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종교 탐방

II. General nature and characteristic features

일반적 성격과 특징

The spectrum that ranges from the level of popular Hindu belief to that of elaborate ritual technique and philosophical speculation is very broad and is attended by many stages of transition and varieties of coexistence. Magic rites, animal worship, and belief in demons are often combined with the worship of more or less personal gods or with mysticism, asceticism, and abstract and profound theological systems or esoteric doctrines. The worship of local deities does not exclude the belief in pan-Indian higher gods or even in a single high God. Such local deities are also frequently looked upon as manifestations of a high God.

In principle, Hinduism incorporates all forms of belief and worship without necessitating the selection or elimination of any. It is axiomatic that no religious idea in India ever dies or is superseded--it is merely combined with the new ideas that arise in response to it. Hindus are inclined to revere the divine in every manifestation, whatever it may be, and are doctrinally tolerant, allowing others--including both Hindus and non-Hindus--whatever beliefs suit them best. A Hindu may embrace a non-Hindu religion without ceasing to be a Hindu, and because Hindus are disposed to think synthetically and to regard other forms of worship, strange gods, and divergent doctrines as inadequate rather than wrong or objectionable, they tend to believe that the highest divine powers complement one another. Few religious ideas are considered to be irreconcilable. The core of religion does not depend on the existence or nonexistence of God or on whether there is one god or many. Because religious truth is said to transcend all verbal definition, it is not conceived in dogmatic terms. Moreover, the tendency of Hindus to distinguish themselves from others on the basis of practice (orthopraxy) rather than doctrine (orthodoxy) further de-emphasizes doctrinal differences.

Hinduism is both a civilization and a congregation of religions; it has neither a beginning or founder, nor a central authority, hierarchy, or organization. Every attempt at a specific definition of Hinduism has proved unsatisfactory in one way or another, the more so because the finest scholars of Hinduism, including Hindus themselves, have emphasized different aspects of the whole.


Nevertheless, it is possible to discern among the myriad forms of Hinduism several common characteristics of belief and practice.

1) Authority of the Veda and the Brahman class.

Perhaps the defining characteristic of Hindu belief is the recognition of the Veda, the most ancient body of religious literature, as an absolute authority revealing fundamental and unassailable truth. At the same time, however, its content has long been practically unknown to most Hindus, and it is seldom drawn upon for literal information or advice. Still, it is venerated from a distance by every traditional Hindu, and those Indians who reject its authority (such as Buddhists and Jains) are regarded as unfaithful to their tradition. The Veda is also regarded as the basis of all the later Shastraic texts used in Hindu doctrine and practice. Parts of the Veda are still quoted in essential Hindu rituals, and it is the source of many enduring patterns of Hindu thought.

Also characteristic of Hinduism is the belief in the power of the Brahmans, a priestly class possessing spiritual supremacy by birth. As special manifestations of religious power and as bearers and teachers of the Veda, Brahmans are considered to represent the ideal of ritual purity and social prestige.

2) Doctrine of atman-brahman.

Hindus believe in an uncreated, eternal, infinite, transcendent, and all-embracing principle, which, "comprising in itself being and non-being," is the sole reality, the ultimate cause and foundation, source, and goal of all existence. This ultimate reality is called brahman As the All, brahman causes the universe and all beings to emanate from itself, transforms itself into the universe, or assumes its appearance. Brahman is in all things and is the Self (atman) of all living beings. Brahman is the creator, preserver, or transformer and reabsorber of everything. Although it is Being in itself, without attributes and qualities and hence impersonal, it may also be conceived of as a personal high God, usually as Vishnu (Visnu) or Shiva. This fundamental belief in and the essentially religious search for ultimate reality--i.e., the One that is the All--have continued almost unaltered for more than 30 centuries and have been the central focus of India's spiritual life.

3) Ahimsa: non-injury.

A further characteristic of Hinduism is the ideal of ahimsa. Ahimsa, "non-injury" or the absence of the desire to harm, is regarded by Indian thinkers as one of the keystones of their ethics. Historically, ahimsa is unrelated to vegetarianism; in ancient India, killing people in war or in capital punishment and killing animals in Vedic sacrifices were acceptable to many people who for other reasons refrained from eating meat. However, the two movements, ahimsa and vegetarianism, reinforced one another through the common concept of the disinclination to kill and eat animals, and together they contributed to the growing importance of the protection and veneration of the cow, which gives food without having to be killed. Neither ahimsa nor vegetarianism ever found full acceptance. Even today, many Hindus eat beef, and nonviolence (as the ideal of ahimsa is often translated) has never been a notable characteristic of Hindu behaviour. (see also Index: ahimsa, or ahimsa)

4) Doctrines of transmigration and karma.

Hindus generally accept the doctrine of transmigration and rebirth and the complementary belief in karma, or previous acts as the factor that determines the condition into which a being, after a stay in heaven or hell, is reborn in one form or another. The whole process of rebirths is called samsara. Any earthly process is viewed as cyclic, and all worldly existence is subject to the cycle. Samsara has no beginning and, in most cases, no end; it is not a cycle of progress or a process of purification but a matter of perpetual attachment. Karma, acting like a clockwork that, while running down, always winds itself up, binds the atmans (selves) of beings to the world and compels them to go through an endless series of births and deaths. This belief is indissolubly connected with the traditional Indian views of society and earthly life, and any social interaction (particularly those involving sex or food) results in the mutual exchange of good and bad karma. It has given rise to the belief that any misfortune is the effect of karma, or one's own deeds, and to the conviction that the course of world history is conditioned by collective karma.

Such doctrines encourage the view that mundane life is not true existence and that human endeavour should be directed toward a permanent interruption of the mechanism of karma and transmigration--that is, toward final emancipation (moksha), toward escaping forever from the impermanence that is an inescapable feature of mundane existence. In this view the only goal is the one permanent and eternal principle: the One, God, brahman, which is totally opposite to any phenomenal existence. Anyone who has not fully realized that his being is identical with brahman is thus seen as deluded. The only possible solution consists in the realization that the kernel of human personality (atman) really is brahman and that it is their attachment to worldly objects that prevents people from reaching salvation and eternal peace. (Hindus sometimes use the largely Buddhist term nirvana to describe this state.)

5) Concepts of istadevata and Trimurti.

Although those Hindus who particularly worship either Vishnu or Shiva generally consider one or the other as their "favourite god" (istadevata) and as the Lord (Ishana) and Brahman in its personal aspect, Vishnu is often regarded as a special manifestation of the preservative aspect of the Supreme and Shiva as that of the destructive function. Another deity, Brahma, the creator, remains in the background as a demiurge. These three great figures (Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva) constitute the so-called Hindu Trinity (Trimurti, "the One or Whole with Three Forms"). This conception attempts to synthesize and harmonize the conviction that the Supreme Power is singular with the plurality of gods in daily religious worship. Although the concept of the Trimurti assigns a position of special importance to some great gods, it never has become a living element in the religion of the people. Moreover, Brahma has had no major cult since ancient times, and many Hindus worship neither Shiva nor Vishnu but one or more of the innumerable other Hindu gods.

6) Ashramas: the four stages of life.

In the West, the socalled life-negating aspects of Hinduism have often been overemphasized. The polarity of asceticism and sensuality, which assumed the form of a conflict between the aspiration to liberation and the heartfelt desire to have descendants and continue earthly life, manifested itself in Hindu social life as the tension between the different goals and stages of life. The relative value of an active life and the performance of meritorious works (pravrtti) as opposed to the renunciation of all worldly interests and activity (nivrtti) was a much-debated issue. While one-sided religious and philosophical works, such as the Upanishads, placed emphasis on renunciation, the dharma texts argued that the householder who maintains his sacred fire, procreates children, and performs his ritual duties well also earns religious merit. Nearly 2,000 years ago, these dharma texts elaborated the social doctrine of the four ashramas (stages of life). This concept is an attempt at harmonizing the conflicting tendencies of Hinduism into one system. It held that a member of the three higher classes should first become a chaste student (brahmachari); then become a married householder (grihastha), discharging his debts to his ancestors by begetting sons and to the gods by sacrificing; then retire (as a vanaprastha), with or without his wife, to the forest to devote himself to spiritual contemplation; and finally, but not mandatorily, become a homeless wandering ascetic (sannyasin). The situation of the forest dweller was always a delicate compromise that remained problematic on the mythological level and was often omitted or rejected in practical life. (see also Index: brahmacarin)

Although the status of a householder was often extolled, and some authorities, regarding studentship as a mere preparation, went so far as to brand the other stages as inferior, there were always people who became wandering ascetics immediately after studentship. Theorists were inclined to reconcile the divergent views and practices by allowing the ascetic way of life to those who are, owing to the effects of restrained conduct in former lives, entirely free from worldly desire, even if they had not gone through the traditional prior stages.


Hindus disagree about the way (marga) to final emancipation (moksha). Three paths to salvation (variously valued but nonexclusive) are presented in an extremely influential religious text, the Bhagavadgita("Song of the Lord"; c. 200 BC), according to which it is not acts themselves but the desire for their results that produces karma and thus attachment. These three ways to salvation are (1) the karma-marga ("the path of duties"), the disinterested discharge of ritual and social obligations; (2) the jnana-marga ("the path of knowledge"), the use of meditative concentration preceded by a long and systematic ethical and contemplative training, yoga, to gain a supra-intellectual insight into one's identity with brahman; and (3) the bhakti-marga ("the path of devotion"), the devotion to a personal God. These ways are regarded as suited to various types of people.

Although the search for moksha has never been the goal of more than a small minority of Hindus, liberation was a religious ideal that affected all lives. Moksha determined not only the hierarchical values of Indian social institutions and religious doctrines and practices but also the function of Indian philosophy, which is to discuss what one must do to find true fulfillment and what one has to realize, by direct experience, in order to escape from samsara (bondage) and obtain spiritual freedom. While those who have not been reached by formal Indian philosophy have only vague ideas about the doctrines of karma and moksha, in semipopular milieus these doctrines gave rise to much speculation.

For the ordinary Hindu, the main aim of worldly life lies in conforming to social and ritual duties, to the traditional rules of conduct for one's caste, family, and profession. Such requirements constitute an individual's dharma (law and duties), one's own part of the broader stability, law, order, and fundamental equilibrium in the cosmos, nature, and society. Sanatana (traditional) dharma--a term used by Hindus to denote their own religion--is a close approximation to "religious practices" in the West. This traditional dharma applies theoretically to all Hindus, but it is superseded by the more particular dharmas that are appropriate to each of the four major varnas, or classes of society: Brahmans (priests), Ksatriyas (warrior kings), Vaishyas (the common people), and Shudras (servants). These four rather abstract categories are further superseded by the more practically applicable dharmas appropriate to each of the thousands of particular castes (jatis). Thus, religion for Hindus is mainly a tradition and a heritage, a way of life and a mode of thought. In practice, it is the right application of methods for securing both welfare in this life and a good condition in the hereafter. (W.Do.)


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