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Is Hinduism a Pagan Religion?

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Some American law-makers recently characterized Hinduism as pagan. This raises the question: is Hinduism a pagan religion?

The Abrahamic religious traditions, as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are collectively called, associate paganism with the worship of many gods, and their many idols. The former is condemned as polytheism and the latter as idolatry; and the two are viewed as inextricably intertwined forms of worship, which has been superseded in the aniconic monotheism and which these religions self-consciously uphold and propagate.

Hinduism at first blush appears to conform to paganism. It seems to worship many gods and seems to do so by worshipping different images. It thus comes across as polytheistic and idolatrous and therefore pagan. This perception fuels the missionary zeal of the Abrahamic religions to destroy such paganism.

There is only one problem with this scenario. It is based on a false presumption. It is true that there are many gods in Hinduism and that it abounds in image worship, but while these various gods are considered different gods in paganism as traditionally represented, in Hinduism they represent the various forms of the one and same God. Thus a plurality of gods does not denote polytheism in Hinduism but rather the plurality of the forms in which the same one God might appear. A new word such as polyformism may have to be coined, or an older word polymorphism may have to be invoked, to be set beside polytheism, to provide the corrective. The Hindu situation is characterized not by polytheism but what might be called at best "apparent polytheism," because the reality underlying all the different gods is the reality of one God. Hence, ironically, the situation could also in a sense be described as one of "apparent monotheism," in the sense that the one God appears in various forms.

Similarly, the various images of the various gods also reflect the same point. Any of the many forms, in which God might be seen as appearing, can be visually represented in Hinduism, as a way of focusing the mind on God. This should not be taken for some new-fangled apologetic exegetical sleight of hand performed by modern Hinduism. When the 17th century French traveler, Francois Bernier, was shocked by what he saw of Hinduism, this is how the pandits of Banaras explained the situation to him: "We have indeed in our temples a great variety of images. ...To all these images we pay great honour; prostrating our bodies, and presenting to them, with much ceremony, flowers, rice, scented oil, saffron, and other similar articles. Yet we do not believe that these statues are themselves Brahma or Vishnu; but merely their images and representations. We show them deference only for the sake of the deity whom they represent, and when we pray it is not to the statue, but to that deity. Images are admitted in our temples because we conceive that prayers are offered up with more devotion when there is something before the eyes that fixes the mind, but in fact we acknowledge that God alone is absolute, that He only is the omnipotent Lord.'"

The explanation may not have convinced Bernier but Hindus apparently have no difficulty with it. Sometimes Abrahamic parents wonder whether this plurality does not end up leaving the Hindus confused, and particularly their children. For the Hindus, however, such plurality does not create any confusion of identity, no more than several pictures of us in our album, taken at different stages of our life and in different forms and dresses, causes us to become confused about our identity.

Thus no matter how paganesque Hinduism might appear, it is not pagan in the sense attributed to the word by Abrahamic religions. As a well-known scholar of Hinduism, who was also a missionary in India for a while, Klaus K. Klostermaier observes: "Many Hindu homes are lavishly decorated with color prints of a great many Hindu gods and goddesses, often joined by the gods and goddesses of other religions and the pictures of contemporary heroes. Thus side by side with Śiva and Viṣṇu and Devī one can see Jesus and Zoroaster, Gautama Buddha and Jīna Mahāvīra, Mahātmā Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and many others. But if questioned about the many gods even the illiterate villager will answer: bhagvān ek hai -- the Lord is One. He may not be able to figure out in theological terms how the many gods and the one God hang together and he may not be sure about the hierarchy obtaining among the many manifestations, but he does know that ultimately there is only One and that the many somehow merge into the One."

This then is the great difference between Hinduism and the Abrahamic religions. Monotheism in Abrahamic religions represents the denial of gods in God, while the monotheism of Hinduism represents the affirmation of gods in God. Failure to recognize this tempts the followers of Abrahamic religions into branding Hinduism as pagan.