© Dr. Chris Schriner 2003
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
October 12, 2003

Prior to the sermon: We are exploring Hinduism this morning, and I want to thank Justine Burt for this display which resembles a Hindu family shrine. It includes a picture of Shiva, dancing so as to relieve the suffering of creatures on Earth, a statue of the popular elephant-god Ganesh, flowers, incense, and an offering of food.

Unitarian Universalists are open to the insights of all religions and philosophies, but we need to remember that understanding a religion from another culture takes many years, if it's possible at all. And when we try out a spiritual discipline from another culture, we cannot be sure we are experiencing this discipline in the same way as, say, someone who grew up as a Hindu. Even so, we may find a lot of value in such disciplines. So as a prelude to the sermon this morning, I'd like us to join together in the singing style of meditation known as chanting. Many religions use chants, but Hinduism is particularly well known for these repetitive sung phrases that focus our awareness on a spiritual ideal. You may find that you enjoy chanting or you may not. But a process can still be valuable even if we don't especially like it. So let's just notice what happens inside of us as we chant, and take whatever we get. Since people are often distracted from an experience if they have to deal with unfamiliar words, I have chosen an English-language chant that was sometimes used in the 1970s at Unitarian Universalist youth conferences. The words are in your order of service, and each sentence is sung twice. "Listen, listen, listen, to my heart song. Listen, listen, listen, to my heart song. I will never forget you, I will never forsake you. I will never forget you, I will never forsake you." Let's stand up, and try it. I'll sing the first phrases, and you sing it back. Now let's try the second phrases. Repeat it out loud.... Good. Now let's go ahead with the chant. I suggest that we settle into the song, allow it to build a little in volume and energy, and then let it fade away at its own pace. (The chant is then sung by the congregation.)

The sermon. Let's begin with free associations. When you hear the word "Hinduism," what pops into mind? Just call out a word or a phrase. (Possible associations: India, polytheism, Gandhi, guru, exotic, caste system, temple, transmigration of souls, karma, sacred cows, non-injury.)

So we know at least some bits and pieces about Hinduism, but many of us have never really studied it. This morning I want to talk about why I appreciate this remarkable religion, and I hope you will consider exploring Hinduism further. Understanding Hinduism may help us relate to our Hindu friends, neighbors, and co-workers. It could also help us relate to the children of Mission Peak, because they will be studying Hinduism during the next few weeks. And we can personally benefit from the insights and spiritual disciplines of this ancient faith.

No doubt many of us are familiar with basic facts about Hinduism. It is one of the oldest religions, and like Unitarian Universalism it evolved through the work of many people rather than from one founding prophet. Evidently some of the basic ideas of Hinduism were developed four or five thousand years ago by "the ... ancestors of the ... black-skinned Dravidians" who now live in the southern half of India. (John B. Noss, Man's Religions, p. 123) Then between three and four thousand years ago India was invaded by "a tall, light-skinned people ... [who] called themselves Aryans." (Noss, p. 124) They were related to the Hebrews who conquered Canaan, and to the tribes that invaded Europe and developed into Greeks, Germans, Celts, and so on.

The Aryans took over India. They were an aggressive, intelligent, energetic, and optimistic people. They loved to write poetry, stories, and songs, which they passed down orally from one generation to the next. Eventually these were written in scriptures known as the Vedas, and the Vedic scriptures contain elaborate speculations about the nature of reality. The 129th hymn of the Tenth Book of the Rig-Veda offers an intriguing description of "a great ... cosmic reality referred to ... as That One Thing," a mysterious something-or-other "said to have existed before there was a universe." (Noss, p. 135) The hymn begins by saying,

"Then there was neither being (Sat) nor non-being (Asat):
There was no air, nor firmament beyond it.
Was there a stirring? Where? Beneath what cover?
Was there a great abyss of unplumbed water?

There was no death nor anything immortal;
Nor any sign dividing day from night.
That One Thing, given no breath, was yet self-breathing;
No second thing existed whatsoever."

And it concludes:

"Whether the world was made or whether self-made,
He knows with full assurance, he alone,
Who in the highest heaven guards and watches;
He knows indeed, but then, perhaps, he knows not! (Noss, pp. 135-136)

Here is an unknown writer who manages to conceive of the possibility of something that more fundamental than either existing or not existing, and puzzles over whether the world was made by something or somehow made itself. Many people find it impossible to imagine that something could exist without being made by something else, but then of course we have to ask how the first creator could exist without itself being created. These conjectures about the source of everything that exists, plus Hinduism's sense of the vastness of time and the complexity of reality, remind me of the way modern physicists wonder about what gave rise to the Big Bang.

Most schools of Hindu philosophy affirm some indescribable and awe-inspiring creative principle, much like the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich's Ground of Being. In Hinduism this creative principle "is most commonly called Brahman." (Noss, p. 140) In Christianity, the creator-god makes the universe out of nothing, but many Hindus would say that Brahman gives birth to the universe out of itself. Hinduism inclines toward pantheism, the idea that God is everything, or panentheism, the belief that God is in everything. One Hindu text uses the analogy of salt dissolved within water. (See Robert Ballou, The Portable World Bible, p. 42) Brahman is dispersed throughout the universe even though we cannot see it as a separate entity. If this is so, then we too are part of God, or infused with God's spirit. The divine light within each person is called Atman, and Brahman and Atman are the same sacred essence. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a Unitarian minister for a time, studied Hinduism, as did some of the other Transcendentalist philosophers of his era, and he accepted this idea that Brahman lives in us. But instead of Brahman, he called it the Oversoul, and he wrote:

"Let us learn the revelation of all nature and thought; that the Highest dwells within us, that the sources of nature are in our own minds.
As there is no screen or ceiling between our heads and the infinite heavens, so there is no bar or wall in the soul where we, the effect, cease, and God, the cause, begins." (Reading #531)

So those are some of the basics, but my purpose this morning is not to lecture you about facts but to share my personal appreciation of this phenomenally rich religion. I appreciate the Vedic view of life because it contrasts with the religions that I know best: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which are often called the Abrahamic religions, those that go back to Abraham. I am not saying Hinduism is superior to Abrahamic religion, or the other way around. Both are helpful. But precisely because Hinduism is so different from the religions that are most familiar to me, it adds to my understanding of life.

Let's talk about four differences between these two views of reality. First, in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the universe is described on a human scale and in terms of human interests. Earth was created just a few thousand years ago, a short enough time so that we can number our generations going back to Adam and Eve. And the whole cosmic story is mainly about human beings. They were created in the image of God, and God seems to be upset with them a great deal of the time. They are the ones who disobeyed in the Garden of Eden, and because of the sin of this one species, the whole Earth is cursed. After death they are the ones who will either go to Heaven or Hell. The scriptures of these religions focus mainly on human adventures and misadventures. In fact, the reason God is going to bring the world to an end soon is to complete the cosmic struggle with Satan for control of the human soul.

What a contrast with Hinduism, which views the universe as very old and says it will go on for an unimaginable period of time. No single cosmic drama dominates their sacred books, and humans are not always the most important characters in these convoluted tales. Abrahamic theology is like a novel, with a beginning, a middle, and an end in which good will triumph. But Hinduism describes a cycle of universes being born, developing, and dying, over and over. Abrahamic religion goes from start to finish, but Vedic religion goes round and round, reincarnation after reincarnation, universe after universe. "Jesus saves, but Shiva recyles." Again this reminds me of modern theories of reality, which sometimes postulate an unknown number of universes that also have their beginnings and endings.

In Hinduism, the creator-god is not as focused on humans as was Yahweh in the Hebrew scriptures. And for the more sophisticated forms of Hinduism, God does not focus love and interest on people because God is not a person - and this is a second difference between Abrahamic religion and Hinduism. Hindu scriptures sometimes refer to God as He, or She when speaking of goddesses, but also as It or That. An It does not feel love or hate about what you and I do. In fact, Brahman does not feel anything at all. It is entirely impartial. As it says in the Bhagavad Gita, "The same am I to all beings: there is none hateful to me or dear." (Ballou, p. 28)

It may seem peculiar that a religion that recognizes over 300 million supernatural beings actually reveres an impersonal deity. No doubt many Hindus accept polytheism literally, assuming that Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, and all the others exist as real entities. But the Hindu scriptures emphasize that the gods and goddesses are just picturesque ways of representing the forces of the one creative Spirit. The curriculum about Hinduism by our former Director of Religious Education, Sally White, puts it very well: "... all these gods and goddesses are different aspects ... of one big idea which Hindus call Brahman and some people call God (and some people prefer to think of as part of the energy of nature and creation, but not as anything as definite or separate as the word God suggests)." (2d - 4th grade lessons, p. H83)

Does the universe care about us as individuals? Suppose the New Testament is wrong in saying that God is concerned about every sparrow that falls. How do you feel about that? Maybe OK, maybe not.

Some people say that impersonal theism is very much like atheism, and we'll talk more about that next week. And in fact one of the six systems of orthodox Hindu philosophy is called Sankhya, and, according to world religions expert John Noss, Sankhya is strongly atheistic. Matter exists, soul exists, and souls are reborn over and over. But there are no gods. (Noss, p. 273) Can you imagine orthodox Christianity accepting an atheistic interpretation of the Gospels? And this is a third difference between Hinduism and the Abrahamic traditions, which have typically tried to develop a pure and correct interpretation of religion. Hinduism has not focused much on developing the One True Doctrine, and its various schools of thought openly contradict each other. Sounds like Unitarian Universalism.

One reason that differences in doctrine are accepted is that the ultimate truth cannot be summed up in the words of religious dogmas. "So long as the bee is outside the petals of the lily, and has not tasted the sweetness of its honey, it hovers round the flower emitting its buzzing sound; but when it is inside the flower, it noiselessly drinks its nectar. So long as a man quarrels and disputes about doctrines and dogmas, he has not tasted the nectar of true faith; when he has tasted it, he becomes quiet and full of peace." (Sri Ramakrishna, quoted in Ballou, The Portable World Bible, p. 84)

These then are three differences between Hinduism and the Abrahamic faiths. First, the cosmic story is not mainly about us; second, Brahman is an impersonal force rather than a personal God; and third, the Hindus have not felt as much need to make everyone believe in one "correct" interpretation of reality.

A fourth contrast between Hinduism and Christianity in particular involves salvation. Why do we need salvation, and how can we be saved? Well, for orthodox Christians every person, even a newborn baby, deserves to go to hell and be horribly tortured forever, so being saved from hell is a fairly high priority. Hinduism paints a different picture, with its theory of reincarnation. After a creature dies, it is reborn as another creature, and it will have a better or worse birth based on its behavior. A bad person may come back as a lower animal or be reborn in a temporary but horrible hell. A noble person has gathered "good karma," and may be reborn in a higher level of society.

But no matter how fortunate our birth, life itself is a burden, with endless cares and disappointments. Some people are reborn in a Hindu heaven, but one Hindu scripture states that "Even in heaven there is incomparable misery, for from the time of ascension every one conceives in his mind, 'I shall fall.' Beholding the people of hell, they attain to mighty misery thinking day and night, 'I shall be brought to this condition.'" (Markandeya Purana, quoted in Ballou, The Portable World Bible, p. 76) So for Hinduism, we need to be saved from existence itself, saved from the eternal round of birth, death, and rebirth.

Although they describe the basic human problem differently, Christianity and Hinduism agree that people are in a difficult fix.But they disagree about whether we can solve this problem through our own efforts. I remember my religion teachers pointing out the fact that working out one's own salvation is an incredibly burdensome requirement. Many traditional Christians would say it is impossible. We deserve hell, and we can do nothing to escape that terrible verdict. Fortunately, salvation is offered to us without our having to deserve it. God grants forgiveness and eternal bliss to those who believe that Jesus was the son of God.

I myself tend to focus on this world rather than a world beyond. This is where I am right now, and this existence may be the only life I'll ever have. Accepting Jesus, while it may be extremely helpful in some ways, does not necessarily free a person from sin, alienation, depression, anger, and anxiety. And Hinduism does equip its followers with a wide range of techniques, including meditation, fasting, chanting, mantras, and various forms of yoga. These are not magic formulas for instant transformation, but they do help many people. Meditators say that one can achieve astonishing states of consciousness and advanced perspectives on life after dedicated practice - higher and higher levels of insight and bliss. Many Westerners have found this sort of salvation very appealing.

So those are some of my appreciations of Hinduism. If we would like to learn more about this ancient pathway, we can do several things. We can talk to our Indian neighbors. We can go to a bookstore or go to the web and buy the Bhagavad Gita, a little Hindu classic which many non-Indians have found inspiring. Or you might read the works of a Westerner who has studied this spiritual pathway, such as Alan Watts, Joseph Campbell, Ram Dass, or Emerson. Alan Watts' book called The Book is heavily influenced by Vedic ideas. In addition to reading, you might like to practice meditation or yoga. For a simple introduction to meditation, try attending the sessions that Doug Rodgers will be leading here on Sunday mornings at 9:15 a.m., starting November 2.

These readings and experiences will only give us a glimmer of this vast and intricate religion, and sometimes a little knowledge is more misleading than no knowledge at all. But if we stay with it, we will learn more about the Hindu spirit, and even a tiny amount of contact with a non-Western religion can be deeply thought-provoking. When I look at Shiva dancing or listen to Jitendra Abhisheki chanting the Vedas, I sense the mystery of life in a special way. So I bow to those unknown men and women who wondered about what existed before anything existed, who lay awake puzzling for hours in the tropical nights of ancient India. They tried to look beneath the surfaces of life, to see down to what is at the core. I need to do that too, in my own time and in my own way.

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