This is a continuation of: “What is Religion?“.
Hinduism is a culture that espouses every trait that religion is not: complete freedom of spiritual inquiry, expression, and practice, resulting in unparalleled pluralism with over thousands of dramatically different sub-cultures (each with their own faiths, rituals, spiritual traditions, languages, attires) co-existing with strong synergy.
It is a heterogeneous culture of unsurpassed pluralism and freedom of expression of seeking/approaching God/Truth or simply the nature/workings of the universe and our place in it. Paths range from bhakti (faith), to jnana (inquiry/introspection), to raja yoga (meditation), as well as numerous other means including atheism. The condition is that that freedom of expression is not abused by any particular path to try and destroy the very Hindu culture which grants it, by claiming a “my way or the highway attitude” (which is found in religions, like Christianity and Islam).
To take such a culture with unparalleled pluralism and dub it as a religion is probably the biggest mask pulled over Hindus (by the Western scholars and later by India’s pseudo-liberal leftists who have been long time in control of academics, themselves indoctrinated or co-sponsored by Western academia). It is like dubbing all of the attributes of American culture (the good, the bad, and the ugly) as a religion called Americanism, and amplifying only the bad aspects of it in order to keep it on a leash. That way, none of the better aspects of “Americanism” get the light of the day (freedom, democracy, capitalism, secularism, and its moderated multi-culture (the increasing number of people of different faiths, cultures, and languages)).
Not a Religion
Most faiths and spiritual traditions if left by themselves do not exhibit that pathology which is characteristic of religion (that “my way is the only true way”). They just remain as faiths, and respect each others faiths. Hindu culture has thousands of faiths and spiritual traditions because of common-sense: that everyone has different temperaments and these temperaments can change (with age, maturity, time-period, etc), so that people may go through many different spiritual traditions or even evolve one’s own path, as one evolves, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually in life, with plenty of spiritual resources (collectively across all faiths and spiritual traditions) to serve as guidance if one needs it.
You can imagine the puzzlement when the Hindu encountered the first wave of Muslims and Christians invaders: why would anyone even want to say their way is the only way? To Hindus that idea itself is barbaric, let alone wanting to kill others for it (for not accepting your way).
In this regard, one may define Hinduism as a religion that defies the idea of religion.
That is, Hinduism, unlike religion, is about questioning and seeking (from which arose the science of meditation, yoga, tantra, etc). That is, even the early beginnings of Hinduism has been open-ended, i.e. not based on a set of beliefs or commandments handed down from up above through some prophet or savior. There is no god in Hinduism (among the numerous faiths) that commands Hindus to do anything. Instead, they are asked to seek the answer themselves, in the process of which one will develop higher states of consciousness, and in the process developing spiritual sciences like yoga and numerous spiritual texts. This open-ended nature in itself makes it very pluralistic (numerous schools of thought, spiritual traditions, faiths, and belief systems). The spiritual quest under Hinduism was a general preoccupation treated like any other science. Hence, Hinduism has had hundreds, if not thousands of enlightened beings (yogis, sages, critical thinkers, philosophers, rishis, siddhars, samanars, etc), who have collectively contributed to the Hindu adhyatmic (spiritual sciences) knowledge base.
A defining trait of Hindu culture is its unparalleled pluralism. It is the most pluralistic culture on the planet. Complete freedom for independent spiritual thought and inquiry, and spiritual expression, accounting for a dazzling diversity of thousands of faiths, arts, cultures, languages, philosophies, literature, dance, music, etc. Countless spiritual traditions thrive in synergy in India, under the umbrella of this pluralistic culture called “Hinduism”. And none of these spiritual traditions became “religionized”.
This pluralism is also applicable to other cultures that are not fundamentalist in their beliefs (like cultures who have adopted Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, or Confucianism) as they accept and respect (not just tolerate or begrudgingly accept) all faiths and spiritual traditions equally as they would respect their own.
Hindu culture makes very little distinction between faith, spiritual tradition, and philosophy. You’ll find faiths still driven by underlying spiritual traditions, and those practicing spiritual traditions have strong philosophical underpinnings — all of which are made accessible through different levels of medium – ranging from rigorous philosophical texts to stories, epics, poetry, classical dance drama (a rich form of story telling), music, arts, mathematics, etc.
You can even be an atheist or agnostic and still be a Hindu. Some of the most rigorous Hindu schools of philosophy are strongly non-theistic in nature (they do not have any belief in “God” as their basic premise): like Nyāya (logic theory), Sāṃkhya (metaphysics and cosmology), and Yoga (psychology and perception). Another example is atheism. And even within atheism, there were a couple of schools of thought (the Nāstika philosophies), of which the closest to the atheism of the West (that arose from Greek thought), is the materialistic non-theistic school of Cārvāka.
Many of the finest minds in physics, mathematics, logic theory, linguistics, etc (Einstein, Schroedinger, Bohr, Oppenheimer, Tesla, Mark Twain, etc — a number of them Nobel Laureates and pioneers in their fields) have quoted that all of Western philosophical thought (from schools of logic and reasoning of the Greek philosophers to modern Western philosophers) humbles itself before the depth of Hindu philosophy. Hindu philosophy is so profound (including a number of premises never even ventured into by the Greeks), that unless your mind was tempered with yoga (i.e. elevated to that level by deconditioning it and broadening its states of perception), you would need to spend a lifetime to say the least, if not be driven mad and perplexed (reaching a dead-end, being limited by your minds capacity). In fact Yoga was an essential prerequisite. Its no surprise that school of Yoga (as a systematized procedure, that culminated in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra) itself arose from that age of intense scientific inquiry and meditation into the perennial questions that have plagued mankind (nature of the universe, existence, space, time, causality, etc), and why appeals so much to many quantum-cosmologists.
These philosophies all serve as the foundations for many of the spiritual traditions and faiths. They are in essence embellishments and decorations built on these philosophies to make them accessible to the common man (through puranas, epics, stories, poetry, classical dance-drama, etc). In India all the schools of philosophy, including atheism, respected each others theories, and co-existed for centuries. Only in recent days one can see a religionization of atheism (including in the form of pseudo-secularist movements) like has happened in the West. You know when something has become religionized when one blindly holds that theory, knowledge system, or belief system is the only way, having exclusive stranglehold on faith, Truth, or God (i.e. the my way or the highway attitude).
Hinduism is also a culture where scientific inquiry was never suppressed but encouraged, leading to numerous advances in the following as far back as 6,000 years. See Ancient Hindu Contributions to the World.
“The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.”
— Nikola Tesla
Contrast that with the over 500 years of persecution by the Church of anyone that even remotely infringed on its domain, like questioning the laws of nature, the concept of soul, life, the universe, etc. Even saints who attempted or practiced independent paths of inquiry towards God (like many yogis ventured to do in India) where persecuted or thrown out of the Church. Even more so female saints, who claimed vision of God or Jesus, were branded as heretics and burnt or crucified.
An inherent goal of spiritual traditions is in achieving higher state of awareness or state of consciousness, so as to eventually culminate in self-realization or enlightenment. The side-effect of spiritual practice is an openness, broadmindedness, and a respect for all things as sacred (knowledge, people, environment). It is what drives tens of millions to temples, to do puja every day, to have respect for the sacred, and richly decorate and embellish the sacred and make it part of their lives through puranas, kathas, dance, music, arts, poetry, etc.
When people are trying to survive and make ends meet, they do not have time to think about deep philosophical questions, and instead rely on the spiritual traditions embedded in the culture. This can be seen from the resurgence towards spiritual traditions in India with the rise in education, living standards, and opportunities (as can be seen by the number of gurus, ashrams, spiritual organizations, etc tapping into the thirst for incorporating spirituality to improve their lives).
Hindus believe that there are various approaches to decondition the mind, with the four broad categorizations being: jnana yoga (the method of knowledge, self-inquiry, critical-thinking), raja yoga (meditation/meditative insight), bhakti yoga (devotion/faith and tools that nurture it, like rich symbolism, spiritual poetry, and epics), karma yoga (unconditional action/service). These are not mutually exclusive, but often work together, with a certain path being the dominant depending one’s strengths, temperaments, and needs.
The Hindu culture’s approach to Truth is often referred to as Sanatana Dharma (very loosely it means Eternal Way or Eternal Law of Nature). Hinduism has no single book, founder, prophet, or church. As it is not a religion but a mindset. And this mindset can come into being anywhere, if people are allowed to think freely and openly on topics which would otherwise be hijacked by religion (as it has happened in the West, in ancient Greece, where anyone daring to inquire into the nature of consciouses, time, space, life, cosmology, astronomy, metaphysics, etc were persecuted brutally by the emergence of Christianity). It is a rediscovery of laws existing in nature. Doesn’t matter which culture, time, or place they are discovered, as these laws are eternal and fundamentally hidden in nature. Hence Santana Dharma – Eternal Way or Eternal Law of Nature.
To illustrate: Hinduism can even exist/evolve independently on an alien civilization on another planet. All it needs is the Hindu mindset: a scientific inquiry/exploration into nature and origins of the universe, time, space, consciousness, god, spirit, life, etc. → from which numerous schools of thought are developed (like Yoga, Vedanta, Samkhya, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa, etc) → from which spiritual techniques are developed (like Yoga, Tantra, Siddhanta, etc) → which then produces numerous enlightened spiritual masters/critical-thinkers (of which the Buddha is just one, popularized because he was religionized once his teachings started spreading outside of India) → who in turn document their methods to further refine the spiritual techniques → and make accessible to the average citizen (not just critical-thinkers, sages, philosophers) by having the essence of these woven into puranas, epics, stories, music, dance, folk art forms, etc → so that it may serve as inspiration and guidance for anyone interested to seek out these answers.
In the spirit of Hindu tradition, I believe in seeking inspiration through self-inquiry, borrowing guidance from any number of spiritual traditions and practices (produced by various enlightened yogis, philosophers, thinkers, spiritual masters), but to not make religions out of them. It’s about time humankind abandons the very idea of religion, and look to Hinduism as a model of unparalleled pluralism of spiritual traditions, belief systems, faiths from the most theistic to the non-theistic living in strong synergy for several centuries, without every making a religion out of any of them.