E D U C A T I O N A L I N S I G H T
OUR BELIEFS DETERMINE OUR THOUGHTS and attitudes about life, which in turn decree our actions. By our actions, we create our destiny. Beliefs about sacred matters—God, soul and cosmos—are essential to one’s approach to life. As you will see from a perusal of this Educational Insight, the beliefs among the worlds faiths are in many cases quite different from one another, a fact that belies the common Hindu’s conception that all religions are one. Distilling a religion down to nine core beliefs provides a clear window into the essential perspectives within it. Once those perspectives are known, comparisons can be made between religions, making similarities and differences readily apparent. Here we provide three such comparisons: Eastern and Western; Hindu and Christian; and the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This knowledge is useful in many ways. For example, nowadays in any country of the world, many of your friends and coworkers may be of other faiths. Understanding how their religions are similar and different from yours helps in preserving harmonious relationships and forming closer ties. It can also inform you about the whys and wherefores of the actions and reactions of other faith members. Some religions declare theirs the one true path, creating a pervasive and persistent antagonism toward those of other persuasions. This may manifest as exclusionism and fanaticism or as an attempt, whether tactical or unintentional, to convert others to their way of thinking. Bolstered with the knowledge of these underlying beliefs and attitudes, one can associate in an informed and sensitive manner. When approached by Christian evangelists, for example, one may, as my guru advised, present a copy of the Hindu/Christian comparison from this Insight, saying, “I appreciate your overtures, but I am firm in my Hindu faith. Here is a document showing what we believe in comparison to the Christian point of view.” When this point-counterpoint was first published in Christianity Today, our editorial offices received dozens of letters in which Christians said they had never truly understood the Hindu view of God and soul and world, confiding that the Hindu perceptions were more in harmony with their personal spirituality than the official doctrines of their church. Hindus may find this is more and more common as the world comes to know about the Sanatana Dharma. While there are hundreds of books addressing deeper matters of religious theology and history, none we know of have attempted such concise synopses and side-by-side comparative summaries. Religions are engaging more with one another than ever before in history, creating a greater need for mutual discovery and acceptance, and this may hopefully begin to meet that need.
A SAMPLING OF BELIEFS OF FAITHS
In the following analysis, using one of several common religious categorizations, we compare the Eastern religions with the Western ones on major points of belief. The Eastern religions are Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. The Western religions are Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam. We can see immediately that there is a vast difference between them, with the Eastern goals being unitive and introspective and the Western goals being dualistic, extroverted. The Eastern mind tends to see God everywhere, in all things, and to see everything as sacred. The Western mind considers it heresy to believe that God pervades all things, and makes a strong difference between what is sacred and what is profane. In general we notice the Eastern holding to karma, reincarnation and liberation, the Western postulating a single life for the soul, followed by reward or punishment. Keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive comparison, as it does not take into account the East Asia religions—Taoism, Confucianism and Shinto. To discover your own belief patterns, take a pencil and put a check mark next to the view—Eastern or Western—which is closest to your own belief on each of the subjects. We might note here that the Eastern religions described here all originated in India, and that Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism were offshoots of Hinduism. Among the Western faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all share a common root in Abraham, and in recent times the term Abrahamic has been coined to denote these three world religions. Naturally there are important exceptions to the views expressed (for example, Buddhism does not believe in a Personal God). Nevertheless these broad generalities are useful, as they give a theological window into the East and the West.
EASTERN VIEW: The universe exists in endless cycles of creation, preservation and destruction. There is no absolute end to the world, neither is there a duality of God and world, but a unity based on the divine presence in all things.
WESTERN VIEW: The world was created by God and at some point in the future will be forever destroyed by Him. He is distinct from it and rules it from above. Stresses a dualistic nature of the world divided into good and evil.
EASTERN VIEW: There is but one true and absolute God. All religions speak of Him. All souls are destined to receive God’s grace through a process that takes them through diverse experiences on many paths according to their understanding, temperament and maturity of soul. God is pure Love and Consciousness but may be terrifying as well.
WESTERN VIEW: There is but one true God and one true religion. Those who accept it will enjoy God’s grace; all others, unless they repent and come to my God, will suffer eternally in hell. God is loving as well as wrathful.
EASTERN VIEW: Proof of God’s existence and love lies in direct communion, and indirectly through enlightened gurus, the God-Realized men of all ages, and the revealed scriptures they bring forth in every age.
WESTERN VIEW: Proof of God’s love and promise for man is in the person of His Prophet and in His unchanging and unique revealed scripture.
EASTERN VIEW: Personal, inner and often mystical experience of God is the crux of religion. Man can and ultimately must know God during earthly life. Individually oriented and introspective.
WESTERN VIEW: It is presumptuous for man to seek personal knowledge of God. The linchpin of religion is not experience but belief and faith coupled with a virtuous life. Socially oriented and extroverted.
EASTERN VIEW: Man is free to choose his form of worship, for all paths lead ultimately to God. Sin is only of the mind, not of the soul, which is pure. There is no Judgment Day, for God does not judge or punish. He lovingly guides all souls back to Himself.
WESTERN VIEW: Only one path leads to God, others are false and futile. Everyone must convert to the one true religion. Failing that, the soul, laden with sin, will be damned on Judgment Day.
EASTERN VIEW: Man’s plight is but his soul’s immaturity. He is ever on a progressive path which leads from ignorance to knowledge, from darkness to light, from death to immortality.
WESTERN VIEW: Man’s plight is due to disobedience to God’s will, to nonbelief and nonacceptance of His law.
EASTERN VIEW: God is Love and is inextricably one with the soul, guiding it through karmas into the fulfillment of dharma and finally to moksha, liberation. Hell is a lower astral realm, not a physical place; nor is it eternal. Hell exists as a period of karmic intensity or suffering, a state of mind in life or between lives.
WESTERN VIEW: On Judgment Day the physical body of every soul that ever lived is brought to life, and God consigns pure souls to heaven and sinners to hell, a place or state where the body burns without being consumed and one suffers the anguish of knowing he will never be with God.
EASTERN VIEW: There is no intrinsic evil. All is good. All is God. No force in the world or in man opposes God, though the veiling instinctive-intellectual mind keeps us from knowledge of Him.
WESTERN VIEW: There is indeed genuine evil in the world, a living force which opposes the will of God. This evil is embodied in Satan and his demons, and partially in man as one of his tendencies.
EASTERN VIEW: Virtuous conduct and right belief are the foundation stones of religious life, the first step toward higher mystical communion. Liberation requires knowledge and personal attainment, not mere belief.
WESTERN VIEW: If one obeys God’s commands for a moral and ethical life and believes in Him and in His Prophet—for example, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed or Zoroaster—salvation is assured.
EASTERN VIEW: Religion is cosmic, eternal, transcending human history, which is cyclical. Stress is placed on revelation of God’s presence in the here and now.
WESTERN VIEW: Religion is historical, beginning with a prophet or event. Stress is placed on the past and on the rewards or punishments of the future. History is linear, never to be repeated.
EASTERN VIEW: Doctrines tend to be subtle, complex and even paradoxical. Freedom to worship and to believe in a variety of ways is predominant. Other paths are accepted as God’s divine will at work. Universal and tolerant.
WESTERN VIEW: Doctrines tend to be simple, clear and rational. Worship and belief are formalized, exacting and required. Other paths are endured, but not honored. Exclusivist and dogmatic.
EASTERN VIEW: The goals of enlightenment and liberation are to be found in this life, within the context of time, within man himself. Doctrines may be dual or nondual, dvaitic or advaitic.
WESTERN VIEW: Salvation comes at the end of the world, the end of time, and has nothing to do with enlightenment. Strictly dualistic, dvaitic. (Mystical sects, while minor, provide exceptions.)
EASTERN VIEW: Worship is individual, highly ritualistic, rich in mantras and offerings, meditative, centering around the holy temple and the home shrine all days of the week.
WESTERN VIEW: Worship is congregational, led by a pastor or priest and simple in its rituals, centering around the church, synagogue or mosque, almost exclusively on a Sabbath day.
EASTERN VIEW: Path to saintliness is through self-discipline, purification, concentration and contemplation. Value is placed on ascetic ideals, individual sadhana, yoga, renunciation and superconscious awakening.
WESTERN VIEW: Path to saintliness is through self-sacrifice, submission to God and concern for the welfare of others. Value is placed on good works, piety and prayer, social concerns and scriptural study.
EASTERN VIEW: Belief in a Supreme Deity, maker of all souls and all things, and in lesser Deities and Mahadevas.
WESTERN VIEW: Belief in a Supreme Deity, maker of all souls and all things, and in the angels and celestial hosts.
EASTERN VIEW: Salvation is through strict obedience to God’s will and the descent of His grace through the enlightened spiritual preceptor.
WESTERN VIEW: Salvation is through strict obedience to God’s will, usually through a messiah, prophet or priest.
EASTERN VIEW: To live a virtuous and moral life is essential to further spiritual progress, for adharmic thoughts, deeds and words keep us from knowledge of God’s closeness.
WESTERN VIEW: Religion must be based on ethical and moral conduct, for their opposite leads us away from God.
EASTERN VIEW: The purpose of life is to evolve, through experience, into our spiritual destiny. Things of the world are not the purpose of the world.
WESTERN VIEW: Man’s destiny lies beyond this world, which is but an opportunity for earning eternal joy or suffering.
EASTERN VIEW: There is more to reality than we experience with the five senses. The soul is immortal, deathless and eternal, ultimately merging in God.
WESTERN VIEW: There is more to reality than the things of this world. The soul is immortal, deathless and eternal, living forever in God’s presence or separated from Him.
Our HINDUISM TODAY editors were contacted in 1993 by Christianity Today magazine to be interviewed for a major story called “Hindus in America.” Thus began a series of dialogs that added to their article crucial and often corrective insights to dispel common myths and misinformation about the world’s oldest religion. Perhaps most significantly, they agreed to publish our own nine fundamental Hindu beliefs. The editors of Christianity Today composed nine parallel Christian convictions, written in a series of intense sessions by the best theologians they could assemble. The resulting point-counterpoint—whose brevity is both its strength and its weakness—summarizes the cosmic perspective of two of the world’s largest faiths.
HINDUS BELIEVE in the divinity of the Vedas, the world’s most ancient scripture, and venerate the Agamas as equally revealed. These primordial hymns are God’s word and the bedrock of Sanatana Dharma, the eternal religion which has neither beginning nor end.
CHRISTIANS BELIEVE the Bible is the uniquely inspired and fully trustworthy word of God. It is the final authority for Christians in matters of belief and practice, and though it was written long ago, it continues to speak to believers today.
HINDUS BELIEVE in a one, all-pervasive Supreme Being who is both immanent and transcendent, both Creator and Unmanifest Reality.
CHRISTIANS BELIEVE in one God in three persons. He is distinct from his creation, yet intimately involved with it as its sustainer and redeemer.
HINDUS BELIEVE that the universe undergoes endless cycles of creation, preservation and dissolution.
CHRISTIANS BELIEVE that the world was created once by the divine will, was corrupted by sin, yet under God’s providence moves toward final perfection.
HINDUS BELIEVE in karma, the law of cause and effect by which each individual creates his own destiny by his thoughts, words and deeds.
CHRISTIANS BELIEVE that, through God’s grace and favor, lost sinners are rescued from the guilt, power and eternal consequences of their evil thoughts, words and deeds.
HINDUS BELIEVE that the soul reincarnates, evolving through many births until all karmas have been resolved and moksha, spiritual knowledge and liberation from the cycle of rebirth, is attained. Not a single soul will be eternally deprived of this destiny.
CHRISTIANS BELIEVE that it is appointed for human beings to die once and after that face judgment. In Adam’s sin, the human race was spiritually alienated from God, and those who are called by God and respond to his grace will have eternal life. Those who persist in rebellion will be lost eternally.
HINDUS BELIEVE that divine beings exist in unseen worlds and that temple worship, rituals, sacraments as well as personal devotionals create a communion with these devas and Gods.
CHRISTIANS BELIEVE that spirit beings inhabit the universe, some good and some evil, but worship is due to God alone.
HINDUS BELIEVE that a spiritually awakened master, or satguru, is essential to know the Transcendent Absolute, as are personal discipline, good conduct, purification, pilgrimage, self-inquiry and meditation.
CHRISTIANS BELIEVE that God has given us a clear revelation of Himself in Jesus and the sacred Scriptures. He has empowered by his Spirit prophets, apostles, evangelists, and pastors who are teachers charged to guide us into faith and holiness in accordance with his Word.
HINDUS BELIEVE that all life is sacred, to be loved and revered, and therefore practice ahimsa, “noninjury.”
CHRISTIANS BELIEVE that life is to be highly esteemed but that it must be subordinated in the service of Biblical love and justice.
HINDUS BELIEVE that no particular religion teaches the only way to salvation above all others, but that all genuine religious paths are facets of God’s Pure Love and Light, deserving tolerance and understanding.
CHRISTIANS BELIEVE that Jesus is God incarnate and, therefore, the only sure path to salvation. Many religions may offer ethical and spiritual insights, but only Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
The similarities between these three Abrahamic religions are stronger than their differences, though historically it is the differences that have been stressed. They each believe in a single life, followed by heaven or hell. They agree that God is opposed by evil, by Satan, who tempts and destroys sinners by causing disobedience to God’s law. They are all prophet-oriented, though Christianity is the only one to make the prophet divine. They believe in their religion as the one and only true religion, and that nonbelievers are condemned, though Judaism is more tolerant or universal, believing God judges all men of all religions by their actions. These three Biblical religions are strongly monotheistic and dualistic, believing man is eternally separate from God and that man’s highest destiny is in heaven. Together they rely not so much on inner experience or mystical contact and guidance, as on sacred rites, on faith and belief, and on good works to guide man Godward. Each believes that God has a special covenant with its members, though the terms differ. They each bury their dead, anticipating that the physical body will one day be resurrected on the Earth, rising from the grave on Judgment Day.
JUDAISM: There is but one true religion, Judaism, and one revealed scripture, the Torah, which includes the Old Testament and the Talmud.
CHRISTIANITY: There is but one true religion, Christianity, and one scripture—the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments.
ISLAM: The one true faith is Islam, and the Koran is the highest revealed scripture, but other books are honored as revealed too, including the Bible and certain Hindu scriptures.
JUDAISM: Points to Adam, his temptation, the resulting original sin and fall from grace. Some early and modern religious thinkers interpret this narrative as an allegory of the human condition.
CHRISTIANITY: The same, but taking Adam’s story literally.
ISLAM: Same, but Allah forgave Adam. Therefore, there is no original sin.
JUDAISM: Such proof can be seen in the historic Exodus.
CHRISTIANITY: Proof of God’s power lies in Christ’s resurrection.
ISLAM: Proof of God’s power is in the Koran itself.
JUDAISM: Jews are obligated exclusively to Yahweh, since He delivered them out of Egypt.
CHRISTIANITY: Man is obligated to God, since He sacrificed His Son for man’s sins.
ISLAM: There exists no special obligation; avoidance of hell is man’s motivation.
JUDAISM: Salvation is through strict adherence to the Law as stated in the Torah.
CHRISTIANITY: Salvation is through acceptance of Christ as Lord and Savior.
ISLAM: Salvation is through total submission to Allah.
This concludes our comparison of humanity’s many faiths, affording those who read it carefully an overview of those intangible philosophical and theological beliefs which, in all their variety, lie at the root of our attitudes and behavior that, over time, create culture.