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 another thing, Hinduism also believes that individuals spend not just one lifetime upon this earth, but many.
For yet another thing, Hinduism believes that there is not just one path to salvation, but many.
Of course, in a Hindu context, “salvation” (if the word can be properly used at all here) means something quite different from what it means in a Western religious context.
In Christianity, for instance, the primary religious problem is sin, and so “salvation” relates to receiving forgiveness or absolution of sin, so that upon death one may enter heaven. In Eastern religions like Hinduism, however, the primary religious problem tends to be less about sin and more about spiritual blindness, ignorance, or “unconsciousness,” and so “salvation” here often relates to overcoming that blindness or dissolving that ignorance by “awakening” or experiencing spiritual illumination or enlightenment.
By thus “waking up” to the Truth, one may then experience profound spiritual insights or directly perceive metaphysical realities for what they really are. Such spiritual enlightenment is inherently profoundly liberating — so much so that it results in actual and permanent liberation (moksha, “freedom,” “release”) from the otherwise unending cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara, the “wheel of rebirth”). This is the ultimate Hindu religious goal.
And according to Hinduism, there’s more than one way of getting there.
This stands again in stark contrast to Christianity, which in its mainstream orthodox forms has traditionally insisted that there is only one way to salvation: through Christ alone. While Christians can and do vary in their views regarding the details (e.g., Protestants hold that faith in Christ alone is sufficient for salvation, whereas for Catholics the sacraments of the Church are also necessary for salvation), they have long agreed that however it might work out in practice, it is always nevertheless Christ who saves.
(It is also true that, in some contemporary Christian circles, troubling questions regarding the afterlife destiny of non-Christians is currently eliciting some additional theological reflection and re-thinking on this matter of salvation being available exclusively through Christ alone. But that’s a topic for another blog entry.)
In any case, whereas the general, standard, traditional Christian view has long been that there is but one single, unique path to salvation (via Christ alone), the Hindu view has long been that there are actually a multiplicity of equally and perfectly valid spiritual paths which can ultimately lead one to “salvation” (or, in the Hindu context, to “liberation,” or final release from rebirth and eternal blissful union or communion with God).
Hinduism in fact explicitly recognizes a number of margas (“paths”) or yogas (“disciplines”), each of which leads one Godward.
(To be continued, in Part Four.)