Is Religion Dead?

A Hindu Perspective by Dr. Suresh Basrur

The question “Is religion dead?” can be rephrased from the Hindu perspective as the question “Is Hinduism dead?” The short answer is, “No. Hinduism is not dead. In fact it is thriving and growing.” Before we examine the current state of Hinduism worldwide, let us first look at the cycles which Hinduism has undergone over the past thousands of years.

1. Hinduism’s cycles of resurgence and suppression:
Hinduism has undergone a number of cycles of resurgence, after periods of suppression from external forces, and after periods of diminished interest in society.

Development of the Vedas started as early as 4000 BC, and continued until 3000 BC. Sacred scriptures, including Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana and Mahabharata were composed between 2nd century BC, and 4th century AD. Hinduism flourished in India until Gautama Buddha established Buddhism around 500 BC.

Rapid growth of Buddhism posed serious challenges to Hinduism. The Maurya dynasty, 323 BC – 183 BC, supported Buddhism. King Ashoka established many Buddhist monuments, and “exported” Buddhism by sending Buddhist missionaries throughout South East Asia and beyond. Hinduism, which suffered a decline through this period and into the first few centuries AD, was given a strong revival by Shankaracharya in the 8th century AD. Shankaracharya traveled throughout India and held brilliant intellectual discourses with the best minds across the country. Hinduism experienced a great resurgence that lasted many centuries.

With Muslim incursion into Northern India in 12th century AD, Hindus and their temples in Northern India came under significant oppression, and many temples were destroyed. Mughal emperor Aurangzeb was particularly zealous in his destruction of many temples in 17th century AD.

2. Bhakti (devotion to God) movement :
The bhakti (devotion to God) movement was spear-headed by many saints between 15th and 17th century AD. Bhakti focuses on complete surrender of heart and soul to God, without the philosophical emphasis of earlier times. Bhakti appealed to the common man because of its simplicity. The leaders of the bhakti movement – Kabir, Chaitanya, Mirabai, and Tulsi Das, inspired millions to follow the path of bhakti with their spiritual poetry. Kabir transcended the boundaries of Hinduism and Islam, and integrated the best from both religions in his teachings. The bhakti movement provided a counter-balance to the onslaught on Hinduism by Muslim rulers.

3. End of Mughal suppression & start of Reform movement :
The Mughal empire’s ruthless attack on Hinduism and Hindus started to weaken after the 17th century. This led to the resurgence of Hinduism, and the discovery of the rich heritage of Hinduism. Great progress in the arts and sciences once again started in the 18th century India.

The reform movement of Hinduism was started by charismatic scholars, such as Ram Mohan Roy who founded Brahmo Samaj in 1828. He campaigned against child marriage. Dayanand Saraswati founded Arya Samaj in 1875. He campaigned against the caste system. Ranade founded Prarthana Samaj in 1867. They all galvanized people around the revival of Hindu culture and spiritual heritage.

Leaders of the reform movements gave Hindus self-confidence and pride in their country, their religion and their heritage. This was necessary in order to counter the socio-political stranglehold exerted by the British.

Ramakrishna Paramahansa (1834 – 1886) was most instrumental in bringing about modern Indian renaissance. He was a mystic with great vision, and his pithy sayings and illustrations were powerful yet easily understandable to the common person. For example, on the problem of evil, Ramakrishna said: “Evil exists in the world as poison exists in a serpent. What is poison to us is not poison to the serpent. Evil exists only from man’s point of view”. That is, in the absolute reality, there is no evil; it exists only in our relative viewpoint. Ramakrishna taught that realization is the essence of religion; and that all religions lead to the same goal. Ramakrishna worked tirelessly for the poor, the uneducated and the underprivileged.

4. World awakens to Hindu wisdom, spirituality & universality :
Not much of Hinduism was known to the Western world until the 19th century. That changed in 1893, at the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago. The brilliant Hindu scholar Swami Vivekananda gave a very impressive and impassioned speech about Hinduism. His spirituality and his communication of the universality of Hinduism impressed the audience so tremendously that the word spread quickly around the globe. Swami Vivekananda’s message so inspired Western scholars of religion and the media that study of Hinduism started to be seriously pursued in the Western world.

Vedanta Society was founded by Swami Vivekananda in 1895. Even though he died at the young age of 39, Swami Vivekananda created a deep and lasting impression and influence on the Indian society, and on the world at large.

The unique characteristic of the resurgent tidal waves of Hinduism is this: in spite of some outward differences in the Hindu sects (denominations), the strong underlying philosophies, values, ideals, code of conduct, theosophy, and spiritual messages common to all denominations of Hinduism, have united Hindus in each resurgence of Hinduism. The instrumental factor in each revival was strong leadership of a charismatic, brilliant, knowledgeable spiritual leader, who could communicate with people at all levels, cutting across classes, castes, economic strata, and language barriers in meaningful ways. The spiritual leader would show people a path for liberation from strife and suffering in the world, and show simple practical ways to achieve this, by recognizing God in every human being, living organism and nature.

5. The Twentieth Century:
Aurobindo Ghosh, a great exponent of Hinduism, gave new interpretations of the Vedas and the Vedanta. In his Essay on the Gita he described Hindu ideals in terms of “the integral view of life”. His great work, The Life Divine, sums up his philosophy of “the Descent of the Divine into Living Beings”. Aurobindo also explained true Yoga as spiritual discipline, not just physical discipline.

Self-Realization Fellowship, founded by Parahamsa Yogananda in 1935, has spread all over the world. In the past 50 years, followers of Self-Realization Fellowship have established centres in many cities of the world, and their numbers are growing.

ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) was founded in New York in 1966 by Swami Bhaktivedanta. The devotees practice bhakti (devotion) to Lord Krishna. Swami Bhaktivedanta has written several books in English which translate Hindu scriptures from Sanskrit; in these books, he gives deep insight into Hindu philosophy through his brilliant analysis, explanations and interpretations.

Transcendental Meditation was established by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and his simple yet brilliant messages containing the essence of Hinduism have generated a large worldwide following. In particular, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s followers with celebrity status have been instrumental in making his TM movement known in all corners of the world.

Through the twentieth century, international awareness and acceptance of Hindu religion’s philosophy, ideals, values and code of ethical conduct, has been growing steadily. The universality of Hinduism’s message is reaching ordinary people outside India, not just scholars and philosophers as it did in the 19th century. In addition, the adoption of words such as namaste, karma, guru, pundit … and ideas such as re-incarnation, are becoming universal. Yoga is taught almost everywhere.

The unique characteristic of the resurgence of Hinduism outside of India is this: the adoption of Hindu ideas does not require the followers to abandon their own religion or faith. The above-mentioned movements enlighten the followers so that they are able to see clearly their own path to salvation. These followers of Hinduism, previously frustrated in their quest for answers to life’s biggest questions and challenges, have found enlightenment and spiritual awareness by following the path laid out by the Hindu spiritual leaders.

6. Present day issues & challenges for Hinduism:

6.1 Global Migration
How are the spiritual and religious needs of Hindus who have migrated to other countries being met? Systematic studies on this are hard to come by. Many challenges face Hindus who have migrated.

Challenges faced by 1st generation: making a living; need for societal assimilation; mis-information in the media.

Subsequent generations need: education in their heritage; resources; guidance and leadership.

In UK a recent survey of Hindu youth concludes that Hindu youth in UK do want to get intellectual, cultural and spiritual understanding of their Hindu heritage. They say they lack this understanding.

Why? (1) Lack of qualified teachers. (2) Unavailability in UK of educational material in English. (3) Elders are not able, nor have the time, to teach them the significance of Hindu practices.

Hindu youth in UK see a need for a united Hindu community, but see some divisions caused by sects. They see a lack of strong leadership to unite the community and to represent Hindus in politics and society.

USA: Hindus in USA have established many temples, libraries, and community centres. Misunderstandings caused by biased propaganda from fundamentalist Christians notwithstanding, Hindus in USA have been able to keep up cultural, spiritual, intellectual, ritualistic pursuits. Hindu children are taught the values of Hindu philosophy, ethics and good conduct. In regions of USA such as the San Francisco Bay Area, classical Indian dances, classical music, etc are thriving.

More recently, Hindus in USA have provided a united front in addressing many misconceptions propagated by the media. There was fear amongst US conservatives that Hinduism spread through ISKCON, Self-Realization, etc. may create cult-like followings. Such fears have mostly faded.

Dilution of Hinduism knowledge, culture and practice in future generations of Hindus in USA is a concern to Hindu elders in USA.

Other countries: In countries such as Canada, Malaysia, some African countries, immigrant Hindus have formed strong groups to preserve the cultural, social, and religious practices of Hinduism. Whether subsequent generations will maintain this remains to be seen.

Even though the universality and wisdom in Hindu scriptures which through Swami Vivekananda found great appeal amongst Western intellectuals, the common man in the West is yet to fully appreciate it. It is said that as Western scientists and philosophers express more appreciation for Hindu wisdom, Hinduism would become more accepted. Barriers to this are the media and the materialism of the West.

6.2 Materialism
In India, there is growing concern among the older generation that the middle class younger generation is too materialistic. They say that today’s youngsters are “DINKS” – double income no kids. The worry is that they have lost family values, and do not care about society. The solution offered is that parents should teach children Hindu values and “dharma” or ethical and moral conduct, as well as the importance of family and society.

6.3 Secularism
Overzealous secularism in India, propelled by its first prime minister Nehru, relegated Hinduism to the background. Secularism was interpreted to mean no religion instead of its true meaning of separation of religion from state. Religion, in this case Hinduism, was seen as the root cause of all social ills (such as the caste system, dowry, poverty). In a true perversion of the term “secularism”, exceptions were made for Islam and Christianity. This was actually a remnant from the British rule. The idealism and vision which pre-independence India had, and adherence to the values of Hinduism got diluted by post-independence India’s politics.

Only recently, India has awakened to this unfortunate turn of events, and is attempting to change it. However, the attempts sometimes have been awkward, and sometimes downright unpleasant. Some changes are nearly impossible, since they require constitutional changes. E.g. separate laws for muslims in India are rooted in the Indian constitution.

6.4 Fundamentalists aggressions
In Kashmir, Hindus have come under incredible oppression from Muslims for several decades. Jihadist atrocities, such as killings of Hindu Kashmiri pundits are hardly known in the Western world.

Mass expulsion of Hindus from countries such as Uganda, Tanzania severely affected their lives as they fled to other countries. They had to restart lives in new countries, and in the struggle, had little time to focus on their Hindu heritage.

Christian missionaries have done good work in India, particularly for the poor and the indigent sick. But missionaries also convert Hindus to Christianity. Conversion of Hindus to Christianity by missionaries continues due to its appeal to the poor, and the disenfranchised.

6.5 Hinduism’s Diversity & Absence of one strong spiritual leader
Hinduism is more than a religion; it is a way of life, and religious practices vary across India. Hinduism has four main sects or denominations–Shaivism, Shaktism, Smartism and Vaishnavism. Followers of each sect think theirs is the best path; thus religious following becomes fragmented.

Actually, the underlying principles are the same in all Hindu sects (denominations): karma, dharma, the all-pervasiveness of God, the sanctity of the Vedas, reincarnation, sanctity of all life, enlightenment, yoga, worship, and the soul (atman) being part of Brahman (the supreme being). A strong spiritual leader can inspire the followers in the fundamental values and philosophies of Hinduism, and minimize fragmentation. (Fragmentation is not unique to Hinduism, but is found in many other religions).

In conclusion, Hinduism has had many cycles of ups and downs over the centuries. And in spite of some challenges it faces in contemporary Hindu communities in India as well as across the globe, Hinduism is thriving, its global appeal continues to increase. Acceptance of Hinduism amongst many non-Hindu cultures, at least as a non-threatening religion and way of life, is improving slowly.

As the Hindu ideals of compassion, recognizing God in every living being, ethical conduct, morality, duty towards nature, respect for others, respect for the guru (teacher), duty towards society, etc. become understood, internalized, and practiced by more and more people, strife and suffering in the world will abate. This is the hope for the future that every Hindu carries in his heart.

Appendix 1 : Hindu population & temples outside Indian subcontinent

Country Hindu population Number of temples
USA 1,475,000 392
United Kingdom 900,000 177
Canada 325,000 99
Trinidad & Tobago 250,000 59
Australia 76,000 37
Singapore 175,000 28
Malaysia 1,500,000 18

Note: All figures are approximate