Hinduism and the New Millennium
The world today is looking to a new millennium, with the year 2000 having just arrived (though will little of the fanfare or catastrophes predicted of it!). As modern culture is dominated by western civilization, which has a Christian basis, it looks to the Christian calendar as defining time for humanity. That most of humanity today and most of history has not been Christian is seldom emphasized.
However, a new millennium is nothing new for Hinduism, which is now in its sixth millennium of the present Kali age, not to speak of its recognition of longer ages or yugas before that. The Hindu tradition has crossed many thousands of years, going back to the very origins of civilization as we know it some ten thousand years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. From the early beginnings of civilization in India on the banks of the now dry Sarasvati River up to the present technological age, Hinduism has remained as a steady flame of spiritual light in the world. It is the most enduring religion and culture in the world, continuing remarkably age after age. Over the course of time Hinduism has seen numerous civilizations come and go. It witnessed the fall of Egypt, Babylonia and Rome, as well as the arising of Christianity and Islam, and the coming of the modern age. What is the secret behind Hinduism's ability to endure? It has not continued age after age simply because of a conservative culture that has preserved old customs. It has endured because of its ability to adapt to time changes and to reinvent itself in a dynamic way in successive eras.
The Hindu tradition is not based upon any particular historical revelation that would tie it down to a particular era or cause it to look to any end of time or end of the world. It accepts the existence of different ages (yugas) of humanity and different civilizations, of which our current cycle of civilization is only one. Hindu Dharma sees history according to the cycles of nature, with the rising and falling of cultures like the coming and going of plants and animals through the seasons of the year. Hinduism positions itself above time in the eternal, looking to link humanity with what transcends time.
The Hindu tradition is not based upon any specific savior or prophet or historical personality. It recognizes many sages and seers, known and unknown, both inside its tradition and outside of it. It accepts many great teachers of the past but also those of the present and of the future. It has no chosen people but addresses all living beings, not merely humans but plants and animals as well. Nor is it simply an earth tradition but looks to beings of all worlds, including the denizens of subtle worlds beyond the physical.
Hinduism defines itself as Sanatana Dharma, the Eternal or Universal Dharma. Dharma means universal law, the fundamental principles behind this marvelous universe like the law of karma. Sanatana means perennial, referring to eternal truth that manifests in ever new names and forms. Hinduism is the oldest religion of the world because it is based on the eternal origins of creation. But it is also the newest religion in the world because it adjusts its names and forms to every generation and looks to living teachers, not old books, as its final authority.
Because of this background, Hinduism views the new millennium in a different way than most people today. Christians view the new millennium as either bringing the end of the world along with salvation for the faithful that they have long prayed for, or as marking a new era to spread their religion further in the world through renewed evangelical and missionary efforts. Other people look to a new millennium as defined by the inventions of science and taking us into a new era of technological wonders and space travel.
From the Hindu perspective no religion owns time and no revelation defines history. Each person and each culture has its own time or duration, which should be used for self-discovery and self-realization. Hindu sages look at the new era for humanity arising today through science and globalism as but the dim beginnings of a greater age of consciousness and spirituality that is as yet only touching the horizon. They don't see this new era defined by the year 2000 but by the events of the past few decades and yet many more decades to come. The industrial revolution gave way to the information revolution but the information revolution must in turn give way to an age of consciousness that is the real goal of human striving. Humanity is still in transition between an era of materialism and one of spirituality and the decisive turn has not yet been made. The coming century is bound to bring ecological and cultural crises that will force us to move in a more conscious direction. This will bring not only great new discoveries and breakthroughs as we advance in knowledge, but also suffering and karmic reckoning for our immature and arrogant way of dealing with our environment.
Hindu Dharma has already undergone a remarkable renaissance in the modern age. Less than two hundred years ago Hinduism seemed to be on the verge of complete collapse. It was caught in inertia and under siege by the missionary and colonial forces that had been ruling India for centuries. Yet at that extremity it didn’t collapse but renewed itself, going back to its ancient roots to provide for new and expansive growths.
The result was that in the nineteenth century the modern Hindu renaissance began from several angles. Swami Dayananda Sarasvati of the Arya Samaj issued a call to return to the Vedas. Swami Vivekananda brought forth a new awakening of Hinduism to Yoga and Vedanta. Many other such leaders arose throughout the country to follow such a vision.
The Hindu renaissance was not limited to India. Vivekananda spread his message throughout the entire world, which rediscovered Hinduism as the deep philosophy of Vedanta and the profound practice of Yoga. With this Hinduism began to go global. It became the main tradition pioneering dialogue and synthesis in religion, promoting a recognition that sages throughout the world have always taught the same message of oneness. After the counterculture movements of the nineteen sixties, many other India-based spiritual groups started in the West.
The twentieth century marked a new and independent India in which Hindus were the majority and no longer had to suffer under the rule of a religion seeking to convert them. This led to a building of many new temples throughout the country. Recent decades witnessed a Diaspora of Hindus throughout the globe, particularly as professionals in new technology fields. With the many new immigrants from India in the last two decades, almost every important sect in Hinduism can be found in the West, with Hindu temples in the main cities of Europe and North America.
Yet in spite of this renaissance, Hinduism as a specific religion did not truly flourish in the twentieth century. It remained under siege by colonial and missionary forces that remained active even after colonialism by Christian countries had ended. On top of these, a new leftist and communist thinking arose that attacked it further by allying themselves with residual colonial forces and Islam. Many countries of Asia like China and Indochina became communist and under its rule tried to destroy their older religious traditions. While India as a whole did not become communist, several states like Kerala and Bengal did, and the communists gained a favored position in the media and universities of the country from which their anti-Hindu message became magnified beyond their political power. Indian intellectuals embraced Marxism as their new religion and few remained to articulate a Hindu point of view to the world.
Free India under Nehru opted for a socialist-communist model that perpetuated the British system of education and a leftist way of thinking that was often unabashedly anti-Hindu and sometimes pro-Islamic and pro-Christian. The economic problems of India, which resulted from the same socialist economies that failed all over the world, were blamed on Hinduism. The social and class problems of the country that were based on medieval customs developed during foreign rule were turned into a permanent stain on Hinduism itself.
At the same time, their Hindu background was downplayed by the very global movements that it spawned. Western Hindu-based groups preferred the names of Yoga, Vedanta or that of their particular guru or sect and sometimes failed to recognize their Hindu connections at all. This was because western Yoga students were so taken in by the anti-Hindu propaganda that they did not want to be associated with such an apparently regressive religion, no matter how great the spiritual teachings they found in it!
The result was that, in spite of the global spread of Hindu teachings and an independent modern India, the world still looked down upon the Hindu religion as primitive or oppressive. Some scholars were reluctant even to recognize Hinduism as a world religion, seeing it rather as a disorganized collection of various cults. The Aryan Invasion theory was used to assert that India had no indigenous culture but was a hodgepodge of various invaders, with the original Hindus being pre-Vedic Dravidians, a very different group from the Vedic sages that the country had always looked to for the origin of its traditions.
This situation has begun to change dramatically during the past few years. Hindus are finally awakening to the many distortions about their religion. They are beginning to assert their rights and insist upon a proper presentation of their tradition in the world forum. More pro-Hindu political movements in India have gained power on both state and national levels, and without the anti-minority pogroms that it was insisted that they intended to do by their opponents. Such Hindu groups are largely responsible for the economic liberalization of the country, as they are the main opponents of the socialist economic policies that modern India under Nehru adopted.
Hindus, both in India and in the West, are becoming affluent through modern jobs in science, medicine and software. In the process, they are realizing that nothing in their religion is out of harmony with progress and success in the modern world. On the contrary, they have seen how Hindu family values have granted Hindu children in the West greater home and emotional stability. They have seen how the traditional Hindu emphasis on learning, including languages and mathematics, has given Hindu children an advantage in schools. In recognizing how Hindu spiritual movements have influenced the world, overseas Hindus are comfortable maintaining their religion in the countries to which they have migrated. They are often better educated, more scientific in outlook and more affluent than their Christian neighbors who would still associate Hinduism with poverty and superstition.
Hindu groups are challenging media distortions both in India and in the West and with success; for example, protesting the use of chants from the Bhagavad Gita in erotic scenes in western movies or beef flavoring in so-called vegetarian McDonalds French fries. While such issues may seem minor, it is curious how the world media will respond to such challenges and now considers the importance of not offending Hindus because of these. Such protests help counter the sense of moral offense that westerners like to assert about Hinduism, often because of misinformed stereotypes about the religion. After a few short years, people are aware of Hinduism as a religion and must recognize Hindu activist groups that will no longer tolerate centuries old denigrations or modern stereotypes.
The Ayodhya movement in India, the effort to restore the Ram temple or Ramajanma Bhumi alias Babri Masjid—whatever one may think about it —served to awaken Hindus to their history of oppression by outside groups. It brought about a new examination of what Hinduism is and what it means to be a Hindu. While the term Hindu had long become almost a term of denigration, it is now being rediscovered as a term of pride (Hindu gaurava).
Much has been made in the western media of Hindus resisting Christian missionary activities in India, with allegations of Hindu violence against missionaries (though most of these reports were erroneous or exaggerated). Yet, a few excesses aside, it shows that Hindus are more confident of their religion than in previous decades when even devoted Hindus felt a need to invite missionaries in India as if they alone could uplift the country. Missionaries in India no longer have a free reign but must face local Hindu challenges to their attempts at conversion. This is disturbing for them because of the lack of challenge they had in the past from Hindus. In India, Christian groups still have a freedom for their activity not found in any nearby Islamic or communist states.
Whatever particular calendar we may employ, humanity is undergoing a major change of civilization during this period. We are moving out of the industrial age into the high tech age. We are moving from nationalist cultures to an international culture. Though western civilization remains the dominant outer force in the world, we must recognize other cultural groups of which Hindu-predominant India is one of the most important.
The problem is that the new global culture is still being defined according to the same old materialistic values or by religious dogma from the Middle Ages. This has created a modern commercial culture of sensation, on one hand, and massive funding for conversion efforts on the other, mainly through petrodollars. While Christianity has declined in the West it has become more assertive in its conversion efforts in the non-Christian world, particularly India, whose traditional tolerance keeps its doors to other religions open. Even in America, the Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant sect in the country, continue a conversion effort against Hindus that labels the Hindu religion as one of the devil, at the same time promoting the Biblical view of creation in schools in America, fighting science as well.
However, longer and more powerful forces are arising than current cultural trends. The destruction of the biosphere and the deforestation of the planet must eventually force us to enter an age of ecological responsibility. This is giving birth to a new ecology philosophy, recognizing the spiritual value of the animal kingdom. Hindu Dharma is being recognized for its importance as a religion of nature. It honors the Divine everywhere in the world around us. It finds holy places on every mountain or where any rivers come together. It honors the Earth as the Divine Mother incarnate. Such a religion that embraces nature as part of ourselves is necessary to save the planet in the years to come.
The global encounter between religions is causing people to recognize that many different religions have their validity and that no single religion, any more than any single race, can claim truth or salvation belongs to it. The old exclusive beliefs of the Middle Ages are falling under the scrutiny of a global reason that must honor all the spiritual aspirations of humanity and can no longer confine itself to the beliefs of one community.
This emerging planetary age provides a much different and more favorable scenario for Hinduism, in which it is bound to spread much further. Hinduism is the world’s largest pluralistic religious tradition. It is based upon the view that there is One Truth but many paths. It is not based on any single savior, church or holy book. There are probably more religions inside of Hinduism than outside of it. Within its broad embrace can be found monotheism, polytheism, dualism, monism, pantheism and even atheism. Hindu temples accommodate many names and forms for God, many scriptures and many great sages both ancient and modern. The planetary age is a pluralistic age and must learn to do with the religions of the world what Hinduism has done with the religions of South Asia.
The coming age is one of spirituality and Self-realization, not of formal religion and subservience to God or prophet. It is one of a spiritual culture such as we see in Hindu Dharma that embraces all life and nature. The coming planetary age does not belong to conversion-seeking religions, which divide humanity into the believers and the non-believers, but to the spirituality of consciousness such as revealed in yogic traditions, and sought by great mystics everywhere, which unite humanity into one great family with the entire universe.
Hindus welcome a new era of Self-realization and God-realization beyond the boundaries of dogma and institution, honoring all individuals, all cultures and all spiritual aspiration. Let us honor that Self in all beings regardless of religious affiliation, ethnicity or culture. This will not only lead us to a truly new millennium but also allow us to transcend time and karma altogether, which is the real goal of our eternal striving.
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