Hinduism, dating back to 1500 BC, is the world’s oldest religion. It is not only a snapshot of the diverse cultural history of the Indian subcontinent over thousands of years, but also the glacier out of which numerous streams of philosophical and religious doctrines, such as Jainism and Buddhism, have sprung. Simultaneously, Hinduism provides its subscribers no set rules of conduct to follow, no particular divine being to pray to and no specific philosophical direction to adopt. It is almost divisive in the sense that it provides various interpretations of the universe that are ever evolving as a result of the passage of time and the inclusion of other religious ideologies. Therefore, it seems as though it would be hard for an individual to seek any specific religious identity through Hinduism, given its multi-dimensional nature. However, this is not the case—Hindus, both within India and across the world, strongly identify with their religion.
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Furthermore, tolerance and a vivid curiosity for a fellow Hindu’s interpretation of the Vedic and post-Vedic doctrines are paramount to the religion. The fact that Hinduism today is a culmination of 3000 years of knowledge and does not omit any alternative interpretations that have arisen thus far, is a strong testament to this statement.
Nonetheless, there are contrasts inherent to Hinduism. One of the main areas of tension lies in the underlying concepts of dharma and moksha. Dharma, deeply rooted in the earlier Vedic literature, postulates that the primary role of religion is to maintain the cosmic order, which in practical terms means order within society. It states that a person’s first obligation is to others and he must fulfill his duties within the hierarchical role that is assigned to him. On the other hand, the concept of moksha introduces the Brahman, which is the eternal, conscious, spatially and temporally unqualified reality. All human beings, that is, every atman or soul, is not real and can transcend to become the Brahman. This process of salvation from the endless cycle of karma can only be brought about through asceticism and world renunciation.
Since 500 BC, the religion has grappled with ways to reconcile these two inherently conflictual concepts, in order for the followers of the religion to be able to live in society and still attain the ultimate goal of every pious Hindu’s life: nirvana.
In fact, these reconciliatory measures have often become a means of defining Hinduism itself. For example, many Hindu scriptures prescribe the four stages or ashramas of life, which allow a human being to preserve the social order and also pursue the quest for moksha. Alternatively, the Bhagavad Gita advocates the path of devotion to God as a means to perform action within society without personal motive, which can also lead one to salvation.
A Hindu does indeed have various paths to choose from in affirming her beliefs, and this is exemplified by Hindus in India and abroad. They are comprised of yogis (ascetics) that meditate in the caves of the Himalayas; Brahmins (priests) who perform elaborate yajnas (ceremonial fires); and normal working class citizens who express their devotions through a countless number of bhajans (chants), pujas (prayers) and other rituals that tend to reflect the culture and local customs of a region.
Considering the variety of Hindu experience, what is it that imparts such a sense of identity among Hindus the world over? One might consider that the sheer longevity of the religion, and the steadfastness of its basic precepts in the face of adversity, instills a strong sense of pride among its followers. However, a more vital reason is that the sense of identity that Hindus hold stems from an understanding of the conceptual nature of the religion, rather than its prescriptive one. Hindus might not always acknowledge the daily customs and beliefs of their fellow Hindus, but these disparities are often unified by the realization that all followers of the religion share the common notion of dharma and moksha in varying degrees. Hence, a strong sense of commonality is formed not only on a faith level, but also on an intellectual one. This leads to an identity that is immutable in the face of adversity and drastic change in religious thought, which have been staples of Hinduism for 3000 years.
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