Religion 101

Today is Krishna Janmashtami, the annual celebration in the Hindu calendar of the birthday of Lord Krishna. Because of the complex intricacies of the Indian calendar’s structure and workings, the precise date of this popular Hindu holy day and festival can fall anywhere between roughly mid-August and mid-September. For example, last year (2011), the holiday fell upon August 22, while in the previous year (2010) it was instead on September 1.

This year, Janmashtami happens to occur on Friday, August 10.

The nature of the celebrations varies from place to place within India (and beyond), ranging from fasting, midnight vigils, chanting mantras, singing hymns, and reading scriptural passages to dances, games and competitions, elaborate re-enactments of Sri Krishna’s deeds (Sri is an epithet meaning “Holy”), and other traditional Hindu celebratory festivities.

Lord Krishna is revered by many if not most Hindus as an avatar (“descent”) — that is to say, an incarnation or manifestation — of Vishnu (one of several traditional Hindu forms, aspects, or ways of conceptualizing of the Supreme Being).

Whereas Christianity recognizes only one single divine incarnation of God in human form (as Jesus Christ), and whereas both Judaism and Islam deny that God ever becomes physically incarnate on earth (even regarding the very idea of such a thing as idolatrous and blasphemous), Hinduism by contrast traditionally recognizes at least ten major avatars of Vishnu.

Of these divine avatars of Vishnu (God), perhaps the best-known and best-beloved is Krishna, who figures prominently in such important and popular Hindu scriptures as the Bhagavad Gita and the Bhagavata Purana (sometimes referred to as the Srimad Bhagavatam). According to Hindu tradition, Krishna lived from 3228 BC (his birthdate being celebrated today as Janmashtami) until 3102 BC.

Hinduism is perhaps the world’s oldest major living religion. It is also the world’s third largest religion (after Christianity and Islam). With nearly a billion followers worldwide, Hindus comprise about 13% of humanity. The vast majority of Hindus live in India, the land of Hinduism’s birth, where it remains overwhelmingly the majority faith (India’s vast population of over one billion people is 80% Hindu).

Beyond India, Hindus are scattered everywhere around the globe, but usually in much smaller numbers. Except for Nepal and Mauritius, where Hindus represent 80% and 54% of those respective populations, Hinduism is a minority religion elsewhere. For instance, the Hindu community within the United States currently numbers just over one million (only 0.4% of the U.S. population).

Be that as it may, today is an important holiday (quite literally a “holy day”) to Hindus worldwide. And so, wherever they might be, I would like to take this opportunity to wish them all Happy Janmashtami!


Sadly, another mass shooting has been in the news recently — this one occurring not in a Colorado movie theater, but in a Wisconsin house of worship.

A gunman identified as Wade Michael Page entered a Sikh temple (technically known as a gurdwara) in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek and opened fire, killing six and critically wounding four others, before being shot by police.

One of the critically wounded survivors was a policeman, responding to an emergency 911 call. The victims who did not survive the attack were all Sikhs.

The local community has responded compassionately, with many area residents reaching out to support their grieving Sikh neighbors. Hundreds turned out to attend a candlelight vigil, in remembrance of the victims. Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike across the country — and beyond — expressed outrage at the tragedy, and offered support both for the gunman’s victims as well as for the wider Sikh community.

President Barack Obama even called Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India, to express his condolences. Prime Minister Singh is himself a Sikh.

Of course, for a fairly sizable percentage of their non-Sikh supporters, Sikhism itself may be something of a question mark — if not an outright “blank page.”

Many Americans have simply never heard of Sikhism. Many more may have heard of it, but know little about it. Some erroneously confuse Sikhs with either Hindus or Muslims, perhaps in part because many Sikh males wear traditional beards and turbans as badges or symbols of their own unique faith.

Who are Sikhs? What is Sikhism?

Sikhism is actually the fifth-largest religion in the world (after Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism). It’s also the youngest of the major world faiths, originating in the Punjab region of India in the 15th century AD.

The term Sikh literally means “disciple.” Sikhs are disciples of a line of ten consecutive Sikh gurus, a line that began with Guru Nanak (1469-1539), who founded the Sikh religion. That line ended with the death of their tenth leader, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), who declared that after his death the Sikh community would henceforth be led not by a living human guru, but by the Sikhs’ holy book, known as the Adi Granth.

That this deeply revered scripture is regarded by Sikhs as  the very embodiment of the spirit of their ten human gurus is underscored by the fact that this sacred text is also referred to by Sikhs as the Guru Granth Sahib.

In contrast with the many gods and goddesses of the Hindu faith that dominates India as a whole, Sikhism is staunchly and uncompromising monotheistic, affirming belief in one sole supreme God. On the other hand, like Hinduism (and like Buddhism and Jainism, which are also of Indian origin), Sikhism also accepts karma and reincarnation as metaphysical realities.

In the Sikh view, human beings are born, die, and are reborn, over and over again on this earth; the circumstances of each successive birth are the result of one’s deeds in previous lives (karma), and this cycle of rebirth repeats until one achieves liberation from it by attaining salvation, which Sikhs understand in terms of achieving union with God.

Although Sikhism is the world’s fifth-largest religion, it comes in as a rather distant fifth; the global Sikh population numbers only somewhere around perhaps 25 to 30 million (estimates vary). Most still live in the Indian state of Punjab, with the rest scattered worldwide. Between 250,000 and 500,000 Sikhs live in the U.S. (again, estimates vary).

Unfortunately, this is not the first time in recent history that Sikhs have been targeted as victims of violence. Since 2001, there have been up to 700 attacks upon Sikhs.

The gunman at the Wisconsin gurdwara allegedly had white supremacist ties. The FBI is investigating the shooting as a possible domestic terrorism case, and the Southern Poverty Law Center reportedly described the killer as a “frustrated neo-Nazi.”

As articles of faith, Sikhism affirms the supreme sanctity of human life, the equality of all human beings (including all races, all castes, and both genders), and the duty to engage in compassionate service and to combat injustice.


Whereas many theologically conservative evangelical Christians, and most if not all fundamentalist Christians, believe both in a literal hell and that at least some poor souls are suffering there for all eternity, there are plenty of others — Christians and non-Christians alike — who strongly disagree.

Among Christians who disagree about the reality of hell are some theological liberals, progressives, and moderates who do not take the Bible to be absolutely infallible, and who do not read it in strictly literalistic terms. Many have familiarized themselves with the fruits of contemporary secular biblical scholarship (including, for instance, the work of many popular historical Jesus scholars), which has certainly challenged older, more traditional assumptions about the very nature and meaning of the Bible.

Then, of course, there are the Universalists. As a theological position, Christian Universalism maintains that salvation is literally “universal” in application and scope; Universalists hold that an all-loving and all-powerful God simply would never condemn anyone to eternal damnation. Universalism even existed as a formal Christian denomination in the U.S. until 1961, when it merged with Unitarianism (a Christian denomination so named for its non-belief in the theological concept of the Trinity) to form today’s Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), a “post-Christian” religious organization headquartered in Boston.

We are also seeing a handful of contemporary evangelical thinkers and writers who have begun openly speculating about the possibility that salvation just might be universal, after all. For example, popular pastor/author Rob Bell recently created a stir in evangelical circles with his book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, in which he frankly raises such sensitive questions, and seems at least somewhat open to considering such “unorthodox” alternative views as viable possibilities.

Moving from the Protestant wing of Christianity over to its Catholic branch, we find that eternal heaven and eternal hell are not the only two possibilities regarding afterlife destinations. Catholics also traditionally believe in purgatory, a place of temporary post-mortem existence for souls who are not quite ready for heaven, but also not doomed outright to hell. Purgatory is thus seen as a place where additional purification is undergone, until the soul is sufficiently purged of sin to be able at last to enter heaven.

Moving beyond the Christian tradition altogether, we find that Judaism has some distinctive views of its own regarding the afterlife. Of course, Jewish beliefs can be pretty diverse, too, and not all Jews are of one mind on the matter. Some Jews are largely unconcerned with it, preferring to keep their focus upon the here and now, rather than upon the hereafter; the afterlife, in their view, will take care of itself. Other Jews may adopt the traditional rabbinic view that the righteous of all nations (not just righteous Jews, mind you) will go to paradise — and while the wicked may go to hell for punishment, no one stays in hell for longer than twelve months. In this view, the Jewish hell functions more or less like the Catholic purgatory, and eternal life in the World to Come is an eventuality open to virtually everyone (with the possible exception of only the most stubbornly unrepentant, and hence the irredeemably truly wicked).

Once we proceed beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition, we find even more diversity regarding religious and spiritual views regarding the afterlife. In contrast to the usual traditional Western belief that everybody gets just one life on this Earth, and hence only one chance to “get it right,” traditional Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism instead maintain that everyone actually lives numerous lifetimes on this Earth, reincarnating over and over — as often as necessary, affording themselves of as many such “chances” as may be needed — before eventually “getting it right.”

“Getting it right” for Christianity means attaining salvation from sin, whereas “getting it right” for Hindus and Buddhists means overcoming the karma that perpetuates their otherwise endless reincarnations here on Earth (and/or elsewhere, as well), thereby attaining final liberation from the repetitive cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. For Hindus, this is generally understood to be achieved by attaining union or communion with God, whereas for Buddhists such eternal release is generally couched in the non-theistic terms of attaining the infinite bliss of nirvana; but in each case, the end result is one which ultimately everyone will eventually attain — even if it takes literally millions of reincarnations, and millions of lifetimes, to finally “get there.”

So, the possibility of universal salvation for all — or of universal “liberation,” to put it in Eastern metaphysical terms — is far from unknown, or unheard of, within the broader global religious context.