Huston Smith on Hinduism (coffee talk for your ‘pagan’ neighbors)

Lately, the more I come in contact with people of other faiths the more I become aware of how ignorant I am of their traditions and beliefs. I never had good opportunity to take a course in comparative religions and with my own children now in college it is unlikely that the chance will arise. So I picked up two books that have come highly recommended; William James’ “The Varieties of Religious Experience” and Huston Smith’s “The World’s Religions”. I decided to start with Huston Smith since it looks to be a bit of an easier read.

Smith was born 1919 in China to Methodist missionaries and lived there until he was 17. He taught at the Universities of Colorado and Denver, Washington University in St.Louis, Syracuse University, MIT and is now the Visiting Professor of Religious Studies at Berkeley.

The book’s first section, about the Hindu religion, is quite fascinating. I’d like to share some of what I have read so far;

“The Upanishads (part of the Hindu scriptures) speak of a ‘knowing’ of That the knowledge of which brings knowledge of ‘everything’. It is not likely that ‘everything’ here implies literal omniscience. More probably, it refers to an insight that lays bare the point of everything. Given that summarizing insight, to ask for details would be as irrelevant as asking the number of atoms in a great painting. When the point is grasped, who cares about details?”

This would suggest some Hindu parallels with many who struggle over parts of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. What should we take literally and what parts are best seen as metaphors? But in essence, if we share the ‘truth’ of scriptures, then why worry over points of interpretation?

In speaking of the discipline of meditation (similar to what some Christians may call ‘contemplative prayer) he writes;

“The word yoga derives from the same root as does the English word yoke and carries a double connotation: to unite (yoke together), and to place under disciplined training (to bring under the yoke, or ‘take my yoke upon you”). Both connotations are present in the Sanskrit word. Defined generally, yoga is a method of training designed to lead to integration or union. But integration of what?”

The successful practice of this discipline leads to an answer to his last question;

“There remains the final climactic state for which the Sanskrit word Samadhi should be retained. Etymologically ‘sam‘ parallels the Greek prefix syn, as in synthesis, synopsis, and syndrome. It means ‘together with’. Adhi in Sanskrit is usually translated Lord, paralleling the Hebrew word for Lord in the Old Testament, Adon or Adonai. Samadhi, then, names the state in which the human mind is completely absorbed in God.”

God? I was always under the impression that the Hindus were polytheistic. But according to Smith, they believe only in one “God” yet realize that he is too great to be identified with any single or even multiple characteristics. So they have perhaps a hundred forms in which God reveals himself to them, each form identifying with a certain characteristic of the Supreme Being. Hinduism stresses (much more so than most Western religions) that all people are different and different people, with different personalities, life stories and stages in their journey will best identify with one or more of these different forms. But it is only Westerners that are concerned over whether or not Hindus are polytheistic, pantheistic or monotheistic. A Hindu saying goes “The Truth is One, but different sages call it by different names.”


The following common prayer addresses the inability of finite man to perceive the infinite God and the inadequate ways he attempts to do so. It is often said at the beginning of common religious services;

“O Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations:
Thou art everywhere, but I worship you here;
Thou art without form, but I worship you in these forms;
Thou needest no praise, yet I offer you these prayers and salutations.
Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations.

Even with all of their many metaphorical expressions for God, they believe that at times God will physically come to earth as specific individuals;

“The ideal form (for seeing God) for most people will be one of God’s incarnations, for God can be loved most readily in human form because our hearts are already attuned to loving people. Many Hindus acknowledge Christ as a God-man, while believing that there have been others, such as Rama, Krishna, and the Buddha. Whenever the stability of the world is seriously threatened, God descends to redress the imbalance.”

“When goodness grows weak,
When evil increases,
I make myself a body.

In every age I come back
To deliver the holy,
To destroy the sin of the sinner,
To establish the righteous.”
(Bhagavad-Gita, IV: 7-8)

It would seem to me that the intentional Hindu may be open to a discussion of the Christian Gospel if we did not insist upon first affirming our belief that we were ‘right’ and that they were somehow ‘wrong’. An open discussion, with both sides respecting the beliefs and traditions of the other would probably lead towards an appreciation of the common points of each religion. When this happens it may cause the door to swing invitingly open for further exploration of the Christian tradition.

  1. #1 by Marianne on February 26, 2008 - 12:26 pm

    I have found Hindus very open to discussions about a single God. While the various incarnations, along with multiple gods and goddesses, they believe in are somewhat confusing, when they are in real trouble, they look to the one God, because the lower forms are not that helpful.

    I am in touch in someone now who worships a goddess, but when demonic oppression seemed to be afflicting his family, he asked for me to ask Jesus to help, because he knew only Jesus could deliver his family. I have also worked with Hindus who will quickly ask me to pray if they have a problem, because somehow, “my God is strong.”

    Hindus are very religious, and cannot seem to imagine a God so powerful that all those divine characteristics could be contained in one person. I guess it will take more time with them to see that God is whole and omnipotent.

    When Noah got off the boat, he brought with himself the knowledge of the one God. This knowledge is the heritage of everyone on earth to this day. How this got fragmented is a mystery to me.


  2. #2 by Marley on December 5, 2008 - 10:48 pm

    Marianne, I’m not certain that you’ve quite gotten the Hindu notion of God. First, Hindus consider every form of religion “Hindu” – Christianity included. Their notion is much more open than almost any religion in that they believe there are many paths but they all lead to the same place, to the Divine. But, and this is pretty important, most sects of Hinduism believe we’re all worshipping the same Thing, just by different names, just in different forms.

    As far as the multiple gods and goddess… Again, they simply represent different aspects of the One but are not in and of themselves “divine.” Perhaps one of the very best books on this subject is Huston Smith’s book, The World’s Religions. Or you can come along with me on my blog to find
    out more ’cause that’s exactly what I’m doing over at


  3. #3 by John Braithwaite on December 25, 2010 - 10:01 pm

    The way people take hinduism and its philosophy so lightly just wonders me how much poverty of thinking they have about what they are just going to talk about. Man, you don’t even know 1% of what Hinduism is – you are just blatantly ignorant. Read the books please – not the one book bible or quaran, but go through the depth of Puran, upanishads, Gita, Mahabharat etc. There is not a single other religion that can even come any closer to the richness of Hinduism – the oldest religion of the mankind. The rest are just poor copies or extracts. Just pay attention to what I am saying and read analytically what those sacred books say inside. There is not harm in you being a Christian, Muslim or hundred other faiths that will come in due course, Hinduism does not care or is not bothered. In the end you are following what it says in those granthas. Can you see in the western world (forget about dictatorial muslim world), the information is so limited and one sided and religion is only used to serve the state? It’s hard to hear from the day-to-day news channels that you feel are liberal and open (which actually are not). Because of this false pretence or assumption, people are just ignorant of everything but what they here from their commercialised or state channels. Hinduism is the most scientific religion there is. Everything that has said already in the Purans are just recently coming out open. There is a thousand years of barrage of propaganda committed against Hinduism by both Christians and more so by Muslims. They twists everything taking advantage of the poverty of Indian society where they could convert poors in the name of caste system etc. They deliberately twist the truth about the caste system. Instead of openly admitting it to be what was the administrative distribution of responsibility in ancient civilised Mahabharat, they incite one against the other saying Hinduism is against the poors. People were Hindus and they will all be Hindus soon. India (Bharat) was ruled by the British and the Moghuls but they have had to use proxies instead now. So time will come for the most heineous of violent religions to retreat, and only the one with pure spirituality will enlighten the people in the world. Just read Hindu books and you will be impressed unless you are paranoid and prejudiced with unitary state of mind. Let me give a sample of the philosophy of Hinduism, the era, time and the origin of the universe was stated in Hinduism (might have been copied by others – e.g. there is no reason why scientology now can not learn from the great religion), which now is endorsed by the scientist of today. But I do not believe these scientists either. They are just operating within a small cocoon of what is the creation of the Paramatma (the creator). Follow your religion, follow your path, you do not need to be a Hindu, but there is no harm in admiring the power of hmmm… what is the real power. Rest are just fables – like a cola company producing a drink to copy Coca-Cola. You can copy the real thing as much as you like, but it won’t be the real stuff. Om Namasivaya!

    • #4 by Christian Beyer on December 25, 2010 - 10:16 pm

      Ah, with all due respect, John: what ax are you grinding here? I was not criticizing or endorsing Hinduism, only hoping that people of different faiths might converse with and learn from each other without proselytizing or desiring the other might convert to their way of believing. By talking with Hindus and Muslims and others I have no need to delve into their sacred books, if my goal is coexistence in peace and harmony and brotherhood. I need less religion, not more.

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