I was born a Hindu, but have been an unwavering atheist all my life. Even so, I have always considered Hinduism to be the world’s most evolved religion. What I like about Hinduism is its innate chaos. It has no single founder, no holy book, no date or year of origin, no dos and don’ts. Worship the sun, moon, stones, trees, Hanuman, Ram, Ganesha, or mice. Everything goes.
The emergence of a new deity in a religion is unheard of. Yet, we saw the birth of a new Hindu goddess, Santoshi Ma, after Bollywood produced Jai Santoshi Ma four decades ago.
The movie was about Santoshi, a daughter of Ganesha. She was born above the clouds and grew up to be a beatific pastry-like woman. It was bunkum. However, Santoshi and the film’s devotional songs touched a chord among women in North India to the extent that Santoshi Ma became a goddess overnight.
Small Santoshi Ma temples sprang up everywhere, attracting women devotees from the poorer classes. I know of a woman from Delhi who believes that Santoshi Ma’s blessings got her an American husband.
Hinduism leaves you alone
The birth of Santoshi Ma shows the openness of Hinduism—it admitted a new goddess without a blink. Could Islam or Christianity spawn the birth of a new deity? Their path is fixed. Christianity has Jesus Christ and the Bible. Islam has Prophet Mohammed and the Quran. Christianity has its ten commandments. Islam has its own prescriptions: no liquor, no gambling, no lending money on interest, Friday is a day of prayer, one Haj pilgrimage in a lifetime.
Hinduism prescribes no guidelines for Hindus. It leaves you alone.
At heart, Hinduism is a true hippie religion. That explains why it is largely a one-country religion. Christianity and Islam are global. Christianity ranges from the Americas to Europe to Australia. Islam stretches from the Middle East to Africa to Indonesia. But Hinduism is not even regional. It is local. Most of the world’s Hindus live in India.
Hinduism’s laid-back nature could be the reason for its limited global reach. Throughout history, the religion never tried to spread. Christianity and Islam are missionary religions. They urge their followers to spread the word of the Bible and the Quran.
But Hinduism has never sought converts. The irony is that Hinduism’s strength comes from its laid-back nature. Buddhism was born in India, but it couldn’t survive as it offered nothing new to the Hindus.
Hindutva underestimates Hinduism
Alas, Hinduism is changing. Shrill Hindutva followers have taken control of it. They spew venom at India’s Muslims every day. Their chief accusation remains the same: India’s Muslims are single-minded in one aim, which is to produce more children and outnumber Hindus one day.
I used to hear this Hindutva charge 50 years ago. And I hear it today. The Hindus who say this actually believe it.
These Hindus underestimate Hinduism. India is perhaps the only country that was ruled by Muslims and Christians, but didn’t embrace Islam or Christianity. Muslim conquerors ruled us for 600 years, but Muslims comprise less than one-fifth of our population today. British Christians ruled us for 200 years, but the number of Christians in India at present is negligible.
By contrast, look at Africa. Europeans colonised Africa for only 60 years, beginning in the early 1900s. But vast swathes of Africa embraced Christianity. So did the Korean peninsula and Latin America, which fell to Spanish conquerors centuries earlier. But in India, Hindus saw no reason to leave their own religion and embrace another.
A word of advice
The religion’s central feature is a certain lack of self-consciousness. I sometimes get the feeling that Hinduism isn’t even aware of its own existence. Its chaos is glorious.
Lord Ganesha, with his elephant trunk, sitting on a mouse; Lord Shiva with a cobra around his neck; Laxmi with four hands; Yumdoot, the goddess of death, astride a buffalo: nothing makes sense in Hinduism. Yet everything does. How else could it have survived 3,000 years?
Even the word Hindu has no religious origin. It’s a geographical term derived from Sindhu, the old name of the Indus river. Contrast this with the word Christianity, which comes from Christ. Or the word Islam, which is an exhortation (Islam means surrender—surrender to God).
But Hindu from Sindhu? There is a certain irony here. The word Hindu is derived from a river that now flows through Muslim Pakistan. But Hinduism doesn’t care.
A word of advice to Hindutva militants in India today: our religion doesn’t need your protection.