Religion 101

As I discussed in a previous blog entry, my community college classes on Eastern religions begin each semester with an introductory overview of Hinduism, the world’s third largest religion (after Christianity and Islam), quite possibly the oldest of the world’s major living religions, and the professed faith of over 80% of the vast population of India.

Our all-too-brief unit on the Hindu religious tradition is soon followed by an equally brief unit on Buddhism, a great global faith which emerged out of early developing Hinduism over 2500 years ago (during the 6th century BC) and which later spread throughout the rest of Asia (establishing itself in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Mongolia, Tibet, China, Korea, Japan, etc.).

Westerners unfamiliar with Eastern religions and encountering them for the first time (which describes perhaps the majority of my own community college students) often find themselves on very strange ground indeed. Those who are used to thinking more or less exclusively in terms common to Western religions — and who therefore tend to assume that a “religion” must necessarily be about a personal Creator God, devotion to and worship of that singular God, a uniquely singular holy book or sacred text (e.g., just the Bible, or just the Quran), and a worldview according to which human beings live but one lifetime upon this earth followed by an eternal afterlife in heaven or hell (their ultimate postmortem destiny being determined by whether, or how well, they successfully adhered to some uniquely singular path to salvation, as prescribed by their particular religion) — often initially find certain key elements of such Eastern faiths as Hinduism or Buddhism rather difficult to wrap their minds around.

After a unit on Hinduism, many of my students have by then been exposed to such sometimes startlingly novel notions as the fact that a single religion may have not just one single sacred text or holy book, but an entire library of them (e.g., the Hindu Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas, the epic poems such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata [which contains the famous and popular Bhagavad-Gita], etc.), or even the fact that a religion may hold a worldview according to which human beings live not just one but many lifetimes on this earth (being reborn or reincarnated over and over again, as a result of their own karma), unless and until they avail themselves of not just one but any of a number of spiritual paths available to them (the various Hindu margas or yogasbhakti, jnana, karma, raja, etc.), all of which ultimately lead the soul to final liberation and permanent release (moksha) from the otherwise-endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (a cycle referred to samsara, the “wheel of rebirth”) with the soul’s attainment of eternal union with the Divine, which Itself may be alternately conceived of by Hindus either in theistic terms (e.g., as a monotheistic personal God, such as Vishnu or Shiva) or in nontheistic terms (e.g., as the impersonal Absolute or nonpersonal Ground of Being, the monistic or pantheistic and transpersonal Brahman).

Whew! Okay, perhaps that was a mouthful. But after spending a few weeks on Hinduism early in the semester, most students manage to successfully digest and absorb most of its unfamiliar spiritual basics, and its decidedly non-Western religious perspectives.

To some degree, doing so helps pave the way for understanding Buddhism, which we take up next. But only to some degree.

If Hinduism seemed strange and exotic, as religions go, then Buddhism often seems even stranger, and even more exotic. It may even challenge or stretch, for many students and other newcomers to Buddhism, the very limits of what they regard as “a religion.”

(To be continued, in Part Two.)