In keeping with our theme-based focus on the UU Source of World Religions, this Sunday we will explore the rich and diverse tradition of Hinduism. Our exploration will include appreciating the theological context of this ancient faith, as well as incorporating aspects of Hindu ritual into our own sacred gathering.
The complete sermon can be read below:
Studying for the MFC isn’t a lot of fun. Some of you might remember that I had this ‘exam’ of sorts in Boston last spring, in which, as a candidate for UU ministry, I went before the Ministerial Fellowship Committee - the gateway of minister wannabees to ministry.
There are pages upon pages of notes and study guides on UU history, UU religious education, UU polity, and world religions. Looking back on that studying now, the image that I have in my head is a huge pile of haphazardly gathered papers.
And peeking out of this stack of paper is a gem, an unexpected and beautiful glistening gem that shines in this abyss of information.
This gem for me was the faith tradition of Hinduism. I knew very little about it before embarking on my MFC studies, and as I read the words about it in my world religions study guide, the grind of cramming facts into my head lifted, and this lovely religion introduced itself to me.
This wasn’t my first exposure to Hinduism. That came numerous years ago on Jefferson St. back in Kansas City. I lived with a couple of friends, and next door lived a single woman in her 30s. She seemed nice, looked normal, kept a normal house. Pretty status quo… for six days of the week, that is.
One day a week, though, she would have some people over, and out of her open-air front door would come these sounds that they all made in unison.
It was like a chant, a mesmerizing and bizarre (to me at the time) chant that sounded like “shanti shanti”.
I remember thinking how bold she was to be doing this seriously different thing so publicly… surely she knew that everybody on the street could hear it.
Little did I know that during the time of my residency on Jefferson Street I would come to regard that bizarre thing they were practicing to be a gem.
What I also didn’t know was that my personal theologies had already started leaning in the direction of Hinduism, several years prior to living next door to chanting neighbours.
To provide some context, it’s been said Hinduism doesn’t consist of certain doctrine or dogma, but rather in being and becoming, in realizing instead of believing.
The article entitled “Why being a Hindu has made me a better Catholic” speaks to this. But for me it was the flip side of that… Why Having Hindu Leanings Made Me an Ex-Catholic.
My experience of leaving the Catholic Church was very much an experience of realization instead of belief. I was in my early 20s and had recently left a convent, very much planning on finding another one.
But in the months that followed, while sitting in Mass, I found myself questioning a lot of what was being said and was happening around me in the services.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was beginning to shed my skin of belief, and in the process was becoming more real, to realize more than to believe.
There’s an intimacy that comes with realization… it happens in the deepest part of your mind, psyche, and spirit. It becomes a part of you… not the clothes you put on that can be shed for something else. Instead it becomes your skin… it becomes you.
This is at the core of the vast and complex tradition of Hinduism, which they say is not so much a religion as a great diversified and yet subtly unified mass of spiritual thought, realization, and aspiration.
Some people would scoff at the idea that Hinduism is unified in any way, given the myriad of deities and forms of worship, with no creeds, no founder or central figure to give it identity and substance.
But in fact most Hindus believe in an immense unifying force that governs and connects all of existence. Sound familiar (like our 7th Principle)?
Each Hindu person worships those few deities that he or she believes directly influence his or her life, deities that represent various attributes of a single Ultimate Reality.
And so, contrary to popular belief, Hinduism - strictly speaking - is monotheistic. People worship one God in many forms.
This is found in RIG-VEDA, the very first book of Hinduism, which proclaims, “EKAM SAT, VIP-RAH BAHUDHA VADANT” (There is only one truth, only people describe it in different ways).
This ‘Truth is one, paths are many’ philosophy is central to Hinduism.
One of my favourite Hindu quotes that speaks to this is, “There are many paths up the mountain, all leading in the same direction, so it doesn’t matter which path you take. The only one wasting time is the one who runs around and around the mountain, telling everyone that his or her path is wrong.”
Here’s another good Hindu quote, this one from Truman Capote: “Time. Time. What is time? Swiss manufacture it. French hoard it. Italians squander it. Americans see it as money. Hindus say it does not exist.”
Along those lines, author Peter Matthiessen states, “Today most scientists would agree with the ancient Hindus that nothing exists or is destroyed, things merely change shape or form.”
Regarding their regard, or lack thereof, for time, Hindus are a little countercultural. The same can be said about their position of who God is.
Allan Watts spoke to this when he said, “Jesus Christ knew he was God. So wake up and find out eventually who you really are. In our culture, of course, they’ll say you’re crazy and you’re blasphemous, and they’ll either put you in jail or in a nut house (which is pretty much the same thing). However if you wake up in India and tell your friends and relations, ‘My goodness, I’ve just discovered that I’m God,’ they’ll laugh and say, ‘Oh, congratulations, at last you found out.”
Swami Vivekananda also addressed this when he said, “As long as we believe ourselves to be even the least different from God, fear remains with us. But when we know ourselves to be the One, fear goes; of what can we be afraid?”
He went on to say, “You must worship the Self in Krishna, not Krishna as Krishna.”
For some of us UUs, perhaps the concept of God could become less off-putting if we viewed Supreme Being (or Brahman as Hindus call it) as simply the truest part of ourselves (or Atman for Hindus).
A lovely way of conceptualizing this came from those MFC study sheets.
Being “saved” (known as “moksha” for Hindus) is simply being freed from all finite things through being absorbed into absolute reality, which is timeless.
Unity of Brahman (Divinity, the Universe, God, Creator, Spirit of Life) and Atman (the essence of you and me) is like salt dissolving in water, or a wave in the ocean.
Hindu poet Kabir helps make this point by saying: “The river and its waves are one surf: where is the difference between the river and its waves? When the wave rises, it is the water; and when it falls, it is the same water again. Tell me, where is the distinction? Because it has been named as wave, shall it no longer be considered as water?”
Leave it to our rebel friend Henry David Thoreau to love this countercultural ideology. He who we know to have significantly influenced the theologies of Unitarian Universalism wrote this lovely passage:
“In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous philosophy of the sacred Bhagvat Geeta text, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin who still sits in his temple on the Ganges [a sacred river for Hindus] and reads the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets, as it were, grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”
Indeed our own UU tradition is mirrored in Hinduism.
In fact, listen to these Hindu descriptors, and note how they could just as easily apply to Unitarian Universalism…
- In the West rational thought is typically considered essential for science, and faith for religion. This tradition stresses the whole consciousness, which includes rational thought and faith, and is more universal. It is a living philosophy of life as much as a religion.
- Instead of having a constructed main road, it is a natural way of life, a self-formed footpath trodden by the continuous walking of our own will and choice. It is never imposed on anybody and does not believe in conversion. It wants everyone to realize the Divine through our own will.
- It is not a single religion, but a composite where people of various religions can come together under a single shade.
- It is a religion of experience, not based on dogmas and creeds to be accepted with blind faith, but based on self-realization.
- It allows absolute freedom in the faith and mode of worship, not insisting that God be reached through only a particular name, place or path.
- It is a religion of love and gratitude, and of tolerance and patience giving due respect to all religions.
The similarities are remarkable. In contemplating this I, as a UU, feel like a Hindu ancestor. Given that it is the oldest religion, having birthed several other traditions, perhaps it could be said that Hinduism is the mother of all religions, the Eternal Religion, not only because it preceded all others, but also because it embraces all others.
It resonates with me to consider Hinduism an ancient relative, a grandmother born long ago who still here… still bringing light and life to the world.
May we be open to her light, becoming more enlightened because of her.
So may it be. Amen.
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