Holy Cow! Six Myths About Hinduism Debunked

Pradyoth Velagapudi, Managing Editor

Hinduism is the third most popular religion in the world (behind Christianity and Islam), and has over 1 billion adherents (that’s 15 percent of the world’s population), according to the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. I myself am a Hindu. Today, I address some common myths about Hinduism you may not know are actually false.

Myth 1: Hinduism is polytheistic

One of the main misconceptions about Hinduism is that it is polytheistic. While it is true that there are many different Hindu deities, three of them being Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer), Hinduism is not polytheistic. There is one divine force, called Shakti, that is omnipresent and resides in everything and everyone; other deities are merely manifestations, or forms, of that force. You can choose to worship God in one form, in all forms, in certain forms, or in no forms; whichever way helps you to connect with God in the way you feel is best. Hinduism also accepts the existence of other gods and belief systems, and in this way tries to curb religious intolerance between people of differing beliefs. Hinduism has been more often called a “way of life” than a religion, and that is entirely true in that Hinduism is tailorable to suit the beliefs of the individual. You define how you choose to live Hinduism.

In addition, many deities have forms that may seem a bit strange to non-Hindus. Take Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, for example. The underlying reason for many of these is to illustrate that God resides in every being; it serves to say that, yes, God is within an elephant, and within everything and everyone else as well.

Myth 2: Idol worship

Another misconception many people have about Hinduism is that Hindus participate in idol worship. This myth was fueled by the presumptions of Christian settlers in India, as they assumed that Hindu murtis (idols) were an example of idol worship, and therefore an example of worship of  “false gods,” according to. To be clear, idolatry, or idol worship, denotes the direct worship of a physical image, icon, or symbol; in Hinduism, however, idols (or murtis) are not worshipped directly. The idea behind murtis is that having an abstract idea of God makes it harder to be able to focus, so a murti gives you an image, making it easier for you to connect with God. For example, a lingam is used as a reminder of Shiva.

A parallel may be drawn between Christianity and Hinduism in this regard. Christians say they do not engage in idol worship. Yet they have many objects they consider sacred, such as the cross and the Bible, and many churches have a statue of Mary or a Saint. Why are these objects sacred? In reality they are just a block of stone or wood, and the Bible is merely a bundle of papers. The reason that they are considered sacred is because within the mind, that object is used as a reminder of God. The same can be said for Hinduism. The murti itself is just a block of wood or stone; yet it is considered sacred because it is used as a reminder of God, to better understand the ununderstandable.

Murtis serve the common person, who cannot truly devote himself to something he cannot see, hear, touch, or understand. However, in reality, God has no physical manifestation. God is within every single thing, animal, and human being. The Bhagavad Gita, 12.5 says:

“For those whose minds are attached to the unmanifested, impersonal feature of the Supreme, advancement is very troublesome. To make progress in that discipline is always difficult for those who are embodied.”

Basically, this means that for normal humans (with their souls residing in a body), it is much harder to understand that God is an abstract divine force than being able to visualize God. The main idea behind Hinduism is that each and every soul is a tiny part of the vast cosmic force that is God. Those souls go through cycles of death and rebirth (reincarnation), gaining more understanding of God with each life, and slowly becoming more and more refined. The highest level of Hinduism is when the soul finally does not need a murti to connect with God because the soul can finally state with confidence, “I am God.” It has reached the highest level of understanding, and it knows that it is a part of God, and God is within it; only then can the soul rejoin the vast cosmic force of God, its mission on Earth complete. This is what all souls strive to achieve through their reincarnation, and this highest level of existence is known as “nirvana.” However, for common souls that have just started their journey, and cannot yet grasp this concept fully and with understanding, a murti is necessary to be able to focus energy to connect with God, and to get underway on their long journey to rejoin the vast cosmic force that is God.

Myth 3: The Bhagavad Gita is the main religious text of Hinduism

The Bhagavad Gita (that’s GEE-tah) is a 700-verse Sanskrit scripture expressing many of the primary beliefs of Hinduism. It is part of the Mahabharata epic (which is the longest poem in the world) and depicts a long conversation between Krishna, one of the avatars of Vishnu, and Arjuna, a warrior prince, whilst on the battlefield waiting for war to begin. While the Gita embodies many beliefs of Hinduism,  there is no one defining religious text for Hinduism, like there is the Bible for Christianity, or the Quran for Islam. There are many texts, all of which describe the different core principles for Hinduism; these include the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Puranas, among others.

Myth 4: All Hindus support a discriminatory caste system

The caste system is a form of social hierarchy originating in ancient India, akin to the Estates in France before the French Revolution and the feudal social structure in medieval England. It basically designates social classes as follows, according to BBC:

Brahmins were the highest class in status. They were priests, scholars, and teachers. Their job was to run the religious aspects of life. Despite being the highest in status, they were usually poor and pious, and subsisted on alms.They had a very strict and restrictive lifestyle and did not experience materialistic attachment or the pleasures of life.

Kshatriyas were the next highest in status. They were monarchs, warriors, diplomats, and statesmen. They were in charge of running the kingdom.

Next were the Vaishyas, who were farmers, merchants, traders, businessmen, and craftsmen. They were in charge of making sure the day-to-day business transactions and financial affairs of the kingdom, were met.

Shudras were the lowest in status. They were laborers, and effectively supported the rest of the kingdom by digging ditches, cleaning gutters, and sweeping streets. Because they were originally working in poor conditions (such as dirt, mud, or human waste), people were reluctant to mingle with them extensively. That tendency evolved into an untouchability status for the Shudras, which is prevalent to this day.”

As you may notice, some of these descriptions seem a bit outdated. That’s because they are—the caste system was introduced in ancient India, to make sure that the daily affairs of kingdoms were met and that there was someone to do every job that needed doing. Unfortunately, over the years, the caste system brought bias and prejudice, and even to this day, India struggles to overcome the personal biases induced by the system. However, the caste system was not necessarily religious. It was a cultural thing that over the years people have used religion to justify, kind of like how the biblical Curse of Ham was used to justify slavery in 19th-century America. Really, Hinduism considers all castes to be of equal status, and defines each class not by birth (as the rest of society does), but loosely groups them based on character traits; kind of like the Hogwarts Houses in the “Harry Potter” series. Kshatriyas were similar to Gryffindors, courageous and chivalrous; the Brahmins were like Ravenclaws, scholarly and intelligent; the Vaishyas were akin to Slytherins, clever, thrifty, and business-minded; the Shudras were like Hufflepuffs, kind and living for others. Unfortunately, society started judging individuals by birth rather than by individual traits, and established a status order to the classes, rather than keeping them equal, as religion considered them to be.

Myth 5: Hindus worship cows

While it is true that cows hold a special place in Hinduism, and are considered sacred, they are not worshipped by Hindus. Hinduism merely regards cows as maternal, life-giving figures, due to the fact that if you had a cow in ancient times, it could keep you and your family fed without trouble. It gave milk, which could be used to make curds, yogurt, and butter, which kept families and children fed. Over time, cows became a symbol of life and generosity, and as a result, are considered sacred. Hinduism regards killing a cow (or eating cow meat) a sin, which is why most Hindus today don’t eat beef.

Myth 6: All Hindus are vegetarian

This kind of ties into Myth 5. While it is true that Hindus don’t eat beef, it is NOT true that all Hindus are vegetarian (although I am). Actually, a majority of Hindus eat meat (anything other than beef), and many popular Indian dishes aren’t vegetarian. So why does the Hinduism = vegetarian myth prevail, you ask? Well, many (about 30 percent of) Hindus don’t eat meat, which stems from a belief in ahimsa (non-violence) which states that since God resides in all things, it would be a sin to use violence against one, according to CNN Religion.

Although some Hindu traditions may seem strange to non-Hindus, getting to know and understand different cultures and religions more can be rewarding. Learning about these things can truly open your eyes to the amount of diversity in the world.