I’ve been asked many times if I ‘believe’ in Hinduism. Until about 15 I mechanically answered yes. During my bout with rabid atheism I just as mechanically answered no. Now I say something along the lines of: ‘I was raised as a Hindu and it’s a big part of my identity. But I don’t think I can still call myself a Hindu.’ This answer is honest and more or less answers the question.
But I’m starting to not even like the question. It assumes Hinduism can be understood like Christianity or Islam. That is, the question assumes Hinduism is about ‘believing’ certain things.
Religious Christians believe that Jesus was the son of God and was resurrected three days after being crucified. Religious Muslims believe Muhammad was the final prophet and that the Quran contains the actual words of God. Some people who call themselves Christians or Muslims may not affirm these core tenets. But almost by definition they are not as religious or devout as those who do. I suspect even they would acknowledge they are more cultural than religious. In Christianity and Islam, it seems that religious devotion is strongly correlated with affirmations of belief. Both faiths of course involve much more. But belief is a key component.
It’s not so straightforward in Hinduism. Take the Mahabharata, a Hindu epic that tells (among other things) the story of the Lord Krishna. We can ask if the story is true and whether Krishna existed as a historical figure in the same way Jesus or Muhammad did. We can also ask whether Hindus believe that the events depicted in the Mahabharata actually happened. But it wouldn’t be easy to rank Hindus’ religious devotion based on their answers. I consider my mom and dad to be equally devout Hindus. My dad considers the Mahabharata as mythology whereas my mom thinks thinks of it as history.
Despite this sharp difference in what they believe, both of my parents equally do Hinduism. They both fervently perform daily prayers and Hindu ceremonies. And because they participate in Hindu rituals in roughly equal measure, I have a hard time saying my mom is more religious than my dad. Yes there are secular Catholics who attend mass. But their secularism alone makes them less religious than true believers. My main point is that you can’t make this simple, straightforward link in Hinduism.
To be clear: I’m not saying beliefs and creeds don’t matter in Hinduism, or that ritual doesn’t matter in Christianity or Islam. Clearly Christians are called to act in certain ways and live out their faith. And being a Hindu does involve certain beliefs. It’s that ritual is relatively more important than belief in Hinduism. I think the reverse is true in Christianity.
Here’s the best analogy I can think of. Let’s consider x and y axes, where x is thinking/believing and y is ritual/doing. All religions have both components and fall somewhere in that quadrant. Hinduism simply has a much larger y component than does Christianity. Because of this difference, religious Hindus have to be judged primarily on what they do rather than what they believe.