Religion 101

Religion 101

On Teaching About Hinduism (Part Two)

When encountering Hinduism for the first time, Westerners (including many of the students in my community college Eastern religions classes) find themselves faced with a major world faith which in many ways differs drastically from the major Western faiths with which most of them are familiar.

For one thing, unlike Judaism or Christianity or Islam (and as discussed in my previous blog entry), Hinduism has not just one holy book, but many.

For another thing, Hinduism also believes that individuals spend not just one lifetime upon this earth, but many.


Again unlike Judaism or Christianity or Islam (at least in their mainstream forms), which maintain that each soul lives but once upon the earth, Hinduism asserts that souls are endlessly “recycled,” so to speak. After death, each soul sooner or later is subsequently reborn on earth, to live out yet another earthly life. This continuing cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (referred to by Hindus as samsara, the “wheel of rebirth”) has no natural conclusion, but repeats itself endlessly — unless, of course, something is done to terminate it.

Many Westerners tend at first to ask, “Why would anybody want to do anything to stop it?” At first blush, reincarnation sounds very appealing to many people. After all, it suggests that death is not the end, and that if one’s present earthly life is perhaps unfulfilling or disappointing (let alone miserable or tragic), the possibility of a better future earthly life looms as a glittering hope. Perhaps one was a famous personage of great stature in a past life, or perhaps one will enjoy living such an existence in some future life.


In any case, who wouldn’t want a second shot at life? Or a third? Or a fourth? Or maybe even a tenth?

Well, what about a hundredth? Or a thousandth? Or a millionth? Or a billionth?

Perhaps after a few trillion earthly lives, the “new” might begin to wear off. A cosmic sense of “been there, done that” might eventually begin to set in, at some level. And not all earthly lives are necessarily pleasant ones; suppose a fair number of one’s many, many reincarnations entail significant pain and suffering? The possibility of an endless number of lives characterized largely by hunger and malnutrition, disease and dysfunction, or violence and torment surely dims some of the lustre offered by the concept of reincarnation.


Even if blissful lives of pleasure and plenty overwhelmingly outnumber lives of misery or agony, surely eventually their sheer repetition might elicit feelings of existential weariness or aimlessness. In other words, even after a series of idyllic earthly existences, at some point one might nevertheless begin to wonder: “Is that all there is?”

Hinduism affirms that no, that’s emphatically not all there is. There is, in fact, something infinitely more — a supremely blissful alternative to samsara, or the endless round of rebirth. One can instead jump off of that metaphysical merry-go-round altogether, once and for all, thereby exchanging the slings and arrows of a limited and temporal existence for an infinite and eternal Existence.


In the Hindu religious tradition, then, reincarnation or rebirth is ultimately less of a blessing, and more of a curse; it is something to finally be transcended. Liberation from the otherwise-endless cycle of rebirth is, therefore, the supreme spiritual goal in Hinduism.

For Hindus, “salvation” (to borrow a Christian term which isn’t really an exact fit) consists not in atoning for sins in order to go to heaven, but in erasing the spiritual ignorance and blindness which prevent us seeing our own deepest nature — seeing ourselves truly, as eternal sparks of the Divine. Doing so results in permanent release from rebirth, and eternal union (or communion) with God.

How can such a radically transcendental feat be accomplished? Hinduism affirms that there is more than one valid way to go about it — more than one legitimate spiritual path that can effectively and authentically lead one God-ward. In other words, according to Hinduism, there is not just one single valid path to “salvation” (or spiritual liberation from rebirth by becoming one with the Divine), but many such paths.

(To be continued, in Part Three.)






Comments Post the First Comment »
post a comment

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

On Teaching About Judaism (Part Six)
Specifically Christian newcomers to the study of Judaism frequently puzzle over  why -- as they themselves often put it -- Jews "don't believe in Jesus." The reality is simply that the entire Jewish concept of who and what a Messiah actually ...

posted 4:45:00pm Jun. 29, 2013 | read full post »

On Teaching About Judaism (Part Five)
Aside from the several other frequent areas of confusion which sometimes puzzle newcomers to the study of Judaism (areas which I've been discussing in my last several blog entries), there is yet another hazy area that is often uniquely puzzling ...

posted 10:01:32pm Jun. 27, 2013 | read full post »

On Teaching About Judaism (Part Four)
As discussed in previous blog entries, a fairly sizable percentage of the American public seems to know surprisingly little about many of the basics of Judaism. In my own world religions courses, some students begin the semester with no real ...

posted 9:16:07pm Jun. 25, 2013 | read full post »

On Teaching About Judaism (Part Three)
As discussed in previous blog entries, a fairly sizable percentage of the American public seems to know surprisingly little about the basics of Judaism. In my own world religions courses, some students begin the semester with no real knowledge ...

posted 6:27:16pm Jun. 22, 2013 | read full post »

Midsummer (Litha)/Yule 2013
Tomorrow (Friday, June 21, 2013) is the date of the summer solstice within the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, by contrast, tomorrow will be the date of the winter solstice. Solstices have long been observed as important ...

posted 5:05:38pm Jun. 20, 2013 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.