Here is another attempt to conceptualize Hinduism for a Jewish audience. This time in the reverse. How would Hinduisms react to Biblical stories. Help me think this one through- does it work?
Hinduism is really a variety of religions held together in the 20th century by politics and agreed upon commonalities. Hinduism is a “complex, organic, multileveled and sometimes internally inconsistent nature.” Hinduism does not have a “unified system of belief encoded in a declaration of faith, rather an umbrella term comprising the plurality of religious phenomena of India. According to the Supreme Court of India: “Unlike other religions in the World, the Hindu religion does not claim any one Prophet, it does not worship any one God, it does not believe in any one philosophic concept, it does not follow any one act of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not satisfy the traditional features of a religion or creed. It is a way of life and nothing more”. Hindu family law includes jurisdiction over panentheists, polytheists, monotheists and monists; those that use images and those that reject them.
In short, Hinduism includes the worship of ancient High deity Shiva and also the worship of Incarnations of Vishnu, which were according to historians originally separate cults around Krishna, Ram, and many others. Other regions have a worship of a feminine Kali/Durga. Shiva worship includes the aconic and monotheistic Lingayat as well as wild ascetics. Vishu worship include those who see as Krsna as an incarnation born to save humans through belief in him, as well the duty ethos of the great epics. This is without even discussing Smartism, Ganapatya, Saura or Arya Samaj. These denominations are then divided by 19 separate languages without commonalities. These diverse groups started to see commonality in the middle ages which increased after the 17th century. Yet, as late of the 18th century we still accounts of fights and polemics over who is correct in their worship.
How would you explain the diversity in Western Biblical terms? Here is a little thought experiment. This is not intended to make fun of the Bible or Hinduism. Nor is its goal to subject Hinduism to the Bible. Rather, this is an attempt to explain diversity in a Western context that prefer exclusivity and to divide the world into true/false, believer/pagan. These are hypothetical and are not my beliefs or historically true. But they will help explain why many in India think we still have golden calves.
When Jeroboam set up his golden calves in Beth El and Dan we know that the Bible condemned it as unfaithfulness (1 Kings 12). But what if this was the Indian subcontinent? They would have said it was great. People need their shrines and they need more of them. The 20th century author Ramakrishna wrote that India is not a tiny country like the Biblical land so it needs shrines everywhere so that the people can get to them. They would also have had a debate between those who said the images are a concession away from the Vedantic truths and those who said that images are the best path to connecting to the Divine. The latter view became dominant.
Also remember all those further caveats in Deuteronomy about pillars, trees, minor deities, astral deities, and spirits, don’t worry about then too much. Yes, the elite texts are not in favor in much of it and the Temple cult in Jerusalem forbids them but don’t worry about the masses. They will learn slowly, very slowly. So we will tolerate all of their practices as they evolve spiritually. Even golden calves are needed to wean the people away from other forms of worship.
Elijah and the Priests of Baal had a showdown of two competing religions of whose sacrifice will be consumed. What if both sides said:there is only one God in the universe and we are just two separate cults of the same God. So lets put away differences and merge all the cults of the high god Baal into the biblical cult. We already have related languages. All of the various Aram nations will become one religion with you. We will give some deference to Jerusalem but we will be allowed to keep our own cultic practices but model them more like yours. We will also combine our scripture and produces various versions. We will affirm the Biblical universalism of Malachi 1:11 “My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the LORD Almighty.” It is all the same God despite different cults, nations, and names.
Not only that we see that Moab, Ammon, and others tribes speak similar languages to you and have similar practices. We should include them also. Now, once we are speaking about linguistic commonality we should really include the Hittites whose language is close to yours. Yes, they have many gods, in fact, they have a thousand gods but they are good at syncretism. Over time, they will become one with us.
Ezra & Alexander the Great
In this hypothetical, Ezra never asked for anyone to put away foreign wives and never sought to limit practice. Rather, he saw strength in including as many different people and practices in his Jerusalem cult. When he read the Torah in public, he brought it to every nation that he could. He asked each group to accept it as best as their culture could. He acknowledged that only the priests truly kept everything. Image if he made the Judean cult as open as Greco- Roman religion.
So imagine that when Alexander the Great conquered Greece, Anatolia, Egypt, and Persia, he integrated all those diverse religions, cults, and languages all under Jerusalem. All sorts of polytheists of the Greek, Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian world were now included. They came with their philosophers, oracles, mystery cults, civic polis cults, and with local deities. Some kept their sacred narratives, others merged the Bible and their stories, and other kept two sets of stories. You could always point to the priests and scribes of Jerusalem as the pure faith but there was more complexity from Greece to Persia. Yet, almost no one would be called false or pagan, rather they were folk, masses, or not of the highest religion.
Imagine if the Mishnah was still written from a Jerusalem point of view, and was seen as authoritative. But many parts in this harmonious empire felt no need to study or follow it in practice.
Parting of the Ways
To consider a later century, image that even when Judaism and Christianity divided, it still did not matter. They were still both lumped together. Image if Christianity never became the religion of the Roman Empire and just another offshoot of this complex Jerusalem religion. Both Judaism and Christianity would still be closer to the Jerusalem thinking and practice than the cults of Persia, Egypt or Rome.
Now image that between the 7th-17th centuries all these groups started converging more and developing a common identity as not Muslim. They in the 18th -20th century they were all lumped together by the colonial British (Let’s pretend they had became Druids.) as natives and the new rulers discouraged practices that did not meet their standards. Finally, this region from Greece to Iraq gains liberation as a single country in the middle of the 20th century with a government that is going out of its way to downplay differences and claim everyone is Biblical. They had started creating ideologies of a single identity already in the 19th century, but now they were written into textbooks and law. Hinduism came to be in a similar fashion to my hypothetical Biblical story.
But Judaism did not go that way and between Jereboam and the Mishnah always choose the particularist direction. Judaism was always in theory aconic and even iconoclastic.
Let me tell one more story, the famous story of Abraham shattering the idols of his father Terach. The story is found in all three Abrahamic faiths. Here is a truncated Jewish version. I don’t know if all of it works. Feel free to write more dialogue.
Abraham came to the realization that there is one eternal God in the heaven and the earth greater than any earthly force.
Terah was an idol maker. Once he went to a certain place, and left Abraham to sell in his place. A person would come and wish to buy. [Abraham] asked him: How old are you? And he would reply: I am fifty or sixty years old. And he would say: Woe to that man who is sixty years old and wishes to bow to something that is one day old! And he would be embarrassed and go away.
One time a certain woman came along carrying a dish of fine flour. She said to him: Come and offer this to them. He went and took a rod and broke all the statues, and placed the rod in the hand of the largest one of them.
When his father returned, he said to him: Who did this to them? He said, I cannot lie to you. A certain woman came carrying a dish of fine flour, and said to me: Go offer this to them. I offered it to them: this one said, I will eat first; and that one said, I will eat first. The largest among them got up, took the rod, and broke the others. He [his father] answered him: Why are you making a fool out of me! Do these know [anything]! He replied: Let your ears hear what your mouth says!
My addenda to understand Hinduism
Terach: Are you a moron? The Hindu statues are used to bring the infinite Divine to mind. We need a representation. We can only show true devotion to a human image.
Abraham: But there is only one immaterial God.
Terach: But we live in a sensory material world. That is why the Torah will later give us a Tabernacle. Also God will give physical mizvot. So here we also have statues. Not just you but also Greek philosophers like Xenophanes or the Indian poet Tagore were against images and thought religion was mental, but you don’t see them going around breaking things.
Abraham: But you think they are actually alive!
Terach: Give me a break. They are wood and clay. Only when they are brought to the Temple and consecrated in a special ceremony do they become gods. Now they are still in the workshop. And when they are consecrated they become an access to the divine. They are not robots or with moving parts. Really Abraham, have you ever seen a golden calf move? Your straw man arguments do not work. Do the Cherubim move in the Tabernacle?
Abraham: Yes, They do. They turn towards each other and away from each other.
Terach: Boy you are really anthropomorphic. You better read the Guide for the Perplexed or maybe Shankara’s commentary on the Brahma Sutra.
Abraham: But what about the thousands of plaster and clay little idols that Hindus make for home shrines and for stores? Aren’t you worshiping those?
Terach: They serve as reminder and help focus on a specific aspect. They change them regularly. The ones they use for festivals are even throw into the river to show that the image has no intrinsic value. The little ones they leave out in the rain under trees to show that they have no holiness after they are used. You treat many religious objects like tefillin in a more intrinsic manner.
Abraham: But she brought them food to eat. Can they eat?
Terach: She said offer it to them. Tabernacle sacrifices are also offerings. You were the one who says she thought they actually ate. You seem to treat your ritual as pure and assume that they are naïve. If you visit a foreign country, try and assume that the people are on the same level of sophistication as you.
Abraham: But I discovered the God of heaven and earth and everyone else was primitive. I get to correct them. I get to show my elders the right way.
Terach: I cannot wait until you are out of adolescence. But if God ever says to you to offer your son on a mountain, please think about what offering means.