Hinduism is the world’s oldest continual religion and the third largest by number of followers, after Christianity and Islam. There’s a reason for its remarkable longevity and success: Hinduism, by its very nature, is one of the most flexible, all-encompassing, and metaphysically satisfying spiritual traditions the world has known. As someone who was born and raised Jewish, studied comparative religion at Stanford University, then lived fifteen years in a Hindu ashram in Northern California, I can personally attest to it’s authenticity, power, and effectiveness. In this age of increasing religious conflict, there are several important things that all of the world’s religion can learn from the Hindu perspective.
It’s revealing to know that historically, “Hindus” themselves don’t call their faith “Hinduism.” That’s a name conferred upon the Indian religious system by the Western explorers who encountered it (it refers to the Indus river valley where the original proponents of “Hindusim” were encountered; that is to say, it’s really a geographic descriptor, not a spiritual one). Indians themselves traditionally refer to their religion as Sanatan Dharma, which translates from Sanskrit as “The Eternal Way” or “The Eternal Religion.” It’s an important point because within the authentic name for “Hinduism” implicitly lays many of the great truths that make Hinduism so vitally important to contemporary religious practice.
This isn’t to say that anyone should convert to Hinduism or that Hinduism is the “best” religion. Far from it, as the first point below makes clear. Rather, in this age of religious conflict, concerns over authoritarian control of others, and general doubting of religious dogma, incorporating certain aspects of the Hindu perspective on spirituality can help revitalize all of the world’s great religions, as well as our individual understanding of and relationship with them.
Here are five core concepts of Hinduism that all the world’s religions would benefit from emphasizing or integrating into their own:
1. Because Sanatan Dharma isn’t tied to one specific individual, book, or set of dogma – anything that is “eternally true” is accepted – Hinduism is the most diverse, pluralistic and tolerant religion on Earth. Hindus believe that there is no single, exclusive path to truth or enlightenment, including their own. All of the world’s great religions are equally valid – so there is no need to compete, hate, or even kill those who follow other faiths. Hindus believe that Christ, Muhammed, Krishna, Moses, and Buddha – to name but a few – all equally preached the truth and all offer equally legitimate pathways to spiritual understanding and experience. In short, there are many equal pathways up the mountain toward the same ultimate goal of spiritual attainment. There is plenty of room on this Earth for many prophets, scriptures, practices, and perspectives. The right path for one person may not be the same for someone else.
2. Hinduism is completely decentralized. There is no one organized leader, no single scripture, no specific orthodoxy to which each and every individual must adhere or risk excommunication. In a world in which leaders and followers claim to be all-knowing, infallible, and demand perfect allegiance to a person, religion, or book in order to claim salvation, this is refreshing. It’s up to each individual to discover the truth inside themselves, not what others – even the great saints and sages — tell them it ought to be. It should be mentioned here that the concept of a “guru” is widely misunderstood in the West. A guru isn’t someone who tells their followers what to do or believe, all while exercising total control over them (I suspect Westerner’s misunderstand this precisely because we are so conditioned towards thinking this way towards our own religions and religious leaders). In Sanskrit, “guru” simply means “teacher.” Gurus are those who help the individual learn and experience essential truths for themselves, much as a math professor assists her students in understanding and applying mathematical principles so that they can successfully solve complex math problems even when she is no longer present. Ultimately, there is no external authority to which the Hindu pledges eternal allegiance.
3. Sanatan Dharma emphasizes personal experience over beliefs, scripture, or dogma. In general, Hindus don’t care what you believe so much as what you’ve personally experienced and attained. No one can believe their way to salvation, it has to be practiced, earned, and above all, felt by each individual in her own heart, mind, and soul. Self-realization is a personal effort, not a group one. No one can do it for you and no set of mere beliefs automatically frees you. Your beliefs alone will not save you, you must know it and experience it at every level of your being.
4. A corollary of the above is: there is no conflict between science and religion. Hindus in general advocate a scientific approach to religion. Beliefs are treated as mere hypotheses that each individual must confirm in their own inner laboratory. As such, Hindus are scientific to the core of their being, since their spirituality is scientific, they have no conflict with the scientific approach to anything. Truth is truth and should never be denied.
5. On the other hand, Hindus also know that the world is larger and more mysterious than we may think. Because they are accepting of this most expansive framework, they also are the first to acknowledge that the world can’t be reduced to mere scientism, the process of turning science into a dogma. Hindus are innately suspicious of any claim that smacks of reductionism, whether scientific or spiritual. No one system of any kind – be it scientific theory or religious faith – can fully and completely capture the totality of the Universe. There is room for both practicality and mysticism in this view; no single theory, understanding, or practice is big enough to fully capture Truth and Reality. Whatever we might think God, or truth, or reality is: it’s much more, so very much more.
There is no intrinsic reason that all of the above aspects of Sanatan Dharma can’t be incorporated into all of the world’s great religions. Indeed, within every tradition there have always been saints, sages, and prophets whom have advocated exactly these principles, whether they be Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Shinto, Wiccan, Native American, Zoroastrian, or indeed from any of the world’s spiritual traditions. The only difference is that of emphasis: Hindus repeatedly stress these concepts, usually (though not always) remembering to keep them front and center, whereas in other traditions, these same teachings are sometimes over-shadowed by more parochial perspectives.
If the world’s religions could integrate these five concepts more fully, the result won’t be that they become Hindu; rather they will become more authentically themselves. Gone will be the small-minded dogmas that distract adherents from the truth and beauty of the great religions, gloriously replaced instead with their own unique perspective on the One Eternal Way which unites and uplifts us all.
About the Author
Sean Meshorer is a spiritual teacher and New Thought minister based in Los Angeles, as well as Spiritual Director of a non-profit organization. He graduated from Stanford in 1993 with a degree in Philosophy and Religious Studies. He spent fifteen years meditating, studying, practicing, and living in an ashram and spiritual community in Northern California. He is the author of The Bliss Experiment: 28 Days to Personal Transformation (Atria Books). For more information about Sean and his book, please visit www.SeanMeshorer.com.