I’m about to write a sentence that might offend some of you. I know it may do so because when I realized what I believed I became offended. I spent a long time trying to find another way to express myself but couldn’t think of something better. So here it goes: Hinduism is not an intellectual religion.
Note that I didn’t say Hindus aren’t intellectual. That statement would be nonsense. Rather Hinduism, at least how I practiced it, does not involve much intellectual understanding and analysis.
Consider topics in Bible studies I’ve attended: How can we trust the Gospel accounts? Which parts of the Bible should be read as poetry and which parts as history? How should we consider Paul’s audiences when we read his letters? How do you effectively translate from Greek and Hebrew to English?
These studies were not at theology schools or seminary, but at ordinary, run-of-the-mill churches with ordinary, run-of-the-mill parishioners. They were not PhD students. And yet, almost every week we used academic tools like textual and documentary analysis, historical evidence, and linguistics. Serious Christians routinely engage in such intellectual tasks. They believe that Christians must study the Bible, and not only try to live out its message.
Growing up I don’t remember ever studying the Mahabharata in that way. In my various youth groups we spent time learning the stories. But I don’t remember anyone asking how we knew they were true or even if they were true. We definitely did not try to understand their historical context. We rarely engaged in intellectual tasks.
Two weeks ago I visited my family outside Philadelphia and went to the local Hindu temple with my mom. While there we participated in a Hindu prayer ritual known as a pooja. The picture above is not a bad representation. There’s a priest sitting with the participants around some ceremonial objects. During the pooja, the priest will instruct: put flowers onto the idol, throw rice into the fire, repeat these Sanskrit words, and so on.
As I think about all the poojas I’ve done, I realize that not once did I ever understand why I was doing those things. I knew the ultimate purpose of the pooja: to bless our new house, to bid me good luck before college, to ensure success on my new job. But I didn’t know how the specifics of the pooja helped achieve those goals. I’m fairly certain no one in attendance did either. We all just listened to the priest, and it didn’t occur to me to think about it too much. Understanding simply wasn’t that important. Following the rituals is what mattered.
In this way, Hinduism reminds me of the Jewish ceremonial laws outlined in Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy in the Old Testament. These detailed laws described every aspect of religious offerings, and the ancient Jews had to follow them. The difference, however, is that Hindu rituals aren’t neatly captured in one place. And I at least don’t know of any experts who have analyzed these traditions and placed them in their historical context, as some have for Christianity.
As I said, I initially felt a bit guilty when I realized that Hinduism is not an intellectual religion. But I no longer do so. The notion that intellectual understanding should underlie our faith is merely a Judeo-Christian bias. Sometimes ritual is good enough.