Presentation to a small, Informal, Interfaith Group of Women

February 17, 2021, 3:00 p.m. via Google Meet

Never having met this women’s group, I made a few statements of personal introduction about my sincere interest in Hinduism. Time did not permit presenting all of this basic content. Any person who would present this broad content would offer diverse explanations for specific items. I sincerely hope that my good Hindu friends would find this discussion worthy or that they would alert me to how to more accurately explain what they find meaningful.

Aspects to note of my Attitude toward Other Religions, several more directly about Hinduism:

Several Hindu Voices – (to reflect and highlight diversity)
One article by writer Anantanand Rambachan states that Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) was the first Hindu to do systematic study of Christianity. While Hindu thinkers might have valued the essential teachings of Jesus, they strongly opposed exclusive, arrogant disdain for or negation of Hinduism (its’ meaningful identity) by colonizing Christians. Rambachan explains how Christian focus on conversion often was understood by Hindus to imply a superior way to theirs being false. Failure of trust resulted for both sides. His Insight emerges: “Good relationships do not require sameness of vision or the abandonment of distinctive self-understanding.” “. . . our value for each other must be reflected in our effort to understand the others’ meaning and to share our own.”1

S. G. Vombatkere – A Hindu who self-identified as one who accepts all other Ways explained being born by chance into a Hindu home. He resulted from karma of parents, ancestors, and his own prior existences. Not one who prays or does puja, he claims to be a mix of all castes: brahmin who uses knowledge to earn a living, kshatriya who experienced the army, vaisya who saved and invested rupees to own a home, and sudra who does menial work around his house or for friends.2

Amma or Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, a living, world-renowned humanitarian, is noted among many as the “hugging saint“ or Mahatma. Known for giving darshan (healing power), she blesses thousands, offers advice, promotes peace, donates to charity, and chants mantras in the ear of followers who revere her.3 She practices what she teaches. “Our compassion and acts of selflessness take us to the deeper truths” expresses karmayoga.

Deities: Major yet only some of the Gods and Goddesses (Goddesses appear in) who represent the Ultimate One4
Stories circulate about each holy form; festivals honor many.
Ancient Vedic Period – Agni (fire & sacrifice); Indra (sky & war); Varuna (upholder of cosmic order)
Brahma – Creator (only 1 temple)
Vishnu –consort (Lakshmi, see Ritual later) honored during Divali; 10 avataras/descents including;

Shiva -creator/destroyer; linga symbol, consort (Parvati also named Gauri),

Mahadevi/Great Goddess; devi = goddess; celebrated during annual Navaratri—nine nights each when she is given a different form and name; many other goddesses (multi spouse)
(Kali) – black goddess, mother of life & fearsome weapon-bearer, unattached to any male god

Sanctuary of a god/goddess; service/ceremonies performed by a priest
Built on consecrated land; other ritual activity throughout construction to follow building rules
Sanctum – center where casket of “implanted seed” set in foundation where image installed
Highest spire directly above sanctum; like a mountain, a temple links heaven and earth
Devotee circles center before receiving darshan (seeing/being seen by deity)
Temple is residence/vesture of God, image represents sacred whole of cosmos
Tirupati –city in south/Tamil Nadu; most popular pilgrimage point in world (30,000/day)

Worship: Gods, Creator approached by creature; outward form of inner belief
Use term image, (not idol/ “sin of idolatry” in eye of beholder)5

Worship occasion – to awaken senses and direct them toward the Divine; to invite or dismiss God.
The single, most central act of Hindu worship – to stand in the presence of a deity.
“The real meaning of prayer is devoted worship.”6
Oneness – based on interrelatedness and diversity, not unity/sameness. Hindus do not describe the one and the many of divinity as opposites; both are held simultaneously. Diana Eck, who studied Hinduism in India for seven years, sees Wisdom in divine diversity. “If something is important, it is important enough to be repeated, seen from many angles.”7

There are at least 28 Hindu festivals/holidays per year. They are occasions to honor God, to commend good over evil, or to celebrate season changes.
Deepvali/Divali festival of lights (in a row); series of 5 festivities; reflects a merger of different traditions
Durga Puja final day: Dussehra/Ram Lila – tells the epic story of Ramayana. After his fourteen-year exile Lord Rama (seen by audience as likeness of deity) conquers Ravana (demon king of Sri Lanka who had abducted consort Sita); Rama and Sita return to kingdom of Ayodhya
Holi: varied stories about festive occasion for throwing colored powders on each other. [When event held among some students at Goshen College, it was an occasion to show respect across cultures, be informed about Hindu practice, value differences regarding the sacred, gain Truth through exposure.]
Pongal: Harvest festival in south India made noteworthy with cooked rice and lentils, the term meaning.

Vedas –

Brahmanas – commentaries
Upanishads – 500 BCE, philosophical/spiritual wisdom/mystical writings to close Vedas; themes like: Brahman/atman, rebirth, liberation
Bhagavad Gita – 200 BCE “Song of the Lord”; Gita the epic story called Mahabharata in which Lord Krishna teaches warrior Arjuna about duty
Ramayana – other major epic that celebrates legend/deeds of Lord Rama, written by Valmiki
Puranas: – “Stories of Old” that preserve traditions of cosmology, myths, legends and ritual practice; about creation; emphasizes the tri-murti: Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva

adivasi – original inhabitant
ahimsa – nonviolence; Gandhi means that the soul force has effectiveness to nullify evil in violence,
Arya Samaj – founded by Dayananda Sarasvati 1875; challenged conversion to Islam & Christianity; campaigned for “purification” or return to Hindu loyalty;
bhakti – devotion to divine; in such devotion a person overcomes “I-ness”/ego; devotion toward a chosen deity does not exclude worship of other deities
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – radical political party
Brahman – Hindu name for Infinite Ground of Being/Non-Being; underlying unity of all reality
Brahmo Samaj Society – reform of some Hindu practices founded in 1928 by intellectual Rammohan Roy
Communalism (in India) – mutual crediting of religions (see secular below)
Conversion – religious affiliation depends on birth; to change religious loyalty thought of by Hindus to be uncouth, destructive of culture
Cow – already in Vedic times cow noted for providing essentials: milk, meat, butter, yogurt, skin (shelter/clothes); Lawgiver Manu forbade slaughter of cows; Lord Krishna known as cowherder
darshan – seeing the divine in an image; or being seen by the divine
dharma – duty as with rites; law/ethics, righteousness; modern usage close to meaning of religion
-started by V. D. Savarka 1923; “Who is a Hindu?”; Hinduness prime; fear of non-Hindu actions
karma – action and its result; rebirth/reincarnation result depends on how a person lived life
Kat/henothism – worship of one god at a time
mantra – sacred utterance like OM/AUM, serves as focus for concentration, to build up spiritual power; another noted one being the ‘gayatri mantra’
murti – image
Partition -massive divide of peoples at Independence 1947 killing many Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs
puja – worship through rituals; quest for knowledge, concentration, devotion, pilgrimage, festivals; intent to find deity, catch glimpse of divine; worship setting in homes
RSS – 1925, propagate Hindutva, Hindu nationalism
sadhu – holy man
salvation – end of rebirth cycle attained in Hinduism thru following certain way (marga) of life: action/karmayoga, devotion/bhaktiyoga, or knowledge/jnannayoga
Sanskritization – when a person from a lower caste shifts toward being part of a higher caste
secularism – respect for people of all faiths; not privileging one religion over another; in Hindu thought, the world is not secular since all nature/creatures reflect the sacred
varna (color)/jati (birth; castes: Brahmin (priests/teachers), Kshatriya (warriors); Vaishya (merchants/producers), Shudra (servants) plus many outcasts: known as Untouchables, Harijans, ”children of God,” Dalits (oppressed), plus many further subcastes under each category

Ritual: – an example of sincere, devoted attention to detailed action—bhaktiyoga and karmayoga.
(I met Sunithi when with the Fulbright study group in Chennai; this ritual account appears in a fine book.8) Sunithi celebrates and welcomes Lakshmi (goddess of wealth and prosperity) at some point Mid-August thru mid-September. Having prepared in advance, on the special day Sunithi removes her necklaces and takes a bath. She then draws kolam/desjgns (using auspicious rice powder) in front of her house, on the steps, verandah and a platform inside the house. With her daughter and granddaughter, they decorate (with banana stalks/mango leaves) the shrine on the platform and the near-by floor. Sunithi places gifts of unhusked rice, turmeric, palm leaves, betel leaves, nuts, bangles, a comb and mirror into a silver pot. She puts a red dot on the forehead and black kohl under the eyes of the silver mask on the Goddess before carrying the image to the verandah where she rings a bell and offers vermillion, sandalwood, flowers, water, and camphor. As the flame is lighted, Lakshmi is believed to enter the image. Returning it to the inside platform/shrine, facing north, Sunithi further prepares turmeric on betel leaf to mix with water to form a paste to make a cone that represents Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity known as Remover of Obstacles. Again, Sunithi rings the bell and offers the same items to him while praying for blessings during this ritual. Sunithi invokes Lakshmi with a song of praise while dipping flowers into a vessel of holy water to sprinkle onto the image to begin the main ritual. Sunithi sings the 1,008 names of Goddess Lakshmi while offering fragrant blooms at her feet and cooked foods arranged on the floor in front of the shrine. She then lights incense, takes the butter lamp, and breaks a coconut giving the sweet water to Lakshmi. The lighted camphor held in an arati/tray is passed in front of her three times. All family members wave their hands through the flame and touch their eyelids while offering their own flowers and singing a prayerful song. All prostrate before Lakshmi with lamps lighted to ward off the evil eye to complete the ritual. Some of the food (now called prashad) is eaten with all having a deep sense of peace. Lakshmi remains as the honored guest for two days. A meal of milk and cooked lentils with coconut is offered to Lakshmi in the evening before neighbors come to visit her, sing to her, and eat her prashad. Sunithi’s family visits neighbors’ homes in return. Before going to bed, Sunithi places the shrine in a large metal bin of rice—ensuring that the family will never go hungry. Lakshmi is fed before each meal the next day. Sunithi recites: “Dearest Mother, please visit my home every year and give me the privilege of worshipping you.” To then move the image means that the Goddess departs; the sacred object is removed from the rice container, dismantled, and put away. Sunithui again puts on her necklaces.

Responses to questions raised by the women’s group
1. How does Hinduism reflect tenets basic to all religions? (like God loves/respects all with equity)
A most basic example is what Christians call the “Golden Rule” (“Do until others as you would have them do to you.”) All major religions promote a similar principle, as from older religions: Hindus “Do not to another what is disagreeable to yourself”; Judaism “What is hateful to you, do not to (another.)”; and Buddhism: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find harmful.”

Circles and candles are universal symbols that enable the Divine to feel closer, that suggest equity, unity and solidarity. In fact, Light and Water convey basic insight important for all religions while fire enables meaning with many Hindu rituals. Silence, a universal spiritual practice, suggests unity without sameness for religions. Further basic tenets:
Truth exchanged enhances personal faith.
Absorbing ideas and patterns as of worship broadens religious insight and practice.
Devotion to the Divine is expressed through song (bhajans), actions (kindness), learning (openness).
Appreciation of all that is good and genuine enables ours and others’ religions.

2. How does Hinduism fit into India’s practice of caste? The idea of social groupings existed since ancient Vedic time. How is caste active today in India? What changes have developed with it? Since Independence in 1947, some Hindus have dropped their jati associated surnames or adopted names that cross jati levels. Hierarchical levels have broken down with more mobility in fact, the system is officially illegal. Caste or jati reflects religious, social, and political aspects. It differentiates people, reflects power variables, shapes action such as who one cares for, or determines relationships (degrees of bonding).

Be aware of two Indian words for the English word caste: varna which means color and jati which refers to species or birth. Social Varna or strata appeared in India during early Aryan times (1500 BCE), since ancient Vedic scriptures linked it to a primitive person: whereas Brahmins (priests/teachers) were known as created from the head, Kshatriyas (warriors) from the arms & torso, Vaishyas (merchant/producers) from thighs, and Shudras (servants) from the feet. Sub castes number in the thousands. Rather than be asked Who are you? or What do you believe? You might be asked in India What is your jati? (What were you born?) Jatis function as networks of those who speak the same language, cook similarly, perform like rituals, or celebrate the same festivals. Although ads for marriage may state ‘no caste bar’ and though inter-caste, inter-religious marriages increase today, most Hindu parents prefer their children to marry within their jati.9

Discrimination has characterized the caste system, by some upper caste folk toward those “lower,” especially those outside the four varna or main classes. Those without caste who might be mistreated by higher caste folk have been called Untouchables, Harijan, “people/children of god” (so named by Gandhi), and Dalits (broken, oppressed). A Dalit named Ambedkar developed a system of seat reservation in institutions calling them “scheduled” caste or tribe.

3. Name several Hindu goddesses. How do they influence Indian culture? What do they offer women of other religions? Know that Hinduism includes the most diverse goddess mythology of any religion; such ancient myths have multiple meanings. Veneration for goddesses has not prompted a female-centered or egalitarian society. Male fear of woman’s creative power partly causes that fact. In India the ideal woman is a wife linked with Sita. Not independent, she earnestly worships her husband or puts his welfare first. Such devotion becomes a metaphor for devotion to god. Many Hindu women create daily paintings (made with auspicious rice powder) in front of their home, it becoming prayer to a goddess (for her husband, for protection or fertility, as a vow to or bargain with the deity). Goddess names include:

Sita puts Rama’s welfare first; she is known for her shakti, force or energy of the divine. The Ramayana epic story, which glorifies a woman’s devotion to her husband, tells of Sita’s being banished and abducted to Sri Lanka then recaptured by Rama who doubts that she remained faithful to him. Having returned to Ayodhya, Rama’s presumed birth place, she protests a second trial by fire, faulting Rama’s failure to deserve her loyalty and wishing for the earth goddess to receive her.
Lakshmi consort of Vishnu; Divali light and lamps honor her [see ritual above]
Durga –having multiple names, she is known as a fighter who battles a noted demon, as provider of shakti/power to Lord Shiva. The festival called Durga Puga or Navaratri ends with Dassahra
Kali –goddess who either destroys or saves, she symbolizes woman’s social struggle for rights
Parvati –also called Gauri is known for beauty and wifely devotion to Shiva.
Sati – with her husband retaliates for being neglected by her father. Segments of her body are scatted by Shiva throughout the land, each point becoming a place of worship for the Great Goddess.

Concerning what goddesses offer women of other religions: most notably, they can enable validation of females as worthy to be honored, that not only a male form images the Divine. My personal offense with privilege for maleness due to more frequent association with God overlooks the breadth of Divine descriptors found in biblical scripture, fails to duly claim Wisdom/Spirit/Sophia, and negates femaleness unfairly.10

A few notes about Hinduism from Mennonite Writers/Professors of World Religions
Chad Bauman:
Professor at Butler University, Bauman writes extensively about conversion, how and why it is “politically charged” in India. Many Hindus feel that such religious change of loyalty counters national strength. Christian conversion also prompted Hindu reform movements. Bauman’s extensive dissertation writing (Christian Identity and Dalit Religion in Hindu India, 1868-1947) about Dalits (those below the four major castes/jatis, as is true of many Christians) makes clear their hardships. His article about Sai Baba draws on experience attending worship events with Sai followers in Indianapolis. He ends by noting how some Sai devotees distinguish between religion and spiritual—” . . . that religion is about rituals and institutions whereas spirituality focuses more on transcendent principles and values.”

A chapter of Bauman’s co-written with Jennifer Saunders provides insight into Hindu immigrants to the US since the Nationality Act of 1965 that opened the way for South Asians to settle here. With frequent requests to explain Hinduism to US people and with concern that their children know key Hindu stories or how to practice it, Hindu thought and practice becomes perhaps more important here for them than in India. Four assertions from Hindus in the USA become clear: 1. That Hinduism is a way of life more than religion; 2. that it is tolerant; 3. that while the Divine is One with multiple, symbolic representations, it too has a trimurti—Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva; 4. that Hindu rituals convey an “inner meaning” that often promote good health and a safe context.

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger:
My friend Joyce’s first major book, titled Gender and Genre in the Folklore of Middle India, addresses Indian folklore types of literature along with ritual performances. The writer grew up in India’s area of Chhattisgarh the daughter of life-long Mennonite missionaries; she was received as a “sister” in her “mother’s place” among indigenous village folk with whom she did fieldwork for fifteen years. Her love for India included knowing their ways of talking. Burkhalter Flueckiger attended to women’s song, to rituals and events of celebration in performances of the Ramayana epic tradition. She observed how celebrations for major deities like Ganesh, known as “remover of obstacles,” affect agricultural patterns of double rice crops, how distinct caste dialects and oral traditions fit into the broad Hindu hierarchy of social structure, and who performed which tradition by song or dance. Burkhalter Flueckiger also learned the Gond tribal folk’s understanding of how goddess Lakshmi, known for wealth, transforms the harvested paddy into ritual wealth. Later in the book she reflects both the oral composition and performance quality of texts.

In addition to a book in which Burkhalter Flueckiger details a Muslim woman’s healing strength among neighbors in Hyderabad, she wrote When the World Becomes Female Guises of a South Indian Goddess. A yearly festival to celebrate the noted goddess Gangamma, worshipped by a half million people, occurs in the city of Tirupati. During the week-long festival events, men celebrate by taking on the empowering dynamic of shakti, female power, usually shared by the goddess with women. Two major temples in Tirupati honor Gangamma where she is called on to provide personal protection and fertility for both people and land. Professor in the Department of Religions at Emory University in Atlanta, Burkhalter Flueckiger also wrote a book useful as curriculum for the study of Hinduism titled Everyday Hinduism. Sections of the book outline key subjects: “Deities; Narrative and Theologies; Loving and Serving God; Temples, Shrines, and Pilgrimage; Festivals; Ritual vows; Rites of Passage; and Ritual Healing.”

Ronald W. Neufeldt
Professor in the Department of Religious Studies of Calgary, in Canada, Ron Neufeldt’s dissertation (F. Max Muller and the Rig-Veda) focuses on the German Max Muller, noted for early attention to Comparative Religion, and the Hindu scripture Rig-Veda. Muller explained that India’s ancient document reveals how religious thought and language began, grew, and spread. Neufeldt explains that already in ancient times religions shared certain features: intuition about God, belief in divine rule of the world, distinction between good and evil, and hope for a better life. Recently retired, Neufeldt’s depth of writing about religion impresses me with themes like: Readings in Eastern Religions (written with Harold Coward and Eva K. Neumaier); how theosophical interpreters explained allegory in the Hindu Gita; conversion and Hindu courts; how current Hindutva (Hinduness) with its rhetoric of violence outgrew early Hindu schools; how religions move through quests for holiness; karma and rebirth; and Swami Vivekananda’s speeches at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions.

Rig Veda (I.164.46) “The One Being the wise call by many names” (Oneness of God is not compromised by many human ways of speaking, helping to understand that the Ultimate valued by a neighbor or fellow being is our Divine One too.)
Gandhi – prayer for others: “Give them all the light and truth they need for their higher development.”. . .” . . because no man possesses the whole truth, we have no right to impose our views on others.”
K. P. Aleaz – “It is in the one mission of the one God that Christians share along with people of other faiths. . . . God’s reign/mission is broader than the Christian mission. . . . Hinduism’s mission: to lead people to their own innermost reality, to “lead people from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality.”11

A few additional Writers/Resources about Hinduism (Many other books & articles could be listed.)
Chatterji, J. C.: The Wisdom of the Vedas.
Clooney, Francis X.: Hindu Wisdom for All God’s Children; Learning Interreligiously in the Text, in the World’ Divine Mother, Blessed Mother Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary.
Doniger, Wendy: The Hindus An Alternative History.
Eck, Diana L.: Encountering God; Banaras City of Light; A New Religious America; Darshan Seeing the Divine Image in India; India a Sacred Geography.
Edgerton, Franklin, Translator The Bhagavad Gita
Griffiths, Ralph, Translator. Sacred Writings Hinduism: The Rig Veda.
Klostermaier, Klaus. Hindu and Christian in Vrindaban
Lopez, Donald S Jr.: Religions of India in Practice.
Oddie, Geoffrey A.: Imagined Hinduism.
Panikkar, Raimundo: The Unknown Christ of Hinduism; A Dwelling Place for Wisdom.
Renard, John: Responses to 101 Questions on Hinduism.
Sharma, Arvind: Hinduism for Our Times; Why I Am A Believer, ed., chapter (on account of subtlety, charity, and creativity); Women in World Religions, ed., chapter on Hinduism.