March 22, 2010
Official statements, scriptural references and more from The Hindu American Foundation
General InformationHinduism, the world’s oldest living religion, is a rich collection of hundreds of spiritual and philosophical traditions followed throughout Asia for more than 5,000 years. Followers of Hinduism believe that the Divine (Brahman), the infinite reality or Truth, is beyond the comprehension of undisciplined minds and thus, is understood and worshiped by individuals in various ways. This is reflected not only in the diversity of practice, perspective and paths in Hinduism, but also in the fundamental belief that no one path can claim exclusivity or a monopoly over the ways of knowing the Truth. The Rig Veda, one of Hinduism’s earliest and most revered scriptures, articulates this pluralist ethos well: Ekam sat, viprah bahudha vadanti or “Truth is one, the wise call It by many names.”
Most Hindus believe in one, all-pervasive supreme Divine, though the Divine may manifest and be worshiped in different forms, both male and female, by different names and in different ways. As such, categories of either monotheistic or polytheistic are inadequate in describing Hinduism's complex understanding of the Divine. Also known as Sanatana Dharma (the Eternal Natural Law), Hinduism encompasses a broad spectrum of philosophies ranging from panentheism to pantheism or absolute monism to pluralistic theism—that the Divine's presence is in all of existence to all of existence is the Divine.
Another basic belief in Hinduism is that the soul does not die but is reborn into other life forms when the physical body dies. According to Hinduism’s law of karma, every act and thought affects how the soul will be reborn. Reincarnation or the cycle of birth and rebirth, continues until the soul achieves spiritual perfection and is united with the Divine, or moksha. Hindus believe that the Divine exists equally in all living beings, both human and non-human.
Governing Body: Hinduism has no identifiable beginning in history, single founder, central religious establishment or sole authoritative scripture. However, every individual, especially ascetics, monks, swamis, sadhus and gurus who are respected for their personal discipline and spiritual knowledge, is considered essential to the preservation and passing on of Hindu traditions.
Lay Hindus look to ascetics, monks, swamis, sadhus and gurus for spiritual guidance and as interpreters of Hinduism's sacred scriptures, which include, the Vedas and Agamas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, the Epics, such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana, the Puranas, lawbooks and many other philosophical and sectarian texts. Thus, ancient truths and wisdom are passed on from generation to generation and reinterpreted by living seers (wise people) and individual spiritual seekers.
Number worldwide: 1 billion
Number in the United States: 2 million
Official Statements on AnimalsThe Hindu American Foundation (HAF) and the vast majority of Hinduism's leading sampradayas (traditions) regard the ethical treatment of animals as fundamental to the core Hindu belief that the Divine exists in all living beings, both human and non-human, and Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, the whole world is one family. Animals and plants are not regarded as mere objects for wanton human use and consumption in the Hindu tradition. Rather, they are equally embodied with the existence of the Divine and are fully deserving of respect and human compassion. Therefore, the concept of ahimsa, or non-violence, which was popularized by Mahatma Gandhi's passive resistance movement in India, is central to Hindu thought and applies not only to how humans interact with each other, but also to how they interact with all living beings.
In the Hindu epic Mahabharat, Lord Krishna, who chastises his cousin for carelessly chopping down a tree to release pent up anger, states, "Humans should take from this planet only that which is necessary for our survival." He continues to explain that when societies begin to violate this principle, all of humanity will be forced to face the repercussions because all life, despite differences in intelligence and ability, is interconnected and serves its unique purpose in the world.
Fundamental to Krishna's explanation is Hinduism's law of karma, the basic principle of cause and effect that states that an individual's every action and thought produces an appropriate outcome for her which may be experienced immediately or extended beyond the individual's current lifespan and into future births. According to the Hindu principle of reincarnation, the atman, or soul, is everlasting and does not die with the physical body. Instead, the atman continues its journey, carrying forward unfulfilled karmic outcomes from previous lives, and takes on new physical life forms until it attains moksha, or spiritual perfection that provides freedom from the cycle of reincarnation.
All life, from the smallest plant to largest animal, must go through this process. Ultimately, there are serious karmic repercussions for taking an innocent life, causing unnecessary suffering and/or pain to another life form, as well as idly supporting such suffering and pain in some form. Accordingly, it is not only the man who kills the cow at a slaughterhouse who reaps some degree of negative karma, but also those involved in every step of the process, including the final consumers of the beef (please see Vegetarianism and Hinduism for a more detailed explanation).
The cow, in particular, enjoys special status amongst animals in Hinduism. The cow is seen as a symbol of motherhood, selflessly providing during her lifetime life-sustaining milk, service in the labor of tilling land or transport and even fuel made from cow dung. The cow also continues to give after death by way of its leather and hide. But Hindus also believe that the Divine has manifested in the form of many other animals several times to save all of humanity. In fact, some of the more widely worshiped forms of the Divine have animal aspects to them.
For example, Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles, is depicted with an elephant head that symbolizes wisdom, as elephants are recognized to be among the wisest of animals. Hanuman as a monkey symbolizes the fickleness of the human mind which tends to constantly jump from one thing to the next. Worshipped as the perfect devotee of the Divine, Hanuman represents the ability to gain complete control over our ever racing mind.
Read The Hindu American Foundation's entire entry, which includes sections on Vegetarianism and Hinduism, Sacred Sacrifice and the Scriptural Basis for Ethical Treatment of Animals. (PDF).
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