, and one that shapes the actions of Hindus on a daily basis. The complexities of Hindu belief are many. They are born of the sacred books and…