Continuing my series for summer Religions of the World class, this post is about chapter 4 from the Hopfe/Woodward text on Hinduism. The book takes a geographical approach to categorizing religion and so this is part of the section on religions from India. The text points out that this is perhaps the oldest religion in the world, and is certainly one of the most diverse. Indeed, there is a tendency today for scholars to speak about Hinduisms, rather than Hinduism. The argument is that Hinduism as a kind was developed for cataloging purposes by the British. A person in India was either British, Muslim, or other which was called Hindu. This approach would also have been true during Islamic control of India in that one was either Muslim or an idol worshiper.
Nevertheless, there are two ways I'd suggest we can understand how Hinduism as a concept holds together: one is in terms of historical development of basic beliefs, and the other is in terms of a worldview with concepts developed from basic beliefs.
In terms of the first, the text gives the history of Hinduism from classical, to post-classical, to modern and post-modern times. I'd like to suggest that there is a development from the worship of gods, to the work of the priests, to the focus on consciousness. This is a movement from explanation to explanation as each step is challenged. For instance, the worship of gods does not bring about the desired end and therefore greater purity must be required. This requires a priestly class that can be set aside in ritual purity at all times. However, when the desired ends are still elusive, there is a shift in focus to the consciousness and desires. The Hindu Vedas follow this path in their path from teachings about gods, to the priests, to the Upanishads at the end which are philosophical reflections on the nature of consciousness.
The philosophical development of Hinduism relies on this last past of the Vedas, and so is called Vedanta, or the end of the Vedas. These teach non-dualism, that all is one, and different schools look to explain how all is one in the face of appearance difference.
Indeed, as I shift to the second part of how to understand Hinduism it centers on this idea that "all is one." Beginning with the assumption that the self is eternal and that the self (consciousness) is the highest reality, the rest of Hindu teachings follow. If the self is eternal, then death is not the end of existence and some form of reincarnation must be posited (samsara). The cycle of reincarnation is guided toward the end of enlightenment and therefore a kind of justice governs the system (karma), which is influenced by doing one's duty (dharma). Since all is one and all is eternal, any appearance of change is simply that, appearance and not reality. Therefore, this world of change is not real and the highest end of existence is coming to understand this. Such awareness or enlightenment means release from the power of the world of change and the end of the reincarnation cycle (moksha). The failure to understand this is due to ignorance (avidya).
In each case, the history of the development of Hinduism or Hinduism as a worldview, the basic belief that all is one and this is consciousness is key to understanding. The text considers materialistic and theistic forms of Hinduism, yet in each case there is the background belief that all is one at the basic level. As we compare Hinduism with other religions developed in India I'd like us to compare them at this level: do they teach different basic beliefs or are they variations of this same basic belief? If the latter, in what ways are they variations and how do they develop differently. Then as we begin to consider and compare other religions I'd like us to also ask how they are the same or different with respect to their basic beliefs.