What is Hinduism?
by Rakesh Rampertab

see related article:  Lords Prayer Still Said in Public Schools       A New Kind of Christianity in Guyana

In Guyana, no religion is as ridiculed as Hinduism, and no person as misunderstood as the Hindu.

What is Hinduism? According to Prime Minister Nehru, “Hinduism, as a faith, is vague, amorphous, many-sided, all things to all men. It is hardly possible to define it, or indeed to say definitely whether it is a religion or not, in the usual sense of the word. In its present form, and even in the past, it embraces many beliefs and practices, from the highest to the lowest, often opposed to or contradicting each other. Its essential spirit seems to be to live and let live.” For Gandhi “Hinduism is a relentless pursuit after truth.” Does this sound like a religion of conversion or force, or one of diversity that clearly allows even for opposition from within?

While Hinduism shares some of its flaws with both Islam and Christianity, neither shares its level of flexibility or its range of diversity. Islam and Christianity have both been spread by force—the Crusades was a battle between these two expanding forces; Medieval Europeans spitefully referred to the Prophet (peace be unto him [PBUH]) as Mahound, a devil. In his “Divine Comedy,” Dante situated the Muslim leader in the center of purgatory. There were no Hindu colonies or Crusades, and this is evident in the fact that today, there are more Muslims and Christians than Hindus, although Aryan-Indian religion appeared at least 1,000 years before Christ walked on water.

If Mr. Persaud claims that Hinduism sanctioned slavery, let him provide creditable evidence. I know that India (like other ancient cultures, e.g., Iran) had some domestic slavery, but mass slavery (as in ancient Greece) or the kind celebrated by England in the New World—I doubt it.  Did he conduct a survey to say, “Hindus in Guyana consider themselves superior because they abstain from the use of meat in their religious ceremonies and dedicate one day in the week for the non-consumption of ‘rank’”? This is a faulty claim because orthodox Hindus are aware that the Hare Krsna devotees do not consume meat, period, which would make the Hare Krsna devotees supposedly “superior.”

Caste system: Every critic of Hinduism (and India) begins with the caste system. Unquestionably, India’s caste system is a social disgrace. It is dead wrong. Unfortunately, some of the criticism leveled against it has been thrown at Hindus worldwide—even though Hindus outside India do not promote it. A complex, ancient system, local critics seem reluctant to investigate its true nature; its origin, in what historical and social context it was formed, its guardians (Brahminic legions, local village leaders, politicians), and how it evolved into modernity as something different from what was originally intended in Aryan India.

Anxious to criticize Hinduism, they refuse to mention that in Guyana, for example, one can become a businessman without being a vaishvas; or that roles do transverse caste lines in India (e.g., Gandhi was no Brahmin but was once its foremost leader). Are they concerned about discrimination or merely a flaw in Hindu society? If they are so concerned about discrimination, when will they speak of European’s largest minority group (8 million gypsies, who are the descendants of India [a Hindu tribe]), who remain systematically discriminated against, murdered, all across a Christianized Europe (see Isabel’s Fonseca’s “Bury Me Standing”)? Strangely, while India’s Dalits still have jobs ascribed to them, some gypsy communities have none.

Idol worshipping (murti-puja): For ages, Hindus have been castigated as pagans and idol worshippers. Nothing is wrong with being either—human culture at its core is a pagan culture—a believer in symbols and myths. Humans have found ways to live without god, but no society can avoid myth and superstition. The Hindu’s world and mentality are rooted in symbolism. He does not pray to the “murties” (i.e., deities), but rather, to the divinities represented in them. The same principle operates when people worldwide bend before statues to lay wreaths, or celebrate deceased relatives in photographs. Christianity, an Eastern religion, has the most revered icon ever in Jesus the Christ—for ever represented in millions of crucifixes.

Gods and goddesses: Unless one is a fanatic, all religious literature must be read with apprehension, or it becomes propaganda and totalitarian—most creeds declare themselves to be the only true version of God. To say that Hindus assume an air of superiority by principle is farfetched, especially when it is Islam and Christianity that espouse that “their” god is the only true god; that “there is no God but Allah” and that the only way to God is “through the cross,” respectively. Hinduism, as we know it, does not object to either the son of Mary or the religious conqueror of Medina and Mecca. Hinduism is well known for having many spiritual leaders.

The liberalism of Hinduism, right or wrong, allows for an innumerable array of gods (in human, half-human, and non-human forms) as well as female deities, a practice prohibited by Christianity and Islam (but which occurred among their adherents’ ancestors long before Christianity traveled across the ocean by boat, or Islam across the desert on horseback). Pre-Islamic Arabians worshiped goddesses such as Al-Lat and Al Manat (disclaimed my Mohammed (PBUH) as Satan’s daughters; see Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” or “The Star” in the Koran). Despite being the world’s oldest surviving religion, despite the attempts to kill it, Hinduism still remains essentially a multifaceted faith.

In any free society, a valid freedom is the freedom to question authority—as dramatized by Christianity’s first real revolt from within, with Martin Luther (1517).  Two centuries later, when European theatre began, it felled under the spell of Catholicism, and only until 18C Romanticism arrived, did the individual become a subject matter. Interestingly, 2,300 years before, we find revolt and individualism in Hinduism—that gave rise to the “Upanishads” (800 BC). People dropped unsatisfactory Vedic gods (some almost entirely, e.g., Surya, sun god); some religious rituals were ridiculed, and magic discouraged. The central theme of the “Bhagvad Gita” is the relationship between God and the individual and, moreover, when Indian theatre developed out of its epics (e.g., “Mahabharata”), it did not fall beneath the dictates of saffron-clad holy men.

“Assertive” Hinduism and the demise of Hinduism: I disagree in principle with religious fundamentalism, including those driven by politics (e.g., Shiv Sena), and those intent on attacking Indian society from within (Muslim fundamentalist supported). The Hindu mob that kills Muslims in India is as wrong as the Muslim mob that slays Hindus in Bangladesh (see for more). While Muslims exist in the millions in India, Pakistan has almost no Hindus—peculiar, isn’t it, this “tolerance” business. And if Hinduism was not liberal, how did Mother Teresa, a Catholic, become a Saint (and in the process converted multitudes of low-caste Hindus) in India where Hindu deities dominate the landscape?

Regardless, one must hope that the Hindu-Muslim communities will go forward by looking backwards, to rectify a common existence, as was the case before the 1947 spinoff. But their problems are not ours. To debate these issues in Guyana serves little purpose, and is more likely to create division. We are too uninformed about the issues, too far from the conflict zones, too trivial. Some among us like to pretend that they know, but they don’t and they should realize this. The West Indian mind is too untrained, undisciplined, and our existence too simple to superficially interpret dynamics of the Asian subcontinent. Incidentally, the Hindu-Muslim communities of Guyana have their own problems—unflagging unity is key if they are to survive, especially these days when being Indian is all it takes to be condemned or killed. 

But I believe in an “assertive” Hinduism that disrespects no people and aims at self-defense. A faith must, like a people, be assertive to survive if threatened. Here, Hinduism lacks vitality. Despite some Hindu revivalism since 1992, I believe Hinduism will become a minority religion if Hindus continue to migrate and become proselytized. The Hindus are “too soft,” too willing to listen and appease and this is central to their problems. They must become more serious about Hinduism and can learn from their closest neighbor, the Muslims, who are our most devout of believers. The triumph of the Muslim is both his dedication to his faith, and his iron refusal to tolerate the proselytizer of any kind (for which he is feared).

Religious conversion vs. disrespect of religion: In speaking of conversion, I am not speaking of conversion that comes with marriage, but specifically, the deliberate scheming by a section of Christians in Guyana to proselytize others (Hindus especially). I know that most Christians do not preach conversion. It is an unfortunate sight to see a pastor on his pulpit at a street corner, shouting accusations at Hindus, exhibiting his lack of knowledge of it. Some time back, a Guyana press carried a story of pastor who was chased out from a village by a group of Indian men. Some said this was wrong—that the pastor was exercising his religious right to preach conversion. No doubt—but should this right supercede or disrespect the right of the Hindu (life free from undue insult or coercion)? If a pastor goes into an essentially Hindu-Muslim street during a crusade and criticizes their faiths disrespectfully, should they simply tolerate or retaliate?

They should retaliate in justified manners (i.e., assertive Hinduism), which do not mean fistfights and stoning, but instructive, strong, serious refusal to entertain the gestures of the proselytizing agent. While some Hindus change faith because they find Hinduism “too complex” (do they seek a path to God that is easy?) and ritualistic, this is not the norm. This is evident in the anger expressed by letter writers in the Guyana press, complaining of pastors visiting Hindu homes (many with only women there), some even after being refused. Hindus must be willing to dismiss pastors or Christian proselytizers away from their homes, without feeling guilty of being impolite. One day, I fear something dreadful will occur, and someone will be injured seriously.

All religious proselytizing involves undue coercion (freeness and friendliness included); free literature (e.g., “Watchtower Magazine”), pens, and even an amicable invitation to visit a church “just once.”  We must make distinctions. Let me illustrate something: two American women were held for trial in Afghanistan. The West rightfully described them as “humanitarian workers.” Later, they were found to be Christian missionaries there to convert Muslims. “Desperation is a tender trap, it gets us every time,” Bono (U2), once wrote. Even Satan became a “talking” serpent to entice Eve to the fruit (apple?). The Hindu must be more vigilant and less pleasing.

In 1918, when the Methodist missionary, Mr. H.M. Yates, came to Guyana, the trustee of the Hindu Society, Pandit Maraj Ramsaroop, offered him a section of the Hindoo Society to use for his church. Some believed this was wrong. I disagree. Today, there is a mandir in Second Street, Grove (EBD) that has been discarded (lack of funds) (Hindus, please contribute money to maintain Hinduism)—now, which church in Grove will share its space with the Hindus until the money comes?

Where does the money come from? Money is Guyana’s biggest deity. Where there is money there is god. In 1989, the “Hinduism Today” magazine ( noted that US$165 million/yearly was being spent to convert Hindus in India alone! How much is spent in Guyana and where is it coming from? US right-wing Southern Christian groups (with investment interests on Wall Street/ and via the IMF [this surfaced during the anti-globalization demonstrations]) finance proselytizing worldwide. Thus, yes, it is safe to suggest that exorbitant IMF interests poor nations pay return somewhat to service religious conversion (remember the school scandal last year?), and this makes it easier to get a free Bible than to buy a Koran or “Gita” these days.

Conversion and the new Christian Indian: Everyone has slapped the Indian family for its problems, often singling out Hinduism as a root cause. The problematic Hindu home is a welcome sign for the Christian proselytizer who, wanting to reform the alcoholic or wife-beating “coolie,” offers him religious reform instead of a social one. While Christianity has “saved many souls,” it has failed to prevent conflicts that arise out of religious conversion, and has encouraged a bigoted view of the culture and ethnicity of the new Indian Christian.

The first thing the new Indian Christian does is to return home like a prodigal son with the popular “lost and found” mantra, criticizing abandoned customs. Having heard his priest condemns his relatives—he feels obligated to “save” them from “eternal damnation.” (He is like Paul Keen Douglas’ character, Timothy, who will “save you even if you don’t want to be saved.”) A conversion that brings confusion, it often leads to quarrels, a confrontation of faiths, pitting parents against children and siblings among themselves. He segregates by refusing to partake in Indian functions. Reminded that he cannot serve both “god and mammon,” his new distaste for Indian religions overlaps into distaste for Indian culture.

Thus, the Christian Indian is least affiliated with things Indian—music, movies, and dress; why he often mocks the Hindi of an Indian movie, or protest against the incomprehensible music. He refuses to accept that the “music” is different from the “lyrics”; he does not investigate the matter. Ironically, he still eats “dhal” and “roti” (items as Indian as Hindi), and does not object to some Latin music (remember Lambada?). In fact, he sings Latinized school songs (e.g., at Queen’s College), but he never complains. If/when he indulges briefly in Indian culture, it is done with reservation, half curious and half suspicious. He may attend a Hindu wedding but is “shame” to dance. It is time for him to be placed under the spotlight.

The Lord’s Prayer as being undemocratic: In the past, the British uprooted “jhandi” bamboos from Hindu homes and dictated that one must be a Christian to get certain civil servant jobs. After they long folded the Union Jack and boarded the BOAC, some of their Christianized practices still remain—e.g., the recitation of the “Lord’s Prayer” in public schools. While nothing is wrong with saying the “Lord’s Prayer,” it is unjust for students to recite only the “Lord’s Prayer.” When will the Hindu or Muslim be able call God’s name, as they know? For how long will their tongues be manipulated? 

Despite all our democracy enthusiasts, none has taken a Bill to Parliament to rectify this issue. I recommend it and I suggest that Hindus and Muslims abstain from saying the “Lord’s Prayer” until religious respect is afforded all equally. It does matter how one praises god—if it does not, then let us have a Hindu or Muslim prayer in schools for one year. Let me illustrate something: today, most Hindus can recite the “Lord’s Prayer” better than they can, “Om Twameva mata cha pita twameva…” (Oh Lord, you are my mother, father…) This has to be changed and it will not change if Hindus and Muslims do not protest.

The subservience of Indian women: The Hindu woman is regarded as a subservient being, primarily because of “tradition” (as opposed to a ritualistic following of Hindu tenets), which, admittedly, is heavily influenced by religious scriptures. The Hindu male does what he saw his father/grandfather did. He (like all men) has either fail to recognize this or is reluctant to admit it. Maybe it helps him confront the unsurpassable inherent strength of women. The Hindu woman (like all our women) has been left overburdened with life, with little to show for it but divorce papers, children, and a history of unsatisfactory sexual experience. For this to change, the Indian male need not break substantially with tradition, but must make compromises out of mutual respect. Otherwise, the Indian woman will remain as the first outcast in the Indian home, until she finds a way out of this confinement herself.

What is to be done by the Hindu? Much can be noted here but it is the pandit that I wish to address. They must assert themselves; be better public speakers (be good at English), increase Hindi classes, distribute printed programs for functions so one can follow, explain common rituals, engage the young into acts like “arte”; Xerox and distribute basic information about Hinduism; conduct counseling sessions (target troubled people), and be more open-minded. Religion must allow for flexibility—make it work for us instead of us for religion. Use the press. Parents need to send their children to mandirs and insist on their partaking in activities; singing, etc. Religious education must be stressed—find books (ask pandits) and read (get store owners to import them if necessary.

I thank the reader for reading this. If the reader likes it, one should cut it out, pass it around, or email it. If one does not, dismiss it.

[Editor's Note:
I wrote this long essay, after reading a letter in the Stabroek News, September 19, in which the writer, Mr.
Vidyanand Persaud (SN 9/19), noted that, “Islam, like Christianity, Hinduism or any other religion is not about peace. Each religion is about absolute belief in its own superiority and its divine right to impose itself upon others.” This is in no way a writing to prop up or boast about Hinduism, which some Hindus have been accused of and which I regard as a haughty way of explaining on's religious faith. Hinduism, after all, needs no propping up or praise; it is what it is.]

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Oct 12 , 2002
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