Editor’s Note: Go inside the sometimes bizarre Aghori sect on the premiere episode of “Believer with Reza Aslan,” Sunday, March 5, at 10p ET. The article below was first published in April 2014.
Caste. Cows. Karma.
Suhag Shukla knows that’s how some people outside Hinduism see her religion. As the co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, Shukla clarifies misconceptions all the time.
Hinduism is ancient, though there is no specific date for when it was formed. The name is a Sanskrit word; Hinduism and Hindu were coined by invaders who used the terms to refer to the people they encountered when they crossed the Hindu Kush mountains and arrived at the Indus River.
In America, Hinduism’s profile was elevated by Indian immigrants who brought their customs and rituals with them and perhaps most recently, by the growing popularity of Hindu teachings like yoga and meditation.
Hinduism is the world’s oldest living religion and the third largest – behind Christianity and Islam – with more than 1 billion followers. Some argue that Hinduism is more a way of life than religion. It has no common creed or church. Nor is it based on the teachings of a founder or holy book.
And it remains a mystery for many.
Myth No. 1: There are 330 million Hindu gods
Reality: There is one supreme God that cannot be fully known or understood.
Hindus are encouraged to relate to God in the way that suits them best, like worshipping many deities who are believed to be manifestations of God. The trimurti or three main deities are Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the preserver; and Shiva, the destroyer. That’s why Hinduism is often thought of as polytheistic. It is not.
But there’s debate on the proper terminology for Hinduism. Some call it a monistic religion, derived from the belief that everything in the universe is part of one substance or nature. Some, including Shukla, say Hindusim is henotheistic, which is the worship of one god without denying the existence of other gods. Others, say it is monotheistic.
Myth No. 2: Hindus are idol worshippers.
Reality: Hindus worship a reminder of God.
No Hindu will say he or she is worshipping an idol. Instead, Hindus believe a physical representation of God – in the form of an idol - helps them focus on an aspect of prayer or meditation.
Myth No. 3: Hindus worship cows
For instance, a person who has just opened up a new business may worship Ganesh, the elephant god who represents success.
Reality: Hindus do not pray to cows but they do regard all creation and all life as sacred.
Hindus believe every living thing has a soul. It is true, however, that cows hold a special place in Hindu society. That’s why Hindus refrain from eating beef. Cows are seen as gentle, maternal figures that are providers of milk and other forms of sustenance. They are honored for their value.
Myth No. 4: All Hindus are vegetarians
Reality: A majority of Hindus eat meat.
But about 30 percent do not. That stems from a fundamental belief in ahimsa, the principle of non-violence. Since all living things are manifestations of God, violence against them is considered contrary to the natural balance of the universe.
Myth No. 5: Hinduism supports a discriminatory caste system
Reality: Caste discrimination is rooted not in religion but culture.