Religion 101

The community college classes I teach on Eastern religions begin each semester with a unit on Hinduism. Right away, most of my students find themselves in a very strange and unfamiliar new religious world altogether. Indeed, many Western newcomers to the study of the religions of the East often experience a somewhat disorienting bit of initial religious “culture shock.”

When encountering Hinduism for the first time, for instance, Westerners find themselves faced with a major world religion which has not just one holy book, but many; which believes that individuals spend not just one lifetime upon this earth, but many; which asserts that God has become physically incarnate in this world not just on one unique occasion, but many (and not just in human form, but in many forms); which affirms that there is not just one single valid path to salvation, but many; and which maintains that the Divine is One, yet somewhat paradoxically also Many (as manifested in the many gods and goddesses of Hinduism).

The major world religions of the West each tend to have a single holy book or sacred text, which they regard as singularly and uniquely authoritative (because divinely inspired). Judaism has its Tanakh (or Hebrew Bible); Christianity has its Bible, comprised of both Old and New Testaments; and Islam has its Quran.

Many Westerners who are unfamiliar with Eastern religions therefore often tend to assume — consciously or unconsciously — that all religions must be similar in this respect, with each respective faith having a single “bible” of its own (e.g., a Hindu bible, a Buddhist bible, and so forth). It can therefore sometimes come as a rather startling surprise when they discover that, instead, many Eastern religions revere not a single, unique scriptural work, but entire libraries of such scriptures.

Some of my students, many of whom are used to thinking in terms of “one religion, one scripture,” are occasionally somewhat nonplussed upon encountering Hinduism’s many holy scriptures for the first time. It can be a bit daunting, initially, for some newcomers to Hinduism to fully wrap their minds around the idea that a single religion could possess so many lengthy and varied sacred texts.

Instead of a single one-volume “bible,” Hindus venerate a multi-volume library of holy books, including four Vedas (the Rig Veda, the Sama Veda, the Yajur Veda, and the Atharva Veda), thirteen principal (and about 123 total) Upanishads, the twelve-volume Laws of Manu, eighteen Puranas, numerous esoteric Tantras, and two major epic poems — the Ramayana and the Mahabharata — of appropriately epic length (the Ramayana runs seven volumes, the Mahabharata eighteen volumes).

To get some perspective regarding the true extent and scale of Hindu scriptures, consider that just the Bhagavata Purana alone (sometimes referred to as the Srimad Bhagavatam), which itself is merely one of Hinduism’s eighteen Puranas, runs some 18,000 verses over a total of twelve volumes. And the epic Mahabharata, which runs some 1.8 million words and over 200,000 verses, is alone four times longer than the Bible. (The very popular Hindu scripture known as the Bhagavad-Gita, or “Song of God,” is actually just one small 700-verse section of the massive Mahabharata.)

Not only does Hinduism revere not just one holy book, but many; Hinduism also affirms that human beings live not just one lifetime upon this earth, but many.

(To be continued, in Part Two.)